Curtis Schieber celebrates three decades of the Invisible Hits Hour

Andy Downing
adowning@columbusalive.com
Curtis Schieber

For more than 30 years, Curtis Schieber has adopted a forward-looking mindset on his radio show, The Invisible Hits Hour, reviewing upwards of 10 to 12 new albums a week. In that regard, recent episodes have required a bit of a mental adjustment, with Schieber taking a rare moment to pause and look back at his past three decades on-air.

The Invisible Hits Hour, which currently broadcasts Sundays at 11 p.m. on CD92.9 FM, first launched on 101.1 FM on Jan. 19, 1991, with Schieber and then-cohost Bill Eichenberger taking on Siskel and Ebert-like roles, offering critical takes of newly released albums. (At the time, Schieber was a staff writer forAlive, while Eichenberger worked as the pop music critic for theDispatch.)

“That’s why it was Bill and I together, because we were both making our living as critics,” said Schieber, who aired the first of three retrospective broadcasts on Jan. 24, with the next two slated for Sunday, Jan. 31 and Feb. 7. “We had years of arguing about music together. We were old friends. So it was kind of a well-oiled machine already, as far as that goes.”

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It took a few weeks for the show to find its focus, though. The premiere episode lingered solely on the Replacements and Schieber said it wasn’t until about a month in that the pair shifted to discussing the week’s new releases, which remains the current format. Indeed, even the name of the show required some dialing in, with the duo ditching its initial moniker (Polkatharsis, taken from the name of a Brave Combo record) at the recommendation of former 101.1 FM station manager Gary Richards,  who rightly believed the name was giving people the wrong idea since the broadcast was entirely absent polka music.

“It only took Gary a week or two to be like, ‘Hey, guys, Polkatharsis doesn’t really express what the show is about,’” Schieber said, and laughed.

Again looking to their record collections for inspiration, the two then pivoted to Invisible Hits, adopted from a Soft Boys album. “And that became sort of the inspiration for the show, the idea that there are these undiscovered hits out there, these songs that people don’t see,” Schieber said. “Changing the name to that, the idea was, ‘We’re going to play stuff for ya, and some of it might be stuff you haven’t heard, and then we’re gonna talk about it.’”

Throughout the years, Schieber has remained driven by this same sense of discovery, with most of his listening time occupied trying to process the myriad new releases he receives each week something the critic described as both a burden (it leaves him with almost no time to revisit old favorites) and a pleasure. “It’s nice to always go out and find new things and sort of force yourself to listen in a different way,” he said.

Other aspects around the show have changed. Since 1995, Schieber has hosted the program himself, relying on a rotating group of guest hosts for much of that time, though the pandemic has reduced it to a strictly solo venture for much of the last year. And, as is common with many who have invested a lifetime in music, Schieber said his own listening habits have changed significantly. In the past, he would wake up and put on a record before even brewing his first cup of coffee, lifting the needle off of the day’s final LP just moments before retiring to bed. “And I don’t do that anymore. There’s too many other things going on and I don’t have the energy for it,” said Schieber, who estimated he had reviewed somewhere in excess of 15,000 records in his years on the air (at an average of 10 a week for 30 years).

Regardless, Schieber’s passion for discovery has somehow remained intact, even if the means by which he finds new music has been in near-constant flux since his teenage years.

“When I was in high school, the stuff we listened to was not on the radio, and certainly not in Findlay, Ohio,” Schieber said. On Sunday nights, however, he would rig the most elaborate radio antennas possible on his home system to pick up a faded signal of “Subterranean Circus,” a seminal weekly show broadcast out of Chicago by Ron Britain. Schieber also religiously read music magazines likeRolling Stone andCrawdaddy. Later, as owner of School Kids Records, he was exposed to countless new releases, which continued through his years as a staffer and freelancer for publications such asAlive and theDispatch, for which he still writes regular concert reviews (or at least he will, pending the post-coronavirus return of a live music scene). 

“Truth be told, from the time I was a teenager, I was kind of being built to be a critic,” said Schieber, who absorbed movie reviews written byTimemagazine critics Jay Cocks and Richard Shickel starting as a teenager. “I was reading those guys every week. And I love film and I love music, but even more so I love the process of investigating what’s going on in them, and then being able to come up with some kind of insight, or even your own contribution in writing.”

While making criticisms in print came naturally, Schieber said it was initially an adjustment bringing his reviews on-air. “One of the things people have said about my writing over the years is that it has a really strong voice, and when I’m writing, I feel like I’m writing to an audience,” he said. “But interestingly, doing radio, I couldn’t see the people out there listening to me, and it was hard for me to adapt. And that’s where Bill and I came in together. It was easy for us to look at each other and talk, and then we could imagine that the audience was interested in the things we had to argue about.”