Stories Told

Pride of workmanship, part 1

Quality guru W. Edwards Deming, who helped transform Japan into an industrial powerhouse, claimed that workers who feel pride in the quality of their work are critical to a company’s success. Pride in my work is certainly critical to my satisfaction on the job, right along with being challenged and enjoying the environment. When I have those three elements, I love my job.

I am fortunate to have lived one of my dreams. Ever since I was a boy, I wanted to be the voice coming out of the radio, and in college I got my chance at WMHD, the campus station. Not only did I get to talk, but I also got to play whatever music I wanted. It was a lot of fun. I figured out how to match key and tempo to make one song flow well into the next. We had few CDs, which were new then. So I learned to slipcue and crossfade vinyl on our two classic Technics SL-1200 Mk2 turntables, which let me then create coherent mosaics of music across a two-hour shift. I also developed an on-air voice that I thought sounded smooth and professional. My peers at WMHD liked what I did, too, because one year they named me “DJ of the Year.” Today, I still listen to tapes I made of some of my WMHD shows, and they always make me feel good.

Me on the air at WMHD in 1987

After I graduated, one day I was out at an event in town and I happened to be wearing an old WMHD T-shirt. Local radio station WBOW was there, promoting the event. WBOW was what they used to call a “full service” station, with news, community events, music from my grandmother’s era, and on-air “personalities” to bring it all together in an entertaining way. One of those personalities was at the event that sunny afternoon, a solidly-built man with the darkest red hair I’d ever seen who approached me, introduced himself as Chip, and asked if I worked in radio. I told him about WMHD, and he asked me if I’d be interested in part-time work at his station.

A couple weeks later, I was very excited to be sitting at the controls in WBOW’s studio. Chip was there to show me the ropes. He explained the format clock, showed me how to find songs, jingles, sweepers, and spots in the cart library; showed me the liner cards; and said that I needed to backtime to the news at the top of the hour. Clock? Spots? Jingles? Sweepers? Cart? Liner? Backtime? It was a whole new language. Except for opening the mic and talking, WBOW was unlike anything I’d ever done on the radio. I’m not sure at what point my eyes glazed over and I began to worry that I’d gotten in over my head! As Chip figured out how little I knew, he rolled his eyes, sighed, muttered something about how hard it was to find experienced talent in “this nowhere market,” and began to teach me about professional radio.

It took me weeks to understand the clock so I could do a smooth break, and months to get good at backtiming the last 15 minutes of every hour so the last thing I played ended just as ABC News started at precisely the top of the hour. Every week, I recorded a cassette of my show — just the parts where I talked, which Chip called a “scoped aircheck” — and Chip and I reviewed it together. As we listened each week, he bluntly challenged me to get better. “Stop saying degrees! The high tomorrow will be 58! Everybody knows that’s 58 degrees! And right there, you did that annnd thing again as you moved from one topic to another, like you’re connecting cars on a train. Cut it out! I want to hear you go smoothly from the beginning of your break to the end! And you stepped on the vocals on that song! C’mon, time it out, know what you’re going to say and how long it will take!” Chip did not pull punches.

WZZQ 1993

I sometimes came by the station during Chip’s shifts and watched and listened to how he did things. He thoughtfully prepared for every break, reviewing material he brought in with him that day to talk about. Before he opened the mic, he made sure everything he was going to use — a liner card, maybe a newspaper clipping, and all the spots (commercials) — were ready to go. Then he put his hands on the buttons and knobs he would use during the break and sat quietly under his headphones, listening to the end of the song that was playing. He knew how every song in the library ended, and he would count beats as he opened the mic so he could start talking at just the right moment. He had a subtle sense of timing — he always knew the very moment, a sweet spot in time, to do the next thing, and how to do it in a way that kept the audience’s attention. I could see he was doing what he was trying to get me to do, and I started to hear how these little things were the difference between some guy playing music and talking, and a talented pro delivering fresh, vital radio that kept listeners tuned in because they wanted to hear what was next.

As I kept practicing on my weekend shifts, it started to click. I could hear myself getting better on my aircheck tapes. I looked forward to Chip’s weekly beatings, as he called them, because I’d always take away something new to work on. I realized I was learning from somebody who knew his stuff, and that such opportunities were rare in markets as small as Terre Haute. (Later, I learned that opportunities to learn from someone who really knows his stuff are rare in life.) When Chip started reviewing my airchecks monthly rather than weekly, I realized with satisfaction that I had achieved basic mastery, and that I was starting to sound like a pro. I felt good about the talent I had built.

Because Chip vigorously coached the whole on-air team, WBOW sounded better than you’d expect in a small town like Terre Haute. We all took pride in how tight we sounded. We could have been more competitive if we could have played more contemporary music, but Chip couldn’t convince the station’s owner of it. There’s a long, lurid story here that I might tell another day, but in short the owner decided he could make as much money by replacing all of us with a satellite programming service. This was the fate of full-service AM radio across the country and today the format no longer survives. Neither did the WBOW air staff. Chip was the first to go, and in disgust I signed off for good. The rest of the staff was laid off in time. The solid on-air work Chip brought out in the entire team, and the high-quality service we provided as a result, was not enough to overcome financial reality. I still struggle with this lesson. But I am still proud to say I was part of WBOW, and I still feel satisfied when I think of my work there.

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4 thoughts on “Pride of workmanship, part 1

  1. Dani says:

    Ahhh, the man in the “Irish” shirt. Now THAT looks like the guy from the Ice game and the after-game run to Denny’s. :-)
    Maybe someday you’ll get back into the radio scene?

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  2. Radio has changed a lot since I was in. I have mixed feelings about going back to it. It’s also very competitive in a market like Indy, and having been off the air for 13 years would hurt my chances.

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  3. Broadcast radio continues to become less relevant every year IMHO. Sometimes I wonder why I bother but I always seem to run into people who listen to my show every now and then. Now if I had the personality of Jim our ratings would jump from all the listeners. ;)

    WMHD was a breeze all right – do whatever you want whenever you want pretty much. We had to backtime at my high school station to some degree. We’d sometimes cheat and just play instrumental tracks that fit our format and fade them out at the news.

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  4. I screwed up my backtiming pretty bad a few times at the beginning, and ended up playing an instrumental and fading it out at news time. I’m lucky Chip didn’t crucify me!

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