Stories told

It’s a shame what’s happened to radio

I haven’t been on the air in almost 15 years, but people still ask me sometimes if I’d like to be a disk jockey again. Until a few years ago, I always wistfully answered yes. Not anymore. It’s not that I would be rusty as heck after all these years – and boy, would I – it’s that radio just wouldn’t be any fun anymore.

I listened to a lot of radio when I was a teen. It was a companion when I was by myself doing homework or whatever. I called in requests and tried to win contests (but never did). I had a few favorite DJs, the ones who kept you listening because you wanted to know what they’d say next. The fun they were having made whatever I was doing more fun.

So when I got to college and found out about the campus radio station, WMHD, I had visions of being the kind of entertaining on-air companion I had enjoyed. I asked for and was given a weekly two-hour shift, just like every other disk jockey at the station. We could play whatever music we wanted, but my musical tastes were pretty narrow and I had trouble filling my time without always playing the same handful of artists. And I found out that wit failed me when the mic was open; I was lucky just to announce the next song without tripping over my tongue. My early shows were really pretty bad! Fortunately our puny signal covered just a few square miles, so few people heard me. Here’s a brief clip from the oldest show I have on tape, from 1986.

Needing to expand my repertoire, I had fun discovering classic and progressive rock of the ’60s and ’70s and even dabbling in heavy metal. I brought the music I found to my shift and learned how how to match key and tempo to transition smoothly between songs. I also started to find my on-air voice, as you can hear in this 1988 clip.

When I got my first part-time professional radio gig at WBOW, I had fun building and honing my on-air skills. There was a lot more to pro radio than what I’d done in college and it took time and practice to be good at it. If you’re old enough, you’ll remember the station in your town that everybody turned to for news, community information, and inoffensive music; in Terre Haute, that was WBOW. I was supposed to provide some “personality” between songs. Here’s a clip from 1992; you be the judge of whether I succeeded!

WZZQ94When I moved down the hall to the company’s rock station, WZZQ, I had fun connecting with listeners. I loved hearing from them when they called to make requests and play the contests. Over time, a handful of listeners came to know me on the air and called during my shifts to just say hello. I looked forward to their calls and meeting them at station events around town. It was great to know that I was providing the same kind of pleasure for them that radio gave me when I was young. It gave me the energy to do my best work, as you can hear in this clip from 1994.

After I left Terre Haute for Indianapolis I tried to get on part-time at a few stations. One polite rejection letter essentially said that I might have been fine in Terre Haute, but I wasn’t ready for the big time in Indianapolis. I decided to take the hint and went back to being just a listener, and now I’ve been out of radio longer than I was in it. In the intervening years, a number of things have changed that have made radio less fun to listen to and, I’m sure, to work in.

First, now that I’m in my 40s, advertisers don’t care about me anymore. Radio stations choose their formats to appeal to the groups that advertisers think spend the most money. Advertisers love thirtysomething moms, by the way, which is why there are so many country and adult-contemporary stations playing eleven hits in a row or forty minutes of uninterrupted music. No one radio station really reaches me.

Second, thanks to government deregulation radio is now big business. Owners have always been in it to make money, even when ownership was local or regional. But now very large corporations own so many stations and cost management seems to be more important than the quality of the on-air product. Live and local talent is increasingly being replaced by satellite-delivered formats and a form of prerecording called voicetracking. The evening jock on your favorite station? He probably recorded tonight’s shift this morning in a studio in Tampa or Minneapolis or wherever he lives. Try calling the station you listen to in the evening or on the weekend. Nobody will answer. It’s cheaper that way.

I’m painting a pretty one-dimensional picture of radio’s problems; they are actually layered and complex. I don’t pretend to get all of it, but what I do get is that it has squeezed all the fun out of the business for me. There are few on-air jobs left where you can hone your craft and relate to the listeners.

I’d like to tip my hat to two radio shows I listen to that are still fun. I like Steve Simpson’s afternoon show on WIBC because he’s topical and funny. I also like Tom Berg’s all-request show weeknights on WKLU, the last independently owned station in town and the only one that doesn’t voicetrack. I call Tom sometimes but he never plays my requests, probably because they’re too obscure. Oh, but wait, WKLU just got sold. A national broadcaster bought the station and will soon put its satellite-fed contemporary Christian format on that frequency. It’s probably a matter of days before Tom’s gone.

It’s a shame.

ReadMore Read more of my radio adventures – how I learned from the best and how the unwritten rules of working in radio bit me on the butt.

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33 thoughts on “It’s a shame what’s happened to radio

  1. Fun listening to your old clips, Jim. Radio is not the only thing that suffers under our “efficiency “and “bottom-line” culture in which we live today. The fun has been sucked out of just about everything, it seems. So, okay, more opportunities to make our own fun!

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    • For my tombstone: “I have been, but will not continue to be, Jim Grey.”

      I stole the bit about “coming up next over most of this radio station” from a DJ on U93 in South Bend.

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  2. John Knight says:

    You are too modest about your own skills. I seem to remember the lifetime achievement award presented to you by WMHD shortly before your graduation, and the standing ovation from the crowd as you received it. Well deserved. And WMHD will always be 90.5 FM.

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  3. You and I got to know each other after your radio career was over, but I feel exactly the same way as you do about radio. When I was in high school, I listened to WGN radio out of Chicago as I did my homework or edited the school newspaper during the wee hours of the morning. It was a good friend by my side when everyone else was asleep.

    I did once win a radio contest in Indianapolis. The local station WXLW, which still exists at least in its call letters, ran an “un-contest” in which the prize was a roll of toilet paper. I forget the exact nature of the contest, but I believe it was some kind of trivia quiz. However, I was disappointed when I received my prize: Instead of a whole roll, they mailed me only one sheet!

    In college, like you, I worked on the school radio station. Instead of being a disk jockey, however, I did news and special programs. When I read the news, the disk jockey in the booth would always do crazy things to make me laugh, especially if I was reading some horrible story about an airline disaster or typhoon that killed hundreds of people. I don’t think that could ever happen now. And of course, teletypes don’t exist anymore, so the phrase “rip and read” would only puzzle today’s college news reporters.

    Ahh, them was the days. When you were in college, did you ever think we would become the people we are now — reminiscing about the good old days? Well, they were good, but these days are good, too. I try to remember that.

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    • Like Billy Joel once sang, “The good old days weren’t always good, and tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems.” But my college radio days were good.

      I did some ripping and reading as the news director at WMHD! Alas, my tape of newscasts, which includes my first-ever on-air appearance, has disappeared.

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      • When I visited East Berlin in 1984 and used a public restroom, they had a man there whose job it was to dole out TP one sheet at a time… so your comment is funnier than you might have realized!

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    • WXLW! That dog of a station was owned by Fred Grewe and I did mornings at their flagship station WPAR in Parkersburg. Our station kept the other six stations alive. I guess you remember a jockey named Shirk? Ahhh yes, WXLW…pretty good radio station in the early 1970’s.

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  4. It seems Louisville radio gets worse by the day! Thanks mostly to the presence of Clear Channel, the once great WHAS-AM 84, a 50,000 watt talk station, now features only syndicated programming between 9:00am and 5:00pm during the week and almost no local programming on the weekend. I thought radio and television stations were licensed to serve their local community. How can they truly serve it when nearly all programming is originated in some other city or state? How sad!

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  5. Mike Roe says:

    Great post, Jim. Loved listening to the clips. I’m pretty jealous of your experiences in radio.

    “We could play whatever music we wanted.” For me, that’s what radio *was* all about. We knew what the DJs liked. Today, well, they like everything. And by “everything,” I mean the 40 songs the computer is programmed to play over-and-over again that week.

    When I was in San Luis Obispo, there was a DJ who was “on the air” at least 12 hours a day! Argh! Can’t stand voicetracking!

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    • I’m jealous of me, too. Er, that is, the 42-year-old me is jealous of the 20-something me.

      Computers have been picking the music for at least 25-30 years. When I worked in pro radio, a printout was on the mixing board with all the songs you had to play that hour, in order. Today, the songs are all on a big hard drive and the software does most of the work of playing stuff!

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      • Scott Palmer says:

        It’s not really music if you don’t queue it up on the turntable. I don’t know what it is anymore. I guess that we’d have to ask Miley Cyrus. :-)

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  6. Lone Primate says:

    Jim, I think you really did develop a great on-air presence. You would have been fun to listen to in the evenings. :) Wow, that little snippet of Knock Three Times sent goosebumps up my back. :)

    Say, what’s the advantage in changing frequencies? I can understand switching bands from AM to FM, but is there a reason a station would want to shift its frequency?

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    • Thanks, LP, for the kind words! I could have developed so much more if I did it full time.

      On AM, as WBOW was, the lower your frequency the better coverage you get for less power. Also, the way AM frequencies are allocated in the US, there are tons of stations on 1230 (as we were) and very, very few on 640 (which we were moving to). Actually, for many years, there was only one station on 640 in the US — KFI in Los Angeles. The FCC opened up 640 for limited use across the country as long as KFI’s signal was protected within a certain radius, and we were trying to take advantage of that. With so many other stations on 1230, if we increased power, we would have interfered with them. With so few on 640, we could switch to that frequency without a power change and gain significantly better coverage without interfering with any other station.

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      • Lone Primate says:

        That’s fascinating! I had no idea. Just a couple of times I’ve heard of stations changing their frequencies and I always wondered what the deal was… why go to all that trouble with the FCC or CRTC, etc., just to confuse your listeners? Well, now I know… more listeners for less power. Wow, it’s a wonder radio stations don’t have annual softball/lawn darts/sumo wrestling bouts to see who gets the shallow end of the dial. :)

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  7. What a nice blast from the past. 2 hours of Beatles is a bit much though. :) I may have taught you what little I know, but as you know, I didn’t and still don’t care to be a “personality” so I don’t care what I say or how I say it. :p

    I agree broadcast radio is dying, but it doesn’t bother me too much anymore.

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  8. Angie says:

    Hi Jim. I linked to this post through your “Best of 2009” update (yes, I get the live feed from your blog – I’m a fan). I have to say that, while I am a thirtysomething mom, none of the current broadcasting selections appeal to me. Everything seems so… canned, I guess. I prefer the hard rock genre, and classic 70s and 80s music, not the country or contemporary pop-rock that dominates the airwaves. Plus, the DJs are all so censored that no one is allowed to actually have personality anymore. So I must agree that the golden days of radio are a fond reminiscence that is truly disheartening to have lost.

    Besides that, I wanted to let you know that you have an amazing radio-voice. It’s the perfect pitch and tone to just reach out and grab the listener. You would have made an excellent broadcaster for a smooth jazz station (these are rare, but it’s another genre that is a favorite of mine), particularly for an evening time-slot in which your soothing voice kind of flows from the speakers in a silken stream to set the mood for some romantic selections. Really, you just have an amazing timbre to your voice. (At least, that’s what I think.)

    Keep up the great work, Jim! Thanks for the blog.

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    • Angie, I’m glad you’re along for the ride! And thanks for the nice words about my radio work. As I always used to say, “radio’s like crime — neither pays.” I’m very glad I stuck with my day job in the software industry.

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  9. Doug says:

    Good radio isn’t dead, it’s just moved…to the internet. There are so many awesome web broadcasts available it’s not even funny. I found RadioParadise.com some years back and fell back in love with music. This year I got my first smart phone with an unlimited data package, downloaded the RP widget for Android and now I can listen any time, anywhere. Heck, I even contribute to the station once a month.

    Radio can do what ever it wants without me. If you want to broadcast, then do!

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      • Doug says:

        I totally agree. As a kid in high school I can remember listening to a Kansas City FM station that played the coolest music ever (J’Taime anyone? Holy crap! They’re ‘doing it’ …Hot stuff) with just a bit of chatter.

        If you live in a metro area, there are often college stations available and some of them are pretty darn good. There are also some great independent stations left(*). The problem is that they are few and far between. I live in the sticks and they just don’t reach me.

        I don’t think the market for good alternative stations will ever disappear but unless and until there is real money to be made with the format, then we’re looking at cookie cutter robo stations.

        As the price of cell/data packages come down, those of us who enjoy an eclectic blend of music, or even very narrow-cast music, can and will move to the web.

        By the time my kids are old, they’ll be complaining about when compared to .

        Doug

        (*) Examples – WXRV in Boston, WYEP in Pittsburg PA (was great, haven’t listened in a decade), WXPN in Philadelphia – loved the Amazon Hour of Power…lesbian radio in the 80’s awesome!.

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  10. Katrina says:

    Dear Jim,
    Hello! I am a high school senior, I am doing my senior project on old-time radio dramas, and while researching I stumbled upon this blog entry.
    It was really cool to hear clips of your 1980’s radio show! I am in a Broadcast Journalism class and part of it is that I get to be on the radio every Friday for a half hour and share news stories and music. I am passionate about radio, I adore it. I feel that I was born perhaps 70 years too late, I would have loved to live in an era that consisted only of radio for media. (Not implying that you did, haha, I’m just going off on my little tangent.) I agree with a lot of what you said, but I don’t think you should give up entirely on radio. It’s not dying, at least I hope not, I’d like to think of it as being like… a phoenix, almost ready to emerge from it’s ashes. Plus, there are a lot of younger people (like myself) on the air through colleges and schools, and we try to continue instilling that personal touch that radio use to have more of… anyways! Great blog. :)

    Katrina

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    • Katrina, thank you for stopping by! I hope you never lose your enthusiasm for radio. If enough people are enthusiastic about it, who knows what can happen? I have to wonder if terrestrial radio’s days are numbered, and broacasting of any substance will move to satellite and the Internet. I kind of hope not, though. The other night we had a bad storm move through, and the storm sirens woke me up. I reached for the radio next to my bed — it was 2:30 am — and turned it on, and there was the morning guy on WIBC explaining what was going on. He got up and drove right in to serve the community. Satellite/Internet radio can’t do that!

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  11. Pingback: The 3-on-3 Interview (INFP Edition): Jim Grey | Dare to Write

  12. Larry Dimick says:

    Found this one from your link on the re-posted entry about your morning shift at the student station. It reminded me of a great DJ I got to know up in South Bend (the studio was actually in Plymouth) at an oldies station. Buddy King had the morning show and used to have a contest where listeners called in with three oldies titles to relate to whatever topic he chose that day, the best in the station managers judgement winning a prize (which I won several times). When I would call in we would talk for a while and developed a friendship which extended to some other local venues and events.

    The station eventually went robotic and left Buddy without a gig- and lost a lot of listeners other process as they traded personality for a lower overhead. I continue to hate that move when it happens even to the small town radio stations out here in the sticks.

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    • Hey – thanks for looking at the archives. They get so lonely.

      Your story is so typical of what’s happened to radio. It makes me sad. But I’m preferring now to look for the things available now that are great, rather than wishing it were 1982 again and the stations all crackled with life.

      It’s the best I can do.

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