I suppose it’s only in a market as small as Terre Haute that a guy can be hired off the street to work on the radio, but that’s what happened to me. It’s not that I hadn’t been on the air before – I had been a disk jockey all through college on the campus radio station. I had a blast, but I knew it was all strictly amateur. After I graduated, one day while out and about I happened to be wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the college station’s logo. A fellow approached me and introduced himself as Chip, the program director at WBOW. He asked if I worked in radio and wondered if I’d be interested in part-time on-air work at his station.
I was game, and so 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 and showed me how to find songs, jingles, sweepers, and spots in the cart library. He ran through 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 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.
Chip explained and re-explained the format clock, which laid out the order of the songs and breaks, until I could execute it consistently. He kept giving me tips until I figured out how to backtime each hour so the last song ended just as ABC News started at precisely the top of the hour. And every week I dropped a cassette tape into a special deck that recorded everything I said into the microphone. It created what Chip called a “scoped aircheck.” We listened to it together each week and 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!”
“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. He knew it, too; he called these sessions my “weekly beating.”
I sometimes came by the station during Chip’s shifts to sit in the studio with him so I could watch and listen. 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 what Chip taught and modeled, it started to click. I could hear myself getting better on my aircheck tapes. Soon I achieved basic mastery and was starting to sound like a pro. I felt good about the talent I was building.
I didn’t realize then how rare of an opportunity it was to learn from someone who really knew what he was doing. I’ve never experienced it again. But I’m hopeful. I got a new boss at work a few weeks ago, someone we hired from outside for her considerable experience. She’s accomplished several things I’ve wanted to do but haven’t been able to figure out. I can tell just from this short time we’ve worked together that I stand to learn a lot from her. I’m looking forward to growing rapidly, just as I did under Chip. I just hope she’s not the type to give out weekly beatings!
Longtime readers may remember that I told this story once before. That time, my angle was pride in workmanship. Check it out.