Life, Stories told

It’s a shame what’s happened to radio

I signed off the air for the last time 20 years ago tomorrow, capping a nine-year side career on the radio. People still sometimes ask me if I miss being a disk jockey, and for a long time I always wistfully answered yes. But not anymore. It’s not that I would be rusty as heck after all these years – and boy, would I. It’s that radio has changed drastically, and it just wouldn’t be any fun for me today.

MeOnWZZQ

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 hardly anybody 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!

When 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 more than twice as long as 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 probably recorded tonight’s shift this morning in a studio in Tampa or Minneapolis. Try calling the station you listen to in the evening or on the weekend. Nobody will answer, because nobody’s there. It’s cheaper that way.

Third, a change several years ago in the way radio ratings are measured has changed radio programming. As long as there have been ratings, radio stations have formatted themselves to maximize listening among the average, everyday people the ratings companies ask to track the stations they listen to. But the new way of measuring ratings, which uses a listening device called the Portable People Meter, showed a very different picture of actual listening from the older paper-diary method. It pinpointed exactly what caused listeners to change the station. This has led to stations framing programming in much shorter blocks with less human interaction with the audience. It’s why many stations have become anonymous appliances. Why listen to a station that doesn’t relate much with you when you can just listen to your iPod on shuffle instead?

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.

When I first posted this in 2009, I called out my two favorite local on-air talents, both of whom were among my last reasons to listen to commercial radio: Steve Simpson at news/talk WIBC and Tom Berg at classic-rock WKLU. But since then WKLU was sold, changed formats to contemporary Christian, and sent poor Tom packing. Steve was shifted to mornings and later fired when the station wanted to shift to a deliberate conservative bias and Steve said he didn’t know how to play along.

I’ve given up. When I want to hear music, I listen on my iPhone now. When I do listen to the radio, it’s almost always to hear the news on NPR.

Meanwhile, every station I ever worked for is off the air now. The fellow who owned WBOW and WZZQ got into legal trouble that cost him his licenses. Both frequencies are “dark” today, meaning no stations broadcast on them. WMHD gave up its license last year as student interest dwindled and airshifts couldn’t be staffed.

It’s foolish for a middle-aged man to assume that the institutions of his youth will endure forever. New things will come along and replace them. But at least half of why radio has become irrelevant is its own fault. And that’s a shame.


This is expanded and updated from its original posting in July, 2009.

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

  1. bwc1976 says:

    Very sad. My wife was just saying today how every time she really liked a radio station it ended up going away. Also I’ve noticed when a new station starts up, the music is really good for a while to get people hooked, and then it gets watered down after a while to the same mix of bland crap that 5-10 other stations in the area are already playing. The main exception is KGB for classic rock, every other station has modern pop crap mixed in with the good older stuff. These days I play MP3’s on my phone when I want to hear music, or turn to one of the two big AM talk stations in the area (KOGO and KFMB) when I want to hear live human beings, or when I’m visiting family in Texas there’s still WRR for classical or my old college’s station KNTU for jazz.

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    • Radio programmers are incredibly conservative, afraid to do anything that might even make someone in their target audience think about changing the station. There are still some great stations around, but they’re fewer and farther between.

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  2. My favorite local station is now part of a big national conglomerate. I listen at work but it is just backdrop. In my car, I have satellite. That’s good and bad. I miss good radio.

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  3. bodegabayf2 says:

    Even with all of the new ways people get their music and news, local radio could have stayed relevant. Perhaps there wouldn’t have been as many signals on the air, but bright programmers and sharp talent would have kept a station or two on the air in each market that delivered content with a local flavor. Enough people would listen to provide advertisers with good return on investment. Radio would have morphed into something new and fresh. That didn’t happen and radio is dying a slow and undignified death.

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  4. Hey Jim, you should check out WFUV out of Fordham in the Bronx, NY. Public channel that “absorbed” lots of the famous NYC jocks when the industry changed. You can listen off this link http://tunein.com/radio/WFUV-907-s28907/

    They actually let the DJs program their own stuff, and these guys have an encyclopedic knowledge of music. The format ranges from the newest stuff out to classic rock, usually blended together amazingly well. I listen to them daily, as I used to listen to this channel when I lived out there. And being that they are public, they are commercial free and not beholden to advertisers. It really may restore your faith in radio :).

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  5. Steve Miller says:

    If you’re lucky, your market may have a community radio station lurking someplace at the bottom of the FM dial… perhaps there you’ll find radio more (cough, cough) “unpredictable.”

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    • There seems to be too wide a chasm between community radio that’s so eclectic it’s hard to listen to casually, and corporate radio that can only be listened to casually.

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  6. I think deregulation was the main cause of the problem. I think stations could have remained locally owned and could have made plenty of money. We have one station in our area that has remained local because when the owner died she set up a trust to keep it that way. They are one of the few stations that still employs a large on-air staff. They also usually win the local ratings and seem to be doing well money-wise.

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    • I agree. I used to be a fan of deregulation in general, but broadcasting is the poster child for what can go wrong. The big companies are about making money in whatever way they find themselves making it. The local companies are about making money through doing good radio.

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  7. hmunro says:

    It’s so cool to literally get to hear you grow and mature as an on-air personality through your clips, Jim. It’s a shame you’re not on air anymore — you have a great voice and an engaging presence.

    It’s also a huge shame that radio has all but disappeared. Although in one way it’s great that consumers have so much choice now between online-streaming, satellite radio, and the few local stations that still limp along, there’s no longer that unifying sense of community and place that radio used to provide. Oh, well. The world is always changing, but at least you got to be part of something truly special while it lasted.

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    • Thank you so much, Heather, for complimenting my on-air work. It is kind of remarkable even to me to hear how I grew and got better at it over time. I had some good coaches in some of the program directors I worked for. They really helped me get better.

      Yes — it was special while it lasted. I will forever be happy I got to do it. It was a childhood dream realized.

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  8. We need a ‘pirate’ radio station :). Really we do! we need a good group of daring people to give us a radio station that is interesting. I don’t listen to radio anymore. Just like many I gave up and just listen to my music playlist on my phone. When I was very young, there was a radio station that was very hard to tune into. It talked about UFO’s and stuff that was weird. Being young, it made for the perfect radio show for me. I loved it! The format was sort of vintage I guess, the way the presented the show, but it was fun, and then poof! it went off the air. Yes, radio used to be so much better. Great blog! loved hearing your old radio clips :)

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      • Really, that dire? hmm.. but I thought pirate radio…nah! nvm! Good thing I wasn’t serious when I made that comment.
        Lighten up Jim, is not as if the comment was a highbrow attempt at serious discussion.:)))

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