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.
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.