Music, Stories told

Connecting through the ether

I miss radio, the kind where I could put on a pot of coffee on a rainy and quiet Sunday afternoon and be kept company by some pleasant music and a live disk jockey.

Time was, most towns had such a station. It played a variety of middle-of-the-road soft pop and standards. You could imagine the DJ humming along to the music he was playing, his own cup of coffee at his right hand. He’d open his mic as a song faded out and speak as if only you were in the audience. He’d tell you who sang that last song, read a PSA or a commercial, and then give a weather forecast, all in tones as rich and smooth as the coffee you were both sipping. There were recorded commercials, of course; never desired, but accepted as part of the implicit station-listener contract. But then it was back to the music and the light banter, just the DJ and you.

That kind of radio is all but extinct today. So many of the music stations on the dial where I live try hard to create some high-energy hip attitude, or play to a narrow music niche that shortly wears on me, or are simply overrun with commercials. And almost none of the stations are live anymore. When the DJ is live, you can almost sense that they’re breathing air at the same time you are. But a prerecorded (voicetracked, they call it in the biz) DJ is just another cold programming element, disconnected, lifeless. I might as well listen to Pandora or Spotify.

Me on the air

Me on the air

I feel privileged that I got to deliver that kind of radio once. In the early 1990s I worked weekends on a little AM station in Terre Haute, Indiana, one of a breed of “full service” stations that was already dying across the country. It was the station Terre Haute turned to for news, and then stuck around for the pleasant music and the personalities of the live DJs.

I worked Sundays mostly, but occasionally a Saturday. I’d go down into the studio and get out all my music as the playlist directed, stacking the tape cartridges on the counter, playing the songs one by one. It was mostly standards mixed with a little adult contemporary and a little popular jazz: Johnny Mathis, Dinah Washington, Fleetwood Mac, Les Paul and Mary Ford, James Taylor, Frank Sinatra, Glenn Miller, the Carpenters, Artie Shaw, Neil Diamond … you get the idea.

The phone would ring. Not off the hook, but occasionally. Sometimes it was someone wanting me to announce their lost dog or asking when I’d have the next trivia contest. But several people in my audience were older and lived alone, and wanted just to talk to someone. I loved those calls. My favorite frequent caller was a woman, 87 years old (she reminded me every call), whose name I’ve not remembered for twenty years. Mildred, maybe, or Edith; a sturdy name, as you’d expect of a woman born shortly after 1900. She never stayed on the phone long, a couple minutes, just to tell me she enjoyed hearing such-and-such song and to share a memory it kindled. Perhaps she danced to it when it was new, or maybe she heard it several times on several stations as she and her husband, long deceased, took a cross-country road trip. She told me once she was so happy that a youngster like me, a fellow in his early 20s, was sharing this good old music. She felt the connection, and I loved having it reflected back to me.

I have only two shifts recorded from my time on that station, from one weekend in 1992, a Saturday midday followed by a Sunday morning. I wish I had more. I especially wish I had a couple hours “untelescoped,” that is, with the music not cut out. I’d love to hear the full station sound again, not just the songs, but the jingles that transitioned between songs, and the IDs. I can hear those IDs in my mind: a booming voice said, “Serving the community 24 hours a day, we’re Terre Haute’s number one news voice.” And then there was a downbeat, and polished, impossibly happy jingle singers sang “WBOW, Terre Haute.” And then I’d press the button to take ABC network news; it was exactly the top of the hour.

Here it is, the entire recording. 17 minutes and 40 seconds, with a 15-second gap between the two shifts. It starts abruptly, in the middle of a weather forecast. I feel sure you won’t stick through it all, but do listen for a minute, anyway. If you listen through, you’ll hear some snippets of that booming ID voice, and you’ll hear me trip over my tongue here and there. But I hope you can feel that friendliness, that pleasantness, that connection through the ether. I tried hard to create it.

I wish now that I had called some of those disk jockeys when I was younger, just to say hello, just to let them know in some indirect way that I was glad they were on the job. Weekend shifts can be kind of lonely. It’s just you, the music, the mixing board, and the microphone — and occasionally a voice on the other end of the phone that lets you know that you’ve connected with them in some way that day. That connection made it feel worthwhile.

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21 thoughts on “Connecting through the ether

  1. Radio has certainly changed. Ours was never a house where radio played for long stretches. But my mother would turn on WOWO every morning as we kids got ready for school. Bob Sievers was a broadcasting institution in Fort Wayne. I do miss broadcasters like that now.

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  2. It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve heard your voice on the radio spots you managed to hold onto, every time I hear one, I go, “Oh, that’s not Jim, that’s not what he sounds like in my head; that’s just some impostor claiming he’s Jim Grey.” :) I can’t say exactly what you’re supposed to sound like but that’s not it! :)

    I didn’t realize that most radio stations are canned. I guess they’re putting up a good game. How do they manage the topical stuff? You know, the things going on this morning kinda stuff?

    I typically listen to two stations here in Toronto. One’s the classic music station (nice to wake up to) 102.9 FM, and I’m pretty sure they’re live. Back and forth about the weather, the drive in, what their families are doing, stuff like that. The other’s one of the 24 hour news and traffic outfits, 680 AM (what else are you going to use AM for these days?), and while I know the repeating news spots are recorded, I think the presenters are live. I guess they’d have to be for up-to-the-minute stuff. I suppose it’s not so crucial if you’re presenting music that’s either been reading the wave of popularity for weeks, or even decades.

    Who’s live and who’s not, Jim? What are the tells? Like, if I tune into The Edge, Q107, or CHUM this afternoon, what would I listen for to tell?

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    • Now that’s a first! Every disk jockey has heard, “You don’t look like you sound.” I might be the first to be told, “You don’t sound like you look!!”

      In the US, pretty much only morning and afternoon drive-time airshifts are live. Everything else is voicetracked. I don’t know if it’s different in Canada.

      Most of the time, shows are recorded only a little in advance. So topical stuff can be woven right in. I’d imagine it takes all of a half hour to record a show, so you can do it same day after a major event like a Super Bowl or something.

      One thing that I sometimes hear, or don’t hear, on a voicetracked show is the current temperature. They can give a weather forecast but they won’t know the current temp. Otherwise, it can be hard to know for sure.

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  3. I told you people would like more posts like these! I loved it. You were too cute! I loved listening to you on the radio. It was cool. Thanks for sharing this one.

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    • Thanks Dawn! I stumbled upon an Internet station (kabl960.com) that plays music similar to what we played on that little Terre Haute AM station, and felt inspired to tell this story.

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  4. Your post bought up a lot of memories. I thought the variety of music that you played was interesting. I don’t think there is much of that in the radio of today. Still I remember growing up hearing all sorts of music on the radio. I don’t think that young people today get that kind of exposure. I also miss the local overnight dj’s. There really were some odd people in that group.

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    • Today, every station hews to such a narrow format. It reflects the fragmentation of the music industry.

      Yeah, the overnighters were an odd bunch!! I remember the ones at WZZQ, the FM rock station I worked for after WBOW, the AM I describe in this post. Such an …interesting group.

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  5. Radio has always had a low opinion of itself. A second class citizen to television. When my Dad retired from radio, you could hear him on 3 stations at the same time! Live on an AM, and voice tracked on two FM’s.

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    • Yeah, we always felt inferior to our TV brothers. When I worked on the FM, the morning show had a weekly bad-movie show on one of the TV stations in town, and they acted like they finally hit the big time.

      Cool that your dad had a radio career!!

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  6. Dan Cluley says:

    Busy week, but I finally had a chance to listen to your clips. Growing up we usually listened to WJR out of Detroit, which was sort of the big city version of that sort of station.

    These days I listen to half a dozen FM stations. If you switch among them you can get a pretty good variety.

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