Connecting through the ether

Originally published November 23, 2015. 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, unless you love it, grows old fast; or are simply overrun with commercials. And most stations pre-record (voicetrack, they call it in the biz) DJs now. When the DJ is live, you can almost sense that they’re breathing air at the same time you are. But a voicetracked DJ is just another programming element — cold, disconnected, lifeless. I might as well listen to Pandora or Spotify.

Me on the air
Me on the air

I am privileged to have delivered live, local radio for a couple years 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 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 Agnes; 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 shows 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. The recordings I have are “telescoped” that is, with the music cut out. I wish I had some untelescoped tape! 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.” 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 the fellow with the booming 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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Comments

22 responses to “Connecting through the ether”

  1. Andy Umbo Avatar
    Andy Umbo

    I miss our local jazz radio station. As I’ve said before, it doesn’t matter that you can stream killer jazz from stations on the internet, there’s something kind of sad about not being able to turn on your car radio and your stereo at home and hear it. Ours died a few years after I moved back to town for family needs, first they eliminated the jocks and went satellite, then they turned themselves into some sort of community radio, where most of the programming is unlistenable.

    In its best iteration, it had local jocks who kept you informed of jazz events, no matter how small, all around town, and even reported on shows they went to, or interviewed players coming through town. I think it’s kind of sad, and also a real definition of your town if there’s no jazz programming. Sure we have indie and college stations, but most of them are so “shotgun” with their programming that they can be unlistenable. And who wants to chase their jazz programming, when they have it, to some odd two hour stretch at 3 am or 10 pm for an hour every other Thursday. When looking for a place to retire for good, I Always take into account the cities that have full time local jazz stations for a start!

    BTW, it sounds like you had a pretty varied programming list at the station you worked at. That’s the type, of stuff I like on general radio. My pals tell me in rural Wisconsin, there are still small am stations that play varied music from big band to polka, and have morning shopper shows where you call in with stuff your trying to sell. If you have to stream, I ran across a radio station called Arctic Radio (in Norway?) that spins mostly 78’s and is widely varied. Still, I mourn the local radio…

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      The city I grew up in had a local jazz station (WVPE) but I was too young to appreciate it. WICR here in Indy used to be all jazz, but I don’t think they are anymore. When I want my jazz fix, I go to kcsm.org and stream that absolutely fantastic station. Obviously it’s not the same as local, but it’s an acceptable substitute.

      1. Andy Umbo Avatar
        Andy Umbo

        Well familiar with KCSM when I’m working and/visiting in the Bay Area, but as you state, not local here, not available on my car radio…I listened all the time to WICR when I lived I Indy, classical between midnight and noon, smooth jazz between noon and three, and then straight ahead jazz between three pm and midnight. I sure as hell hope it hasn’t changed!

  2. Ann Elizabeth Wilder Avatar
    Ann Elizabeth Wilder

    I was a volunteer radio announcer at WKDB, in Asheville, North Carolina, with a FCC license, and played gospel music. WKDB, Love-91 (91-3 FM) was primarily a black gospel radio station and the station would receive new releases in vinyl. We still had turntables. It was in the late 1990s. There were CD players as time passed. I coined myself “Little Cousin Anne and the Gospel Caravan.” I remained volunteering until Dr. Kenneth Brantley sold the license to a Southern Rock Gospel station in South Carolina as of 14 May 1992. The old ladies would phone me and we would talk. It was not until the end of those wonderful years was over that the patriarch of the black community remarked upon meeting me: “I thought you were a young black girl who knew a lot about black gospel music.” To myself, I said: “No, I was a white woman over 50 years old with an extensive gospel vinyl record collection.” Those weekend nights alone in the station at the top of the Flat Iron Building in Asheville were some of the best times of my life.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I love your story! I’m so glad you shared it here. What a wonderful set of memories for you to have.

  3. sonny rosenberg Avatar

    Very cool! Thanks for sharing that.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Most welcome!

  4. Route66Fan Avatar
    Route66Fan

    There was a radio station in my area (Carrollton, MO) that used to play that kind of music. The radio station was KRLI 97.5FM (Later moved to 103.9FM in 2002.), referred to on-air as “Curly”.

    The station, was licensed to nearby Malta Bend, MO & would ID as “KRLI, Malta Bend/Marshall” even though the stations studio was located in Carrollton, MO, sharing studio space with KMZU 100.7FM, a Country Music station & it’s, at the time, AM simulcast KAOL (Now KROL & programmed separately.) 1430AM.

    All 3 radio stations were locally owned by the same guy, Mike Carter & his company, KANZA Communications (Later renamed to Carter Media LLC.).

    Mike Carter also served as the main voice on KRLI &, from what I remember hearing, had a massive collection of records, & possibly tapes & CD’s, with the kinds of music that you mentioned that extended all the way back to the 1920’s, all of which he, by the mid 2000’s or so, had digitized & stored on PC’s in the stations studio.

    Since he was KRLI’s main voice, Miles also did some kind of voice tracking by recording himself mentioning song titles/artists names & inserting them either before, or after, on most of the songs. He would also mention some trivia about the songs as well in some of those voice tracks.

    The station also had morning & afternoon DJ’s as well.

    KRLI also held local events, mostly 1940 style “big band” concerts & charity drives”.

    KRLI also had some interesting bumpers & taglines like: “50 Years of Musical Memories” (Indicating that they mostly played Standards/Adult Contemporary from the 20’s to 70’s.), “Shop the store with KRLI/Curly on the door. (Used to tell listeners to support local business that advertised on the station & displayed a KRLI/Curly bumper sticker on their front door.)

    It was a fun & interesting radio station to listen to even though I was mostly a kid\teenager\in my early 20’s listening to them.

    In 2010 KRLI’s sister stations, KMZU 100.7FM & KAOL 1430AM, would separate from each other with KMZU keeping it’s Country Music format & KAOL switching to a Sports format & getting a FM translator (K267BN 101.3FM) & then switching to a Contemporary Hit Radio format in 2011.

    Unfortunately, Mike Carter died in 2012 & his son Miles Carter took over the 3 radio stations full time & moved the CHR format from KAOL, & it’s FM translator (Which in turn switched to Classic Country.) to KRLI 103.9 putting an end to the standards\adult contemporary format that the station had since it’s inception back around the mid 1990’s.

    Nowadays KRLI now plays Classic Country, as “Curly Country 103.9” & has been that way since 2013 after the CHR format failed to gain listeners.

    KMZU is now focused on playing New Country & KAOL changed callsigns, slightly, to KROL, in 2019, & now carries a Talk Radio format in the daytime & Classic Rock format at night & on weekends.

    I did, fortunately, make a couple of unscoped recordings of KRLI, back in 2006 & 2011, when they still had a Standards/Adult Contemporary format.

    Here are scoped versions of those KRLI recordings:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qzFnmOE4r5E

    A tribute to KRLI (& KMZU/KAOL) owner/announcer, Mike Carter:
    https://www.kmzu.com/news/local/tribute-to-michael-mike-carter/article_3ec09cef-2aca-5edd-be43-a6a48e9f4059.html

    BTW, your post, for some reason, reminded me of a song that I once heard, not on KRLI but on KMZU, that I really like & would recommend listening to. That song is “I Watched I All (On My Radio) by Lionel Cartwright, a Country Music song from 1989.

    The music video to that song can be officially heard here:

    Sorry for the long post & have a good day!

    1. Route66Fan Avatar
      Route66Fan

      I forgot to mention that KRLI was also a full service radio station, as well, airing news, from KMZU’s newsroom & also had weather forecasts that were recorded daily by Mike Carter & played, at least once an hour.
      They also, for a time, would air old radio shows from the 30’s-50’s weeknights in the 7PM hour too!

    2. Jim Grey Avatar

      How awesome that sounds! It takes the individual owner/operators to do stuff like this. There used to be a station here on 101.9 that was owned by this guy who loved music, and he did a deep cuts classic rock format that was just terrific.

      What a dream, to be independently wealthy enough to own a station and run it like this, and if it never does better than break even, then so be it.

  5. Kurt Ingham Avatar

    What a great read!!Thanks

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      So happy you enjoyed it!

  6. Reinhold Graf Avatar

    I guess, at least one of the music cassettes on their web page is yours :)

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I’m not sure I catch your meaning?

      1. Reinhold Graf Avatar

        On the WBOW entry page on the web, they show numerous ancient music cassettes.

        1. Jim Grey Avatar

          Ahhhhhh I see. I’d never been to their site! I just looked it up.

          1. Reinhold Graf Avatar

            Listened an hour to their live program yesterday :)

        2. Jim Grey Avatar

          The WBOW I worked for was owned by a company that went out of business. The station went off the air. Later, another company decided to ask the FCC for the WBOW call letters, and put them on that FM station. I’m pleased they did, as the original WBOW was Terre Haute’s first radio station. The call letters stand for “Banks of the Wabash” — the Wabash River runs through Terre Haute.

  7. bodegabayf2 Avatar

    Growing up, being on the radio was all I ever wanted to do. I used to play radio station with a microphone and old reel-to-reel tape recorder that my father let me use.

    I was lucky enough to work in radio when it was still fun, Small, locally owned radio stations; an AM daytimer, then FM top 40, finally an album rock FM in Upstate New York. I moved west and my last gig was at a big adult contemporary FM in Phoenix with a fancy studio overlooking the city skyline.

    But it was those first small mom and pop stations that were the best jobs I ever had. The AM daytimer, in a small town, had a full news department, sports department and full time announcers. We carried high school football games and even broadcast live once from a river during a summer raft race…until the remote unit fell over board.

    You learned everything at those small stations…taking transmitter readings, changing the paper in the wire machines, setting up telco lines for remote broadcasts, how to edit recording tape with a grease pencil and a razor blade. I learned how to write ad copy in small market radio. It’s a skill that has sustained me throughout my life.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Small, locally owned stations was where it was at. You really felt like you were a key part of the community. And the job was fun! I wish that kind of radio hadn’t gone away.

  8. -Nate Avatar
    -Nate

    What a fantastic article and comments ! .

    Being old I grew up listening to those local “Peanut Whistle” AM stations that played a wide variety of music, this introduced me to Big Bans and Swing, music I still love .

    The the gop deregulated the ownership laws and almost all radio is owned by corporations that don’t give a rat’s patoot about music or the listeners .

    Time was I’d fall asleep to late night DJ’s talking about this and that, no shouting, no lies, no hate .

    I miss my old tube radios with that special sound .

    Too bad you don’t have any air checks, I’d think they were out there somewhere .

    -Nate

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Yeah, Docket 80/90 really f’d up the whole radio industry, making it about grabbing money and not about serving. Radio is a business for sure, but was always balanced with being a service. No more. It’s a shame.

      I have many airchecks from my time on the air. Few from the AM, but a lot from the FM. Here are some links to where I’ve shared some.

      https://blog.jimgrey.net/2014/08/27/its-a-shame-whats-happened-to-radio-2/

      https://blog.jimgrey.net/2010/11/15/the-electric-breakfast/

      https://blog.jimgrey.net/2011/03/28/how-surviving-the-weekly-beatings-turned-me-into-a-real-pro/

      https://blog.jimgrey.net/2011/09/22/four-hours-reduced-to-nine-minutes/

      https://blog.jimgrey.net/2014/04/30/in-a-heck-of-a-spot-2/

      https://blog.jimgrey.net/2017/09/04/everybody-wants-to-know-where-jimmy-has-gone-2/

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