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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Stories Told

Night game

I knew professional radio was a brutal business. But when Chip, who hired me into my first on-air job, whose blunt critiques of my work made me minimally competent, was fired, I was deeply angry just the same.

The station’s owner awaited trial on felony sex-crime charges. Yes, you read that right. It was obvious that he was trimming station costs to finance his useless defense. It was also obvious that he and Chip had disagreed lately over the station’s format.

I was loyal to Chip and thought the owner was a creep. Experience had not yet punched down my youthful ideals, not yet taught me which battles to fight. So I quit. And I decided I’d lay flame to that bridge and end my radio career. My resignation letter said bluntly what utter bullshit the firing had been.

I expected they’d change the locks and tell me not to come back, but my letter was met with silence. I went on the air until the end. But word got around: a photocopy of my letter was tacked to the newsroom wall, and the news director and one of the other disk jockeys told me that I said what everybody else was thinking. But my anger wasn’t yet satisfied.

My final airshift was on a Sunday. The building was empty but for me and the jock on the FM station down the hall. I walked in with a vinyl record tucked under my arm. I was going to commit a cardinal sin: I would break format and play a song in tribute to Chip. He deeply loved the Chicago White Sox. A baseball song for a baseball fan, a song of loss and endings.

I can still hear and see those last moments in my mind. I told my listeners that I thought Chip had gotten a raw deal, and so this would be my last show. The song played out, the jingle singers sang the call letters and our city of license, and a booming voice said it was two o’clock. I pressed the button to take ABC Radio News, flipped the switch to take the satellite-fed program that followed mine, and walked out into the summer sun triumphant. And defeated.

A bolder man could have spent the whole four-hour shift slandering the owner and playing the same death-metal record until someone showed up to drag him from the building. Instead, my fruitless protest probably puzzled any listeners who were paying attention. And I doubt Chip ever heard his tribute. But from this quiet fellow who basically follows the rules and wants to get along, it was a roaring statement, a shoving of this injustice right up the company’s ass.

I did it for myself. I see that now. More than 20 years have passed, and I have a much firmer grip on how unfair the world can be and how little I can do about much of it. I don’t have to like it, but I have learned how to let go and move on. If the same happened today, I’d still quit. I’d just skip the theatrics.

A month later, the program director of the FM station called me and offered me a job. He said management would pretend my flaming resignation letter never happened. He didn’t bring up my final on-air minutes, so I didn’t either. I went back to work, buggering owner notwithstanding. While radio is a cruel mistress, she’s a mistress nevertheless and I ran right back into her arms.

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An early morning New Year’s wish

I write my blog early in the morning: up at 5, at the keyboard by 5:30, off to work shortly after 7.

WZZQ 1993Another thing I used to do early, 20 years ago, was get up on New Year’s morning to do a morning radio show. I worked for a station part time, normally pulling weekend shifts. But for obvious reasons all the jocks wanted New Year’s morning off.

I always celebrated New Year’s Eve, staying out until well after the ball dropped. But then I’d be up at 5 and on the air at 6.

Why in heaven’s name would I volunteer for that? Well, I wasn’t much of a drinker then, and being in my 20s I was resilient and could easily function on just a few hours’ sleep. But even more, I did it because mornings were the most listened-to time in radio. I liked feeling like I was a morning radio star, even for one day, even though listenership was down because so many people were sleeping it off.

I’m not up early writing my blog today, though. I stayed up last night to watch the ball drop with friends and family in my home, and I might have had a couple drinks along the way. As I push 50, I don’t bounce back like I used to. But because I wrote this in advance and scheduled it to post automatically at 5 a.m., I can still wish you a happy New Year early in the morning. And because this is in your e-mail inbox or your feed reader, the wish can reach you whenever you get to it. However you receive it, I hope it finds you well and happy.

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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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A radio station that lost its will

Me on the air at WMHD in 1987

Me on the air in 1987

Last November I shared with you that my alma mater’s radio station, WHMD at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, had shut off its transmitter and gone Internet-only.

Last week’s Indiana Radio Watcha weekly e-mail digest of statewide radio happenings, reports that Rose-Hulman is selling WMHD to crosstown Indiana State University for $16,465, to be a companion to ISU’s existing WISU.

This is a sad end, but probably only for those of us who gave our hearts and a lot of our time to this radio station during our college years. Terre Haute and even Rose-Hulman students probably barely noticed WMHD’s passing. Radio’s place in our lives has been pushed into a niche role, now that YouTube breaks new music, which we listen to on our iPods or on Internet streaming services such as Spotify. WMHD, always a niche station, simply never found a way to remain relevant in this landscape. I don’t think the station even tried.

Me at WMHD

Me outside the station in 2012

Indiana Radio Watch speculates that ISU might make one of its two radio stations an NPR affiliate. NPR is available in Terre Haute only on a weak signal that repeats Bloomington’s WFIU. NPR’s news and talk programming is a great radio niche. When I’m not listening to music from my iPhone as I drive around, I’m listening to Indianapolis’s NPR station.

Something similar is happening in Atlanta. Georgia State University recently handed over control of its station WRAS to Georgia Public Broadcasting, which wants to make it an NPR outlet. Read the story here. Georgia State is keeping the student-generated programming sort of alive by allowing it to continue on the Internet and on HD radio. But do you know anybody who has one of those? Me neither.

But here’s the big difference: when the news broke, hell broke loose, because WRAS has a dedicated and vocal audience. I’m sure WRAS’s audience isn’t large by Atlanta standards. But those who listen love their station, probably because it remained well programmed and interesting.

WMHD, on the other hand, was neither of those things in its last several years. Students simply lost interest. Over the past ten years or so, more and more of the broadcast day kept being given over to an automated music stream. Listenership was never large in the first place, but with nobody running the show I have to think it fell to zero. I’ll bet that if you search the Internet, I’m the only person lamenting WMHD. Search for WRAS and you’ll find lots of anger and hand-wringing.

Any radio pro will tell you: people will listen to a station where the programming is thoughtfully chosen, where there human beings on the air relate well to the listeners, and when these things come together to make listeners look forward to what will happen next. The days of radio commanding the enormous audiences of 30-50 years ago are probably permanently over. But a university- or college-funded station that tries can still find enough of an audience to at least justify its existence. WMHD simply lost the will. Here’s hoping that WRAS, which hasn’t lost the will, finds a way.


Hear me on WMHD’s air here. Hear me on the air professionally here.

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In a heck of a spot

A classic from 2010.

1976. The towheaded kid grew up to write copy.

When I grew up on Rabbit Hill, not only could I never have imagined that I’d still be in touch with some of the kids I knew then, but I would never have guessed how they would turn out as adults. One neighborhood boy, my brother’s best friend since 1972, grew up to write copy. We kids on the Hill had no idea that they paid grown-ups to do such things.

Mike’s a wizard of the tagline, those pithy marketing slogans that make you remember the product. (His tagline for the movie 102 Dalmatians: “This summer, Cruella’s pulling out all the spots.”) But no matter how a thing is advertised, he can write copy for it. Recently he’s been writing radio commercials – spots, they call them in the biz – for books their publisher hopes become bestsellers.

I’ve written a few radio spots in my time, too. Compared to Mike’s spots, the writing is good for a laugh. But I can say one thing he can’t: I got to voice my spots myself. Neener neener, Mike! But while Mike gets to write for the likes of Ben Stein, I got to write for the likes of motorcycle dealerships. And I had to live in Terre Haute to do it. So I guess it all balances out.

Here’s the spot I wrote for the motorcycle dealership.

The hardest thing about writing spot copy is getting it to fit within 30 or 60 seconds, the two most common spot lengths (in that order). Because I voiced this myself, I wrote it to fit the way I wanted to read it, which made it a little easier. It was often harder to read somebody else’s copy because either there were too many or too few words to fill the time. I would either have to speed up or slow down to hit the time target. Here’s a spot for tire dealer that somebody else wrote. It took me a dozen takes to make it work, but I’m sure a more experienced pro could have pegged it in one read. (The client chose the wacky music bed – I certainly wouldn’t have used it voluntarily.)

Truth be told, most of my production work was reading a brief tag at the end of national spots sent to us by ad agencies. I read somebody else’s words at the end of this Taco Bell spot.

I have plenty of radio stories. Like this one. And this one. And this one.

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