Stories told, Ten Years of Down the Road

The Electric Breakfast

Blogging today is like radio was for me 30 years ago, when I was a disk jockey.

Does anybody listen to the radio anymore? Even for the listeners who hang on, it’s not like it was even 20 years ago. Stations increasingly automate everything. A computer runs the show, playing both songs and commercials. The disk jockey in Denver might actually have been recorded yesterday in Albuquerque. The computer knows when to make the recorded disk jockey speak, too. It’s driven the feeling of connection out of the medium.

mewmhd1989aI got my start in radio long before all that, at my college’s station. Our biggest audience tuned in weeknights after 6 pm, which was when students settled in for a long night of homework. It was an engineering school, an they worked us hard.

Sometimes I’d break from my own homework and walk through the residence halls. I’d hear our station coming from dozens of rooms. Or I’d visit the broadcast studio, where the phone rang off the hook with students and townies calling to request their favorite music.

Radio was still live and local everywhere then, not just at college stations like ours. We engaged with our listeners, and they responded. It made the evening shows so much fun! Our best jocks lined up to take them. Afternoon shows were next most popular, but shows before noon were hard to fill. The morning show was nearly impossible to staff, as it meant being on the air at 7 am.

I was station manager, the top dog, and I could have any show I wanted. But I chose the morning shift whenever my class schedule allowed. I loved it.

WMHD was in the basement of a residence hall. I lived in a room about a hundred feet away. When my alarm went off at 6:45 a.m., I’d put on my glasses and head right for the station, barefoot and in my nightclothes, stopping only to answer nature’s call. I’d pick out the first four or five songs, fire up the transmitter, and play the sign-on message. The Electric Breakfast was on the air!

mewmhd1989bOur station’s hallmark was that each disk jockey got to play whatever he wanted. For the morning show, I chose mellow acoustic music to gently ease listeners into the morning. It really stood out against the station’s regular alt-rock and heavy-metal programming.

I figure that most mornings I had at most a handful of listeners. I am sure that sometimes I played music for nobody at all. At 160 watts, WMHD could be heard within only about a two-mile radius, half of which was a cornfield and a horse farm.

I would have been thrilled for hundreds of people to hear my show, but I was plenty happy with the way things were. You see, I loved to match key, tempo, and mood, mixing songs so that each one seemed a natural extension of the one before. I did it all by feel, and was supremely satisfied each time I nailed it.

But more importantly, once in a while the phone would ring. It was usually a fellow from Seelyville, a nearby tiny town. He often listened to me as he got ready for work. He enjoyed the tapestries of music I wove and would call to tell me when he especially enjoyed a transition I made between songs. And once in a while someone would stop me on my way to class to say that he heard me that morning and liked it.

This occasional praise was all I needed to keep at it.

I am so glad I recorded a few Electric Breakfasts. Here is the first 45 minutes of the show from Wednesday, April 6, 1988. You can hear pops and scratches in the records I played – unlike most radio stations, we didn’t compress our audio to eliminate noise and make the music seem louder. You can also hear the sleepiness in my voice; it usually took me most of the first hour to shake it. But I was not so sleepy that I couldn’t manage a few good transitions between songs. Check it out.

My blogging experience has been very much like The Electric Breakfast. Down the Road is a mere blip in the blogosphere, barely a whisper among the Internet’s clamoring voices. This post might find 25 views today, and maybe that many more the rest of this week. Thanks to the Internet’s long tail, it might find another 50 readers in the next year.

But I love the writing process and find it supremely satisfying when my sentences flow seamlessly into powerful paragraphs, which build an engaging story. And I love it when you leave comments, sharing your experiences or challenging my assertions or just saying that you enjoyed what I wrote. This is enough to keep me blogging indefinitely.

I never thanked that guy from Seelyville for listening. But I thank you for reading!

I first published this story in 2010. I revised it significantly for this retelling.

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History, Stories told

Breaking the news of Space Shuttle Challenger

It was my generation’s “I remember where I was when I heard the news” moment: the day Space Shuttle Challenger exploded in the air after launch. It happened 30 years ago today.

My “where was I” story is a little unusual — I was on the radio, and I broke the news to our listeners.

CBS News photo

CBS News photo

That makes it sound like so much more than it was. I was a freshman in college playing records on the campus radio station. WMHD broadcast at 160 watts from the eastern edge of Terre Haute, Indiana. Our signal could be heard well only up to about two miles away. I figure our listenership at that time of day was in the dozens.

My friend Michael burst into the studio carrying a portable television. He said, “The space shuttle just blew up,” as he plugged the TV in and turned it on. ABC News was already replaying the explosion over and over.

We watched silently, in disbelief, for several minutes. And then I realized I had a certain responsibility to tell our listeners, however few.

I let the song play out, and then I played our news sounder. I shook as I stood at the mic; my voice shook as I began to speak. I don’t remember just what I said, but I do remember tripping over my tongue. At least I got the word out.

And then I felt useless. WMHD had no real news department, just a couple students who rewrote stories out of the paper and off the UPI wire and read them on the air. All I could do, just like anybody else, was to keep watching TV. I went on the air after every record to update the story, but eventually told our listeners to find a TV and follow the story there.

I finished my shift playing records, I’m sure, for nobody.

Where were you when you heard the news about Challenger? Tell the story in the comments, or on your own blog (and please link back here)!

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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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Stories told

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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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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