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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Personal, Stories Told

How surviving the weekly beatings turned me into a real pro

I suppose it’s only in a market as small as Terre Haute that a guy can be hired off the street to work on the radio, but that’s what happened to me. It’s not that I hadn’t been on the air before – I had been a disk jockey all through college on the campus radio station. I had a blast, but I knew it was all strictly amateur. After I graduated, one day while out and about I happened to be wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the college station’s logo. A fellow approached me and introduced himself as Chip, the program director at WBOW. He asked if I worked in radio and wondered if I’d be interested in part-time on-air work at his station.

On the air

I was game, and so a couple weeks later I was very excited to be sitting at the controls in WBOW’s studio. Chip was there to show me the ropes. He explained the format clock and showed me how to find songs, jingles, sweepers, and spots in the cart library. He ran through the liner cards and said that I needed to backtime to the news at the top of the hour. Clock? Spots? Jingles? Sweepers? Cart? Liner? Backtime? It was a whole new language. Except for opening the mic and talking, WBOW was unlike anything I’d ever done on the radio. I began to worry that I’d gotten in over my head. As Chip figured out how little I knew, he rolled his eyes, sighed, muttered something about how hard it was to find experienced talent in “this nowhere market,” and began to teach me about professional radio.

Chip explained and re-explained the format clock, which laid out the order of the songs and breaks, until I could execute it consistently. He kept giving me tips until I figured out how to backtime each hour so the last song ended just as ABC News started at precisely the top of the hour. And every week I dropped a cassette tape into a special deck that recorded everything I said into the microphone. It created what Chip called a “scoped aircheck.” We listened to it together each week and he bluntly challenged me to get better.

“Stop saying degrees! The high tomorrow will be 58! Everybody knows that’s 58 degrees!”

“And right there, you did that annnd thing again as you moved from one topic to another, like you’re connecting cars on a train. Cut it out! I want to hear you go smoothly from the beginning of your break to the end!”

“You stepped on the vocals on that song! C’mon, time it out, know what you’re going to say and how long it will take!”

Chip did not pull punches. He knew it, too; he called these sessions my “weekly beating.”

I sometimes came by the station during Chip’s shifts to sit in the studio with him so I could watch and listen. He thoughtfully prepared for every break, reviewing material he brought in with him that day to talk about. Before he opened the mic, he made sure everything he was going to use — a liner card, maybe a newspaper clipping, and all the spots (commercials) — were ready to go. Then he put his hands on the buttons and knobs he would use during the break and sat quietly under his headphones, listening to the end of the song that was playing. He knew how every song in the library ended, and he would count beats as he opened the mic so he could start talking at just the right moment. He had a subtle sense of timing — he always knew the very moment, a sweet spot in time, to do the next thing, and how to do it in a way that kept the audience’s attention. I could see he was doing what he was trying to get me to do, and I started to hear how these little things were the difference between some guy playing music and talking, and a talented pro delivering fresh, vital radio that kept listeners tuned in because they wanted to hear what was next.

As I kept practicing what Chip taught and modeled, it started to click. I could hear myself getting better on my aircheck tapes. Soon I achieved basic mastery and was starting to sound like a pro. I felt good about the talent I was building.

I didn’t realize then how rare of an opportunity it was to learn from someone who really knew what he was doing. I’ve never experienced it again. But I’m hopeful. I got a new boss at work a few weeks ago, someone we hired from outside for her considerable experience. She’s accomplished several things I’ve wanted to do but haven’t been able to figure out. I can tell just from this short time we’ve worked together that I stand to learn a lot from her. I’m looking forward to growing rapidly, just as I did under Chip. I just hope she’s not the type to give out weekly beatings!

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Stories Told

The best rested guy in town

I’ve written before about how I’m not much of a sports fan. I don’t get sports, really.

Last night, Super Bowl Sunday, I went to bed at 10 p.m. I’ll bet I was one of a handful of people sleeping here in Indianapolis given that the hometown team, the Colts, played. Unfortunately, it didn’t go our way; when I awoke this morning the New Orleans Saints had won, 31-17.

I remember from the Colts’ successful 2007 Super Bowl that it’s really pretty cool to wake up in the city that’s home to the new champion. I shared in the joy of it with everyone else here. But no, I didn’t watch the Super Bowl, not in 2007, not last night. I didn’t watch a single game this season. And it’s not entirely because I don’t get sports.

It’s because I’m still not over the 1991 season.

From the time the Colts moved to Indianapolis in 1984, they stunk. On ice. In their first six years here, they had only two winning seasons. And then 1991 capped them all as they went 1 and 15.

Why do I know all of this if I don’t get sports? Because I worked for a little AM radio station in Terre Haute in 1991. We were on the Colts radio network, and the games pre-empted my Sunday afternoon shifts. It fell to me to “run the board,” which meant I sat in the studio at the mixing board, finger poised and ready to press a button to play local commercials as soon as the announcer said, “And this is the Colts <pause> radio network.” That meant I had to listen to the Colts lose, and often lose big, week after week after week after wee-hee-hee-heek.

I’m genuinely disappointed that the Colts lost. But it might just take one more Super Bowl victory before I can move past the trauma of 1991!

Radio is a cruel mistress, as I’ve written about here and here.

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Stories Told

It’s a shame what’s happened to radio

I haven’t been on the air in almost 15 years, but people still ask me sometimes if I’d like to be a disk jockey again. Until a few years ago, I always wistfully answered yes. Not anymore. It’s not that I would be rusty as heck after all these years – and boy, would I – it’s that radio just wouldn’t be any fun anymore.

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 few people 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!

On the air, WZZQ Terre Haute, 1994

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 longer than 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? He probably recorded tonight’s shift this morning in a studio in Tampa or Minneapolis or wherever he lives. Try calling the station you listen to in the evening or on the weekend. Nobody will answer. It’s cheaper that way.

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.

I’d like to tip my hat to two radio shows I listen to that are still fun. I like Steve Simpson’s afternoon show on WIBC because he’s topical and funny. I also like Tom Berg’s all-request show weeknights on WKLU, the last independently owned station in town and the only one that doesn’t voicetrack. I call Tom sometimes but he never plays my requests, probably because they’re too obscure. Oh, but wait, WKLU just got sold. A national broadcaster bought the station and will soon put its satellite-fed contemporary Christian format on that frequency. It’s probably a matter of days before Tom’s gone.

It’s a shame.

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Stories Told

Pride of workmanship, part 1

Quality guru W. Edwards Deming, who helped transform Japan into an industrial powerhouse, claimed that workers who feel pride in the quality of their work are critical to a company’s success. Pride in my work is certainly critical to my satisfaction on the job, right along with being challenged and enjoying the environment. When I have those three elements, I love my job.

I am fortunate to have lived one of my dreams. Ever since I was a boy, I wanted to be the voice coming out of the radio, and in college I got my chance at WMHD, the campus station. Not only did I get to talk, but I also got to play whatever music I wanted. It was a lot of fun. I figured out how to match key and tempo to make one song flow well into the next. We had few CDs, which were new then. So I learned to slipcue and crossfade vinyl on our two classic Technics SL-1200 Mk2 turntables, which let me then create coherent mosaics of music across a two-hour shift. I also developed an on-air voice that I thought sounded smooth and professional. My peers at WMHD liked what I did, too, because one year they named me “DJ of the Year.” Today, I still listen to tapes I made of some of my WMHD shows, and they always make me feel good.

Me on the air at WMHD in 1987

After I graduated, one day I was out at an event in town and I happened to be wearing an old WMHD T-shirt. Local radio station WBOW was there, promoting the event. WBOW was what they used to call a “full service” station, with news, community events, music from my grandmother’s era, and on-air “personalities” to bring it all together in an entertaining way. One of those personalities was at the event that sunny afternoon, a solidly-built man with the darkest red hair I’d ever seen who approached me, introduced himself as Chip, and asked if I worked in radio. I told him about WMHD, and he asked me if I’d be interested in part-time work at his station.

A couple weeks later, I was very excited to be sitting at the controls in WBOW’s studio. Chip was there to show me the ropes. He explained the format clock, showed me how to find songs, jingles, sweepers, and spots in the cart library; showed me the liner cards; and said that I needed to backtime to the news at the top of the hour. Clock? Spots? Jingles? Sweepers? Cart? Liner? Backtime? It was a whole new language. Except for opening the mic and talking, WBOW was unlike anything I’d ever done on the radio. I’m not sure at what point my eyes glazed over and I began to worry that I’d gotten in over my head! As Chip figured out how little I knew, he rolled his eyes, sighed, muttered something about how hard it was to find experienced talent in “this nowhere market,” and began to teach me about professional radio.

It took me weeks to understand the clock so I could do a smooth break, and months to get good at backtiming the last 15 minutes of every hour so the last thing I played ended just as ABC News started at precisely the top of the hour. Every week, I recorded a cassette of my show — just the parts where I talked, which Chip called a “scoped aircheck” — and Chip and I reviewed it together. As we listened each week, he bluntly challenged me to get better. “Stop saying degrees! The high tomorrow will be 58! Everybody knows that’s 58 degrees! And right there, you did that annnd thing again as you moved from one topic to another, like you’re connecting cars on a train. Cut it out! I want to hear you go smoothly from the beginning of your break to the end! And you stepped on the vocals on that song! C’mon, time it out, know what you’re going to say and how long it will take!” Chip did not pull punches.

WZZQ 1993

I sometimes came by the station during Chip’s shifts and watched and listened to how he did things. He thoughtfully prepared for every break, reviewing material he brought in with him that day to talk about. Before he opened the mic, he made sure everything he was going to use — a liner card, maybe a newspaper clipping, and all the spots (commercials) — were ready to go. Then he put his hands on the buttons and knobs he would use during the break and sat quietly under his headphones, listening to the end of the song that was playing. He knew how every song in the library ended, and he would count beats as he opened the mic so he could start talking at just the right moment. He had a subtle sense of timing — he always knew the very moment, a sweet spot in time, to do the next thing, and how to do it in a way that kept the audience’s attention. I could see he was doing what he was trying to get me to do, and I started to hear how these little things were the difference between some guy playing music and talking, and a talented pro delivering fresh, vital radio that kept listeners tuned in because they wanted to hear what was next.

As I kept practicing on my weekend shifts, it started to click. I could hear myself getting better on my aircheck tapes. I looked forward to Chip’s weekly beatings, as he called them, because I’d always take away something new to work on. I realized I was learning from somebody who knew his stuff, and that such opportunities were rare in markets as small as Terre Haute. (Later, I learned that opportunities to learn from someone who really knows his stuff are rare in life.) When Chip started reviewing my airchecks monthly rather than weekly, I realized with satisfaction that I had achieved basic mastery, and that I was starting to sound like a pro. I felt good about the talent I had built.

Because Chip vigorously coached the whole on-air team, WBOW sounded better than you’d expect in a small town like Terre Haute. We all took pride in how tight we sounded. We could have been more competitive if we could have played more contemporary music, but Chip couldn’t convince the station’s owner of it. There’s a long, lurid story here that I might tell another day, but in short the owner decided he could make as much money by replacing all of us with a satellite programming service. This was the fate of full-service AM radio across the country and today the format no longer survives. Neither did the WBOW air staff. Chip was the first to go, and in disgust I signed off for good. The rest of the staff was laid off in time. The solid on-air work Chip brought out in the entire team, and the high-quality service we provided as a result, was not enough to overcome financial reality. I still struggle with this lesson. But I am still proud to say I was part of WBOW, and I still feel satisfied when I think of my work there.

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