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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Stories Told

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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Stories Told

Death of a radio station

Word reached me the other day that my college alma mater’s radio station, WMHD at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, is permanently shutting down its transmitter and will only stream on the Internet from now on. I guess it was inevitable. I don’t think college kids really listen to the radio anymore.

That wasn’t true a quarter century ago when I was a student. The iPod and Pandora were way off in the future – and more importantly, so was industry deregulation, which led to big companies gobbling up stations and watering down their programming so much that there’s no compelling reason to listen.

Radio was once a strong drive among Rose-Hulman students. It started in 1969 when students built a carrier-current AM station they called WRTR. The signal ran through the campus’s electrical system; you had to plug your radio into the wall to pick it up. But students dreamed of over-the-air broadcasting on FM. In 1981, after completing a bunch of engineering studies and filling out a pile of FCC paperwork, they got their license.

Me on the air in 1989

Me on the air in 1989

By the time I reached Rose-Hulman in 1985, WMHD was an active, thriving station. I joined the dozens of students who did weekly two-hour air shifts. There were enough of us that we were on the air from 7 am to 1 am on weekdays, and 24 hours a day on the weekends. We were a free-format station – you always heard whatever music the student on the air wanted to play. We hardly sounded professional, but none of us cared much. Listeners could hear the fun we were having.

Unfortunately, that listenership was small, thanks largely to our weak signal. At 160 watts, WMHD could be heard only within about two miles of campus. (We did get request-line calls from inmates at the federal penitentiary way across town, though. I never figured out how they heard us!) We yearned for a signal that covered the city.

It happened in 2003 when a religious broadcaster wanted to build a station that would interfere with WMHD’s signal. They paid to move the station to a new frequency and increase power to 1,400 watts. At last, you could hear WMHD all over Terre Haute!

But it was for nothing. Every time since then that I’ve visited Terre Haute and tuned to WMHD, I heard nothing but music, with no DJs ever. I don’t know why they didn’t fully staff the broadcast day, but I do know that they increasingly relied on some software that a student wrote to automate the station. Meanwhile, the station started streaming on the Internet. You can hear it here, if you want, but I wouldn’t bother. What’s the point of a radio station that’s just an iPod full of somebody else’s favorite music?

Because I found work in Terre Haute after I graduated in 1989, I kept doing weekly air shifts at WMHD into the early 1990s. Here’s 45 minutes of one of my last shifts, from January, 1992. You’ll hear my favorite music at the time, which was heavily influenced by 1970s progressive rock. Even if you aren’t a prog-rock fan, I think you’ll find this to be very listenable – because I took great care to mix the songs well, creating good transitions based on mood, key, and tempo; and because I came on the air from time to talk to you, which made it personal.

A lot of things have to happen to make a radio station viable, including a good signal and strong promotions to attract listeners. But once you get listeners to tune in, what keeps them there is compelling programming. Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I think that the magic formula has never changed: it’s about the people on the air as much as or more than the music that is played. It’s people that make radio fun and interesting. When a station forgets that, it quickly slides into obscurity and irrelevancy. That’s what happened at WMHD. That’s what much of the industry is doing to itself. It’s no wonder kids today don’t listen to the radio.

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I did the morning show on WMHD
for a couple years. Hear it here.

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Personal

Living life after running out of things to graduate from

I overheard my sons talking the other day about college. I found that to be encouraging, because I think they’re both bright and capable and should go to college.

My youngest said, “Elementary school prepares you for middle school, which prepares you for high school, which prepares you for college. And then college prepares you for life.” I was with him right up until the last link in his chain.

My degree itself didn’t prepare me for life. My overall college experience helped prepare me for life a little. But after I graduated college and lived on my own, my adult life was significantly new and different from anything I had experienced before. I had to figure it out as it happened.

Cueing a record

On the air at Rose-Hulman’s WMHD

Now, I loved my studies. I majored in mathematics and minored in German and sociology, and exploring these subjects made my heart sing. A few things I learned in class have directly helped me in my software-development career, but otherwise, my studies have benefited my life and career only intangibly.

Surprisingly, my time working at the campus radio station gave me much better clues about life and career. I had fun doing my regular air shifts. I learned a lot about working as part of a team and taking care of my commitments to them. When I became station manager, I led an executive board and had responsibility for about 100 staff members. I also learned to deal with difficult people (primarily the chief engineer, who seemed always to look for reasons to clash with me) and still get the job done.

There were no tests and no grades; there was no end goal. We meant to stay on the air indefinitely. We aimed to deliver the best on-air work we could today, and do it a little better tomorrow.

What I didn’t see very well at the time was that this was a lot like real life. When you run out of things to graduate from, you need to set your own goals and live to make each day as good as it can be.

I’ve lived more than 8,700 days since I graduated college. There have been some great times and some really awful times as I’ve figured out what works for me and what doesn’t. I feel like I’ve got a pretty good handle on it now that I’m middle aged. With good health and good fortune, my sons will have many thousands of days after they graduate from college, too. I hope they figure this out faster than I did.

Did college prepare you for life? What prepared you best? Tell it in the comments, or write it on your own blog and link back here.

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Paul McCartney saved my life
while I was in college. Read that story.

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Stories Told

The Electric Breakfast

My great reward and motivation in blogging is that I hear from you in the comments. My new posts get more visits now than ever, but fewer comments now than just a year or two ago. I’ve noticed the same on other blogs I follow. I’ve even found myself commenting less often on the blogs I read. Maybe we’re all reading too many blogs and have less time for commenting. Or maybe we’re moving into a post-blog age. I don’t know. I reflected here in 2010 on the joy of the connection with you, drawing a parallel to my time in radio. I love telling my radio stories, so I’m running the post again, edited and updated.

In pro radio, jocks covet the morning spot because it has the biggest audience and therefore the most prestige and best pay. But at WMHD, my college’s radio station, we figured that our biggest audience tuned in weeknights after 6 p.m. when students settled in for a long night of homework. Sometimes I’d walk through the residence halls in the evening, counting dozens rooms from which I could hear our station. Or I’d visit the broadcast studio, where the phone rang off the hook with students calling to request their favorite music. These unscientific ratings methods supported our belief.

Me on the air, cueing a record

Knowing people were listening and engaged made the evening shows 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 a.m. 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.

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.

Our station’s hallmark was that each disk jockey got to play whatever he wanted. For the morning show, I chose mostly mellow acoustic music, the idea being that the show would gently ease listeners into the morning. It really stood out against the station’s normal 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 who lived in nearby Seelyville who 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. If this post is typical, it will find 15 or 20 views in its first few days. Thanks to the Internet’s long tail, it might find another 50 readers in the next year. (My old-camera posts are the exception; some of those get over a thousand views a 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 did pro radio for a few years in the 90s.
Here’s why radio wouldn’t be fun for me today.

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Stories Told

On the small screen

It’s Down the Road’s fifth blogiversary!
All month I’m reposting favorite stories from the blog’s early days.

WSBT Eyewitness News

I debuted on TV in 1976, back when stay-at-home moms were still called homemakers. There were enough of them then that locally produced homemaker shows aired in the morning on TV stations across the country. My hometown of South Bend was no exception, and WSBT-TV aired its homemaker show, The Dorothy Frisk Show, live each weekday right after Captain Kangaroo. The cloying strains of its theme music made my brother and I lunge at the TV to change the channel. We found The Dorothy Frisk Show considerably less exciting than staring at the wall and seriously less pleasant than eating Mom’s liver and onions. Dorothy shared cooking tips, interviewed local notables, showed pictures of the new babies in town, and invited musical guests in to entertain the women at home.

My elementary school’s choir was asked to sing Christmas carols on Dorothy’s show one day that December, and another fellow and I were chosen to sing Good King Wenceslaus as a duetI remember that the news set was in the same studio as Dorothy’s show. It seemed vast on TV, but in real life it was incredibly small. I wondered how the anchors kept from getting in each others’ way!

We assembled on our risers, the bright lights upon us. My buddy and I stepped forward for our duet. We wore simple costumes and mine included a brown cap that slid off my head just after we started singing. I kept my cool on the outside, but inside I was almost panicking. But then I felt the cap brush my left hand on the way down. I grasped it, gently placed it back on my head, and kept singing as if this were part of the act. I watched my partner’s eyes grow wide when he saw it, but he kept singing, too. Even the choir director remarked about it in amazement afterward. My mom, who was along on the trip, was just proud of her son. I don’t know anyone who actually saw me on TV that day!

Gary Jackson on Action 10 News

I didn’t get to use any more of my 15 minutes of television fame until I was in college. I was General Manager of WMHD, the campus radio station. A reporter at WTHI-TV in Terre Haute liked listening to us and wanted to showcase us. She and her photographer came out one afternoon and spent most of their time shooting gripping scenes around the station, such as of records spinning on turntables and disk jockeys positioning the microphone. Then she interviewed me. I thought it was odd that she crouched on the floor, had me sit on the desk, and had the photographer shoot while he stood, but hey, she was the TV professional. I looked down at the reporter as we talked about the station’s eclectic music, from bluegrass to Christian rock to death metal, all selected by the station’s disc jockeys. I had been fairly serious during the interview but at the end I tried to lighten the mood by saying, jokingly, that we liked to “inflict our music on Terre Haute.” Everybody in the room thought it was funny.

When the interview aired, the bad camera angle made it look like my eyes were closed. I also learned a very valuable lesson that day: Don’t say anything in front of a TV camera that you wouldn’t want taken out of context. The way they edited the interview made it sound like we looked down on our college town and enjoyed making our station hard to listen to! The story came last in the newscast, and when it ended, anchors Gary Jackson and Marla Keller were both laughing about it. Gary wouldn’t let go of it, making several cracks as the closing theme ran and they faded to black.

There used to be a huge billboard on the edge of campus with Gary and Marla on it, confidently smiling down on US 40. Whenever I drove by it, I thought about climbing up there and painting their eyes closed!

Originally posted 7/27/2007. Read the original here.

I used to do the morning show on that college radio station.
I had a ball. Read about it and hear me on the air.

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