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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Stories Told

The Electric Breakfast

In my work life, the things I do are measured by return on investment. I suppose the same can be said about my personal life, although sometimes the return is in personal satisfaction. Such was the case when I was a student at Rose-Hulman, where I was the morning show host on the campus radio station, WMHD. Such is also the case on this blog.

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, we figured that our biggest audience tuned in weeknights after 6 p.m., when students settled in to do the prodigious amounts of homework the professors had assigned us. I routinely did homework for six hours each night; my experience was typical. Sometimes I’d take a break and walk through the residence halls, counting dozens rooms from which I could hear our station. Or I’d visit the broadcast studio, where phone rang off the hook with students calling to request their favorite music. These unscientific ratings methods supported our belief.

Knowing people were listening and engaged made the evening shows fun, and most of our jocks wanted them. They filled fast with our best jocks. 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. – again, what college student wants to get up early? Well, I did. 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, much of it from 1970s singer-songwriters, the idea being that the show would gently ease listeners into the morning. It really stood out against the station’s normal alternative rock and heavy metal programming.

I figure that most mornings I had just 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.

Once in a while, the phone would ring. It was always 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 enjoyed what he had heard.

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

I am so glad I recorded a few Electric Breakfasts. This is an “unscoped aircheck,” as they say in the biz, of the first 45 minutes (one side of a 90-minute cassette!) 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 more readers in the next year. Given that this post has taken me three hours so far to write, that’s a lot of my time for a fairly meager response!

(There are exceptions. To my unending surprise, my posts about my vintage cameras get the most traffic. Posts about my Kodak Junior Six-16 and my Minolta Hi-Matic 7 are the most popular, with dozens of views each month.)

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’ve written about my radio experiences before – how I got started, how I was humiliated live on the air, and why radio wouldn’t be fun for me today.

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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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