Stories Told

Playing by radio’s rules

I love this story, which I’ve published twice before (2008 and 2013).

What’s the most embarrassed or humiliated you’ve ever been?

I used to think it was the day a female friend of mine cried out as we parted in a crowd, “But Jim! You can’t leave! What about the baby?”

But that doesn’t come close to the time I was laid low on the public airwaves.

MeOnWZZQ

On the air, WZZQ Terre Haute, 1994

I was in my early 20s, working part time on the air for Terre Haute’s rock radio station. We were proud to be number two in the market in a part of the world where country music was king. The country station commanded a third of the audience by just showing up. We, on the other hand, worked our butts off to stay in second place. We were successful enough that our full-time DJs were all minor local celebrities.

To stay visible we did lots of events. Terre Haute being a blue-collar and college town we wound up a a lot of bars, the kind that serve watery beer in red plastic cups. We’d promote some band that was playing and we DJs would turn out wearing station swag.

Because I wore my staff shirt, people acted like I was their long lost buddy. It was kind of fun until too much beer had flowed, at which point some guy would start telling you at top volume how much your station really sucked because it didn’t play enough Ozzy, or some girl missing her front teeth would ask sweetly if you had a girlfriend. Even if she had all of her teeth, every DJ knows that Radio Rule #1 is don’t date your listeners. It never goes well.

One Saturday night at an event I sat down with the program director and the two DJs from the morning show, “Scott and Debbie in the Morning.” Now, a part-timer like me would not normally spend time with such lofty talent as the morning show, as Radio Rule #2 is part-timers are in the lowest caste, the sort of people the full-timers ignore.

But the program director liked me. “Jim, you are like gold,” he told me, “because you show up for all your shifts and you follow the format.” I said, “Wow, um, that bar’s pretty low. What does that say about the other part-timers?” He wouldn’t answer. But he usually invited me to hang out with him at these events, and when I did, the morning show had to give me the time of day.

A young woman was sharing our table that night. She was sixteen kinds of cute. Young and slender, doe eyed with long brown hair, so nicely built. She increasingly turned her attention to me, moving in closer, smiling big and looking away when I caught her gaze, and giggling a lot. By the time she had downed a couple more beers, her body language said she’d follow me anywhere I wanted to go. It was flattering. It was exciting.

Then she started to talk — of hating her fast-food job, of wanting to get on at the record-and-CD club that employed half the town because it would free up her nights and she could hit the bars with her friends more often, of her three small children from three different dads, and of how she had to call the cops on one ex the night before and how another ex was getting out of prison in a couple months. The look in her eye seemed to say, “Will you be baby daddy number four?” Images of paternity suits and paychecks garnisheed for child support began to fill my head.

sugardaddy2

What I must have looked like

Red alert! Evasive maneuvers! Fully grasping the wisdom of Radio Rule #1, I stared into my empty cup trying to find a way to exit with grace. Which I did, except for the with-grace part. “Wow, lookit the time, gotta go!”

Monday morning as I drove to my regular job, Scott and Debbie were talking about the Saturday-night event, what a great time it was, and all the DJs who were there. They wouldn’t normally mention lowly part-timers, because let’s face it, listeners don’t remember their names. But then Debbie said, “And did you believe Jim Grey, who works weekends here? This super cute chick was coming on to him, she was so hot! I wanted to tell them to get a room! And then he just sat there! He didn’t do anything! He could have done anything he wanted with her that night, but he wouldn’t even look at her! You have to wonder if he likes girls!

My stomach knotted and I saw red. She had just made me look like a geek with no social skills in front of every listener in a 50-mile radius! And this was the kind of screw that no matter which way you turned it, it went further in. I would just have to suck it up. Of course, I barely made it past the front door at work before someone said, with a big question-mark look on their face, “I heard about you on the radio this morning! What was that all about?” Two more people asked about it before I made it to my cube — where I hid out the rest of the day under headphones so I could pretend not to notice people who came by.

That’s how I learned a corollary to Radio Rule #2: uppity part-timers will be put in their place!

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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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Stories Told

In a heck of a spot

A classic from 2010.

1976. The towheaded kid grew up to write copy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Stories Told

Playing by radio’s rules

I’ve found that after I write a story from my life here, I tend to retell the story in person in much the same way – to the story’s benefit, as writing it makes me work out its structure. I told this story in a gathering not long ago, which reminded me that I wrote it long before most of you found this blog. It’s one of my favorites.

What’s the most embarrassed or humiliated you’ve ever been?

I used to think it was the day a female friend of mine cried out as we parted in a crowd, “But Jim! You can’t leave! What about the baby?” She got hers some time later when she tried this bit on another friend. Without missing a beat, he yelled back, “How do you know it’s mine?”

But that doesn’t come close to the time I was laid low on the public airwaves.

WZZQ 1993

Me on the air

Terre Haute is a blue-collar and college town. So when the radio station where I worked held an event, it was always at a bar, the kind that serves thin, fizzy beer in plastic cups. We’d promote some band that was playing and the DJs would turn out wearing station swag. Now, when you’re wearing a T-shirt with the station logo emblazoned across your chest big enough that passing satellites could see it, you get attention. People would act like I was their long lost buddy. It was kind of fun until too much beer had flowed, at which point some guy would start telling you at top volume how much your station really sucked because it didn’t play enough Ozzy, or some girl missing her front teeth would ask if you had a girlfriend. Even if she had all of her teeth, every DJ knows that Radio Rule #1 is don’t date your listeners. It never goes well.

So at one Saturday night event I sat down at a table with the program director and the two DJs from the morning show, “Scott and Debbie in the Morning.” Now, a part-timer like me would not normally spend time with such lofty talent as the morning show, as Radio Rule #2 is part-timers are in the lowest caste, the sort of people the full-timers ignore. But the program director liked me. “Jim, you are like gold,” he told me, “because you show up for all your shifts and you follow the format.” I said, “Wow, um, that bar’s pretty low. What does that say about the other part-timers?” He wouldn’t answer. Anyway, he usually invited me to hang out with him at these events, and when I did, the morning show had to give me the time of day.

A young woman, probably a listener, was sharing the table that night. She was sixteen kinds of cute – young and small and slender with big, deep brown eyes and long chestnut hair and wow was she ever nicely made. She increasingly turned her attention to me, moving in closer, smiling big and looking away when I caught her gaze, and giggling a lot. By the time she had downed a couple more beers, her body language said she’d follow me anywhere I wanted to go.

What I must look like

What I must have looked like

But then she started to talk – of hating her fast-food job, of wanting to get on at the record-and-CD club that employed half the town because it would free up her nights and she could hit the bars with her friends more often, of her three small children from three different dads, and of how she had to call the cops on one ex the night before and how another ex was getting out of prison in a couple months. The look in her eye seemed to say, “Will you be baby daddy number four?” Images of paternity suits and paychecks garnisheed for child support began to fill my head. Red alert! Evasive maneuvers! Fully grasping the wisdom of Radio Rule #1, I stared into my empty plastic beer cup, looking for a way to gracefully exit. Which I did, except for the gracefully part. “Wow, lookit the time, gotta go!”

Monday morning as I drove to my regular job, Scott and Debbie were talking about the Saturday-night event, what a great time it was, and all the DJs who were there. Normally they wouldn’t talk about the part-timers because, let’s face it, listeners don’t remember their names. Do you remember who the DJ is on Sunday afternoons on your favorite station? Right. But then Debbie said, “And did you believe Jim Grey, who works weekends here? This super cute chick was coming on to him, she was so hot! I wanted to tell them to get a room! And then he just sat there! He didn’t do anything! He could have done anything he wanted with her that night, but he wouldn’t even look at her! You have to wonder if he likes girls!

My stomach knotted and I saw red. She had just made me look like a geek with no social skills in front of every listener in a 50-mile radius! And this was the kind of screw that no matter which way you turned it, it went further in. I would just have to suck it up. Of course, I barely made it past the front door at work before someone said, with a big question-mark look on their face, “I heard about you on the radio this morning! What was that all about?” Two more people asked about it before I made it to my cube – where I hid out the rest of the day under headphones so I could pretend not to notice people who came by.

And so I learned a corollary to Radio Rule #2: uppity part-timers will be put in their place!

readmore2

A recording of me on the air is here.
This story tells why I wouldn’t enjoy radio anymore.

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Stories Told

Four hours reduced to nine minutes

My buddy and former radio co-worker John has been going through the tapes he recorded of his shows, making videos of them with photos from the stations he worked and posting them on Facebook. It inspired me to do one of my own. The aircheck in this video is from Sunday, June 24, 1994. I was about two months away from leaving Terre Haute and radio forever. I was all of 26 years old, and I was at the top of my game. I found a couple photos taken of me while I was on the air and added one I took of the logo from a station jacket I still have, and stitched them together with the audio in Windows Movie Maker.

A few things you’ll hear:

  • Me talking, but only the beginnings and ends of songs. This is called a “telescoped aircheck” in the radio business. A tape deck in the studio was set to automatically record the station’s output whenever the microphone was turned on. After my shift, I’d listen to my aircheck and look for ways to improve. My boss would sometimes listen too, and give me pointers.
  • Me tripping over my tongue a couple times. D’oh!
  • Me giving the legal ID as “WZZQ WBFX Terre Haute.” WZZQ simulcasted on WBFX, an AM station at 1230, in those days. I started my pro radio career on that AM station when it was WBOW and had its own programming.
  • Me talking about how some bands were starting to offer some of their songs for download on the Internet. Yes kiddies, this was brand new in 1994. iTunes was still years away.

If you dug this and are just dying to hear more, hightail it to this post where you can hear me on all the stations for which I ever worked.

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Stories Told

In a heck of a spot

1976. The towheaded kid grew up to write copy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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