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

Playing by radio’s rules

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.

On the air

I was once a part-time DJ at Terre Haute’s only rock radio station, the number two station in town. Being number two may not sound like a big deal, but we were in that part of Indiana where country is king. The local country station commanded a third of the audience without even trying. We, on the other hand, worked our butts off to be second, and as I recall it was by a comfortable margin. People in town knew who we were. The full-time jocks were all minor local celebrities.

Since Terre Haute is a blue-collar and college town, we did lots of events at bars, the kind that serve pisswater 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 staff shirt with the station logo across your chest big enough to be seen by passing satellites, 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 slender with big eyes and long 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 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. They talked about the full-timers, anyway. Part-timers don’t normally get mentioned, 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!

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