George Carlin once described the stand-up comedian’s job as thinking up goofy shit, telling people what it is, and then going off to think up some more. I have modified that joke to describe what I do on the radio. I can’t speak to what it’s like to have a regular partner or a show with a cast; thinking up stuff is still the essence of the gig, but it’s a collaborative effort and a conversation. (Neither do I know anything about doing talk radio.) So when it’s just you in a studio, with a microphone and unseen thousands (hundreds? dozens?) out there in the beyond, the weight of the responsibility is great.
What makes you think you’re interesting enough to spend three or four hours each day knitting together a bunch of songs on the radio?
Many people aren’t interesting enough. They may have nice voices (although not necessarily), but they never really say anything that engages you. They’re just there, playing the songs, reading the promos, taking up space. People like this can have long careers, but they aren’t getting into anybody’s Hall of Fame.
At the other end of the spectrum are the people who are endlessly engaging. They’re the chosen few of the chosen few, the Hall of Famers, people who don’t sound like anybody else, the people aspiring jocks aspire to be.
In the middle are the talented craftsmen (men and women). They’re technically skilled (although technical radio skills matter less in a world of digital automation than they did in the days of turntables and tape cartridges); they know their audience well, and they are committed to bringing something to that audience every day that only they can bring—a particular interest, bit, or story, or a unique take on whatever people are talking about on any given day. Craftsmen, while they may not be among the unique talents of the age, sound like real people communicating one-to-one instead of disembodied voices yammering about nothing to nobody in particular.
I learned early on that I wasn’t talented enough to be a Hall of Famer, so being a solid craftsman and real person became my goal.
When I arrived at KDTH in 1979, there was a big sign in the studio at eye level reading “smile.” It was the first piece of professional advice I ever ignored. If your goal is to be a real person on the radio, you can’t do it if you’re always smiling. Not everything you say should be delivered with a smile. I was on the air the day Michael Jackson died, and the day the Boston Marathon was bombed, and I’ve done countless severe weather broadcasts. At those moments, speaking with a smile on my face would have been unconscionable. Some days you don’t just feel like smiling: your kid is sick or your car is in the shop or your boss got in your face just before the show. And that’s OK. If you can’t smile, don’t worry about it. Try not to be grim, though. Strive for geniality: be as pleasant as you can under the circumstances, but don’t fake something you don’t feel, or that isn’t appropriate.
One day, I hadn’t had enough sleep when I came to work. I was not especially willing or ready to do a show that day, but I didn’t have a choice. After about an hour, one of my colleagues came into the studio and said, “You sound crabby today—but you’re funny.” I got away with being less than 100 percent by the fact that on other days I’d been at 100 percent—that I’d established myself as a real person—and on this particular day I was going to be genially sardonic.
Sometimes real people have bad days, and that’s OK.
If you want to be either a craftsman or a Hall of Famer, as distinct from one of those jocks who’s just there, ask yourself this: “What am I doing on the air every day that nobody else can do?” The number of jocks, young and old, who can’t answer that, or who can answer it only in vague terms, is a scandal. Pro tip: “Just being myself” is not the answer. Lots of jocks, young and old, think it is, but it’s only the first and most obvious part of the answer. If you know exactly who you are, and you know the specific things you bring to the show every day, you’ll be way ahead of those who don’t.