Bad Company

The other day I was on the road, surfing the radio dial looking for music, when I stumbled upon an AM station playing “Bad Company” by Bad Company. When I dial-surf, it’s always on AM first, because AM oldies stations are great. AM classic rock is highly unusual, so I stopped to listen.

“Bad Company” got over, and the station went immediately—without any kind of station identifier at all—into a 60-second health feature that was completely unintelligible. Not because the audio quality was poor, but because it made no damn sense. Something about vegetable smoothies, I think, but it was so full of jargon and buzzwords it might as well have been in Urdu. Then, with no identifier at all, it was back to music, “Girl Can’t Help It” by Journey. After that, again, no identifier, and not even a back-announce. The jock just started talking.

Nothing makes me crazier than radio stations that roll straight from a song into a commercial, thus forfeiting a chance to tell the listener who they are. Just as bad is when a jock opens the mike and the first thing out of his/her mouth isn’t the call letters or some other station identifier. The jock on this station went straight from music into a bit about a new study that catalogs the behavior of known liars to create a list of tells people can use to determine a speaker’s truthfulness in real time.

Satellite and syndicated jocks do this kind of bit because they can’t do anything local, and local jocks do it when they have nothing better to talk about. (Which one this guy was, I couldn’t tell.) I can even see myself doing it—but only as a quick 20-second bit and ending with a joke, like “Now I’ll be able to tell if [other jock on the staff] really intends to pay back the $20 he owes me.” But that’s not what this guy did. After explaining the study, he proceeded to run down the entire list of tells. The bit took at least two minutes, maybe longer, and for the last minute of it, I was quite literally yelling at my radio, “Dude, shut up, you’re going way too long.” Finally, the bit ended and the station went into a commercial break, coming out of it with an identifier—at long last.

But the next song was “Upside Down” by Diana Ross. So not a classic-rock station, then.

Never mind the interminable jock bit. What sort of radio station plays classic-rock album cuts and disco records in the same quarter-hour? I had arrived at my destination and didn’t listen past “Upside Down,” but I wouldn’t be surprised if they followed it with Johnny Mathis doing “Chances Are.”

I’m not going to identify the station by name; I’ll say only that it’s a mom-and-pop operation located in small-town Wisconsin. And as mom-and-pops have tried to be since the dawn of time, I suspect they want to be all things to all people in their coverage area, capturing people who like Bad Company and people who like Diana Ross.

Could I be wrong? Sure. Could this have been one really bad jock doing whatever he wanted on a Saturday morning? Sure. But I’ve spent a lifetime in and around the radio biz, so I kinda think not.

Geezers such as I, people who are sometimes gobsmacked by the evolution of the medium in 40 years, are kidding ourselves when we think that growth and change have happened equally, everywhere. But the fact is, there are small-town radio stations all over the country that are programmed the same way they were a generation ago, even though they may be using digital automation and voicetracking. Despite the slivering of the audience into demographic slices that have turned catch-all variety formats into catch-none, despite the ever-decreasing time-spent-listening numbers that have made any bit over 30 seconds problematical (the average listener today may be with you for only eight or nine minutes), there are stations that happily trundle on like it was still 1974. They’re playing music that will appeal (they think) to grandmothers and their grandchildren alike. Their ad copy still tells you to visit blank for all of your blanking needs, and to enjoy top-quality service from people you know and trust. And their jocks are still doing two-minute feature bits pulled straight from the AP wire.

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6 responses

  1. This is not surprising to me b/c, in these same towns, there are newspapers that conduct themselves much as they did in 1974 if not long before — running the cop logs and school lunch menus in full detail, writing stories with 45-word ledes, and ignoring the world beyond town lines unless a townie happens to stumble out into it and win an award.
    (I am forever comparing your industry with my old one, perhaps wrongly.)

    That said, the ultra-local weekly papers do provide something that big papers don’t. I have no idea what an ultra-local radio station provides to keep itself afloat.
    High school football games?

    1. The most successful local stations are hyper-local: local news, local sports, local talk, local jocks. Give up the fantasy that people in your town are listening to you for music, because they probably aren’t. When I was programming in Clinton, Iowa, we didn’t try to “out-music” the big sticks from the bigger cities that could be heard in our market. Our music formats were pretty bland: AC on the FM, 50s/60s/70s nostalgia on the AM. Both were likely to have relatively broad appeal to the people who wanted the local programming only we could provide.

      Our competition took the all-things-to-all-people approach, which led them to segue Bruce Springsteen into Glenn Miller on one memorable day.

  2. in my mind I’m a frustrated consultant, yelling at the radio when their ad copy sucks and especially at the morning guy (co-host of the top-rated AM in our city) who constantly steps on perfect set ups the host does and has a horrible habit of going “Uuhhhhh” whenever he can’t think of what to say (which is frequent).

  3. I’ve never worked in Wisconsin, but I sure have worked at this station…

  4. Yup. As it was in the beginning, is, and ever shall be. All things to all people. In the early 70’s at my very first commercial radio job, the owner(s) brought in a man who was successful at selling newspaper advertising to the be radio station’s GM. He declared a new format: a record from the 50’s, followed by a record from the 60’s, followed by a “soft contemporary song from like the Carpenters or something not to rock-y”. Repeat the rotation. This way, he said, we would be able to appeal to people of all ages. I may not have known everything about radio programming then, but I knew enough to secure my next gig immediately. The “40’s-50’s-60’s-70’s” station? Went bust and was sold several months later. The owner(s) blamed on the inability of the sales people to sell the product effectively.

  5. […] —Every one of us, whether we work in radio or not, was once a starry-eyed beginner on our first day. Later, some of us become victims of job burnout. And some of us get fired. Those who are still working in radio need to to answer the following question: “What am I doing on the air every day that nobody else can do?” And every small-town radio station needs to ask itself, “Why are we doing the same stuff today we did in 1974?” […]

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