(A typical studio shot from the 1970s, with those great old ITC cart machines on the right.)
We will call him Todd, because that is not his real name. Todd wanted to be a sportscaster more than anything else in the world. So when he got to college, he got on the sports staff of the campus radio station. His first assignment was to produce and deliver the Friday night sports roundup, which aired at about 10:30. This was not a particularly desirable assignment—most people wanted to be out partying on Friday night, not organizing wire copy or gathering scores. But because Todd wanted to be a sportscaster more than anything else in the world, he eagerly took the assignment.
Elsewhere in town, a bunch of Todd’s fellow broadcasters were at somebody’s apartment engaging in the usual beer-soaked Friday night ruckus and listening to the station with one ear. But when Todd started his sportscast, everyone snapped to full attention, for Todd was the worst-sounding broadcaster they had ever heard. He spoke with a strange inflection, he slurred words, and those he didn’t slur, he read too fast. The 10-minute sportscast seemed to last an eternity. The station’s sports director was embarrassed; the program director was livid. (Livid was his default setting a lot of the time.)
Over the ensuing weeks, people at the station worked with Todd, trying to get him to sound better. His reading improved, but the speech impediment that led to the inflection and the slurring wasn’t fixable. It became necessary to take Todd aside and tell him that he had no future speaking into a microphone. He could still work in radio or TV in some off-air role, but he wasn’t going to be a sportscaster.
Although we realized (as much as callow 20-year-olds can realize such things) that we were stomping on Todd’s dream, we also believed telling him the truth about his limitations was a kindness. There was no sense in the guy wasting his education trying to become an on-air personality or reporter. He didn’t have the voice for it.
Not everybody has the well-rounded, mellifluous tones of the professional announcer anymore. Today, on-air people are encouraged to talk, rather than to “announce,” and that leaves more room for deliveries that sound like regular people—so much room, in fact, that few people are ever told “you don’t have the voice for it” anymore.
But some people don’t.
Sales reps write a great deal of the copy you hear on your local station—and it’s a short leap from writing the copy to deciding you’ll deliver it, too. Some sales reps have good voices and know how to read copy, but others do not. Sometimes clients want to voice their own ads, and like sales reps, some sound good doing it and some do not. But since the sales rep and the client are the ultimate arbiters of whether an ad is acceptable, there’s nobody to tell them if it doesn’t sound good—when the delivery is poor or when the script is lousy (which is a topic for another time).
And it’s not just commercial voiceovers. I once worked at a station that hired a reporter fresh out of college who still sounded like a 14-year-old girl. As far as I know, nobody ever coached her to moderate her chirpy teenage voice, and the station’s credibility suffered every time she was on the air. You’ll sometimes hear DJs who sound too young, or who don’t speak clearly enough, or who don’t read well. Some of these problems can be ameliorated through coaching, but at a lot of stations, coaching runs the gamut from spotty to nonexistent. And without that coaching, lots of radio people are like high-wire walkers on a windy day—they’re going to fall off, but you don’t know when, or how big a splat they’re going to make.
Some people are simply unlucky, like Todd. Even with coaching, they have voices that just aren’t good enough. Not everybody on the radio needs to sound like Gary Owens or Alison Steele. But there are times when it would be better for everybody—stations, clients, prospective DJs, and listeners—if somebody would stand up and say “you don’t have the voice for it.”
Longtime Dallas radio personality Terry Dorsey died this past weekend. I remember him for a quiz called “Canadian or Dead?”, in which listeners had to guess whether a particular person Dorsey named was one or the other. But Dorsey and a partner, T. J. Donnelly, also created a syndicated feature called Hiney Wine—which might end up being the thing for which Dorsey is best remembered, at least outside of Dallas.
Hiney Wine was a series of fake commercials for a winery run by two brothers, Big Red Hiney and Thor Hiney. (They had a sister named Ophelia, and other members of the “family” bore names that resulted in equally painful puns.) Dorsey and Donnelly sent you the scripts and you produced them locally, customizing them to your local area. They suggested that you locate the winery in some small town—so when we started running the feature on my station in Macomb, Illinois, we set it in “beautiful downtown Fandon,” an unincorporated community in rural McDonough County, 10 miles southwest of Macomb.
The genius of Hiney Wine was that it started innocuously and built slowly. The first spots in the series sounded plausibly like small-town radio commercials, but they got increasingly more absurd as time went on, featuring a seemingly bottomless well of wordplay: “Next time you go shopping, ask your grocer where he keeps his Hiney. The motto of the Hiney Winery says it all: “You only go around once in life, so grab for all the Hiney you can get”.
It couldn’t have taken more than a couple of weeks before the phone calls started coming in: “There’s no winery in Fandon.” We instructed the whole staff to play dumb. Sometimes, if I took a call and was feeling particularly salty that day, I’d tell people I was there the previous weekend. Dorsey and Donnelly had made provisions for the likelihood that people would figure out the winery wasn’t real: after a few months, we ran a series of scripts in which we described a great fire at the winery in Fandon and its resulting relocation to “beautiful downtown Vishnu Springs,” a ghost town few miles away. It was amazing how listener consternation redoubled.
This kind of thing was a lot easier to pull off in the days before Google.
The station would make money on the thing by selling adjacencies—spots that ran next to the Hiney Wine feature. But it wasn’t necessary to pay to get your name on one of the Hiney spots. The scripts were written to incorporate local landmarks and businesses, and I can still remember a sales rep coming to me violently angry because one spot mentioned one of her clients, the local hospital, and they were not happy being associated with alcohol in any form.
After you’d run the spots long enough, you could actually buy bottles of Hiney Wine and resell them to your listeners. (Fine print on the label said it was “de-alcoholized” wine.) I had my own souvenir bottle of Hiney. The Mrs. and I carried it along on our various moves for the next decade, finally trashing it (unopened) after we decided we’d kept it long enough.
I don’t remember how long we ran the Hiney campaign on the station in Macomb—maybe a year, maybe less. It was a remarkable bit of radio—funny to listeners who got the joke, and funny to us because so many listeners didn’t. You can read more about Hiney Wine here.
Terry Dorsey had retired just last December after 47 years in radio, and relocated to a farm . . . in Illinois. I haven’t been able to determine where, but I’d like to think it was out by Fandon.
A onetime radio staple that’s gone now is the homemaker show. In a midday time slot, a female host (occasionally with a male sidekick/producer/board operator) would conduct a program aimed at women: about cooking and sewing and crafting and gardening and child-rearing and whatever other subjects might plausibly interest the stay-at-home wives/mothers/grandmothers who made up the audience. Such programs were born in the earliest days of radio and thrived from the 50s through the 70s. They became less important as more women began working outside the home, and by now I’m guessing you’d have a hard time finding one. But in their heyday, such programs were a very big deal. This 1954 radio ad for the Neighbor Lady show on WNAX in Yankton, South Dakota, is a good indication of the power such a show could have, especially on a station with a big signal. (There were similar shows on TV as well.)
When I got to KDTH in Dubuque in 1979, its homemaker show, Cracker Barrel, was hosted by Betty Thomas. Betty, who died in 2013, is a member of the Iowa Broadcasters Association Hall of Fame. She started in radio helping her broadcaster husband, who was going blind, by operating his control board and reading copy into his ear, which he would repeat on the air. In 1966, she took over Cracker Barrel, and would host it for nearly 30 years.
During my time at KDTH, the show was an empire. The phone lines would fill up every morning with listeners who had questions, comments, recipes to share, or advice to give, and the show had a massive mailing list that waited for Betty’s regular newsletter. Cracker Barrel was interactive media before interactive media was cool. When Betty read a recipe, she carefully paused after each ingredient or instruction, and it was easy to visualize dozens or hundreds of pencils scratching down each step. Certain recipes were perennials, and she’d feature them year after year. Sometimes she’d have guests in the studio, but most often it was just Betty, talking about topics she knew her audience would find interesting. The show, crowded with commercials, made a ton of money. Next to Gordon Kilgore, the veteran newscaster I’ve written about before, Betty was the station’s most recognizable personality.
Last year I introduced you to George Lipper, the general manager of KDTH when I worked there, who later hired me to work at stations he bought in Macomb, Illinois. George wanted to turn the AM station into a KDTH-style full-service station, and one of the elements he wanted to replicate was Cracker Barrel. I was skeptical about whether such a thing could be created from scratch in the middle of the 1980s, but George was resolved to try. I wasn’t involved much in the planning of the show or the hiring of the host. Somehow, the station found Debbie, thirtysomething, with a home-economics degree, fairly articulate and not frightened off by the entire concept. And sometime in 1985, we put the show on the air.
Here’s the thing about talk radio: if nobody calls, you, the host, have to keep talking regardless, make it interesting, and entice people to join the conversation. And in the early days of what we also called Cracker Barrel, nobody called. The first shows were brutal, but over a period of weeks, the show got a little better once people discovered it. But we noticed something about Debbie after a while. She was oddly reluctant to offer her opinions on much of anything. She was happy to read recipes and other source materials, but if she had trouble simply conversing with the callers, even on the most innocuous of subjects. She would hem and haw and ultimately say very little. We finally figured out it was because her husband listened to the show every day and critiqued it every night, and the net effect was that no matter what we told her at the office, she became afraid to express herself for fear of getting a bad review at home.
I may have been the sidekick/producer/board operator in those early days, but I don’t think it was a regular gig for me; at 30 years’ distance, I simply can’t remember anymore. And I can’t recall how long the show lasted; I’m fairly sure it was no more than a few months. Our rebooted Cracker Barrel was an anachronism in 1985, as I suspected it might be. Every now and then the green radio man I was back then turned out to be right.
(Pictured: the space shuttle Challenger peers through the fog as it awaits launch.)
January 23, 1986, is a Thursday. In men’s college basketball, Minnesota beats Wisconsin 67-65 in Madison. Tomorrow, three Minnesota players will be arrested for sexually assaulting an 18-year-old woman at a hotel after the game. Minnesota will forfeit its scheduled game against Northwestern on Sunday, and coach Jim Dutcher will resign over the incident. Scientists examining photos of Uranus taken by the Voyager II spacecraft discover a new moon orbiting the planet, which will be named Bianca. The launch of the space shuttle Challenger is postponed for a second straight day. It will be postponed three more times before being launched on
Monday, Tuesday, when it will explode 73 seconds into its flight, killing the crew. The New York Times reports that claims by Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos that he was a guerrilla resistance leader during the World War II Japanese occupation of the Philippines are false. The federal government reported yesterday that the economy grew in 1985 at the slowest rate since the recession year of 1982. In Gainesville, Florida, police dog Gero is killed in the line of duty while attempting to apprehend an armed robbery suspect. In today’s Calvin and Hobbes, Calvin tries a new plan to get out of going to school.
In Los Angeles, Luther Vandross has been charged with vehicular manslaughter and reckless driving after a crash earlier this month that killed one person and injured four others. In December, he will plead no contest and get probation. The first class is inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, James Brown, Jerry Lee Lewis, Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, the Everly Brothers, Little Richard, Alan Freed, Sam Phillips, Jimmie Rodgers, Jimmy Yancey, Robert Johnson, and John Hammond. The Beatles are ineligible because by rule, inductees must be at least 25 years removed from their first hit record. Three days before the Super Bowl, the opposing quarterbacks, Jim McMahon of the Chicago Bears and Tony Eason of the New England Patriots, appear on the Today Show along with NFL wives and NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle. On TV tonight, ABC airs the movie Grease 2 and 20/20; NBC’s lineup includes The Cosby Show, Family Ties, Cheers, Night Court, and Hill Street Blues; CBS airs Magnum P. I., Simon and Simon, and Knots Landing.
AC/DC plays Edinburgh, Scotland, and Hot Tuna plays Boston. Motley Crue plays Essen, Germany, and KISS plays St. Louis. Aerosmith plays Reno, Nevada, and Stevie Ray Vaughan plays Utica, New York. At WKTI in Milwaukee, the station’s new music survey comes out tomorrow. “Burning Heart” by Survivor leaps to #1, displacing “Goodbye” by Night Ranger. The biggest mover in the Top 10 is “How Will I Know” by Whitney Houston, moving from #7 to #2. New in the Top 10 are “When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Going” by Billy Ocean at #8 and “Kyrie” by Mr. Mister at #9. The biggest mover within the station’s Top 30 is “These Dreams” by Heart (#26 to #19). Also moving up big are “Life in a Northern Town” by Dream Academy (to #12 from #18) and “Nikita” by Elton John (to #23 from #29). The highest debuting new song of the week is “The Sweetest Taboo” by Sade at #26.
Perspective From the Present: In January 1986, I had just begun doing the morning show on WKAI. I pushed the buttons on a 90-minute farm and news block from 5:30 to 7AM, then did what was intended to be a wacky morning show from 7 to 10. As I have noted before, my partner and I weren’t being coached by anybody, and whatever entertaining stuff we came up with was mostly by accident. My working day was usually over between 12:30 and 1:00. The Mrs. was selling advertising for a regional magazine, so I’d get home in the afternoon to a quiet house and usually take a nap. Because I was program director, I was on call 24/7, so my naps were frequently interrupted. In January, I would have still put up with those interruptions. It wasn’t until spring that I started taking my phone off the hook. In later years I’ve realized that my career was never the same after that. I was never again as obsessed with radio as I had been until then.
Last Sunday, as we drove home from out of town, we listened to the Packer game on the radio. One of the stations we tuned in was located in a very small town.
As we listened, I was struck by how little the sound of small-market radio production has changed since I was doing it 20 or even 30 years ago. The quality of the ads still varies wildly. Some announcers sound really good, but some have what I call the “small-market lilt.” The lilt is hard to define—it’s a vocal timbre, and/or way of speaking, and/or style of reading copy that sounds less than entirely professional. Sometimes people have it because they can’t help themselves; it’s the way they talk. And sometimes people have it because they haven’t been coached. Sketchy or nonexistent coaching of air talent is extremely common at small-market stations. There’s either nobody with time to do it—which was the problem I had when I was a program director—or nobody who is qualified to do it. As a result, bad habits learned early in a broadcaster’s career become lifelong traits.
Small-market commercial production suffers from another problem it’s had for years—the quality of the scripts. Radio consultant Dan O’Day says that the first job of every commercial is to identify a problem the listener has and then solve it, but even large-market and ad agency scripts don’t always do this. It occurred to me during the Packers broadcast that the ads I was hearing on that little station were like billboards: they told who the advertisers were and what they did, but that was about it. They didn’t offer to solve a problem.
Except for meeting my “needs,” of course. Identifying a listener’s need (as distinct from a problem) is a valid approach to scripting an ad, and nearly every spot I heard over the hour or so we listened included the word “needs” in some form. But those needs were to be met only in the most general sense—your automotive needs, grocery needs, floral needs, farm-equipment needs—as opposed to a specific need and solution, such as “your car needs an oil change every 3,000 miles, so bring it to So-And-So Auto Repair for your next change and get a special price.” It’s not just this one station, either. Small-market advertisers everywhere love to meet your needs, and small-market radio stations love to tell you so, even though nobody talks that way in the real world: “Gosh, Bob, for all my carpet-cleaning needs, I rely on So-And-So Incorporated.” (A friend of mine remembers with equal parts amusement and horror the time he was handed a script that included the phrase “for all your grave-blanket needs.”)
Sometimes you’ll hear about needs in an expanded form that adds additional horseshit: “Make ___ your headquarters for all your ____ needs,” which is a giant blinking red light and siren warning of lazy hackwork. Such a phrase even shows a certain contempt for the listener—that you think your audience is so stupid that they’ll be persuaded to act on the basis of such weak sauce when you know you wouldn’t be. No radio station or client should accept it, but many do, again because there’s either nobody with time to critique ad copy, nobody who feels qualified to do it, or there’s nobody who cares.
It’s not always the broadcasters’ fault that this stuff gets on the air, though. Many advertisers have heard “needs” and “headquarters” and related ad clichés so often that they’re comfortable with them. They think radio ads are supposed to sound like that, and they’re happy to pay for ads that do. I once worked on an ad for a client who had never done radio before—creative copy, character voices, sound effects—but he kept sending it back for revisions. He was unable to articulate precisely what he didn’t like about it, and the sales rep was unable to pin him down. Exasperated after several rounds of this, I wrote a 60-second dry read (no music) containing every advertising cliché I could think of, starting with “Make ___ your headquarters for all your ___ needs.”
You can guess where this is going.
The client pronounced it the best radio ad he’d ever heard.
(Another broadcast engineer story.)
I have mentioned here a time or two the general manager/chief engineer of the stations in Macomb, Illinois, when I was there in the mid 80s. Bob Wille (pronounced “willie”) was a very nice man, as devoted to his stations and his community as any broadcaster I’ve ever known—and a bit of a mad scientist. If there was something he felt he needed that did not exist, he’d invent it.
My favorite example was his time-and-temperature machine. Back in the day, many automated radio stations had a function that would periodically announce the time. It involved two giant tape cartridges, one with the even time numbers (2:22, 2:24, and so on) and one with the odd ones (2:21, 2:23, etc.). Every now and then you’d program it to play between a couple of other elements, thereby telling your listeners what time it was. For his automated FM station, Bob rigged up a secondary gizmo that would also announce the temperature. He put a special cartridge machine in the AM studio and recorded up a bunch of carts announcing temperatures, from 10 below to 100 above. Because the AM studio was staffed for much of the day, it became the jock’s job to plug in the proper cart as the temperature fluctuated throughout the day, so that whenever the time cart played on the FM, it would be followed by the temperature. It sounded clunky on the air, but it was damned ingenious.
Thirty years ago, a lot of radio stations still created their program logs manually. Bob had written a computer program for ours, and if it was determined that we needed a particular function or a particular report, he would modify the program to create it. Modern broadcast scheduling software can do a lot, but for tech support, nothing compares to having the dude who wrote the thing on the payroll.
Another of Bob’s inventions was more prosaic. Tape decks have to be cleaned every now and then, usually with alcohol and Q-tips. You could buy special extra-long Q-tips that would reach into the depths of cart machines, depths unreachable by standard Q-tips, but the long ones were expensive. So Bob took a piece of wooden dowel and hollowed out one end of it so you could stick a regular Q-tip into it. We quickly nicknamed it the “Wille Wand,” and one slow day we produced an advertisement for it. It included a testimonial from a happy user who said, “I had oxide buildup on my tape machines, and I also suffered from impacted ear wax. But now that I have the amazing Wille Wand, all my heads are doing just fine.”
Because Bob was a natural tinkerer, he had an affinity for other natural tinkerers. (Game recognize game, as the kids say.) And that’s how he came to hire a 15-year-old assistant engineer. The kid was the son of a family friend, apparently. One story we heard was this: the family got a home computer, which in 1986 was an expensive, exotic purchase. In the wee hours one morning, the dad heard a noise downstairs, and went down to find the 15-year-old and a friend with the guts of the computer spread out around them on the living room floor. “We wanted to see how it worked,” the kid said—and after they put it back together, it worked just fine.
So Bob hired the kid, to my great skepticism. But I soon learned that he was really good at stuff. It was mostly routine maintenance—rewiring headphones, winding new carts, cleaning and adjusting tape machines and turntables—but they were jobs that Bob didn’t always have time for, so it was good to have somebody doing them, and doing them right.
The kid’s last name was Fess, and it wasn’t long before I started calling him “the Fabulous Fess,” because he was. And because I left the stations at the end of 1986, I never knew what became of him. So I googled around a little bit the other morning, and as best I can tell, he’s still living in central Illinois, in his mid 40s now—and he’s got at least one patent to his credit. Which does not surprise me at all.