(Pictured: country singer Cam. As I have said on the air several times, if you would like her to be your girlfriend, get in line.)
If you’re a radio DJ and you like a certain song, you can say so on the air. If you think it sucks, you keep that to yourself. It makes sense, of course—the theory is that every song a station plays could or should be someone’s favorite. You as an individual jock (and you as a radio station) shouldn’t tell them their taste is lousy.
Sometimes you can get away with something if you do it obliquely. I have played David Soul’s “Don’t Give Up on Us” in the spring and suggested it is appropriate for a season in which the sap is rising. I justify this by saying that even people who like “Don’t Give Up on Us” know it’s sappy, and that more people will find the wisecrack funny than offensive. I once back-announced a country song that recycled every cliché of the last five years—pickup truck, girl in a ball cap, liquor brand name-check, and no original idea in the whole three minutes—by saying, “That’s new . . . although it sounds strangely familiar.”
Given the fact that listeners of my radio stations read this blog (or they can, theoretically—I am not sure how many of them do), the same rules apply here. I can tell you which of the Billboard Top 50 adult contemporary hits of 2016 I like. Same for Country Aircheck‘s Top 70 of the year. If you want to know which ones I’d like to kill with fire, you’ll have to talk to me in a bar.
On the AC chart, the best of the Top 50 are the three singles by Adele: “Hello” (#4), “Send My Love to Your New Lover” (#12), and “When We Were Young” (#16). I really like “Ex’s and Oh’s” by Elle King (#6) because it strays a long way from the young-woman-shouting template that so many singers default to. Pink’s “Just Like Fire” (#9) is her best single in years. Bucking a couple of the last decade’s trends, it’s got some actual dynamics—soft parts and loud parts—plus the version we’re playing clocks in at a compact 2:57. The surprise of the year is probably “Adventure of a Lifetime” by Coldplay (#29), the most un-self-conscious (and best) record they’ve ever made. They finally stopped worrying about being tasteful and just got down.
(I’m not going to link to all of these, as they’re easy enough to find at YouTube.)
On the country chart, 2016 was a year in which bro-country (pickup truck, girl in a ball cap, liquor brand name-check) continued to wane, although it was also a year in which the most successful male acts continued to borrow more from Justin Timberlake and Bruno Mars than from the legacy artists of their own genre. The best of the year’s top 70 are still recognizable as country: “Stay a Little Longer” by the Brothers Osborne (#8), “Record Year” by Eric Church (at #19, a song that made nearly every respectable critic’s list of the best country songs of 2016), “Humble and Kind” by Tim McGraw (at #28, the lone single to appear on both the country and AC year-end charts), “My Church” by Maren Morris (#41, and my favorite record of the year, either AC or country, by a mile), and “Burning House” by Cam (#54, which also crossed over to AC but not enough to crack the year’s top 50).
A major difference between the AC and country charts is that the worst junk on the AC chart doesn’t make me feel embarrassed for the people who perform it. The worst records among country’s top 70 are all stupid in unique ways, but their performers share an obliviousness that’s remarkable. A couple of veteran acts commit to hideously bad songs like they were “Stand By Your Man” or “Ring of Fire,” while younger offenders may be too dumb or too beholden to a team of producers to know the difference, or making too much money to care.
I hadn’t been in radio long before realizing that at any given moment, whatever format I’m doing, I’m gonna find that one-third of the songs will be OK to good, one-third will be OK to not good, and one-third will leave little impression one way or the other. After nearly 40 years in the biz, those proportions still seem about right to me.
There’s a new jock starting at my radio station today—her first full-time job—not long out of college, enthusiastic and ambitious with a lot of potential, but still with a lot to learn. And so I have been thinking about my first days at my first full-time radio job. I got promoted from part-time to full-time at KDTH in Dubuque, Iowa, in February of 1982. Because of my part-time experience, I was somewhat familiar with how the place worked, but there was a certain learning curve all the same.
When I give career advice to college students, I remind them that they will be working closely with people who are not the same age as they are, possibly for the first time in their lives. Not everybody is going to have the same generational touchstones, value the same things, or understand the world the same way. Most important, those people are probably not going to perceive you the same way you perceive yourself. In jumping from part-time to full-time at the same place (no matter what the place), the culture shock is less because you will have met some of your colleagues already. But age difference is still something you need to recognize and adjust to.
When I started as a full-timer at KDTH, one of the biggest adjustments I had to make was to the number of people in the building. When you work nights and weekends, you often have the place to yourself. During the week, the halls bustle with salespeople, front-office people, creative-services people, engineers, clients, and other visitors. It took me a while to get used to that. Today, even though I’m used to the bustle, I still enjoy working on weekends or at night, because the building is quiet again.
When you’re a part-timer, you answer only to your program director, and you deal only with other jocks and listeners on the phone. As a full-timer, your constituency expands. You work with creative-services people and salespeople, and sometimes directly with advertising clients. Salespeople run the gamut. Some of them are thorough professionals who understand both their job and yours. Others understand theirs but don’t really get yours: “Look, I know this copy runs 28 seconds already, but I promised the client we’d put in the phone number twice. Can you cut it again? I have a meeting with him at 3:30.” (This inevitably happens when it’s 2:45 and you’re on the air at 3.) And some are clueless enough to make you wonder how they got hired in the first place. When you’re on your first job, negotiating the personalities in the sales department is daunting for a while.
There are a few people who work at a radio station but are not radio people. Their jobs involve the business end of the business—accountants, office managers, and the like. Sometimes they buy in, and they embrace the unconventional spirit that suffuses the best radio stations. Others never do. You’ll learn soon enough who’s in and who isn’t. Not buying in doesn’t automatically mean they’re bad people. It’s just that you’ll have to relate to them differently.
You’re under more pressure as a full-time jock, especially if you work in a rated market. You will be told what the ratings are. You will know how your daypart is doing. And if it’s not doing well, you will be expected to fix that. You will also have the pleasure of meeting with consultants who parachute in from out of town, critique your work, and then go back to where they came from. As a young jock, you will find these sessions to be extremely stressful. As you gain wisdom and experience, you will find these sessions to be extremely stressful.
My main memory of my first day at KDTH has nothing to do with what happened at the office. That night, my boss took me out for too many drinks, and afterward I spiraled unsteadily home, back to the furnished apartment I’d moved into the day before. On the way, I remembered that I needed to make a stop at the grocery store for critical supplies. I bought the following: an eight-pack of Coke in returnable bottles, a bottle opener, and a package of toilet paper. Which could be some sort of metaphor for the career that has followed on from that first day.
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.
I am reading John Irving’s latest novel Avenue of Mysteries this week. At one point, two of the characters disagree over the meaning of a line from Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory: “There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.”
“Well, of course the future begins in childhood—where else would it begin?” Juan Diego asked the Iowan. “But I think it’s bullshit to say there is one moment when the door to the future opens. Why can’t there be many moments? And is Greene saying there’s only one door? He says the door, like there’s only one.”
I am on Team Juan Diego in this, although I’d offer the following twist: if you believe the passage of time should equal the growth of wisdom, all the time we have lived through on the way to this day is a kind of childhood, leading to the adult we can claim to be on this day. And if that’s true, that “childhood” can have many moments and doors.
One of my doors opened in the summer of 1986, and the future came in. In that summer I made a decision, and I have been living with the consequences of it ever since. It may have been inevitable, but whether it was or it wasn’t, my future was affected by it, from that summer to this one.
During the first eight years of my career, from 1978 to 1986, radio was it for me. There was simply nothing else, no Plan B. I wanted to be on the air (and later, to be a program director) more than I would ever want anything else, ever. I clocked my time at the station every day, but I when I wasn’t there, I thought about it constantly. After I became a program director in 1984, I listened all the time. I was on 24-hour call for emergencies, and that was exactly what I had always wanted to be.
By 1986, in addition to being the PD, I was doing mornings, which seemed like necessary career evolution. I didn’t have a plan for my career beyond that, however. I didn’t have the goal of being in Market A by the age of 28 and larger Market B by the age of 31 or anything like that. I naively assumed that in the fullness of time, my talent would take me up the market ladder. And although I didn’t know it, that lack of a plan was building a door for me.
But the decision that made the door open involved something else. Some morning DJs are in bed every night by 7:30, but I didn’t want to live like that. So I went to bed at 9:30 or so, got up at 4:15, and started napping for an hour in the afternoon, sometime around 3:00. That way, I could be functional and pleasant when The Mrs. got home from work, and we could have our evenings together. But I had trained my staff to call me if they had questions or problems, any time of the day or night, and several times in those first months of 1986, my nap was annihilated by the telephone. So in the summer, I started taking the phone off the hook. My desire to live a halfway-normal home life had become more important to me than dealing with radio emergencies.
We don’t always see the doors as they open, and it can take us a while before we understand the future that’s been let in. Only much later did I realize how important that phone-off-the-hook decision was, because it marked the end of my youthful obsession with radio.
There’s nothing wrong with that. We age, we change. You can’t stay 26 years old forever. But once I lost that youthful obsession, my career was never the same. I would spend seven more years working full-time in radio stations, but the drive I needed to propel me toward new opportunities diminished. I settled for jobs I could get instead of going after the ones I should have had. And eventually, disappointed by the course my career had taken, I decided I didn’t want to do radio anymore—something that would have completely flummoxed the guy with no Plan B.
In the years since, I have been a writer, mostly, also a teacher, and a radio guy as a sideline. That future was let in through a door I didn’t know I was opening, 30 years ago this summer.
Veteran radio consultant Fred Jacobs has a blog that’s pretty good reading for those in the industry or interested in it. Last fall, he wrote about a member of the Detroit Tigers who’d been sent home by the team before the end of the season for “a lack of effort.” Jacobs used the incident to talk about effort as it relates to broadcasters. “If radio is your chosen profession, it’s your obligation to work your butt off,” he wrote. And also: “Who’s walking in the station every day, giving it the old 110% on good days and bad ones? Who’s a cancer in the building, fanning the flames of dissent and paranoia?”
There are people in every office—not just in radio stations—who are happy to be there, who find their jobs a continuing source of joy and fulfillment, who are energized simply by walking in the door. And there are people who are not—those who radiate negativity, by accident or by design.
There are degrees of negativity, and some are more harmful than others. No diverse group of individuals who gather to achieve a common purpose will ever operate in complete harmony; organizations with any degree of bureaucracy at all will occasionally get snagged in the machinery. It’s not just radio, it’s every workplace. Things happen, decisions get made, people act or react in particular ways that make you shake your head or grin ruefully—but then you go on about the day. Head-shaking and brief commiseration with your fellow sufferers is completely normal, and even therapeutic. It’s scarcely worth describing with the term “negativity.”
A more damaging type of negativity is the kind Jacobs mentions: a cancer in the building. This person might be a straight-up asshole who takes pleasure in messing with people, or who pits them them against each other to watch the fireworks. He or she might be somebody dissatisfied with colleagues or management, and who actively tries to bring others over to the dark side by “fanning the flames of dissent and paranoia.”
There is also a type of negativity somewhere in the middle—the burnout case, somebody who’s long past their expiration date. Somebody who’s unable to “give the old 110 percent,” either because they’ve made the decision not to, or they’re simply unable to.
I have been that person, who goes to work with no energy, sleepwalks through his off-air duties, ends his airshift happy if he hasn’t butchered more than a couple of breaks, goes home exhausted, and starts dreading the next day the moment he hits the couch. A person who can’t do the job his employer expects of him, or the job he expects of himself. A person who can’t give 110 percent—not even close.
I once got fired precisely because my employer recognized the person I had become. I also quit a job once because I recognized it in myself. The latter was not an easy thing to do, but I hope I earned some good karma by recognizing the fix I was in and getting out before it got worse . . . for everybody.
In a good radio station, Fred Jacobs says, “There are too many people working too hard and giving their all.” If you can’t be one of them, you shouldn’t be there.
(Pictured: “That guy on the radio sounds just dreamy.”)
In 2006, after nine years out of radio (apart from the occasional sports broadcast and voice-over gig), I took a part-time job with Mid-West Family Broadcasting in Madison—and 10 years ago this week, I went on their air for the first time.
I started at 93.1 The Lake, a deep-cuts classic rock station that encouraged us to talk about the music in detail, pretty much the perfect gig for a gasbag such as I. But the deep-cuts incarnation didn’t last long after I got there. Armed with research that said people perceived us as too cool for the room, a new program director tightened up the format and our presentation. It still sounded pretty good, though, right up to the day in 2008 when the company dumped the format.
By that time, I had begun doing weekend shifts on Magic 98. Even before I got there, I was sure I’d be a good fit for Magic, if only on its long-running Saturday at the 70s feature. My trajectory was from weekend guy to weekday fill-in, and eventually, to regular afternoon guy for five months in 2013. (I gave up that job for good and sensible reasons, although it still makes me sad today.) Magic has given me the opportunity to do a lot, on the air and off, and I get to work with some of the best people I’ve ever met.
In 2010, I started working on the company’s country station, Q106. I probably wouldn’t have pursued that gig had it not been an opportunity to work for John Sebastian, a bona-fide broadcasting legend who landed in Madison briefly after years of programming big stations in major markets. No program director ever did more to make me a better jock. Even with a different boss, working on Q continues to be a blast.
In 2012, I was asked to fill in as a news anchor on WTDY. Never mind that the only training I’d ever had in news was how to change the paper on the AP wire. The highlight was the day I anchored on WTDY’s morning show, hosted by John “Sly” Sylvester, who had become one of Madison’s top personalities since our days at UW-Platteville. (It was Sly who pushed me to apply for the gig at The Lake, where he was doing afternoons at the time.) It was fun for four months, until the plug was pulled on the news-talk format.
In conjunction with the WTDY gig, I found myself as an occasional substitute traffic reporter for all of the stations in the group, a job I still do occasionally. You sit in a studio listening to the scanner and watching traffic cameras and Internet travel time data, and you boil down as much as you can into 20 or 30 seconds. Our group provides morning traffic reports for the local CBS affiliate, which resulted in one of my favorite career moments, when one of the anchors introduced me as “Saturday at the 70s Jim Bartlett.”
Although I briefly held one full-time position with the company, I suspect that being a part-time guy suits me best. Doing lots of different radio tasks along with my writing and teaching keeps me from getting especially bored. It’s also because after many years in radio, I have learned that it’s better not to stand too close when they’re making the sausage. And it’s partly because, as I joked to one of my colleagues years ago, “If you got to know me better, you might not like me as much.”
I do not try to predict the future. I gave that up a long time ago. And so, when I did that first shift on the Lake, a Sunday night 10 years ago this week, I didn’t try to project myself forward in time to guess where it might take me. I have simply gone along for the ride, and for a decade now, I’ve enjoyed the hell out of it.