Category Archives: Radio Tales

Listening, 50 Years Ago Tonight

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(Since putting the finishing touches on this post early this morning and scheduling it to post, I have been reading MLK50 posts almost exclusively, and I’m conscious now of how lame mine is. Your time will almost certainly be better spent here, here, or here. If you have time for nothing else today, click the link about news bulletins below. The bulk of it is CBS News coverage from April 4 and 5, and some of it is riveting.)

I have written many times how my parents were serious radio listeners. Dad had a radio in the barn that was always on while he milked the cows. Mother’s radio sat in the kitchen on a counter near the sink, under a low-hanging cupboard in a space so small it wasn’t good for much else. Although she had several over the years, one that I remember best was a light-colored AM/FM unit with a dial that lit up brightly when it was turned on.

Although Mother and Dad listened to our local station in the morning and evening, she would sometimes tune over to WGN from Chicago during the middle of the day. On the evening of April 4, 1968, Mother hadn’t tuned back to our local station, but she had turned the radio on. A baseball game was on, likely the Cubs and certainly an exhibition game, as the regular season didn’t start until the next week. She was not a baseball fan, so I don’t know why she would have been listening. Maybe she turned her radio on and got sidetracked before she could tune elsewhere, as a young mother with boys aged 8, 5, and 1 would frequently be.

I was playing on the floor of the nearby dining room. Maybe my brother was playing with me and maybe he wasn’t; I can’t recall. I would not have been paying close attention to the baseball game, since I wasn’t a sports fan yet. That would come in another year. But at some point during the game, perhaps between 6:30 and 7:00, a news bulletin came on that Martin Luther King had been shot in Memphis.

I remember hearing it. Or at least I think I do. I can see myself on the green tile floor of the dining room, the brightly lit radio playing over my shoulder, and the news coming on.

I had a precocious interest in current events for a second-grader. Because I absorbed a lot by osmosis from my parents’ radios, from the TV news they watched, and from the newspapers I saw them reading, I might have recognized King’s name. I might have heard about his Poor Peoples’ Campaign and his solidarity with striking sanitation workers in Memphis.

Now it’s just as likely that I knew nothing of Martin Luther King on that night 50 years ago. It’s possible that my hearing about the King murder may not have happened in any way remotely close to the way I recall it. Maybe I didn’t hear about it at all that night. Our memories are notoriously faulty, even regarding stuff we believe we remember vividly. And memories from childhood get more faulty as time passes, don’t they? I have had for years a memory from the weekend of the JFK assassination, a single image of a coffin on a bier, but I was three years old. I can’t honestly say whether I really saw it on TV or I saw the picture later and created the memory. I also remember telling my parents at some point in ’68 that I wanted Eugene McCarthy to be president—based on what, I have no idea, but it seems like the kind of thing I would have said. If I actually said it.

So I can’t claim to be certain about what I remember hearing 50 years ago tonight, although a future radio guy learning of the King murder on the radio before he knew anything about his future makes a fine little prophetical anecdote. It’s one of those things that should be true, which might be why I remember it that way.

If you’re old enough to remember 50 years ago tonight, how did you learn about it? If you’re not, what’s the first historic news event you remember hearing about?

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Purpose

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A few years ago a radio talent coach told me, “You sound like you have a purpose in mind every time you open the microphone,” which is one of the higher compliments I have ever received.

A lot of radio jocks talk because they have 11 seconds over the introduction of a song or because they’re supposed to read a promo before the commercial break, and not because they have something in particular that they want to accomplish. And there is a difference. You hear it up and down the dial: jock cracks the microphone, gives the call letters, and starts talking, but you hear the gears grinding as he gropes for the next thought, unsure of precisely where he’s going, hopeful that he’ll find his way to a logical end-point. Sometimes he does, and sometimes he doesn’t, and as a listener, you get the same sick feeling you might get from watching a wobbly high-wire walker. Is he gonna make it? I don’t think he’s gonna make it! 

(This isn’t just a small-market phenomenon. You hear it in the majors, too.)

If you’re gonna speak to people on the radio, it’s absolutely vital to know where you’re going, always, and how to make sure you get there—every time you speak.

When I started working for our company’s country station in 2010, it was programmed by John Sebastian. Before he left it all behind for a career in voice work, John was one of the radio industry’s great program directors, at legendary stations in major markets across the country, the kind of guy emulated by young programmers such as I used to be. Before I joined his station, all I heard from my colleagues in the building was how tough John was on his jocks. He told them to turn off the autopilot, which most radio stations use to play music and commercials even when a live jock is on the air, and pay attention to segues and transitions. He insisted they script every break and rehearse it before they did it on the air. He coached them on how to pronounce the call letters—something most jocks unthinkingly spit out at the start of a break. And he wasn’t shy about coming into the studio and talking to them about what they’d just done, or hadn’t done.

But I wanted to work for him anyway. Among the things I learned was that nobody cares about the craft of being a radio jock quite as much as John, and it scratched an itch I didn’t know I had.

(I have since become a big believer in scripting. It does more than just ensure you say the words right; it ensures that you say the right words.)

I surf the radio dial while I travel, and there’s a lot of poor craftsmanship out there. Jocks with no purpose other than to fill time, often with crutches, clichés, or meaningless bits. (Trust me: nobody cares about the weekend box office or whatever the Kardashians are up to.) Breaks that exist to massage egos—of jocks, of stations, of sponsors—without offering anything to the listener. People with beautiful voices who have nothing to say.

(Implicit in the rise of voicetracking was the promise that small-market stations could sound like they had major-market talent. What a lot of them end up with is the same meaningless blather they got from their hometown talent, delivered by better pipes.)

I am conscious of the fact that I, an insignificant part-time jock in a medium-sized city, can do very little to counteract these trends. Except to make sure that I continue to have a purpose in mind every time I turn on the microphone.

Plausibly Related: Even when a station runs jockless, it can still suffer from poor craftsmanship, or a hazy sense of purpose. Traveling in northern Minnesota, I listened to a station that positioned itself as “Adult Standards 930.” Right away there’s a problem: adult standards is a phrase that has a clear meaning to radio people but not to the audience. Then, the very first song I heard was “Those Shoes” by the Eagles, an album cut from The Long Run. Order was seemingly restored after that with songs by Bread, Tom Jones, and other identifiably “adult” acts and “standard” songs, going as far back as the pre-rock 50s with “Cross Over the Bridge” by Patti Page.

But that Eagles song stayed with me. What were they thinking? Also heard in the hour I listened: “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” by Andy Williams. On an afternoon in March.

Craftsmanship. Attention to detail. They matter. People notice.

Part-Time Radio Guy

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“You might not ever get rich / But lemme tell ya it’s better than diggin’ a ditch”

The position of part-time radio jock is not a prestigious one. You work weekend shifts and holidays that are by definition not as important as the weekdays, and you usually do it for very little money.

I got my first part-time radio job when I was 19. Training then was a lot like training now: you watch another, more experienced jock while they explain what they’re doing, and you ask questions. After a few sessions, the roles change: you do the job while the more experienced person watches. After a few sessions of this, you’re left on your own. This kind of training is almost never enough, though. Sooner or later, something will happen that you will have to figure out on the fly. This happened to me on my first job and on my current one. It’s nobody’s fault. A veteran jock figures it out; a green young dipshit figures it out after a little longer.

How part-time jocks are treated depends on the culture of the company. We’re treated very well at the place I work now, but that hasn’t always been my experience. At a different company, when the Christmas party invitation was posted on the bulletin board, it explicitly invited “all staffers working more than 15 hours per week.” (I think it was probably my idea to post an announcement for an alternate Christmas party from which those working more than 15 hours a week were explicitly excluded.) After somebody dumped a cup of coffee into a control board, jocks were forbidden to bring beverages into the studio. I dutifully complied with this regulation until I discovered that my station’s morning guys were exempt from it. I decided that I wasn’t going to be treated any differently than they were, and it wasn’t long before the rule was rescinded.

That’s me, the Rosa Parks of part-time jocks.

When I was a program director and had part-time jocks to hire and train, I tried to remember what it had been like to be in their shoes. I thought about what they needed to know, but also what they would want to know. My goal was that they be well-prepared to handle the inevitable weirdness that goes with the job. My record was hit-and-miss, which is mostly on me as a manager, although in a business where a degree of natural talent is necessary above and beyond the skills training can nurture, the successes and/or failures of these people weren’t entirely on me.

Some of my part-timers aspired to full-time careers in radio; some of them simply thought working in radio would be more fun than clerking in a hardware store or making pizzas. The ones that stick in my memory tend to be the ones who fked up in some spectacular way (the guy we fired after we discovered he was selling station CDs to the local used record store, and whose resume, we later learned, was largely fictitious; the college student/automation-tender who kept all the monitors turned down because the music interfered with the studying he wanted to do), but I had some good ones, too: people I could stick into any shift and get a reasonably decent performance; people I could depend on to understand their jobs on a relatively deep level so they could diagnose and handle the inevitable weirdness on their own; people who were simply fun to be around and always willing to pitch in and do more: Allison, Kurt, Dave, I salute you, wherever you are, all these years later.

I got back into full-time radio for a while a few years ago, but being a part-timer better suits the geezer I have become. What it lacks in prestige (and occasionally in appreciation, and every so rarely in respect, and usually in money, because this is radio we’re talking about) is made up for by the fact that I get to do it because I want to, and not because I have to.

January Job

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I often say that certain repeat posts are “rebooted,” meaning that I have tweaked them a bit to add or remove content, or to make cosmetic changes. This post is a straight-up repeat, as it appeared on January 5, 2010, eight years ago today. Only the title is different.

They say that people with terminal diseases tend to hang on through the holidays and then expire in January. I don’t doubt it. Before the holidays, you move through your days with a lightness of spirit. You feel like giving and forgiving. After the holidays, you’re back on the treadmill, and everything reminds you of the various traps you’re in. December snow is magical; in January, it’s just something that can damn well get you killed if enough of it falls.

When I was in radio full-time, January had a couple of defining characteristics beyond free-floating misery. As the slowest advertising month of the year, January meant less time spent writing or producing commercials, which freed up more time for tasks that were often neglected the rest of the year. What I called “January jobs” included throwing out old tapes that were no longer needed, catching up on filing, or maybe just trying to find the surface of my desk underneath the debris of the past year. The best thing about the January jobs is that they required relatively little concentrated attention, and they left plenty of time for two-hour lunches.

Frequently January would bring a boat show or a bridal show. The best kind were the ones that the station did not have to plan, where we could just promote them and do a remote broadcast or two. Such broadcasts should not be confused with entertainment, however. Unless a listener is immediately interested in buying a boat or getting married, the live broadcast from the boat show or the bridal show can be spectacularly dull. And there’s something vaguely obscene about encouraging people to drop 20 large on a boat or a wedding, particularly during those periods when the economy’s gone to hell—which, in small-town Iowa during the 1980s and early 90s, was every year.

Many stations do a January promotion geared to the Super Bowl. At a couple of the places I worked, this involved giving away a catered Super Bowl party for 12 or 20 people along with a big-screen TV rental for the day, back when big-screen TVs were monstrosities few people owned, and not something you could hang on a wall, as they are today. That’s a pretty good prize by the standards of small-market radio, but the winners weren’t necessarily immunized against the misery of January. One year, our winner was extremely unhappy about getting the big TV for only one day, even though the contest promos and official rules had made it very clear. Eventually, she made us feel like she was doing us a favor by accepting the prize, and I wanted to have the sponsor deliver the damn thing to my house.

People can be surprisingly petty when they’re getting something for nothing. One of my stations gave away a ski weekend in Colorado once—airfare to and from Denver, transportation to the resort, weekend accommodations, ski equipment, a package so great we wondered how we’d ever gotten it to give away in the first place—only to have the winner complain that it didn’t include the 10-minute ride from his house to our local airport. “You mean I have to get to the airport on my own?”

But maybe the cantankerous contest winners were cantankerous because it’s January. This month sucks.

Christmas on the Radio

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It’s been a few years since I wrote about the WLS Holiday Festival of Music, a program the Chicago AM radio giant ran from the late 60s into the 80s on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. I first heard it in 1970, and I’m pretty sure there’s never been another radio program so perfectly crafted for its purpose. I have several hours of the 1980 broadcast in my library, and it’s a pleasure to hear it every year.

Although WLS was a Top 40 station, it was never monolithically aimed at kids. At various points in the 70s, it was downright housewifey during middays, even giving away household appliances. In the 80s, it was practically an album-rock station at night. The Holiday Festival of Music was similarly broad. It included Bruce Springsteen’s “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” and “Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” but also made room for Andy Williams and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. It all fit together, and that’s because it was made to fit. The Holiday Festival of Music did not merely aim to fill airtime—it set out to create a mood, and it did so in unexpected ways. Segments on the history of various Christmas traditions sat side-by-side with Bible passages and even prayers. One particularly powerful segment from my 1980 recordings is a long reading from the works of Catholic monk, writer, and philosopher Thomas Merton.

Thomas Merton, people.

(A segment of the Holiday Festival of Music is here. It aired at midnight, as Christmas Eve turned to Christmas Day, Thursday, December 25, 1980.)

Lots of radio stations fail on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day because they don’t take the time to do what WLS did so well—to curate their Christmas programming. They just rotate the same songs they’ve been playing since Halloween (or whenever), with production elements in between that don’t differ much from the rest of the year. The argument in favor of this is as follows: as long as it’s plausibly Christmassy, nobody will care. But that’s not true. Radio listenership actually spikes on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day—or at least it did in the days before streaming. People want no-fuss aural wallpaper, and what you play matters. A couple of Christmases ago, at my parents’ house, we turned on the DirecTV holiday music channel, and it was painful. The music selection was ridiculous: playing Justin Bieber and Ella Fitzgerald in the same quarter-hour is a crime against humanity. After a while, we turned it off. Over the years, I’ve heard other radio stations in other places get turned off for the same reason. It takes more than shuffle to set a mood.

When I was a program director, I did my best to curate the holiday programming, although it was a challenge when I was at the mercy of a program supplier. In Macomb, our Christmas library would contain bog-standard Top 40 stuff until Christmas Eve, when we’d bust out some ancient tapes that contained more traditional carols and chorales, Andy Williams and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. In small-town Iowa, we carried a satellite-delivered format that generally went wall-to-wall Christmas for a period on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. As I recall, it was decently done, although at least one year we replaced part of it with a syndicated Christmas show. Another year, the service announced that it would drop Christmas music entirely and go back to the regular format at 4:00 in the afternoon on Christmas Day. I immediately got on the phone to complain: “I’m a small-town station. If I stop playing Christmas music that early, people are going to burn my building down.” Mine must not have been the only call they got; by the end of the day they decided they’d play four Christmas songs an hour from 4:00 through midnight. Not ideal, but good enough.

I have said many times that one of the stations I work for, Magic 98 in Madison, comes as close to the spirit of the Holiday Festival of Music as we are likely to get in a world such as this. The show, “98 Hours of Christmas Magic,” starts at 10PM on Thursday night and runs through Christmas night at midnight. You can stream it right here.

More to Come After This Message

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Our friend Kurt Blumenau went down a rabbit hole the other day and into the history of the “more to come” bumpers shown during NBC’s Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. As I commented at Kurt’s post, it seems kind of quaint to think that NBC would have filled a local commercial break with music and a more-to-come slide instead of running a public service announcement or a network promo (or a commercial for some but-wait-there’s-more gadget, as they would today), but it was a different world.

Surely some NBC affiliates, late at night, had no commercial inventory of their own to run. They could have filled the time with their own public service announcements or promos, but in the days before compact video formats, running PSAs in particular (and filmed programs in general) was cumbersome. It required a piece of equipment called a film chain, which literally projected film into a TV camera. Stations would keep a reel of film with a bunch of PSAs on it, and load it up when needed. Or not.

Talk of late-night commercial breaks reminded me of a couple of stories from our days living and working radio in Macomb, Illinois. Macomb sat between Peoria and Quincy, about 70 highway miles from each, and we got TV stations from both. In the middle of the 80s, Quincy had only two stations, a CBS affiliate licensed to Hannibal, Missouri, across the Mississippi River, and an NBC affiliate. The Peoria stations did not attempt to sell advertising in Macomb, but the Quincy stations did. I never thought it made sense for Macomb businesses to buy Quincy TV. Putting your ad on a TV station 70 miles away meant that your money was being spent in part to reach people way the hell and gone over in Missouri, and they weren’t going to drive 140 miles to shop at your shoe store or muffler shop or whatever.

One especially popular package was “shop Macomb,” which would start with a short blurb encouraging viewers to visit Macomb, followed by three 15- or 20-second blurbs for individual Macomb businesses. (Many TV stations still sell this kind of community-specific package today.) As TV ads went, they were cheap to buy—but compared to radio ads, they cost a lot.

When The Mrs. was selling radio, some of her clients would occasionally pop for a shop-Macomb spot. One Saturday night, we were watching Saturday Night Live, and we noticed that the NBC affiliate didn’t have any local spots scheduled. They filled every local break with scratchy film-chain PSAs. That is, until the first break after SNL got over, right before sign-off, when they ran a shop-Macomb spot featuring one of her clients.

We have conflicting memories of her reaction to this. When I asked her about it the other night, she doesn’t remember being bothered. I remember it differently. Loosely translated, it was as follows: Why the #%!%@ didn’t they run that thing during Saturday Night Live instead of those $!@%ing PSAs, for #$% sake?

After Saturday Night Live each week, the Quincy NBC affiliate broadcast a news summary. It wasn’t a repeat of the late local news, which is what many stations do now in the wee hours of the morning before turning their airwaves over to infomercials. They’d put up a station identification slide and somebody, most likely the master-control engineer (the only person left in the building at midnight), would read five minutes of news, often just copy ripped from the AP or UPI wire. The broadcast would conclude with the weather forecast before the station played the National Anthem and went dark for the night. In the middle of the 1980s, that little low-tech news update seemed like such a quaint, small-town thing to do that I actually started to look forward to it a little.

Nowadays, technology makes it possible for even the tiniest stations in the middle of nowhere to look like big-time operations. Thirty-some years ago, they had to be what they were.

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