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.
(Pictured: Elvis? Heck no, that’s not Elvis.)
On this April Fool’s Day, I find myself thinking about the best April Fool’s prank ever pulled by one of my radio stations.
Small-town Iowa, early 90s—possibly 25 years ago today. Our morning team—call them Mike and Micki because those are not their names—did everything they would normally do, nothing out of the ordinary, except that every song they played was the same recording of Elvis Presley’s “Viva Las Vegas.” They would back- and front-announce the current hits we were normally playing—Richard Marx, Amy Grant, and so forth—but no matter what they said they were playing, it was actually “Viva Las Vegas.”
After a while, people started calling in to ask what the hell was going on, but the jocks refused to take the bait. “No, not Elvis, we just played Elton John.” They played some of the calls back on the air, and as the morning went on, the callers got progressively more agitated. When the show was over, the station went back to its regular format as if nothing unusual had happened. “The hardest thing about it,” Mike told me, “was that ‘Viva Las Vegas’ only runs about 1:45.”
Some of what happened during my three-plus years at that station was lightning in a bottle, and Mike and Micki’s tenure on the morning show was an example. They were already in place when I got there in 1990. Mike was your typical small-market radio guy, with raw talent but with nobody to coach him up. How Micki ended up on the air I can’t remember—I think she started working in the office—but she had a natural gift of gab and terrific chemistry with Mike. Both had been born and raised in the area, so they understood who they were talking to better than most jocks can.
When their show was good, it was very good—better than we had any right to expect for a town that size. But when it was bad, it was terrible. And that caused problems.
Mike and Micki were both fairly insecure about their talents; Mike’s ego was extremely fragile. When I came aboard, it wasn’t as program director—I gradually ascended to the position over a period of months. I am not sure when or how—or even if—it was made clear to them that I was supposed to be their boss. And so the first few times I wanted to critique them, they didn’t take it well. We eventually had to resort to subterfuge to get them to accept aircheck notes. One time we told them they had come from some friend of the owner who had been listening on a trip to town. And even after they got used to hearing them from me, they continued to kick over the traces.
It wasn’t long before Micki left the station—I forget precisely why; something resulting from her chaotic personal life. We tried hiring a sidekick but couldn’t find anybody who wanted to work for the money we could offer, so Mike ended up a solo act. He got better on his own, and he became one of only two radio jocks who would make me laugh out loud every day. (Bob Collins of WGN was the other.) But praise from me didn’t help our relationship. He thought of it as an empty attempt to ingratiate myself with him. As for criticism, he was utterly unable to accept it from me.
The inevitable eventually happened—a shouting argument in which he proclaimed that he would never consider me his boss, would never do anything I asked him to do, and furthermore I should go fuck myself. Afterward, I asked the GM to fire him, which the GM would not do. Within a few months, I was the one who got fired. On my way out of the building, I passed Mike’s office, pausing for a moment to say, “Congratulations, you won.”
In retrospect, it was not exactly my proudest moment.
Mike isn’t in radio anymore, as far as I know. Too bad. He was good at it.
When radio stations change formats nowadays, it’s signaled by what’s known in the biz as “stunting.” I remember a station about to adopt an oldies format and the slogan “cool FM” that played nothing but the Little River Band’s “Cool Change” for an entire weekend. When an adult-contemporary station I worked for briefly changed to classic rock, it played “Another One Bites the Dust” for two hours before making the switch. It’s become common practice for stations planning to change format in the new year to go all-Christmas at the end of December. The intent is to signal to the audience that something new is about to happen.
Forty years ago today, the legendary, decade-long duke-out between WLS and WCFL in Chicago ended when ‘CFL changed from Top 40 to elevator music. They signaled it with a stunt: playing two hours of rolling surf to cushion the transition. But it’s what they did beforehand—what management allowed to happen beforehand—that made the WCFL format change a unique event.
Format changes generally happen with no warning apart from the stunting. WCFL didn’t do it that way. The station announced at the beginning of March that the change would take place on the 15th. It also accepted advertising from competing radio stations seeking to lure the Top 40 audience. Today, station staff often finds out about an impending format change when they’re ushered into a conference room and fired. WCFL didn’t do that, either. Management told the jocks that they would all be fired after the 15th except for afternoon jock Larry Lujack and asked the others not to immediately discuss the change on the air. Most of them obeyed the request, except for morning team Dick Sainte and Doug Dahlgren, who went on the air the day after the announcement and torched the place for 3 1/2 hours before getting yanked.
I can’t find it at YouTube, but I have heard an aircheck of midday jock Bob Dearborn doing his last show on ‘CFL on March 15, 1976. He talked about the change, and in his last break said to his engineer, “Al, hit that button one more time” to jingle into his last record. At 2:00, Lujack took over. The surf was set to come up at 5:00. At 4:40, Lujack played “American Pie” before delivering what he called his “last major address to the nation,” about the format change, in which he mentioned the commercials from other stations and made an endorsement regarding which station people should listen to. And also, “I’m not saying goodbye, because I ain’t going nowhere.” The next day, he was on the air as usual, playing elevator music. He was under contract, and ‘CFL intended to keep him from going elsewhere, although he’d be back on WLS before too long.
I was listening to WCFL 40 years ago today, and I heard Lujack’s address live. I can see myself even now, up in my bedroom at home, listening on my little console stereo, hearing Lujack’s last wisecrack over the surf and then just the surf, before being called downstairs for supper. Young and green as I was, I knew enough (and suspected enough) about how radio worked to feel as though what Lujack did was extraordinary, and I was right. Thanks to old Uncle Lar (and the decisions of WCFL management before the last day finally came), there’s never been another format change quite like the one WCFL made.