Format changes are a fact of radio life. Owners are always looking to maximize profits, and sometimes they decide that a particular signal would be more profitable if it programmed something else. I presided over a format change at my station in 1984. I lived through another in 1995, when the adult-contemporary station I worked for went to classic rock. I was a regular listener to WCFL in Chicago when it made the granddaddy of all format changes in March 1976. It went from Top 40 to easy listening, but unlike most changes, this one was announced in advance. Other rock stations in town actually bought ads on ‘CFL to lure listeners over. The switch happened at 5:00 on a weekday afternoon. I heard the great Larry Lujack gave a final address to the nation, which you can hear below. The station then played two solid hours of surf rolling in before the new format began.
(Stations signal format changes in various ways. When my station switched in 1995, it played “Another One Bites the Dust” for two hours straight before putting up the new format. A few years before, another station in the same market announced a format change by playing “Cool Change” by the Little River Band for a whole weekend.)
It can be a jarring experience when your favorite station suddenly goes away. (And even when it doesn’t go suddenly: I still miss WCFL.) What’s worse than any hardship a listener faces, however, is the way format changes affect people behind the scenes. The usual drill is to fire the whole on-air staff, and this is almost always done without warning. You show up for work, you’re ushered into the general manager’s office, and 10 minutes later, you’re cleaning out your desk. Nowadays, there’s sometimes the added wrinkle of a security guard to escort you from the building. The purpose of this isn’t clear to me. I guess it’s to make sure you don’t take anything that doesn’t belong to you, or commit some act of vandalism on the way out, but I dunno.
I mention all of this because The Lake, the classic-rock station I’ve worked for since June 2006, changed formats overnight. The company’s hip-hop station is taking over the signal. All of the Lake jocks were reassigned within the company, although three of the full-timers are now part-timers, which is not quite the same thing as keeping your job. Fortunately, I’ve kept mine, although I’ll be on Magic 98 only from now on.
Although I had no inkling that the Lake was in trouble, I wasn’t entirely surprised when I got the call yesterday morning. I’ve been around the radio biz long enough to know how things go. You rarely hear the bullet that’s got your name on it.