Passing Through With the Radio On

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I have been listening to the radio while I’m on Long Island, bouncing back and forth between two radio stations in the car—a classic rocker licensed to Bay Shore that calls itself 103.1 MAX FM, and the legendary WCBS-FM. And here are some things I have observed.

MAX FM’s music mix doesn’t have very many surprises—their tagline is “Hits of the 70s, 80s, and more,” which means the occasional late 60s or early 90s hit mixed in. It’s a very adult version of classic rock—they may play AC/DC’s “TNT,” but it’s not going to be at 2:00 in the afternoon, because a suburban station needs to stay in the middle of the road to attract office listeners and small-town advertisers.

The only one of their jocks I’ve heard for any length of time is the afternoon guy, who talked over the introduction of “Stairway to Heaven” the other day. That’s just not done. The only other jock I’ve ever heard talk over it was Casey Kasem. (Topic for further investigation: how and when the “Stairway” intro became sacrosanct.)

What I heard mostly was tons and tons of commercials, and good for them if the station is selling well. But when you’re a stranger in town, commercial breaks tend to zoom by—you aren’t in need of whatever they’re selling, and you don’t know where the advertisers are located anyhow. If you don’t tune out entirely, you find yourself listening to the scripts and the production. The majority of ads were of a type we have discussed before at this blog: like billboards, as opposed to messages identifying specific problems and offering to solve them. Some were well-produced, and others sounded churned out in a single take.

WCBS-FM was the first oldies station, throwing the switch in 1972, although today it describes itself as an adult hits station, playing music from 1964 through 1995. Scott Shannon, one of the most successful personalities in New York radio history, does mornings. Dan Taylor, who did mornings from 2007 until Shannon arrived in 2014, is on middays. Broadway Bill Lee has been on the air in New York since 1986, and has done afternoons on CBS-FM since 2007. He’s also heard on Sirius/XM. I heard only a bit of the night guy and a couple of breaks on the weekend.

I do not know how the CBS-FM jocks are being coached. I have frequently been told, and I agree, that less can be more. Sometimes all you need is time and temperature or title and artist. A couple of sentences about an upcoming station event or contest is fine; so is a sentence or two about the song you’re playing. Use 15 seconds of a 23-second intro and let the music breathe. But on CBS-FM, if a jock has 23 seconds available, he’s going to fill all of it. Not only that, practically everything’s a bit—something that sounds like it came straight from the pages of one of those show-prep services that so many jocks depended on in the days before the Internet.

Such bits are usually scripted with a mild joke—often a very mild one—at the end. My rule is that it’s OK to laugh at something another person says to you on the air (like a partner or a caller), but you do not laugh at your own jokes. Deliver your punchline and shut up. It’s up to the listener to find it funny. It’s not your job to tell him it is. So when I hear a jock on one of the most famous stations in the country’s biggest market chuckling at the barely humorous jape he just delivered while rushing to get done before Madonna started singing, it drives me straight up the wall. And I heard it several times this week.

But that may be what they’re going for, the feel of an old-fashioned wisecrack-a-minute radio station. Whatever they’re doing, it’s working. In the August 2015 ratings, they were ranked second in persons 6-plus with a 6.8 share, just behind market leader 106.7 Lite FM.

And I’m a Wisconsin dumb-ass just passing through.

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