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.

12 thoughts on “Purpose

  1. Yah Shure

    Great post, Jim. At so many stations, the lights are on. but there’s nobody home even when there actually *is* somebody home. I just heard a jock do a bit about platypus milk (inserting a overly-long, condescending chuckle after the mere mention of the subject), sounding like a detached script-reader while droning on about its supposed health benefits. The witty payoff? “Y’know what? I’ll just stick to cow’s milk.”

    The guy made no effort to concoct a unique sendoff befitting something not commonly found on the neighborhood Safeway shelves. Not even an “I’ve been dying to use Amazon Prime, so I’m gonna try some. Can’t wait to get the duck bill!”

    Considering how long the winters are in Northern Minnesota, Adult Standards 930 might be in the final phase of its Christmas music programming. The snoozy adult standards station in my area has an all-request program daily from noon-2 that sometimes makes “Those Shoes” sound like a comparative adult standard. Heavy metal requests get played right alongside Manilow and Rod Stewart torch songs.

    Or at least they will until the train wreck plays out at the end of the month in all-too-familiar fashion: AM standalone, too close to a major metro area to be the true hometown station, 70-year-old tower needs replacing, but sits on now-expensive real estate. Too bad: they’d just been granted an FM translator construction permit, but it would have transmitted from the AM stick.

  2. Yup, the way you describe the platypus milk bit is exactly the problem I’m talking about: the guy saw the story and decided to read it and that was when he stopped thinking about it. He didn’t find the relatable core of the bit, so it went on too long. That might have been forgiveable if he’d delivered a funny punchline to pay off the time a listener invested in sticking with the story–but he didn’t bother to think of a creative one—just his flippant non-punchline—and as a result, the listener is cheated.

    Another rule of mine: do not laugh at your own bits. You can laugh at something someone else says—a phone caller or a partner, or even a commercial—but not in the middle of a bit you’re doing. It almost inevitably comes off as insincere, or as flop sweat. If you have to signal to the listener that “hey, this is supposed to be funny,” it almost certainly isn’t.

  3. mackdaddyg

    Dear Lord, your post and the comments afterwards are spot on!! Any time I pay attention to a jock these days, I am usually overwhelmed by the mediocrity that comes out. Inane bits from the internet news, laughing at your witty comment while trying to finish the sentence….it’s awful.

  4. How far in advance do you script? Will you come to the studio with a printout in hand (or a computer screen in front of you)? Do you know your playlist well enough in advance that you can write to specific records, or do you only pre-write more general patter?
    Inquiring minds want to know.

    1. I generally prepare one “bit” per hour before I walk into the studio, although if I’m doing a five-hour show I might repeat a bit from the first hour in the last hour. I might talk about a fair or a festival going on that weekend, or a sporting event that night or the day before (although sports bits have to be big, broad, and topical—“the Badgers beat UMBC in the NCAA tournament last night and will play Kentucky tomorrow night” and not “Sam Dekker led all scorers last night with 15 points”). My goal is to be local as much as possible, so I scan local TV news websites and the local paper for stuff of local interest. I may do a story from elsewhere in the country if it’s really funny, really weird, or I can put my particular spin on it, or a local spin. I occasionally do bits related to the music I’m playing, although local info bits would take precedence over that.

      Bits like the ones described above run 20 or 30 seconds and would air going into a break or coming out of it, whenever I decide where I want to put them. We also have station promos and PSAs we need to read, so those take up some of the talk positions I have available.

      When I get into the studio and see the music log, I can start scripting the rest of the show, including the talk bits over the intros of records. Sometimes I do it an hour at a time, but sometimes I only manage to stay one break ahead.

  5. Scott Bennett

    Seems like I heard a long time ago that some DJs subscribe to joke “newsletters” for lack of a better word. Did/do they exist? Have you written about them? I’ve heard jocks tell jokes that sounded like they were off the cutting room floor of some late-night TV talk show, and it was obvious they were reading them. Painful to listen to.

    1. Show prep services were a real thing, although the Internet rendered them largely obsolete. You’d get a packet of stuff in the mail with featurish or humorous material, in many cases with the jokes built right in, but not always. If it was a station subscription, you’d be competing with other jocks on the staff to use the stuff, so many jocks would have their own subscriptions. Joke services were a real thing, too. The problem with them was, as you indicate, they often weren’t all that funny. And even when they were, the jock using them had to be able to pull the humor off. It had to flow naturally from who he was to begin with. You can’t be a complete clod in every other respect and then sell a Letterman-esque wisecrack at the end of a bit.

    2. mackdaddyg

      If you look at the classifieds in older Billboard magazines, you’ll see ads for these services. It would be interesting to see what a package of the material they sent was like.

      1. Yah Shure

        Whenever the name of any personality at the station I worked at in the late ’70s was mentioned in Billboard or Radio & Records, a solicitation letter from the Electric Weenie would arrive shortly thereafter, without exception. Also without exception: the first letter of each person’s last name was misspelled on said offers. We figured if that was the best they could do, their actual product must literally be a joke.

  6. I subscribed to Danny Day’s jock prep service in the early 70’s. Wish I’d kept some of the material. Each week you got about 12 pages of bits, jokes, “unusual news”, and even a station promotion idea or two. I have no recollection of what it cost; couldn’t have been a lot, or my GM would have nixed it.

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