The Coolest Place I Ever Worked

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Last fall, at the end of October, I missed a minor milestone: 10 years since the radio company I work for pulled the plug on 93.1 The Lake, the coolest place I ever worked.

Back in 2004, I ran into a college classmate of mine who was doing afternoons on the station, and he suggested I apply for a part-time gig, but apart from making a call to the program director (and leaving one of those convoluted voicemails you regret), nothing happened. I ran into my classmate again a couple of years later and he urged me to apply again. This time it went a lot better. There was a new program director, we hit it off immediately, and it didn’t take long before he offered me a job. Breaking a drought of something like eight years without doing a music show on the radio, I started working weekends in the summer of 2006. It wasn’t long before my gig-economy lifestyle made me the main weekday fill-in guy also.

It was a joy to be on the air at The Lake, and to listen to it when I wasn’t. It was a deep-cuts classic rock station, full of “holy smokes I haven’t heard that in years” musuc: the first time I got to play “Lake Shore Drive” by Aliotta, Haynes and Jeremiah, it was a religious experience. But after I’d been there a while, the program director who hired me got fired. He wasn’t replaced, exactly; the operations manager with responsibility for the station took over the programming of it. He rebranded us—most of the deep cuts were dumped, especially from the 60s and 70s, and they were replaced by mainstream stuff from the 80s and even the early 90s. It was still cool, and still deeper than many classic-rock stations, but it was never quite the same to me.

The original format was based on a Chicago station called the Drive (which still exists today), a thinking fan’s classic-rock station, and we were encouraged to talk about the music like experts. But that positioning wasn’t as appealing as we hoped, apparently. It was explained to us that we were perceived like the person at a party who thinks he’s too cool for the room. So it may not have been a coincidence that one aspect of the rebranding kept us from talking to anybody for a while—the station ran jockless for a period of weeks.

(After I’d worked at the Lake for a while, I was traveling in Chicago and listened to the Drive. It really was remarkable how closely we’d cloned them. All except for the jocks. Top to bottom, the Drive’s lineup of brand-name Chicago rock-radio legends didn’t sound as good as ours.)

In both of its incarnations, The Lake played great music, ran attractive promotions, and encouraged us to both have fun on the air and serve our audience with stuff worth caring about. But nothing lasts forever. One day in October 2008, I got a call from the operations manager saying that The Lake was no more. It was being replaced by the rhythmic CHR format that was already running on another, weaker signal in the building, a format that remains on 93.1 in Madison today.

I had started working for another station in the building by then, so I had a place to go after The Lake was gone. Its studio stayed empty and silent for several months. The memos and the artwork stayed on the walls, and I’d go in there from time to time and think about how it was like a neutron bomb had hit the place, taking out the people but leaving the infrastructure intact.

Just as every radio jock has stories about working at the badly run station in the nowhere town, we all have stories about the most fun we ever had, the best place we ever worked. The Lake is mine. Over a decade since its demise, its imaging liners and music library are still on the company servers. I’m told that one of the engineers used to fire it up and listen to it downstairs in the shop. And why not? It’s what I’d do.

7 thoughts on “The Coolest Place I Ever Worked

  1. John Gallagher

    I love hearing radio stories like this. We all can share similiar memories of stations that ended up changing format for whatever reason. Luckily, thanks to social media, we can reconnect with those former co-workers and relive all the good times.

  2. Yah Shure

    L.S.D. really was one of those “I can’t believe I get to push buttons and make this joyous piece of magic go through the ether” kind of songs. Hmmm… The Lake and The Drive. The Shore has got to be out there somewhere to complete the trifecta.

    I’d be curious to know if that “too cool for the room” perception would still show up today. With vinyl sales increasing annually in the years since The Lake drowned, along with younger people clamoring more and more for experiences and authenticity, it would seem that there would be more interest in the discovery aspect, when it comes to learning more about songs heard on a thinking fan’s station.

    I’ve had a couple of “I never thought I’d ever play this on the radio again” songs come up within the last month or two. The ones that really caught my atttention (and instantly set me to writing the background stories to accompany them) were Sagittarius’ “My World Fell Down”, “It’s For You” by Springwell, and Gary & Dave’s “Could You Ever Love Me Again.” It’s one thing to hear that last one occasionally on Canadian stations, but boy, oh, boy, did it ever feel exhilarating to play it on the radio for the first time since college.

  3. You’ve really touched a nerve here, as I, too, regarded working at/on The Lake as one of the most memorable radio experiences I’ve had in 40-some years of broadcasting. MidWest can ruin pretty much anything it puts its mind to, particularly when the people ruining it don’t have the slightest understanding of the product. Oh, and that “too cool for the room” bullshit? The brain trust over there still, I’m sure, ignores research they don’t like, and puts faith in research that either proves their point or tells them what they want to hear. Another case of a respected consultant dabbling in something about which he knew so little.

    Here’s a bit of backstory that you may not have ever heard. At the dawning of the 93.1 The Lake format at MidWest, TW and BV sat me down in BV’s office and said they had decided that I would be the ultimate morning jock for The Lake (this is a verifiably true story – ask BV). They wanted me to voicetrack the morning show. I knew the music, I was at the time the right “age” for the morning format, blah blah blah. They estimated that it would take about 90 minutes for me to track a four-hour morning show, and, of course, throw in a few newscasts as well.

    I patiently tried to explain to them that I arrived at the building at 3:10 AM, as late as I could possibly cut it, to create enough nooz to do targeted casts live on WTDY and Q-106 twice an hour, to track three newscasts for The Tux, do the 5:45 AM news on Magic 98 because BB so seldom arrived in time to do that cast, which was supposed to be the early start to the Magic 98 morning show. They didn’t seem to understand that going live with five-minutes newscasts at :05 and :30 on TDY, and live 4-minute casts (including sports) on Q-106 at :15 and :45 required that I write nearly ALL the material before 5:45 AM – because the live-cast schedule was a killer in and of itself – to say nothing about paying attention to the scanner and TV monitor to catch any breaking news.

    So, for me to spend this mythical 90 minutes tracking the morning show (including a newscast each hour) on The Lake, I’d have to come in at approximately 1:30 AM. I could see the light dawning in BV’s eyes – he was beginning to realize that unlike BB, I couldn’t just stroll into the building 5 minutes before my airshift began, take copy from the internal news wire (written by me), and do his sidekick thing. But TW evidenced no clue of understanding how this complicated schedule actually worked. (Even though he was, of course, the smartest guy in the room.)

    Anyway, I strongly advocated that this format deserved a LIVE jock, somebody that really got and loved the music, and that I’d be thrilled to track hourly news/sports casts for The Lake with nooz tailored exactly to the format and demo – which BV clearly understood, because he knew I did entirely different newscasts content-wise (save for important spot or breaking news) on TDY and Q-106. So, I said, give this format some love and hire a competent jock. (Well, they hired TB, brought him back from the dead, and we all know how THAT worked out. No offense to TB; he was just the wrong guy for the format.)

    I loved the sound of the station, loved the music they played, loved that eventually even Sly got involved and tracked a show, given his WIBA-FM cred, loved the enthusiasm about the station both inside and outside the building.

    You’ve excellently chronicled the story of The Lake and its demise; it still makes me sad to think about that station, perhaps in the sense of a favorite child with an IQ of 140 who eked out a living on the streets doing odd jobs. So much potential…..

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