Category Archives: Radio Tales

Other Duties As Assigned

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I am not actively looking for a full-time radio job, but if I see a job listing that intrigues me, I’ll make the appropriate inquiries. I saw one a few weeks ago for an operations manager gig in a small market. The initial posting made the job sound like the kind of thing a radio veteran such as I might be well-suited for, so I responded to the e-mail address and asked them to send the job description. It follows here, edited to eliminate any potential identifying information. Square brackets are my annotations, parentheses are in the original.

Hosting mornings 6AM-noon Monday thru Saturday [on one station, voice-tracked] plus other fill-ins as needed on [other station in the group] plus remotes and public appearances, including walking in and attending parades

Office hours of 8:30AM-5PM (with some time set aside to voice Monday morning news on Sunday night; no in-studio visit or time required)

News for [other station in the group] at 6AM, 7AM, 8AM, noon, 4PM, and 5PM Monday thru Friday (approximately three stories each with actualities)

Serve as production director for [both stations]

Creative writing and production submission to voice talent

Commercial production and client coaching

Imaging for [one station] and some for [other station in the group] as assigned

Maintaining EAS and public file for [both stations]

Downloading and uploading weekend syndication

[weekly public service program] recording and production

Weekend talent scheduling

Social media postings

Help with [e-mail list maintenance]

Help with website maintenance

Studio and office maintenance (windows/garbage/recycling/vacuum)

Other duties as assigned

Broadcasters wear a wider variety of hats nowadays as ownership groups pare expenses to the bone. It’s not unusual to have multiple duties across multiple stations in a single group. However, as I read this, there’s no way this job gets done in the specified office hours of 8:30 to 5. Even if you assume an operations manager is normally going to work 10-hour days to make it a 50-hour week (which is not unusual, especially in a small market), that’s still not going to be enough time. Between voice-tracking a six-hour show, doing news, and handling production and imaging, this job will require a minimum of three to five hours in a recording studio every single day. Only after that could you start thinking about tackling the rest of your responsibilities—down to emptying the wastebaskets, vacuuming the floors, and washing the fking windows.

And by the way, it’s going to be a seven-day job a lot of the time, because many remotes and public appearances are going to be on Saturdays, and you’re also expected to have “time set aside to voice Monday morning news on Sunday night; no in-studio visit or time required.” It’s nice of them to let you do it from your home studio—if you have one, and you’d damn well better get one. But even if the newscasts are only three stories long, somebody still has to write them and gather the actualities they require, either by making calls to local newsmakers or picking up soundbites from some network news source. Who’s going to be responsible for that every single day?

I think I know who.

In the end, what intrigues me the most is the last bit: “other duties as assigned.” What other duties could there possibly be when you’re already doing the jobs of DJ, operations manager, production director, news director/anchor, and janitor?

Yeah no, I’m not pursuing this gig any further, although I was tempted to play it out just to see what kind of salary they would offer. If they asked my requirements, I’d start at $125,000, since I’d be doing the jobs of three or four people—and $125K would be cheap for what they’d be getting. Hell, asking for an ownership stake wouldn’t be entirely out of line. But one person doing all of it for a single small-market salary—maybe $25K or $30K a year, but maybe less—is something no humane employer should expect, and something nobody with any other employment options should accept.

I’m sure this company will eventually find somebody who doesn’t blanch at this job description—somebody who has no idea how completely insane it is. But at least the poor bastard will get experience doing nearly everything a person on the programming side of a radio station has to do nowadays.

I understand the need for a company to operate as efficiently as possible, but how efficient is it to hire somebody for an impossible gig, burn them out, and have to hire someone else? Because that’s what’s gonna happen here.

The Wrong Decision

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(Before we begin: there’s a new post at One Day in Your Life today, which I hope you will read.)

Nearly every radio jock who’s been around a little bit can tell you stories about working at the badly run station in the nowhere town. Different stations, different towns, same kind of stories: of managers who couldn’t manage and owners who got owned, but also of other victims of circumstance similarly trapped, and ultimately, how the story ended.

Thirty-five years ago this week, The Mrs. and I drove a U-Haul to the nowhere town. And on November 1, 1983, I spent my first day at the badly run station.

I’d been fired from my previous job, and I needed a new one. This station offered me one, and I took it. Whether that was a good idea never really entered our minds. We were 23 and 22 years old, married six months, and had no money in the bank. Beyond the obvious need to keep a roof over our heads, it seemed to me that this was how radio worked: you went where a job was, and your talent would move you up from there.

But I wish it had been clearer to me that I shouldn’t have gone where this job was.

It did become clear, however, and pretty damn quick. From the moment I accepted the job in October 1983, nothing about it seemed quite right. It’s said that pioneers in wagon trains sometimes found the Great Plains oppressive in its vastness and suffered from whatever is the opposite of claustrophobia. We felt the same way about the flat Illinois prairie. The one-bedroom basement apartment we took cost more than we wanted to pay, but it was the only one we saw that was close to acceptable. They told me I’d be doing afternoons, but I didn’t find out until the day before that my shift would be 5 to 8PM. The station’s music format was crazily schizophrenic, twangy country during the day and rock-leaning Top 40 at night. My first day, I discovered that quite literally everyone in the office was a smoker. Smokers were not yet banished outdoors, so I breathed second-hand smoke all day long. I had been told the company offered health insurance, but it didn’t. They told me I’d be doing lots of production, but it wasn’t remotely the volume of work I was used to. I was soon spending half of my 11AM-8PM working day reading every word in the newspaper because they didn’t have enough work to fill my time.

It was no more than a week before I came home and told The Mrs. I’d made a terrible mistake. But when you’re young and green and you think you understand how it’s supposed to be, you persevere. You hope that things will get better.

Except things didn’t get better, not in any significant way. I eventually got moved to a real afternoon drive-time slot, but only because the guy who had been doing it—the amiable doofus of a program director who had hired me—got fired. He was replaced by a martinet who started from the proposition that every jock on the staff was incompetent and had to reinvent themselves, in his image. This proposition was doomed, however, because he wasn’t as talented as he made himself out to be, and all of us could see it.

It wasn’t long before I got fired myself. Officially, all they told me was, “It’s not working out.” Unofficially, they were paranoid about my ties to the prospective owner of the other station in town, who had been the general manager of the station I’d just left. I hadn’t been at the new place for five months yet.

(I would later hear that the news director, another victim of circumstance, stormed into the program director’s office upon hearing the news and shouted, “I can’t believe you fired Jim! You need more people like him!”)

One of the cruelest facts of this life is that there can be grave consequences for not knowing what you aren’t equipped to know at the moment you most need to know it. You have to make the best decision you can with whatever information you have, and it may take years before you realize you decided wrong. At that point, all you can do is “chalk it up to experience,” whatever the hell that means. But a wrong decision is still a wrong decision. And 35 years ago today, I started living with one of mine.

(Your stories about the badly run station and/or the nowhere town are welcome in the comments.)

Another Early Warning

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A couple of weeks ago, in the runup to the presidential alert cellphone users received on October 3, I wrote about the history of America’s various early-warning systems, from Conelrad to EBS to EAS to the Wireless Emergency Alert system. The goal of each was/is to transmit critical information to the public immediately and all at once, and to get people to shelters where they’d have a chance to survive an attack.

The question of what would happen after an attack was less widely discussed. Conelrad and, after 1963, the Emergency Broadcast System, would theoretically be able to continue transmitting emergency information. But what if people had to remain in underground shelters for days or weeks? How would they get emergency signals down there, where regular radio signals don’t go? And what if radio stations themselves were devastated? Nuclear weapons generate electromagnetic pulse radiation (EMP) that is capable of crippling the electrical grid, telephone systems, and practically everything that runs on electricity. Even if your town didn’t get incinerated, a big-enough EMP in the atmosphere could turn back the technological clock 150 years.

In the 60s and early 70s, federal emergency planners worked on a refinement of the Emergency Broadcast System intended to respond to these issues and improve the warning system: DIDS, the Decision Information Distribution System. It would be a network of radio stations spread across the country with the sole purpose of delivering emergency messages to the public, and secure enough to keep broadcasting even after widespread devastation. Unlike Conelrad and EBS, DIDS would not use existing broadcast stations. Instead, it would build its own. The stations would broadcast not on the standard AM or FM bands, but on the longwave band at 167, 179, and 191 kHz. (The standard AM band begins at 540 kHz.) The advantage of using longwave was that unlike standard-band signals, longwave signals travel mostly along the curvature of the earth. Signals could reach underground and underwater over long distances and wouldn’t depend on a network of towers, as EBS did, given that after a nuclear exchange, a lot of those towers would likely be turned to rubble.

A 10-station network was proposed, with stations to be built in places such as Mount Joy, Pennsylvania; Starke, Florida; Winslow, Arizona; Hermiston, Oregon; and Mazomanie, Wisconsin (just west of my town, Madison). It would be powerful enough to cover the entire lower 48, although just what Alaska and Hawaii were supposed to do was a question left open. In the event of an attack, activating stations in Colorado and Kansas would send a “go” signal to the network, which would supposedly be operational within 30 seconds. Connections to the Pentagon’s early-warning radar systems would give the network the capability of telling people where attacks were occurring and where it was safe, but how that was going to work is unclear to me. Planners claimed that by the time the network was completely built, in 1979, it could save the lives of 10 to 17 million people, and maybe another 10 million if additional stations were built.

A prototype station was built: WGU-20, licensed to Chase, Maryland, but located near the Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground on Chesapeake Bay northeast of Baltimore. It went on the air in 1973 on 179 kHz with 50,000 watts of power from the first all-solid-state radio transmitter Westinghouse ever built. It had a 700-foot tower, was partially underground to guard against EMP and blast effects, and cost $2 million to build. That $2-million figure explains in part why the rest of the network was never built. But there was another problem: few people owned a longwave radio. The plan was to build emergency receivers into new radios and TV sets and offer an add-on device to retrofit old ones. To increase awareness and encourage people to use the system, it was given a benign name, Public Emergency Radio (PER), and a marketing campaign starring a cute dog mascot named PERki. It didn’t help, and at mid-decade, PER was abandoned.

But WGU-20 soldiered on. At first, it broadcast only a continuous series of time-checks and station identifications, and was quite mysterious to the small number of longwave listeners who found it, since the feds had never explained what it was for. After its purpose became public, it added weather updates for the East Coast; in that way, it was not unlike today’s NOAA weather radio stations. WGU-20 went off the air in 1990, but its tower wasn’t demolished until 2011. You can read more about it and hear what it sounded like here. Read more about America’s alert-program history in this fascinating piece from Wired here.

Somewhere, Anywhere, and Nowhere

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I have been traveling again, out to the East Coast, surfing the local dial wherever I was with the “seek” button on the rental car radio.

It’s my opinion that there’s a rather deep hole in Hell waiting for the guy who was the first to decide that his radio station should be the loudest one on the dial. The “loudness war” has changed radio and affected the way records are made. If you look at a waveform of many a top pop or country hit, you’ll see that there are no peaks and valleys, just an undifferentiated block of audio at maximum level, a phenomenon known as brickwalling. And even when the audio isn’t brickwalled by the people who make the records, radio stations are brickwalling it themselves, and not just music but commercials too. The iHeart classic-hits station in Boston and another classic-hits station I heard from somewhere in Connecticut sound really hot when you first tune them in, but after a while, the audio processing becomes oppressive. Songs have neither loud parts nor soft parts; every bit is artificially jacked up to the same level. Individual instruments audible on the original recordings either get swallowed up or weirdly emphasized; sometimes the vocals get drowned in the backing track. The net effect is to render some songs into uncanny-valley simulations of themselves: Keef’s guitar solo on “Honky Tonk Women,” which is normally sharp enough to draw blood, is buried in mush; Martha and the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Street” loses most of its power when its earth-moving bass shares equal sonic space with the other sounds on the record, instead of dominating them; Boston’s “More Than a Feeling” becomes little more than a high-pitched whine.

I am, as you know, a person who digs the old-school sound of AM radio and music in mono. But the Top 40 stations of yore, hot and processed as they were, didn’t do to the music anything like the kind of violence perpetrated by stations that want to sound louder than the other guys.

(Digression: the Connecticut station, which promoted itself as playing hits from the 60s, 70s, and 80s, at one point played the Uncle Kracker version of “Drift Away,” which features the original “Drift Away” singer Dobie Gray but was released in 2002. This is the kind of thing that can happen when you leave the intern in charge.)

I eventually fled the FM dial for AM, although the AM band in my Toyota Corolla sounded tinny and weak. (The fidelity of the FM band, apart from the brickwalling, was fine, so I suspect the AM side of the radio just wasn’t very good.) There’s not much on AM in the Boston area—mostly Jesus, Spanish, or Jesus in Spanish—although when you get closer to New York City, there’s greater variety. In Hamden, Connecticut, Quinnipiac University operates WQUN-AM. They were playing oldies while I listened, including a “Beatles break” with the original 1962 UK version of “Love Me Do” and “Dear Prudence” from the White Album. Then they stopped for a long interview segment with somebody from a local animal welfare organization about an event the group would be hosting on the weekend. (I might not have gone 20 minutes with it, but that’s just me.) WQUN’s slogan is “great music and local news,” and it’s pretty clear that they know A) precisely who’s listening and B) exactly what those listeners want.

After I lost WQUN, I picked up another oldies station from Babylon, New York. The music mix was OK, but the jock on the air was not. I suspect he’s one of those guys who’s been on the air forever but hasn’t been critiqued by anyone since the Carter Admininstration, jabbering at people in a voice that sounds like Harry Shearer playing a DJ. Most program directors will tell you that as a jock, you should limit yourself to one thought per break. This guy would do three or four—back-announce a song, mention a bit of trivia about the artist, give the time and the temperature and/or talk briefly about the weather, and then promote a contest. I bailed on him shortly after he gave the time twice in the same break. (It hadn’t changed.)

For all their flaws, the small-town and suburban stations at least have a sense of place, a feeling of being from somewhere. The major chain stations were slick and professional, but also plastic and soulless, with little local about them beyond the local addresses in commercials. They could be from anywhere . . . which is a lot like being from nowhere at all.

Presidential Alert

(Above: a vintage test of the old Emergency Broadcast System.)

In 1951, the federal government devised a system to instantly alert the whole country in case of enemy attack. At first, the alert system was known as Conelrad. In the event of an emergency, all radio stations were to cease operation except for those able to broadcast on two designated Conelrad frequencies, 640 and 1240 on the AM dial. Emergency information would be relayed to the public on these two frequencies. The idea was that the Conelrad stations would switch on and switch off from different cities so that Russian bombers couldn’t target their signals. An indication of how seriously Conelrad was taken is that between 1953 and 1963, all AM radios manufactured in the United States were required to have triangular Conelrad markings on the dial at 640 and 1240. (Hear a bit of the first nationwide Conelrad test from 1956 here.)

Conelrad was replaced in 1963 by the Emergency Broadcast System (EBS), which made it theoretically possible for every radio station in the country to carry simultaneous emergency messages. Messages would be sent to a few designated primary stations and relayed by smaller stations monitoring them, and by smaller stations monitoring them, and so on. The Emergency Alert System (EAS), established in 1997, updated the warning mechanisms further, and marked the end of the familar EBS tests, like the one at the top of this post.

We have never learned whether any of the systems would actually work in a real emergency. I have always doubted it, as they ultimately depend on too many fallible human beings all down the line, from the White House to West Overshoe. Conelrad glitched a couple of times, in several western and southwestern states in 1955 and in northeast Wisconsin and Upper Michigan in 1959; a 1971 EBS error is more famous. Today, EAS has largely automated the process, but erroneous activations still occur.

As the old EBS script said, stations act “in voluntary cooperation with federal, state, and local authorities,” sort of. Stations are required to activate for federal-level alerts, but not state or local ones. (In Dubuque 35 years ago, we fired EBS tones for tornado warnings, but no other station I ever worked for did it.) Controversially, EAS wasn’t activated locally in New York on 9/11, even though those attacks were surely the kind of thing for which it was invented. In many states today, the decision to broadcast an alert is made by local emergency management officials or the National Weather Service, in recognition of the fact that many radio and TV stations operate unstaffed some of the time.

Once all of us started carrying personal communication devices, it made sense to start using them for such alerts. The Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) system has already buzzed you, probably—if you’ve ever gotten an Amber Alert on your phone, for example. It is possible to use the settings on your phone to opt out of such alerts, but there’s one setting you can’t change: the presidential alert. That’s why Conelrad and all the rest were invented, after all: for the president to communicate with Americans before, during, and after the dropping of the Big One. And it’s still a main purpose of EAS and WEA today, made official by federal laws passed in 2006, 2008, and 2015 that modernized the alert system for the cell-phone age.

A national EAS test was performed in 2016, and at that time, a lot of right-wingers lost their minds, screeching that it meant President Obama was going to take over the nation’s airwaves for propaganda purposes. (A 2017 test happened practically without anyone noticing, however.) Another national EAS test was scheduled for tomorrow, although it’s now been postponed to October 3. It is the first such test to incorporate the un-opt-out-able presidential alert on cell phones. Now it’s the left wing’s turn to freak out, imagining that Donald Trump will start using the system the same way he uses Twitter.

I don’t doubt that Trump would look fondly at a system that could allow him to force his opinions on people who might otherwise manage to ignore him. But sending a presidential alert is not something any president can do unilaterally. This is due in part to the 2015 act, which codified anti-Obama paranoia into law by limiting the president’s authority to activate emergency systems. The message we’ll all receive on October 3 will be a text, labeled as a presidential alert with some boilerplate script, most likely with no direct participation from Trump at all.

(Thanks to longtime friend of the blog Dan Kelley at the Michigan Association of Broadcasters for his EAS expertise.)

What the Good Ones Do

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It was around 2:30 in the morning. I was on my way from my radio job at KDTH in Dubuque back to my apartment in Platteville. I crested a hill, and a man came running into the road to flag me down. Behind him was a crashed car. A second man was lying in the middle of the road, and I knew from looking at him that he was dead. “There’s been an accident!” the first man cried, somewhat obviously. I stopped my car and got out, and I saw a porch light come on at a nearby house. “Call the sheriff!” I yelled.

This happened a long time ago, so I can’t remember much more. I do recall that I parked my car at the crest of the hill with the hazard lights on to slow other drivers who might come on the scene. I don’t know how long it took a sheriff’s deputy to arrive—10 minutes, maybe? Several cop cars and an ambulance came out eventually, and once I had determined that they didn’t need me to hang around, I went on my way.

It must have been 4AM until I got home. Before I went to bed, I called the KDTH newsroom and left a message. “When you call the Grant County Sheriff this morning, they’re going to tell you about a one-car accident in Maryvale Heights. I saw it driving home, and I’m pretty sure that there’s at least one fatality. A guy was lying in the middle of the road and he looked in pretty bad shape.”

Within a day or two, one of the news guys thanked me for calling in the story. “We had the fatality before anybody else in town,” he said, meaning the other radio station and the newspaper.

It was my greatest moment in journalism.

I have written before about how much I learned by watching various reporters at KDTH and elsewhere. Not every newscaster was a legend, although some were; some of them were pedestrian writers and others didn’t sound all that great on the air. But all of them, the legends and the lesser, had one thing in common: they took their jobs seriously. Not a one of them was half-assing it. They called up public officials and asked them to comment on stories, even when they knew the public officials might not want to talk. They went to press conferences and asked questions. The 40-hour week was just a rumor to them, because they had to attend evening school board and city council meetings after working a full day. They came in on weekends and holidays to cover severe weather and other disasters. They wrote with care, and they stacked their newscasts with care.

They did not report what they did not know. On those rare occasions when I am called upon to read news on the radio, I try to emulate them as best I can.

Two pieces I read over the weekend will give you good insight into how hard reporters work. One discusses how former ESPN reporter Brett McMurphy broke the story about Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer’s knowledge of domestic violence committed by an assistant; the other is a first-person account by Robert Klemko about his attempt to get inside the bubble that has protected NFL star Ray Lewis since he was convicted of obstruction of justice after a double murder in Atlanta. Both stories make clear that these guys busted their asses to get the story. McMurphy spent hours and days and miles tracking down scraps of information to corroborate his story. Klemko had the courage to ask questions that absolutely nobody, from Lewis on down, wanted to hear, let alone answer, and he persisted in asking them.

Of all the crises Donald Trump has wrought, his war on journalism may end up being the most destructive. And not only that: it’s the most absurd. He insists that CNN, MSNBC, the New York Times, Washington Post, and any news outlet that isn’t Fox, is simply making shit up; that nothing they say is true. He calls the press the enemy of the people, which is a loaded and violent phrase that’s eventually going to lead to more incidents like the newspaper shootings in Maryland last June. And it’s garbage, and not just because every word out of Trump’s mouth is garbage. Even less-talented reporters don’t simply make shit up. What the good ones do is precisely the opposite.

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