Category Archives: Radio Tales

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.

Make It Perfect

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I could tell from the sales rep’s tone of voice that she was unhappy. “What on Earth did you say to Joan this afternoon?” Joan was a local realtor who had been in the office to record a commercial for her agency. It had taken about 15 minutes, and it was like every other client session I had done.

“What did she say?” I asked.

“She was really upset with the way you treated her.”

I could not imagine what I might have done. “What did I do?”

“You made her read the spot over and over.”

That was true, I said to the rep. “We had to do it a few times before it sounded good.”

“Well, she wasn’t happy. Nobody ever asked her to do that before.”

Many clients want to voice their own ads. If the client is the best possible messenger for his own business, I don’t have a problem with it, although it’s not the case very often. Some clients insist on voicing their own ads, even though they aren’t the best possible messenger. If you want their ad buy, you’re stuck with them. It’s extremely difficult for a rep to say, “You doing the ad is a bad idea, and I’d rather not take your money.” Sometimes stations offer the client the opportunity to voice his own ad as an ego-stroke, or a way to close the deal. Consultant Dan O’Day considers the latter unethical. I wouldn’t use the same word. Unprofessional, maybe. If the rep can’t close the sale with all the other tools at her disposal, she probably ain’t all that good at the job.

Today, the sales rep might use the recording function on a phone, tablet, or laptop to record the spot right in the client’s office. In days of yore, the client had to come to the station and work with one of the jocks.

Joan had been a regular advertiser for a while. I’d never handled one of her sessions before, so I did what I’d always done. She fluffed a word, so I had her start over. One take ran long, so I had her start over. Then she came up short, so I asked her to do it a little bit slower. “You’re paying for 60 seconds,” I said with a smile. I could tell she was getting a little frustrated, but I said, “We want this to be as good as it can be.” I gave her some advice on how to emphasize particular phrases—to sell the message she was reading—and made her do it again.

After 15 minutes, we had a good one. I got it ready to air the next time it was scheduled. Joan went back to her office, called her sales rep, and blasted me over the phone.

I explained to the rep why I had done what I had done. I even offered to call Joan and apologize—although I wasn’t sorry.

If I’d been assigned to voice a spot for Joan and it came out less than perfect, I’d redo it until it was right. Why should Joan, or any client, settle for less when their own voice is on it? She’s paying for professional expertise—mine and the station’s—and to put a spot on the air that doesn’t sound at least halfway good is professional malpractice. If words are slurred or swallowed, pacing is wrong, and/or the client’s intonations are those of somebody who’s obviously reading, as opposed to speaking, that makes for a poor ad. A poor ad is usually an ineffective one, and the station does the client no favors by selling them something that doesn’t work they way they promised it would. In addition, poor ads reflect on the station just as much as they reflect on the client, if not more. A listener who hates a particular ad is more likely to call the station and complain than they are to call the advertiser and complain.

When a client insists on voicing his own ads, you can ameliorate some of the most common problems if you take the time. You can apply the expertise you possess to minimize his amateurishness to whatever extent is possible. If that requires coaching or multiple takes, so be it. The client shouldn’t be offended. He or she should welcome your effort to make it perfect.

Something Unpredictable

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(Pictured: a courtroom photo from the final episode of Seinfeld. It is the official position of this blog that the finale is the single worst episode of the series, but that’s a subject we’re not getting into today. Neither are we getting into the subject I thought we’d get into when I started writing, but that’s the way it goes sometimes.)

Twenty years ago tonight, the final episode of Seinfeld aired on NBC.

Seinfeld didn’t make an impact on me until it had been on for two or three years. But like millions of other people, I got hooked on it, and I’d still rank it as an all-time favorite, even though I don’t watch it regularly anymore. My sense of it is that it’s not particularly dated, except for the baseball references that few outside of New York are going to get (Paul O’Neill, Danny Tartabull), and the way it depicts a world where landline telephones still rule. There’s a 1991 episode in which Jerry is shown with a car phone, but cellphones are not part of the Seinfeld universe, and the show aired at practically the last moment when such a thing looked normal.

When I started writing this post, I intended to segue here to a reboot of something I wrote for WNEW.com about the music of Seinfeld, but then I decided I could just link to the damn thing (which I have already reposted here once) and spend the balance of my time today on other items, TV-related and otherwise.

To wit:

Continue reading →

Rule A and Rule B

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Last month, somebody asked about the process of preparing a radio show. Every jock who cares enough to do it has his or her own method, but here’s mine.

I often joke that my entire life is show prep, but it really is. As I routinely travel the Internet, watch TV, or listen to the radio, I keep an eye out for stuff that might be interesting to talk about the next time I’m on the air. In addition, about an hour before I go on the air, I cruise through a short list of websites I have found to be useful sources.

For any jock on any station, what’s “interesting” is determined by who your listener is. I am interested in craft beer and college hockey, for example, but not necessarily to the degree that my listeners are. The stations I’m on are targeted to adult women, so I’m always thinking about what someone with an office job, a spouse, and/or a couple of kids is likely to find interesting. This is not to say that I’m never going to talk about craft beer or college hockey, but it will have to be filtered through the prism of the 40-ish woman I imagine on the other end of the transmission.

The stuff I prepare has to qualify under one of two basic rules: A) it’s got to be stuff my listeners need or would want to know about and/or B) stuff they’re already thinking about. There’s lots of overlap. Weather can fall into both; if people know there’s a winter storm coming, I’ll talk about it in more detail than I will if the forecast is for sunny and 75. Stuff they need or want to know includes serious things: a traffic tie-up due to road construction, for example, but it can also include fairs or festivals or places to take the kids on the weekend. Which are also things they might already be thinking about. Rule A or Rule B bits generally run about 30 seconds, and I like to have one for every hour I’m on the air.

My goal is to be as topical as possible. What do listeners care about right now, today? It’s why I don’t like to voice-track a show more than a few hours in advance, or 24 hours before at most. Any farther out and you risk missing that “right now” connection. An even-greater risk is that you’ll miss some transcendent event. Imagine tracking your classic-rock Sunday show on Friday afternoon and then a Mick Jagger or a Paul McCartney dies on Saturday.

I’ve written before about my guiding question: “What can I do on the air today that nobody else can do?” It’s why I’m prejudiced in favor of local material, and against the celebrity news/junk so many jocks rely on. That’s not to say I will never do a celebrity story or something from halfway across the country. If it’s a viral story, it may be something listeners are already thinking about (see Rule B above). But I have to come up with an original take, a local angle, or at least a punchline that’s entirely my own.

Some jocks like to know in advance the songs scheduled in their show to help them prepare, but I don’t care. I have lots of music-related bits floating around in my head, so that kind of thing is easy to come by if I need it. Also, the new album by so-and-so can be pretty far down the list of things that meet Rule A or Rule B. Not always, but in most cases.

Not everything is a “bit.” If I have 11 seconds over the intro of a song, there’s often not time for anything more than title and artist. But even those short segments will be better given advance thought. I recently mentioned that I’ve become a big believer in scripting. As I prepare, I write my 30-second bits as I will deliver them on the air. When I get into the studio, I start scripting the rest of the show. Since where I talk is specified to me by the format clock, I can script ahead, sometimes as much as an hour, although some days I barely manage to stay one break ahead.

To keep this post from getting any longer, I’m going to stop here. If you have questions about any of this, please ask in the comments. And if you’re a jock with a method that works for you, or advice for other jocks, please include that, too.

Listening, 50 Years Ago Tonight

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(Since putting the finishing touches on this post early this morning and scheduling it to post, I have been reading MLK50 posts almost exclusively, and I’m conscious now of how lame mine is. Your time will almost certainly be better spent here, here, or here. If you have time for nothing else today, click the link about news bulletins below. The bulk of it is CBS News coverage from April 4 and 5, and some of it is riveting.)

I have written many times how my parents were serious radio listeners. Dad had a radio in the barn that was always on while he milked the cows. Mother’s radio sat in the kitchen on a counter near the sink, under a low-hanging cupboard in a space so small it wasn’t good for much else. Although she had several over the years, one that I remember best was a light-colored AM/FM unit with a dial that lit up brightly when it was turned on.

Although Mother and Dad listened to our local station in the morning and evening, she would sometimes tune over to WGN from Chicago during the middle of the day. On the evening of April 4, 1968, Mother hadn’t tuned back to our local station, but she had turned the radio on. A baseball game was on, likely the Cubs and certainly an exhibition game, as the regular season didn’t start until the next week. She was not a baseball fan, so I don’t know why she would have been listening. Maybe she turned her radio on and got sidetracked before she could tune elsewhere, as a young mother with boys aged 8, 5, and 1 would frequently be.

I was playing on the floor of the nearby dining room. Maybe my brother was playing with me and maybe he wasn’t; I can’t recall. I would not have been paying close attention to the baseball game, since I wasn’t a sports fan yet. That would come in another year. But at some point during the game, perhaps between 6:30 and 7:00, a news bulletin came on that Martin Luther King had been shot in Memphis.

I remember hearing it. Or at least I think I do. I can see myself on the green tile floor of the dining room, the brightly lit radio playing over my shoulder, and the news coming on.

I had a precocious interest in current events for a second-grader. Because I absorbed a lot by osmosis from my parents’ radios, from the TV news they watched, and from the newspapers I saw them reading, I might have recognized King’s name. I might have heard about his Poor Peoples’ Campaign and his solidarity with striking sanitation workers in Memphis.

Now it’s just as likely that I knew nothing of Martin Luther King on that night 50 years ago. It’s possible that my hearing about the King murder may not have happened in any way remotely close to the way I recall it. Maybe I didn’t hear about it at all that night. Our memories are notoriously faulty, even regarding stuff we believe we remember vividly. And memories from childhood get more faulty as time passes, don’t they? I have had for years a memory from the weekend of the JFK assassination, a single image of a coffin on a bier, but I was three years old. I can’t honestly say whether I really saw it on TV or I saw the picture later and created the memory. I also remember telling my parents at some point in ’68 that I wanted Eugene McCarthy to be president—based on what, I have no idea, but it seems like the kind of thing I would have said. If I actually said it.

So I can’t claim to be certain about what I remember hearing 50 years ago tonight, although a future radio guy learning of the King murder on the radio before he knew anything about his future makes a fine little prophetical anecdote. It’s one of those things that should be true, which might be why I remember it that way.

If you’re old enough to remember 50 years ago tonight, how did you learn about it? If you’re not, what’s the first historic news event you remember hearing about?

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