Last week, three of my radio colleagues got fired, all jocks, all on the stations I work for. Their “positions were eliminated,” to use one piece of jargon favored across the industry. Call it “downsizing” or “reductions in force,” but people end up without paychecks and with uncertain futures on the cusp of the holiday season. This kind of thing frequently happens in November as ownership groups contemplate year-end financial goals and plan for the new year. In my 13-plus years with my current company, this is the third one of these I can remember. (I wrote about one of them, which happened seven years ago today, here.)
I’m just a dumb-ass part-time disc jockey. I’m not saying anything I wouldn’t say to my bosses when I tell you I don’t like what happened. They don’t either. And I’m sad for my friends. But I’m also concerned about what it means for my own role as a dumb-ass part-time disc jockey. Radio companies need fewer of us these days. For those of us who still have such jobs, there are going to be fewer hours for us to fill. I expect that the company will find a way to put my talent and abilities to good use in the altered landscape ahead, but we’re gonna have to sail closer before I can see the shape of it.
Beyond being sad for my friends, I have been trying to figure out what else I’m feeling. Maybe it’s survivor guilt. This is something radio people don’t talk about out loud, why them and not me?, as if verbalizing the idea might put a target on your back for next time (and there is always a next time). But it’s not right to feel that way. Guys like me often become more valuable after this happens. We know how to do a lot of stuff, and we can fill in the gaps. I’ve been doing that this week and will continue to do it for a while.
Maybe it’s PTSD—flashbacks to the times I’ve been fired, glimpses of the emptiness and dread that comes with it. I’ve written about that before. Even when you know it’s coming (and sometimes you do), getting fired is a terrible jolt, and that’s how I experienced it, an electric shock, like grabbing onto a live wire. Once the shock subsides, you have to decide what’s next. That process is easier if you have a working spouse or money in the bank. But you still have to make the calculation about how long you can go without a job, whether you can get one in your town, or whether you’ll have to move.
And after it happens a couple of times, another question elbows its way into consideration. It’s not unique to radio; anyone working in an industry they love in spite of themselves might ask it: should I quit this damn business and go do something that isn’t going to break my heart?
These questions, including the latter, are the ones my former colleagues are facing right now.
Another Ending: Ann and I are Wisconsin Badgers football season-ticket holders. Since 2004, we’ve sat in Section Z2, in the south end zone at Camp Randall Stadium, and gamedays are one of the things we love the best. We’ve seen Rose Bowl teams and Russell Wilson, and some of the greatest moments in the 120-plus years of football at the UW.
This Saturday, however, we will sit in Z2 for the last time.
The UW has announced that in response to demand, they’re building a new premium seating section in our end of the stadium, which will be complete in time for the 2020 season. The athletic department has promised us that we will be able to choose new seats, although we are not at the top of the new-seat priority list. Ann and I have agreed that we’ll see what we can get, but also that if they are not exactly to our liking, we’re going to give up our tickets after 16 seasons.
When the project was first announced at the stadium, with a splashy promo on the scoreboard, it was soundly booed by the people in our end, because none of us are privileged enough to sit there, despite having paid the ever-increasing fare year after year (face value on our tickets for the recent game with Iowa was $115 each, more than double what it was in 2004). Even though people like us make up the majority of game-day patrons, we’re not the people driving this bus.
Not here, and not anywhere else in America, actually.
People don’t make song requests to radio stations like they used to. Maybe they’ve finally internalized the idea that whatever they want to hear is a couple of clicks away on the Internet, or the idea that radio stations just don’t play requests anymore.
The biggest rationale for not playing requests is that to acquire and maintain your carefully defined slice of the demographic pie requires a laser-focused format, not just in terms of the songs you play, but when you play them, how often, and even what you play next to them. Requests disrupt this focus. Even a tiny bit of dial-punching, caused by the most innocuous thing you can imagine, can cost you in the ratings.
A savvy, veteran jock can mitigate the disruptions to a certain degree. When I did the all-request show on the classic rock station, it was as an ex-program director who knew how the classic-rock canon broke down in terms of rotation categories. I knew which songs could stand more frequent airplay and which could not, as well as which off-the-wall suggestions were appropriate for me to play and which were not. At my stations today, I know some of the criteria that are used to rotate and schedule songs but not all of them. There’s a lot more that’s considered than just “This hasn’t been on since yesterday so it’s OK to play right now.”
But even before sophisticated data and tight demographics, there was the old-school excuse: “Why should we turn our station and its thousands of listeners over to the personal preferences of just one caller?” After all, there’s research that shows us which songs are liked by those thousands in the aggregate, and they’re a lot safer to play. That objection has a lot to recommend it, actually. Most veteran jocks have dealt with that one listener who calls up every damn day wanting to hear the same thing. And should you break down and play it, or should it accidentally come up in the rotation right after they call, they’ll keep calling for it until time shall be no more.
Here at this website, however, I do take requests. I have done a few posts over the years simply because people asked me to (and I’m always willing to do more, so ask.) What I’m about to solicit isn’t exactly the same thing, but it’s close.
I currently have three podcast episodes in the can. They’ll all run eventually, but I’d like you to decide which one should go first.
—“J. T. and the Boomers” is about the persistence of baby-boomer music and why everyone’s taste in music—not just boomers’ taste—never seems to change.
—“Random Radio Tales” is about close encounters with fame and the famous, and a couple of other stories.
—“The Fair and the Farm” is one of those non-music, non-radio things, about an incident from my life as a farm kid, and about the place where part of it happened.
Vote below, and the one that gets the most votes will go live on Friday, November 15.
What happened at Deadspin this week felt kind of familiar to me, and to other radio people, I’ll bet.
The short version if you haven’t been following: the site got new owners earlier this year—rich dopes who have experience in online publishing but little actual success at it—and they issued a “stick to sports” edict, although Deadspin was years evolved beyond its creation as an independent sports website into a politics and culture magazine with a wide ambit and a unique point of view. It was home to legitimately great writers, including Drew Magary, David Roth, and Albert Burneko, tenacious journalists including Diana Moskovitz and Laura Wagner, and a crew of brilliant bloggers. The site’s most recent editor, Megan Greenwell, quit in August (and set fire to her bosses on her way out the door); after this week’s latest “stick to sports” edict, deputy editor Barry Petchesky pinned Deadspin’s best non-sports posts on the front page and got fired for it. Within 48 hours, most of the other writers had hit the door, and Deadspin, a site I have visited several times a day for over a decade, was dead.
Any radio person who has been through a station sale probably can feel pains of sympathy for what the Deadspinners have been going through.
Understand first of all that I get it, and my radio colleagues who have been through it get it: when you own the company, you can do whatever you want with it. But it happens time and again, as it happened at G/O Media (owners of Deadspin and other sites including Jezebel, the Root, and the sadly shuttered Splinter, the news site the private-equity dopes terminated last month), and at radio stations from here to West Overshoe: new owners come in with a set of prejudices and the intent to act on them. They look at what the place is doing, and they say, “This can’t be working,” which often translates to, “I don’t like this, which means it’s wrong.” Or they say—and this is closer to what happened at Deadspin—“I’m going to do this thing even if it makes no sense to you, because I’m playing a game of nine-dimensional chess you can’t understand.”
It doesn’t have to be new owners. It can be new bosses brought in by old owners. I know of a radio station where a new boss announced that he would curtail the amount of live sports the station was doing, because nobody was listening and they couldn’t sell it. This was before he’d bothered to look at the revenue figures, which proved that they could sell it, which in a non-measured market is all that matters. I know of another station with a specialty show that made money like there was a printer in the basement, but a new manager wanted to kill it because he couldn’t understand its appeal. Years ago, I got fired for the simple reason that a new boss wanted his people. That the new people were not as talented never entered his mind.
Deadspin’s owners do not understand that recaps of the World Series or somesuch, no matter how engagingly written, were not what kept people coming back to the site. And that’s what makes this so absolutely maddening, and what makes it so maddening to we radio types when new owners or managers take over and start messing with a proven product. The evidence for what works is right in front of you—why are you unable to see it?
Megan Greenwell wrote: “A metastasizing swath of media is controlled by private-equity vultures and capricious billionaires and other people who genuinely believe that they are rich because they are smart and that they are smart because they are rich, and that anyone less rich is by definition less smart. They know what they know, and they don’t need to know anything else.” [Italics mine.] But you don’t have to be rich, necessarily, to think this way. It’s enough to believe you’re smart because you have been told that you’re smart—even if it’s only yourself who has done the telling—and that anyone who isn’t you is less smart. And so you will, with eyes wide open, make decisions based on your own perceived smartness and discount the real-world evidence that is, and let me repeat this, right in front of you.
TL, DR: so long, Deadspinners. You were awesome. A lot of us out here feel your pain, wish you well, and look forward to following you wherever you land.
Most radio stations, and the corporate groups that own them, still understand that they have some responsibility to deliver information to the communities they serve. In a lot of cases, that information is rudimentary: traffic reports, sports scores, “three things you need to know.” The days when it required a fully staffed newsroom are long gone. Even stations that still do formal newscasts aren’t necessarily hiring reporters to do them. The newscasts you hear on your local station may be written and delivered by somebody whose main training is not as a journalist.
Somebody like me, for example.
Apart from a one-semester course in high school, I have never had any formal training in journalism. But as a young radio man, I was fortunate enough to work with highly skilled broadcast journalists, and I learned what to do by watching and listening to them. On the air as a DJ, I sometimes find myself in the position of having to deliver the news, not in the formal newscast sense, but when a big story breaks while I’m on the air. Then, too, I rely on the lessons I learned watching legitimate pros of my acquaintance do their jobs.
(One thing I learned from those pros is that they would have disavowed the highfalutin’ term “broadcast journalist.” They would say that they were “radio reporters,” or “newsmen,” as the gender fit.)
The long-delayed fifth episode of my podcast is called “Delivering the News.” It’s about my experiences playing at radio newsman, about some of the people who taught me how to do it, and some of the memorable breaking-news stories I have reported as a DJ. You can listen to it right here.
This episode and earlier episodes are now available at Apple Podcasts. You can also find them at Google Play, TuneIn, and Stitcher. You can subscribe at my Soundcloud, too. I hope you enjoy the new one, and I welcome your comments on it.
This started out as my own comment on the post I put up here Friday, but it turned into a whole post.
I appreciate your thoughtful comments on the purpose of local radio. And I agree with commenter Mike that even 40 years ago, radio stations were subject to sameness and homogenity. Even in what we perceive as a classic era, jocks could easily fall into the trap of doing nothing but time, temperature, title and artist, and generic pop-culture bits, and do it for years on end without ever realizing (or being told) that there are other ways.
But maybe what frosts me more broadly than a lack of localism is the lack of a sense of place. I wrote about this last October. The major chains often run the same formats, based on the same music research and with the same positioning and imaging, in market after market. Although it strikes me as less than 100 percent desirable, I get it. It makes financial sense, and there’s not going to be a great deal of variation among (for example) classic-rock stations no matter who’s doing the research or what audience is being surveyed: you’re gonna hear “More Than a Feeling” and “Sweet Home Alabama” everywhere you go. But I grew up on stations that ran automated national formats, and I listened to big network O-and-O’s like WLS in Chicago, and between the records you always got a sense of where they were from, whether it was from jock talk, news content, or even just commercials. And that sense is largely missing from similar stations today.
(Digression: I recently tweeted an aircheck of Chicago jock Clark Weber, doing a morning show on WLS in 1966. As I listened, I was amazed that I could still recall the tag from one of the commercials, for a clothing store called William A. Lewis. For years, their ads ended with a list of locations: “2301 West 95th, Hillside, Harlem/Irving, Randhurst, and Scottsdale Shopping Center.” At the end of the ad, I recited the list of locations just as if I were reading the tag in the studio myself. That commercial was just one of the things on WLS that gave young me a sense of the place called Chicago.)
Two Octobers ago, I wrote about a small-town classic-hits station on which the music format was almost completely predictable, and where voice-tracked local jocks never did anything but title, artist, and national feature bits ripped straight from the AP wire. But even that station gave a listener a sense of coming from somewhere specific. It was in the untrained Midwestern accent of the young woman doing the midday show; it was in the promos for the Friday-night high-school football broadcast; it was in the commercials for local car dealers and restaurants; it was in the newscasts talking about house fires and city council meetings. But when every voice on the station is smooth, every spot is for a national advertiser, and there’s never a newscast or even a weather forecast, you don’t know where you are—or who they are.
As commenter Rick points out, radio is best when it sounds like its coverage area. Automated, satellite-delivered, or voicetracked radio doesn’t have to be completely generic; it doesn’t have to be live and local 24/7 either, but at the very least, you should try. Take whatever opportunity you have to do whatever you can. The giant chain station that inspired Friday’s post wasn’t bothering to do that, at least not when I was listening. Maybe they had a local morning show or afternoon drive-time show I didn’t hear, and maybe that show is strongly focused on the home market. It’s possible. But it’s just as likely that the station is running Bob and Tom in the morning and/or Slacker and Steve in the afternoon.
There’s a philosophical foundation for generic formats (“local radio deserves the strongest personalities available, and our national jocks are the strongest”), and it’s cheap. There’s an argument, I suppose, that a sense of place isn’t important if all you want to hear is “More Than a Feeling” and “Sweet Home Alabama.” And in the end, maybe those of us who think radio should aspire to do something for its local community beyond being a conduit for generic programming are old fossils whom the world has passed by. But as long as I’m still able to drag my ass into a studio, I’m gonna do it my way, and argue that it’s the right way, and encourage other people to do it that way too.
Recently I was on the road, having lunch in a place playing one of the local radio stations. “Local” in the sense that its tower and mailing address were in the same town I was in. Its programming was not local at all. It was running a national voice-tracked format on which the only thing local were the ads—and those local ads often came at the end of interminable seven-minute breaks, the first three minutes of which were national ads and promos for the parent company’s national shows, its app, and its podcasts.
Several years ago, when the drift toward this sort of canned programming had just begun, a prominent radio executive was quoted as saying that local stations were entitled to have the strongest personalities available, and that his canned national jocks would be better than anybody local. Back then, I wrote a little about it, and after coming across that piece in the archives recently, I think it’s worth rebooting, with some minor edits.
[Whether the executive’s comment makes any sense] depends on what you think local radio is for. If it’s only to provide music and/or talk for the people within range of the signal, his philosophy has a great deal to recommend it. But if you think local radio has a service responsibility to the community in which it is located, that philosophy is harder to swallow.
The major chains put great stock in running public service announcements, which is one way stations have served their communities since Christ was a corporal (especially when paid ads aren’t selling well). You put ’em on the quarterly issues report you are required to place in your files for public inspection, and you get credit for ’em at license renewal time. But public service announcements, while important and useful, are not equivalent to broad, deep community engagement, even if you run one an hour seven days a week.
Community engagement happens in lots of ways. When important news or weather breaks, how do the people on the air talk about it? Is it happening to them, or are they watching it in a newsroom miles away? How about the mundane stuff of daily life? Are the jocks talking about their experience at the big local game or the community festival just up the road? Does the mayor ever call in, or the fire chief, or one of the local TV news anchors? When people go to the grocery store, will they ever run into the morning guy? Are they going to see the woman who does middays hosting the local public TV auction? When they go to the county fair, are the jocks staffing the station booth?
There’s a compelling argument that in our atomized, customized, short-attention-span world, local sourcing matters far less than it used to. We like to eat fresh produce in the winter and we don’t care that it comes from South America or Australia. Why should we care that the guy on the radio is in a studio 1500 miles away, and the joke he just made about the Oscars was recorded last week?
But here’s the thing: serving local communities is bred in radio’s bones. It’s what the people who invented the damn thing intended it to do. The Radio Act of 1927 required stations to operate in the “public interest, convenience, and necessity,” and generations of broadcasters did so. It’s only since the de-regulatory fever of the 1980s and the Telecommunications Act of 1996 that we’ve seen the wholesale turning-away from those reasons-to-be.
Executives who talk about the superiority of national programming talk exactly like people whose job is to monetize a private asset. If that’s what you think radio is, and what it’s for—an asset that belongs to you and you alone, and has value only if turned to money, as if it were a crop of winter wheat or a carload of steel ingots—then you’ll streamline and standardize. But if you believe that radio is a public asset that you hold in trust, you’ll ask yourself not, “What should we do so we can profit from this?” but “What must we do so the public can profit from this?”
The current economic realities of radio, and the needs and desires of even small and local companies to keep up with the changes wrought by the giant chains, make it hard to put the public interest, convenience, and necessity first. Some companies still have the old way in their DNA, however, and if there’s one of them in your town, they deserve your earholes, and your marketing dollars.