You’re Outta Here

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Radio consultant Fred Jacobs wrote a thing last week about whether radio jocks who are being fired should get the chance to do a farewell show. This, as you know or can guess, is extreeeeeeemly uncommon. But he notes how many fired jocks have made graceful farewells on social media, and he wonders if stations might not consider giving more such people a chance to say goodbye on the air.

Some fired jocks can’t be trusted to make a graceful farewell, however. The most famous case of a farewell-gone-wild (that I know of) was in 1976, when WCFL in Chicago made its fabled format change to elevator music. The station announced the move in advance, and all the jocks on the staff went quietly, except for morning hosts Dick Sainte and Doug Dahlgren. On the day after the announcement, they spent 3 1/2 hours setting fire to their bosses (even making an on-air call to morning rival Fred Winston at WLS) before they were finally yanked off the air.

(Highlights of the final show are here; the video also includes a Chicago Tribune column about their stunt.)

But the number of jocks who’d go as far as Dick and Doug is pretty small, I think. I am also guessing that the number who’d actually want to do a farewell show after getting fired is small, too. Even in those cases when you can smell it coming like a thunderstorm on the wind, being fired is traumatic, and traumatized people tend not to be all that great on the radio. But if time and circumstances permit, some jocks would certainly welcome the chance at a formal on-air goodbye.

I got to do a post-firing farewell show once. I said goodbye to a large and loyal local audience instead of just vanishing into the ether, so there was a bit of closure for them, and for me. Another time, when my boss showed up at 5:30 on a Saturday afternoon while I was on the air, there could be only one reason why he was there, so I ended my last break by saying, “Ladies and gentlemen, it has been a pleasure.” The stupidest and least justified of my firings, the famous industrial espionage incident, was the one time I’d have been justified in going full-Dick-and-Doug on the people who ran the place. They didn’t give me the chance, of course, and I wouldn’t have done it anyway, because I was young and green and trying to be professional, and hoping to protect whatever future prospects I had in that market or elsewhere. The last time I got fired, I was deep into burnout without realizing it, and the owner did me a favor by cutting me loose. After the shock subsided, what I felt mostly was relief. I probably could have done a perfectly fine farewell show there, but I didn’t want to.

(To newer patrons: yes, I got fired a lot. Nearly every radio jock gets fired sometime. It happens. You have to go out in some spectacularly illegal fashion before there’s much stigma attached to it. Even Dick and Doug weren’t blackballed from the industry.)

But radio companies are generally risk-averse in the best of situations, and so most of them would not for one second consider letting a fired employee back on the air. (The more humane ones might let you clean out your desk unsupervised and leave the building without being walked out by security.) So it seems likely that fired jocks disappearing without a trace will be a thing forever. But farewell shows, in addition to providing a modest sense of closure for the jock, can also offer closure to the audience. For listeners emotionally invested in a favorite station, it’s extremely jarring to find a familiar personality suddenly gone without explanation. (After one station of mine suddenly turfed a popular veteran jock, we got calls about them for a year afterward.) And even after decades of success at KROQ in Los Angeles, our friend Bean Baxter periodically reminded listeners that it was entirely possible that they would tune in one morning and find that he and Kevin Ryder were gone without warning.

It’s true for all of us, because that’s how radio is.

This Is It

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(Pictured: American soldiers at the Kuwaiti border, January 1991.)

I have told the story before about being on the air the day the Persian Gulf War began in 1991. Recently, I was poking through the archives of my first blog, The Daily Aneurysm, and found what I wrote about it on January 16, 2006. It has a couple of details I don’t think I’ve ever shared here. 

On January 16, 1991, I was working at a radio station in Clinton, Iowa. In those days, Clinton wasn’t exactly Paris in the 1920s—it was a hanging-by-a-thread industrial town where the top employers were an animal carcass rendering plant and a grain processor, both of which blanketed the city with an indescribable stench, and a chemical plant that produced god-knew-what. It was a shot-and-a-beer town, albeit more in the what’s-the-use, who-gives-a-shit sense than in the salt-of-the-earth sense. (That’s partly why The Mrs. and I never lived there—I commuted from 30 miles away for three-plus years.) Despite all that, however, the station was run by the best owner I ever worked for, and it became a place where you could plant little seeds of good radio and be given the time necessary for them to grow.

We tried buying a house in Clinton—a couple of them, as a matter of fact. One was a magnificent old pile from the 1920s that had quite literally everything we’d ever wanted in a house, at a price that made it an absolute steal. But we were warned off by every single local person we talked to: “You do not want to live in that neighborhood no matter how beautiful the house is.” The second was in the more desirable part of town, but we bailed after the home inspector determined that the whole thing had been framed with two-by-fours. Standing in the attic, he told me, “The fact that this place is 40 years old and hasn’t fallen down yet says something, but I still wouldn’t store anything heavy up here.” 

So on that day, I am on the air in the afternoon, my regular timeslot. Around the office, war talk has been secondary to the fact that Jane Pauley of NBC News is in town shooting a feature for one of her shows. At the end of the 3:30 local newscast, my reporter, Christy, mentions this to me on the air. We happen to know that the owner of the local limousine service usually plays our station in his limo, so I make a little speech: “Jane, if you’re listening and you have a few minutes, stop by the radio station. Your driver knows how to find it. We promise it will be the easiest interview you ever had. Nothing but softball questions. You can plug your new show all you want.” I repeat the invitation a few more times over the next couple of hours.

About 5:45, Christy suddenly bursts into the studio yelling, “This is it! This is it!” She is talking about the first bulletins of bombers over Baghdad. For a few seconds, I think she is telling me Jane Pauley has showed up.

I wasn’t in favor of that war. All the talk about liberating the poor Kuwaitis, and all the talk about Saddam being worse than Hitler, all of it sounded to me like PR nonsense. It was a war to control the flow of oil, nothing more. The fact that an international coalition was working together on the effort made it only a little easier to swallow. Yet when the war actually began—in the first ten minutes after Christy barreled into the studio—I remember feeling a rush of excitement, and a euphoria so powerful my knees almost buckled when I stood up. Visions of B-52s flying wing-to-wing, tanks and trucks roaring over the border, endless lines of soldiers marching into the distance, flags snapping in the breeze, my country, of thee I sing. This is it. This is it.

We carried ABC News war coverage all that night. The next day, we decided to return to regular programming at noon but with regular updates on the war news. ABC fed a two-minute update every 10 minutes, so all afternoon, I did a regular music show while hitting a network feed six times an hour. It occurs to me now that we probably should have just kept carrying the live network feed. Still, any old radio veteran who ever had to backtime to the top of the hour can appreciate the challenge of doing it 36 times in a single day. 

That’s Christmas to Me

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(Pictured: Pentatonix onstage in 2022.)

(This post contains my personal opinions only and not those of the company I work for. I wouldn’t presume to speak for them, and nobody should ever presume that I do.)

I spent maybe 25 or 30 hours programming Christmas music for my radio station’s 98 Hours show this year, finally finishing it at 12:30 on the afternoon of Christmas Eve. Observations follow:

Continue reading “That’s Christmas to Me”

Picking the Hits

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One reason I got into radio was to play the music I liked to listen to, but I quickly learned that musical fandom or expertise doesn’t matter very much. Radio is the thing you’re into, not merely music. Your job is the presentation: executing the format and providing value to your audience, and to advertisers who are paying to reach them. It can’t hurt to be a fan or an expert, but it’s not necessary unless you’re doing a specialty show of some kind. A radio jock can do just fine most of the time without an especially deep understanding of the music they’re playing, especially in a world where Google exists. I play Ed Sheeran on my show literally every day while being not remotely interested in him, yet when I talk about him, you can’t tell. I did country radio for a long time, and it was the same way: fake it ’til you make it. A person who works for a rhythmic CHR station can quite easily be someone who listens to Americana driving home. Some DJs don’t even like music all that much.

I am convinced that the number of radio jocks who would pick their own music every day if they could is vanishingly small. It’s not our job. I don’t want to pick it on weekdays because I need to concentrate on my presentation. I pick only a few on my weekend speciaty show and let the scheduling software do the rest because I want to concentrate on my presentation.

Any given radio station, especially in a small or medium-sized market, may not be creatively involved in selecting what songs to play and how often to play them. Back in the day, stations would make playlist decisions based on national charts such as those compiled by Radio and Records, which meant they were following the lead of larger and more influential stations. Today, the same stations might rely on airplay data from Mediabase—still following the lead of other stations. While stations may fiddle at the margins with individual titles in their “gold” libraries, the older songs they continue to play, most will be pretty conservative, playing the same hits from the past that similar stations are continuing to play. There are exceptions: stations with adventuresome music programming philosophies, those who can still afford to pay for local music research, or those trying to differentiate themselves from close competitors in the same format. But when margins are so thin—when, in a rated market, one-tenth of a share point can translate to thousands of dollars in advertising revenue—Rule Number One is frequently Safety First.

Some individual jocks do pick their own music. So-called “free-form” radio, programmed by the person on the air, still exists in a few places, although those places tend to be listener-supported stations or subscription-based satellite radio. But even when free-form was practiced by commercial stations that had to attract and satisfy advertisers, it usually wasn’t a free-for-all. Jocks often had limits; for example, they might be told that they had to play cuts from certain currently popular albums, and they might even have been limited to specific cuts from those albums.

Certain free-form jocks developed a following. You’d listen to them and think, This guy’s taste is just like mine. But it was actually a neat trick. “This guy’s taste” had to reflect the taste of lots of different kinds of people, to bring as many people as possible into the tent and keep them there. And so even on a free-form show, there was always architecture in place behind the scenes that conformed to a philosophy and was meant to achieve a goal. Also behind the scenes was frequently a lot of work in advance. A free-form music show, like any other radio show, succeeds to the extent that the person hosting it has prepared for it before they begin. You can’t just walk into the studio and say, What do I feel like playing tonight? 

TL, DR: Programming music on the radio is not the job lots of people think it is. It’s both harder and easier than it seems.

This post was supposed to go up on Friday but I decided it needed a little more editing that I wouldn’t have time for. I am not convinced it isn’t still fundamentally flawed in some way. Radio jocks, ex-jocks, and interested bystanders, I welcome your comments.

Political Pioneer

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(Pictured: rural Illinois. Not visible: potholes, probably.)

From the 1970s onward, the western part of Illinois was sometimes called the state of Forgottonia (state bird the albatross, state flower the forget-me-not). The region had sent few if any Democrats to the state legislature since the 1930s, and decades later, its dogged Republicanism had a cost. Republican governments felt little need to shed state largesse on the region since it would vote for them no matter what; Democratic governments knew that however much money they spent to benefit the region, it wouldn’t keep people from voting Republican. As a result, issues that mattered to the people of Forgottonia were often, well, forgotten. Existing roads and bridges were in terrible shape, and new roads were badly needed to better link the region to the rest of the Midwest.

In 1986, I was on the radio in Macomb, which was sometimes considered the capital of Forgottonia. In that year, George Lipper, who formerly owned the station I worked for (a man I have written about here), decided to run for the state legislature as a Democrat. George had been a strong infrastructure advocate for years, wherever he lived. He believed that good roads were as critical to economic development in the 1980s as canals and railroads had been in the 19th century. And after the General Assembly member representing our part of Forgottonia opposed Governor Jim Thompson’s “Build Illinois” infrastructure and development plan, George decided to run against him.

I can’t remember all of the details surrounding Build Illinois; Thompson was a Republican, and there were suggestions that the money was being targeted to help Republican electoral prospects across the state. One would have expected the incumbent legislator, also a Republican, to heartily support an infusion of money into his district, but he did not.

(Why would Big Jim earmark money for a district that would vote to reelect him anyway? I have heard the following story, which I am not sure is true: at some point during his term, Thompson was scheduled to appear somewhere in the region. He was unable to fly that day and had take a limo from Springfield, whereupon he was directly introduced to Forgottonia’s crappy roads.)

George’s candidacy was such a longshot that the state Democratic Party wouldn’t return his calls, and he was forced to raise money door-to-door. One day, I got a call from him asking me to personally produce his radio ads. In one of them, he intended to use a soundbite of the incumbent, from a press conference in which he said, “I opposed Build Illinois.”

I’d been through several election cycles in radio by then, but I had never heard a political ad that did such a thing. I even wondered whether it was ethical, and if it would be effective to use his opponent’s own words and voice against him. I didn’t say anything about it to George, however. I put the ads together, wrapping George’s script, which he voiced, around the incumbent’s words, and I tacked on the paid-for announcement in my own voice. Then I made a few copies (on small reels of tape) so that George could send them to other stations in the district, and we were done.

When the ad began to run, the incumbent lost his shit. It wasn’t long before he started running an ad accusing George of taking his words out of context, crying that there was more to his comments than that short soundbite. And in truth there was, but it was him elaborating on why he thought it was a bad idea for the state to spend money on a popular program designed to boost the economy and help people.

I wish that I could tell you that George’s groundbreaking gambit and my radio production skills were integral parts of a winning campaign, but I cannot. He did, however, get a larger percentage of the vote in the district than any Democrat in many years. But come 1988, he did not run again. In that year, after his 1986 opponent decided to run for a judgeship instead of reelection to the Assembly, a local businessman who had been instrumental in George’s 1986 campaign won the seat.

Today, politicians and PACs use soundbites from their opponents in ads all the time. (And it’s equally common for the opponents to claim that their words have been taken out of context.) As it happens, I may have been involved in pioneering this practice. Sorry, America.

One Thing Right

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This is the second part of a thing. Read the first part here.

It must be true for other careers, not just radio: when you choose it as a young kid, when it becomes the dream of your life, you idealize it. I certainly did. When I pretended to be on the radio, up in my boyhood bedroom talking over the songs on WLS or WCFL, I had all the fun of being a radio jock—cracking wise, hitting the post, just generally sounding cool—without all of the reality I would eventually learn about.

To wit: off-air responsibilities, sometimes tedious or unrewarding. Weird working hours that put you out of sync with other people in your life. Weekends and holidays on the air, which can do the same. Difficult colleagues. Clueless bosses. Small paychecks. Playing music you don’t particularly like. The ratings. Wondering if your talent is enough. The feeling that nobody, listeners or management, understands or cares about the effort you’re putting in.

Practically nobody ever quits radio because they hate being on the air. What drives out most of those who leave is overwhelmingly the other stuff. But being behind the studio door, headphones on, microphone cracked, talking to the people—the process and the feeling of making a show—that’s what keeps us coming back to work every day, and to the industry itself if ever we leave it, in spite of the other stuff.

For a radio lifer, being on the air can be like chasing the dragon. You want the rush you get when it feels like it feels when you dream of how it should feel. You won’t get it every time and probably not even very often, but when you do, it’s like nothing else. The specifics depend on who you are: music jock, talk host, play-by-play announcer. But the realization is the same: you’re an addict, and you know you’ll never kick.

I was on the air a couple of Saturday nights back, doing my 70s music show. I was talking over the introduction of a record, delivering the bit I had scripted a few minutes before. I hadn’t thought about it in advance, but as I spoke, I found myself instinctively reaching for the post I knew was in the intro, hitting it, and then finishing the bit right as the vocal began, with my best boss-jock flourish. And as I did it, I flashed on the way I had done that very thing 50 years before, upstairs in my bedroom at home, while I was pretending to be on the radio, probably with that very same song.

In that moment, I caught the dragon.

Anyone who is even halfway self-aware, no matter who they are or what they do, sometimes has doubts about the choices they’ve made. About a career, or a particular aspect of that career. About a relationship. About how they responded to a situation or answered a question. Lying awake at night, or during those long hours behind the wheel when the mind wanders, we wonder: did I do the right thing? What if I got it wrong? Should I be doing this thing that I am doing? Or should I be doing something else?

In 2011, I wrote this:

We have moments in which we see our lives whole. The dreams we had and the way they came true—or didn’t. The ways in which we have succeeded, and in which we have failed. What we have done, and what we have left undone. We see the faces and hear the voices of those we love and those we have lost. Everything that was, everything that is—and, perhaps, everything that is going to be—rushes in on us all at once.

That Saturday night, everything that was, everything that is, and everything that is going to be rushed in on me, all at once. I was reminded that in my life, amidst all the missteps and regrets and better roads not taken, I got at least one thing right.