I Did a Thing

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Here is the thing:

For the last 15 years, I have been a weekend/fill-in DJ and jack-of-all-trades with the stations of Mid-West Family Broadcasting in Madison, Wisconsin, mostly on Magic 98 and Q106. In May of this year, the person who’d been doing the afternoon show on Magic 98 left the company. After filling in for several weeks, I was offered the opportunity to replace her on a permanent basis, and I took it. So every weekday from 3 til 7 US Central, you can find me here.

After all of the job losses during the radio industry’s COVID year and even before that, my ending up with a full-time radio job is something I never expected. And it feels like the right time for me to take it, even though I know several people of my exact age who have retired this year.

Slackers.

I have never had formal retirement as a life goal, and after nearly two decades participating in the gig economy, in which you generally work until you fall into the sweet embrace of death, the concept doesn’t register. From the age of 11, the only thing I ever really wanted to do—even when I was doing other things, like teaching or working in publishing, on somebody’s formal payroll or as a freelancer—was to be on the air someplace. So I plan to keep doing it until A) it ceases to be fun and/or rewarding; B) I’m no longer able to drag my ass into the studio; or C) management decides they don’t want me anymore. Whether that’s a year from now, five years from now, or longer, who knows. I’ll just keep showing up, until I don’t.

Since there’s some of the word count left, here’s some stuff you might have missed recently on my Twitter feed. Continue reading “I Did a Thing”

Good Guys

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You probably never heard of Lou Gutenberger. He was was one of the original “Good Guys” on KSTT in Davenport, Iowa, and he died this past week at the age of 82. During its glory days in the 60s and 70s, KSTT was one of those larger-than-life local stations that just doesn’t exist anymore, and Gutenberger himself was one of the chief reasons why it loomed so large, at least to several Iowa radio people of my acquaintance. They tell of listening to him or meeting him as kids, and/or being inspired, encouraged, or mentored in their careers by him. Even if they hadn’t heard him or spoken to him in over 50 years (he left KSTT in 1968 after 13 years, and spent decades in Reno, Nevada, after that), they never forgot him, or what he did for them— even when he didn’t know he was doing it, just by walking into the studio every day.

Only a tiny fraction of people who end up in radio do it without being inspired to do it by somebody. My inspirations were the bigtime Chicago jocks I listened to from the time I was 10 years old, Larry Lujack and Fred Winston chief among them. I was well along in my career before I realized that I was also following in the footsteps of Stan Neuberger, the morning guy on our hometown station, who did as almost much to get me to school every day as my mother did. My conception of the service responsibility of a radio jock—to not just play music but to give the audience information they need and want—started with Stan and his colleagues at WEKZ.

Just as you don’t get into a field without inspirations, you don’t stay in it without people who, even if they don’t exactly mentor you, teach you by their example. As a young DJ, I learned a lot by watching my colleagues at KDTH, some of whom I have written about here. (I have realized in later years that, as a young idiot whose powers of observation were lacking, I didn’t learn as much as I could have from the KDTHers, and I regret that I didn’t pay closer attention.) In later years, I was fortunate to work for George Lipper and Gene Kauffman, two men whose main goals were to do good radio and do good in the community, and not merely to show a profit by any means necessary—goals more rare among owners and general managers than you’d like them to be. George taught me important principles involved with managing people. The single best thing Gene did for me wasn’t to hire me in 1990, but to fire me in 1994, because it forced me to make some necessary decisions about the future direction not just of my career, but of my life. I was past the age of 50 before I got the chance to work for John Sebastian, an industry legend who did more to make me a better jock in one year than anyone who’d come before him. I wish I’d worked for him when I was 30.

Considering the state of the radio industry today, I don’t know where the next generation of inspirations and mentors is going to come from. Radio jocks, and the craft of radio itself, have been devalued for a generation now, and the pandemic has only made it worse. It may be that the wheel has turned for good. Maybe there are no more inspirations to be found on terrestrial radio. Maybe the next generation of inspiration will be podcast hosts. It’s not for me to say.

I suppose it’s a cliché for an old geezer like me to yammer on about how good it used to be in the olden days and how everything sucks now. (Which could be this website’s mission statement some days, but I hope not every day.) There were probably old guys in Lou Gutenberger’s heyday doing the same thing: “Radio ain’t been worth a damn since the announcers stopped wearing tuxedos.” But I hope that radio, in some form as we have known it, will survive for a new generation. And I hope that the new generation finds inspirations and mentors somewhere. Because those of us who were lucky enough to have them treasure them, not just for what they meant to our careers, but for how they enriched our lives.

Overnights, Weekends, and Holidays

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(Pictured: DJs and podcast hosts are often told to picture their typical listener. So here you are.)

There have been a few thinkpieces recently about the rise of podcasting during the pandemic year. I am not sure how they were counted, but there’s supposedly 1.95 million different podcasts now. But raw numbers aside, podcasting, which started as a way for independent creators to reach new audiences, explore niche topics, and/or express unusual points of view, is becoming the same vast, corporatized space as the record industry, in which a fraction of one percent of the total number of creators commands the bulk of the audience, with content tailored to that mass audience.

A lot of high-profile podcasts were launched in the past year by idle celebrities who might otherwise have been spending time on film or TV shoots. Whether these people actually have a goal in mind beyond making some money—whether they actually have anything to say, or anything worth hearing—barely factors in. Some certainly will. The Barack Obama/Bruce Springsteen podcast has some intrigue, and two smart, interesting people in conversation are unlikely to be straight-up dull, but it’s by no means clear how much value their thing will actually have: whether they will make fresh, provocative observations, or just exchange platitudes about What Makes America Great. Lesser celebrities invite lesser expectations. Many are putting their names and voices on work that is largely being done by others—they’re not self-producing in their own basement studios.

I have no illusions about my own humble podcast. More people will log onto Paris Hilton’s new podcast by mistake than have ever intentionally listened to mine. And in fact, I intended to put mine on an open-ended hiatus early last fall. Then I ended up in the damn hospital, and the podcast was the best format to tell the story.

Stories are the key, and ultimately, the point. Sports and current-events podcasts are useful, but the ones that people are most passionate about tell stories, in one way or another.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying I have some more stories to tell, about the life of a radio person at three different times of the day, week, and year: overnights, weekends, and holidays. You can listen here, or at your usual podcast providers: Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, TuneIn, and Stitcher.

I hope you’ll find it a worthwhile use of 17 minutes and 40 seconds, and if you don’t, at least it’s only 17:40. Your comments are always appreciated, either in the comments here or by contacting me some other way. Also welcome are likes and positive ratings, if you are listening on a platform where you can do that.

If you are a radio person, or you were a radio person, I’m interested in hearing your own stories about overnights, weekends, and holidays, and I’m sure many among the readership will be too.

I’ve been hard at work creating Internet content for you this week. A new Sidepiece will be in your e-mail later today. Busy busy busy. Nothing I get paid for, but still.

Let ‘Em Play

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(Pictured: Meat Loaf, who is not the subject of this post, on stage in 1978.)

This New Year’s Eve, it will be 25 years since my first all-request show on the classic-rock station in Davenport, Iowa. It was a one-time thing that later became a regular gig on Saturday nights for much of 1996 and 1997. As I’ve written before, the program director trusted me to know what was appropriate to play and what was not, and if I skated over the line, he was willing to forgive me. I built a collection of literally hundreds of my own drops and sweepers too. It was highly produced, interactive, and fun for everybody, including (especially) me.

There were certain songs I could have played every week and more than once—“Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” “American Pie,” Queen’s “We Will Rock You”—but I didn’t. I wanted to please the people who didn’t call as much as the regular callers. And I wanted to take advantage of the fact that for every five listeners who wanted to hear fking Meat Loaf again, there would be one who would surprise me with something cool, something I couldn’t get on the air fast enough.

This post is about two of my favorite listener requests.

Continue reading “Let ‘Em Play”

The Last Words

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(Pictured: a young man holds a sign in tribute to John Lennon, 1980.)

Mark was a colleague of mine, another part-time DJ at KDTH, a country station in Dubuque, Iowa, back at the turn of the 80s. He worked a 10-to-midnight shift on Mondays, and a few years ago on Facebook, he wrote about his experience on the night of December 8, 1980:

As I usually did about 10 minutes before my airshift was to begin, I found my way to the newsroom to clear the AP wire and prepare for a little sportscast I did after the 10:00 news.

The moment I arrived in the newsroom, the mechanical AP wire went absolutely apeshit, with a tremendous, clanging racket of bells such as I’d never heard. In those days they didn’t ring the warning bells on the wire often and when they did it was always news of some import, usually a flash or breaking news. I checked the wire just as the flash headline was printing out, JOHN LENNON SHOT DEAD.

Immediately, I ripped the story from the wire and ran from the newsroom into the air studio, and gave it to the woman I was about to replace on the air …. She read it on the air, choking up while she read it, and played “Imagine” immediately after. We unilaterally decided to play all Lennon or Beatle songs for the rest of the night, and none of the usually cantankerous country fans even called to complain.

While I was pulling my airshift on the AM station, the program director of our automated FM station called to ask the news guy and myself to dub off as many Beatle/Lennon songs as we could find and feed them into the automation system …. coming within an eyelash of airing “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” on the radio, the very night its singer and songwriter was assassinated….

Somehow, I managed to get through my airshift. Immediately after signing both stations off the air, I went up on the roof of the station as I often did, rolled up a fat joint, smoked it, and allowed myself a good cry. This horrible, obscene thing was just too much to bear. 

I looked back at Radio and Records to see how the industry reacted to the murder in real time. It devoted much of the front page of its December 12 issue to a montage of pictures and a written tribute. Inside, under the heading “The Last Words,” it was reported that John and Yoko spent three hours late in the afternoon of December 8 being interviewed for the RKO Radio Network, and how afterward, the Lennons caught a ride with the RKO guys to the Record Plant studio. The article mentions waiting for Lennon to sign an autograph for a fan outside the Dakota. We know now, of course, that the fan was Mark David Chapman.

The magazine also detailed how program syndicators were scrambling to accommodate the Lennon story, in many cases updating year-end programs that had already been produced. It was reported that “Watermark has dropped a regularly scheduled hour of its American Top 40 for this weekend in favor of a specially-produced retrospective on Lennon.” That did not actually happen, although Casey’s producers made available an alternate program segment that stations could drop into the already-produced show to replace “(Just Like) Starting Over,” which was at #4 for the week. The AT40 production staff was also forced to update a feature earlier in the show about the top posthumous acts of the rock era.

In the December 19 issue, it was reported that a radio station in Baltimore had planned a memorial benefit with proceeds going to a gun-control group, but its lawyers advised that the Fairness Doctrine might require the station to give an organization such as the National Rifle Association equal time to respond. The event was canceled, and the station instead donated proceeds from an earlier event featuring Beatles movies to one of Lennon’s favorite charities.

On the Contemporary Hit Radio page, columnist John Leader wrote about radio’s response to the murder, how stations tossed their regular programming out the window on that night, how they opened the phones just to let people talk, how they helped arrange public memorials, and more. Leader concluded:

Radio can and should be so much more than the playlist, commercial log, and jock schedule. Radio is communication on a very personal and basic level. Radio is entertainment and companionship. Radio is always there with the flexibility to respond to the needs of its listeners. 

Last week radio did itself proud in the worst and the best of times. 

Slice of Life

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(Pictured: I’d eat it.)

It happened at radio stations from time immemorial—somebody orders a pizza for lunch or dinner, and whatever they don’t eat sits on the counter in the break room for anybody to grab a slice. There’s not a single radio jock alive who hasn’t taken advantage of such good fortune. Sometimes it gets put in the station refrigerator instead of being left on the counter, but it doesn’t matter. We’re still gonna eat it, and we don’t care if it’s cold. But it seems to me that COVID-19 has killed the food-on-the-counter tradition. Most of us are not inclined to mess with stuff when we don’t know where it’s been. Hand sanitizer is not a good pizza topping.

(Digression: I tweeted general thanks to whoever made leftover pizza available at my station one day, and I got a response from Chicago radio legend Fred Winston, who was following me at the time, asking how long it had been sitting out on the counter. It was one of my greatest thrills in radio. Alas, Fred blocked me several years ago. I choose my heroes wisely and they don’t often disappoint me, but he did, and it still stings a bit.)

Also dead is the dish of candy on the desk. I used to cruise the sales office when everybody was gone, early in the evening or on the weekend, looking for a sugar fix, but I found nothing so often that I quit doing it. I once heard of a company that told people to take the candy dishes off their desks because somebody from their health insurer was paying a visit, and they didn’t want that person to see them. You could apparently fill up a drawer with Ding Dongs and Butterfingers if you wanted, but keep it out of sight.

(Further digression: I remember one especially long and stressful day at the radio station when, late in the afternoon, I found a package of Oreo cookies in my desk that I’d forgotten about. It redeemed the whole day.)

I occasionally joke on the air about having eaten exactly one million sandwiches in studios, but realistically, it’s got to be a few hundred by now. These days, it’s usually a pre-made sandwich from our neighborhood convenience store, which is cheap, edible, and best of all, simple. Simple is key, although my very first Christmas Day on the air, in 1979, I ate turkey and dressing in the studio, packed by my mother, leftovers from our Christmas Eve dinner.

Occasionally The Mrs. will suggest that I take leftovers from home, but I like to get out of the house precisely so I don’t have to eat what we’re eating at home.

I wonder if COVID will interfere with the broadcast-and-print newsroom tradition of Election Night pizza. In past years, you could be sure that everybody who worked on Election Night coverage was fueled by a slice or two. I have written before about a similar phenomenon that sometimes happens on radio station blizzard days. When staffers are likely to be shut in for a while, if only for a long day, food appears in the break room, either delivered or picked up from a grocery or convenience store. One blizzard day, the menu consisted exclusively of Doritos, Oreos, and Chips Ahoy. As one colleague said to me, “It’s not a blizzard, it’s a party.”

The company I currently work for has a fairly liberal attitude toward beer in the building. One of the stations does a regular feature with a local brewery, and it’s not unusual to find a few bottles at large in the fridge. We don’t drink ’em while we’re on the clock, but people who are done for the day have been known to crack one in the office, and nobody gets weird about it. Maybe that’s a Wisconsin thing, though.

Every profession has food-in-the-office stories, not just radio. If you have stories from your job, no matter what the job, please share them.