The Robots Are Coming

Embed from Getty Images

(Necessary disclaimer: opinions are my own and not my employer’s or anyone else’s, not now and not ever.)

Do I need to explain what radio voicetracking is? That’s when a jock records their talk bits hours or days ahead of when the bits will actually air. Hit the record button, listen to the last few seconds of whatever precedes our track, say what we’re going to say when the little light goes on, then hit another button when we’re done talking to trigger the next element. By not having to sit through the songs and the commercials, it is possible to track a show that’s several hours long in vastly less time. It is also possible for voicetrackers to be heard on stations in markets far distant from where they live.

A hill on which I would die is that doing a radio show is crafting, like building a birdhouse or throwing a pot. So I prepare a tracked show just like a live one. Whether it’s just one hour or several, I script everything in advance. I have recommended this approach to other jocks, but they tell me it would take them too much time. (I always wonder why a person would go into radio if not to spend time doing radio things, but I guess that’s none of my business.) A voicetracker can walk into a studio and bang out a five-hour show in a relatively few minutes, but it’s gonna be mostly rote DJ stuff, which does little to really command a listener’s attention. Like any other craft, the result you get out of your work is proportional to the time you put into it.

I am forever concerned that my tracked shows don’t sound the same as my live ones. Doing a show in real time means that my talk breaks have a more lively and positive energy than voicetracked breaks, which tend to be more sterile. I am not actor enough to fake that energy to my own satisfaction, although honesty compels me to report that I don’t know if my listeners perceive a difference.

People want to debate whether voicetracking is good, but that ship sailed years ago. What we ought to be debating right now is AI.

Last week, Fred Jacobs published a guest post at his site from veteran radio executive Tom Langmyer, talking about what artificial intelligence might mean for radio, especially as it relates to voicetrackers. One point I had not considered is the ability of an AI “voicetracker” to respond to events on the fly. Langmyer tells about one radio station group that pulled all of the Gordon Lightfoot songs it had scheduled on the weekend after his death because the voicetracking was already done, and it would sound weird to play a Lightfoot song without mentioning that he had died. (At least they cared enough to do that much.) An AI “voicetracker” could have accounted for this, and could certainly update other stuff in real time as well. Certainly this would be a vast improvement over the by-necessity-generic nature of conventional voicetracks.

Langmyer doesn’t mention the very first thing I thought of, however: if an AI “voicetracker” is good, why not replace all of the jocks with AI, which will work for free (after the initial expense), never take vacation or sick days, and won’t bitch about anything ever?

The promise of voicetracking was that a station in West Overshoe could sound like it had major-market talent, which did not turn out to be true everywhere. AI offers a similar promise, only at a more sophisticated level. Will it deliver? I don’t know. Will stations—especially the major chains, drowning in debt with worthless stock—embrace it regardless of whether it delivers what it promises, because of the cost savings?

Yeah, about five minutes after it becomes practical.

Afterword: I have watched the rise of ChatGPT and similar large language AI models with absolute horror. We are not remotely ready for the implications of them. Corporations and entrepreneurs alike are forging ahead with such applications in search of financial windfalls without giving a single microscopic damn about the havoc it is likely to cause. Even if you aren’t concerned about rogue AI exterminating humanity, you ought to have practical and ethical concerns: about the proliferation of deepfakes, about plagiarism, and about whether we really need to hear the Beatles doing Kanye West songs or some shit.

This stuff is world-changing technology on the scale of the wheel and the light bulb, and we’re treating it like it’s Candy Crush on our cell phones. 

Here’s to the Winners

Years ago, I produced a public service campaign for the United Way of McDonough County, Illinois. I used audio clips of people the United Way had helped in the community and people talking about why they support the United Way. The Frank Sinatra song “Winners” was the musical theme the agency had chosen (“Here’s to the heroes / Those who move mountains”). The pieces went together beautifully, and as I listened back to the finished spots it was, as best I can recall at this distant date, an out-of-body experience: “My god, that’s fantastic. Did I do that?” When the spots hit the air, the United Way people liked them and other people at the radio station liked them, so we decided to enter them in the Illinois Broadcasters Association awards contest.

You have to enter a contest like this. Such awards are not given by an omnipotent deity that reaches down from the sky and says, “You have been chosen.” You have to have ego enough to say, “Yeah, this is worth some kind of honor, and I want it.” And it helps if you work for someone who is willing to pay the entry fee, because nobody rides for free.

The banquet in Springfield was an exciting night, because I was sure I was going to win, and in front of industry big shots, too. There would be people from Chicago there. What if one of them heard my stuff and said, “We have to hire this guy”?

I didn’t win. I came in second to what I described at the time as “a melodramatic series of drunk driving PSAs,” at a moment in history when the war on drunk driving was in high gear. I must have received a certificate of merit or something, but I don’t remember; if I did, it stayed at the station and didn’t come home with me. I was disappointed. I honestly felt that my stuff was an order of magnitude better than the PSAs that won.

In 2022, my radio station’s all-day Saturday at the 70s feature was cut back to five hours on Saturday night and given to me to host and produce. At the end of the year, I entered the show in the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association awards contest. WBA radio awards are divided into two divisions, music and news/talk, and three market sizes, small, medium, and large. (Large is Madison and Milwaukee only.) I found out last month that my show was a finalist in the Best Specialty Show category for large market music radio. I am under no illusions that I vanquished a bunch of inferior competitors to make the finals; I don’t know how many entries there were, or even how many finalists. But I had made whatever cut there was, so I went to the banquet last weekend with a few other people from the company who were also up for awards.

In the days leading up to the banquet, I said to myself that I was indifferent to how it might turn out. I would be happy if I won but neither surprised nor disappointed if I didn’t. But when they finally got to my category, I changed my mind. I really wanted to win.

But I didn’t win. I came in second. I was disappointed—for literally five seconds. I swiftly recognized that it’s a great honor regardless, and I’m very pleased with it.

Ego is an inescapable part of a career on the air, in radio or TV. You have to believe that you, personally, are entertaining and interesting and/or worthy of other people’s attention. Young broadcasters tend to have a lot of unearned ego; I certainly did. The older me has tried to tame that ego, but I still have it. After all, I entered my show in the contest. I had the thought, “Yeah, this is worth some kind of honor.” But a lot of people in radio think that way about their work, and about themselves, and it just isn’t true. I have known people who think they’re special but are simply not, and they’re insufferable; I don’t want to be one of them.

Hearing that your work is good from somebody else—like the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association, even in the form of a second-place certificate instead of a first-place plaque—is different from telling yourself that your work is good. It says, “You’ve earned the right to a little bit of ego.” Maybe I have. If I become insufferable, let me know.

Rock Stars and Supermodels

Embed from Getty Images

(Pictured: Styx singer and keyboard player Lawrence Gowan onstage in 2021.)

So last week I got to talk to Lawrence Gowan from Styx for my radio show. Despite many years in radio, meeting and/or interviewing celebrities is not an experience I have had all that often.

I think I have probably told most of the stories here already. The first rock stars I ever actually met were Ray Sawyer and Dennis Locorriere of Dr. Hook. I got to hang backstage with Paul Kantner and Jack Casady. I watched Kevin Cronin of REO Speedwagon go off on a roadie over a bottle of water, although he may have been kidding. I was taken backstage at a Guess Who show to meet the road manager, who turned out to be original bassist Jim Kale. I sat down to interview Eddie Money only to find that the batteries in my tape recorder were dead. When we finally got to talk, he impressed me with how businesslike he was. Before I could ask John Cafferty a question, he asked me one: “where am I?” He wasn’t impaired, just sleepy, and he’d gotten on the bus after the previous night’s show without worrying about where the next town was. When I was a little baby DJ in Dubuque, Kate Mulgrew was a live guest on a show I co-hosted. The radio company I work for today does an annual three-day benefit for Madison’s American Family Children’s Hospital. One year, in my capacity as a producer, I talked to supermodel Cindy Crawford for 15 seconds after she called in to do a segment with the hosts.

But that’s it, to the extent I can remember anymore.

I am not especially bothered about it. I am not a good interviewer, and I don’t particularly enjoy it. The easiest interviews for me are the ones where all I have to do is wind up the guest and let them go. Lawrence Gowan was like that; I am pretty sure I didn’t ask him anything he hasn’t already been asked a thousand times, so doing the interview was easy for both of us.

Since there’s some of the word count left, here are a few things that have passed through my Twitter feed recently:

Continue reading “Rock Stars and Supermodels”

I Was a Quiet Quitter Before Quiet Quitting Was Cool

Embed from Getty Images

Dick Taylor is a veteran broadcaster who writes an interesting and worthwhile blog. Recently, he wrote about “the great resignation,” in which millions of people post-COVID realized that there can be more to life than going to work every day. Then he wrote:

In 2022, American business owners were confronted with a new kind of quitting by their employees; quiet quitting. Quiet quitting is defined as people who do the minimum required and are psychologically detached from their job.

That reminds me of what we used to call “not my job” people, who had the attitude of doing the least they could get away with and still get a paycheck.

Quiet quitters are estimated to make up 50% of today’s workforce and that should be alarming to all employers.

On Twitter, I responded to Dick by saying, “Quiet quitting: doing the job you were hired for, not doing extra work for free, and keeping emotional distance from work. Sounds like a healthy relationship with one’s career. It’s ok if a job is just a job and your life is elsewhere.”

Dick responded to me: “The term ‘quiet quitting’ refers to employees who put no more effort into their jobs than absolutely necessary. Not the kind of employee I am, nor the kind I would hire to be part of my team. Doing what you love is never having to work a day in your life.”

I was gonna tweet back but I decided to write this instead.

Continue reading “I Was a Quiet Quitter Before Quiet Quitting Was Cool”

You’re Outta Here

Embed from Getty Images

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

Embed from Getty Images

(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.