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Monday, March 27, 2017

John F. Rooney 1925-2017

"Because he was, we are."

That’s what my brother, who’s a psychologist, texted on the morning last week when my father passed away.  I rolled my eyes when I read it. Too flowery, I thought, not at all what Dad was about. (His instructions: “No funeral. Cremate me and put my ashes in a coffee can.” He didn’t like a lot of fuss.) But, now, I’m thinking it works, and I like it.
Because Dad meant the world to his world – his family and friends. The texts and emails and phone calls haven’t stopped since people heard he was ill. Another brother, a paramedic, was the rock that kept him comfortable and medicated during the week he faded away.  But that brother also had the job of fielding all the texts and emails and phone calls, a job he said was ten times more demanding than caring for a dying father.
His passing is upsetting mostly because he seemed unstoppable.  He raised one family – my brothers, my sister and I – then remarried after Mom died and, at age 65, helped out an entirely new family, serving as the sounding board for his wife, her sons and daughter and her granddaughters.  So, no, we’re not putting his ashes in a coffee can.  They’ll be in a nice urn and they’ll make appearances at memorial services held by each of his families.
And, yes, because he was, we are.  He gave his children actual life; but all the members of his extended family became, to some extent, the people they are because they were influenced by his approach to life: sure and steady.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

The Hap-happiest Time O'The Year!

Believe it or don’t, there was method to the madness of Christmas music on the radio, back before the simple madness of “all Xmas music all the time” began being practiced by a number of radio outlets these days. (Please feel free to imagine a grumpy old man voice while reading this.) Back in the day, when I was programming small and medium-market radio stations, we started the week after Thanksgiving with one Christmas song an hour.  The next week, two an hour.  Week after that, three an hour, with a Christmas song at the top of the hour.  Christmas week was at least four an hour:  top and bottom of the hour, with sweeps into Christmas songs at the quarter hours.  Finally, it was all-Christmas-music for Christmas Eve, starting at 6 pm and going all through Christmas Day.  On Boxing Day (also known as “the day after Christmas” in the U.S.): no Christmas music! The holiday was over!  All done! Back to the normal playlist!

A big problem in radio during pre-computer days (continue reading in the grumpy old man voice, dadgummit!) was that stations had to make sure there were warm bodies playing all this wonderful music over the holidays. And all-Christmas-music-all-the-time was an intentionally boring format, the idea being that people could use the radio as background music for their parties and holiday gatherings.  So there was usually a bit of fighting amongst the staff over who got time off over the holidays -- probably motivated as much or more by the desire to avoid a boring shift as by the desire to be with family and friends during the most wonderful time of the year.

I remember a staff meeting one November evening at WTSN in Dover, New Hampshire. I had just started as night jock Willie B. in September; Mike Kelley had started as midday jock a few months earlier.  Program Director Paul LeBlanc, referring to one of the other jocks, said “B.J. and I worked last Christmas, so I think Mike and Willie should work the Christmas shifts this year.”  Now, I really didn’t mind working Christmas, as I had no family or friends to spend it with, but just to be contrary, I said, “Wait a second!  I worked last Christmas! Not HERE, but I still worked last Christmas! Doesn’t that count?”  “No, Willie, it doesn’t,” Paul immediately replied. “You’re working Christmas night.” Playing non-stop boring Christmas music. Done deal.

Years later, when I was programming a station in Franklin, New Hampshire, I came up with what I thought was a fair holiday schedule: we had six jocks and were on the air from 6 am to midnight, so I divided Christmas Eve and Christmas Day into six shifts of six hours apiece.  A long time on the air, but each jock had to take just one shift over the two days, and with some wrangling everyone managed to get a shift that they liked.

The best holiday coverage I ever lucked into was at a station I programmed in Salem, New Hampshire.  The midday jock was Jewish.  He volunteered to run the board all day Christmas if he could have Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana off the next spring.  Done deal.


Friday, October 14, 2016

A Couple of Things...

We took my five-year-old granddaughter to the Halloween store, hoping to nail down a costume for her.  She changes her mind daily, sometimes hourly, about what she'll be for trick-or-treat.  Witch, werewolf, princess, back to witch, then character from her favorite cartoon that's ever-changing.  This night she stopped to look at some fake feather boas, black with shiny purple bats and jack o'lanterns dangling at various intervals. Moving her hands through the hanging boas, she said, approvingly, "Scary, yet fashionable."


Note to Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson:  Aleppo was one of the Marx Brothers.  You're welcome.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Falling Up

I know spring is supposed to be the time of new beginnings, but for me it’s always been fall.  For example, at my first radio job, WQCM in Hagerstown, Maryland, I was hired in September.  (I was, however, fired the next May. “New beginnings” and all that.)

My second radio job started that fall, at WTSN in Dover, New Hampshire.  A much better experience all around, starting with autumn in New England. My daily drive to work was decorated with spectacular fall foliage. WTSN was located along aptly-named Back Road, which was lined with maples, birches and other trees that were such bright shades of red and yellow that I wondered where they plugged the trees in.

Somehow, I managed to not get fired the next spring.  Instead, I met my wife the following fall. WTSN’s midday jock had left for a job in Richmond, Virginia, and I took his shift. I had to train the woman who was taking my place on the 7 to midnight shift. After I showed her how to work the board, I walked into the next room, turned on the speakers and smiled.  She was great from the first break on, with a smooth delivery and a smile in her voice.  A couple of months later, we were getting something to eat at a downtown restaurant when I told her something like, “If you’re not careful, I’ll marry you.”  She wasn’t careful.

We did get married in the spring.  So far, she hasn’t fired me.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Happy Birthday WKRP! (Or, the one time I hated Steely Dan)

Spring of 1978 saw the release of FM, a movie about an L.A. album-rock radio station where the DJs take over after a smarmy sales manager tries to force the station to run commercials for the U.S. Army. Sales vs. jocks: The Neverending Radio Story. Sales men and women were always valued higher than jocks at radio stations, because sales people actually walked in the door with the checks from the clients that kept the place running. Jocks were considered big egos who demanded big money if they got popular, which started the trend towards "more music and less talk" and eventually led to the computer-assisted voice tracking we enjoy today (those stations with the cute names, like Bob and Ben and Fred, that are really just mp3 players programmed by somebody other than you). Truth is, salespeople were always paid better than the jocks, because they collected commissions -- there's an old DJ joke that goes when you look at a radio station's parking lot, the convertibles belong to the sales people; the cars with rust holes in the roofs belong to the DJs.

FM the movie also highlighted the death of the AM band as radio's music delivery system. Traditionally, AM stations had been the Top 40 power houses, playing rock and roll served up by bigger-than-life DJs. But over on the FM band, stations like KMET in L.A. and WNEW in New York moved rock away from hits and into album cuts with laid-back DJs. By the mid-70s it was cool to listen to FM and lame to listen to AM. Eventually even Top 40 moved to FM.

I was working nights at Top 40 WTSN-AM in Dover, New Hampshire, when FM hit the theaters. Our rival, Top 40 WHEB-FM in Portsmouth, began playing the movie's theme song, Steely Dan's FM (No Static At All) once an hour -- their way of saying, "See, everyone thinks FM is better than AM, you lame jerks!" (At least that's the way we took it at WTSN. We were probably right.) Our midday DJ, Mike Kelly, had read in one of the radio trade papers about an AM station in the Midwest that decided to fight back: someone there found out that Steely Dan's Donald Fagen sang "Aja" in the same key as "FM," and spliced the "A" from "Aja" in place of the "F" in "FM," producing a version of the song that went "AM, No Static At All." Kelly spent three days in the production studio with reels of audio tape and razor blade -- because that's how we edited in the days of acetate -- valiantly trying to create his own Frankenstein "AM" version of "FM." But he had to make hundreds of cuts in a three-minute song, and every version came out choppy. He gave up, just as AM radio eventually gave up and became the home of right-wing talk radio.

We were all vindicated in September of 1978, though, when WKRP debuted on TV. Here were a bunch of fun-loving, lovable losers playing rock and roll on a dying AM station with a hot blonde receptionist!  The WKRP DJs never wore headphones on the air, which was wrong, because in real life would have resulted in lots of squealing feedback -- but, other than that, it was exactly true-to-life. Mostly because the sales guy was an asshole.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Life sucks, and then you die. But I got another radio job anyway.

I always get nostalgic in September.  I began my radio career in the fall of 1976 -- geez, is that 40 YEARS ago? -- at WQCM-FM in Hagerstown, Maryland. I had failed to land an on-air job when I graduated college and went to work instead for an organization that distributed religious radio programs that played early Sunday mornings at stations across America. (What?  You never got up at 3 AM on Sunday to listen to PCS News? What are you, a heathen?) I took a two-week vacation from all the godliness and visited a couple of friends who were on the air -- one of them sort-of thanks to me -- at WRNR in Martinsburg, West Virginia.  The morning guy, Ed Alexander, was an old high school buddy who skipped college and had already bounced around at a couple of radio stations.  The midday jock, Rick Lucas, was a friend from northern California who'd been let go by a station up there; when RNR needed to fill their midday slot, Ed called me, but I was THIS CLOSE to landing a radio job in Southern California, so I recommended Rick, who got the job.  Of course, I didn't get my radio job and went to work for the distributor.
During my vacation, I stayed a week with Ed and a week with Rick. In the middle of the second week I got a little stir-crazy and decided to take some daytrips -- to radio stations, of course. I'd walk in, tell them I was in the business and visiting from California and ask for a look around.  The magic word was "California;" it got me into every station except one (what were you hiding, WEPM and WESM?  Locals later told me the call letters at these elevator-music stations stood for "We Enjoy Poor Music" and "We Enjoy Shitty Music," so maybe they were just embarrassed.). When I visited Pete, the program director at WQCM, he offered me a job: playing rock and roll overnights for $100 a week. Pete's overnight jock had just quit because he found out he could make more money as a carpenter. It took me 20 seconds to say yes.
I flew back to California, gave away my furniture, packed everything else I owned in my 1967 Ford Falcon, and drove to Maryland in three days. (Remind me to tell you the story someday of that cross-country trip, especially the harrowing rainy night I spent on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, a road I now travel regularly.  It's still harrowing.)
And here's where we arrive at the theme of today's essay. WQCM gave me the complete radio experience in about  nine months. I arrived to take the lowliest job there, overnights.  Within a month, the woman doing afternoons quit, and I leapfrogged to afternoons, traditionally the second-best shift at a radio station.  New owners came in January, and they kept Pete as Program Director and named me Music Director, a "management" job with a slight uptick in pay (I was up to $125 a week now!). That step became a leap when Pete argued with the new owners and quit as PD -- he stayed on the air mornings, but the ownership named me the new PD.  "Can I get a raise?" I asked.  Of course, they said, we'll increase your salary in $5 increments every pay period until we get you to $140 a week!
I was riding high.  We tweaked the format to play the hits more often and we were the talk of the town. Yay!
Much like sex, the tale of the first time you're fired is usually the best. One of the services WQCM offered was a Weather Phone -- at the end of each airshift, each jock would go into the lobby and record a weather forecast followed by a sponsor's commercial message into sort of a reverse answering machine that would play the recording back to incoming callers. I was performing this important duty one Friday afternoon when the station owner walked in to the lobby and asked me what I was doing. What a stupid question, I thought -- in fact, it occurred to me that if I had left the building with the wrong sponsor's commercial message playing on the Weather Phone, he probably would have fired me. I resisted the urge to use the word stupid and instead told him, in a cheery voice, "Recording the Weather Phone, of course!"  He replied by taking an envelope out of his jacket pocket and throwing it at me. "Why don't you let a paid employee do that?" he asked and walked out.
Inside the envelope was my last paycheck and a letter telling me the owner was dissatisfied with my work, both on and off the air. (Two weeks later the ratings came out: WQCM was #1 overall and my afternoon slot beat the competition 3 to 1. I can see why he was dissatisfied.)  (Actually, no, I can't.  That's sarcasm.)
After about a month I realized the owner had fired me the very week my pay had reached the magic $140 level.  It's true -- everything has its price.  For me, it was $140 a week.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Trumping up the news

When did NPR go on Donald Trump's payroll?

This morning (Aug. 29th) I listened to their live news feed at 7:40 on iTunes -- the anchor began by saying Hillary Clinton appeared at three fund raisers over the weekend, without giving any more information.  The anchor immediately added that Donald Trump spoke somewhere, and here's a complete report from our correspondent, who did a piece complete with audio from Trump.

Then, this afternoon (still Aug 29th), there's this about Anthony Weiner and his wife separating:

Of course it's newsworthy to mention that Huma Abedin is a close advisor to Hillary.  But the story has THREE quotes from Trump and ONE from Hillary's campaign.

It's something I've noticed from all the media, not just NPR:  Trump's outrageous, and media these days lives for the outrageous.  Trump's a media hog who will say anything; his campaign has gone a lot farther than anyone believed; it seems almost impossible that he's the Republican candidate; so, he gets all the airtime. I've unfortunately seen news coverage go down the entertainment rabbit hole since my time in the business; as a radio News Director, I sat through many a meeting with a consultant who said the only "news" people care about is in the Life section of USA Today. (My reply?  The newspaper version of USA Today has FOUR sections, and Life is the LAST section.)  My good friend Mary Lyon has noticed it, too:

If Trump has a chance to win this thing, it will be in no small part thanks to the idiots who run media in this country.  Who will then, of course, all be banned from events featuring President Trump if he doesn't like what they say about him.