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Saturday, September 14, 2013

Not Just A Job, An Adventure

"I was dreaming when I wrote this
So sue me if I go too fast."
Prince, 1999

I was talking with a co-worker the other day about my early days in radio as a disc jockey.  This discussion happened while we drove the long and winding Pennsylvania Turnpike, listening to big-city radio stations one minute and small-city stations the next.  Mostly, all were disappointments that were easy to tune out. We were in a rented cargo van and the only source of entertainment besides the radio was conversation.  We turned off the radio and chose conversation.  Which, in the end, is probably for the better.  Human contact, an exchange of ideas, and all that.

I told him about a time when radio was fun for everyone -- the listener and the jocks.  Radio needs listeners, because -- then, now and for always -- radio lives on advertising dollars. The best way to sell advertising are ratings that prove to a potential sponsor that people listen. Even the music is a sales job, because airplay drives kids to the store or the internet to buy the latest hits.  When all the stations play the same hits, your station's edge becomes the jocks that talk between the hits.

And make no mistake, back then, being a jock was a profession.  Some of it, like talking over the 12 or 15 second intros of songs and managing the flow of a show, just came with repetition, until it was second nature. The next level was figuring out what to say, and there was a lot of help available.  Some jocks made a lucrative side business as joke writers, charging subscriptions for weekly sheets of paper with 25 liners tied in to the songs and political foibles of the day (I'm looking at you, Dan O'Day). Those of us who didn't have the money for subscriptions made a big deal about saying how the jokes were lame and we'd be better off writing our own jokes for free. But I admit, I stole from the sheets, and most of the jokes I wrote were just as lame (but they were my lame jokes, dammit!). The level after that was figuring out how you'd tell the jokes, establishing a personality.  A snarling cynic?  A friendly voice after (or during) a tough day at the office? A pal to all the kids? Someone who was just having a damn good time playing records? All of the above? Kids, sometimes adults, called with requests, and you added another layer to the show by putting these encounters on the air. A great station was one where all the jocks fed off one another, trying to out-do each other with liners and the production values in the commercials. The whipped cream and cherry on the sundae was when you had station management willing and able to finance fun and rewarding contests.  Stations that had all that were usually winners with big ratings.

For me, it was fun putting all the pieces of the puzzle together. In the small-town stations I was usually paid next-to-nothing, but if the station had all of the above, I gladly starved. Really, it was remarkably similar to being a starving actor. You had to audition for every single job. You sent a tape to the station where you wanted to work. Most often a rejection letter followed.  But occasionally you were invited to interview. You'd spend a day going through the process, getting your hopes up, then getting a call from the program director who says "you're a great talent, but we're going with the other guy."

On the Turnpike, I was able to compare radio then to now. I remember looking everywhere and reading everything back then, looking for material, and spending half an hour putting it all together for the show.  I remember jocks who walked in twenty seconds before airtime and had it all in their heads right then and there. Whatever the approach, you were a personality putting on a show, six days a week, trying your damnedest to make it so that people would make it a habit to tune in to your show and your station.

But this is all like the days of three or four TV networks and no cable. And no mp3 players.  It just ain't coming back. Stations I heard along the Turnpike in markets large and small are now owned by corporations large and small.  Now, back in the day, big-city stations were owned by RKO or ABC or Westinghouse. But these new corporations are focused on advertising dollars in a different way. They own six or seven stations, instead of one or two. Each station can focus on its small slice of the demographic pie. Those small slices add up to the whole pie for the corporation that owns the pie. So the stations don't have to compete.  And they don't. The music and personalities sound flat. They sound like they're not trying because they don't have to.  Some stations brag that they play whatever they want, but it sounds suspiciously like what everyone else is playing -- and they do it without jocks. Ironically, the same business conservatives who will tell you free-market competition brings out the best in everything own these radio monopolies.

But I digress into politics, which is getting natural for me these days.  I work for state government in Pennsylvania. Basically it's an extension of what I've been doing all my life, sticking a microphone or video camera in the face of a state senator and then turning around and feeding that sound and those pictures to waiting radio and TV outlets. 

Lately, though,I've been caught reminiscing, thinking fondly about the times when I only paid attention to state senators when I needed a punchline.

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