Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Memoir - The Radio Years

When I was sixteen, and a junior in high school, I was working a job bussing tables at a restaurant close to where my mother and I lived. A friend made a comment one day about someone he knew who worked at a small local Christian radio station, and I thought, “Now that would be the best high school job ever!”

So I dropped off an application. No experience. No skills to speak of, save a knowledge of some of the popular Christian music at the time (I was a youth group kid), and an ability to talk a lot without much point. I never heard back. So I called again; and again. Finally the general manager told me they didn’t really have any openings and that I didn’t have any experience anyway. Essentially, “Stop calling me.” But for some reason I decided to be persistent, when this trait could not be said to have characterized my life in any other way at the time. Eventually, he relented. One of their best people was leaving to move on to bigger and better things, and he decided to give me a chance.

I started out working the morning shift on weekends. Being the only AM Christian station in town at the time meant they played all the “big names” in Christian radio. All the syndicated teachers and preachers that were known nationwide in those circles; some of whom would eventually become more widely known for their influence on the culture as a whole. These were teachers like Charles Stanley (“In Touch”) and Dr. J. Vernon McGee (“Through the Bible”) and of course “Focus on the Family” with Dr. James Dobson.

This 1989, and although syndicated satellite radio networks were becoming more common, they weren’t as ubiquitous as they now are. Smaller, low budget stations like KSPD-AM in Boise, Idaho were still using reel-to-reel players and getting their shows delivered by mail every week. Which meant every week someone had to load those reels up on the machine at five or six in the morning and sit there to make sure they didn’t spool off into oblivion. So that was my job. At 5:00 every Saturday and Sunday morning for about a year, I drove my little 1978 Volkswagen Rabbit into the KSPD Studios at the corner of Orchard Road and Curtis Boulevard.

My first job each morning was to get the programs lined up for the daily scheduled; stacking the reel-to-reel boxes in the order they would play. Then I cleaned the heads on the tape machines, spooled everything up and got it ready for air. I checked the commercial logs for the first hour, and made sure everything that was supposed to run had actually been produced. More than once I spent the first hour of the day producing advertising spots that were already supposed to be airing.

This was not a 24-hour operation, and each day before the start of programming, we actually had to sign the station on the air. This meant flipping a switch to turn on the power… waiting a few minutes while the tubes warmed up and the ancient gear came to life… and then flipping some more switches to power up the transmitter and the equipment that sent the signal to the tower, located forty-five miles away at the top of Bogus Basin, the area ski resort.

Precisely at 6:00am, I’d hit the “sign-on” cart (carts are basically looped 8-track tapes, and they’re what the whole industry used before computers), and the station would come to life.
We also had an FM Signal down the hall that broadcast “Beautiful Music” (that was the actual format name). It was entirely automated, and ran off six giant reel-to-reel and cart machines. When the commercial breaks would come, about every 12 minutes, the carts would cycle through and the machines would make loud clicking and banging noise. So I would start the first show on the AM station, a one-hour teaching program, and lay down on the floor of the FM room and go to sleep. The automation would wake me up every 12 minutes. ...Most of the time.

After about a year at this station, I felt like I was getting pretty good at what I did. I had moved from weekend mornings to weeknights. This was where the action was. The only music played on this station at the time was played between 7:00pm and 9:00pm on the weeknights, which was the only time I got to be a real disc jockey. Among the youth group crowd in Boise, Idaho, it was quite a coup to be 17 years old and one of two voices of Christian music in town. Within six months a 24-hour Christian FM station signed on the air and effectively killed any hold we had on that community, but for a while the other night jock, Scott, and I were the very arbiters of cool for Christian music in Boise.

And of course, I was a high-school student. One day I was hanging out at the home of a girl I knew a little bit, because she was best friends with a girl I wanted to know a lot better – an exchange student from Australia. This friend of mine baby-sat for the best-known DJ in town, “Big Jack” Armstrong. Jack was a holdover from the old days of radio, cut from the “Wolf Man” Jack cloth, with the gravelly voice and abrupt delivery. He was six foot, nine inches tall and always wore billowy flowered pants. A few years later, upon moving to a position at a “Classic Oldies” station, he would begin driving around town in a converted yellow hearse with a loud-speaker on top.

One day when Jack came over to pick up his kids, I jokingly said, “Hey Jack, you got any jobs over at Rock 97 for me?” He stopped and said, “Actually, yeah. We’re looking for someone to change tapes for the automation on weekends. Call me on Monday.” So I did; I started the following Saturday. It wasn’t glamorous. Again, all I was doing was changing tapes for an almost entirely automated station, but it was a real FM rock station.

And so it went. I worked both jobs for about three months, until Rock 97 offered me a full time slot. They fired Jack one day, moved the production director to morning show host and made me (who had never been on the air at that station before then) Production Director. I dropped out of college mid-way through my first semester, and, at 18 years old, was in charge of all commercial production, including writing, voicing and producing all client advertising, scheduling all production to run during the day, and basically making sure the station’s main source of revenue was kept on track. My boss was an old crook who had hired some other old crooks to work with him, and they were basically siphoning money off the rich old fool who owned the station. He lived out of town and (so they thought) didn’t know better. The receptionist was a cute little redhead who was sleeping with the sales manager and who, when she “wasn’t feeling well” would take a few muscle-relaxants and come back and sit half-stoned in the production studio with me while I worked.

From there I started moonlighting weekends at the top pop radio station in town, "KF-95." This was a big deal. KF-95 was the station everyone my age listened to. I knew their Music Director from my days at the Christian station. His departure back then had opened up a slot for me. I did the 10am to 2pm on-air slot Saturday and Sunday for about 6 months, still working weekdays at Rock 97. Looking back, they were all paying me pennies; but for a single teenage kid who’d just moved out of his mother’s house for the first time, I was rolling in it.
One day on the air at KF-95 I got a phone call from a jock at another station. He told me he’d just been hired as the Program Director for a new station with a big corporate owner, and they had a lot of money behind them. He said I could either stay where I was and be out of a job in six months when the station went off the air, or I could come and do overnights for him. And so I followed the open door. I moved to the weekday overnight shift at Magic 93.1. I was nineteen years old.

I was on the air every day from 11pm until 5am. The jock before me was a career radio guy they had brought in from Pittsburgh. What they never told me was he left Pittsburgh in a hurry due to some angry parents and possible Statutory Rape charges. He was a character. I had to change out the microphones every night when I came in because he smoked so much they stank like stale ashtrays. But he was an artist. He taught me everything I ever learned about timing; about working the callers on the air; about talking up the ramp of a song, nailing every hit; mixing and producing on-air just like you were on stage. Everything I ever really loved about radio, he opened up to me. It was high-energy - never open the mic unless you’re at top form - never come at them with anything less than a hundred miles an hour - and never let up until you’re off the air. And he was encouraging. He told me one night, “Man, if I had your talent at nineteen… I’d be in New York by now!” He was my first glimpse of what a life lived in Radio might look like; and as exciting and creative as it was, I could see even then it wasn’t pretty.

I’d been in radio about three years. I was nearly twenty years old; making a full-time living, at least for my needs then, and with good benefits. But I started to get itchy. I was dating a girl I’d met through a bikini-contest at the Rock station a year or so previous. It sounds worse than it is… we started dating because she was the only one there with a soul. Her ex-boyfriend had dared her to do it. She called his bluff, and they broke up soon after. I was starting to be recognized in public. When we went out to dinner somewhere I would notice people’s heads turn just a little, and they’d whisper to each other. At my boss’s insistence, upon taking the job I’d adopted a new persona. I was “Hollywood Scott” on-air.

Being the overnight jock meant that one of my responsibilities, one almost more important than my actual on-air shift, was to cruise around town in the evenings in the station vehicle while The Smoker was on the air, and hand out prizes like CD’s, stickers, gift certificates, etc. I did a lot of remote broadcasts, where I’d set up in some high-profile location and pump the station out of giant speakers, doing call-in’s every fifteen or twenty minutes, and generally advertising the station in the places that made the most sense (and paid the most). So, even though The Smoker was a much better jock than me, and was the one with the best ratings, I was the face everyone knew. He was locked in the studio. I was on the street. I was effectively the face of the station. And it was the most listened to station in the state for people twelve to twenty-four years old.

But I was not “Hollywood Scott.” I was never in love with that part of it. Looking back, I could have had a lot more fun than I did. But I was still a youth group kid. I was a conservative Christian fundamentalist who was motivated more by guilt and fear of hell than anything else. So while my mother worried about the people I was hanging around with, doing back-stage “meet-n-greets” with KISS and Metallica and Bryan Adams and whomever else, and while the girls were throwing themselves at me at the remotes, not because of anything in me but because I represented something “famous;” I was running away from it. I was trying to hide, and resisting the attempts my bosses made to make me more visible and more accessible. I was torn.

And so I quit.

In January, 1993, really with the world as my oyster in the radio business, I decided to get out. I wasn’t that wise at the time, but I was wise enough to realize this was headed somewhere I didn’t want to go. I packed up my things, I left my car with my mom, and I moved to Hawaii to become a missionary, of all things. Relative obscurity, freedom from Karmic repercussions, and the chance to start again. And what did I end up doing? Running a missionary radio station in Hawaii. It’s like the scene from “The Godfather.” “Every time I try to get away, they keep sucking me back in!”

After a year and a half in Hawaii, I did actually manage to break away for a while. I moved back to Boise and spent two years working at a bakery/café. I sold my car while I was in Hawaii, and rode my bike for those two years. I saved up some money, and raised some support, and at the end of that time I moved to Switzerland for a year to teach. But when I got back to the states a year later, and got married. I had to make a living. And so I returned to my fallback skill. Radio.

In the four years I’d been out of the business, radio had changed pretty dramatically. During that time the telecommunications act was passed, and radio was deregulated. This meant the doors were opened wide for corporate ownership of radio stations, and where there used to be tight restrictions on how many stations in a market could be owned by one company, now companies could own as many as five or six stations in one city, and sometimes even own direct format competitors.

I went to work for Citadel Broadcasting. Not the worst of the giant radio companies, but not for lack of effort. They owned five stations, including two for which I had previously worked (Magic 93.1 and Rock 97), but almost none of the same people remained at either station. Over the course of the next three years, I worked for every one of the six stations in the group. I did part-time work. I filled-in on the morning show for the huge country music station. I did afternoons on the pop station for two weeks while someone was on vacation. I did mornings on the second country station for a month while they tried to hire a new morning show team. I did the local afternoon call-in show on the AM-talk station when the older host got sick for a month. I was their favorite switch-hitter, capable of doing anything at a moment’s notice. But they never gave me a full-time gig. I was too valuable as a utility man.

At one point they hired a new PD (Program Director) for their under-performing, second, country station. He came from Vegas and was brought in directly by the corporate chiefs to fix the station. When he arrived, and needed some air personalities fast to replace the ones he fired, I got the call to do afternoons for him for month. At the end of that time he offered me a full-time position, saying only that it was contingent upon him approving the offer with local and corporate bosses. I, however had committed to go to South Africa to teach for six weeks, and couldn’t (wouldn’t) change my plans. People were counting on me. So, I left on my trip and told him if the offer was there when I returned, I’d take it. When I returned, he’d been shipped back to Vegas, and my job offer disappeared.

I toiled on there, and eventually was picked up full-time by the same rock station I’d worked at before. But now it had been “re-branded” with a new name and new call letters and they brought in a new PD from Tucson to run the show. And so I was introduced to possibly the foulest person I have ever known. “Bob” was my boss for about 9 months. During that time he took every opportunity to belittle, to degrade, to embarrass or deflate, every person he came in contact with, especially those who worked for him. He systematically set out to ruin the relationships of married people he worked with, succeeding in more than one instance. He purposefully scheduled people at times most detrimental to their families and lives, to show he had control. And most of all he was just offensive.

I remember sitting in his office one day for an “air-check” meeting (going over tapes of my show for critique). When he said to me, “Jack,” (my on-air name at that station – at his behest – was Jack Dawson), “Jack, you know, you only have to suck one cock and then you’re a cock sucker. Have you ever sucked a cock Jack?” Apropos of nothing. It’s difficult to convey the line where something ceases being harmlessly offensive and becomes menacing, but he was beyond that line. I spoke often to my superiors about his behavior, but since he was brought in by corporate, they couldn’t (wouldn’t) do anything. (Eventually he would be fired and leave town quickly to avoid criminal charges, but that wouldn’t come while I was there).

I prayed for release. And it came. The same sales manager from Rock 97 who was sleeping with the receptionist, was now the General Manager (married to the receptionist) of a newly-signed on Adult Alternative station . The one station in town I actually listened to. He called one day while I was on the air, asking if I’d be interested in interviewing for a position there. I had lunch a couple days later with the new PD, and accepted the job without even asking about salary.

When changing jobs in radio, whether voluntarily or otherwise, there is no “two-week’s notice.” In most cases, when you’re hired away from one station to another, the last thing you want to do is go back on-air and wait out your time until the shift. Not to mention that radio often attracts volatile personalities, and no station manager is going to let someone whom they’ve fired, or who has “given notice” get back on the air and possibly bad-mouth their operation. So changes in radio happen quickly. And if you don’t have something lined up when one job ends, you spend some time “On the Beach” as it’s known in the business. Killing time. Some guys wind up spending months “On the Beach.” Other spend years there, actually working other jobs and other careers, just waiting for the break to come that will get them back in the business. Whenever I found myself out of a job in radio, it always felt like release. But some people need it; the appreciation, the microphone, the stage. To me it always felt like shackles.

And so I moved on. This time to the last independently owned FM station in the market. An octogenarian billionaire from California, who had once owned a few stations around the country, now had this one left. Everyone knew he’d be getting rid of it soon, and so it was like the “Blow-out sale” every day of the week. There were no staff meetings. There was a three-person sales staff. We all sat around in the offices, smoking and talking and hanging out. It was like summer camp for wayward DJ’s. I did the morning show with a manic depressive alcoholic who would nearly punch your lights out one morning, and give you his electric guitar as a birthday present the next. My boss was a wanna-be hippie from Montana who had had some success and national recognition programming a similar station in Bozeman. He was riding his success into a larger market, but I think he knew it was a fluke.

There was no real effort made to do anything right. We had fun. Most pop stations have a song library of 200-300 songs in rotation at one time. Most rock stations are more like 500-600. The most eclectic “album rock” stations might have 800 songs. We had a 1,200 song library, and we added stuff every day. Deep cuts. Early Bruce Cockburn, Joan Armatrading, The Samples, Tommy Bolin, Rockpile, NRBQ, The Band (and not just “Cripple Creek”); it was a music lover’s wet dream. We had artists in the studio because we were the only ones in town playing them. Shawn Colvin, Lyle Lovett, David Wicox, Toad the Wet Sprocket. And for a few months while I was there, it was a beautiful, dysfunctional family.

For the first time in my radio career I had found somewhere where people didn’t want me to be a celebrity. Our biggest “fan” was a surgically “bosom enhanced” mid-thirties housewife, who brought us cookies and cakes and baked treats for us on our birthdays. She could have been dangerous (she once emailed me asking spiritual questions and mentioning some “desires” she felt guilty about… it was a hook I’m glad I didn’t bite), but mostly she was innocent and a little lonely. And she was part of the family there. We all just liked the big, tight hugs she gave.
But it didn’t last. Once again, corporate ownership came knocking. And the billionaire didn’t get that way by being stupid. So he sold to Journal Broadcast Group. One day the new bosses came in. They interviewed us one by one. We all knew what was coming. No-one really said anything, none of us were told what was going to happen, we just saw Carl, my co-host quickly throw his headphones and a few books in a box, and walk out the door, tears welling in his eyes. “I’ll pack up my shit over the weekend when no one’s here,” he called to Tony, the receptionist on the way out. And it was over.

They brought in a consultant from Portland; a guru of the format who came in and whittled the playlist down to 800 songs… the same 800 songs being played on his station in Portland. They changed the name of the station, and although they didn’t technically change the format, they took away its soul. They had to, it wasn’t making money. But it was still a tragedy. And a lot of people in Boise stopped listening to the radio that day.

Maybe the most unfortunate thing about radio in the United States is not corporate ownership. That’s an albatross for sure. But maybe the worst thing is ratings. Money follows ratings. And business follows money. All the corporate owners and shareholders and programmers and buyers and bosses are interested in, is money; and the only way to determine where to put it, is ratings. In the US, radio ratings are determined by Arbitron Inc. The way this is done has not changed in decades. Arbitron sends out a booklet in the mail. They call it a “listening diary,” and ask people to voluntarily keep track of all their radio listening in a seven-day period. Then those people drop the postage paid diary in the mail, and as a “thank you” for filling it out, Arbitron sends them a dollar(1).

Arbitron sends these diaries out to a ridiculously small sampling of the population. In the fall of 2002, in the entire state of California, only 26,382 diaries were sent out. Of those, only 7,266 were returned(2). That’s in a state with a population of 35 million people. There are whole segments of society that are never represented in these surveys. Among them, kids under 18 who couldn’t care less about diaries or sampling, and to whom the diaries are never sent in the first place. Diaries are only sent out one-per-household. So if a family is to keep track of all their listening, they have to keep separate notes and at some point come together and compile them. Also under-represented are middle-to-high income people who are typically well off and college educated. These people are too busy to fill out a stupid survey, cannot be induced by the prospect of a dollar’s reward, and in most cases would never believe the millions of advertising dollars spent on radio each moth, each day, in the United States are based more on the results of these diaries than on any other factor. So they don’t fill them out. The people who do fill them out are often lower income people, often out of work and in need of every dime they can scrape. As a result, talk radio (unless it’s conservative talk radio) never rates well. Public radio never rates well. “Triple A” (also called A3 or Adult Alternative) radio rates poorly almost everywhere. The formats that do rate well? Classic Rock, Country and Pop. Everywhere.

The result of this is good radio disappears; because you can program a standard Classic Rock or Country station from anywhere in the country. You don’t need to know anything about the town it’s in, you just pick the top songs from Billboard, or Radio & Records magazine and stick ‘em on the air. It’s that simple. But you can’t meet the needs of an individual community, or a specific listening audience by doing this.

The airwaves are “owned” by the public. The government regulates the use of them for the public good. It used to be that every year, every station had to prove they were using the public airwaves for purposes beneficial to society; that they were doing at least a minimum amount of public service broadcasting, or public affairs programming. That’s why even up to five or six years ago on the pop stations you could still hear a local public affairs show run at 5am on Sunday morning; because the station would pre-tape this (or better yet, buy pre-recorded public affairs programming) and run it to satisfy their requirements. That’s also why stations run a lot of Public Service Announcements in off-peak broadcasting hours. But these requirements have been all but completely done away with.

And so, what happened to KFXJ in Boise, Idaho is what has happened at one time or another to almost every station in the United States. A corporation with stock-holders and share-holders and vice presidents bought the station, and looked at the Arbitron ratings for that town and did a market analysis based on the those ratings, and determined what that town really needed was another Pop station. And classical music, and jazz, and diverse talk radio all went down the drain.

In my case, we all went to work for Journal Broadcast Group. They determined a Triple-A station could succeed in a market like Boise, but it would need to be severely tightened up. We got new jingle packages, and new station imaging and liners and a new name “The River” and logos and whatnot. We got a new Operations Manager who had never programmed this format before, and so he basically let the consultant take over. Which meant the consultant programmed the station exactly like he did his own station in Portland.

Eventually, the Program Director was fired, when he refused to cooperate with the management decision to remove him from the programming process. I was promoted to Program Director, as well as morning show host and Music Director (under the close supervision of my Operations Manager and Consultant) and was informed my boss’s wife would be my new morning show Co-host. When they told me about this move, I agreed to it on one condition: that there be a six-month performance review to determine whether it was working. (I knew this woman, she’d been shoehorning her way into the station from even before it was purchased, and I’d heard horror stories from past colleagues).

When, after a year on the air together, it became apparent nothing would change; I scheduled a meeting with my General Manager. I had been agonizing for months over the station, over my job… over the realization that I had the best job I was ever likely to get in this industry, and it was driving me crazy. The day before that meeting, I actually prayed about it. I told God I didn’t care what happened. I was ready and willing to stay there, to take a pay cut, to be demoted or transferred. I was willing to quit or be fired and move on. But whatever happened, I prayed for it to be decisive.

The next morning, I walked into his office. I shut the door, and when I turned around I saw he had tears in his eyes. I knew then I was being fired. Before he even said the words, “This is going to be really hard for me…” I knew it. And I was overjoyed. Instantly I felt released. Like a kid who wakes up and finds it’s summer break and there’s no school, not only today, but for months!

We had a great meeting. I basically consoled him. He told me he wanted to keep me, but it was basically a choice of firing me, or firing two other people (my boss & his wife). I told him straight out how I felt betrayed and let down by the arrangement they had made, and how I thought the influence of my co-host and the consultant on the station were damaging it. He actually seemed to agree. In the end he asked if I wanted to resign or be fired. I told him to fire my ass so I could collect unemployment until I figured out what was next. He agreed to let me announce my departure to my staff, and to wait until the weekend to clean out my office.
I returned to my office and typed an email to the company locally stating that I was leaving, I didn’t say at who’s impetus, and in retrospect I should have been more clear, because as I later found out, a lot of people simply thought I’d given up and left. But I sent that email, and within a minute there was a knock on my door. Rena, my morning news reporter and afternoon/weekend DJ came into my office in tears, and sat on her knees beside me asking “Why? Why are you going? Who are they going to replace you with…” I was touched. And I found it ironic that I felt so free, while all around me it was the people who were staying, the ones who still had jobs, that needed to be consoled.

And that was it. I was out. I resolved then to make it my final departure from radio. My son was born about a month before I was fired. Which meant I got to be home with him for those precious months, and while I looked for work, and wrote songs, and collected unemployment, I got to spend more time with him than almost any new father I know gets with his kids.

There is more to write about this… there are years of insights and musings about the state of our culture and what this systematic removal of creativity and life has done to so many of our cultural institutions. I feel like I’m leaving something out by not talking about the transition this provided into the music industry, and the further disillusionment that came from years spent there…. about the cult of celebrity, and how my own reaction to it at the age of nineteen presaged what I was eventually learn as a more mature person. I feel like so much of my life now is finally geared toward looking back at those lessons, and figuring out how to act in a positive way out of what I’ve learned and experienced. I’ve spent a long time reacting negatively to stimuli. But that creates a negative person.

Yesterday I was talking to a new friend about our lives, and about experiences we’ve had that have shaped us. He said to me, “You’ve told me a lot about who you are, and about what you’re saying no to, and I respect that immensely. But in all of that, with all of the insight you’ve gained, what are you saying Yes to these days?”

And that’s the question I’m spending these days working on. That’s what this writing is about.

Oh, and one more thing. No. You can’t call me “Hollywood Scott.”

(1) Apparently they’ve upped that to $2 in recent years, and there is outrage that in populations with high minority concentrations they’ve been giving $10 per diary to black and Latino respondents, thus creating dramatic “over-sampling” in those demographics.
(2) “Radio ratings service again under fire for methodology - Media & Technology - Arbitron Inc” Los Angeles Business Journal, Feb 24, 2003 by Darrell Satzman

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