Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Years Later and Miles Away

I heard via e-mail from an old colleague of mine this week--a guy I'd heard on the radio long before I began working with him, and a guy who, like me, has been out of radio for a long time now. And that's not the only similarity between us. We had similar experiences in radio, although years and miles apart.

You'd peg him as a radio guy from the moment you met him. He cultivated the look of a rock DJ--kept his hair long, wore a mustache, dressed like a hipster. He had a great voice, deep and resonant, which you'd notice just talking to him. On the air, he forced it lower. Lots of jocks do this, some deliberately and some accidentally--when you're wearing good headphones and you have the volume cranked, something about that combination makes you force your voice down. He could get his voice almost absurdly low, to the point at which it sometimes sounded like a caricature of the ballsy DJ--but that sound was his trademark.

He'd acquired a reputation in the industry as a guy who knew how to break hits by playing them early, before other stations did. In those days, record labels rewarded such programmers by sending them gold records to hang on their wall. He'd won a few, and because he wanted more, his station was fairly adventuresome in playing new music. This was a great thing when it worked and bad when it didn't--for every cutting-edge smash his listeners heard first, there were many complete stiffs that took up precious playlist spots.

He was also the station's primary voice--it was automated, so there were no DJs, and he was heard on most of the commercials and promotional announcements. So you'd rarely go more than 10 minutes without hearing him.

So given that the music mix was based on his famous ear for the hits, and that his voice was on the air almost continuously, the station eventually became an extension of his personality. It had the same blend of strengths and weaknesses that he had personally. And that seemed weird to me. I'd always thought of radio as a collaborative effort involving jocks and news guys and programmers and rock bands and voice-over artists. It seemed odd to think that the essence of such a powerful station--powerful in the industry, in the ratings, and with a 50,000-watt transmitter blanketing 50 miles in all directions--could exist mostly in one person's head.

Odd, that is, until something similar happened to me. My first commercial program director's gig, in a small town in Illinois, involved programming an automated Top 40 station. I was the primary voice on commercials and promotional announcements, so you'd rarely go 10 minutes without hearing me. And while I didn't try to break new hit records, I tweaked the music library and the formatics to reflect my personal sense of what was cool. Years later and miles away, the essence of that little station existed mostly in my own head. And that didn't seem especially weird at all.


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