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ten seconds to faded ghosts
remembering the mystique of radio
by tracey l. kelley (@TraceyLKelley)
1.27.03
music


“Begin the day with a friendly voice, a companion unobtrusive…”

It was 1984.

In a 5’ by 5’ room, there was a long counter, two turntables, a reel-to-reel machine, a microphone, and a chair. The vinyl was stacked and sorted into faded pastel sleeves no thicker than construction paper and labeled twice, once in Braille. A few scattered index cards, some pens, a few RC Cola cans, a coffee cup - half-full from yesterday morning, a stubbed butt-filled ashtray, a razor blade and editing tape cluttered the counter’s veneered surface. There was dust and trash and old newspapers all over the room.

But in the air, there was magic.

I had called the owner of country station KBST and said, “Hi. I’ve been interested in radio since I was 12 and have thought about majoring in radio management at NLU, but I’ve never even seen a radio station before. Would it be okay to visit your station?” On my voice alone, with absolutely no experience, I was hired that afternoon to work 6:00 p.m.-midnight, five days a week.

I was a 17-year-old high school student.

“Off on your way, hit the open road, there is magic at your fingers…”

I trained with a blind man, Tom Carter (hence the Braille labeling). He taught me about fades and cold endings (“let it end before talking-respect the song”) and hitting the posts (“you have :10 before the singer starts – make a quick point and end with the call letters”) and learning something about the music so I could inform the listeners (“The song ‘Faraway Eyes’ was an attempt at country music by the Rolling Stones”).

And smile. Don’t ever forget to smile. They can hear it in your voice.

Those were the basics. The rest was to be my creation. Each night, I mustered up my courage and performed. My audience never clapped, yet I always knew when it was a good show. The energy filled the room and transmitted farther than the frequency ever could. Beckoned by the rhythm of the song, I followed the poetic wandering of the lyrics until I believed I had landed in a place far beyond the everyday. This was the experience - no, atmosphere - I wanted for anyone tuned into the show.

Listen to this. It's for you. I think you’ll like it.

“Emotional feedback, on a timeless wavelength, bearing a gift beyond price, almost free.”

In later years, a grand radio mentor of mine said, “When you’re on the air, you have to be like Frank Sinatra. Have you ever watched him sing? He just unzips (motions down the chest) – and that’s it. That’s all there is.” To give so freely of yourself in order to make a connection, one that would make a listener (for there was never truly an audience - just one person at a time) smile or laugh or turn you up to listen more closely – that was the level of intimacy, the chemistry, the deepened form of communication you strived for.

An unashamed and unhidden shared humanity.

One flick of the mic switch and I was yours for the taking. To be invited into a kitchen, car, office, shower, bedroom, child’s playroom, or corner store was to become integrated into a life. I was the memory maker. The dark night companion. The confession table but never judge. The smiling jester, quick of wit and free with song. A psychic once called me while I was on the air and said she knew exactly who I was because I came through to her so clearly. She predicted my future as she saw it then: my current husband whom I had yet to meet, the way I liked to wear my hair, my worries and fears. At that time, she was right.

Because of what you believed, and what you gave, the spirit surrounded you.

“One likes to believe in the freedom of music…”

My constant joke was about wicker furniture. Wicker furniture could be easily picked up and moved to the next town, the next gig, and the next bright promise. Only morning shows had the money. Others had to be content with a side promotion in some secondary management position: production director, promotions director, music director. Anything to bring the line above general poverty wage and make unemployment benefits all the more profitable. Losing a job was always a possibility, moving on almost a certainty.

But who else had a job like this?

No one laughed when you played air-guitar. In fact, they often accompanied you. Avoiding a “train wreck” and creating the perfect stream of songs, segue after segue, that linked mood and rhythm and style was a revered talent. To hear a new act before anyone else was a decadent treat, especially if a free CD was involved. For all the bad days dealing with sales and management and long hours in the rain with electrical equipment, there was the glorious sanctuary of the studio.

To be a part of the music was both a disease and a cure.

“But glittering prizes and endless compromises, shatter the illusion of integrity…”

The independence of radio started to diminish. Deregulation spawned a pit-bull arena fighting for numbers. There were power-hungry consultants and chimpanzee liner cards and 408 songs on a play list because “the listener needs to have a sense of familiarity with the music”, so thousands of other songs before and since were ignored because 30 people in a hotel conference room maybe recognized the others more. Mainstream no longer gave life to the music or to the personality – it flat-lined into something that could be catalogued, categorized and charted on a spreadsheet.

It was no longer spun gossamer, but a controlled science.

I had achieved my goals with swift success, and stayed with it as long as I could, until I realized I was no longer with the program. “Yes, but why did you leave?” asks a former partner. I left because the magic was gone, and I had promised myself I’d never fake it, whatever “it” was. Like the air “it” travels on, it was an ethereal yet fast bond. Once broken, a listener, no matter how fickle, knows.

It had meant too much, and I’d betray myself before one of them.

“Invisible airwaves crackle with life, bright antennae bristle with the energy…”

The connection was defined with other air personalities as well. Those who shared trade secrets and information and special words of encouragement. Who did what needed to be done to keep the station on the air, metaphorically or literally. Those who I could still call, after a decade or more of assorted holiday cards or occasional email, and tell them I was writing this column, who then openly shared their thoughts and feelings like no time had passed.

They spoke of an intangible force that, to many, is unimaginable, but retains a crystallized existence for those of us who still feel it. They spoke with hope and confidence in new ideas that won't make once was once again, but could make a hybrid model just as innovative.

What Tom Petty sings of now is true:

“There goes the last d.j.
Who plays what he wants to play
Who says what he wants to say,
Hey, hey, hey.
There goes the freedom of choice
There goes the last human voice.
There goes the last d.j…”


Yet we celebrate.

We were artists of a different sort. Our canvas changed hour-by-hour, day-by-day, based on the music and the feeling and the connection. We unzipped and gave willingly of ourselves and the music within our possession just for that brief moment of something truly real.

That memory, like the fading final wisps of a favorite song, remains sweet.


“The Spirit of Radio” by Rush. ©1980 Core Music Publishing


ABOUT TRACEY L. KELLEY

Tracey likes to shake things up and then take the lid off. She also likes to keep the peace, especially in a safe, fuzzy place. Writer, editor, producer, yogini, ('cause yoger or yogor simply doesn't work) by day, rabid WordsWithFriends and DrawSomething! player by night. You can follow her on Twitter: @traceylkelley or @tkyogaforyou

more about tracey l. kelley

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COMMENTS

joe procopio
1.27.03 @ 10:07a

There are two huge aspects of this column. The first, where you call a station and ask if you can come down and see it, this is the key to being any kind of success in this world, no matter the career path. The second, corporate radio, what a damn shame. Something needs to be done about it - and Internet radio is too little, too late.

eloise young
1.27.03 @ 11:14a

When I was about 14 I called a local accounting firm and explained that I was interested in becoming an accountant. They sounded quite amazed and puzzled, and gave me a Saturday tour of their offices. There wasn't an awful lot to see, but they seemed pretty excited and answered all my questions. They didn't let me practise accounting 6pm-midnight, though.

I think, growing up in the UK in the 1970s and 80s, I never really experienced the independent radio you talk about. There were "Pirate" radio stations, based on ships in the North Sea or somewhere, but I never heard them. I think this might have been after their heyday anyway.

juli mccarthy
1.27.03 @ 11:19a

This is such a cool column for me to read, because I remember this fondly. In my case, it was a college in-house station (really just a PA system with call letters) and a haven for music aficianados who didn't have to care what the listener recognized. I learned more in that little room for two hours a week than I did in 18 credit hours of class time.

tracey kelley
1.27.03 @ 11:29a

Eloise, you did exactly what I did. I was 12 when I started calling radio stations and asking very particular questions. One gentleman - Chris Larko, from WLKI in Angola Indiana - (funny how I still remember) explained how it all worked. I am forever grateful to him.

And of course, WKRP helped tremendously. It was all true - ever single episode.

I knew a guy who once worked for pirate radio in the North Sea. He was strange, but so much fun to talk to as he described the challenges of such a feat.

The most creative station in Des Moines right now is at Valley High School in West Des Moines. The players, the music - all very fun and experimental. You need to be standing outside the building to get them, though.


russ carr
1.27.03 @ 1:38p

In the summer after my freshman year, I worked at a tiny (1000 watt) am station, WHAP, in Hopewell, Va. A friend of mine who wanted a career in radio suggested I try them out. They'd just lost their news director (she went to work for the local paper) so, not unlike Tracey, I was pretty much hired on the spot so they wouldn't have to waste time finding someone else. Two days later, I was on the air.

Taking over for the news director also meant running the local public access cable TV station, so I got a one-day crash course in TV production, too. I ran the cameras, the boards, dressed the set, scheduled the guests for our daily interview show...

Two summers later I went back again, doing all the same stuff, plus programming all the commercial logs, doing the accounting, the billing, etc. It was a great job, and Tracey, I agree totally when you draw the WKRP comparison. Whoever wrote that show knew his stuff. We stopped just short of dropping turkeys out of a plane.

A couple of years after I graduated, I got a call from the new station manager. She'd been dumped into the position after the previous station manager (and owner) killed himself. She tried and tried to get me to come back to help run the place, and I probably could have been on the fast track to owning my own radio station, but riding herd over a 1 kW country and talk station wasn't where I was headed. I've just looked into what happened to WHAP since then -- they'

russ carr
1.27.03 @ 1:42p

they were bought out by a Media Company and now they simulcast talking heads from Big Radio. Another radio spirit snuffed.

The best "radio" I hear these days is on streaming Internet stations. Generally free from the FCC (for now) and corporate playlists, Internet radio can go where it wants. If I had a fast connection, I'd set up a playlist and share myself with the world, no question.

matt morin
1.27.03 @ 1:56p

I learned radio when I worked in Boise. I'd go to a radio station to produce all my commercials and Chris was a grizzled old veteran of radio. He took this fresh-from-college kid and taught him how to splice with a razor blade, how to make reel-to-reel dubs, and how not to pop your Ps while speaking into the mike. I loved it. And to this day I love writing radio spots more than anything.

heather millen
1.27.03 @ 2:29p

I guess I must have worked at a radio station after the time where you cite the magic left, Trace. I worked at Triangle Radio Partners in Raleigh for a year. I thought it would be exciting, but really it was droll and boring. The "talent" were hardly that and it really didn't have the aura I was hoping for...

tracey kelley
1.27.03 @ 4:12p

One of the still-in-the-biz buddies I talked to about this article said he believes satellite radio will usher in the next wave of creativity and innovation, and thus, force land radio to alter.

Another one said that since corporate radio has acquired about as much as it can and the dust has cleared, it leaves opportunity for those not acquired to do great things...different things than what McRadio will allow.

I've monitored quite a few Internet radio stations, as well as Music Choice from dish/cable. I can spot a tight rotation of songs/limited playlists in an instant, and it always surprises me that these outlets feel they need to play by the same rules.

sloan bayles
1.27.03 @ 6:34p

A truly wonderful column Trace. Whatever one's vocation, we all remember what made us want to do whatever we do. That initial passion, and feeling of "whoa, how cool is this". I had to chuckle a couple of times reading this, rememebering the accidental "sounds of silence" and dedications of all Razberry Beret fans. Once again you've susictly (sp) captured a feeling, and a memory, that is within us all.

tracey kelley
1.28.03 @ 12:51p

From a radio newshound friend's email: "I could not stopping thinking, as
I hit the halfway point, that you were like Peter Pan, growing up and losing
your childhood world. Then I realized it is the radio industry that is Peter
Pan, leaving his old childhood friends behind. F*** Peter Pan. We now
have the Internet and can find and customize our own musical tastes on CD's
for our cars and chatrooms in our livingrooms! Go to Law School. Radio's dead."

Not certain if law school is a viable answer, but who knows?



[edited]

heather millen
1.28.03 @ 7:51p

So it WASN'T video that killed the radio star?!

tracey kelley
1.28.03 @ 11:07p

My, with that quick wit, you should be on a morning show! C'mere, let me tell ya a few things...

russ carr
1.28.03 @ 11:18p

heh.

Despite the Rush and Petty lyrics, I haven't been able to get Elvis Costello's "Radio, Radio" out of my head today:

"I was seriously thinkin' about hiding the receiver when the switch broke cuz it's old. They're saying things that I can hardly believe. I really think it's getting out of control.... You had better do as you are told -- you'd better listen to the radio."

tracey kelley
1.28.03 @ 11:29p

"Radio is a sound salvation...radio is cleanin' up the nation..."

Yes indeed, that song appeared on the page for a while, until I decided what direction I really wanted to go. Rather than clutter it up with any more lyrics, I went with Rush.

MD and PDs LOVED to get radio/voice-oriented songs, if only to mock them and put them in sweepers. Autograph's (Or was it Europe? I get the spandexed confused) "Turn Up The Radio" ....38 Special's "Sound of Your Voice" and so on. It's like coming out with a song like "I Love Rock n' Roll" - it's almost a guaranteed play.

russ carr
1.29.03 @ 12:14a

Also "Mexican Radio" by Wall of Voodoo and "Radio Song" and "Radio Free Europe" by R.E.M. Would they have gotten as much play otherwise? Doubt it.

brian anderson
1.29.03 @ 8:41a

"Radio Song" got brief MTV time.

But, on the other hand, "Left of the Dial" by the Replacements...

bill page
1.29.03 @ 10:23a

I've been in radio since 1979, and am happy to say that in some areas, such as the one I'm in (Northeast Alabama), independantly owned radio stations still are around. I am news director at an AM music radio stand alone, that still turns a profit, gains ratings, and serves the local area. The station is WEIS AM 990 Centre, AL. It's much like a station I worked for years ago in Kennett Missouri, then called KBOA AM & KTMO FM, and where I started it all at WKRO in Cairo, IL.
Thanks for the memories.

steven goldman
1.29.03 @ 11:18a

You're really lucky to have had that taste of radio as it can be. My college radio station was pretty unsupervised, so I got to try a lot of different formats (from live DJ sets to a semester of live radio theater)...everything was a learning experience, broadcast by carrier current. But seeing how little freedom of expression one would have on corporate radio kinda killed that as a career choice.

[edited]

tracey kelley
1.29.03 @ 11:30a

Welcome gentlemen! Bill, so glad to hear that you're able to keep the standards alive. I'll bet you have some fascinating stories to tell.

Steven, if it wasn't for college radio, we wouldn't have the Police, now would we? Or the Chili Peppers. Or hundreds of other acts that, even in the late 70s, found it hard to break through on regular radio.

Brian, you receive the Obscure Reference Award! Now how about this one:

Jeez, I feel like Mother from "FM."

steven goldman
1.29.03 @ 12:15p

Hear hear, Tracy. Actually, I think my co-host and I gave dozens of bands airplay that broke up shortly afterwards.

Given the short range of our campus radio station, our theme song was Ren & Stimpy's "Is There Anybody Out There?"

bill page
1.29.03 @ 4:06p

This is a great business, if you find the right place. Unfortunatley, those are few and far between.
We are a country station, with today's and country classics mix, then we flip over to a Southern Gospel format that's on hard drive for the overnight hours.
For a small town AM stand alone, we are pretty well equipped. We have all music on hard drive, all computers are networked together, and we have the latest production programs at our disposal. The owner of the station is great, he is an insurance agent, who had a client that built the station in 1961. The current owner fell into buying the station 20 years ago by accident. Now, he pulls an airshift every morning from 5am - 8 a.m., then goes out and does sales as well.
We are located in a town with 3,000 people, however 2 other radio stations, including an FM. Now, the FM is moving out of town, and the other AM basically is a daytimer that is all gospel...not even sure if they are still on the air.

We could tell you all sorts of stories, I plan to stay at the station. We don't use satellite, and we are still have a full complement of live announcers.

tracey kelley
1.30.03 @ 11:17a

Hee hee - this is great.(Capitol Hill-AP)"The nation's biggest radio company is in the spotlight
on Capitol Hill. The Senate Commerce Committee is looking at the consolidation in the
radio industry -- with the focus on Clear Channel Communications, which owns
more than 12-hundred stations.
Clear Channel's C-E-O acknowledges that figure sounds large. But Lowry Mays says that represents only nine percent of all radio stations in country. He insists radio stations continue to serve the needs of local communities. But Senator Russell Feingold points to allegations of anti-competitive business practices that Clear Channel uses its radio stations, billboards and concert promotions to push others out of business. The Wisconsin Democrat is calling for legislation that would crack down on anti-competitive practices and ban all forms of ``payola'' -- payments to
get songs played on the air."

michelle von euw
1.30.03 @ 11:57a

Clear Channel sucks. Their main Boston station has a playlist of about 12 songs, and it's not uncommon to hear Eminem, say, twice in ten minutes. Their most popular DJ complains about the song selection and refers to them as Enron Broadcasting; of course, he's also getting a huge paycheck from them. It's the largest top 40 station in Boston, yet they never break new music: for instance, they didn't play Nelly until 8 months after his song hit #1 on the Billboards; they've just started playing Norah Jones (after her Grammy nods) even though comparable stations have been giving her airtime since at least last August.

matt morin
1.30.03 @ 12:37p

What radio fails to realize is, it eats its own children. I can't count the number of songs I love, then grow to hate once they get on rotation and I hear them 400 times a day.

That's why I won't listen to radio anymore.

I'm not sure why the music industry hasn't figured out that by playing a much larger set list, they'd get more people interested in more bands and make a lot more money.

erik myers
1.30.03 @ 12:52p

It's the same reason that the music industry hasn't figured out that the sharing of music files via the Internet is good. As is Internet Radio (as I believe somebody said -- too little too late).

Now we have to Contend with Clear Channel and the crap that they spawn.

tracey kelley
1.30.03 @ 12:58p

Ah, but the focus groups say differently. They say they want to hear their favorites songs because it makes them feel comfortable. They say they don't want a lot of talk - except in the morning, and then they want to be amused. So 30-50 people on a quarterly basis determine what you -and a million other listeners - want.

The 'don't play the song until it's a hit' is something I never quite understood, but most of the time it has to do with the philosophy of the station: if they play "Today's Hits!", then they wait to see how a song does nationally before they add it.

So if it plays well in Peoria....

matt morin
1.30.03 @ 1:01p

Yeah, except we all know that people want what's familiar...until something better comes along. Then they want that. So while initially, people might bitch and moan that they aren't hearing O-Town five times a day, suddenly they'll hear some non-MTV band and like that. And then another, and another...

tracey kelley
1.31.03 @ 12:05a

I have always dreamed that when I win the lotto, I will start a new music station. That will be our philosophy. We'll use genre block programming to play a couple of cuts deep into new CDs, and have the artists talk about the new stuff.

How cool would that be?

russ carr
1.31.03 @ 12:12a

There's one nice thing which has happened on radio stations in various cities where I've lived -- setting aside an hour or two to play nothing but up and coming local bands. Frequently they'll have in-studio performances. The only problem I've found is, they soon run into the same problem as with their regular programming -- recycling the same groups ad nauseam, because there are only X number of groups in town that play music within the station's genre and demo.

There is one community station here in STL that has a niche for just about anyone. All you have to have is the discipline to find out when your niche is on the air -- something that may vary from week to week for the less-established shows.

tracey kelley
2.5.03 @ 1:18p

Someone forwarded this quote to me:

"The radio business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic
hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs.
There's also a negative side."

Hunter S. Thompson


matt morin
2.19.03 @ 2:07p

I was just chosen by Arbitron to keep a radio diary that they compile to create the ratings for different markets.

Kinda fun that I get to help decide what radio succeeds in SF.

tracey kelley
2.19.03 @ 4:36p

Oh my God! I am so envious! I have always wanted to participate in Arbitron! How did you get that ('cause usually anyone affiliated with ad agencies - especially radio copywriters - are excluded.)

jael mchenry
2.19.03 @ 4:38p

Ten bucks says Fight Club.

russ carr
2.19.03 @ 5:52p

Actually, I just did Arbitron, too. I think because I'm connected with some other polling companies (notably Harris Poll).

matt morin
2.19.03 @ 6:39p

I have no idea how it happened. They just called me out of the blue this morning. I think I surprised the guy by how willing I was to do it.

The only stipulation was, I couldn't be an emplolyee of a radio or TV station or have a family member who is.

lisa r
3.30.04 @ 10:51a

Hmmm...I like that Hunter Thompson quote. Reminds me of a silage bunker, with today's playlists being so much spoiled silage waiting to be discarded and burned.

If radio wants me back as a listener, they are going to have to stop relying on what programming consultants say the ubiquitous THEY want to hear. I don't WANT to hear cookie cutter artists that get their start on the Mickey Mouse Club or American Idol and whose only apparent claim to talent is knowing where to buy push-up bras. Give me artists (strange how Def Leppard comes to mind) that can actually play more than two chords, write their own music, and don't have choreographers on their payroll.





[edited]

tracey kelley
5.5.04 @ 5:50p

From the business section today:

"Radio giant Clear Channel Communications, Inc. posted a 64 percent increase in first quarter profits Tuesday, earning $116.5 million, or 19 cents per share during the period, up from $71 million, or 12 cents a share, for the year-ago period."

Sigh.

dan gonzalez
5.6.04 @ 12:48a

This made me think of Radio #2, a great tune by the Ataris if you've never heard it.

NOTE: The lyrics at that link are wrong, the fourth line is really: You bring the explosives, and I'll bring my radio (radio).

[edited]

russ carr
5.14.04 @ 1:53p

Well, my favorite Internet station is off the air. WOXY-FM, based in Cincinatti, was already going to close its radio broadcast facilities, as the couple who had owned the station sold the frequency license to another conglomerate. However, they had intended to stay as an Internet station. But they could never get the financial backing, so on the same day the transmitter went silent, so did their broadband stream.

They were a hell of a station, introducing me to artists I'd never heard before (and haven't heard anywhere else), outpacing the playlists of local (STL) radio stations by a good eight months or more. They were everything good about college radio...but with a talented, knowledgeable, witty on-air staff.

If you're a movie fan, you might remember WOXY from "Rain Man." That was the station that Raymond listened to, and he regularly belted out their motto: "97X -- BANG! -- The future of rock and roll."

No future, now.



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