Friday, May 29, 2009

1930s predictions of radio's future

Harry Heuser quotes a 1936 radio magazine wondering about who will be the big radio stars in 1950. Who could have predicted that network radio would be pretty much gone, with Ma Perkins, Don McNeil's Breakfast Club and one or two other remnants of that kind of radio hanging on for dear life while the big radio personalities of the '50s would be disk jockeys. That's the year I began my less-than-spectacular career in the radio biz. But even I was a local hotshot star of sorts in Flint, Michigan. It was a good time to be a deejay. We had fans and fan mail. And we had women! I married one of my fans. Strictly formatted, top 40 radio had not yet taken away our freedom to be creative. We learned to adlib. We became good air salesmen. One of the stations where I worked had no written commercials. There were little cards with a few lines about the advertiser and what he was selling and we had to adlib an effective commercial from those notes. We played our own favorite records and talked about them as much as we wanted to. The great "announcers" who came before us orated to a faceless entity, the ladies and gentlemen of the radio audience. They even used their stentorian tones to identify themselves in impersonal terms. "Your announcer has been Clanton W. Clanton." But I'll give them one thing. They knew that "W" has three syllables. We deejays learned to communicate, one-on-one, to be a friend in homes and cars.My personal broadcast idol, who came from that stiff, formal kind of radio and broke out of it and poked fun at it to become the industry's greatest communicator and air salesman was Arthur Godfrey. He could sell Chesterfield Cigarettes and Lipton Tea like no one before or since. It was a wonderfully creative time in radio. I am grateful to have been a part of it.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

WGN goes to hell

I do not often use profanity, either writing or speaking. I am so old and old fashioned that I believe those words lose their power and punch if they are not reserved for extreme situations that call for the strongest possible exclamation. WGN radio, which I have long and often spoken of as the country's greatest station, has put me in a veritable emotional tizzy. Once an institution, an icon, a station which, through many changes of management, continued to hire the industry's greatest one-on-one communicators, has begun a descent into the depths of perdition. From Franklyn MacCormack to Wally Phillps to Uncle Bobby and Spike O'Dell, Orion Samuelson and Milt Rosenberg, WGN was simply unique. It got into our heads and hearts as only radio can. When my then teen age daughter took a job on the other side of Michigan, one of her major concerns was whether or not she would be able to hear WGN. When she was a big Hockey fan, WGN sports announcer Chuck Swirskey phoned her to personally thank her for her interest. WGN was family.
In November of 2008, Chicago Tribune writer Phil Rosenthal wrote, "In an age of change, WGN chooses to bank on stability." That was then, this is now. His column for May 23 this year begins, "The Girlfriends are gone. The "Kathy & Judy" show, a groundbreaking weekday coffee klatch presided over by former Chicago newspaper columnists Kathy O'Malley and Judy Markey, ended its run of 20 years on WGN-AM 720 Friday, with the Tribune Co. station calling the cancellation of the one-time ratings juggernaut "a business decision." WGN's program director has issued memos ordering a more edgy presentation. He wants his people to "get pissed" on the air. Will evening WGN host Dr. Milt Rosenberg be next? I continue to be convinced that he knows more about more things than any other broadcaster, past or present.
Why am I so personally disturbed about what happens to a radio station? I've been there, not at WGN but at a dozen or so smaller stations. A most painful memory, I was at a station that made a sudden and dramatic format change with the hope of garnering the younger demographic that advertisers want. I had to answer the phone, dealing with swearing, crying fans, beside themselves at the loss of "their station." It was my job to tell them it was just a business decision. The funny thing about it, not really funny at all, is that it didn't work. It got rid of the older, undesirable listeners but it did not replace them with new, younger ones. That station is long gone. Another one where I worked spent a ton of money in a switch to a contemporary format, going head to head with the established rocker. The building and the nine towers are gone and it is now the site of condos.
So pardon me while I join Kathy and Judy and their girlfriends, many of them male, in a tearful goodbye as another great radio station goes to hell.