Monday, February 23, 2009

Radio Days (Part 1)

The demise of the Adam Carolla show due to a station format switch got me thinking about my own former career in radio and how I wound up as a morning show DJ due to a similar switch.

I got into radio in college, where I used the same name I use here, Juice. S. Aaron, as my on-air name at WMSV 91.1, a 14,000 watt station broadcasting from Mississippi State University. I'd wanted to be a DJ for years, ever since a judge at a high school speech contest I was competing at told me I should be in radio, but MSU didn't have a radio broadcasting major, nor a campus radio station at the time I started college. When WMSV started up in `92, I knew I had to get in there, and I indeed became one of the DJs who went on the air on the first day of the station's life. Within a few months I had graduated to a daily two hour afternoon shift and, more months later a three hour shift. By then, MSU had a radio broadcasting major in place, but all the classes were taught during my air shift, so I opted for experience over book learning. For two and a half years I had the time of my life doing more or less what I wanted to on the air. And in addition to my daily airshift, I also got to create and co-host a weekly 15 minute show (cause the man wouldn't give us 30) about comics and general nerdity called Juice & Joe's Four Colour Theatre. We got to interview loads of comic professionals, spout off about how much we hated Rob Liefeld and have an absolute blast. Was it all great stuff? Probably only in retrospect, but damn if I didn't have fun.

I took my first real-world commercial radio job in Tupelo, MS, shortly after graduation. It was only weekends at first, requiring me to drive the hour from Starkville to Tupelo, sometimes twice a weekend. Soon enough, though, I was offered the chance to do a month of fill-in work for vacationing DJs. I took this as a good sign and packed up and moved from Starkville to Tupelo, taking up residency in a festering hellhole of an apartment, where I met my future wife.

On the day of my move to Tupelo, I experienced the first of several hard lessons of commercial radio. I had just dropped by the station to pick up my paycheck and the manager brought everyone into the on air studio to let us know that the co-host of the morning show, a guy named Steve, had just been fired and was no longer to be allowed in the building. I'd only met Steve a couple of times, but he seemed like a really nice guy. I couldn't imagine what he'd done to be banned from the building. Turned out, Steve's crime was that his involvement with the morning show had not produced the ratings that the station wanted. Evidently, when he'd signed on to co-host the show, it had been part of his contract that the ratings would grow or the station could terminate his employment. This was very very different from college radio, where I'd seen people fired before but mostly for doing things like falling asleep during their air shift. (Hi, Ryan!)

Life went on.

At about the time the vacation fill-ins ended, a temporary overnight shift opened up. This was a shift created to cover the month or so between the time the station discontinued using their expensive satellite overnight service and when they began using a new computer automation system. I didn't care. It might have been temporary work, but it was steady temporary work and it allowed me to remain in my crappy festering hellhole of an apartment for another month. And eat.

Toward the middle of that overnights run, though, I was offered the chance to take over afternoon drive, which I readily accepted. What I didn't know until later was that this promotion was due to the station's hired consultant, who had been listening to me, decided that my voice suited afternoon drive better than overnights and suggested they make some schedule changes. This was my next hard lesson of commercial radio, which is that any schedule change made is going to suck for somebody. My move to afternoons dislodged the afternoon guy to nights, which dislodged the nights guy to overnights, which was a position that would dissolve in under two weeks. I felt awful, particularly when the station's manager began pairing me with this guy for some wildly awkward appearances. Ultimately, though, it wasn't my decision.

Life went on.

Afternoon drive was a timeslot that suited my personal schedule quite nicely. In fact, it felt like old times, as that was what I'd been doing back in college. I didn't have to be at work until noon, didn't go on the air until 3p and was free and clear after 7p. I even wound up getting a hefty bonus for increasing the ratings in my timeslot, (part of which I used to pay for the meal the very first time I asked my future wife to go out to dinner with me). But working in commercial radio felt like working for the Borg. Creativity was encouraged only within the very narrow confines of what the station's high-paid consultant was willing to accept. Mostly, he didn't seem to like what I was doing nor did he like the way I did it. Fortunately, a couple months into my time there, the highly paid consultant was fired and then I had to live by the rules of our program director. While less strict, his rules were not so much freeing in a creative sense as they were geared toward trying to get me to be a better DJ from a technical standpoint. Frankly, this is what I needed.

Life went on.

After a year on afternoons, I had another hard lesson of commercial radio. I got called in early one morning for a meeting with the station's manager and program director. I was told that station's Hot Adult Contemporary music format (think lots of up-tempo Rod Stewart) was being changed to a Contemporary Hits Radio/Urban format (think lots of Chumbawumba), in order to compete with similar stations in the area that were getting the kind of numbers they wanted. Subsequently, the mid-day guy had been fired for not having a "CHUrban"-sounding voice, and I (a guy who also doesn't have that kind of voice, but was at least youthful) had somehow been promoted to doing the new morning show from 5 to 9a. The good news was that it came with a pay raise, but not one commensurate to the amount of soul/sanity erosion that would occur from having to wake up at 4a. every day.

I never got to see what sort of CHUrban morning DJ I would have been--though I'd wager, not a great one, as that just doesn't suit my personality. The plan of action for the new station was for me to spend the first two weeks just saying the new station imaging and doing the weather, then we'd transition into a real morning show. However, during those two weeks, all of our ad-sales people were trying desperately to get all our advertisers to keep buying ads with us despite the fact that the station had undergone a violent demographic shift toward people who don't have any money. It didn't work. The advertisers dropped us as fast as we'd dropped Van Morrison, prompting the station's owners to decide the whole thing had been a mistake. Rather than returning to Hot AC, they instead decided to dial it down even further into a Soft Hits format (think lots of slow-tempo Rod Stewart). And since they'd lost so much money, they decided to come back the cheap route, with the station largely automated except for the morning show and mid-days. I would continue hosting the morning show, along with the former female morning show co-host, and mid-days would be resumed by the rehired former mid-day guy. Come Monday, we would be starting a new morning show.


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