Thursday, February 26, 2009

Radio Days (Part 2)

I'd never had any major aspirations to do morning radio. Sure, I did some morning fill-in shifts for my friend Cleopatra, back in college radio, but the idea of getting up that early every day, even unwillingly, just didn't seem worth it. And because of this, I hadn't awakened early enough to listen to any morning radio for years. I'd never even heard my own station's former morning show for the entire time I'd been working there.

So at this point, I'd been doing two weeks of waking up at the 4 a.m. ballpark to come in and read station liners and weather reports. I barely had any idea of what sort of morning show I was going to do for our new CHUrban format and everyone kept assuring me that we'd get it worked out and that our high-paid consultant (yes, the same guy who'd been our consultant before who didn't like what I was doing in the first place) would have plenty of good suggestions for how to structure a good morning show. Of course, when our station dropped the new format after those two weeks and regressed beyond Hot AC into Soft Hits, the high-paid consultant was fired once again and I found myself as the co-host of a Soft Hits format morning program alongside Cat, the former morning show co-host, with barely a day to prepare anything. Fortunately, Cat was an old hat at small town morning radio and had been through quite a number of different co-hosts before. She and I felt we could at least roll with the old format of the show until we found our feet as a new duo.

Our show was called Williams & Winston in the morning, she being the Williams part, me being the Winston part. (When I first started working at the station, a year earlier, I knew I would need to change my on-air name since my college name of Juice Aaron just didn't sound reasonable enough for adult contemporary radio. The program director mentioned that a former general manager used to insist the on-air talent use a county name as part of their on-air name, to somehow help cement their down-home status in the minds of the listeners, hence why his on-air name was Lee Adams. Trouble is, many of Mississippi's county names are Native American, so unless I wanted to be called Oktibbeha or Yalobusha, I'd have to pick one more mundane. I chose Winston, as that was the name of my cat. It also worked well enough when I later did radio in North Carolina.)

I don't remember much about our early days on the job, other than they did not amount to great radio. Cat insisted on running the sound board, as all of her former male co-hosts had insisted on it for themselves and she wanted the power seat. This was fine with me, though I confess to feeling like a guy watching TV without a remote in his hand. As with any relationship, it took Cat and I awhile to mesh as morning show partners. Our personalities were pretty different, with hers being more upbeat and positive and mine being more of a complaining cynic, but it was a dynamic with the potential to go places. The trouble was, as much as it felt like we were left to our own devices to create our show, we weren't. Everyone from the program director to the general manager to the station's real owners elsewhere in the state had an idea of what we should be doing differently and all of those ideas were in direct opposition to one another.

First we were told we had to keep things short and concise and play more music. Then we were supposed to get more guests on the show, but then we could only do interviews in short concise bundles while playing more music. Then we were told we needed to do more community-based material, spotlighting a new town in our listening area each day and basically giving a book report about the history of that town and interviewing the mayor, if we could find him, but doing all this only in concise bundles while playing more music. We were even told at one point, and I'm not making this up, that we should study the statistics from the most recent Arbitron ratings period, pinpoint the precise moments when listeners from area communities had reported they began listening to the radio on specific days, and target material about those areas for those precise moments in our daily schedule. Unfortunately, there is NOTHING interesting about Verona, Mississippi, beyond the fact that they have the slowest Hardees in all the world, so we were screwed there too.

After a couple months of weekly pressure to keep our yaps as shut as possible, someone upstairs turned the valve the other direction and we were told we should instead talk a great deal more than we were. In fact, the PD threatened to come into the station in the dead of night and remove all of the CDs from the on-air room, leaving us with no alternative but to yammer on between commercial breaks. We were supposed to try and be like John Boy & Billy and do more bits. This was actually more like my mental image of morning radio, but was still a pretty big extreme to have to deal with on a dime. The PD didn't steal the CDs, but for the next few weeks we were hammered to bring more material in. Then, just as suddenly, the philosophy switched back in the other direction and we were told to reign it in even more extreme than before.

What I didn't find out until later was that these whiplash-inducing programming whims were not being made locally, but were being passed down from on high by the station's owners. Our station was owned by a gentleman further south who owned lots of other stations throughout the region, and who had a number of sons who managed them. Ours was the only one he owned in our particular neck of the state and one of the only ones not managed by one of his kids. That being the case, each of his sons took it upon themselves to tell us what we were doing wrong on a regular basis and, just like no one could locally agree on what to do with us, none of them could agree either. We were supposed to be barely noticeable among the music. We were supposed to have no music. We were supposed to be John Boy & Billy. We were supposed to argue with each other. We were supposed to shut up.

Meanwhile, the ratings for Schizophrenia 93.3 weren't doing too well. Imagine that. It couldn't be the fault of the shitty music we were pumping out or the asinine satellite jocks we played during the day, so it had to be the fault of one of some the only live programming we had, right? Having learned the hard lessons of commercial radio, I was becoming somewhat fearful for my job. There was only so long that management was going to tolerate low numbers, even taking into account the drop off and slow rebuild from the station's polar shift in format. The only thing Cat and I could do, though, was either continue to try and do what we were told or find our own way. I'd like to be able to say we just took a stand and actively ignored what we were told, but mostly it just sort of happened that way on its own in an unspoken manner. I think we both were feeling pretty dismal about our prospects, so we just sort of forged on as best we could and hoped for the best.

(TO BE CONTINUED...)

1 comment:

Chandler said...

Amen on the Verona Hardees. We used to stop there every time my National Guard unit went to drill in Grenada. They where slow and inexcusably bad at special orders (I finally took to just ordering things plain and more often than not still got Mayo).