Tuesday, August 2, 2016

A Good Gig, Producing Good Radio

A friend of mine, Jennifer, sent me a note the other day, proud that her son, who started his radio career in Waupaca, had just taken a new job with a radio station in Fond du Lac. The fellow her son replaced in Fond du Lac had been with that station for more than two decades.

One of Jennifer’s workmates threw shade (as they say nowadays) on the man my friend’s son replaced, implying that he must not have been good enough to work at a station in a larger market and his career had stalled there.

Two things that get me wound up easily are the idea that people who work in smaller radio markets aren’t as talented as people who work in larger markets, and people who say things like “oh, you’re in radio – do you think you’ll ever make it to TV?”

For those who don’t know me, I’ve worked in both radio and TV, and in markets small and large: the smallest was the Oshkosh/Appleton/Fox Valley market, and the largest was Los Angeles. And there were a few big markets in between, before I landed in Madison. And I loved working in TV, but my heart is in radio. It was fun working in the nation’s second-largest market, LA, but even more fun in Madison.

One of my favorite stories about radio and talent is one that’s quite personal. Circumstances were such in 1988 that I was compelled to relocate from Los Angeles to the Madison area. It’s too long a story to go into here, but when the move back to Wisconsin - where I was born and raised - became inevitable, I called the CEO of the broadcast group I’d worked for in Oshkosh years ago, and asked if there might be anything for me at the stations the group owned in Madison.

He said the legendary, heritage AM station which they owned in Madison – which used to be called WISM-AM – had transitioned from playing Top-40 hits to what was then a relatively new format: talk radio. Perhaps I could help bolster the station’s news image, which had been impeccable in the WISM days, but had lost a bit of luster in the new incarnation as WTDY-AM.

The days of Wayne Wallace, P.K. Powers, Bill Short, and other household names from WISM were gone. The irascible Mark Belling – a co-worker from my Oshkosh days who now holds forth in Milwaukee and frequently subs for the world’s biggest blowhard, Rush Limbaugh – had assembled an eager and talented news team for the station, but they didn’t really have an anchor with “gravitas”, according to the CEO. He suggested I might be able to help there.

To shorten the story and keep it moving along, I took a redeye flight from L-A to Madison, got off the plane, rented a car, and put the radio on 1480 AM. The first voice I heard was a woman named Toni Denison, who was doing a newscast. I immediately thought to myself “this woman could easily be working in Los Angeles.” She had a well-modulated alto voice, delivered at an appropriate rate, enunciated clearly, had great vocal inflection, and kept the newscast moving. In other words, easily major market talent. That was my first impression, having never laid eyes on her. She had big-market talent.

Full disclosure: she and I got married a few years after I met her.

As I listened across the radio dial to the Madison market on that first trip in from L-A 28 years ago, I heard a vibrant chorus of talented, professional newscasters, and quite a few on-air personalities who had, to my ear, the presence and luster to be working in one of the nation’s largest markets.

Back then, Madison had dozens of radio news people. The group I worked for had 8 full-timers and several part-timers. So did the group my friend Jennifer worked for. And there was another group that had a similar number of news folks. Public radio in Madison had – and still has – an active radio news gathering operation.  But of the three commercial groups that had active, competing news departments back in the late 80’s – well, I’m not sure, but I think there are about two full-time radio news people at commercial stations in Madison now. It could actually be one. My apologies if I’m failing to count someone who does news, and only news, full-time.

As usual, I digress.

The point my friend Jennifer made in her note to me was that the gentleman in Fond du Lac who spent more than two decades at the same station, in the same market, was talented enough to land a job in a much larger market. It’s probably because he didn’t WANT to. It’s far more likely that, as is the case with so many talented radio folks, he “found a good gig where he could produce good radio for good people”. Those are Jennifer’s exact words, far more eloquent than I’m capable of writing.

Some very talented radio folks, making good radio in smaller markets, could easily go through the steps of sending out their resume and CD, landing a job in a larger market, packing up all their stuff and moving, and doing it again in a year or two until they finally figured out they're where they want to be and they’re tired of moving.

And some have different aspirations: they realize they’re in a good gig, where the paychecks don’t bounce, they have reasonable freedom to make good radio without some corporate tyrant breathing down your neck, and they can send down roots, get married, buy a home, raise a family, and be an integral part of the community.

Take a look at the people doing news reporting on the Madison TV stations. They’re talented young folks, by and large, who come and go. Madison, for them, is a stopping point on a career that will take them around the nation. They’ll move every year or so, and mispronounce the local names, exposing their lack of experience in the community. And then there are those - in most cases, the news anchors, but there are a handful of reporters - who’ve been around for years and are established members of the community.  You know their names. They’re the ones who know how to pronounce cities like Shawano, Waukesha, Oconomowoc, and Ripon.

You can’t do the same in Madison radio any more, because there’s only one group owner left in commercial radio that even bothers to have a “news department”. My former colleague, Robin Colbert, is the news director there, and now that her dad, John, has retired, Robin is, I believe, the only full-time news person on the staff. A few of the FM stations have part-time “sidekicks” who read the news, but don’t actually go out and gather it.

And I know a lot of radio and TV news folks in Wisconsin, working in our state’s many small markets, who put in long hours at city council and county board and school board meetings at night and work a long shift during the day covering news, writing news, and reporting news, who have the talent needed to land a job in one of the nation’s largest markets. But they love what they’re doing and have roots in their community.

There is still, as my friend Jennifer wrote to me, a magic to small market radio – and TV, as far as that goes. Some of these folks are the shining star of a staff which consists largely of underpaid young people just learning the trade. Some of them will move on to jobs in the big markets, where every staff position is held by a highly talented broadcaster.

For some, it’s the journey, not the destination. Kudos. Here’s hoping you have a great career doing what you love, and that leaving your job is a decision you’ll make – and not have it made for you by some clueless overlord.


  1. And .. she's been well modulated ever since.
    This was a joy to read. Thank you!

  2. Great job, Tim. IMHO, a true test of the talent of a small market anchor is the ability to get through an obituary containing a multi-syllabic last name and a goofy nickname without cracking up live on air.

    1. Ha! That's a good test indeed! When I started in radio in the mid-60's the local funeral home sponsored the obit report every day after the noon news.

  3. I used to know a guy who was a famous radio programmer, big name in the industry and had worked in every major market across the country. But he came off as one of the loneliest people I'd ever met, because while he had hundreds of colleagues who knew and respected him, I sensed that he had very few real friends. It's fine to live that life if it's what you want, but as you suggest, many people find that they can be perfectly happy and wildly successful on lower rungs of the ladder, whether they wind up there by accident or design.

    Exhibit A is the husband of the woman you write about, and father of the son: as a newscaster and sportscaster, he's as complete a pro as I've ever known and is my favorite play-by-play guy, any sport, any level. The biggest market he ever worked in, if I'm recalling correctly, was Rockford, Illinois.

    1. I think I know the programmer you're talking about, JB. I saw him at a radio station a few years ago. He was standing alone, deep in concentration. People came and went through the lobby, and didn't seem to notice him. He was, as someone once said, alone in the crowd.

      Agreed, regarding the husband. Top 5 market talent easily.

  4. Spot on, maestro. Yep, in the news business it is always a sin to outsiders to like what you are doing and want to keep doing it. To move up would be joining the list-making mediocrity. ("Mediocre" is still plural for medium, yes?) To move away would be to uproot home and family and start again from scratch only in a bigger barnyard. To move down would be risking penury, which was always just a step away in the Madison media salary schedule. For a long time, it seemed as if "I like what I am doing" always resulted in a referral to the counselor or publisher who would ask "do you still have that fire in your belly?" I liked my radio buddies. Some sang low, some sang high, we all sang out loud and the community was the better for having more ears and eyes out there. Good column, radio dude.

  5. Thank you for your kind words, print dude. We all know you could easily ply your trade in any city you chose, on any continent you chose.

  6. Proofreading comment: "PK Powers" did *not* have periods after his initials, because as the promo tape said, "He NEVER stops reporting for you®!"

  7. Hi Tim....

    Bob is correct. No periods in PK's name because the news never ends. A Bill Walker creation. I like what you've written and at the same time saddened. At one time we had nine people in the newsroom at WISM. No longer. There are none. It's unfortunate the way the radio news industry has gone, but it has. We still have wonderful, fond memories and good feelings about what we did. Only hope those days resurrect. Can they?

    1. Those days - the heady days of the large news staffs you and I worked with - I think, are forever gone - gone the way of the typewriter and teletype. There are still a very few operations in smaller and giant markets that support a thriving news-gathering operation, but even those are inexorably shrinking. I remember many years ago, the daily routine sitting in my office at noon, with the 'TDY noon news rundown in my hand, listening to what Bob King and Bob Banko had on 'IBA, to see if we'd "beaten" them on anything.

      Much of radio's ultimate demise will be attributed to digital technology and the internet; a hastening of that demise can, I think, be attributed to the corporatization and consolidation of the 80's. Bankers started running radio, replacing the broadcasters who'd run the industry since it was born.

      When I was tossed under the bus in '08, after 30 years with the company- 10 in the Fox Valley and 20 in Madison - neither of the two people atop the management structure had ever pulled an airshift, sold an ad, never covered nor written nor deliverd a news story.

  8. Thanks for the trip down memory lane. If I had it to do all over again, I wouldn't change a thing. Quite a ride from Brattleboro, VT to Madison and beyond.

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    2. You've been on one long personal rocket ride in your career, Glen, and you've taken quite a few stations on a ratings rocket ride with your talent.

      I could say it's been quite a ride for me from Hortonville to L-A, but there are quite a few things I would have changed along the way.

      One thing I'd never change is the fun we had together creating great radio in Madison on that 'TDY morning show. It was a blast!

      Best wishes, my friend.

  9. Back in the day, before we could go to the Unicorn and after we got a driver's license, we'd stop in at the WISM studio in the evening and, in those days, the DJ would let us in. We got to stand, listen and watch whilst the very thing that we heard over the air every day was performed right in front of our eyes. What a treat!

    Wish I could remember which guys we actually saw and visited with... Evening shows, probably 1967. You may be able to dredge up the names of the guys who were on then.