10 Questions with ... Jeff McKay
July 3, 2012
BRIEF CAREER SYNOPSIS:
I started my career in New Orleans as a board operator at night for a radio station carrying Bruce Williams. Following stops in South Georgia, Northern New Jersey and Wilmington, Delaware at the legendary "1380 WAMS," I landed in Washington, DC at a suburban radio station where I had to take the owner to court to get my pay after checks bounced. I needed work, and took a job as a producer for Metro Traffic. On my very first day, a reporter called out sick, and the Metro manager looked at me and said, "Can you do it?" Nervously, I gave it a shot, and two of the PDs called and said they liked me. I took a job with the startup News Talk Radio Network, and later with WASH-FM before coming home to NYC and getting the dream job - helicopter traffic reporter for 1010 WINS in 1991. Twenty years later, I moved on to another start-up, Merlin Media, who offered me the chance of a lifetime - morning drive in New York and being part of the foundation building the station from the ground up - and having more fun than I have in a long time.
1. First off, what drew you to radio? What was it that got you interested in doing radio in the first place?
I can't sing or dance, so I needed something to do that was fun. Growing up in Bayonne, NJ and listening to New York City radio there was something so special listening to the ticker on 1010 WINS and Paul Smith talking about the day's events, and the DJ's on stations like 99X and 77 WABC like Cousin Brucie, Dan Ingram and so many others What they did back in those days was magical to me, and I wanted to be a part of that magic. I've always liked being where the action is, and covering breaking news gives you a thrill that cannot be described.
2. You've been doing traffic reporting for years, in Washington and then for years in New York and New Jersey (and now in Philly, too), and you've become a very familiar and popular brand, in a way, for listeners there. What do you think creates the kind of notoriety that raises a traffic reporter to the level of personality? What is it that leads to a traffic reporter becoming a familiar name in a market?
Two words - inform and entertain - and be willing to take some risks. When I came to New York in 1991 I was offered the plum traffic assignment - being the airborne traffic reporter for 1010 WINS in "JetCopter 1010" for Shadow Traffic. This meant I'd be going head-to-head with legendary airborne reporters like George Meade and Neil Bush. It also meant I would have to do things differently and better in order to make "JetCopter 1010" stand out. I decided to add personality to my traffic reporting, even though at the time "all-news" announcing was very serious sounding. I gained a fast popularity and name recognition. When in the studio, I became an advocate for the driver, something I learned from consultant Walter Sabo in 1994. It meant not just telling drivers how long the delay at the G.W. Bridge was, but giving the best alternate route to save time. That is how "The McKay Way" was born, and led to a job reporting traffic for the New York Post. Between "The McKay Way" "telling it like it is" on the air, calling out government agencies on the air that waste driver's time, and being a little entertaining, I created a brand that listeners have come to depend on.
3. With the advent of GPS and the spread of GPS-enabled smartphones, what place do you see radio traffic reports occupying in the near future? Can radio reports compete with GPS -- are there things that a radio report can provide that a GPS can't? And have there been any changes to how traffic is provided based on the advent of PPM ratings?
A GPS unit can get you where you need to go with maps and pretty graphics, but it can't "inform and entertain." Radio is a companion. A GPS can't tell you details about the 3-car crash in the left lane, or the 5 mile delay it's caused, or that it's a tanker truck that rolled over that has the Interstate closed. It can give you turn-by-turn directions, but not the immediacy of radio or the entertainment value that comes through your speakers.
As for PPM's, it's all about the branding. "Traffic on the fives" will bring your listeners to you at :05, :15, :25, :35, :45 & :55 - if you provide quality reports that people start to depend on. If you just read the traffic info off a screen, or you're not dependable, people won't listen. It's not just the radio station and their promotion of the traffic, it's the product you give the listener and how you deliver it. Much like a product on a store shelf, you have to package it in a way that people want to buy it, and also make it something they can't get anywhere else. That means taking the info and presenting it in a way unlike "the norm." Any radio station can do traffic, but unless the listener depends on you and your traffic they'll turn the dial and get their reports from somewhere else, even if the info comes from the very same traffic provider. That's what I strive to do every day.
4. You're the APD at Merlin's New York operation, taking on more responsibility for the day-to-day business there along with being in charge of traffic reporting. What about your management responsibilities has been the most interesting or challenging so far? How has your transition into management side of a radio station gone so far- any surprises?
When you have to answer to people like Walter Sabo when we started, and Randy Michaels now - that's an awesome challenge! At Merlin Media, we have been handed the responsibility from upper-management to build a radio station from the wires up, something that comes along maybe once in a lifetime. My transition into management has at times been daunting, but I've been extremely fortunate to have the confidence of people like Randy, Greg Janoff & Mark Thomas in New York, Al Gardner & Leigh Jacobs in Philadelphia and Andy Friedman in Chicago. Knowing the people you work with and answer to believe in you is actually a challenge in itself, because I want to exceed expectations. The biggest surprise was unfortunately the initial failures we had. However, Randy brought in Eric Seidel to stabilize the ship, followed by Mark Thomas to captain our ship, and now Terry Sheridan to pilot our newsroom. We now have a strong management structure to move forward, and I'm very honored to be a part of what we can become.
One challenge I did not expect to face was to oversee and be a part of the traffic set-up in all three Merlin markets. That has afforded me the chance to enhance our traffic sound to become more distinctive and work to become better than our competition. The other huge challenge came directly from Randy, Al and Leigh Jacobs - to be the morning traffic reporter for our "IQ 106.9" in Philly, meaning I'm on in both New York and Philadelphia every morning, and the goal to be the best in both markets.
5. Who have been your mentors, inspirations, and/or influences in the business?
I have been extremely fortunate and blessed to have learned from the best in the business. Former CBS News correspondent, the late Peter Kalischer, taught me at Loyola University that my breathing was "wrong" and taught me in one day how to speak longer and faster and inflect. While attending the White House Correspondent's Dinner in 1990 I spent nearly 15 minutes chatting with Dan Rather about the business and how to stand out. In 1994 I met Tom Gordon, who is a marketing genius as well as a great communicator and talk show host who was responsible for landing me in the New York Post. Walter Sabo is an innovator who helped influence me to move beyond just reporting what's on a traffic information screen and gave me the push in the guided me to become the traffic reporter I am today. Of course, any time you can chat with Randy Michaels you will learn more about the industry in 15 minutes than you can at any 4-year college, and he tells great jokes.
6. Of what are you most proud?
First, I'm most proud of my son, my daughter and my wife. Nothing I can do in life or in radio can compare to the family I've been blessed with. Outside of my family, there is no better feeling in the world than cracking open a microphone and being able to speak on the radio doing what I love to do - and actually get paid for it!
7. Had you not gone into radio, what do you think you'd be doing now? What, if there was one at all, was Plan B?
I graduated high school and went to college with a sole desire to get into radio. While I never dreamed of and once even said to someone when I worked at the legendary "1380 WAMS" in Wilmington, DE that I'd never want to do traffic, I always knew I'd be in radio in some capacity. I really had no Plan B.
8. "The McKay Way" -- featured in your traffic reports for the Merlin stations -- came from where? Who came up with the idea, and why?
I got tired of just saying "take ____ as an alternate," so I gave it a name. I just decided one day in 1996 to do it on 1010 WINS, and two days later a listener called up on our traffic tip line and asked the traffic producer "What's a good McKay Way around the accident in Brooklyn?" The producer had no clue how to respond, but for me it was an epiphany, and the beginning of building an extremely popular brand.
9. Fill in the blank: I can't make it through the day without _______________.
...seeing the smiles and faces of my wife, my daughter and my son.
10. What's the best advice you ever got? The worst? (And what advice would you give someone starting out in the business right now?)
The worst advice came from an instructor at Jersey City State College, who once said to me in front of a class "You're trying to be more than you really are. You need to conform and be just like everyone else." Of course I told her exactly what I thought of that quote, and after that semester ended I left school with the only regret that she was still allowed to have contact with students. The best advice I received was from Walter Sabo, who told me to "tell me" about the traffic, to "talk directly to me," words I still employ to this day and tell others to do.
Starting in the business now is so very different from when I did in 1982. Back then you could never get your first job in a top-5 market. Now, it can be done. Network yourself, create your own brand, and don't be afraid to try anything to get your foot in the door. Mostly, be unique. PD's get a lot of resumes. Stand out, know about the station you're applying for, and if you get rejected, don't stop. Finally, become the "jack-of-all-trades." The more you can do and bring to the table, the more your bosses will come to depend on you and the better your chances to grow in the business.