The Old College Try
May 8, 2015
Radio is, if nothing else, one of the industries most enthralled with its past. Surely, every part of the media loves its history, from old movies and YouTube clips of vintage TV to the Internet Wayback Machine revealing that, eighteen years ago, the Internet was basically a series of interconnected GeoCities pages. But the conversation about radio often resembles one big Throwback Thursday, with lots of reminiscing about the good old days when Top 40 was Top 40 and AM was king. And while I sometimes wonder what people under the age of AARP make of the fetishization of WABC and Boss Radio, it's interesting and harmless and I plead guilty to partaking of the same kind of mall walking down Memory Lane.
Which was why I was reading a scholarly paper about my college radio station. I went to a small college in Pennsylvania which managed to have one of the very first licensed college radio stations and to then give it up, replacing it with the on-again off-again carrier-current shambles that, at one point, let me play around in a purple-painted cafeteria basement with cart machines and turntables and pretend to do real radio. (If you're interested, the article, by Jennifer Waits, is here, and, yes, it quotes me, for some reason.) There weren't any real advisors, there was nobody to teach me anything... I just flipped some switches, dialed up some pots (yep, hand-me-down old-school board), opened the mic, and made a lot of mistakes, all for the benefit of the handful of people who might have strayed into the campus Dining Center after hours, because other than being streamed over half of the cafeteria tables (the other half was the "quiet side"), nobody could hear anything I was doing. Our carrier-current system couldn't reach the dorms very well, and there were no open FM frequencies, or so we thought at the time, left in Philadelphia.
Remembering those days of learning by doing, I thought about why I got into radio in the first place, and why merely offering to teach young people how to do radio might be jumping the gun. Like many of you, I got the bug by listening. I listened to the radio and I heard the DJs cracking jokes and sounding big and having fun and I thought, you know, that would be cool, doing that and being heard all over the place by people you don't even know. And when I got to college, I made a bee-line for the radio station, because I wanted to have fun like that. I knew I'd have to learn how to do stuff, but the primary attraction was the end product: fun.
That's why you did it, too, right? This is what the industry forgets when it sets out to attract people to join our ranks. Did you get into radio because you REALLY wanted to learn audio editing (especially with a razor and tape)? Did you get into radio to keep logs, or program music into a computer, or negotiate rates with a car dealer client? You need to learn how to do that stuff to work in radio, sure, but you have to WANT to be in radio in the first place, and we've sucked so much of the fun out of doing radio that you have to wonder why a teenager in 2015 would even want to do it in the first place. And, more to the point, if what appeals to someone is the chance to be on the air and be creative, you can do that yourself on a podcast, or on a stream, and reach way more people than I did back on AM 640, serving the Dining Center and Maybe Part Of Lloyd Hall If All The Lights Are Off.
No wonder colleges are selling off their radio stations. (The colleges are complicit, too, when they made their stations big, professional NPR-affiliated operations off limits to students other than a handful of interns.) But as an industry, radio has to court those young aspirants somehow, someway. Telling them we can teach them how to do this isn't the way -- they don't need us to show them how to fire up Audacity and a USB mic and hit Record. The hope is in the fact that, no matter what you hear and read, there is still some romance left in being heard on the radio, and, more importantly, that there is a faster path to actually making money by working for a real radio station. But if it's not fun -- if the job seems like a chore, like all you get to do is read a liner card and make sure the computer doesn't crash, and otherwise you're replaceable by a voice tracker from another market -- none of that matters. There are so many ways radio companies can give young people an entry into the business, like letting them post podcasts through your website and server, or handing over time on your HD2 and HD3 channels to just try something different, or creating streams for experimentation under your station's umbrella brand.
But none of that will work if you drain the fun out of the business. In thirty years, will anyone look back on 2015 and think, yeah, that was a great era for radio? If you want the answer to be yes, it's time to work on that. I'd like to think that great radio -- including podcasts and streaming -- is still being made and greater things are to come. I don't want to think that it all ended when they stopped playing the hits on AM. And I sure as hell don't want to think that this can never be fun, ever again.
You know what's fun? (WARNING: Plug Ahead) All Access News-Talk-Sports' Talk Topics, that's what, with hundreds of items and ideas and bad jokes accessible by clicking here, and all the material you need to do a better show. And there's the Talk Topics Twitter feed at @talktopics with every story individually linked to the appropriate item. Plus, this week, check out "10 Questions With..." Ruth Copland, host at KSCO in Santa Cruz-Monterey, who takes a very different approach to talk radio from most of what else is on the air and is carving out a nice niche with it.
If you don't yet do so, follow my personal Twitter account at @pmsimon, and my Instagram account (same handle, @pmsimon) as well. And you can find me on Facebook at www.facebook.com/pmsimon, and there's pmsimon.com, back in intermittent action.
And as for Full Disclosure: I also serve as Director of Programming for Nerdist Industries (a division of Legendary Pictures. They make movies. I don't), which includes the Nerdist Podcast Network, one of your major podcast entities.
My old radio station? After a dormant period and attempts to do it as an all-podcast thing, it appears to be sort of back, this time streaming. (Here.) I'm jealous- even if I'm the only one listening, that's one more listener than I probably had back in the carrier-current days. Technology's pretty amazing.