Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Case of the Missing Morning Man

All-night DJ's used to say, "It beats digging a ditch." Nowadays, in many cities, there are no all-night DJ's, and the people who have the talent for that line of work would rather dig a ditch.

There's an interesting piece in the Chicago Tribune about the decline of the Morning Zoo - those wild and crazy guys who used to dominate local morning radio. Patrick Kampert sights six reasons for the taming of the morning shows:

1 Federal Communications Commission fines

2 Jocks have matured

3 Advertisers don't like it

4 What's so shocking? (Cable and the Internet are relatively uncensored.)

5 The absence of Stern (He's on satellite radio dropping F bombs right and left.)

6 The tenor of the times

To that list, I'd like to add a seventh reason: the brain drain in the radio industry.

Years ago, major market stations kept boxes overflowing with audition tapes from hopeful applicants. These tapes came from the medium markets, where air talents polished their craft after paying their dues in the small markets, where they made their mistakes and found their personality. Only after years of work could a DJ hope to advance to the big leagues. (There are exceptions, of course, but those talents usually held a background in a similar field such as acting or TV.)

Today, the small market stations are owned by Clear Channel or other giants. These companies don't want their small market outlets to sound like small market outlets. Like the Big Mac, they want their stations to be the same all across the country. So, instead of employing a staff of fledgling professionals at their small stations, they bring in 20something sales managers who's only knowledge of the programming side of the business is to hire board operators to make sure the voice tracks imported from other stations get inserted between the songs correctly and sit through "Bob and Tom." These thousand-watt cubicle farms have no room for the Sterns and Dahls and even the Soupy Sales of tomorrow.

Not that Soupy Sales would be caught dead in one of these flea trap organizations. Once a proud part of their communities, many of these stations are now embarrassments. The staffers who were active members of the Kiwanis, Boy Scouts, Optimists, Shriners, and 4-H advisers, were told to take retirement. The hoodlums who run these stations today are far too busy searching for kegs, or crack, or whatever, or whoever they can "tap" next to be bothered with helping with the local Soap Box Derby. My personal experience was to have bar fights break out at my last remotes. A charity event at a bowling establishment turned into an embarrassment when station staffers of the Clear Channel variety got drunk and fell down on the lanes. In my last months working there, I used to half-joke that I'd rather tell people I sell child pornography than work for Clear Channel.

The result of all this is that the promise of talent that would've sent in tapes to the major market radio stations is now making a living in IT, selling cell phones, teaching, farming, or still searching for something, anything that can make them an honest living with their dignity intact. After all, some of these people are raising children.

Right now, there's a man who just issued a notice of foreclosure on somebody's house. He's walking away, feeling small and dirty. In order to bolster his spirits, he thinks back to the day he had to host the ultimate fighting matches for his station and a client who was soon indicted for money laundering. And he says to himself, "Could be worse. I could be in radio."

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