To make this more well rounded I reached out to a few bloggers for some questions. Hanspostcard, Vic, Lisa, Run-Sew-Read, and Dave,…so thank you all. I wanted to reach out more but I didn’t want Keith to have to type a novel worth of answers.
Remember to go over to Keith’s blog and ask anything that was not covered. First a little about Keith.
Why did you want to be a DJ?
When I was in high school, I was a band nerd. I loved playing in band and actually aspired to be a band director. During my senior year, I worked part time at a boat marina in the Parts Department. In the fall and winter, once the boats were winterized, business was slow. So I would sit in there with the radio on and do inventory. I would listen to Jim McKenzie on Kiss-FM every day. He was a great example of what a DJ should be – the listener’s friend. Every day I listened, and I felt like he was talking to just me. He kept me company while I worked. The more I listened to him and other DJ’s, the more I began to think, “Hey, I could do that! I’d enjoy doing that!” I called the station and asked to speak to someone about getting into the business. The guy I spoke with told me that I could 1) go to broadcast school or 2) intern at the station for a while and see if I could break in that way. I chose Option #2.
I started interning for the news guy. I took news stories off the wire and rewrote stories and helped compile a newscast. I then began hanging out with the morning show (Paul Christy and the Christy Critters). I enjoyed this so much more. This was where the real action was. I got to see them plan bits, edit phone calls, and more. Eventually, I started running Paul’s Saturday show, which was all on tape. He would throw it to me from the tape and ask about the sport scores, lottery numbers, and weather. I did this for about 6 months and they let the overnight guy go. I was asked to fill in on the show temporarily. The temporary job ended up being full time. Paul believed I had some talent (although not much of it showed during my time there) and gave me my first break in radio.
Who was your personal favorite DJ and what did you like about that DJ.?
It’s hard to pick just one, because there really are so many. If I had to narrow it down, I’d say on a national scale – Wolfman Jack. He was just so fun to listen to and he always said some of the coolest stuff. I used to close my show with one of his quotes: “Keep smiling. A smile is just a light in the window letting people know your heart’s at home.” I thought that was just awesome!
Local DJ, would have to be Richard D from Honey Radio. I really found him to be a great mentor and teacher. He and I loved the same bad jokes and used to make fun of each other all the time on the radio. His show had daily benchmarks, which were so reminiscent of the “good old days” of radio when DJ’s were truly personalities. He branded everything. When somebody won a contest, he would “Richard D-clare” them the winner. He always played an obscure record every day called the “Tricky Dicky Off The Wall Record” (he had a whole intro to this). He’d read celebrity birthdays and history bits from his “Poor Richard D’s Almanac,” and so much more. He ALWAYS sounded like he was having fun and I really tried to do the same thing. He really was one of the best!
How did the business change from the time you began until the time you ended your career?
When I first got into radio, I feel like I was spoiled. We had a lot of freedom. We were creative and got to do a lot of bits on the air. Again, radio was still a place that people went to hear music, but also enjoyed listening to what the DJ’s had to say. Johnny Molson, who I followed on the air at WKSG, did some fantastic “theater of the mind” bits and had fun with them!
Somewhere in the early 90’s, research started to say that DJ’s talked too much. “More Music” became a thing, and DJ’s were told to shut up and read the cards. To ensure that DJ’s kept it short, there were liner cards placed in the studios for us to read. Talk breaks were eliminated and when we did talk it was to 1) outro the song, 2) read the liner card, 3) promote what was coming up next, and 4) play the commercials.
In truth, as another great mentor told me, it wasn’t that DJ’s talked too much – it was that they didn’t have anything to say. Jay Trachman helped me to take a bit, write it out to where it all fit together and you didn’t waste the listener’s time. Bits had a “catch” or a “hook” to peak your interest, then the “meat” of the bit, followed by the “out” or the “punchline”. Short – to the point – and still entertaining.
How much control did you have on the playlist?
Today – none. You can bet that 99% of all stations have their music scheduled in advance.
When I first started, our station was “all request.” We had a computer in the studio and as long as the song met criteria, we could pretty much play whatever listeners asked for. It was a pretty cool thing. We had to check and make sure that the song hadn’t been played before we got on the air or that it wasn’t scheduled later in the show. Even request shows today only have a few spots for request. Music is scheduled ahead of time.
When I was playing current music, in country, I had the chance to voice an opinion about which new song I thought we should add to the play list. It was something that the Music Director, Program Director, and consultant made decisions on.
Is there one song you had to play that sticks out as one you really disliked?
I could probably name one song from every station I worked at! While at country radio it was almost every song Rascal Flatts put out after their first album…LOL. They all began to sound the same to me. It always bothered me that stations would add new songs from “super stars” even though they knew the song was a piece of garbage.
Anyway, I digress. The one song that sticks out to me is The Boll Weevil Song by Brook Benton. It seemed like this always played on Honey. I’m not sure why it aggravated me so much, but I actually said how much I disliked it on the air. Johnny Molson once talked about The Elusive Butterfly by Bob Lind saying, “It sounds like someone ate a Hallmark card and threw up” regarding the lyrics.
I think all DJ’s have their favorite songs and ones they hate. That’s why there is volume control in the on air studio … I turned the speakers down a lot!
Of the musicians you met or interviewed- which one impressed you the most?
In almost 30 years, I have met so many. Let me say that country artists are usually the most generous and gracious. I found that to be true with 95% of them. George Strait, Wynonna Judd, Emily West, Jeff Bates, Reba McEntire, and SO many were just like talking to friends. They were just amazing.
Martina McBride impressed me the most. I was escorting a backstage winner to her show. She had bid like $700 on a silent auction package to see Martina, get a limo ride to the show, backstage passes, and dinner. The auction was for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. I introduced the winner to Martina and told her about our winner. When she heard that she had bid that much money to be there, she called someone over to her and whispered something to them. Martina was so nice to this winner. She autographed everything that the winner had with her, including the T-shirts she bought at the merchandise booth. Her guy came back with a bunch of items and gave them to our winner. There was a huge autographed window poster (like you would see in record stores), key chains, more T-shirts, bumper stickers, and all things Martina – almost all autographed. THEN she gave the listener her money back for the shirts she had bought before the show. She thanked the listener for being such a supporter of St. Jude and our station. Most meet and greets are very quick, but Martina gave this winner almost 15 minutes. It was truly amazing and speaks volumes for who Martina is.
Who was the best/worst interview?
Again, I have done so many great in person and telephone interviews, it is hard to pick the “best.” In the running would be Rainn Wilson (Dwight from the Office), as he was very funny and was familiar with our area. Also up near the top – Elmo from Sesame Street. That was such a hoot. I’m not even sure why we had him on the show, but Kevin Clash, who is the voice of Elmo, called and he had a very deep voice. We chatted for a sec before the interview and BAM – there was Elmo! My oldest son was about 2 when I did this interview and Kevin recorded a special message for him as Elmo and sent a stuffed Elmo to him at our home! Pretty cool. I also played poker with Chely Wright on the air as part of our interview because she took my money at a charity event and I told her I wanted a chance to win it back… LOL
Toss up for the top spot – Aaron Tippin and Jewel. Aaron was just amazing. He was in for a show and was a blast to talk to. He bleeds red, white, and blue! He shared some great stories from on the road and he shared his mutual love for the music of Sinatra and Dean Martin.
Jewel, was a sweetheart. She was live with me in the studio promoting her country album and show. Her life is just so fascinating that it was easy to talk with her. I asked if there was anything off limits, because I didn’t know if she really wanted to talk about the fact that she was living out of her van for a while. She told me to ask whatever I wanted. We talked about her poetry, her life in Alaska, her family, her hobbies, her pop albums, and a small role she had in a Wizard of Oz show. I felt like I knew her all my life. She was such a joy to hang out with. After she left, about an hour later, her record rep who was with her called me and told me that she said our interview was one of the best she had ever done. She had told him I made her feel so at home.
I still have a voice mail on my cell phone from her telling me she would see me at her show that night. The show she was doing that night was about an hour and a half away from me and I had tickets. However, there was a snow storm and I was unable to get out of the driveway to make it up to the show.
How would you respond if an interviewee accidentally swore during a live broadcast?
Most stations are equipped with an “oops” button just for this reason. The live feed of a station is usually broadcast on a five second delay. So if someone swears, you hit the button and it jumps ahead to the live feed and eventually goes back to 5 seconds. Yes, I have had to use this on occasion. Most folks don’t hear when it happens, but a radio guy can tell when the button was pressed.
That’s why most interviews are recorded. When an interview is recorded, you can edit out stuff you don’t necessarily want in the interview. You can also save it in pieces and play each piece over an hour or so and it sounds like the artist is hanging with you for an hour, when in reality, they were on the phone with you for 10-15 minutes. We recorded the majority of our interviews whether they were in studio or on the phone. Some, however, were broadcast live.
- Was there any difference between being a DJ at a Country Station and a Rock Station besides the music?
First of all, your audience is different. Your target demo for a Country station is usually women aged 25-54. Your target for a Classic Rock station is men around that same age group or older. So when you prep for a show, you cater how you prep to those demos.
Country stations really focus on artist stuff. We had a few prep services that had all kinds of stories and sound bites from country singers about writing songs, awards, their favorite recipe, etc… Country artists, especially current artists, always have something going on – a tour, a book, a new album, etc… With Classic Rock (just like oldies) the music doesn’t change. You are a “gold” based format. You are playing only hits that have been around for decades. Many artists have passed away. So you talk about the songs themselves, the stories behind the songs (much like Max does in his blog), maybe a new biography, or a movie where a song is featured.
Depending on WHO you are talking to, you prepare a show for that. You could talk about deer hunting on a rock station, where as you would probably talk about a deer widow’s weekend on a country station. You have to know who your audience is and you go from there.
Another thing that was different for me was my vocal delivery. I found myself to be very conversational, but energetic on the country station. On the rock station, it was different. We didn’t talk up a lot of intros, so I was often talking with no music going behind me. This allowed me to slow my delivery down a bit (not quite Johnny Fever or Venus Flytrap) and it was a bit more “me,” if that makes any sense….LOL
Keith, what is your most memorable moment on radio?
I have three that I will never forget. The first was our St. Jude Radiothons. I had been to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis. Touring the hospital, hearing the stories, seeing all that they do, and then coming back presenting it all to our listeners was quite an emotional experience. I was lucky to meet two children whose family benefited from St. Jude and interview them on the air – Kyle and Allyson made an impact on me and our listeners.
The other was the last day that Honey Radio was on the air. That day in November of 1994, we did our morning show, and then turned it over to Boogie Brian, who was the last live jock from our studio. I recently went back and listened to the last break I did. It is hard to listen to. I felt like I could ad lib it, I wish I had written something down. I was holding back tears through the whole break. Then, when Boogie played his prerecorded 15 minute sign off, we all sat in a production room listening. We all cried. One of the most emotional days of my life, second only to ….
9/11. The planes hit the Twin Towers before I went on the air at 10am. That day, I was the eyes and ears of what developments were happening for my listeners. I remember the disbelief. I remember the fear. I remember the vivid visuals we saw on the news. Life changed that day for all of us and radio changed too. We began playing the National Anthem every day at noon. We had numerous appearances where we raised money for victim’s families. We sponsored blood drives and so much more. The events of that day and literally throwing the format out the window to broadcast the latest information will stick with me forever.
What is your most embarrassing moment on the radio?
I always say that I broadcast the worst five minutes of radio in Detroit Radio History: Short set up: My morning show partner, Rob, did a ton of voices. These characters were all part of the show and I was usually the guy who tried to keep the show (and them) in check. So, the week Honey went off the air, Rob insisted I do a voice live on the air. I had done it a couple times, but had recorded it. The character was “Mitch Wallace”, who was loosely based on a real listener who called us all the time. I had called Rob at home and used that voice and he said it was so good, he thought the guy had his number! This particular day we had a stupid bit planned. I was to enter the studio as “Mitch”. I was to be upset about the station going off the air. (Keep in mind this is long before school shootings and active shooters) I was to have a gun and Chuckie the bouncer (based on Charles Bronson) was going to beat me (Mitch) up and throw me out the window and we would then go into commercials. For the theater of the mind, this bit required some sound effects. Now, if only it had gone as smoothly as I described.…….
We had 6 cart (tape) machines. Each machine played a different thing. In #1 was the song we were talking out of. In #2 was the gunshot sound. #3 had the “fight scene” sounds (which were from an old western and had corny music playing underneath the fight). #4 had the glass breaking. #5 had the door slam for Chuckie’s exit and #6 had the first commercial. I had NEVER done the character live before. So when I did, I saw Rob start to chuckle, and that is all it took for me to start to lose it. From there on, it spirals out of control. We both began to laugh hard. I was laughing so much, I had tears in my eyes and couldn’t see the board in front of me to push the buttons to start the commercial (because by this time, it was obvious we couldn’t do the bit). We laughed all the way through the commercial set. Rob insists that we can do it so out of the commercial break, we decide to try again. As soon as I start to do the Mitch character, I started laughing again. I said to Rob (and the entire listening audience) “Aw, hell, forget it!” We were going to do the weather out of the bit this time, featuring our Scottish weatherman Lucky McCloud (another Rob voice). The first thing I did after laughing was cue up the bagpipe music we played when he did the weather….miraculously, Rob was able to jump into the Lucky character and eventually the bit happened on the air…..it was a long way to go for something that was probably only funny to us, but it remains one of my favorite moments on air with him. It was also probably the most embarrassing.
WKRP, what about it is realistic and what is not?
LOL – DJ’s and other radio people get asked this a lot! I guess it depends on who you ask. Here are my thoughts –
Are there sales people like Herb? Yes. Are they as annoying? Yes!
Are all news people like Les? No, but there are plenty other folks in the biz like him.
Do all stations have a sexy secretary/receptionist? Some of the stations I worked at did.
Are all General Managers like Mr. Carlson? No, some are actually quite bright and know their stuff.
Do DJ’s usually give their program directors (like Andy) a headache? Yes. Very much so!
Do Programmers and General Managers often not see eye to eye on what’s going on with the station? Many times this is true.
Can you get fired for saying “booger” on the air? I don’t think so. We spent an entire morning talking about how those green raisins look like boogers and we weren’t fired.
Do many DJ’s have big egos like Venus and weird idiosyncrasies like Johnny? Yes, and you know it almost immediately when you meet them.
In many ways, WKRP is very realistic and while radio people probably find the show funnier than the average viewer, we also find one thing particularly annoying – the DJ’s don’t wear headphones in the studio. When a DJ turns on the microphone, the speakers in the studio shut off so there is no feedback. The DJ can hear the music and his/her voice in the headphones, so they know when to stop talking. These guys never seem to have headphones on and it has always bothered me.
They also seem to have the uncanny ability to throw a record on the turntable and have the song cued up immediately. I never had to spin vinyl until I moved to the west side of the state. I can tell you, you have to put the needle on the start of the groove, play it through a small cue speaker and wait for the song to start. You then stop it and turn the record back a ¼ turn, so that when you hit start, it plays at the right speed and doesn’t wind up to it. Carts are a whole lot easier, but almost all the music on WKRP is on vinyl.
When did radio start to change in your eyes?
I think radio has always been changing. What I look back on as the “good old days” of radio are not for those who were in it long before I was. If I had to pick the moment it changed for the worse in my career, it would be the late 1990’s. Bill Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996 which lifted the “cap” on radio station ownership. This led to many of the locally owned stations to be bought up by the big radio corporations like Cumulus, Clear Channel, and Citadel.
With less owners and more corporate control, music programming was dictated by those corporate programmers. So music playlists became smaller – which meant you were hearing the same songs more often. It also meant that some markets were not hearing local bands. Can you imagine Detroit NOT playing any Motown artists, Bob Seger, or Kid Rock!?
With automation technology, the ability to record ahead of time became a thing. I remember a few times where I was “on air” and listening to myself as I drove to a wedding I was DJing. With big corporations trying to save money, they began eliminating DJ’s. They were replaced by syndication or DJ’s from other markets who were recording shows from their home market. Today, it is rare to find a station with more than one live LOCAL DJ. When you do, it is usually a locally owned station.
When I was in radio, the fear was that Sirius XM radio was going to be the death of terrestrial radio. In truth, terrestrial radio killed itself from the inside with automation and consolidation. I guess the more I think about it, going back to question #13 … If I could bring back something from the past, it would be the way radio used to be, because terrestrial radio today is just sad to listen to.
If you could reach back in time and revive things that DJs used to do, say or play on the air, what would you bring back?
DJ’s used to have a big say in music. Many of them were playing singles on 45 on the air. So many hits from the 50’s and 60’s became hits because a DJ decided to spin “the other side” of the record because they liked it. Elvis and the Beatles had “two-sided hits” because DJ’s played both sides. I wish that DJ’s today had a little bigger part in selecting music for airplay. They really don’t – I will explain that in the answer to your next question.
Why do stations play only a few select songs from a band to death while ignoring their other songs?
There are a lot of factors involved in this, but the simple answer is because of music testing and consultants.
Back in the 80’s and 90’s that had a format called “Album Oriented Rock” or AOR. These stations tended to play deeper cuts or songs that weren’t necessarily “singles”. This format really doesn’t exist anymore, at least the way it was back then.
So what is a single? It is the song from an album that record companies (and sometimes artists) believe would be a hit. It is a song that will get lots of airplay and sell the album. It is a song that they feel is “the hit.” Most albums have 3-4 singles and then there is a new album. The songs that were not released as singles don’t get any airplay.
Music testing happens in all formats. It happens with old and new songs. They usually do it in an auditorium. They get an audience of various ages and genders and play them 500-1000 “hooks” of songs. These hooks are the 15 seconds of a song that are most recognizable. They audience then rates the song. Is it played too much? Is it played too little? Do you love it? Do you hate it? Is it offensive? Etc…The data collected from these music tests can help a consultant decide what songs his stations need to be playing and which ones need to go away.
With new music, it works the same way. If listeners like the song and the test scores are high, that song will get more plays. If the songs tests bad, it will get less plays on the play list or just go away all together.