The Commercial Chronicles: How Things We Never Thought Would Change, Changed - Part 1

comm chron logo1By Dennis Daniel

Back in the day, when I had a smokin’ radio career, I used to always say that it was a solid, lifelong type job because… “radio will always be radio.” Meaning, as long as you have ears and an imagination, radio can work its magic. Twas ever thus for decades!  From its humble beginnings to the entire radio era of the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s… where you would see the entire family gathered around the box, to the modern era of listening just about anywhere…  Radio would always be radio.  And with security like that, one could feel comfortable in their life’s work.  I mean, look at how many people maintained radio careers for countless years.  It was instantaneous. It was portable. It was FREE! It was diverse. Never, in my wildest dreams, could I ever have conceived of what would eventually happen to my beloved radio

When I worked at WBAB, three of my favorite radio themed songs to play were “Spirit of the Radio” by Rush, “DJ” by David Bowie and “Radio GaGa” by Queen.  The first, because it spoke to what I was doing… morning show radio. The Rush song begins: “Begin the day with a friendly voice, a companion unobtrusive. Plays that song that’s so elusive and the magic music makes your morning move.” Beautiful. That was me, man! Always trying to dig deep into the library for a song “so elusive.” It felt amazing to be sharing that with thousands of people!

With Bowie, the refrain was “I am a DJ, I am what I play.” That was so true! We were able to program our own songs in those days, following a dot system format for older stuff and a card system format for the new songs.  You could create an ambiance that defined who you were as a DJ and the kind of music you’d hear on MY show, as opposed to someone else. It was like being a kid in a candy store walking in every morning and seeing thousands of records to choose from on the wall!  I used to get to my show an hour early just so I could spend time pulling the cuts I wanted and creating the feel for that day’s show. In those days, segue was an art form!  How wonderful was it to segue from one song to another seamlessly so that it sounded as if the two songs belonged together.  You didn’t have to worry about a station ID after every song! You could caress the sound of the music and make it flow. 

The Queen song was a direct result of MTV and how songs were now being interpreted visually, leaving nothing to the imagination. Some of those music videos were pure disasters!  I was pretty close to the guys in a rock band called ZEBRA. WBAB helped get them exposure and eventually they were signed by Atlantic Records with their first album produced by Jack Douglas, who produced John Lennon’s last album Double Fantasy.  The lead singer, Randy Jackson, was horrified by the video they made for his song, ”Who’s Behind The Door.”  The song was about the questions we all have as human beings about what lies beyond.  It’s really asking “Is there a God?”  Check out the video on YouTube.  OMG! Point of fact, Randy wasn’t too crazy about most of the videos, but that was the ‘80s man!  So that’s why Freddie Mercury was singing lines like, “Let's hope you never leave old friend. Like all good things on you we depend. So stick around 'cause we might miss you. When we grow tired of all this visual.” So technically speaking, he was right… videos were changing the way we thought about or remembered songs (they still are to this day), but what it DIDN’T change was the medium of delivery for the song itself. RADIO. So, radio was still radio.

As we all know, ALL of that has changed!

NOW, people program their OWN radio, even their OWN TV.  It used to be that the medium told YOU what to listen to and watch… and WHEN to do it.  Now, WE program what we want and how and when we want it.  Even WHERE… on the TV, on our computer… even on our fucking phones!!!!

Radio started this change when President Clinton removed deregulation. It was no longer considered a Monopoly if you owned more than one radio station in a market.  This, of course, led to major companies buying out all the small radio stations.  It mean music that was researched to death so that the only songs played were the ones that hit certain demos.  WBAB’s 50,000 plus song playlist was changed to 1,000 songs. DJs no longer picked their own music; a computer did it all. And guys like me -- production directors who were the stations in house ad agency -- were cast aside because station wanted more work airing from agencies with national clients and not from the mom and pop places -- the clubs, the stereo stores, the restaurants, etc. -- that were the backbone of the radio station’s income. Now, every format sounds the same. Commercials produced in house are reads with beds for the most part.  Stations don’t need an in house creative genius.  They just need button pushers.

But what really changed is the juggernaut started by Satellite radio and continued with services like Pandora. The commercial… the very thing that brought in all of the income, suddenly is verboten. I mean, we always had commercial free hours, or commercial free blocks, etc.  We bit the hand that fed us, but the job and the creative still flowed.  Now, even commercials are considered a negative.  Just buy the programming and that pays for the medium.  Hey, wait a fucking minute! I make my living doing commercials!!! WTF!!!!!

Look at TV!!! Streaming!!!! My God! Another example of how the ones creating the work no longer control how, when and where you SEE the work (unless it’s an original Netflix show, etc.).

I haven’t listened to commercial radio for YEARS!!!! It’s boring as shit! How many times can I hear “Won’t Get Fooled Again” by the Who (who have hundreds of amazing songs!)? My solution… program to myself. The great invention for me was the iPod!  I could create my own playlists and be my own DJ. (Now even iPods are out of style! They don’t even make them anymore! WTF!)

Which brings me back to what I started with… I always thought that radio would always be radio.  We are slowly coming to a point where, in our own lifetime, we may see the end of radio as it was known.  We are already seeing it with TV.

Where do I fit in?  How do I make a living in this muck?  I will try to address that in the next column.

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