Boomers: Seasoned broadcasters look back at changes in radio
Radio has connected the local world to the one outside. Its existence proves the tight, maternal bond between necessity and invention: radio waves were first used by ships to replace carrier pigeons and flags in the early 1890s.
One hundred years later, as time was getting ready to turn the page toward the next century, another wave of new technology hit, creating a shifting career landscape for those who have long made their living in radio.
Broadcasters Duff Damos, Mike Michalak, Scott King, Al Higgins and Terry Tuszka (known on the air as “Terry T”) are Rhinelander’s “Rat Pack” of broadcasting, if you will, a brotherhood of broadcasters from way back. Each first stepped into a radio studio about the time Richard Nixon was stepping out of office. Together, they bring 180 years of experience to the conference table every Tuesday morning at NRG Media in Rhinelander.
They recently spoke about the changes they’ve witnessed.
“Technology has gone through the roof,” says Terry T, announcer of WHDG Mornings, who started in broadcasting in 1975 at the UW-Stevens Point college station. He also mentions multi-tasking and down-sizing.
Deregulation in the ’80s led to the smaller mom-and-pop stations being gobbled up by bigger stations, explains Al Higgins, WHDG program director. The result is fewer employees and streamlined programming. “It’s cost effective to have satellite programming,” Al says. Technology has proven effective with ease of communication.
“It used to be the salesman would write the commercial on paper, then give it to traffic, then traffic would hand it to me [the production manager], then I would send it to the announcer,” Al says. Now that is all done with a click of the mouse.
Operations manager Duff Damos’s rookie year in radio was 1976.
“When I first started, there were two turntables. You’d flip cue records…we did a lot with 45s. Back in those days, you always had to be on your toes. Now it’s just hit the F9 play button. Technically, sometimes it gets a little boring,” he says.
The only record albums you will see at the station today are on the wall. Record companies used to award radio stations gold, platinum or multi-platinum record “trophies” based on the sale volume of a song, he says.
“In today’s world, there really are no CDs, records, etc…it’s mostly just downloads. The music industry has changed so drastically that awarding radio stations these trophies is just a thing of the past,” Duff says.
Another thing of the past is the iconic personality.
“Kids used to get into radio to be the next Wolfman Jack,” says Mike Michalak, account executive and host of “The Morning Grind” on WMQA, whose first job in radio was helping build a college station in 1972. “Radio doesn’t have that anymore.” The visibility is now measured locally.
“In a small market, we all get called on to emcee local events. People appreciate what we’re doing. From weather to what’s going on in the community, we’re relating to something,” Mike says.
From outside the studio to in, the seasoned broadcasters have seen their responsibilities increase.
“Gone are the days when the DJ comes in, speaks into the microphone and that’s all they do,” says Terry Peters, market manager. “Now they’re all doing two or three more jobs in addition to being an on-air personality. They’re also programming and writing and producing commercials, and setting up on-location remote broadcasts.”
Then there is the whole web and digital component, he says. Instead of only asking listeners to call in, now they are invited to “check us out on Facebook.” The DJs are interacting with listeners online as they’re on the air.
The connection continues on the station website, where you can read blogs written by DJs, buy a song from the station’s playlist through a link to iTunes, and find out how to get a free station app for your smartphone.
It appears the world of radio is not what it used to be. It’s more.
Now that local connection can be felt for listeners who are not able to make the trip back home. Like the serviceman in Afghanistan listening online to a Hodag game, or a vacationer reliving his time in the Northwoods by streaming the station on his computer in Illinois.
Change is also seen in the flavor of popular music.
“What Top 40 used to be, country is today,” says Mike, who was in radio six years before the Hodag Country Fest was born.
Nationwide preference in music finally reflects what the Northwoods has apparently known all along: Country rocks.
“They say if you play rock music backwards, you hear Satan worship,” Mike says. “With country, you play it backwards and your dog isn’t gone, your wife comes back, the truck will start….”
Forward, backward. It’s all good. But it has come a long way.
“Country music used to be a guy standing up there in a rhinestone suit playing three chords and singing about how his mother left him,” Duff says. In the ’90s, performers like Garth Brooks, Toby Keith and Tim McGraw started rocking it up. Now, with young players using pyro-technic stage techniques, country has what used to belong to rock, he says.
Some in the group say radio was more exciting when they started. There was more opportunity. It was more iconic.
Although technology has also given listeners the option of personalized online stations, the NRG broadcasters are not concerned that local radio will ever be obsolete.
“Local radio works. It’s cost effective,” says Scott King, WRHN program director. “It may not be in the current form that we know now, but there will be some form of local radio for years to come, because it services the local area with news and information.”
But he does wonder about the staying power of the music that became popular in the ’90s and early 2000s.
“Kids in the last twenty years have so many more avenues to listen to music. And with more ways to listen to music, more product was needed to fill those avenues, making a lot of it very disposable because it just wasn’t that good,” he says. “Years from now, we’ll still be hearing the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, etc., but will we still be hearing hip-hop/rap? Grunge? Some of the current product? It’s debatable…but I would tend to think the older stuff will live on, as opposed to the stuff from the last 20 years or so.”
Jill Olson is a freelance writer who lives in Rhinelander. Her articles have also appeared in Northwoods Commerce magazine.