Growing Up on the Radio

As a boy growing up in small town America, like most kids in the same situation, I found something that mesmerized me early on. While a few of my friends considered following in the footsteps of their fathers, I had different goals in mind. It was not one of the area farms or the local factory that caught my eye as a future career. For me, there was something more, almost magical filling my mind. It was a world where imagination was still necessary. It was a world filled with voices, but it was up to me to supply the images. I am speaking of the world of radio.

I first caught the radio bug from my portable radio, listening to the radio stations beaming from a nearby major city. This was in the days when Madonna was new, Prince was still called Prince, and I was still too young to get in to see his movie Purple Rain. In between the music, the larger than life voices of “Magic” Matt Alan, Paul Christi, Roger W. Garrett, John Lander, Ron Parker and others cast their personalities out and through the airwaves. I am sure that wherever you grew up, you had your favorites too.

When my turn came around, it was not at one of the big stations I had become so familiar with. Rather, it was the place where most radio personalities start. I found my first radio home just a few minutes away from my home. My small town’s only radio station was a 500-watt, daytime only station that was owned by the town’s only newspaper.  In high school at the time, my series of letters finally convinced them to hire me. Actually, looking back, it was probably their way of making the letters stop. 

My job included a couple of hours in the morning, before school, and a few hours in the afternoon. On the weekends, however, I had a twelve-hour shift on both Saturday and Sunday. When Christmas was approaching, my boss officially assigned me Christmas duty, asking “so, how do you like radio so far?” Actually, I never minded. The newspaper was their top priority and I was the only official radio station staff member. Aside from the morning and afternoon newscasts, I was allowed to have full control – the programming “guru” as I saw myself back then.

Following high school and college, larger markets, bigger salaries and greater responsibilities came along.  Away from the small town, I soon learned how transitional the business could be. It was not uncommon to receive numerous job offers, or have your current bosses move on and try and take you with them. Eventually, I even got the opportunity to work with many of the personalities I listened to before entering the business. A few turned out to be great mentors. These were very good years. 

Then one day, things started to change. A case of the all good things must come to an end began to emerge and cover the industry like a blanket. President Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which deregulated and some say (killed) radio as we knew it.  The Act allowed corporate owners to come in and gobble up stations and create one giant cluster. Prior to that, one person or entity could only own one AM and one FM station per market. The Telecom Act destroyed that and when the corporations came in, they diluted the sound, made sweeping budget cuts and fired people who’d spent their lives behind microphones. Well, they fired those who were making large salaries. Some of us jumped across the rail before becoming the next victim of the axe.

While deregulation damaged certain aspects of the radio business, in my opinion, the aspects that brought the magic – in many ways, it also bought a little time for the industry. I am sure that even the corporations did not see what was coming eventually. The options of today, the iPods, iTunes, and satellite radio are doing to the corporate what the corporate did to the mom and pops. I suppose that in the end, we have all lost something. Disc jockeys had to find new careers, the corporations have had to find new ways of explaining their loss in market share, and the listeners – well, many will never get to experience the magic that was.