By John Russell Ghrist
I was quite puzzled when I turned my radio on this past week and learned that a familiar morning voice that I have listened to for years was gone. He had been replaced by the usual screaming rock “music” that dominates the rest of the city’s radio dial. Many listeners will miss Doug McDuff and his usual morning chatter, interesting guests, information and news with Ken DeCoster. Also lost in this thoughtless media shake-up was commentary by the city’s long-time fire truck chaser Fred Speer.
This subject dominated the regular Tuesday noon luncheon of musicians and radio people who gather at the Stockholm Inn each week. It was there we learned that Uncle Dougie and his co-workers were coldly handed their pink slips, severance and merely kicked out the door. This is how they do it in radio. Once your air shift is done, the management makes sure that dismissed staffers cannot get back on the air to say goodbye and stir up any audience response. It has happened to me several times in the business, and that’s just how the industry works. I could never be a gutless station manager and alter the lives of good professional broadcasters will families.
The station’s former staff did an excellent job of informing and entertaining its audience. McDuff has been doing it for over 50 years in the Forest City. Many of us will recall the time a few years ago when most of East State Street was underwater from a flash storm, and that station was the only one broadcasting coverage and getting help for its listeners. The rest of the city’s commercial broadcast operations were being run by a computer or fed by a satellite service, and no one was even at their facilities to help out.
This is how local radio is now. Most stations are nothing more than a hard drive or a dish. From some distant point, someone presses a button to launch a local station ID, or say something generic that would apply to the some 500 or so stations that are playing the same junky “music” or airing the same talk show. The wind-up mouths are usually political guys that dare those with opposing views to call and start arguments. Then these cheap stations record the program and play it back later at night, telling listeners not to call.
Other stations save money by having their staffs record all they are going to say into a computer that systematically spits it all out between songs. This cut-and-paste stuff fools most listeners, until they realize that no one is actually giving the current time or temperature anymore. Intelligent listeners also do not care for “morning zoos” or off-color humor.
The FCC is to blame for most of this. The government allows a handful of business people (not real broadcasters) to own all the operations in the same market. In Rockford, two out-of-town companies control the city’s eight major stations. The public then only hears the 20 songs that a station’s jukebox plays over and over again, or the same talkers 24 hours a day. It’s bare bones programming designed to lower overhead, offer zilch public service and just make money for the companies. Then they interrupt the commercials to play some music. Their newscasts are just jokes and worthless celeb notes, not really what’s going on in the community.
The move to eliminate local programming provided by McDuff and other true communicators is a sad story for local radio. This has become apparent in most communities, especially if all the stations are owned by uninterested outsiders. There is little news or information, just garbage “music.” This leaves only folksy Joe Salvi in Loves Park as the area’s only real morning host and Bill Korst as the area’s only vintage music DJ broadcasting from Monroe, Wis. These are examples of real radio and, by the way, disc jockeys are on the radio, spinners are in clubs.
Recently, I was in an office for an appointment. The place’s radio was tuned into some obnoxious station that played one tune after another that all sounded like junk to me. Then a female voice would come on and say, “Did you see the Grammys last night? Did you see what she was wearing?” And I replied to myself, “Who cares!” If people with no musical taste are willing to settle for this kind of garbage programming, then they will be happy with yet another noise maker on the local radio dial.
May I remind you what happened a few years ago in Minot, N.D.? There was a train derailment that seems to happen more often now. Local authorities were trying to evacuate the city because of toxic fumes and fires. They contacted the eight radio stations (all owned by the same national company) in that city to alert their audiences about this dangerous situation. No one answered the phone at seven of the automated stations. At the eighth one, an employee told the police that he would have to “check with his national office to see if he could interrupt the programming.” He would have to get permission to make the announcement that the city was being evacuated because of the poisonous fumes that were threatening the area. It is a wonder that Minot is still on the map today. This mega broadcaster did nothing for the very city that they are draining daily advertising dollars from.
The firms that have bought up all the stations in the same market have forgotten that older people also have money in banks, buy cars, groceries, insurance and go out out to eat. Companies that own all the broadcast operations are only interested in jamming the same dumb songs down the throats of their young audiences. Current stations also have a way of turning ’60s, ’70s and ’80s formats to all 2014 tunes when they have run out of “oldies.” Stations that say they play 20 songs in a row will then play 20 commercials in a row and probably begin the next music sweep with a bad tune. We all knew that a friendly information station would eventually turn into another rock operation when they switched to FM.
Doug McDuff and his crew represented a time when radio lilke Edward R. Morruw once said, was “proud, alert and fast.” When something happened in the community, they were there to report it. Now another station that once offered jobs to the area’s media professionals is gone and replaced by yet another noise box.
Radio has changed over my lifetime, too. I remember doing morning wake-up shows, playing nice music, reading the school lunch menus and being a cheerful voice that informed and entertained. When I came here a dozen years ago, the media would not hire me because I was either too old, or maybe did not have a polished voice? So, I now volunteer at WTPB LP 99.3 FM and play the easy listening and big band music that has been missing from this city’s radio dial for many years.
Listeners should realize that local radio is mostly just a cruel game of musical chairs. The canned voices come off a computer or from a satellite dish, hence there is very little local employment in the industry. The money made by these business people goes to stockholders and leaves the community. If no one complains, the mega broadcasters will keep on buying up stations and putting the same junk on all of them. You can listen if you want, but reading a book would be far more beneficial. I can also recommend a good audio doctor once your hearing has been damaged beyond repair from listening to more of this WKRP.
John Russell Ghrist is a Rockford resident.
From the March 5-11, 2014 print edition