Friday, February 14, 2014

Radio: A Communicator's First Love

When it comes to communications, my first love was radio.  I started by volunteering at my college radio station, which also happened to be an NPR affiliate – WDUQ-FM (now WESA-FM).  That volunteer work turned into a student job, and all the while, I was part of a group that experimented, made hugely embarrassing mistakes, and at various points did things that can only be explained by a comment from an old radio buddy, “We were too young to know we shouldn’t be able to do some things so we did them.”

Memento from a Campaign Stop
That might explain the first $40 I ever made in the business.  As a college sophomore, I attended a banquet during the 1980 primary race between Ronald Reagan  and George H.W. Bush where both candidates spoke at a little restaurant outside of Greensburg, Pennsylvania.  I angled for a seat with the national press corps and badgered everyone who would give me the time of day with every question I could.  I’m sure the news veterans in the group met a guy like me in every town they visited.  But in fairness to all of them, they were patient with me that night.

Somewhere in the course of the dinner, a network reporter by the name of Garrick Utley couldn’t have looked more bored.  Political campaigns are like a traveling circus, and the press corps usually gets used to hearing the same speeches, same lines, same words over and over again.

That said, I was as plugged into the professional journalists in my midst as I was the candidates up on the dais.  So it was that I noticed that while Mr. Bush was speaking that I saw Mr. Utley lift his head with a look of surprise at what was being said at that moment. That was my cue that something unusual by news narrative standards was being said.

In fact, what Mr. Bush had said, and I had recorded, was that regardless of who won the Republican nomination, a Republican would win the election.  While not a concession speech, it marked the first time in the campaign that the man publicly left open the possibility that he might not beat Mr. Reagan, and that regardless, he’d support the ticket.

I knew what I had to do.  I gathered my tape recorder, microphone and notebook and prepared to get my sound bite.  When the formal speeches ended, the three media tables scrambled, with most charging towards Mr. Reagan.  I chose to get to Mr. Bush before anyone else.  Between the shoulders of Secret Service agents, I shoved a microphone towards Mr. Bush and asked him about his comments.  I was able to get him to repeat his statement, a little more crisply in less than 20 seconds.  Perfect.

From there, I wrote what in radio is called a wrap or a donut report where an intro leads into the sound bite, and then it is followed by a summary statement.  I put it together back at the studio and sent it to NPR as part of their overnight feed for the morning news.  The next day, my report was aired on the Morning Edition program, and a few weeks later, I got that $40 stringer check.  It was official, I was now a “professional communicator,” at least in my mind.

The radio bug had bitten me long before that moment, but it was then for me that it all came together and there was no question what I wanted to do.  I wanted to make a living in communications.

After my time at my college station, I went to a bubble-gum radio station and then to KDKA where I did radio and television production, which transitioned into advertising and then a career in PR.  But never have I ever completely forgotten those radio roots.

In radio, you learn to work quickly, meet deadlines that happen in minutes and hours, not days, write for the ear, and make your writing understandable to everyone at all literacy levels.  You learn to think more broadly than the written word, and that connecting with the audience is all that matters.

Since then, not only has my career evolved, but so has the media and the way people get and share information.  But here’s the thing.  Radio is still one of the most immediate and pervasive mediums for communication.  It’s accessible and as powerful as ever, in spite of competition from television, cable, iTunes, the Internet, social media, and smart phones.  And through it all, radio still finds a way.


It’s free.  It’s everywhere.  It’s simple. It’s interactive.  It complements every other channel.

Today, radio thrives with live sports and sports talk, news talk, various genres of music, and specialty programming that serves niche audiences with ethnic, religious and multi-cultural programming.  And it remains one of the more cost-effective mass media channels to operate.

Today’s radio landscape is much more formatted, formulaic and syndicated than the radio world I knew at the start of my career, but it has evolved quite well while maintaining its relevance.

On this Valentine’s Day, I will celebrate with my wife.  She’s the one who as my college sweetheart would stay up late at night to listen for me to play Motown songs that were secretly dedicated to her, and would spend her spare time on Saturdays hanging out with me at apple festivals and arts festivals during radio remote broadcasts.

But in the spirit of keeping this blog focused on communications, I would be remiss not to acknowledge my long-standing and never-ending affinity for radio.

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