Commentary by Art Vuolo, Jr.
A recently completed documentary that I had the privilege of contributing video clips for, is entitled "The Rise and Fall of Rock and Roll Radio." It was produced by Carolyn Travis and Chris Gilson of Travesty Productions in Miami, FL. In the opinion of many radio listeners, including myself, another such program could be produced now by simply dropping the words "rock & roll."
What has happened to radio of late? Does anyone care? Bloggers like Jerry Del Colliano and John Gorman speak the truth about the radio industry and a great deal of the "industry leaders" categorize them as nutcases who are just bitter about how they have personally been treated by the big conglomerates who own the majority of major market radio stations. They are not. One high-level executive who works for Citadel Broadcasting recently told me that he reads Del Colliano's postings almost daily and feels he is right on target...and his company is often the topic of these bloggers who DO care about the future of radio.
Anyone who is currently working in radio, collecting a paycheck that clears, and has a solid contract offering at least some degree of job security is indeed blessed. Anymore loyalty and a long track record of success means nothing to bankers and bean counters who have erased any and all of the luster the radio broadcasting industry ever had. If you need proof of this, you need not look very far, since right here in southeast Michigan we have seen our share of un-welcomed changes and alterations in our local radio dial. Folks used to say "honey can you please change the station?" Now, the stations change on their own and usually it is not appreciated by the people they surely should avoid upsetting...YOU the listener!
My goal with the balance of this column is not to jeopardize the relationships I personally enjoy with dozens of local broadcasters. These are solely MY opinions, because I care as well. Every decision that is made by radio executives can usually be traced back to "the bottom line." I vividly recall respected local icon Tom Bender being quoted "it was a business decision" when he flipped the 37 year format of, then classical , WQRS-FM (105.1) to a trio of tries at it morphed into The Edge, The Groove and finally Magic.
Now that same company, Greater Media, considered one of the best in the business, has been recently criticized. Drew and Mike reduced to solo Mike Clark, Arthur Penhallow, after 39 years, suddenly gone, Doug Podell is off the air...and all of that, just at WRIF-FM (101.1). Across the hall at classic rock WCSX everyone knows that longtime morning hosts Jim Johnson and Lynne Woodison were let go in favor of popular talk duo Jeff Deminski and Bill Doyle. A recent ratings report shows D&D not doing as well as JJ & Lynne, but it's still early. When programmers mess with the morning routine of the radio listener, it's (at best) risky. Perception is another important factor. Even though the former WKRK-FM (97.1)...now WXYT The Ticket, moved D&D into mornings prior to not renewing their contract 16 months ago, the audience thought of Jeff and Bill as a personality-driven afternoon show from 3 to 7 p.m. on an FM Talk Station. They did a lot of personal appearances and promotions incorporated into remote broadcasts at popular eating and drinking venues. Such listener involvement is difficult in morning drive.
Speaking of mornings, what is going on at Oldies 104.3? Whoops I guess they chased that terrible word "oldies" off the frequency AGAIN. This has to be burdensome to Detroit's most beloved radio legend Dick Purtan. He had a hard time remembering to stop saying "oldies" the first time it was dropped. So, they brought it back and returned a visual logo very similar to their long-time red and white trademark. Now, along with another change comes even more with, the exodus of Purtan's news gal Dana Mills, whom he attracted away from WJR-AM (760) many years ago. Then, he suffered the loss of his side-kick engineer, chief laugher and longtime friend John "Ankles" Stewart, who has run Dick's controls for nearly 30 years! Blamed on the proverbial "budget cuts" these changes have seriously altered the sound of a program that has been a staple in this radio market for decades. Then if all this wasn't enough, the final hour, from 9 till 10 a.m. of Purtan's show, was eliminated. Lastly, unless I'm imagining it, there seems to be less comedy and a lot more music on the program. When radio loses its personality, we might as well just load up our iPod's for a non-stop musical marathon.
Regarding the music, WOMC seems to be going through a significant change of life. As one who graduated from high school in the mid-1960's, I am not fond of the new direction that the music has taken. When I hear the "Loco-Motion" I want to hear it by Little Eva, with no disrespect to Flint's Grand Funk Railroad, who did the cover version in 1974. It was a jolt to hear "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," not by The Tokens, but the 1972 remake by Robert John. Yikes! This reminded me somewhat of the 1950's when white artists covered songs originally recorded by black singers, known as "race records." Thank God that type of discrimination no longer happens. Do not misunderstand. I love the oldies from the 1970's, but I also like the music I grew up on from the 50's and 60's as well.
We now have three radio stations all playing similar music; WDRQ (as Doug-FM 93.1), WCSX-FM (94.7) and now WOMC. I realize program directors and most radio people would argue that statement, but to the average listener they all sound somewhat alike, and there are more listeners in the audience than radio people and PD's.
This is all the fault of the advertising community. I have written about this before, but perhaps it needs to be repeated. The people who place advertising on radio and television control what you see and hear. TV seems to have learned that people beyond the age of 55 not only spend money, but actually have more time to do so than young people. Yet, the radio time buyers are still stuck in a rut which dictates that only people between 25 and 54 are attractive to advertisers. That is insane. Until this changes, radio is suffering from a type of "commercial cancer" that is killing it in a slow and agonizing manner. Do us all a favor, if you work at an ad agency, or know someone who does, print out this portion and post it on the door of the head media buyer.
Before I am charged with relentless rambling and ranting about how bad things are, I still believe in commercial terrestrial radio, but now for MY favorite music I am being forced over to the satellite offerings of Sirius XM, where live on-air personalities are also becoming scarce. So, let me end with some timely local news and updates.
During the middle two weeks of April I was outlining the state of Florida, putting a staggering 1,715 miles on my rental car and listening to a lot of radio and much of it all sounded the same. I recall that the last time I was in the Sunshine State, I got a call from Mindy Markowitz telling me that she and Tom Ryan were let go at WOMC. This time I return just in time to watch the same thing happen to Ryan's replacement Ted "The Bear" Richards. During last years Dream Cruise it was so great to hear him, along with former CKLW traffic reporter Jo-Jo Shutty-MacGregor. Now, after barely 15 months, Richards is gone. He spent over 15 years out in Colorado doing mornings on dozens of oldies stations nationwide via major syndicator Jones Radio which is now known as Dial-Global. A popular local DJ said "This gets scarier by the day. Ted Richards shows up for work, is told that 'OMC and 'YCD are "consolidating" talent, and is shown the door. Give me a break!" On a lighter note one big fan of Ted the Bear quipped "this makes 104.3 a little less bear-able."
To wrap up the news from the WOMC building in "fashionable Ferndale" it was announced that sister station country WYCD-FM (99.5) will be re-locating from their longtime home in the Travelers Building at Evergreen and I-696 in Southfield into the building CBS Radio owns near I-696 and I-75 as a consolidation of facilities to further reduce costs. In an unprecedented move, they will also be sharing staff. Multiple stations under the same roof has now become commonplace, but sharing employees, especially on-air talent is something new. WYCD program director, Tim Roberts, will now double his responsibilities as PD of BOTH 99.5 and 104.3. Hey Tim, that's one way to get a press box pass to U-M football games this fall, since WOMC is the flagship for the games...and remember that the call-letters now stand for Where Only Michigan Counts! With the huge Downtown Hoedown coming on May 15th, and then The Dream Cruise in August, it will be a busy summer for Timothy who is one of Detroit radio's "nice guys."
Old business: While I was out of state I got word of the passing of the legendary country personality Deano Day. He was perhaps THE most notable country jock ever in Motown, with tours of duty at The Big Dee WDEE-AM (1500) now WLQV, CKLW-FM (93.9) now the River and most notably at WCXI-AM (1130) now WDFN. Longtime fan, Scott Price of Southfield, recalled "back in 1980 when I worked as a press agent for the Michigan Opry and we had a show with Hank Williams Jr. and his Whiskey Bent and Hellbound tour. Deano Day was the emcee and he pulled up in his brand new Don Massey Cadillac and left it parked in front of the theatre. The police were ready to tow it away because he was blocking traffic and Deano flipped me the keys and told me to move it. He than went on stage with his wit and comedy and knocked the audience dead and the crowd really enjoyed him. Those were the good ole days and Uncle Deano will be missed by many country music fans." That says it all Scott.
Some great news and time to mark your calendar. This Memorial Day Weekend, Detroit native (Farmington) Jim Hampton will return to present a special Detroit DJ Reunion on WPON-AM (1460) and on line at www.wpon.com. Jim will play many Top 40 hits from the beginning of rock 'n roll, plus the hard to find rare songs that are uniquely Detroit. Hampton has compiled actual airchecks from many of Detroit's Top DJ's from the 60's that performed on WXYZ, WJLB, WJBK, CKLW, and WKNR. Celebrities such as: Tom Clay, Bud Davies, Robin Seymour, Terry Knight, Frantic Ernie Durham, Paul Winter, Joel Sebastian, Tom Shannon, Bob Green, Lee Alan, Dave Shafer, Dave Prince and many more will be featured throughout the shows. And, there will be some special surprise in-studio guests, too. Mike will have more information soon on the web site.
Spring has sprung and the leaves and dandelions are returning...and so are some of your radio favorites. The man who used to write the Names and Faces column in the Detroit Free Press and cover radio news almost as extensively as Mike and I do (LOL), John Smyntek, can't handle retirement and is coming back to an on-line paper called www.Yournews.com and by entering your zip code you get the local version and his column regarding media. Perhaps Sminty saw what we did when The Oakland Press dropped our column and now going to do this Internet version. Welcome back John.
Lastly, the much anticipated return of the Home Improvement guru Murray Gula is scheduled for the first weekend in June on Saturday and Sunday from noon till 2 pm on 50,000 watt WDFN-AM (1130). Gula was last heard on that frequency about a year ago. He is still seen on Channel 7's web chat show Thursdays at noon on "Lunch with Murray," on www.wxyz.com. Best wishes to Murray as he recovers from some serious knee replacement surgery. We await his return. My return will be in May with more news about what's ON THE RADIO.