A Lesson From the Ghost of Radio Past

Indiana Broadcast Cluster Finds That 'Live and Local' Can Also Be Profitable
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Indiana Broadcast Cluster Finds That 'Live and Local' Can Also Be Profitable

Beginning in the late '80s, in my opinion, radio became nothing more than a jukebox, and in nearly all cases, not even a good one. Thanks to this economy move, the playlists at music-oriented stations saw the same 12 or so songs played over and over ad nauseum. We saw disc jockeys becoming mere "time and temperature" announcers. The "click" of radios being turned off became deafening.

People who choose to listen to the radio do so to be entertained as well as informed. They want local interaction with their announcers. I have worked with PDs who have gone as far as docking a DJ's pay because he said too many words between one of the 12 songs in the rotation. Voice-tracking and automation systems only exacerbate the problem.

Interestingly, if one listens to many of the bigger powerhouse stations, one common thread becomes apparent: They are not using voice tracking. And in the case of a few, they have begun to drop the jukebox.

We actually are witnessing a small renaissance in radio, where full service —providing what a community and not a consultant wants — become paramount.

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Kevin Berlen, left, portrays Bob Cratchit, Steve Hall is Scrooge and Jerry Arnold is Orson Welles. Note the RCA 77DX and two 44B stage microphones. Some sound effects were done from the stage such as the 'clanking' of chains and the opening and shutting doors. We're gonna need more spots

A little over a year ago, I founded a group called The Crosley Radio Players, dedicated to the preservation and live recreation of 1930s, '40s and '50s radio. Our shows became an instant success; we were in quite a bit of demand performing to packed audiences around the Terre Haute, Ind., area.

So when it came time to do a Christmas show, I began to think of doing it not only for our audiences at the venues but for a much larger audience who couldn't attend.

I made a suggestion to the management of Midwest Communications, where I am employed as director of engineering, to carry this Christmas show live on one of our four stations.

To the credit of management, instead of a no I was asked a number of pretty good questions about the logistics of putting it on, including how to get the signal back to our studios, whether it would sell and a few others.

The decision was made to proceed with the live broadcast on WINH(FM), 98.5 MHz.

Having lived in this community for almost 30 years, I naturally have developed many friendships and business relationships, and I called upon them to help sponsor the broadcast.

Our sales manager (who is also a Crosley Player) and I put together an attractive sponsorship package. The show we were recreating was the Dec. 24, 1939 Campbell Playhouse version of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol." This play, heard on CBS each year from 1934 until 1953, was the brainchild of Orson Welles and starred Academy-Award winning actor Lionel Barrymore as Ebenezer Scrooge.

The original radio play had only one commercial break at the midpoint, so we started with only four packages to sell to advertisers. Much to everyone's surprise, we sold out those packages in less than three hours.

It appeared that there was a lot of community interest in this. Our sales manager asked if there was any way to add additional breaks. We reviewed the script and found two places where natural breaks could be inserted without affecting the flow and continuity.

This gave us room for four more sponsors. These sold out in less than two hours.

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WMGI(FM) morning personality Tim Shelton portrays nephew Fred. We always record our shows and make CDs for the members. So the sales manager asked if we could use the recording, remove the commercials from the first broadcast, re-sell it and then re-broadcast the radio play on Christmas Eve. I saw no problem with that.

The sales force sold out these eight packages in less than six hours.

Now the management was seeing dollar signs. After a brief conference it was decided to simulcast the show on WWSY(FM) at 95.9.

The live broadcast was sold out in less than a day, and the recorded re-broadcast in just over one day.

In total, 32 packages were sold to local advertisers in less than four days. Even I sold a couple packages.

The reaction was phenomenal. The most commonly-heard reaction was, "Wow. That's great! Real radio again!" Sponsors asked if they could attend the performance. We even got three new clients who had never been on radio before.

Old is new

Doing the show from our venue was conventional.

Our sound engineer provided an output from his mixing board to feed our Marti RPU transmitter, which was in our station's van just outside the theatre. Commercials were done at the studio; we monitored the station off-air for direct cues. The audience at our venue was caught up in being part of a live broadcast event as well.

One member of the Crosley Players, Tom McClanahan, is news director for Terre Haute's WTWO(TV); he brought their station's live van, doing two cutaways telling viewers about the event on the 5 and 6 p.m. newscasts.

At 6:30 p.m. the board operators of both stations played the show's opening, which we were monitoring at the site, and as they potted up the Marti's audio, we began. I had the honor of doing Orson Welles' part as narrator.

This show, including three commercial breaks, took about 50 minutes to broadcast. Reaction afterwards at the live venue was one of amazement by the audience. Several people asked members of the Crosley Players for autographs.

The next day, when I went to lunch, I overheard a couple talking about listening to it on one of our stations. Calls began to come in asking if it was going to be repeated and whether there would be more live broadcasts of this nature. Still other callers asked if they could buy a copy of the broadcast on CD. We even had an inquiry from a business in the listening area that wanted to hire the Crosley Players to do a show from their place.

Now I know what you might be thinking: "That's OK, but it doesn't fit our format." For the record, WINH's format is modern country and WWSY's is '80s hits. It didn't exactly fit either of them.

Part of radio's problems stem from the cookie-cutter approach that so many stations have taken in regard to their programming. They may be sticking with their format even as they continue to lose listeners and advertising revenue.

While a radio play certainly is nothing new from a broadcasting standpoint, it is new to three generations who didn't grow up having them to listen to.

Perhaps your station could benefit.

Jerry Arnold is director of engineering at Midwest Radio in Terre Haute, Ind., and a recent inductee to the Richard M. Fairbanks Indiana Broadcast Pioneers Hall of Fame.

RW welcomes other points of view.