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Radio Raconteur Brings His Stories to a Close

NAB will present its Spirit of Broadcasting Award to industry trade journalist Tom Taylor

Tom Taylor

The National Association of Broadcasters’ Spirit of Broadcasting Award recognizes general excellence and leadership and is given to individuals or organizations that have made lasting contributions to over-the-air broadcasting.

Only 12 people or organizations have won the prestigious award since its first presentation in 1984 including Lowell “Bud” Paxson, Paul Harvey, Stanley E. Hubbard, Dawson B. “Tack” Nail, Margita White and Don Hewitt.

Veteran radio industry reporter Tom Taylor joins the list when he receives the award at the NAB Show.

He most recently was editor of the daily Tom Taylor NOW e-newsletter, launched in 2012 and published through RTK Media with partners Robert Unmacht and Kristy Scott. Prior, he was editor of Inside Radio, M Street Journal/M Street Daily and the TRI newsletter from Radio-Info.com.

Before becoming a radio industry reporter, Taylor built a base of industry knowledge as vice president of programming and operations for Nassau Broadcasting’s WPST/WHWH in Princeton, N.J., and a programmer for stations in Kentucky and North Carolina. His father Bill Taylor had been a radio/TV personality in Orlando and radio general manager in Charlotte.

Contacted by Radio World for his reaction, Taylor wrote to say that he was “surprised, humbled and embarrassed” to win the Spirit of Broadcasting award.

“Trade journalists don’t usually get awards, and don’t expect them,” Taylor said. “Speaking of ‘embarrassed,’ the NAB has asked me for embarrassing early photos, as part of the introduction at the NAB Show in April. That’s been humbling, by itself.”

FIRST DRAFT OF RADIO HISTORY

As a graduate from UNC-Chapel Hill (“a long, long time ago”) who majored in English, writing came easily. But he also attributes his success to supportive managers.

“I was very lucky,” Taylor told RW. “Using the familiar baseball analogy, I had the freedom to call ’em as I saw ’em. Nobody tried to tell me what to write or how to write it.

“There’s a saying that daily journalism is the first draft of history. It was energizing, getting a first crack at unfolding stories like digital audio broadcasting, back to the early 1990s, and ownership consolidation, triggered by FCC rule changes in 1992 and especially the 1996 Telecom Act.”

When reporting on the industry, Taylor said he followed three rules:

  1. Get the facts right.
  2. Be fair.
  3. Always try to be interesting.

“In every station sale story, there’s at least one angle or nugget that stands out — about the owner, the history of the station or its potential new facility,” he said. “The same for technical filings, pirate radio notices of violation, FCC call sign change lists and — one of the latest phenomena — squabbles between full-power stations, low-power FMs and translators.

“The real estate disputes over FM band spectrum are really something, though it often takes digging through multiple FCC filings,” he said. To get to the bottom of these contentious stories, he spent a lot of time prowling through the commission’s online database, as well as court-filing sites and resources like sec.gov.

“Practicing daily journalism is a lot like what engineers and managers face — you deal with the day-to-day situations as they arise. What journalists hope to provide along with covering those specific events is context: Is that sale or format change or FCC action part of a pattern? What might it mean for other operators, and what can we all learn from it?”

[Paxson Exemplified “Spirit of Broadcasting”]

He said a favorite theme has been emergency preparedness, from backup equipment and sites to regular training and staff “think” sessions about what might go wrong.

“At NASA, astronauts constantly game-plan for ‘What the next thing that could kill us?”

STORIES FROM THE FIELD

As for Tom Taylor’s favorite stories during his 30-year career? “That’s easy — all the reader-supplied true stories,” he replied.

“Many of them were engineering-related, like the late-2018 stories about a rookie engineer being ordered to ‘trim the carpet.’” That anecdote appeared in a section of his newsletter called “You Can’t Make This Up.” (It may sound like hazing, but Taylor quoted engineer Rob Bertrand recalling a general manager who really wanted him to crawl on the floor and cut loose threads until his chief engineer intervened.)

“Or the CE who fumed because a pile of household garbage blocked access to his transmitter site during a late-night emergency,” Taylor continued. “When the immediate job was done, he then deposited the trash on the front lawn of the person whose address he found in the mess. He appended this note: ‘It appears someone has stolen your garbage and dumped it at my driveway. I was able to retrieve it all for you and would be happy to assist you and law enforcement in determining the culprit.’ Truly, you can’t make that up.”

TOM’S TAKE

Now that he has retired from the daily news grind, Taylor has time to reflect upon Big Picture questions about radio’s circumstances and prospects.

“Radio World readers could probably reel off many of the same worrisome issues I see,” he said. “Proliferation of signals in the FM band. The changes in AM, including an ominously rising noise floor and bargain-basement receiver circuits. The explosion in audio choices, from satellite radio to streaming and podcasting. And the inexorable pressure on engineering, talent and other budgets.

“As for the latter, an engineer I worked with early in my life burned a proverb into my brain: ‘How come there’s never time to do it right, but there’s always time to do it over?’”

Hovering over everything else is the continuing impact of consolidation on U.S. radio. “When Wall Street spied the radio paragraph in the 1996 Telecom Act and began shoveling money toward companies like Clear Channel, that forever transformed our business,” he said. “We became more akin to other businesses in America, more attuned to monthly and quarterly expectations and results — and more focused on the short term.”

Unfortunately, some feel that paying more attention to the bottom line caused many broadcasters to pay less attention to making great radio. But Taylor rejects the notion that U.S. radio in general has lost its way.

“I do think we underestimate the number of operators who still understand the critical importance of being local and serving the community,” he said. “That language is still there on the FCC license, and the bond between local stations and their listeners is what can make radio special.”

As for keeping radio viable in the years to come, especially among millennials whose earphones are plugged into streaming audio? “We need imagination, business smarts and the willingness to protect the existing platform of OTA broadcasting, while exploring new areas such as digital — in various forms, live events and other promising avenues,” Taylor said.

“At the first station I programmed, Village Broadcasting’s WCHL Chapel Hill, N.C., 1360, they understood that radio was a springboard for all kinds of other revenue-producing activities. Two examples: They published the local weekly free ‘shopper’ publication out of the station’s basement. And they rented out a local theater for late-night ‘WCHL Movies.’ Very entrepreneurial.”

Covering such stories are now the responsibility of others. Taylor has disconnected his computer keyboard and gone home.

“Just about every day, I get an email with this header, ‘Are you bored yet?’” Taylor told RW. “The answer is ‘No,’ though I treasure the relationships with readers over the past 31 years. Also the relationships with people I worked with in my 16 years before that, as a programmer and jock.”

He expressed thanks to the many engineers he has worked with, and mentioned Rick Edwards, Jeff Detweiler and Rick Eby. “Engineers like them wrought daily miracles, then patiently explained them to us laypeople. And a strong shoutout to my Hickory, N.C.-hometown friend Carl Davis, now a regional sales manager at ERI. Last year, Carl became the first engineer ever inducted into the North Carolina Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame.”

NAB will present its award to Taylor at the NAB Show Opening on April 8. Executive Vice President of Communications Dennis Wharton called Taylor “a beloved friend of radio broadcasters and … daily chronicler of the industry for decades.”

Tom Taylor may have hung up his mouse, but he clearly still feels the love for this business.

“There’s something unique about the radio industry, you know? You could run into somebody at an airport or grocery store line who’s worked in radio and strike up an impromptu conversation about situations you’ve both encountered,” he said.

“‘Hey,’ they might say, ‘the first station I worked at was based at a former funeral home.’ We’re storytellers in radio, whether or not we were ever on-air. And engineers have some of the best stories.”

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