Wednesday, December 21, 2011

My Radio Days, A Perspective

You've got a face for radio.

That popular snarky line is usually attributed to critics of Howard Stern.

But it's also a reason that I considered a career in radio when I was in college.

I was reminded of that philosophical internal debate this week, while listening to an episode of the Adam Carolla podcast. Adam was interviewing the talentless and unfunny "Real Housewife of New York" Jill Zarin. Carolla and Zarin had met at a party, he had a few drinks, and she realized, "This guy is hilarious - he could be a gold mine.... FOR ME!"

Zarin "pitched" her vision of their TV show: A funny guy and a strong woman answer viewer questions, give advice, and discuss the issues of the day. Sounds a lot like Regis & Kelly or any other local, regional morning program, doesn't it? What would it really mean for Carolla? Heavy lifting. Carry the unfunny "strong" woman who comes in every day, shoots her mouth off, and never has a clever, original thought of her own.

Which brings me back to my days at WQMC Radio at CUNY Queens College. Back in my day, WQMC broadcast its signal on "carrier current," which meant that you had a hard time listening on an AM transistor radio standing outside the student union building, which housed the studios deep within its bowels. You could hear WQMC on speakers throughout the student union, in the lobby and student government offices, as well as across the campus in the cafeteria (until some jackass cut the cable, but that's another story).

WQMC no longer exists in its original space and mostly live streams its programming, according to the Web site description. And when I remember the signal strength or lack thereof from "carrier current," that live streaming might be a blessing in disguise. Successful alumni include Dennis Elsas, the late Mark "the Shark" Drucker, and SiriusXM Vice President of Promotions Ross Zapin (who was a year behind me in school).

WQMC had antiquated equipment, such as Ampex mono reel-to-reel tape decks. Once some of the engineering staff made a pilgrimage to legendary Long Island station WLIR-FM. They came back shell-shocked, and announced, "Their crap is older than our crap!"

I was made for college radio. I mastered reel-to-reel editing and wrote bits myself and with my erstwhile partner, Jon Aubrey, that received massive airplay from the station jocks. Why? Because these guys were mostly talentless drones who were there to hear their own voices and create demo reels to send to stations across the country. Generate their own original material? That task was beyond them. But they would play MY bits and pretend they had a hand in them.

Here is one jock's idea of a "collaboration" with me. "THE COSBY SHOW is number one. You need to do stuff about that show." I explained that I didn't watch the show. "Well, you should watch the show and do a funny bit about it." Aaaah, thanks for the lecture, Professor Einstein!

Every few months, one of the jocks would approach me with a hard sell about how "WE HAVE TO DO A SHOW TOGETHER." They would explain how they were selfless and willing to sacrifice their own sense of humor to let me do "my thing" that they would just comment on. What were they bringing to the party? "I tape the show and pass it around to my friends, so you'd build a whole new audience!" Just what I always wanted to be - the funny guy on somebody else's demo reel.

Their agenda was blindingly clear and transparent - you are gonna be the performing donkey that gets ridden into show business (radio) and thrown aside once they got the leverage to sign a solo contact. I always passed.

I learned not to put my best bits on carts (rewindable tape cartridges left in a rack in the on-air studio), where they could be fodder for other people's shows and demos. Instead, I kept my new bits on reel-to-reel tapes. When I hosted my own shows, I'd play the bits off the original tapes. A friend of mine told me that stood in the radio station hallway once, listening to a bit with one of the station's jocks. Upon hearing the bit, the jock slammed down a soda and yelled, "Why wasn't I told there were new bits? I would have played them this morning on MY SHOW!"

Eventually I did host a once-a-week morning show with James Schimmenti, who had no illusions that we were going to become breakout radio stars. I did some live bits and read some wacky news. Unfortunately, James got mono and we only did a handful of shows together. And I just couldn't be bothered to get up at 7 am and trudge to school in the winter if it wasn't for an early morning class.

After two peers - Jon Lewis and Zapin - landed radio gigs, I started to ponder whether this was a vocation I wanted to pursue. Lewis quit midyear and moved to Sante Fe for a radio job. Zapin was doing a late-night shift and DJing at concerts at Jones Beach.

Ultimately, I passed. Yes, I could have put the demo tapes together. There didn't seem to be any market for a comedy program. You had Imus in the Morning on WNBC, and Stern had just started doing afternoons. When I looked at industry publications (and I read VARIETY from the age of 15), radio got short shrift. As in almost no coverage. Looking at BILLBOARD, there was no comedy chart. "Weird" Al Yankovic got airplay and the rare novelty hit. There was no niche and I certainly did not envision myself as a pioneer, forging the path for others to follow.

Stern loves to talk about radio as a bastard medium, where talent is loathed and mistreated by management types who think they are programming geniuses. This exchange about Philadelphia morning jock Kidd Chris tells the whole story.

Stern: Kidd Chris bought a house in Philly.

Robin Quivers: Oh no! [laughs] When did he get fired.

Stern: The next day.

So I passed. Now I get my radio fix doing Stern's Super Fan Roundtable on SiriusXM. Fourteen appearances so far, next one scheduled for January 26, 2012. I've stumbled onto my old radio tapes and begun converting and cataloging the material. Could there be a podcast in the future? Who knows. But I'm certain about one thing - I won't be sharing the mike with a "strong woman" with opinions.
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