with Commercial Radio
by Dave Bunker
hesitate to admit this, but a few months ago, seeking to supplement my
meager freelancer’s income, I applied for work at (gasp) my local commercial
the many years I hosted classical programs at public radio stations, commercial
classical was always the evil other, the embodiment of everything that
public radio must never become. This station—let’s call it WJSB—has all
the features I had been taught to loathe:
of course, some with rock music beds.
seriously restricted playlist. My clock radio alarm is set to this station,
and three of the last four pieces which have been on at 6:30 a.m. have
been concertos by Vivaldi. The other was one of Mozart’s childhood
music beds under the weather, cute names for regular features (“The news
block at seven o’clock”), and other such frou-frou.
you might imagine, I went to my interview with “Mike,” the PD, burning
with curiosity. Would he be wearing chunky gold rings? Would he greet me
with the jokey bonhomie of a used-car salesman? Would the halls be papered
with twenty-dollar bills?
reality of the place was a bit of a letdown. Mike was a friendly but distracted
and slightly worried-looking fellow in a casual suit. The station looked
a lot like public stations I have known—cramped control rooms, a music
library doubling as office space, and a big rack of humming automation
equipment. Also like many public stations, it was horned into a space not
originally intended to be a radio studio, in this case a converted apartment.
money on the walls, either. Actually, with regards to money, it’s pretty
amazing that WJSB exists at all. It is a rarity in these deregulated times:
a locally-owned classical station, all the rarer for existing outside a
major metropolitan market; yet they have done well enough to buy up some
frequencies, growing into a scattered four-transmitter network across the
state. And they can afford to have live local announcers on during
morning and evening drivetime. During the day and overnight, and for most
of the weekend, they automate a national service.
is proud of the station’s success, and he credits his programming. That
homogenous blend, it would appear from our conversation, arises out of
his experience programming other formats in commercial radio. He freely
admits that he knew little about classical music when he started programming
WJSB. He approaches it, he says, as a variety of easy-listening. On the
other hand, he also says he enjoys the music, and he takes pride in the
station’s service to the community. He told me how satisfying it was to
hear from a local school that they were piping the station’s music into
the halls between classes.
discussed the possibility of my working as a fill-in host. I glimpsed the
steel beneath his affability when he asked if I was comfortable hosting
a show which had been programmed by someone else. “Sure,” I said. Then
I couldn’t help adding, “for the occasional sub shift.” If I were
working for you every day, I would want at least to talk to you about the
possibility of broadening the repertoire out a little bit—maybe play some
solo piano every once in a while. This comment earned me one of those dubious
looks you don’t want to see in a job interview.
also discussed the possibility of my producing a specialty show, a couple
of hours on the weekend. There’s more room for variety then; for example,
on Saturday evenings they feature a locally-hosted big band show. This
part of the conversation went better. I suggested a new releases show.
To my surprise, he countered by suggesting a 20th century music program.
He sounded willing to let me try something to see how it would fly. The
measure of success, it became clear, was simple. If the salespeople were
able to sell ads during the show, it stayed. If they couldn’t sell it,
have to confess that I found this refreshing. In public radio we have this
endless struggle between mission and market. No doubt it is necessary,
and no doubt we are the better for it, but there’s no denying it is a struggle.
It saps energy that could otherwise go directly into making better radio.
In commercial radio, you know the guy with the hook is there, and you know
he won’t hesitate to use it, so there’s nothing left to do but get out
there on that stage and sing your heart out. I can respect that.
sum, on my first foray into the perilous realm of commercial radio, I heard
nothing to make me run away screaming. The only thing that I still have
doubts about is trying to “pump up my delivery,” as Mike says, with apparent
scorn for the drab slow-talking of public radio. But even that strikes
me as an intriguing challenge.
it turns out, I’ve just gotten a new job back in public radio, so I guess
the commercial radio experiment is not going to happen any time soon. But
if I had heard back from Mike in time, I would have given it a shot.
Dave Bunker is Program
WMPG in Portland, Maine, and
President of AMPPR.