Gone Country

It was with “mixed” feelings I read the news that my radio alma mater,  “Mix 96. 5” WMT-FM has switched formats to country.

Now, radio format changes are nothing new, and not limited to the corporations that now control much of what you hear.  Even in the days when most stations were locally owned, demographic and market changes often dictated a switch.In fact, one of the biggest format-change firestorms I can remember also involved WMT-FM.Way back in 1982, my friend and mentor Rick Sellers (who now owns KMRY) changed WMT-FM’s format from Beautiful Music to Soft Adult Contemporary to attract the Baby Boom audience.

Rick soon discovered that Hell hath no fury like an Andre Kostellanetz fan scorned. Letters and phone calls poured into WMT, and dozens of angry letters to the editor were printed. WMT engineers even went so far as to purchase and install external antennas for the most vocal complainers so they could more easily listen to the area’s remaining Beautiful Music station, KFMW in Waterloo.

A few months later, when KFMW became Rock 108, the shit hit the fan all over again, but that’s another story.

The original “96FM” was largely automated. They literally just switched out a set of Beautiful Music tapes for AC tapes.  But WMT was founded on personality, and Rick intended that his FM station have the same kind of air personalities that made WMT-AM a community institution.

Yes, at one time my hair was brown
Yes, at one time my hair was brown

Unfortunately, local legends like Jerry Carr, Steve Carpenter, Gary Edwards  and Rick himself already had jobs, so Rick had to work with the material at hand.

And his first acquisition was a punk kid working across the street at KQCR (now Z102.9).

I arrived at WMT-FM in April of 1983. A few months later, Tim Boyle was summoned from crosstown KCRG-AM (now KGYM, see what I mean about format changes not being anything new?). By the late 80s, Wayne Johnson, Brian Schellberg and Lonnie Levine solidified a memorable lineup.

Later, 96 1/2 would be the home of great personalities like Tom Cook, Carla Davis, Eric Walker and current residents Randy Lee and Kathryn Foxx, both of whom were originally hired by me.  (Clear Channel-You’re welcome). But that’s another post.

Actually, Cedar Rapids was a pretty-happening radio market at the time.  Up and down the dial, cool people were doing fun things on the air. Mark & Glen (Those Guys in the Morning) at KRNA, which was also the rock and roll home of current KCCK jazzer Bob Stewart. Gary & Todd at Q103, whose radio descendants are Z’s Schulte & Swann. And the Bears (both of them) at KHAK.

Even more than a quarter-century later, the things I did as a 96 1/2 FM DJ form the core of my radio bio.

WMT-FM “jocks” circa 1986. Clockwise from front: Wayne Johnson, Tim Boyle, Dann Collum, Dennis Green, Brian Schellberg. Thanks to Brian for the photo!

Broadcasting live from a hot-air balloon (“People of Cedar Rapids… My Name is Frosty Mitchell, and I’m Not Wearing Pants!”), doing my show live via satellite from underwater at Disney’s Epcot Center, tossing typewriters out of a cherry picker in Greene Square Park.

One April Fool’s day, we pretended WMT-FM was a 60’s era “Boss” Top 40 station, complete with period music, jingles, commercials and news from the spring of 1963 (“Scientists predict flying cars by 1987!”)

Buck Wheeler’s Traffic Chopper, Uncle Wayne’s Noontime Oldies Challenge, Lonnie’s Night Veggies, the Rock & Roll Weekend Oldies Show; the list goes on and on.

But the primary product of 96 1/2 was music. Eschewing consultants, our format was a potpourri of 60s and 70s oldies, pop currents and the occasional independent release that struck our fancy.The record industry actually took some notice for what was happening in little Cedar Rapids, honoring us for the small part we played in launching the careers of artists like Luther Vandross, Tracy Chapman, Bonnie Raitt and others. I proudly display those Gold and Platinum records in my KCCK office to this day.

Unfortunately, not much of the above would be possible in today’s environment. The local music director is no more.  Songs are all programmed from the corporate office, and thirty minute commercial-free music sweeps don’t leave much room for fun antics.

But for me, the greatest disappointment in the new radio model is the disappearance of the music personality.  Once, a DJ who could deliver interesting content in the 20 seconds between the end of the song and the beginning of the commercial was a valued commodity.

Today, not so much. The trend is more Ryan Seacrest, less Carla Davis.

Clear Channel is upfront about replacing local announcers with out-of-town voice tracking, saying the product is better. Imagine how different our local stations would sound, however, if their corporate owners used their resources to train local announcers and help them get better, rather than replace them, also providing pipeline of future talent. Professional sports understands the benefits of a farm system, but broadcasting doesn’t seem to get it.

Now, local talk radio is still alive, although it tends to be a little “angry white guy stirring the pot” for my taste. And, I would be remiss to not mention the quality and entertaining work being done locally by the great folks at KMRY, Z102.9 and KCJJ.

Another friend and mentor who taught me a lot, Mary Quass, along with Jeff Winfield and much of their 90’s-era KHAK team are also keeping the spirit alive in a variety of midwest markets in their NRG Media group.

Meanwhile, at the public radio end of the dial, both statewide Iowa Public Radio and local stations like KCCK are prospering, despite threats against NPR and CPB funding.

And the good people still at our local Clear Channel and Cumulus operations try hard to make good radio within the restrictions and budgets laid down by their higher ups. But by and large, decisions affecting the media licensed to serve our community are made by people who will never live here.

Fortunately, local radio is by no means dead in the Cultural Corridor.  KMRY, Z102.9 and KCJJ are energetic operations serving audience and community well.

Times change, and as I said previously, format changes are the rule, not the exception.

I hope that the model of a creative person sitting in a room, interspersing a little wit in between cool songs, will continue to be something people want to have in their town.

As for Mix 96.5, the 2011 version bore little resemblance to the one I worked at.

But I’ll miss it just the same.

De-Funding Public Radio Will Hurt Music, Education

The following is a guest opinion run in the Iowa City Press-Citizen on April 11, 2011.  Read it on their site.
Much of the dialogue regarding proposals in the U.S. Congress to reduce or restrict funding for public broadcasting has focused on the impact those cuts will have on news and information stations such as Iowa Public Radio that carry National Public Radio programming.

While many public radio stations provide unrivaled news and public affairs programming, music also is an integral element of public radio’s service. More than 100 stations, including our own KCCK, have full-time music formats. Music accounts for about one out of every three hours of public radio listening.

Jazz, classical, folk, world and eclectic music are offered in Iowa and around the country by public radio stations mainly because these niche formats are regarded as economically unsustainable in the commercial market. Chances are, whenever you have heard music on the radio that is something other than mainstream pop, rock or country, it’s because you’re listening to a public music station. In some communities, public stations are the only music outlet that is locally programmed, not controlled by a distant corporate owner.

Sadly, the potential impact of federal funding cuts will tend to have a much deeper effect on music stations than news outlets. Public music stations tend to be smaller than our news and information cousins. Therefore, federal grants can make up a much larger portion of our budget. In KCCK’s case, Corporation for Public Broadcasting grants provide 20 percent of our cash budget — nearly $110,000.

Now perhaps, if you aren’t a jazz fan, you don’t see a lot of value in having a jazz radio station in your community. But KCCK provides community benefits that go well beyond playing jazz on the radio.

We apply a community engagement model to our service. What this means is that we go into the community we serve, engage in a two-way dialogue about how we can help and then become an active partner in the solution.

Here’s an example: In conversation with high school band directors, we learned that some incoming freshmen didn’t have a strong background in jazz because their middle schools don’t offer jazz band. This led KCCK to bring Kirkwood Community College and a group of jazz educators together to create a summer jazz band camp just for middle school students. Students who might not otherwise have even tried out for jazz band are now leaders in high school.

We’ve also created an exciting new music service that is not replicated anywhere in the world. The Iowa Channel is a program stream devoted exclusively to local artists, the majority of whom have never been played on the radio at all. The Iowa Channel gives listeners a steady diet of bands like Orquesta Alto Maiz, The Blue Band, The Nadas, SPT Theatre and many more.

You can listen online at http://iowachannel.org, download the iPhone app, or over the air on KCCK HD-2.

Loss of federal funds would have a devastating effect on KCCK and the community we serve. It would force us to lay off staff and certainly would spell the end of programs such as band camp and the Iowa Channel.

What can you do to help? Two suggestions:

  • Let your representative know you value local, public radio. Information is at www.170MillionAmericans.org, a website set up to harness the voices of the millions who interact with public broadcasting each month.
  • Support public broadcasting with a tax-deductible gift. Every dollar you contribute is one less dollar we need from the government.

With your help, we can keep public radio strong and maintain a strong and vibrant local music culture, for jazz and all genres of music.

Nothing New, Please.

I just returned from the Public Radio Music Conference, which despite it’s encompassing name, is really just about Classical stations.  In fact, I was the only non-classical person there!
That said, music stations of any stripe have much more in common than they have differences, be they classical, jazz, AAA, or for that matter, commercial stations.

Classical stations in particular, struggle with new music.  Only in the classical world is the term “new music” not just a descriptor of current releases, it is actually a formally recognized and defined sub-genre that describes anything written (depending on who you ask) after WWII or so.

Of course, when the bulk of your musical inventory consists of pieces that range from 150-300 years old, things that are a mere 75 to 80 years old can seem new.

We have the same thing in jazz.  Artists that KCCK informally refers to as “Contemporary” generally started releasing records in the early 70s, so we’re fine ones to talk.

But I have to admit I was amused by a session where some contemporary classical music was featured.  It was entitled “A Concert Featuring Living Composers.”

Wow.  They should have titled it “Concerts featuring Undead Composers,” then they could have at least capitalized on the Zombie fad….

Symphony Orchestras go through the same thing as radio, although I am proud to say our own Orchestra Iowa has done some very nice positioning of the new music they have programmed, particularly in a recent season where they included music from Iowa composers in each of their concerts.

Orchestras, radio, any organization involved in presenting music, has to find an answer to the question, “How do we expose our audience to something they haven’t heard before?” It’s the hardest question a musical organization can ever struggle with.

Because, no one wants to hear anything new.

Ever.

But wait! You’re thinking. Our audience is always saying, “Bring us something new and fresh.  That’s why we like you, you’re not boring.”

They’re lying.

OK, not everyone, but almost.  Back in my commercial media days, I saw study after study that in essence said people will tell you they crave variety but what they want is consistency.  Give them anything other than musical comfort food and as soon as another outlet gives them the familiar, they’ll desert you in droves.  And I have seen that very thing happen many, many times.  Cool, interesting station playing a wide variety of tunes, both old and new, gets stomped on when an Oldies station goes on the air.

For most normal people, musical tastes and favorites seem to get frozen in the teenage or college years.  If you’re a literate person, you will find and enjoy new authors to read throughout your entire life, but I’ll bet that you can count the number of musicians you’ve heard in the last ten years that you now call a “favorite” on the fingers of one hand.

Personally, I think of myself as someone who is open and actually seeks out new music to listen to, but I recently was looking through an iTunes playlist I’d entitled “New Stuff,” and discovered there were tunes in there that were released in 2002!

Better than just about anyone, Contemporary Top 40 radio stations know that you need to give the audience the hits.  New music is usually not introduced until it’s been “warmed up” by some other medium.  In the old days, that was done by touring and building a live following.  Today, it’s a YouTube video that goes viral.  But the effect is the same.  People tune in or buy a ticket because they want to hear their favorites.  As a presenter, you need to find some way to introduce them to something unfamiliar that maybecome their favorite without scaring them off.

Back when I was a commercial music director, “predicting the hits” was one of the things that was most fun about the job.  And, I was lucky enough to hit more times than I missed, at least according to the gold and platinum records that still adorn my office wall to this day.  But even when a local DJ could control the tunes he or she played, you still had to carefully balance what new tunes you introduced, almost spoon-feeding them to the skittish listener who would dart away when things got too unfamiliar.

And that might be one reason why most of us miss out on new music as we age.  Even with Pandora, social recommending services, etc., it’s just too darn much work to find the really good stuff.  My iPod Favorites playlist will run for 223 hours before repeating, I don’t need anything new.

But, if I don’t keep searching, exposing myself to new artists and genres, then I truly will be old.

So, if as media and music presenters, we want to find a way to keep from just becoming museums, the onus is on us to curate the best of the new stuff that’s out there, and then to find ways to present it in an engaging, non-threatening, positive manner.

I would like to hope this is a niche that local organizations, be they radio stations or symphony orchestras, can fill.  For me, I’m banking my career that the idea of a person, sitting in a radio control room, playing and talking about music for which they have a passion,  will be a music discovery model that lives on.

I haven’t outgrown it yet!  So, don’t be afraid, come on in.  The music’s fine!  And the stuff you haven’t heard yet may be the best ever.

What are you doing here?

I’ve been in New York for a couple of days attending the Music Personnel in Public Radio conference.
Because… Well, KCCK is a jazz radio station, and jazz is music, right?

It probably won’t come as a surprise to you that most public music stations ate classical music stations, and to say that this group is classical-centric is like saying saying young New Yorkers kind of like to wear black.

I am the ONLY person here not from a classical station. In fact, when word got around what my station was, people kept coming up to me and asking, “What are you doing here?”

That said, I’ve picked up some good stuff, and when I started telling people I knew Grammy award-winning composer and Cedar Rapids native Michael Daugherty, my stock really went up.

Although I am still the only one in the room who found the title of the event “A Concert Featuring Music from Living Composers” amusing.

They Can’t Do This To Me, I’m…. Denny Green


We all love to hear the musical sound of our own names, which perhaps can partly explain why,

when I first saw an episode of “Boston Legal,” many years ago, my hero William Shatner had to repeat his character’s name several times (which as I recall, was also an intrinsic dialogue element), before I realized he was saying “Denny Crane,” not “Denny Green.”

Apparently, whoever was in charge of data entry for this supply company’s mailing list was also daydreaming of His Shatness when they were typing up their catalog mailing list:

Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to adjourn to the veranda for brandy and cigars.

On Dentists Named Dennis

An article is making the Twitter rounds which discusses “implicit egotism.” The authors suggest that implicit egotism leads us to prefer things that are connected to ourselves, that might have the same letters as those in our names, for example. The writers’ research turned up the fact that the city of St. Louis has a slightly disproportionate number of residents named Louis.
And, that people named Dennis or Denise are slightly more likely to become dentists.

Read a summary of the article here.

Since I did not become a dentist, and settled in Cedar Rapids as opposed to say, Denison; it would be easy to say the article is bunk.

Until I realized that D.G. did in fact become a DJ.

Richard Gere, The L.A. Times and Me

I had a semi-brush with greatness this week when I learned that two Hollywood stars apparently chill out listening to our Iowa Channel webcast. Full story on the Iowa Channel blog, and here is the story that appeared in the L.A. Times.
Believe it or not, this is not the first time my work has been featured in the L.A. Times.
Our tale begins in those halcyon days of 1987. The Iowa Hawkeyes were flying high under
Hayden Fry. In Cedar Rapids, people worked for Teleconnect, Iowa Electric and Rockwell International. They shopped downtown at Armstrongs or at Westdale, which believe it or not, was then the “good” mall. And a young DJ named Dennis Green held down the PM Drive shift at WMT-FM, and was given entirely too much creative freedom.

This particular year, we were electrified to learn that a MAJOR MOTION PICTURE was going to be filmed on our community. Now bear in mind, this was before The Final Season, yes even before Field of Dreams. Up to this point in time, the only fairly recent movie to be made in Iowa was a 1970’s Sylvester Stallone vehicle entitled “F.I.S.T.” filmed partly in Dubuque (Don’t bother).
This movie was to be titled “Farm of the Year,” and would begin with the visit of Nikita Krushchev to an Iowa farm in the 50s (which actually happened). The movie would be the dramatic tale of the sons of the farmer who hosted Krushchev. They fall on hard times during the 80s farm crisis and become folk heroes when they take to robbing banks after the farm fails. What the dramatic connection between the Krushchev visit and modern day Robin Hoods was supposed to be, was never adequately explained.

But the BIG NEWS was that the movie would star Richard Gere, then one of Hollywood’s biggest leading men. And he would live & work in our town for several weeks during filming.
Well, the moviemaking took the town by storm that summer. A lot of people got work as extras and on the crew. A few even got in the movie, including a young Coulter Wood, now a geologist and occasional jazz singer (Coulter’s cousin Elijah had already split Iowa for Hollywood and would get his first pre-Frodo break just a few years later).

The filming was also not without some controversy, as then-Linn County Sheriff Dennis Blome was criticized for giving the production company free or reduced cost security services in exchange for his own part in the film. An interesting precursor to the flap over Iowa’s Film Tax Credit.
But, the one question that galvanized the entire community was “Where is Richard?”

It was a daily occurrence during my show… The phone would ring and the person on the other end would tell me that they had heard Richard Gere showed up at a bar with the cast and crew the other night. He was seen buying a 6 pack at the Handi-Mart. He’s rented a house on Sherman Street…. It went on and on.

So, I did what any DJ at the time would do, created a comedy bit out of it. It took the familiar form of an Emergency Broadcasting System announcement.

“This is a test. This station is conducting a test of the Emergency Richard Gere-Sighting System. This is only a test.”

The familar EBS tone was replaced by a high-pitched voice, dumbfounded by a close encounter with the star. At the end, the announcer instructed people “where to swoon.”

It was good for a few laughs during our shows, and then we kind of forgot about it.

Until one day, several weeks later, my phone rings at the office and it’s an L.A. Times reporter. She’s doing a story on circus a “big-time” film crew creates in an Iowa town, and has heard about the ERGSS. I play it for her down the phone line. She chuckles politely.

A few days later an L.A. friend tells me I’m in the paper. Sure enough, there’s an article, which actually doesn’t completely make us seem like ignorant hicks, and my comedy bit is the main topic. The AP picked up the story, and it also appeared in papers in Alaska and Ohio, among other places.

So, for the rest of my career, my official bio now truthfully can read “…. whose antics were covered by newspapers as far away as Los Angeles and Anchorage, Alaska.”


As for the movie, it finally premiered under a new title, “Miles From Home,” and was forgotten about as quickly as the more recent (although I think, better film), The Final Season.

 

 

An interesting footnote is that while we were all so obsessed with Richard Gere, we may have missed out several equally-interesting folks. Now, twenty-plus years on, it’s hard to remember if these were all present in Cedar Rapids, but certainly some were. The movie may have been forgettable but a good half the cast have gone on to long and successful careers: Brian Dennehy, Penelope Ann Miller, Helen Hunt, Judith Ivey, Laurie Metcalf, John Malkovich and Laura San Giacomo all may have spent some time in our fair city.

But, the biggest surprise has to be the director. “Miles From Home” was the feature film directorial debut of… Gary Sinise.

I wish we’d kept better track of Sinise Sightings.

 

Who?

Usually, my colleagues at NPR are spot on both in hard news and soft features, but yesterday…. not so much.

Robert Siegel introduced an interview with an upstart NCAA tourney team by explaining this group of young men was the “feel-good story of March Madness.”… The first team from their conference to reach the Sweet Sixteen since 1979 … done it without the benefit of any likely NBA top draft picks.
He then introduced the senior forward from….. Cornell University.
East Coast bias? Ivy League elitism? Or maybe the Sports Illustrated with Ali Farokhmanesh on the cover just hadn’t arrived at the NPR offices yet.