A Passion for Radio

by Frank Murphy


I have a passion for radio, a burning desire to get up every morning and interact with my listeners. I want to be one of the guys who are the “morning mayor” of their market. For the past three years, I have gotten a fulfillment from being on the air that I couldn’t get as a producer. If you'll pardon the expression, producing is like foreplay and performing is like a climax.

So many radio guys want to move to a larger market every two years. They read the trades and obsess over who made the biggest market leap of the week. I would rather do as Jeff & Jer say and “marry a market.” I’ve lived in New York, Washington and Los Angeles, but I found great happiness in Knoxville. We sold a house in L.A. and bought one in Knoxville that was literally “twice as nice for half the price.”

As radio hosts, we make a connection with our listeners by talking about our real lives. Sometimes I’ll tell a quick story and not realize how it affected people until days or weeks later when a listener asks about it. I received sympathy emails after mentioning that my pet tortoise died. I hadn’t even planned on mentioning it on the air, yet it turned into one of the more memorable things that ever happened on the show as I searched for a taxidermist to preserve him.

In radio we form a bond with our audience unlike any other medium. Our audience listens to us while they’re alone in the car, in the shower or still in bed. We can connect with them in a way that TV and newspapers can’t. Radio is where people turn to react to things they’ve seen on TV or read in the newspapers.

There’s a big difference between listeners asking me about my freeze-dried tortoise and Trekkies asking Patrick Stewart about “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.” Maybe a less obscure example would be fans asking William Shatner about specific “Star Trek” episodes in a famous “Saturday Night Live” skit. Many sci-fi fans have connected with their favorite fictional characters and then transferred that connection to the actors who played the parts. Radio listeners can make a real connection with radio hosts who share their lives on the air.

In the mid ‘70s, Bob & Ray did afternoons on WOR in New York. I was in 6th grade at the time and became fascinated with their show. For a while they would allow a live audience to watch them for two hours a day. I wrote in for tickets and made my mother take me to their studios at 1440 Broadway. At first, I was disillusioned. Bob & Ray were sitting at a plain table right in front of us doing their character voices. The audience sat on folding chairs. The giant pipe organ they talked about wasn’t really there. Neither were the flowing red and white wine taps. The studio was nothing like the ornate gilded theatre they had described on the air. By the end of the show I realized that I was in on the joke. Bob & Ray were creating true “theatre of the mind” right in front of me. I was hooked on radio for life.

About a year later I made a second visit to see Bob & Ray at WOR. I had told some classmates how much I enjoyed seeing the show live but by then Bob & Ray had stopped having a daily studio audience. One of my friends wrote to them anyway and got an invitation for us to watch the show. He persuaded his father to drive us into the city. My friend, his dad and I sat in the back of the main studio at WOR. Bob & Ray were both seated behind the same U-shaped desk that John Gambling used and mentioned every morning. Of course Bob & Ray called it the W-shaped desk. Because there were so few of us, Bob & Ray were able to spend more time talking to us during commercials. I had them autograph several things I had collected including an article about them from The New Yorker and a term paper I had written about them. Yes, I was as big a geek about Bob & Ray as those Star Trek fans who were parodied on “Saturday Night Live.”

After 30 years, I can still vividly remember my visit to WOR. I can also clearly remember touring WNBC radio while in high school. I remember meeting Bob Pittman and Michael Sarzynski but I couldn’t tell you any of the songs they played while I was there. For years many radio stations have tried to project a “more music, less talk” image. Ironically, that image has severely hurt terrestrial radio and left it open to attack from iPods and satellite radio.

Stations that promise “less talk” will lose the battle to commercial-free music channels on satellite. In 1996, Bill Gates wrote that “content is king” yet “more music” stations still play songs that can easily be found elsewhere. The radio stations that dominate their markets offer material that can’t be found anywhere else. They have personalities their listeners can relate to.

A great radio show is perishable. You have to hear it live to fully enjoy it. The concept of podcasting is an interesting and novel way to distribute radio programs, but it’s a lot like using TiVo to record “Good Morning America.” I might watch it later that morning if I had slept late but I wouldn’t watch a recording of GMA several days later. It’s old news by then.

I struggle trying to put together an aircheck that captures the energy and excitement of my radio show. The best material has a life of it’s own that is hard to edit into a brief montage. Let me use the example of my dead tortoise again. When Mo died, I wasn’t even going to say anything on the air. He was supposed to live longer than me and I felt somehow at fault for his respiratory infection. Thankfully my partner, Ashley Adams, saw the humor in the situation when I told her that I hadn’t buried Mo but instead put him in the freezer next to the Turtle Tracks ice cream.

The saga of Mo played out over the next six months on our show. We called local taxidermists trying to find one who would preserve him. One refused to do reptiles. Another said that small animals were too difficult. A third refused to do pets. A listener called and reminded us that several months earlier we had interviewed a taxidermist who specialized in pets. We made a call to that taxidermist, Al Holmes of the Al Holmes Taxidermy Studio and Wildlife Museum in Wetumpka, Alabama. Al explained that he freeze-dries the smaller critters and would be happy to “fix Mo up” for me.

By a strange coincidence, my co-host had relatives in Wetumpka and was planning to bring her 2-month old son to visit them on Mother’s Day weekend. Rather than pay shipping charges, I wanted to somehow convince her to take Mo’s carcass along on the six hour drive. I waited until we were live on the air to spring the idea on her and asked listeners to help me convince her. After she reluctantly agreed, we asked Al Holmes how to pack Mo for the trip. He was already in a Ziploc bag in my freezer. I wrapped him (and the bag) in newspaper and put him in a Styrofoam cooler surrounded by some frozen bottles of Aquafina. I taped the cooler shut and brought it to work with me. It sat on the studio floor during our whole show that Friday. The next day Ashley delivered the cooler to Al Holmes. When he opened it, they drank the Aquafinas which had thawed but were still cool and refreshing. Creepy.

The radio bits that I love best are “you had to be there” moments. They may not translate well to an aircheck but I know they are memorable to the listeners. Comedy improv is similar to morning radio in several ways including “you had to be there” moments. You can see a standup comic do his act and you may be able to repeat most of it to your friends at work the next day. It’s much harder to describe an improv show the next day. The situation may have been hysterical but you’ll probably find yourself telling your friends “well, I guess you had to be there.”

Standup comedy is somewhat like television. The comedian talks at you. There is no need to interact. Just sit back and laugh. Improv is more like morning radio. The audience is involved in the show. Their suggestions help build the scene. Because the audience has invested in the comedy, the laughs are felt deeper. There is more of an emotional connection between the audience and the players. A standup comedian needs to draw a new audience every night because his jokes are the same. The improv group that I’m in draws a crowd of mostly regulars every week because the shows are never the same. Standup comedy always needs new cume. Improv groups increase TSL.

I need to find a radio station that “gets it” and wants its morning show to take the time to build a connection with the audience rather than “let the music be the star.” (I have actually seen that phrase in listings of morning show job openings.) Loyalty is the key to success in radio. Any station can come along and play the exact same music but the personalities can’t be duplicated.

I like planting seeds in my listeners’ minds that will sprout at unexpected times. I say on the air that I am a “marshmallowaholic.” Last Easter I competed against a listener in a Marshmallow Peeps eating contest. In previous years I’ve stuffed up to 15 Peeps in my mouth. Why? Because I’ve heard from listeners who were shopping at Wal-Mart when they came upon some Marshmallow Peeps and couldn’t help but think of me.

Another seed I planted was with the “Subliminal Arrow Club.” I read an article about the designer of the FedEx logo. He deliberately put a subliminal arrow in the white space between the E and the X. I told my listeners to call when they found the arrow and register themselves in my Subliminal Arrow Club. Some listeners said they now think of me whenever they see the FedEx logo. Ries & Trout would be proud of me. Planting seeds in the minds of listeners is similar to their teaching in the book “Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind.”

The station that hires me will get quite a bargain. They’ll get a morning host who still loves radio and wants to stay in a market to forge a bond with the audience. They’ll also get the mind of an experienced producer who has worked for the best: Don & Mike, Kevin & Bean and Mark & Brian. Because of my résumé, I’ve recently been approached about producer jobs in five of the top ten markets. But that’s not what I want to do. I not only want to be on the air, I need to be on the air. I had a good talk with Don Geronimo the other night. He said that I could possibly make more money as a producer in a top market but he understood that I am happier being on the air regardless of the market size.

Are you a program director who gets it? Do my skills and experience fit your needs? I’m available. Email me!




Copyright © 2005 Frank Murphy. All rights reserved.