Sep 23, 2013

September 23, 2013: WOLD, Laid Out Before You, Swift End to the Grand Experiment

“I am the morning D.J. at WION
Playing all the hits for you
That you never wanted to hear again
The bright good morning voice
Who’s heard but never seen….”

                                                            ----Parody of Harry Chapin’s “WOLD”

 On one bright morning in early September 1986 I reported for work at radio station WION in Ionia Michigan.  My task was to assume the position of Account Executive which is a fancy name for salesman, selling radio advertising to mostly local clients, but also including regional and, on occasion, national advertising agencies on behalf of regional clients.  It was a daunting task.

 Since the passing of the elder MacPherson, Monroe had taken control serving as the station manager, sales manager, principle Account Executive, and general all around gadfly.  The Monday morning sales meetings would pogo from laid-back history sessions in which he held court for nearly the entire morning on his favorite subject—the local history of the city of Ionia, to crisis meetings when he would suddenly realize that the station had a cash flow problem and monies were urgently needed.  This situation was the result of a wicked combination of programing, reach of signal, and the way in which the station’s promotional strategies had translated into very few ongoing permanent accounts. 

 First there was the question of programing.  Mac loved the Big Band Sound.  It was what he grew up with and to him it was the quintessential expression of sound, what radio was created to broadcast.  Sure there were the occasional concessions to changing tastes; Saturday mornings featured four hours of late ‘50’s and early 60’s music.  You know Pat Boone, the Everly Brother’s, and occasional Elvis ballad, or the novelty music popular in that era.  But nothing produced after 1963 made it on the air.  No Beatles, no Stones, no Animals, the station got about as far as the Beach Boys singing about “Surfer Girl” and that was it, otherwise it was back to Bennie Goodman, Glenn Miller, the Maguire Sisters and Artie Shaw….or worse, someone’s rendition of them.  During the week, the formula, or format as it is called, featured a repeated cycle wherein the station would play swing, followed by pop (Bill Haley and his Comets, Ann Murray, or some other innocuous composition) followed by a country tune, all suitably bland and nearly all selections at least two decades and more often than not three decades old.  Mac saw it as his mission in life to bring “culture” to the community.  By culture he meant swing music whenever possible even if it meant going broke in the bargain.

 “You should see me doing old-folks rest homes
Man I’m the big-time guest M.C.
You should see the little old ladies
And listen what they say to me”

 As time went by this format became much harder to sell.  I encountered Mac one morning as we were both making our rounds on Main Street.  He had the major accounts, the Banks, furniture stores, appliance stores; I had the small mom and pop shops.  He invited me to coffee at the old shop we would meet in when I worked at the theatre.  There was a look of puzzlement in his eyes.  We talked about the changing business and why it was getting harder to sell the air time. I brought up the format.  I tried to explain the changing market as best I could, knowing that Mac never liked to hear what he didn’t want to hear. 

 “The purpose of playing the “oldies”’, as we called our Saturday morning segment, using this as an example because it was the most ‘current’ or ‘up-to-date’ music format that the station then played, “is to evoke some kind of nostalgia”.  I knew he understood nostalgia, for that was at the core of his fixation if not fetish for Swing. “Now the purpose of nostalgia”, I went on, “ is to evoke some kind of pleasant memory of one’s misspent youth, usually in the form of some long nearly forgotten memory of some young wench that you had in the back seat of your car.  She may have become your wife, she may not have, probably not, but when you here the old music it evokes a flashback, hopefully some fond flashback of a time when you were young and you’re whole life lay out in front of you so to speak”.

 A smile crossed his face, knowingly.  “The problem”, I continued, “is that for someone like Andy Piercefield, (one of my clients, then proprietor and owner of a small heating and air conditioning business) is that he has no such recollections, nor do any of his peers.  You see, Mac, in fact it would be 7 years before he would be born.”  I suggested more contemporary music, he would have none of it, his formula had worked in the past, it was a time-honored if not shop-worn format and he wasn’t going to change.

 The second problem was with the signal or lack thereof.  Mac had inherited two radio transmitters one his ongoing A.M. station, the other his F.M. operation. Back in the late 70’s just as F.M. radio was being built into automobiles changing the nature of drive-time audiences from AM to FM, Mac sold the FM station to none other than Bob Goodrich, the same Bob Goodrich to whom Butterfield had sold its theatre operations in Holland a few years later.  You see, Bob had a hand in both radio and the movies.  Moreover, Mac changed the broadcast signal of the station from a circular pattern in which the signal was equally strong for a radius of about thirty miles to a tear-drop configuration in which the signal reached only 30 miles or so to the south, south-east, and south-west, but reached over 100 miles to the north, north-east and north-west.  He did this because he wanted to increase the wattage of his signal output to 5,000 watts so the signal wouldn’t look so puny on paper, and because he could produce a coverage map in which the signal would indeed cover more ground.  The problem was that this was largely rural central Michigan, and the ground held relatively fewer people.  Moreover, AM signals differ from FM.  FM is more consistent and has a better sound value. Its reach isn’t so great….in the daytime.  The problem with AM is the static background, the quality isn’t so good and at night, unless you are one of those big 50,000 watt stations like WBZ in Boston, WLS in Chicago or WJR in Detroit, you have to cut your power at sundown.  This is because transmitting on AM wavelengths produces problems at night in which the signal carries further, in fact bouncing off the ionosphere so that your broadcast may not carry to the next town but is interfering with a broadcast hundreds of miles away, much as sound bounces during a fog wherein you can’t hear it up close but can pick it up miles away. Between the AM signal upon which the entire operation had now to depend and the peculiar way it was now configured thanks to the changes Mac had made over his old man’s original design, the signal, at night, would not reach the Eastern city limits of the City of Ionia, let alone the countryside. 

 This proved to be a severe handicap.  In the early 1990’s Mac decided he was going to sign on to a season’s broadcast of Detroit Tiger baseball. The station was in a bit of a crisis when then newly-elected Rescumlican Governor John Engler issued lay-off notices to state employees as a means of threatening to shut the government down if the legislature proved uncooperative.  Our problem was that the City of Ionia was then home to 5 state prisons resulting in wide-spread panic as merchant’s trembled at the prospect of business drying up overnight.  One could actually see fear in their eyes.  I couldn’t give the time away.

 Mac responded by signing on to Tiger baseball and instituted a contest between we salesman with the prize of tickets to a baseball game to whoever sold the most season advertising packages.  I was unimpressed. 

 Called into the office to explain why I didn’t have nearly as many postings on the sales board as my colleagues I described the broadcast signal.  “You see”, I said to Mac’s newly appointed station manager, “two thirds of these broadcasts are at night.  The signal doesn’t leave the city limits much less get to villages like Portland and Carson City.  What’s going to happen is that all these clients that are signing on to this package are going to dial up the station to listen to the game and hear their ads and they aren’t going to be able to pick up the signal.  Mark my word”, I said, “by mid-May 2/3 of those postings are going to be erased from the board”.  And so it happened.

 The final issue, as far as I could see was that there were few on-going “permanent” accounts, and for the staff not related to the ownership they were indeed few and far between.  Mac had several major accounts that were on the air all the time, but many of his and almost all of mine were structured around weekly or monthly promotions.  Ad packages were drawn up around on-air games, community festivals, seasonal events like Christmas, and the like which meant that when the schedule ended so did the business.  One had to then go out and sell it again, this time around with another ‘hook’.  Business then became a feast or famine proposition with periods of good performance followed by drought.  As time went on, it became increasingly famine.   This business model was further punctuated by the fact that the station hadn’t raised it ad rates in over 10 years, behavioral evidence that the ownership too had serious doubts as to the value of its own product. 

 The market was clearly changing, as markets always change.  The age demographics, in this case the Boomer’s coming of age, was a change that Mac should have anticipated and moved to meet.  He did that only marginally.  The changes in the nature of main-street business were a trend that caught him wholly flat-footed even though he stood as a witness to the daily changes.  As the old-line department stores and mom and pop shops closed up on main street and the new strip malls built on the edge of town took shape, Mac did little to adapt to the changes, paying no attention to and doing nothing to improve the ARBITRON and other ratings numbers, the language with which one speaks to the ad agencies handling these kinds of accounts.  Instead, presented with the increasing difficulty of walking down main-street and moving a dozen or two of his weekly ‘promotions’ one would find him instead ransacking the station attic in search of more Big Band Music to put on the air. 

 Some of us tried, in whatever capacity we could.  I remember we used to have this DJ on in the afternoon.  She and I talked one day, after I had had a long and trying time of it in the field, about attracting an additional audience.  Since Mac was known to nap late every afternoon, we decided to play some more contemporary stuff.  It was during Mac’s afternoon nap time, that we introduced in the early 1990’s the Rolling Stones, Beatles, Animals, Fleetwood Mac, Elton John, and the Cars to WION and the community.  During one such broadcast I had returned to the station to find Dale had put on the Cars “Moving in Stereo”, the Cars had just struck the first few bars when our newsman bolted out of the newsroom yelling “Are you crazy…what are you doing? Do you realize that the pacemakers are popping in every rest home in this town?”

 Here, then, is yet another example of a son of modest wealth being put in charge.  I genuinely liked Mac, considered him a friend of mine. Mac was a great salesman, an articulate spokesman, a very creative man who reveled in writing and producing radio programming and advertising, a kid broadcasting from the sidelines to the very end.

 Mac woke up one afternoon to find us playing a selection from the WHO and put a swift end to the grand experiment.  A few years later, under the stresses of a failing business, he died of a heart attack at the age of 63.




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