Despite all the negativity these days about radio consolidation, I think it is important to recognize that there still are many passionate radio people left in the business. Indeed, consolidation has taken most of the dispassionate ones out. For the last 40 years, radio has had a hold on me unlike anything else.
Radio was the only thing that passed the time ever since I was a bedridden child gasping for air waiting for the world's slowest-acting asthma medicine to work. That was in the days before inhalers. Alongside my vaporizer was WINS, WMCA and WMGM.
Back then, radio seemed magical, mystical, almost from outer space. Throughout high school, when other kids were out playing sports or dating, I holed up in my room listening to or "playing radio." When I got my driver's license, I viewed a car as a radio with wheels. The first time I got behind the wheel of my parents' car, I was so preoccupied with the radio presets, I sideswiped a hydrant 20 feet from our driveway. At night, I'd drive to Secaucus, Rutherford and Lodi (N.J.) to gaze at the radio towers, my radio blasting while I stared into the dark sky at those blinking beacons for hours on end.
At Cornell, I pleaded for the 6-9 a.m. shift on Thursdays. My entire freshman year, I pulled all-nighters on Wednesdays so I wouldn't be late for my assuredly listener-free shift. During college years, I sold radio time at a "dollar a holler" station—an on-again-and-off-again classical station. I'll never forget the thrill of my first sale to Florians Antiques: 100 spots for $300. Out of ignorance, I asked for and received a $100 down payment. The station manager was so flabbergasted he endorsed the check to me on the spot. I was hooked on radio sales. I had to DJ 20 hours to make what that one sale netted me.
After graduation, I continued in the mini-station monastery in Upstate New York towns like Ithaca, Whitney Point and Binghamton, then back to Long Island and eventually New York City. My obsession had switched to sales, but it became a torment of sorts. When we went shopping, my wife had to scope out the stores ahead of time to see what stations were playing. If my competitors were on, we decided I wouldn't enter. I would become depressed whenever the phone-book–size Sunday papers arrived, full of businesses that were advertising but not buying spots from me.
Against the double-edged sword of consolidation and fragmentation, it has become harder and harder to learn and survive. But the overarching concept in radio remains: intense competition. Now 40 years later, whenever I'm back on Long Island, I still tune back to that first little station I worked at: WTHE, a 250-W AM daytimer at 1520 on the dial. It's now doing a Southern Gospel/Religious format, a sturdy little David against the giant New York media Goliaths. For reasons only a psychiatrist would understand, I'm comforted whenever I hear it's still there after all this time. Just like radio.