Monday, December 17, 2007

My Programming Masters Degree

Very early in my career I was a jock at “AOR” station WBAB on Long Island. Back in the very early 80’s way before Selector and at the tail end of the “prog rock” era we had a very simple programming system—4 categories of currents rotated with index cards and everything else was “on the back wall” with songs rotated by tracking sheets taped to the album jacket. Power currents rotated on a 6(!) hour rotation and non-currents were in 2 categories—blue dots-3 day rotation and no dots-five day rotation. We also had this funky “oops” category which was a one time per show event that carried a big yellow caution flag with it. We didn’t play every song on every album, but it is safe to say we played lots of songs. I don’t know the count but on the low side 1500 titles and on the high side it might have been 3000 titles.

This system sounds pretty loosey-goosey by today’s standards but back at that time it worked and worked very well. PD Bob Buchmann (now PD at Q104.3 NYC) was the vision behind the station—a guy I learned a lot from. We were competing against a few big stations such as WNEW-FM, WPLJ, WLIR, and others. Each station, including WBAB had its own unique sound. WNEW-FM had the rock image and the famous jocks, WPLJ played the rock hits and was hated by the progressives, WLIR was long Islands own progressive station. WPLJ began the decade as the Long Island rock ratings leader, followed by LIR and then NEW if I remember correctly. In 1980 WBAB was barely on the radar—that would quickly change!

Every jock on the station would program their own show—on the fly. Looking back, it was quite exciting. Hmmm, I’m playing Zep’s Black Dog, what would sound good after this. We had to worry about balance, flow, tempo, type, style, hit, album cut, etc all by ourselves. What an education! You might be thinking, there had to be some rules, a clock, something? Not really. It was our responsibility to make the station sound great and the only rule was we had to play a “blue dot” every other song and we had to keep a music log where we wrote down every song we played. In later years, more dot codes were added as the world began to change but this system remained until long after I left in 1985.

What about accountability? We had weekly jock meetings in which we had to review one of our shows in front of the entire programming staff. Everyone had a chance to comment. If you were doing a show on WBAB, not only did you have to know music and have a passion for it, but you had to develop a knack for programming it.

Can you imagine trying this today? Honestly, no. Sure, there are some who have the passion and self control to keep the listener in mind versus a self-indulgent escapade (one of the reasons jock self-programming went away in the first place). Can you imagine a GM signing off on this and having to explain it? Can you imagine a programmer having enough time to really pay attention to what is on the air? I could go on—but you get the point.

I’m not suggesting this is a system that needs to return, but I am thinking out loud how we, jocks and programmers alike, couldn’t avoid the intense interactivity with our radio station, the music it played and everything it did.

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