Sunday, 14 December 2014

The Hound, the passing of time, and the cruelty of change.

Talking bout my radio generations. 

When I was 23, the radio station I worked for went to number one in its market for the first and only time. It was my first radio gig. The PD was ecstatic, and we were pretty damn pleased with ourselves. 

I was an English import on a US rock station, WPHD-FM in Buffalo, in upstate New York. My presence, or rather my accent, was a gimmick, but it was a realistic ploy for a station which played tons of British Rock. WPHD really was the call sign; we targeted the, er, college market. Our sudden and surprising ratings success was due to boomers adopting the newer, cleaner stereo FM frequency; that, and the station's decision to, finally, lean heavily on rock hits in its programming. But, looking back, the listener switch to FM – a tech issue, and I'll come back to that - was the major factor. That same switch took place a decade later in the UK.

The Hound

From Kevin Golsby's Flickr stream          

Across town, leading his own soul station, WBLK, was the veteran broadcaster George 'Hound Dog' Lorenz. George Lorenz had been a 50s north-eastern US radio superstar at the leading local Top 40 operation, WKBW. He got to be syndicated worldwide for a spell. He was the real deal. There's photos of him onstage with Elvis, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, Sam Cooke, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee... He discovered Wilson Pickett, for chrissakes - or so the legend goes. 

I loved George's vintage schtick. Lots of reverb, slick patter, cool name-checks, killer sense of rhythm and delivery, pacing, vocal range: he had the lot. It was super-classy stuff. Yes, it was dated, but it was still brilliant. George was there when rock and roll started. If you dig around on the web, you can find a bunch of clips to listen to. There's links to sites at the bottom of this post to get you started.

The radio-friendly news stand

I used to go downtown to the one news stand which stocked out of town papers. The vendor had a unique market: all the out of town radio guys who revolved in and out of gigs, from town to town. The life of a dj was - is - precarious: I would regularly meet guys at our sister Top 40 station who lived in caravan parks, trailing around the country from station to station. Mostly, they were divorced; you can understand why. Harry Chapin wrote about those guys. 

My downtown news stand man loved radio. I'd go down on a Wednesday to pick up an expensive UK Sunday Times and catch up on the football. And we'd talk radio. He used to listen to Twenty Questions, relayed on the local CBC station, booming into Buffalo from across the border in Toronto.

So, it's springtime, and my station of misfits, longhairs and hippies was number one in town. The news stand man asked me how my station was doing. Of course I went off on one about how we'd killed the opposition, quadrupled our numbers, all that. I gave it large, as we now say. I'd expected an interested reaction, but all I got was a non-committal 'is that so?' as he handed me my paper and sent me on my way.

I didn't get back downtown for a few weeks. But, soon after, George Lorenz passed away. The industry marked the passing of a legend; thirty years and more at the coalface.. 

When next I went to get my paper, the conversation went like this:
'I see your friend died.'
'Who? What friend?'
'The hound! George Lorenz.'
'I know! But I never met him. Wish I had, I loved his show.'
'Ah. Cos he was standing right behind you when you were saying how great your station was.' 

Oh, crap

I felt about two inches tall.

The cruelty of change

Tech changes everything in media. It always has. That brutal change was over 40 years ago. It did for a lot of old school US stations. Lots of stations folded, sold up, or flipped to cheaper formats like talk, once FM got to be the big deal. Later, much later, came networking and station clusters.  

I'm lucky – I'm not not a George: I don't own a station where time has moved on; I'm not suffering because massive changes have overwhelmed my industry and my business. The pace of change has accelerated since those days; it's given me new tools which I rather enjoy. But now, it's even more brutal, and it still doesn't take any prisoners. And, always, the changes come garlanded with brash new generation spokesmen who are happy to lay down the law to you and me about the new rules - rules which sad old fossils like us can hardly be expected to understand. 

I can guess how George Lorenz must have felt, listening to some Brit hippy kid, still wet behind the ears. A kid, moreover, who was banging on about his industry: Rock and Roll radio, the one he'd spent his whole life in, the one he had helped create

It really wasn't WPHD's brilliance that hit George's operation hard. Truth be told, we were barely competent; we had some classic stoner jocks who would put on the longest tracks they could find, because they were lazy bastards. We just got lucky when we got our five minutes in the sun; it could have been anybody. And the station lost its market-busting share as soon as savvier operators cottoned on to what we had been doing. No, the damage was inflicted by two big changes: demographics and technology. New audiences, new generations, and new methods of delivery. 

Hey, where did my audience go?

That change is still going on now. FM is old hat. New music doesn't reach us on the radio so much, if at all, and each new generation grabs the new tech and sweeps effortlessly forward with it. When radio was able to embrace the new tech, that tech served it well. But now? 

Tech has evolved to fit what management wants – radio now has tools like like hyper-speedy research systems to let them get closer to their audiences. I'm not sure they're being used right, but I'm not pushing those buttons. 

And, just as it did over 40 years ago, tech has also taken an entire generation of listeners and shifted its perspective. That is a big, big problem for radio. If people grow up without getting into the habit of listening to the radio, what can radio to to stem this flow? I'd love to hear some ideas.

Young listeners....?

Here's an example. I'm working with some very smart young people on a string of radio projects: scripting, editing, voicing, music selection to meet editorial priorities, debates, interview techniques, talking to time, reaching new audiences. These are all skills that could be useful in a number of fields besides radio. We're having fun, and there is some talent to work on. 

But none of those smart young people listen to the radio – unless they're in a car with their parents. Then, it's Radio 2 or Radio 4. 

Why? Because they have their own things; they don't need old stuff. My generation had FM stereo; these kids have smartphones, gaming and torrent sites. It's the same process that ultimately took audiences away from George; just different gewgaws and baubles to entice fickle customers. Easier access, right for the new breed, a universe away from the old. 

Things get old fast at Radio, especially when owners panic over shifting markets. Consider the speed with which formats change. And consider, too, how BBC Radio 1 switches and ditches, faster and faster, in an attempt to hold on to its increasingly vaporous audience. 

Reasons to be cheerful

The cruelty of change won't stop hitting, of course. It's already changed today's radio far more than ever it did George's. I'd love to think Radio could survive and prosper, and I actually think it will. After all, one of the strongest human instincts is to communicate, person to person. Radio can meet that need better than almost any other medium. 

Well, it can, when it is allowed to. I look forward to changes in technology which will enhance communication, not drown it in a welter of chatter. That may well happen, surprisingly, with podcasts and mould-breaking new independent works which are at last getting some traction. 

In the meantime, here's an affectionate and rueful tip of the hat to George Lorenz. I loved the pictures he painted, and it was a privilege to have been able to listen to him. 

I just wish that damn news stand man had introduced me... 

George Hound Dog Lorenz tribute site. Packed with audio clips.
Forgotten Buffalo's George Lorenz section: more clips and YouTube videos

See further in memoriam posts on Radio To Go


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Linds Wright said...

Really interesting read Robin. I feel for you - not meeting George he was right behind you. You have made some (sadly) accurate points regarding Radio. My teenage sons never listen to the Radio; which is criminal in my mind. I just hope that as you rightly say, Radio is such a powerful form of communication, it will survive this technological 'hiatus'. Who knows? I think the sterility of so many Stations may backfire; and the 'suits' in power will need to seduce new audiences once again.

Kenny Lee said...

So when I was a kid growing up in Pittsburgh I listened to two radio stations. One was KQV, owned by the American Broadcasting companies. It was a slick and polished Top 40. The other station was WEEP, a more edgy, daytimer Top 40. I preferred WEEP. It was just so much cooler than KQV. And the station name offered great shtick. The time tone was the Weep Beep. The weekly chart was the Weep Sheet. At sundown sign off the verbiage was, “and until tomorrow morning you won’t hear a peep… out of WEEP.

I loved WEEP. Yes I would listen to KQV at night, but when WEEP was on I was there. One day I heard a new jock on WEEP, but something wasn’t quite right. Even on my cheap transistor radio I could tell the technical quality of his voice was off. I knew I was listening to a tape from someone not actually at the station. Oh he said the call letters and talked about Pittsburgh and the music, but he didn’t do the weather forecasts and never punched the Weep Beep to give the time. But his presentation was unique and his edginess fit in perfectly with the station. The disc jockey was George “Hound Dog” Lorenz. Small world, huh?

I just about fell out of my chair when I read your story! I long ago forgot about George Lorenz, so thank you for “introducing” me to the man with the ethereal voice and curious avoidance of station formatics. I was one in the audience when George did syndication. Incidentally WEEP eventually dropped Top 40. They just couldn’t compete against KQV. The adopted a country format in 1965 and did quite well with it. Their FM station, now with different call letters, still plays country music. In 1967 I got my first radio gig at WEEP.

Anonymous said...

I used to listen to The Hound faithfully around 1960 when he aired nightly on WKBW (I think) in Buffalo. Still have some of the shows on some reel-to-reel tape somewhere. Pretty good station strength as I was in college in Amherst MA at the time.
My other shot of blues was from the infamous, but hardly remembered Dr. Jazzmo out of XERF in Del Rio, Texas. What an experience that was!