the spiel

It occurs to me there are some things I should just write down.

I have given the following speech hundreds of times. Whenever anyone comes in to do “The Random Show” on WDBX, they get to listen to the Spiel, or as I like to call it, “Everything I learned in radio in twenty years and it takes ten minutes to tell you.” These are some concepts to keep in mind as one approaches the task of talking on the radio, most likely for the very first time. And it goes like this:

Radio is a weird way to communicate. It is not natural and can mess with your brain on several levels. Here’s how those levels work.

When I talk to you, I can SEE you and I know that you hear me because I get feedback from you, like nodding your head or some such thing. Your brain craves this feedback, it has to know if you say something, somebody heard it. Even if you’re talking to someone you can’t see, like when you’re on the phone telling them some long winded story, you still have to get that “uh-huh, uh-huh” every now and then or you’ll go, “……hello?……are you there?………”. And that’s the kind of thing that can happen to you when you do radio, because there is nothing in the experience of being in there that’s going to give you any feedback. You are, essentially in a padded room, talking to yourself. And that’s a little weird.

So what I ask people to do is, when you’re on the air, and especially when you’re talking on the air, try to save a brain cell in the back of your head and keep the image of someone you know in mind. Some friend of yours. Maybe picture that person sitting in their chair listening to you on the radio. Or maybe you see them in their car driving around listening to you. So point number one is, visualize your audience. Always keep the image in your mind of what it looks like to listen to the radio.

The next thing to remember is that probably 95 percent of everyone who is listening is ALONE when they’re listening. Most radio listening happens when people are either in their car driving somewhere, or at their office in their little cubicle working, or at their house sweeping up the kitchen. People do not gather in groups to listen to the radio.

So you always want to address yourself as though you’re speaking to just one person. You never want to go on the air and say, “Hello everybody out there in radio land, how are all of you doing today?” You never want to say it that way. You want to say, “How are YOU doing, thank YOU for listening, if there’s something YOU want to hear, give me a call”. That lets each person that hears you feel as if you’re talking just to them. And you are. Radio is truly a one-on-one communication medium, it’s just replicated a thousand times (or more we hope). So that’s point number two, always speak as though you’re speaking to just one person, because that is actually what you’re doing. It’s you in that little room and that dude driving around in his car.

The rest of what I have to say is a little more structure oriented. This is the more nuts-and-boltsy part of The Spiel, but I happen to think it’s the most important part and it goes like this:

When you talk on the air, in the business it’s known as “the Rap”. You always want to think about the Rap as containing a number of “elements”, or as we like to refer to them, “the elements of a rap”. The elements of a rap are the different concepts you’re going to cover this time when you talk on the air. Here’s how this works.

The first element of the rap is usually whatever you’re going to say about the music you’ve just played. In the business this is called “the BACK RAP”. And you always want to announce the songs in the reverse order of how they’ve been played. The first song you want to mention is the one we JUST heard, and move backward from there. The reason to do it that way is that is the easiest way for the listener to figure out what song you played three songs ago. So whatever you want to say about the music is just one element of your rap.

The second element of the rap, and one that should be included in every rap, is something to identify the radio station. It’s important to mention WDBX at least once in every rap. Now you can make that long and complicated if you want, “Hi, this is (me) on WDBX Carbondale, Community Radio for Southern Illinois, 91.1fm”, or it can be as simple as “That was Bob Dylan, on DBX”. Just get those call letters in there. We don’t have cute little jingles to tell people what station they’re listening to, we have to tell them. So the second element is something about THE STATION.

A third element of the rap is what I would call OTHER. Other could include such things as a Public Service Announcement (“There’s a blood drive going on down at the church”), or the weather, or let’s say you just went to see some cool new movie you want to tell us about, or some witty political commentary. It’s not THE MUSIC, it’s not THE STATION, it’s OTHER. Many times you won’t even have an OTHER.

A fourth element of the rap are those occasions when we have to play the underwriting announcements, so you might have to do one of those, “We’ll be right back after these messages” kind of thing. The critical thing to remember when talking about the underwriting announcements is that they are NOT, and never should be called, “commercials” or “advertisements”. We are a non-commercial station. Please refer to them as “messages”, “announcements”, “words” or “sponsors”. Anything but “commercials” or “advertisements”. One other thing I never want to hear anyone say when playing the announcements is “now we’re going to pay the bills”. At this station, the LISTENERS help pay the bills, not just these ANNOUNCEMENTS.

And the fifth element of the rap is the INTRODUCTION to the next song.

Five elements. The back rap, the station, other, announcements and introduction. A rap should never have more than five elements. That is to say, one OTHER (if you have one) per rap. If you read the weather, don’t give us the movie review. If you read a PSA, don’t give us the witty commentary. Save it for another rap.

So here’s how to put your brain around this concept of elements of a rap. In that last 30 to 60 seconds before you’re going to talk on the air, you want to be saying to yourself, “OK, which elements are going to be in this rap and in what order will they flow. First I’m gonna talk about the music, then I’m going to mention the station, then we’re gonna go to those messages, etc.”. If you want to make little notes for yourself fine, but at least IN YOUR OWN MIND, have a little outline of what you want to say before you say it.

The reason it’s important to do this is because if you don’t do it, in combination with the fact that you don’t get any feedback from the audience, one of two things can happen to you. The first one (which doesn’t happen very often) is you’ll freeze up. “That was David Bowie on DBX and……………agggggh!” Or more likely, YOU WON’T SHUT UP! You’ll start talking about one thing and then you’ll remember something else and start talking about that and pretty soon you’ve been yakking for five minutes and you never told us about that song three songs ago and all the listeners are yelling at their radios, “SHUT UP AND PLAY THE MUSIC!” So by making a little outline for yourself, at least in your own mind, you’ll say what you want to say, not say what you don’t want to say and GET BACK TO THE MUSIC, which is the reason most folks are listening in the first place.

So in summary, the three things you want to remember are, one: VISUALIZE YOUR AUDIENCE. Always keep the image in your mind of what it looks like to listen to the radio. And maybe sometimes you see that guy in his car yelling, “SHUT UP AND PLAY THE MUSIC!” Two: always speak as if you’re speaking to one person. RADIO IS A ONE-ON-ONE COMMUNICATION MEDIUM. And three: break down what you’re going to say into its ELEMENTS, organize them and move through.

And if you can master those three things, that’s radio.



15 Years Ago Today

Early in December 1995 I was unemployed, after having been laid off at WCIL-FM.  I was weeks from leaving southern Illinois and going who-knows-where, when I spotted a help-wanted ad in the Daily Egyptian that said, “Radio Station Manager Needed.”  Well, what’s this? I thought to myself.   I had 10 years of professional broadcast experience and a couple of years of management experience under my belt.  I called the number and made an appointment for an interview.

When the day came for my interview my car wasn’t working.  I live south of Murphysboro and so I rode my bicycle the 10 miles to Carbondale and made it just in time.  I learned about this community radio station to be started in town and the plans for it.  All of a sudden, during the interview, my leg began to cramp up due to the exertion of the bike ride.  I was in excruciating pain but did my best to hide it and stretch my leg out under the table.  Somehow I managed to get through without revealing my agony.

A week later I was offered the job.  I got a tour of the facility, which only consisted of the transmitter, one small mixing board and a couple of CD players.  There was as yet no furniture in the building.  For the next few weeks I would come in most every day around 4pm and play music over the air for a couple of hours, then shut down and go home.  No one knew we were there yet.  On February 6, 1996 we held our first public meetings at Longbranch Coffeehouse inviting anyone interested in joining up to attend.  Over 100 folks came to the two meetings held that day.  The mayor was there as well as other city officials, myself and our founders.  Speeches were given and then a tour of the station was held.  Of the 100 people at the meeting, about 40 began training sessions with me and in about two weeks WDBX signed on the air with our first volunteer staff.  At the start, the station was on the air from 4-10pm daily.

The first DJ to sign on was Bob Dunn, a delightful elderly gentleman from Harrisburg, over an hour’s drive away.  You couldn’t even pick up WDBX in Harrisburg, but this man would commute each week to play music from his extensive collection of bluegrass.  Bob did his show, “Nuttin’ But Bluegrass” until April of 2006.  He passed away that June.

Another of the original DJs was Tom Connelley, another bluegrass aficionado.  Tom already had a show on WSIU and was worried he’d get fired there if it became known he was also on WDBX.  So for his show, “Back To Bluegrass” he created the persona of “Foghorn”.  He’d use a “southern-hick” drawl which he’d frequently lose when he wasn’t concentrating on it and along with his buddy Brian Kennedy (a.k.a. Johnny Mango) created one of the most popular shows in WDBX history.  It’s the only show that has aired without interruption in our nearly 15 years of operation.

Over 600 others have followed in their footsteps.  And it all started 15 years ago today.


Bob Dunn at the 2005 Ball