Today, a bit of a special feature here at A Sound Day. Regular readers will by now recognize the name “Nostalgic Italian” from his interesting guest columns in our “A Turntable Talk” feature. Well, the Nostalgic Italian is Keith Allen, who might be a familiar name if you happen to have lived in Michigan in the past few decades…or have driven through it with the car radio on, as Keith was a popular figure in radio for some time there. Today we have an interview with him giving his thoughts on the world of radio, then and now. We thank him for taking the time to share his thoughts.
Can you give us a bit of an overview of how you came to work in radio?
To answer the first part of the question, I will “cheat” a bit and elaborate a little on the interview I did with Max from the PowerPop Blog. He asked me why I wanted to be a Radio DJ. The answer sort of works as an answer to your question: During my senior year of high school, I worked part time at a local boat marina in the Parts Department. In the fall and winter, once the boats were winterized, business was slow. So I would sit in there with the radio on and do inventory for 8 hours a day until the “winter layoff”.
I would listen to Jim McKenzie on Detroit’s Kiss-FM every day. He was a great example of what a DJ should be – the listener’s friend. Every day I listened, and I felt like he was talking to just me. He kept me company while I worked. The more I listened to him and other DJ’s on the station, the more I began to think, “Hey, I could do that! I’d enjoy doing that!” So I called the station and asked to speak to someone about getting into the business. The guy I spoke with told me that I could 1) go to broadcast school or 2) intern at the station for a while and see if I could break in that way. I chose Option #2.
I started my internship for the news guy. I took news stories off the wire and rewrote stories and helped compile a newscast. I then began hanging out with the morning show (Paul Christy and the Christy Critters). I enjoyed this so much more. This was where the real action was. I got to see them plan bits, edit phone calls, and more. Eventually, I started running Paul’s Saturday show, which was all on tape. He was recorded and I would play his clips out of songs or up the intros to songs. Before a commercial break, he would throw it to me from the tape and ask about the sport scores, lottery numbers, and weather (which could not be predicted the day they recorded the show). I did this for about six months and they let the overnight guy go. I was asked to fill in on the show temporarily. The temporary job ended up being full time. Paul believed I had some talent (although not much of it showed during my time there) and he gave me my first break in radio.
When I was a Music Director, my job entailed listening to all of the new music that came in to the station each day/week and deciding what songs were going to be considered as possible additions to the play list. I had a day set aside for record reps to call and give me their pitches for why their song deserved a spot on the station. If I was working at a Classic Rock or Oldies station, there really was no “new” music to consider, so the job consisted of scheduling music for every day.
Scheduling music is another responsibility of the Music Director. Without scheduled music, no one knows what to play. Back in the days before computers, you scheduled the tunes and the on air jocks played them from records, CDs or carts (like an 8 track tape). Today, all of this is done with computers. All the songs are digital and once the music log is merged with the system, it will pull up the songs (and all the in between stuff) and it will play automatically.
I was also an Assistant Program Director. This job assists the Program Director, who is the person who basically runs the station and all that plays on it. As the APD, I assisted the PD with scheduling all of the weekend on air personalities and lining up talent for offsite appearances.
I was a Program Director once. It was the ultimate goal for me. I was the guy who called the shots. Well, that’s the way it used to be. By the time I was the PD my station was owned by a big corporation and most of the big decisions were made FOR me by the higher ups and consultants. This was maybe 10 years ago, and I am sure that now the PD is doing his job, the APD and MD jobs and a whole lot more.
I also acted as the Production Director. This job I hated more than any. My job was to write and produce commercials. It meant dealing directly with sales people who never seemed to get copy in on time (despite deadlines) and promised their clients things that were impossible. It meant loading hundreds of network commercials into the system every week, which we often pawned off on part time personalities. The only thing I loved about this position was when I was able to produce promos or sweepers (the things that play between the songs) for the station. I loved writing them and producing them. It was always fun to hear your station “voice guy” reading your lines.
I was blessed with a career that began in 1988 in one of the top ten markets in the country. After leaving radio full time in 2013, I continued to do it part time until the Covid 19 pandemic shut most places down.
What was your musical taste as a young man going into the field? Was it difficult to work on stations which played other types of music?
I was really lucky to have been raised to appreciate a lot of music. I guess I was raised on Oldies music. My dad played Elvis, Roy Orbison, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Doo Wop, Motown, and Big Band Music. Being a band nerd, I listened to a lot of classical music, too. My dad played guitar in a wedding band for years, so this exposed me to some new music. I remember him playing “The Breakup Song” by the Greg Kihn Band on our stereo as he tried to get the intro just right.
Most of my friends listened to AC/DC, Def Leppard, Motley Crue, and Journey. I was listening to the older stuff. I recall buying a few “modern” singles on 45, but I would rather listen to the Beatles.
My first station, as I mentioned, was one that I listened to – an Oldies station. So most of the music I really liked playing. There were a couple songs that would show up on a playlist that I couldn’t stand (“Sunshine Superman” by Donovan immediately comes to mind) and when they played, I turned the speakers down.
I worked in a variety of formats (Oldies, Classic Rock, Urban Contemporary, Adult Contemporary, and Country). There were songs that I loved to play at each station. It was nice to be exposed to new music I may never have discovered had I not worked at some of these places. You could always turn the volume down on the studio monitors when you were playing something you didn’t care for. I would say that the speakers were down more at the Urban Contemporary station than any other.
You’ve said Wolfman Jack was your favorite national DJ. And so many other people’s…the Guess Who wrote a song about him for gawdsake. What was it about the Wolf that made him so appealing?
I guess I will answer that by saying why he was appealing to me. I always loved the way he always had something unique to say when he opened the microphone. Man, the stuff that flowed out of his mouth was like poetry. To this day, I wonder how much of that stuff was written down and how much was made up at the spur of the moment. It was brilliant. He painted pictures with his words. I wish that I could convey things the way he did!
I once read a quote from him that said, “I taught myself to tune in to another person’s wavelength, figure out what they were looking for, and try to project that thing back to them.” He did just that. There are countless clips of him all over YouTube. Listen to the way he reacts to listeners on the phone – he is a master. I heard him ask a female caller if she wanted to dance once. He was speaking in a soft voice and asked her if she wanted some “male companionship” and she told him yes. He then told her to stand up and hug her radio so they could dance together. It was just perfect.
Another quote from him: “I know it sounds corny, man, but I like to bring folks joy, and I like to have a good time. I know folks like to be with somebody who is having a good time. You sure as hell don’t want to be with somebody who’s having a bad day.” He always sounded like he was having fun when he was on the air. He was “playing” on the radio! He was having so much fun that you were having fun, too. I really think that is why he is so appealing to me – and the world.
You’ve said you got to interview many country artists & many like Reba McEntire were wonderful people. Did you get to interview any rock/pop stars too? And, you don’t have to name names if you don’t want but we’re any NOT wonderful to talk to?
(Keep reading to find some of the other greats Keith has talked to, why radio these days sounds so bland and why he chose to leave the field…)
Yes, when I worked at the Classic Rock station, I was able to do many interviews with artists who were promoting a book or an upcoming show. One of the easiest interviews was Eddie Money. He always opened the summer concert series at one of the local venues each year. I remember saying, “Hey, Eddie! Are you ready for (venue name)?” and he would talk for 10 minutes! You rarely had to prepare for an interview with him. He got everything you needed to know in those 10 minutes! LOL. He was awesome.
Alice Cooper was also a great interview. He is so smart and he has great stories to tell. He has a syndicated evening show and our station was adding it, so I got to talk with him. He was so kind and was open to answering anything, which many artists will not do. I also interviewed guys from the Doobie Brothers, The Scorpions, and Cheap Trick, but none were as memorable as Eddie or Alice.
The thing about doing a radio tour and calling stations is that you know the artists are answering the same questions from everyone. I always tried to find a way to get one question that they were rarely asked if I could. Some jocks do a 5 question “quick round” at the end of an interview which consists of questions like, “What flavor crayon would you be?” or something like that – just to break the monotony of things. Sometimes they are receptive to it and other times not so much.
And you got to interview Elmo from Sesame Street too…
Yes! That was totally unexpected and a blast at the same time. It’s funny because when they send you the press kit, they remind you that Elmo is “4 years old and very innocent.” They are very protective of the character and expect you to treat your interview accordingly.
Kevin Clash, the voice of Elmo, has a very deep voice and I was taken aback when I answered the phone. I remember some chit chat before we started and when he was ready, there was Elmo. It was actually a very cool interview.
I think you’re a family man, so that differs a bit but otherwise does Harry Chapin’s ‘WOLD’ resonate with you? A song about a DJ working city to city, station to station trying to make a living…
I’m very familiar with Chapin’s song. I guess I was very lucky in my radio career in that I was always in Michigan. Yes, I moved a couple times, but never from state to state like the guy in the song.
It is not uncommon for radio people to move that way, though. Over the years, I have worked with many people who travelled across the country to work at our station. I would imagine that this can play havoc on the lives of a family. One station I worked for moved a husband and wife morning team to the station from another state. They were there some time before they were eventually let go and they moved across the country again.
It can also ruin marriages. It is no secret that many radio DJs are divorced or single. Whether this is because of the instability of the business or something else, I do not know. Personally, my ex hated that I was in radio. She hated all the long hours and the many times I was let go because of a format or management change. She was fine when the job provided perks like concert tickets or trips, but that was it.
One of my radio mentors called radio a “mistress.” As someone who has done it, I believe that to be the truth.
You’ve talked about the changes in radio you’ve seen & lay a lot of blame on a 1996 telecommunications act law that allowed companies like Clear Channel to prosper. Can you explain how that harmed the state of radio?
So, President Bill Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996 which lifted the “cap” on radio station ownership. This led to many of the locally owned stations to be bought up by the big radio corporations like Cumulus, Clear Channel, and Citadel.
At one time, many stations were “mom and pop” stations. They were locally owned and they did not have to fall in line with the corporate mindset. They had freedom to play what they wanted. They were free to do what they felt was right to succeed in the market. Maybe this meant bringing in a private consultant to help with a talent workshop (working with DJ’s to make them better), or helping with music testing or music suggestions. The local owners made the call or they hired people who they knew would make their station stand out.
Many locally owned stations suffered because of this and they were more than happy to sell to one of the “big boys.” Now you have less local owners and more corporate control, so music programming (and everything else) was dictated by those corporate programmers. So music playlists became smaller – which meant you were hearing the same songs more often. The station also becomes stale and starts to sound like every other station in the country.
Corporate companies bought stations and now want to do what they can to make money without spending it. So they begin to go through and fire local talent. They replace them with some sort of syndicated show or by allowing a jock from their headquarters or another city to record generic shows to play on stations all over the country. Today, it is rare to find a station with more than one live LOCAL DJ. When you do, it is usually a locally owned station (which is a rarity in itself).
When I was interviewed by Max at the Power Pop blog, I told him that when I was in radio, the fear was that Sirius XM radio was going to be the death of terrestrial radio. In truth, terrestrial radio killed itself from the inside with automation and consolidation. That consolidation all stemmed from the Telecommunications Act of 1996.
What do you miss most about radio you listened to and perhaps worked in during the ’80s & ’90s?
The fun. Gosh, it used to be fun to listen to the radio. I understand that ’80’s radio wasn’t as fun as ’60’s Wolfman Jack radio, but it was still fun. The DJs were personalities. They engaged with listeners. There was more to radio than liner cards. (Liner cards, for those who don’t know, are 5×7 index card with promotional things on them that radio DJs had to read. Many of them were read word for word – every time they were read. In other words, BORING!) Contests were fun. The sweepers were fun. The station was fun.
A good buddy of mine, Johnny Molson (who now does amazing stuff with the Wizard of Ads) used to write some of the sweepers for our station. They were always written in such a way that they grabbed your attention and added to the fun of the station as they played in between songs.
We had an amazing voice guy named Stu Bowers. He had a very serious and powerful delivery, but he could also be silly. One sweeper we had said, “102.7 Kiss FM. Listening to us is better than sex! Well, maybe not but it did give me a chance to say ‘sex’ on the radio. Ooo, I said it again. Sex, sex, sex…” That stood out in between songs. It added to the silly fun that we were having while we were on the air.
That fun is a rare find in radio today. Some local stations are doing it, but it is hard to find.
I’ll include a treat for you here. We are lucky to have some real radio lovers in the Detroit area. Some of them have actual airchecks from some of the stations in the 1960’s. You can find some of them here:
Do you still listen to much radio, and if not, where do you get your music these days?
I do. I still have friends who work in the biz and I try to tune them in when I can. I also have a few friends in other states that I can listen to on the internet. When I am in the car, however, I am usually tuned into Sirius XM for music. I listen to the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s and 80’s stations. Other channels on there I have on presents include the Sinatra channel, Elvis channel, Beatles channel, a few classic rock channels, a classical channel and Radio Classics for old radio shows. When I am not listening to that, I am listening to my ancient iPod or books on tape.
I believe you work in a sleep apnea clinic these days? What led you down that path?
Yes, I work in Sleep Medicine now full time. We test people for Sleep Apnea and set them up with CPAP therapy. We also test for other sleep disorders.
I was let go from the morning show at the country station I was working at. I guess we knew that we wouldn’t last after our boss passed away and a new boss came in. I was fired on the day I returned to work after my son had his tonsils out. My boss at the time was in the adjoining studio recording what I thought was her show. Turns out she was recording breaks in my show. I was pulled out of the studio before the show was over and was told that they were “going in a different direction.”
I had been contemplating going back to school for some time. My mother had often asked me to go back to school because radio was so uncertain. After some discussion with my wife at the time, I decided that it was best to try to find a new career.
My thoughts were that the medical field was probably more stable than radio. “There are always sick people who need medical attention” was my thought. I decided to get into the ultrasound program. I had a year of prerequisites to do before the program. As I did those, I found that the program had a very long wait list and that it could be some time before I got in.
In talking to one of my college friends, I heard about the sleep program. The more she told me, the more I found it interesting. The best news was that I could start the program within a month.
That was nine years ago. One of the things I loved about radio was helping people. We raised money for kids with cancer. We did blood drives and raised money after 9/11. We hosted many charity events. I loved being able to help people in the community and beyond.
Today, I am helping people in another way. In some cases, I am saving lives. There is a lot of satisfaction knowing that I am helping people with their health.
I’ll ask myself one question you didn’t ask: Do I miss radio?
Yes. Every single day. I miss the creative part of it. I miss the listener interaction. I miss the conversations with record people about new music. I miss having fun on the air, but I am so grateful to have done it for so long.
Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to answer some questions for your site. Like many other radio folks, I love to talk about those days and look back at them with much happiness. Thanks again, Dave. If your readers have any questions, I’d be happy to “revisit to on air studio” and answer them.
Thanks again, Keith. Readers wanting even more background on his career and the inside-workings of radio should also take a look at the other interview he gave a year or so ago, with the Power Pop blog. See the link above.