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…) Continue reading “August 9 – Radio Then & Now From The Inside”