Winners and Losers
By Bob Burnham

Life is full of winners and losers.   Most of us have encountered both types.  In a tough and competitive business like broadcasting, if you are a “Loser” you will never “make it” in anything.  Period.  End of discussion.   You can count on one thing: Failure. 

An old friend recently commented (somewhat proudly) that he is a pessimist and a cynic: Everything is always bad, “things” will never get better and he is “doomed” to work a boring job at a big box retailer with horrible managers for “the rest of his days.”

That is a horrible attitude!!!  

Merely complaining about how bad the economy is, how much you hate the President or Democrats or the FCC, or the job you work – without developing a strategy or suggesting a remedy for the situation is pointless.  It is also a waste of everyone’s time that hears the complaint, but more importantly, it is A Waste of a Life! 

Maybe there are even co-workers who share your grief of a bad job.  If they do nothing but complain without doing something about it, they are also Losers themselves.  

Life is whatever you make it. Don’t make up lame excuses for why one CAN’T make a change to correct a situation -- no matter how difficult or daunting – or seemingly NEARLY impossible.   Nothing you are truly dedicated to accomplishing is impossible.  

Accept the fact that big changes take work – lots of it – patience AND determination.  

Anyone who almost loses their home (or perhaps has lost their home), their job, their lifestyle, their personal relationships CAN ALSO, recover, if they make up their mind to do it!

Pick a field of work that you are going to dedicate every cell of your body to succeeding in.  Maybe there will be some distractions that will slow you down, but don’t get too sidetracked!    You may hear reasons why maybe what you want is not a good career choice, but if that’s what you really and truly want, don’t listen to them.

Tell you best friends what you want to do.  If they are truly your friends, they will be behind you.  Sometimes a little nudge is what you need to stay on top of it, as it gives you a feeling of accountability to people you trust.   

A large part of it, however, has to come from within. 

As you start “making it”, don’t forget those friends – including the new ones who may have taught you a thing or two along the way.  

If you start out saying “I don’t have any friends,” an Attitude Adjustment will soon win you some new friends!  Don’t be whiner.  Don’t be a Loser.

People don’t like being associated with others who are Losers or at least display the signs of being Losers.

The process of growing older actually brings some amazing wisdom with it. One of aspects of wisdom comes from being associated with optimists rather than pessimists. This will also improve your chance of success in whatever you do.  

Almost everyone I’ve worked with in radio and at Specs Howard, past and present, falls exclusively in the “Winners” club. 

The world (and our business) is not a perfect place.  It never will be, but it’s not impossible to prosper, succeed and reach all your lifetime goals in most cases.  You can also have fun in the process, with the Right Attitude.

Starting from scratch, be ready for an incredible amount of work, and seemingly insurmountable challenges to at least reach a plateau. You may have to “re-invent” yourself.  I have several times.  If you think it’s too hard, then try working a fast food job for a while – which actually is a good exercise, and I have done it!  Sometimes to pay bills you have to do what you have to do, and there’s no shame in doing that either.  Just don’t forget that weekend job, or that internship where you’re doing what you REALLY want to do!  

“Membership” in the ‘Winners’ club is always open.  We have a nothing but fun and lead long, rewarding and prosperous lives.

‘Losers’ lead unhappy lives, are more prone to disease, and unfortunately (and sadly), may die young.  

Which club are you in?

-Bob Burnham

On Being a Broadcast Engineer
By Bob Burnham

What leads a semi-normal everyday kid into a lifetime of techie work?

Over the years, I have realized there are actually people who would love to do what I do for a living. People have actually said that to me. The reality is there is actually no way to totally define and understand WHAT I do by people outside the industry. Fact is, it has been a very long and twisty path that led to now. I didn’t take the traditional approach, nor do I take the traditional approach to anything. But that’s me. It might not be you.

That combined with the fact that in 2010, there simply IS no easy or overnight path into Broadcast Engineering unless your family owns a radio station!

The “traditional approach”, however, CAN be a good starter path that can work well to getting on the road. It may include getting some sort of technical degree or formal training. There is no substitute, however, for hands-on experience. If someone won’t give you that hands-on experience, then you have to create your own. I did both. The only path to becoming a GOOD Broadcast Engineer is to gain that experience, and accept the fact you will learn something new every day, will find yourself specializing in certain areas, but you will never learn everything.

Also, be advised there are bigger salaries and greater job security in other technical fields. But if one has embraced the industry as a whole, then perhaps Broadcast Engineering is where you want to be. If you’re in it strictly for money, it might NOT be what you want.

In my case, I went totally overboard as far as practical experience.

I realized, for example, when I was about 12 years old, that a $15 Lafayette Radio battery-powered mixer could actually be turned into a serviceable broadcast console if enough extra switches and gadgets were added.

So what did I do? I ripped the guts out of a perfectly good audio mixer, stuck them into a bigger “box,” with extra buzzers, whistles and even a meter. I also realized that if I ripped the guts out of ANOTHER mixer and added some stereo pots, I could have a stereo console. Simple, right? Well, I was just a kid who had to find out for real. And when the thing actually worked, I was excited!

Those mixers were only 1-transister circuits that ran on a single 9-volt battery. Soon enough, I was duplicating the circuit with better quality components. As a teenager, I ended up building my own audio console from scratch that evolved. Soon, as decent quality op amps become available, I would put more advanced home-brew electronics into my consoles.

Next, I bought Lafayette’s tube type phono oscillator which put a few milliwatts on the AM band. Eventually I got bored with that, but not before a friend and I would spend hours making DJ tapes, and ultimately taking over the student radio station during my senior year of high school.

After those years, in my life, everything became bigger, more powerful and in some cases, more dangerous, but these were all things that led to what I do now…natural curiousity was a big part of it.

Those interests were concurrent to my interests in related areas. “Old-time” radio programming was another area that I stumbled into by accident, hearing old shows being rebroadcast on an area station. This happened in a 2-story “shack” built in my parents backyard. “The Shack” (no relation to today’s Radio Shack stores) was built from surplus construction materials. It had actual shingles, a slanted roof, carpeted interior, intercoms and a radio and speakers built into the walls, all by me!

I had an “air conditioner” that consisted of a discarded phonograph motor with a hand-carved wooden fan blade. A block of ice sat behind the fan. It wasn’t very efficient!

The radio was a junked chassis that someone had thrown out (again tube type).  The set was mounted on a home-made panel centrally mounted on the second “floor” of the shack. A carpeted ladder led to a trap door to the second floor.

For the receiver, once I replaced some capacitors, and added fresh tubes I ended up with a high quality receiver that was my connection to the outside world. The programming on the AM band fascinated me back then, and I wanted to be a part of it and would be soon enough. “The Shack” along with countless projects since then would be a key source of my early education.

Thinking back on the programming being aired...
There were no computers for home use at the time, but the Detroit area was rich with some of the best broadcast talent in the prime of their careers. The original WCAR-AM (which is now WDFN the Fan) featured guys like David L. Prince, H.B. Phillips and Warren Pierce. WXYZ-AM by then featured Dick Purtan mornings, then Johnny Randall (and later Tom Bigby), Joe Sasso, Eddie Rogers and Dave Lockhart. WJR was another story altogether.

But the point was I heard them all through trashed equipment that I was able to bring back to life in my own self-created environment.

That was the kind of kid I was, sometimes with a short attention span, but what ever interest grabbed my attention I stuck with it for a very long time.

My first job in radio where I actually got paid was WBRB-AM in Mt. Clemens, Michigan. Leigh Feldsteen (Gilda Radner’s uncle) was the General Manager, and I was his mid-day air talent Monday through Friday. I was the youngest full time staff member, and we played all sorts of Wayne Newton, Frank Sinatra and similar records. I would read the obituaries everyday sponsored by a funeral home, and ladies in their 80s would call me for requests.

I had to do a lot of remotes from a beat up remote trailer where the air conditioning rarely worked and the equipment was barely functional, however, sport coats and ties were required!  One day out of frustration, I found myself re-wiring the trailer. Noticing that, the GM offered me the position of Chief Engineer! Bob Seitz was the regular Chief Engineer at the time, a great guy, but he was well past retirement years.

But I didn't stick around...
Instead, I left WBRB eventually for a gig at Ann Arbor’s WAAM. It was early 1979. There, I would be immediately put to work assisting their Chief Engineer installing new audio consoles as wellas doing all the many remote set-ups with "Fat Bob" Taylor.  Taylor would become a good friend. 

In the studios, we were the only station in town at the time with slide pots! I would be a full time on-air dude there too, as well as their Production Director. I would have been happy to have worked there indefinitely, but I got too expensive and the industry was changing.

By the end of the 1980s, it was my ability to fix stuff, and install anything under sometimes adverse conditions that would allow me to survive at all in the broadcast industry.

I was in the right place at the right time, and eventually knew all the right people.

There are a lot of people who gave me the incentive or motivation to continue. You really need those kind of people and to feel accountable to someone other than yourself.
Ultimately, you have to WANT to be the best you can be.

For someone outside of the industry, that’s why a place like Specs Howard is so important. The school really has a mixture of the best people in all departments that collectively have created success for both the school and its students under adverse conditions.

You don’t have to be flipping burgers or making minimum wage at a retail store if that’s not what you want. But you do have to do whatever you need to do to create your world, and it doesn’t come overnight. It might not be exactly what you expected, either.

I never had aspirations of being a Broadcast Engineer. It was a means to an end. I would have been happy being that 6-10 nighttime guy on the radio on the AM band. This was both a creative outlet that had a set of responsibilities that went with it that I was very comfortable with. But change is part of the game, and whether even I will always “do what I do” now is unknown. It’s not a perfect world either…but I have to admit it’s a pretty cool one.

If you want a part of it, get out there and start tearing apart equipment and re-building it into something different….or taking what is so obviously someone else’s trash and turning it into serviceable gear. That’s what I did.

-Bob Burnham
Sunday, 28 March 2010

By Bob Burnham

As most of you know, as Specs Howard’s Engineer for the past eleven years, I’ve worked for and with some of the coolest guys in the business. Some of them are legends – perhaps more so now than ever.

If you were following local Detroit radio in recent years, however, you would’ve seen many other long-time legends actually departing the air, some of their own choosing, some not.

This seems like it should be a George Carlin list of the “seven Detroit talents you’d never want to see LEAVE the air..” except there’s more than seven people on my list:

Ernie Harwell, WRIF’s Arthur Penhallow, WOMC’s Tom Ryan, then Ted “the Bear” Richards (The CKLW legend was back in town for a brief stint on WOMC), Deminski and Doyle (not once but twice) and their WCSX predecessors, Jim Johnson and Lynne Woodison…. to name the more famous of the recent Detroit radio departures.

One guy actually came back to rejoin his WRIF partner and stayed: Drew Lane.
Thank you, Drew, and thank you Greater Media. Drew and Mike ROCK at the ‘RIF!

But another guy just retired after 45 years:  Dick Purtan.

Someone wrote: “I don’t get the Purtan love – some old guy telling 30-year-old jokes on the radio…”

It’s all about change. We don’t like it very much. If you grew up with someone for a very long time, it feels like a friend has been lost, though Purtan insists his listeners haven’t “lost” him. His new website is alive and well at

Mr. Purtan and the others are irreplaceable one-of-a-kind talents that offered something to the public that was distinctively different, entertaining yet completely down-to-earth.

The human element is a priceless commodity on the radio.

They are real people with real lives that listeners eventually related to on a very personal level. This equals great radio. Whether you personally like a particular host or not if they hold down an air shift longer than a few months, enough of the public likes what they are doing, and that’s all that really matters.

OK, maybe Dick told a corny joke every so often, but who hasn’t!?? Even if you groaned or cringed, you’d still tune in the next day because this guy on the radio was YOUR pal.

For some reason, at the moment, the radio industry thinks it should play more music. Radio thinks it should try to compete with all other forms of entertainment where people can get the same thing – music – specifically tailored to their own interest – generally for free and without commercial interruption.

There are consultants mixed with portable electronic devices that monitor peoples listening habits that are supposed to give the definitive word as to what the public is doing or wants.

Unfortunately, they overlook the fact that we now have the ability to plug an Ipod into a car radio and Ipod “docks” can double as morning alarm clock “radios.” One can wake up to a library of thousands of personal favorite tunes rather than morning shows than run 6-10 minute commercial blocks and maybe the same few songs you just heard yesterday from a small, heavily researched list.

There has to be a reason to compel anyone to listen to any radio programming. Playing the same songs every other day is not a compelling reason to listen nor are promos constantly screaming at us how great their format is supposed to be. That actually becomes an annoyance and a tune-out factor.

“Oh… we have to be told why we must ‘LIKE’ this programming?” Whether they’re playing music we grew up with or not, the soundtrack of our lives was actually thousands of songs…and not a few hundred, or a few dozen.

I would like to think lowering the content quality was one of the factors that encouraged Dick Purtan to retire when he did, rather than try to stretch his career to the full 50 years.

Further, the commercials are of course, the lifeblood of commercial radio and television, but the way they are presented – in blocks, rather than being made a part of the program itself – is another tune-out factor.

When ever a talent says “I’ll be back after these words,” they are inviting the listeners to GO AWAY. The air talent isn’t actually going anywhere, but he is essentially apologizing to the listeners for interrupting the flow.

It’s like talent saying: “If you wanna waste your time, listen to this crap our Production Director cut for us the other day – go check on traffic on another station if ya want – as for me, I’m gonna go get a snack and use the restroom.”

I would rather hear any talent rapping about a product, somewhat extemporaneously, rather than a pre-canned, over-produced spot, sandwiched between ten others.

Of course, the people who were programming geniuses when I was on the air and taught me the mindset of what makes great radio are no longer part of the industry for the most part. They got too expensive, then got old and simply didn’t want the hassle.

I’ll be the first to admit the industry changed and simply couldn’t afford people like that. 

Younger personnel who came along were answerable only to their Market Manager (most Market Managers came from strictly a sales background), corporate management, consultants, and bean-counters whose mindset was to operate as efficiently as possible.

Those who are in management with programming backgrounds have limited power as to what they can do with their stations. There’s also too much at risk with what stations net values are (and subsequent debts the owners are attempting to service).

Operating efficiently is good business practice, but radio is different. It’s an entertainment business, and not totally a mathematical formula. Taking the big picture into consideration, does it yield maximum listenership, a productive staff, and ultimately preserve a listener base (and revenue) for the long haul? Perhaps not any more.

I don’t claim to know everything there is to know, but pouring a lifetime into preserving the past, present and future of broadcasting I have more than a little common sense. It would be a plus if there were some assurances that there will even be an industry in the decades to come.

Or maybe the future is all-internet-radio all-the-time. That might not be so bad, actually!

Best wishes to Dick Purtan and family, and to Purtan’s People. Thanks for the laughs and memories. I DO “get it.”

-Bob Burnham