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
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