The alarm clock went off at 4AM Wednesday morning, three hours before I normally get up and about the same amount of time after I went to bed last night after finishing the post below. My eyes didn’t want to open, but I forced myself out of bed; I had a big day ahead of me.
I had the privilege of sitting in on the morning show at STAR 102.1 with Marc & Kim and Frank. I see Frank regularly at the Einstein Simplified show, and the bits that he’d drop about the morning show aroused my curiosity, so I wanted to know more about how it was put together, what kind of people it took to work such a strange schedule, and most importantly:
To find the answer to this burning question, I asked Frank if I could come in and watch the show and interview the three of them. He checked with his partners and we set the date for Wednesday morning.
So there I was, in the car at 4:30AM, headed out for West Knoxville to watch the morning show. I pulled up to the studio shortly after 5AM and met with Kim and we went in to the studio, where I got to meet Marc. One of the first things I noticed was that despite all appearances, Marc is neither a tool, nor an ogre; he just plays one on the radio. He very graciously showed me in to the studio even though he had no idea who I was, gave me a place to set up, even gave me his chair, and told me to make myself comfortable.
The studio was different from what I expected. The lighting was kept fairly low, as you can see from the pictures, and it wasn’t the cluttered space you normally see on television shows. Instead of racks of records everywhere, and posters of bands, it was very clean and simple. In fact, it looked more high tech than the control rooms for the nuclear reactors I used to run in the Navy. There’s a central table with three stations, and another table covered in tape cartridges, and that’s it. Marc’s station comes with 3 flat screen monitors on swivel arms, and the main control board, which is all digital and state of the art. Below the desk, he has several keyboards to control the different computers that he uses to run the show.
Marc at his station
Kim also has a monitor, one that backs up the main control on Marc’s station, so if something goes wrong, Kim can take over. I sat, stood actually, in the guest station, where there was one microphone, a headphone jack, and no buttons for me to mess with, which was a good thing, since I tend to mess with buttons whenever possible.
Kim at her station
About three minutes before the show began, Frank stuck his head in the door, announced his presence, and quickly exited. That’s when I found out that Frank works in a separate studio. I knew he’d have to be remotely located so he could handle the phones without all the noise going out over the radio, but I figured he’d be in a little booth attached to the studio. But nope, they have Frank across the hall, out of sight, and out of touch.
Poor Frank, all by himself
But the creative folks of the morning show worked around that, mounting web cams in both studios so Frank and Marc can see each other. Also, both studios have internet access, so they IM back and forth to co-ordinate their activities. The odd part is that we could hear Frank in our studio off the air, but he couldn’t hear us, which resulted in Marc typing, then Frank’s disembodied voice answering.
Here's how the studio is arranged so Marc and Kim can work together.
So, how is the show put together? Well, let’s consider a sonnet. (I’m betting this is the first time Marc and Kim have ever been compared to Shakespearian poetry.) A sonnet is a poem that’s put together according to very strict rules. The number of lines, rhyme scheme, and meter are all defined for the poet; whatever he wants to say has to fit within those parameters. However, the content of the poem is entirely up to him; he can say whatever he wants to. The morning show is very similar. When Marc& Kim and Frank come in, the computer is already programmed with the commercials and songs pre-loaded and ready to run. The songs are selected by the station’s music director who takes into account the sales of the album, the local popularity of the song, it’s chart position, and when it was played before. A computer helps the director keep track of all of this so that each day’s play list is unique. Once the song list and commercial lists are merged, and station ID announcements, traffic and weather bunpers, etc are added in, the whole thing is dumped to a hard drive, ready for the show. This merged list provides the rules of the morning sonnet. The content of the show is entirely up to the DJ’s; like the poet, they get to say whatever they want as long as they follow the rules. Actually, the term DJ is totally outdated since I didn’t see a disc the entire time I was there. I don’t know what the accepted term for these guys is anymore, “Morning Personalities” seems more like a psychiatric disorder than a designation for a radio host. Then again, rising regularly at 4AM could certainly lead to psychiatric disorders, so maybe it is appropriate after all.
OK, so much for strained analogies.
Each member of the team has their assigned duties. Marc runs the boards and keeps the technical side of the show in order, while Kim collects and writes the news copy, as well as reads it in her “professional newscaster voice.” Frank screens calls, and makes sure Marc and Kim have interesting people to talk to.
When we listen to the show, we hear what sounds like a conversation between friends, something we do everyday in our lives. That familiar sound forges a connection between the jocks and the listeners and involves them in the show. What I discovered in the studio is that the conversation is real. While many morning shows rely on scripted bits, pre-recorded skits and pre-show meetings to plan what’s going to happen. While this approach does have some strengths, the loss of spontaneity creates a performance rather than a conversation, and that distances the jocks from the audience. Marc & Kim and Frank take a different approach to creating their show.
They each bring their own ideas for bits and during the show, they pass notes back and forth, or talk to each other on breaks, suggesting where to go next, or how to lead in to a new bit. In some cases, they will spring topics on each other in order to get a more honest reaction. The content of the show is built organically; ideas that bring a response from the other people on the team or from callers are continued; ideas that don’t are allowed to die a quick and painless death. There were two great examples of this during Wednesday’s show. First, since I was there watching and asking occasional questions off the air, Marc decided to take questions on the air. Then he changed it to a challenge, seeing if listeners could come up with a question he and Kim were unwilling to answer. The bit lasted through a couple of segments and got a lot of calls and some interesting responses, but didn‘t really go anywhere else. The second example came when Kim discovered that, for whatever reason, Journal Broadcast Group had installed a phone in the bathroom.
Kim left the studio to go to the bathroom, then called Marc on the studio line from the bathroom. He put her on the air, live from the bathroom, and then left the studio to go broadcast from the toilet. Not content with performing the morning show from a bathroom, in what very possibly is a radio first, they put the bathroom on speakerphone, and left it connected to the studio to record the next person who used the facilities. It wasn’t long before nature’s call was felt by some anonymous staffer, who we hope had very squeaky shoes because any alternative explanations for the sounds captured were too horrible to contemplate.
This second bit illustrates what Marc calls the “radio mushroom.” A good bit should inspire a follow on bit, related in some way, but taking a turn somewhere so it goes in a different direction, or “cauliflowers” as he called it, sticking with the vegetable metaphor. The bit progresses and evolves through one or two segments, and may even be revisited on a later show if it resonated well with the audience.
One thing became very clear as I watched them work through the morning; the success of a morning show has little to do with the songs played, or scripted bits, and everything to do with the rapport and relationship between the jocks and the connection they make with the listeners. During the first part of the show, they dealt almost exclusively with the school shooting in Campbell County. They took calls on the air and discussed what happened, but what I found more important is what happened off the air. Marc continued to take calls, not for the show, but just to let people have their say. Sure, if a caller had come up with a unique point of view or something he could have worked with, I’m sure he would have held the caller over and put them on the air, but even when they didn’t, he let them have their say before moving to the next call. A little later in the show, a caller wanted to know what Marc and Kim thought about the Iraq War. Now that’s a topic too heavy for drive time on a morning show, unless you’re Halloran Hill, so they couldn’t put her on the air, but Frank let her have her say anyway. What struck me was the earnestness in the callers voices; they weren’t trying to get a few moments of fame on the radio, they were talking to people they considered friends.
That’s what builds a good show; taking the time to make a connection with the audience.
So, since it is the personalities that make the show, who are Marc and Kim and Frank? What makes them do what they do?
Why they do it is easy to answer; they love it. While Marc and Kim make a very nice living doing the show, you don’t get into radio for money; even I know that. As Marc described it, there are a few teams at the top who make a good living in radio, and then there’s a very steep drop down to everyone else. After the show, Frank took me on a tour of the building, and I noticed that most of the people working there were very young, with a scattering of older executives. You have to be young to be able to work for as little money as most of them make, and most drop out before they have time to get old.
Marc got his first radio show when he was about 23, working weekend overnights from midnight to 6 am. It was the lowliest of shifts, and he had to fudge his resume to get even that much, but he knew from that first broadcast that radio was where he wanted to be. He vowed to make it to a morning show by the time he was 30, and he achieved that goal with a startup station in Pennsylvania where he said he could learn how to do a morning show without having to worry about an audience hearing his mistakes. There must not have been too many mistakes because he’s moved up steadily since then in prestige and market size until he arrived here in Knoxville 5 years ago.
Along the way, he’s held several jobs, some quite surprising given his radio persona, others not so much. It‘s no great stretch to see Mark as a car salesman, but can you picture him as a “Dating Consultant“, the term he prefers over “matchmaker?” Another side gig that has continued to this day has been manning the mic at sporting events. He’s currently the stadium announcer for the Ice Bears, returning after taking a break for a season, and has done sports announcing for over a decade.
Kim is one of the lucky few; she’s been able to move up through the ranks without ever having to leave Knoxville. One of the truths of life in radio is that you have to be willing and able to move around the country to find the next job in order to grow your career. Kim has not had to do that, spending her entire broadcasting career here in East Tennessee. She started out in sales and gradually moved towards the microphone. Holding dual positions in radio appears to be fairly common; probably because each job pays so little, the more hats you wear, the less you have to eat Ramen noodles and grilled cheese substitute sandwiches. Before radio, Kim had what can best be described as a varied work history, including stints in hardware sales and cage dancing in the Old City.
Yes, cage dancing. In a weird coincidence, my brother in law went to school with Kim, and he was as shocked by this revelation as we in the studio were. According to him, Kim was always a very shy, quiet, bookish sort of girl in high school. It just goes to show, you’ve gotta keep an eye on the quiet ones!
The newest member of the team is Frank, call screener and Distributor Of Ridiculous Knowledge par excellence. Before arriving at STAR 102.1, Frank followed a career path similar to Marc’s, moving around the country, taking jobs as they became available, working his way from a producer’s job to air personality. He spent quite a bit of time in LA and can often be heard boasting of his close relationships with Victoria Principle’s orthodontist or some such silliness. He came to Knoxville as part of the original morning team for The River, a station that has since been gutted, stabbed through the heart, decapitated, and finally lobotomized and roboticized. From there, he joined another morning show briefly, then joined the Marc and Kim show first as a caller, then as a call screener, and now as a highly valued member of the show. Like his two partners, Frank has also always known that he wanted to be in radio, and also held a variety of jobs working toward that end, including the mind boggling job of Assistant Shoe Publicist for the Academy Awards show. Who knew footwear required publicity? Oddly enough, it’s easy to picture Frank running around at the Oscars, telling anybody who will listen that Kate Winslet was wearing the latest from the Hushpuppies spring collection.
However, the key job in Frank’s pre-radio career had to be his job in the “Will Call” office for a small performing arts theater outside of Washington DC. Not only did that job indirectly lead to his career in radio, more importantly, it was also where he first met his wife Jere. In what clearly had to be destiny taking a hand, the theater burned to the ground, and that was when Frank applied for his first radio job, an on the air position with a small AM station. He got the job and never looked back.
The three of them together create a synergistic dynamic that….I apologize for that last sentence. I’m typing this in a Borders Café, and there’s some refugees from a business seminar at the next table and the jargon is rubbing off.
The three of them work very well together, as they have developed on air personas that create a feeling of fun and energy. When I first came into the studio, I expected to see dramatic changes between on air and off the air behavior, but I really didn’t. Sure, they do exaggerate some characteristics for humor, but by and large, what you hear on the radio is what I heard off the radio. Marc brought me in to the broadcast a few times ( a total surprise to me, by the way, so if I sounded like an idiot, please understand that’s why) and I found myself trying to work within the dynamic they already had going, hoping I didn’t throw them off their rhythm.
When the morning drive is over at 9AM, the show becomes more music driven, and the jocks can relax and unwind for their last hour. I took advantage of this time to ask them a few more questions about the state of radio, and what the future might hold.
First I asked them about the new jockless formats Jack and Earl, or as I call them, Hack and Hurl. Understandably, none of them were impressed with the formats. Marc called them “lazy and uninspired programming.” He elaborated, saying that the format offered nothing the listeners couldn’t get from an Ipod on shuffle, and Frank added that the formats were bland with no personality, nothing to hook the listener, and that eventually they would drift away.
When I asked them about how satellite radio might impact broadcast radio, Marc said that there was too much money being paid out by the satellite companies for them to make money in the near term. He pointed out that 195 million people listen to radio daily, but there are only 2 million subscribers to satellite radio so far. Frank added that the Achilles heel of satellite radio is that it lacks unique content, which is why Sirius is spending so much money to get Howard Stern. The problem with that strategy, and this is my opinion now, is that XM tried that with Opie and Anthony, making them a premium service.
Nobody subscribed, so XM put them on the regular package, and increased the base subscription fee.
Next I asked about pod casts. Marc thought that ipods and personal music systems isolate people too much, and people don’t like isolation; they want to be part of a community. He did say that they would be a nice supplement to radio, perhaps as a way to stream the best bits of a show. He was very interested in ways to remarket the show and expand its reach and pod casts were one way he saw to do that.
Next I asked the big question. What about downloading? It’s here to stay. What can the music industry do to adapt? Frank spoke first on this one. He pointed out that the success of pay per download services showed that people are willing to pay a fair price for music; they were just tired of being ripped off, paying for a full album of songs with only one good one. Marc added that the music industry had created the problem themselves by trying to push the album and get rid of the single, and now they would be forced to come up with a new business model. Downloading would not go away. Music downloads rejuvenated the single, and it’s no accident that the cost for a download is roughly equivalent to the price for an old 45. (For those of you under 30, ask your parents.)
Finally, I asked them about there future in radio, and where they thought they might go from here. The good news for Knoxville is that all three of them are very happy here, and like raising their families here. Marc sees a lot of opportunities to expand the show’s market and would really like to grow the show. Kim has never moved, and has little interest in it. And Frank hopes to stay here as well, working with Marc and Kim. It was very clear to me that three of them really enjoy working together, and are committed to keeping the team together if at all possible. Radio being what it is, there are never any guarantees, but if it were just up to them, the Marc & Kim and Frank Show will be in Koxville for a long time to come.
To end this marathon post, I’d like to thank Marc, Kim and Frank for not only letting me observe them at work, but for allowing me to participate in the show as well. Feeling the energy in the studio and running along with them answered the question that started this whole thing.
Why would anybody get up at 4AM every morning to do this job?
Because it is a hell of a lot of fun, that’s why!
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