WJOB and JED.tv are in the middle of two huge transformations - a physical one and a digital one. But in the end if it all works out I’ll be one step closer to living the life of columnist Herb Caen from San Francisco.
Physical transformation. Yes, after 60 years in the same building, we’re moving the studios of WJOB. We’re going seven blocks to Purdue’s ultra-modern building on Indianapolis Boulevard a couple of blocks from the most truck-traveled highway in America – Interstate 80/94. Indianapolis Boulevard itself carries a ton of trucks, especially in the morning when they’re leaving the refineries, steel mills, chemical plants and pallet manufacturers. It’s truck nirvana driving south on the Boulevard at 7am, and it’s this truck nirvana that will provide the visual backdrop of my morning radio as TV show.
It’s a huge move for us, and if the occupancy permit comes through, it’ll start happening this week. And since there’s not many of us who work at WJOB, it’s a lotta work on those of us who do work here. One of the things that has allowed us to do radio for 11 is that we don’t over-hire. Cost. Controlling cost. It’s the one continuing method of prolonging your business until you can find a consistent way to take in more money than your costs.
Cost is king in radio. As you can tell, I love everything about radio except maybe for the regulatory aspect and the many taxes and fees. So Alexis and I keep the costs low enough that we can just keep doing radio. It’s a waiting game. Yes, we keep paying off our station. Yes, we keep doing good things for the Calumet Region of Indiana and Illinois, at least in our own minds. And yes, we teach a few people who want to learn what broadcasting is all about.
But in the end you know and I know that radio is dying. According to best estimates, we in radio lose about 6% TSL (time spent listening) every year. Do the math. After a while, you’re losing 6% of a much smaller pie that existed a generation previous. That part’s pretty scary. But those of us who care can supplant the loss of audience by picking it up on the web – and even growing past the 6% on average that we lose – but it’s still pretty scary because on the web there isn’t a roadmap. With radio, there’s a roadmap. On the web, it’s the Wild West.
At WJOB right now, it’s mostly Ryan, Debbie and me on a regular basis. My wife Alexis helps with stuff and my sister Jennifer does the books, and there’s all sorts of dedicated part-time people doing shows and producing and helping with technical stuff and, now, even selling. But for the most part it’s three people. Ryan produces the morning show and takes care of all of the sports and some of the podcasting. Debbie runs the office and logs all day. And I do a show and write a blog and go to events to have material for the show and, now, retrieve leads.
It’s a pretty smooth running triumvirate for the most part – until you throw in a huge project. And that huge project is that we have to build a whole new studio in a whole new location without the luxury of hiring someone to do it for us or even to hire people to help us do it. Throw in the fact that if we really wanted to buy everything new and top-notch, we’d need about 100-grand more than we have right now. So there. Cost is king in radio.
So, you ask, what’s the ultimate goal in this physical digital transformation of WJOB and JED.tv?
For me, it’s to get one step closer to living the life of columnist Herb Caen from San Francisco.
As far as I can tell, Herb would write his column in the morning and then putz around San Francisco the rest of the day. He had a huge attachment to his city –
I hope I go to Heaven, and when I do, I'm going to do what every San Franciscan does when he gets there. He looks around and says, 'It ain't bad, but it ain't San Francisco.'
And Herb Caen could write, perhaps, like no other columnist ever. Period. Not Royko. Not George Will. Not Forbes. Not even my second favorite columnist ever – Alan Abelson.
But it wasn’t only his love and understanding of San Francisco, and his ellipses-filled writing style that first attracted me as a 20-year-old Sociology student at Berkeley.
It was his life. As far as I can tell, he’d write that column in the morning from the stuff he’d accumulated in his head the day before … and then go out and putz (drink?) around San Francisco the rest of the day to get more stuff to fill his head for the next day’s column.
It is that rhythm - create in the morning, gather material (drink?) in the afternoon - that attracted me then, more than 30 years ago and attracts me now. If you read enough of this blog, you might jump to the conclusion that I’m already there. You might say that I already live Herb Caen’s life. I do a radio show in the morning and then I hang out with the people and places that I love in the Calumet Region. And, yes, it is similar to what Herb Caen did with his life, although you’ll get a ton of catcalls if you even try to compare the Calumet Region with San Francisco.
Still, this is the place that I love, just as Herb Caen loved San Francisco. And I do my creating in the morning, except for this blog that nobody reads, and then I just do shit around the Region in the afternoon and evening. Herb Caen mostly walked to do his shit. I ride my bike.
But something’s been missing for the last 11 years in the search for the life of Herb Caen. And that is the physical and digital transformations necessary so that I could create in the morning, gather in the afternoon.
We have been broadcasting from some pretty dated studios in a historic but aging building. We’re behind a car dealer and next to a printing plant that burned down a few years ago. There’s a roofer, a storage facility, a closed-down bread distributor and a NIPSCO substation all around us. Go a block north and there’s one of the largest junkyards in America and a huge train-yard where they now load tons and gobs of fertilizer a day. Go another block north and there’s one of the most confusing chemical plants there is. Pipes and stills and towers and scaffolding sticking into the sky just feet from where you drive over the new Nine-span bridge.
It’s not high-tech facilities… and it’s not in a high-tech neighborhood. So for me to live the modern version of the Herb Caen life, we had to upgrade. And that’s what we’re starting to do this week, when we’re expecting to get an occupancy permit for what ultimately could be some of the most modern and sleek studios of any local radio station anywhere. I’m not kidding.
So the physical transformation of WJOB and JED.tv is one step in the search for the life of Herb Caen. The other is digital. What used to be waves wafting through the air to the piece of metal on your car is now data packets that zip through wires and wifi from keystokes to the phone in your pocket that ultimately controls your brain. It’s as scary and confusing as it is beautiful, and if I’m gonna live the life of Herb Caen then we must be digital.
So at the same time we’re moving physically, we’re transforming digitally. This blog itself is a move to digital. 50 years ago a guy like me who wanted to tell you what a life in Region radio is all about would have had to write a book. Now, I just write a blog. We podcast the shows and that gets a lot more listens than we would have ever thought (goal: by the end of the year to have 100,000 podcast listens.) We post photos and notes and Facebook and twitter and you get the picture.
But for me it’s all about the morning show. The radio morning show. As with Herb Caen, it’s do one thing right. Herb wrote a daily column. I do a daily radio show. And for both of us, to conjure Robert Frost, that has made all the difference.
So to do a radio show every morning from outdated studios behind a car dealer is one thing. To do a radio show from a major university tech center with ultra-modern studios that have huge windows looking out on a major thoroughfare is another thing. In the end, I want to transform my show from a 1950s morning radio call-in show to a 2015 morning radio call-in show that’s on web TV. Really good web TV.
There’s a lotta stuff going on with us in the transformation to digital, but in the end for me it’s a singular focus. I wanna continue to do the morning radio show as genuine and pure as I can do it – and have a little fun along the way, and do a little good – and I wanna put that morning radio show on TV.
For me, it’s that simple. And when I wander away from this singular focus into other projects, I just muddy the waters. We already know that I can do a decent video show, and we already know that there’s a market for it. Someday I’ll go through the long and winding road of how we got to this point. It really is a lesson in what not to do in transforming from radio to connected TV. But for now please just accept this singular focus – and that is to turn my morning radio show into a morning radio show that is also on web TV.
And it has to be really good web TV. It was one thing to put a few webcams in the old radio studio and to place a grainy stream of it on livestream.com. It’s another thing to place robotic cameras around a studio of glass and LCD lights next to a major road in a major tech center and to stream it from the servers of an industry leader in Indianapolis. Now that’s a digital transformation. And if this physical and digital transformation work out anywhere near as planned, I’ll be one step closer to living the life of columnist Herb Caen from San Francisco.
Go enjoy your Sunday. I will. It’s Podkul family reunion day. That never disappoints.