One of the cool things about local radio is the unexpected.
A zillion times you’ll go to a caller and after a few moments you can be brought to an instant guffaw or awkward silence or even tears behind your eyes.
With local radio, though, the unexpected seems to follow even when you’re not on the air.
On Tuesday, I showed up in north Hammond to hear the president of Arcelor Mittal, Mike Rippey, give a speech on the steel industry, which is a big deal around here. I took my seat at the head table (I’m a local celebrity, remember) and after a few bites of chicken noticed that where sat the nameplate for Mike Rippey sat no Mike Rippey.
No big deal, I thought. He’s Mike Rippey. He runs a steel mill. He’ll be here.
Wrong thought. While Lakeshore Chamber director Dave Ryan gave his introductory thank yous and acknowledgements, he looked down at his cellphone and read a text. I knew at that moment that I should stop chewing chicken.
“I regret to inform you that Mike Rippey has had a family emergency and won’t be here today,” Dave Ryan said, deer in the headlights.
“In all my years, ah, this has never happened before where a speaker hasn’t shown. Ah, uh, hmm….”
You knew it was coming. It had to.
“Jim, do you want to come up and, ah, we can, er, well…”
He handed me a roving microphone, which he had done just a week ago when I moderated a panel of five powerful local women. Many of these people just listened to me for four hours on the radio. They watched me talk here last week. What could I possibly say to keep them interested for half an hour?
Think, JED. Think.
“Sure, Dave, all of these good people came here today to take something away from the discussion. Let’s give em something. I have an idea.”
And because nobody’s reading this, I’ll tell you. I lied when I said “I have an idea.”
Think, JED. Think. Which of course is not that easy to do with 250 really disappointed people staring at you.
“All right, let’s do this,” I said, which is not a good idea when you don’t know what “this” is.
“Look around you, there’s a lot of owners and managers of local businesses who have come here to learn something. So let’s learn something.”
Awkward silence. Think, JED. Think.
“Like I said, look around you…” Stalling. The idea will come. Take a breath. Forget the blank stares. Clear the mechanism.
And then it started to appear. This faint thumping somewhere near my right shoulder. A nebulous form approaching from the Indiana Toll Road right behind the banquet hall. It’s coming. I could hear it, sense it.
Then it hit me. The solution. It’s always been the same solution for us at WJOB. Turn to the listeners. Turn to the listeners.
It’s just this – in radio, if you can’t figure out which direction to head, turn to the listeners.
It worked for us with traffic. As you know, our entire listening audience – outside of the occasional local radio nut in California or Maine who catches us online – sits at the bottom of Lake Michigan in Indiana and Illinois. Since you can’t drive across the Lake, if you want to go East-West across America, there’s a good chance you’re gonna have to traverse the WJOB listening area at the bottom of Lake Michigan. Hence “The Crossroads of the Nation.”
There’s US 30, 80/94, 294, the Indiana Toll Road, I65, the Borman Expressway, the Bishop Ford Expressway, the Kingery, etc. And that’s just some of the big highways. Then there’s Cline Avenue, Indianapolis Boulevard, 394 and a ton of busy local roads. There is, every morning, always traffic.
So when we first came on the air in 2004, we used a traffic service. But that didn’t work out. Sometimes the woman would call late. Or she’d give traffic for the northwest side of Chicago, which nobody around here gave a crap about. She’d mispronounce local roads. And often their information would be old. The accident would have already been cleared.
We tried another service and the same thing happened. So in 2007, a few weeks after I started my morning show for good, I had listened to a traffic report from a woman out of Kansas City say “Cline Street” for the last time.
“That’s it, everybody. No more, no more, to quote the little known writer Edgar Allen Poe. No more bad traffic.
“Here’s what we’re gonna do. We’re gonna create our own CTA.”
Now as you know, C.T.A. is a pretty big acronym around here. It stands for the Chicago Transit Authority. Everybody knows this.
“It’ll be the Indiana version of CTA – the Citizens Traffic Authority. If you see an accident or an unexplained backup or a chemical spill or whatever, call me at 219-845-1100.
“Remember, it’s not about you. It’s about the Region Rat behind you.”
And from that moment on, the CTA took off. Every morning, I take traffic calls. In bad weather, I take dozens of traffic calls. It works. I commuted for 18 years to Chicago and I wish the Indiana version of the CTA was around then. The CTA is so powerful that, to some extent, it saved my show and the station.
That’s just one example of Turn to the Listeners. It’s a mantra that I repeat often when we’re having a staff meeting (usually four people) and we can’t figure out how to get something done.
“Turn to the listeners. Turn to the listeners,” I say to Debbie and Ryan and my sister Jennifer, all be scrolling through their phones, yawning, blank stares.
Which is exactly what I was getting from 250 people at the Lakeshore Chamber luncheon when featured speaker Mike Rippey did not show up. Blank stares.
“Look around you,” I said for the fourth time. “There’s all sorts of business owners and managers, Region people, the heart and soul of our industrial-based economy.”
I had no idea where I was going with this. Stalling. The idea was coming. I just needed a little time to hear the whisper behind my ear. And then it came.
Turn to the listeners. Turn to the listeners.
For years, I had from time to time paraded a local business owner through the studio for an interview about his or her business. Sometimes it turned into an infomercial, but mostly it would get downright interesting once you got someone who knows their business to talk about it. I’ve always wanted to build on this, have local businesspeople tell about their businesses, give some of their wisdom about how to succeed and tell some of their horror stories.
“So look around you,” I said for the fifth time. “There’s a lot of local business owners here, and some have been around for a very long time. It’s part of what makes our northwest Indiana area kind of unique, a lotta longtime family businesses, more than most places…”
And from there I turned to the audience, a variation of Turn to the Listeners. I thrust a microphone in front of John Kiernan, whose Calumet Breweries has been around for three generations, since the 1930s. They distribute all the Budweiser and a lotta other spirits around here. Kiernan talked about what it was like to work with his cousin, Mark, and about the challenges facing families as they pass from generation to generation.
Then there was Gary Abraham, who’s third generation at Screw Conveyor. And a guy from Calumet Lumber, which has been around forever. And others.
After the show, er, lunch, a few people even came up to me and said that often they go to these things and they’re kinda bored, secretly scrolling their phones (like my staff) but that today it was kinda cool. The Times even wrote an article about what it means to be a longtime business in the Region.
“Thanks, JED,” one woman whispered into my ear while I finished my cold chicken. “You should do this on your show.”
Bingo. There it is. Years from now, when you’re listening to the 400th episode of “Region Business Stalwarts,” or something like that, you’ll know that the idea cemented itself during another in a long line of the unexpected, in a moment of terror in front of 250 disappointed Region Rats. And that the saving grace was what it has always been with out little local radio station…
Turn to the listeners, baby. Turn to the listeners.