Rob Oxford: Radio Killed the Radio Star

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Rockfish during his early days at KISW with a visitor from Japan

By Rob Oxford

At first glance this will appear to be nothing more than a disgruntled former radio personality complaining about losing his job. 

However, I implore you to look deeper into my message. I racked up 30 years of great memories in the business and when I was recently let go from iHeart Media, unlike some of my fellow employees who were caught totally off guard and suddenly faced with the prospect of having to choose different careers, I was actually relieved. I had been ready and waiting for the axe.

Just call this my “Jerry Maguire” moment.

I had given my two weeks’ notice about three months prior but was encouraged to “hang on a little while longer.” I was told I was “a valuable asset to the company” and although they couldn’t offer me any more money, promises were made of opportunities to voice-track for stations in different markets, thus enabling me to make a few more dollars.

Given that prospect, I withdrew my resignation and decided to kick the can down the road for a few more months. However, I should have realized the end was near when at a company function, the Regional Vice President told me radio was changing and “you don’t want to be in this business full time.”

Well, The End Is Here.

Now I still have many friends in the industry, so I don’t expect them to side with me or even share their opinions. They have families to consider and many hope to continue their careers in broadcasting. For that I have great respect and for their sake I hope the industry is able to support their needs a while longer.

When I started as an intern at KISW in late 1989, the frequency was FM100 and the slogan was “Seattle’s Best Rock.” With the digital age it became 99.9 KISW and is now “The Rock of Seattle”. Some may argue successfully that it is now and probably has been for a while, the “ONLY” rock of Seattle.

In fact, since being laid off I’ve been listening to KISW more now than I had for the past 10 years. I am a loyalist and I felt obligated to support my former employer. Even though I grew extremely weary of hearing the same 200 (if that many) songs over and over every day.

I don’t profess to know much about the inner workings of the corporate radio world, it was never my thing. I also never wanted to be a manager, salesman or an executive. I was more than happy being a personality. So, when it comes to research, marketing, promotion and ultimately The Playlist, I am literally in the dark.

All I know is what I like and what listeners who’ve been a part of my circle for eons tell me they like and, believe me, very few have ever said; “Rockfish, even though the Rolling Stones have 30 studio albums, 28 live albums and 26 compilation albums, I love the fact that you play the same 5 songs every week. You guys are awesome!”

However, what they do ask is "Why don't you ever play any of the new music from your core artists?" and "When did the band Modern English become Classic Rock?" Just two of the many questions I am ill-equipped to answer.

I grew up loving music and making people laugh. Radio was where the two collided.

The moment I stepped foot into the studios at 712 Aurora Ave N. my whole life changed. Initially as a research intern, I quickly endeared myself to management and the on-air talent. After my fellow interns had gone home for the evening I would stick around just to answer the phones. Remember when you could call a radio station and speak to an actual person under the guise of making a request?

I would also file the records that had been played for the disc jockey presently on air. Yes, when I started, we actually played records.

Additionally, I would spend hours in the production studio recording funny bits. I’ll never forget the day they aired the first parody commercial I ever recorded. For someone hoping to enter the world of broadcasting, hearing your voice on the air for the very first time is quite exciting, I can assure you.

I also started doing segues (the smooth transition from one song to the next) for a certain announcer who every so often needed to step outside for a smoke. I would find reasons to enter the on-air studio in the hopes he was having a nicotine fit. That was the best. Not only did I get to sit in the “air chair,” but he paid me. Usually a dollar a segue. I could now consider myself a “paid” professional and I did.

It wasn’t long after that I was operating the studio mixing console for live remotes and special programming. I still hadn’t done my first official “on-air shift,” but that was soon to come.

I remember getting a call one morning at about 2am from our Program Director asking if I could do a shift? I literally screamed “of course I can!” After all, I had been practicing doing an actual radio show for months. Recording intros, reading the news, faking phone calls from listeners and then asking the other jocks to critique my work.

The Midnight to 6am talent had not reported for his shift and the person currently on the air was tired and not about to do a double. At the time I lived just across the street from the studio and in about 10 minutes I was dodging cars and knocking on the door. Was I nervous? Hell yes!

As soon as I sat down, the Hotline rang. It was the boss telling me to take a deep breath and just “keep us on the air”. I did… and it was a total rush.

That night I had established myself as a reliable resource for the company and it wasn’t long before the weekend overnight shift was mine. Mind you, it didn’t hurt at all that I had already begun singing Twisted Tunes for the morning show and that I could smack the crap out of a softball for the station softball team.

The next several months, perhaps years, are a complete blur. So much happened in such a very short time. I began taking on more fill-in shifts, picking up rock stars at the airport, handing out stickers at concerts and I had been christened “Rockfish” by my then roommate, who was a member of the morning show. It was also the early 90’s and the dam was about to break. The eyes of the rock-n-roll world were fixed on Seattle.

Just about every weekend we were seeing little local bands at small venues and thinking nothing of it. Bands like Alice In Chains, Soundgarden, Nirvana and Mother Love Bone who became Mookie Blaylock who became Pearl Jam. You know, just little local bands.

I’m not exactly sure when I became the host of Metal Shop but for years I put my heart and soul into that program. For two hours every Saturday Night I got to play whatever the hell I wanted. If memory serves, I was the first jock in Seattle, possibly on the West Coast, to play Stone Temple Pilots “Sex Type Thing.” Seattle was the epicenter of what was happening, the center of the Grunge (I’ve always despised that term, to me it was just rock) Universe. If it flew in Seattle, it would fly anywhere.

I could write volumes about my days as KISW’s Metal Director and maybe some day I will. I met so many great bands, both local and national acts. But what I got most out of hosting that program was the connection I established with my audience. A connection that would follow me for the next 25 years.

You see, I was the kid at 10 and 11 years old who called the local radio station on Saturday Mornings. Sometimes over and over. I would disguise my voice and request the same song two or three times in an attempt to fool the Disc Jockey. Of course I didn't realize it then, but they knew it was me and they were always gracious in their response. From the moment I hosted my very first shift, I swore I would do my best to answer every single call that came into the studio and offer the same consideration.

I took requests, answered trivia questions, wished people Happy Birthday, offered condolences to family members of loved ones who had recently passed and made dedications ala Casey Kasem, I did it all. I even talked to people for hours who were depressed and just needed someone to listen.

That doesn’t happen anymore. How can it when there’s no one in a studio, no one picking up the request line. How can it when the person you're listening to recorded their shift the day before from 3000 miles away and then “mailed it in”?

That’s what they call in the business “voice tracking” and it’s done more than you are probably aware.

That’s why you no longer hear local content. You no longer hear about local events. You no longer get that “personal touch” from your announcer. Nor will you hear where your favorite local bands are playing or the score of the football game that ended three hours ago. The jock who’s now on the air most likely recorded his shift three hours before that game even started.

Hell, 20 years ago I’d announce the location of your garage sale if you wanted. How much more local can you get?

Of course, the company never made any money off of those little plugs, but what they did make was a listener for life most likely.

There’s so much more I could say about the radio business today, but quite frankly it doesn’t matter. Terrestrial Radio is on its last legs. Something most of the professionals will admit. Digital Services, Streaming, Online Content, YouTube Channels, Spotify, even the Smart Speaker has replaced the Radio Announcer. Simply ask Alexa, she'll tell you who recorded the song “Spirit In The Sky” and what year it was released.

I will fully admit to being disappointed that radio has changed so drastically. For many years it had been my companion, my friend, my “mood changer” and when it is finally gone for good, I will miss it terribly.

I remember in 1980 getting on a Greyhound Bus for a trip to see my good friend Butch get married in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. He picked me up at the station in Nashville and the first question I asked was; “What radio station do you listen to?” He replied “I don’t listen to the radio.”

That was one of the longest weekends of my life.


Allison April 16, 2020 at 8:56 AM  

My husband was a KISW intern in 1990 - this brought back many memories!

Bob Shook April 16, 2020 at 6:48 PM  

I will miss hearing your voice, although admittedly I have rarely listened to a Seattle rock radio for some time because I got tired of the iHeart radio format and the limited playlists that even preceded iHeart, many years ago.
I do think there’s a chance that radio could make a comeback if it fully returned to its roots. KEXP is a good example of a radio station that once upon a time wasn’t such a rarity, yet still seems to thrive today.
Convincing the ones with the money is likely next to impossible, though.
...All we hear is radio gaga.

Best of luck to you going forward!

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