Friday, December 05, 2008

Radio Apocalypse: Steve Dahl Is Off The Air


I kind of had a hunch. It wasn't anything tangible, but my spidey sense told me it very well might happen, and maybe even as soon as today. My wife and I had the day off today; our own personal economic situation, while far from poor, dictated that the Caribbean cruise we had originally scheduled couldn't take place this year. We'd managed to get a refund, and converted the existing requested vacation into a stay-cation. As we're driving in the car today, our kids at home being watched by the nanny, I tuned the radio station in to The Jack, to listen to Steve Dahl's daily morning show. I mentioned that I knew he'd been having serious ratings problems, and that it wouldn't surprise me if he were off the air soon. I even mentioned that I had already been mentally preparing myself for the day it happened. She and I had been talking, so I didn't explicitly hear what Steve had said, but I heard the lyrics to what ended up being Steve's final song. It didn't exactly fill my heart with joy when I heard the lyrics:
If you see me gettin' smaller I'm leavin' don't be grieving
Just got to get away from here
If you see me gettin' smaller don't worry
I'm in no hurry I've got the right to disappear
During the song, I turned to my wife, and said, "It wouldn't surprise me if this was Steve's last day." Then the voice of the station, a normally smart-alecky persona who did voiceovers, came on and confirmed that this was indeed Steve's last day. The voice identified his real name as Howard, and paid a fine tribute to Steve Dahl.

God, sometimes it sucks being right. My wife thought it was spooky how I had forecast that.

For those of you who don't follow Chicago radio, Steve Dahl is a local broadcasting legend. Although he's most famous on a national level for the infamous 1979 radio stunt known as Disco Demolition, he proved to we his audience that after thirty years of radio in one market, he was no one trick pony. In a nutshell, Steve and his one-time radio partner Garry Meier once were kings of their own brand of talk radio. For them, there were no rules; they more or less invented the style of radio which morphed into "shock jock". Many point to Steve as an early influence to Howard Stern, although the skinny NYC jock has vacillated between admitting Dahl's influence and flat-out insulting him. Steve was once known for his excesses; he has now been over a decade sober. He had been with CBS Radio over two radio stations since the late '90s, achieving consistently strong ratings in his key demographics. Most recently, he'd been on The Jack, the jockless CBS station which had become Steve Dahl's radio home since the dissolution of the all-talk WCKG. In order for him to continue to work during the period of his contractual obligation to CBS Radio, they worked out a deal which made him the morning man at the until-then jockless music regurgitator. This move, while it ruffled feathers on the morning-drive fans of jockless radio, gave we the Dahl-fans an extension of more than a year of Steve's show. But Arbitron's recent conversion from ratings diaries to the ostensibly more accurate automated People Meter rating collection devices caused a sea change in radio which was equivalent to Billboard magazine using SoundScan to track record sales. Many radio stations received an unexpected increase; just as many found themselves the unlucky recipient of sometimes dramatic declines in their ratings. Steve Dahl, unfortunately, fell into the latter category; media wags predicted that the end would be near.

Just because I saw it coming doesn't make Steve Dahl's departure from radio any easier of a pill to swallow. I really enjoyed his show; I had been a big fan since discovering that he had Buzz Killman and Wendy Snyder as his co-hosts. Both Buzz and Wendy were seasoned Chicago jocks who I'd enjoyed, and their presence coaxed me into listening to Steve. Before that, I honestly thought that the Steve and Garry show was kind of flat, and definitely more mean-spirited at times than I usually liked. But with Buzz and Wendy, Steve's humor was less cruel; it was a bunch of old friends who'd worked together for years at The Loop (WLUP-FM) now in a new venue. I really liked the easy humor, the fact that they all knew Chicago well, and that in a lot of ways, I could see them as just regular folk like myself. I became a fan. I realize that Steve's style of radio isn't everyone's cup of tea; there are deliberate pauses, while Steve gets information and then reacts accordingly. But you know what? I saw it as radio in real-time. Steve was clever; he didn't feel the need to manically fill every last second of dead air with snappy patter or crazy talk. Life gets hard if you consistently live your life at that speed. Steve didn't ever seem to have a problem sharing his life with us, and seemed to listen to his callers. And he was definitely funny; there was no question about that. I followed him from the late lamented 'CKG to the Jack. It sucked not having him in the afternoon drive, but that gave me the chance to catch up on my CD listening.

As of today, Steve Dahl still has two-and-a-half years remaining on his contract with CBS Radio. The good news for him is that means he'll be paid; they have to honor that. The bad news for us is that he won't be able to get another radio gig during those 2 1/2 years, barring some deep-pocketed corporation working out a deal with CBS. In today's times, and in light of Steve's most recent ratings, that seems unlikely. This sucks; why is it that I always get really fond of entertainment options which seem to be all-too-finite? Like my wife said, I seem to have a knack of picking winners. An even darker thought dwells in the back of my mind; this contractually-imposed radio ban could end up being a career-killer for Steve. In today's get-results-quick-or-change-plans-right-now corporate mentality, it lessens his chances of finding a substantive gig once the ban is over. This situation disgusts me; in any other time, Steve would be able to continue his show at its current level. With everything swirling down the porcelain bowl, sometimes even radio legends get cruelly silenced.

Steve, thank you so much for all the great radio you've given us so far. I really hope and pray that this isn't the end of your career; I dig your show too much to hear that happen.

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