November 29, 2015

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First Mediaworks

12/09/02 If I’m Dreaming, Don’t Wake Me Up.
“What if I blow it? What if I have dead air? What if they don’t let me do this again?” When the record ended, I was supposed to remember how to turn on the mike, fade the old song, and play the next one — while saying something magical. Suddenly, the record ended, and I experienced the nightmare that had kept me tossing and turning for five sleepless nights — silence. I was moving my lips, but there was no sound. The control board looked like the cockpit of a 747; the microphone loomed taller than a Manhattan skyscraper. The silence pounded louder and louder in my brain as my hands hovered over the controls. Finally, a rhythmic noise startled me, and I turned my head. The program director was knocking on the glass, pointing to the microphone and mouthing the words “Turn… your… micro…phone…on.” I flipped the switch, and my 14-year-old voice cracked in the hormonal hell of puberty: “You’re, um, you’re listening to WITB in Fort Wayne.”

I still get chills when I think about my first on-air break.

Do we choose our career, or does it choose us? Like Alice down the rabbit hole, I fell into Radio in 1969 while breaking ice on the St. Joe River to prevent flooding. I was a volunteer member of a local group called “Sing Out Fort Wayne,” a local subgroup of “Up With People.”

I was a major nerd. One of the kids, Charlie Willer, was quitting early; and in classic nerd fashion, I gave him grief for bailing out. He said, “I can’t stay; I have to go on the Radio. Wanna come?” I dropped my pickax, hopped into his ’39 Ford and never looked back. Minutes later, 14 and mesmerized, I walked into my first Radio station, and my life was forever changed.

Soon, I had my own show on the local college station. College kids considered it “un-cool” to work there, so the station employed high school kids. I sat in the control room and dreamed that someday I would be on a “real” Radio station. That dream came true, and I was lucky enough to work at some great ones.

Then I began dreaming that I would be a great programmer. I got my first programming gig and beat the longstanding market leader, owned by one of the best and most well known programmers in America. When both R&R and FRED wrote of my success, I was flooded with job offers. Wanting to take them all, I started a consulting company with a partner, Jerry Clifton.

I dreamed of owning a station. Eventually, even that came true, and I bought another and another. Then I began to dream of giving back to the business that had given me such a wonderful career. That dream came true with Radio Ink, a meeting place where Radio climbers could find the encouragement and advice that I had craved but was never able to find.

When I was recently interviewed on NPR’s Coast to Coast>, I had the same dry throat, cracked voice and spine chills from that day when Charlie Willer and I walked off the ice into my very first Radio station. Though it embarrasses me to admit it, I still talk up song intros when alone in the car. I fill in on a local Radio station under an assumed name, and I am a collector of antique Radios. My wife says I am “the consummate Radio nerd.”

In elementary school, I got bad grades and had a lot of teacher trouble because I was a daydreamer. I was fortunate enough to retain the ability to dream, thanks to parents who encouraged it. I still have dreams. When I started Radio Ink 10 years ago, I wrote that I dreamed of Radio’s getting beyond the 7 percent at which it had been stuck for decades. Radio has begun to break through the clouds and creep past that number. But I’ll see it hit 12 percent, then 15, then 18 and then 20 percent. I believe it can and will happen if Radio is properly equipped and if we are willing to believe in ourselves. We know in our gut that, if advertisers had even an inkling of how powerful this medium can be, we would be at 20 percent today. This is my dream for Radio, but the dream isn’t up to me alone. I’ll need your help on this one.

Are you up for it? Radio has already made all my personal dreams come true, but if you’re willing to climb aboard and help, we have a lot more dreaming to do.

Dream big. Do big. Be big.

— Eric Rhoads

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