Archive for November, 2007

The Palladium-Times, January 19, 1985
The Palladium-Times, January 19, 1985

It’s a new blog, a new beginning of sorts. I thought I would, in a sense, wind the clock back to a point in time where some of my personal experiences that I’ve never before written about were in some way relevant to current events, particularly with respect to the media as we know and experience it today.

It was the fall of 1984, and along with a few other young people, I became involved in owning and managing a small radio station in a small town in upstate New York. A company that had bought a pair of stations, AM and FM, had moved the FM station to Syracuse and sought to spin off the AM to a buyer. We bought the station in December of 1984, moved from the Baltimore-Washington area to the town of Fulton, and tried to make a go of it.

Thus began a period of about a year and a half of learning all about running a small business for the first time, the hard way.

We thought with a few improvements to the programming, beginning by running the station with air talent who were at least listenable, and a consistent “middle of the road” music format geared toward adults, we would make the station viable. We brought on an extra person to do frequent newscasts in the morning, and tried to serve the entire area with a quality product, not just the small town where the station was located.

How to sum up the result of all that effort?

Almost nobody noticed.

Example of a John Birch Society column in the Oswego Valley News, April 1981.
Example of a John Birch Society column in the Oswego Valley News, April 1981. This newspaper published other JBS columns during 1985. (

We’d arrived in Fulton at the end of a period that started in the early seventies, when most radio listening moved from AM to FM. As listeners became accustomed to listening to FM, by means of other changes such as the FM radio becoming standard in new cars, the number of stations in the area effectively doubled. This left many AM stations in a threatened position, with increased competition. We also learned that, for a myriad of reasons, some specific to the town, there was considerable bias against the notion of radio advertising in the area; in fact, historically, this radio station was never really a viable business. Business owners seemed to prefer newspapers, where they could justify their spending on advertising with a clipping out of the paper that they could paste to the side of their cash register. They preferred a physical object; it seemed that the idea of paying for something that couldn’t quite be held in the hand hadn’t yet caught on there.

After awhile, I began to notice other unexpected things. One of the local newspapers, the Valley News, occasionally would run columns furnished by the John Birch Society. I’d previously thought that publications like that were something you had to seek out, maybe find in an obscure bookstore or send away for by mail. Here, all one had to do was open the local newspaper. It was just like any other column, wedged in between plenty of ads for local businesses.

Obviously, some things that I’d probably never see back home were to some degree socially acceptable here.

Portion of USGS map, Fulton, NY, 1960.
Portion of USGS map, Fulton, NY, 1960. From the Maptech historical archive

Another example was probably related to the fact that, in 1980, in a county of 113,000 people, only 445 were counted by the U.S. census as ‘black.’ We learned that the road the station was situated on was once named “Niggerville Road” – it led to a nearby little crossroads that was so named because of the skin color of a landowner who settled there in 1828. The name of the road wasn’t changed to the generic “Lakeshore Road” until sometime in the early to mid-1960′s.

There were many other contrasts with my past experiences, having grown up and lived in an urban area. Basic expectations, that people expected and supported change and “progress,” and that Americans were mobile, were challenged. Some people in this town hadn’t even once visited Syracuse, a city less than thirty miles away.

More generally it seemed that, along with much of that part of the Northeast, many who had mobility had already left town with the jobs and industry long departed. What was left were the brewery, the chocolate factory, and a smattering of other businesses.

One part of the population that was mobile, highly skilled, and employed were the workers who were building the nuclear power plant on Lake Ontario. Our apartment complex was packed full of these residents, so much so that we were on a waiting list for an apartment for some time before moving there.

A year after our arrival, plant construction came to an end, and people began to depart. A rash of business failures followed, including, inevitably, our own. I turned the station off and handed the keys to the seller, since they’d financed our purchase. I headed back to Washington DC and eventually found a job there.

Here this story came close to ending. This “dark” radio station almost disappeared permanently; the company I’d handed it back to was in the odd position of having already bought another AM station in the area. Back in those days, before deregulation, they couldn’t operate two overlapping AM stations – so they couldn’t put the station back on the air. They’d have to find another buyer for it, or hand the license back to the FCC, likely silencing the station permanently.

But some years later – by now, it’s 1988 – another fellow and his wife finally bought the station and put it back on the air. This time, though, the station would sound a bit different: large parts of its broadcast day would be filled with talk programming, delivered by satellite.

In the intervening years, there’d been some advancements in the technology of radio, an ongoing evolutionary process that, in fact, I’d been a part of. Broadcast networks had been gradually moving from landlines to satellites for distribution. At first, the technology was relatively primitive, expensive, and really only available to the major networks at the time: ABC, CBS, NBC, Mutual, along with the AP and UPI wire services. Previously, I’d worked for Mutual – then a subsidiary of Amway – in a multi-million dollar uplink facility specially built for that purpose. But the financial and regulatory boundaries to entry into this kind of business were coming down, largely driven by advancements in technology.

By the late 1980′s, other entrepreneurs were looking to get into the business of network radio. One of these people was a guy by the name of Chuck Harder, a former disk jockey turned radio talk-show host. He started the “Sun Radio Network” from the garage of his home.

From the perspective of an owner of a small radio station just getting by, networks like Harder’s offered a viable option. For the one-time cost of a satellite downlink – which could even be leased – an inexpensive, if not free way of filling airtime became available. One person, or a couple, could operate a radio station all day and do other tasks, since they need not be on the air all that time. After a few hours of “live” programming on weekday mornings, the rest of the day’s schedule could be filled by programs off the satellite, with only the addition of local commercials for a few minutes an hour.

Viewed most cynically, commercial broadcast programming is just a matter of filling in the spaces between commercials, providing ears and eyes for those commercials. Filling those spaces with some guy sitting in his garage in Tampa, saying whatever comes to mind, is a lot cheaper than paying a number of people to play music. In particular, it’s a lot less expensive than a subscription to the Associated Press newswire, which cost hundreds of dollars a month for even a small station.

But as the nature of the players changed, as the programming sources moved from the traditional to the new, so did the content.

Here was one marker of that contrast: the product of a news organization – produced by trained journalists who are paid, ideally, to separate fact from fiction, and who uncover things that are often disturbing, unexpected, and not what the audience cares to hear – costs real money.

Some guy sitting in his garage telling his audience what they want to hear – remember, this is about attracting ears for those commercials – costs nothing.

In this case, it follows that one of the frequent topics of Chuck Harder’s radio show back then was the “black helicopter” myth. Completely fictitious stories, like the allegation that armed federal agents in black helicopters were enforcing the Endangered Species Act, took on a life of their own. Stories like these having little connection if any to reality, propagated by talkshow hosts, were then picked up by politicians who ride the wave of the underlying attitudes embodied in these stories – paranoia, pointless anti-governmentalism, and distraction from more important concerns.

On a visit to the area in the early 1990′s, I heard Harder on the Fulton station I’d briefly owned, babbling with callers about these same mythical helicopters.

Thus began massive changes in the radio business. AM radio became dominated by talk hosts including Rush Limbaugh, whose national show also started in 1988. Talk radio fills up space on the dial – cheaply – and it need not fulfill any traditional expectation of being somehow connected to reality, even while it’s not clearly perceived to be simply “for entertainment purposes only.”

Fast-forward ahead almost twenty years to the present day. Now, it’s not just the little rural radio stations that are undergoing a similar transition.

Today, you have the schedule of CNN Headline News migrating to something filled with things other than news, with trash talkers like Glenn Beck and Nancy Grace.

There was once a time when if you had a half hour and you wanted to find out what was going on the world, you could turn on CNN Headline News and get a summary of current events. Now, I can’t remember when I last watched that channel.

In some ways similar to the transition of AM radio twenty years ago, a similar change is in progress. CNN, faced with more competition as the number of TV channels available by cable and satellite has exploded, along with the Internet, has changed the programming of what was a full-time news channel, replacing large blocks of time with the similar rantings of talk show hosts.

Again, this time in the search for eyeballs, the distinction between fact and fiction becomes blurred in the quest to provide an audience with what it wants to hear.

So I find it kind of quaint, when John and Joe at Americablog call for Glenn Beck’s firing, and then later notice that CNN president Jonathan Klein would rather fire qualified hard news reporters instead. And while Beck is a homophobe, and Grace is – well, out of her mind – they speak to the same background “hum” that all such personalities work to address.

That is where the eyeballs, ears and, consequently, advertising revenue come from. Endlessly repeating a narrative – a portion of the background “hum” – full of retribution against evildoers and violence, direct or implied, against outsiders and transgressors is where the money is. Facts, or the corrosive effect of this kind of narrative on society and governance, are simply irrelevant.

Which brings me to the odd little postscript of this story, which is that one of the sea changes over the past twenty years in American media, and in the broadest sense, culture, is the “mainstreaming” of certain views across media; that elements of articulation of that background “hum” that were always there have moved from relatively obscure to predominant. Rather than having to seek out the back pages of small rural papers, or tiny little radio stations that can barely be heard, to hear certain views that used to be championed by what some mistakenly called “the fringe” like the Birchers, all one need do today is turn on CNN or open The Washington Post.

And as for that little radio station in Fulton? It later went through a succession of owners, one who apparently coupled it to a free local newspaper with some success, and another who attempted to drop the talk format for “traditional country.” Ultimately the station failed again, and went dark for a while last year. Now it’s just a relay of a Syracuse radio station, which in turn runs “Radio Disney.” As broadcast media wholesale adopted the talk radio model, this station was in some ways obsolete, and likewise, Chuck Harder’s program and network have, relatively speaking, declined in recent years. Harder’s website still lists the long-gone Fulton station as his only New York State affiliate.

Photos from my time in Upstate New York can be found at my gallery site,

The man who put the station back on the air in 1988 went on to teach communications and write books about vintage outboard motors.