Radio station takes human element off the air

June 16, 2002|By MICHAEL OLESKER

THERE ARE roughly three dozen radio stations around Baltimore, but only one Ken Jackson. And now he's gone. Forty years after he arrived in town, he becomes another headstone marker along radio's drumbeat march to homogenization.

Two weeks ago, the bosses at WLG, 1360 on the AM dial, delivered an ultimatum: Either get with the new style, or get another life. They've brought in the trend of the moment, called voice-tracking. All it does is remove spontaneity, and timeliness and energy.

Instead of live broadcasts, the station's broadcasters now tape much of their programming in advance. Management says it tightens the format. Jackson says the very idea feels fraudulent.

"I could go in on a Monday," he was saying the other day, "and do voice-tracking for the whole week. You insert 20 or 30 seconds at a time into a computer, and they stick the tracks between songs and commercials for later on. Nobody's in the studio any more; everybody's gone home.

"They told me it's an industry trend. But it's not live radio. I like the challenge of the moment, live, spontaneous. You hear the news that Sinatra's just died, so you play his music. Or Rosemary Clooney's playing the Lyric, so you do a live interview with her.

"With the new system, it sounds robotic and stilted and unnatural. It's hard to be enthusiastic on Monday for something that's to be played on Thursday. Or maybe there's a tornado in the news. But you don't know it, because it hasn't happened yet, so you can't talk about it."

Jackson, 70, arrived here in June 1962 and delivered news at WCBM for 25 years, then worked four years at WBAL before spending the last decade playing music at WLG. For a couple of reasons, the station plays a small song on local airwaves: Its signal doesn't stretch very far beyond the metro area; and, in a time when FM radio is mostly rock and AM is mostly talk, WLG is the last station in the area playing pop music that predates rock 'n' roll.

In other words: Sinatra and Nat King Cole, and Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, and Tony Bennett and Streisand and Mathis. Jackson played it and always brought to it something rare in modern radio: a sense of civility, musical authority and history. And a sense of the community.

In a time when most radio stations are part of national conglomerates, WLG and its sister station - the talk-show format WCBM - are locally owned and staffed on-air by locals. WLG's morning man, Alan Field, has been around since the glory days of rock 'n' roll at the old WCAO.

Where Ken Jackson drew on a big-band sensibility, Field specializes in a Broadway background and charm.

But these, too, are fading from the air. Slowly, the station's introducing more and more music from the rock era. (And not the best of it. Are there really people who still want to hear Pat Boone's pale cover versions of Little Richard songs?)

"The station is constantly evolving," WLG General Manager Bob Pettit said last week. "We have the oldest audience. We've got people in their 70s, plus what we call the newly disenfranchised, the baby boomers who don't want to hear the latest rock 'n' roll. We're straddling two generations. But, as those listeners get older, they die off. We have to update the music to keep an audience."

So it's the changing of a culture. But it devalues the benefits of performers whose music became, for a lot of listeners, the classic American pop sound. Also, in a market with three dozen stations, it questions whether there isn't a slice of audience space for something different, something out of our national attic.

And then there's the computerized voice-tracking, which has now led to Ken Jackson's departure.

"By recording in advance," Pettit said, "it gives more control. It makes sure they have a tighter time period for talking, and there's less stumbling."

Less stumbling?

"They tend to ramble, they're looking for words, they're going two or three minutes before they get to the point," Pettit said. "We need them to be more concise."

With all due respect, he is talking about professionals who have been in the business for generations. Does Pettit understanding how breathtaking his remarks are?

"Mm-hmm," he says.

Well, we live in a fast-paced world. The music reflects it, and so does the radio patter. Our trigger fingers are quick to hit the car-radio buttons. The question is: Is there no room left for the change of pace? None for Alan Field handing us Rodgers and Hart in the middle of a workday, or Ken Jackson taking a moment to remember when Ellington cut "Take the `A' Train?"

Jackson could have stuck it out. He could have laid down the voice tracks in advance. He chose not to. Try it, Jackson says he was told. So he walked into the little taping room to pre-record, and found himself getting sick. He turned around, walked out, and went home.

And ended a career, and set up one more headstone marking the closing of a radio era.

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