Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Is anybody really listening?

When network ratings are low we always joke that “no one is watching”. And by nobody we mean probably a million. And yes, when that number was more like fifteen million for even low rated shows, one million seems paltry. On a smaller scale is radio. Even when you’re a small station playing informercials for colon cleanser you always assume there is somebody listening.

This theory has been put to the test.

Back in 1988 I was broadcasting minor league baseball for the mighty Syracuse Chiefs (the then-AAA affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays). I had a great partner, Dan Hoard (now the voice of the Cincinnati Bengals and U. of Cincinnati) and a truly horrible radio station. Our signal was so bad at night that you couldn’t hear it in parts of the ballpark. Eventually the team sought a better station, but in my year fans would move from section 30 to section 6 to hear us once the sun went down.

During one roadtrip we traveled to Denver to play the equally-mighty Zephyrs (this was before the Rockies). The venue was the old Mile High Stadium. The park sat 70,000. For Zephyr games against us they drew maybe 2,000. So the stadium looked completely empty every game.

There was no baseball pressbox per se. They just stuck us in a luxury booth near home plate. And that was fine. There was more than enough room. But there were three rows of seats behind us and the team sold those. So there were paying customers in the broadcast booth constantly telling us to shut up. "Hey, we paid ten dollars for these seats!"

One of the games became a marathon. We were in maybe the 14th inning. It must’ve been 1:00 AM in Denver. The fans in the rows behind had long since left.  Dan was doing the play-by-play that inning. He wondered out loud how many people were listening. He said, “Tell ya what, if you’re listening right now call the station (he gave out the number) and we’ll give you two free tickets to an upcoming Chiefs game!” I was waving, “Stop! Don’t do this!  This can't end well.” It was 3:00 AM in Syracuse. But Dan went ahead.

You can probably guess how many calls we got. None. Zero. Zilch. The big goose egg. Despite several mentions (bordering on pleading).

Sometimes when someone says no one is listening, they’re RIGHT.

Oh… and when the game was over – we then had to do a half hour postgame show. Needless to say, we really gave it our all.

Hello from Melbourne, by the way.  For updates on my journey I invite you to follow me on Twitter.  Just go here.   Thanks.

29 comments:

The Curmudgeon said...

It wasn't quite zero, I'd bet (not that we could ever prove it either way). But folks listening to baseball instead of counting sheep; invalids; night shifters; any wives, mistresses, or girlfriends or other players' relatives living close by -- none of these may have wanted to (or have been able to) pick up the phone.

Will you catch any Aussie baseball while you're Down Under?

Nathan said...

When I was a kid (late 60's/early 70's), I thought it was the most hysterical thing in the world to call a radio station late at night and tell them I was going to sleep and I was the last listener for the night, so they could go home.

K.W. Leslie said...

Back in college, our student-run radio station only broadcast to the dorms and the Dining Hall on one of those 30-watt AM transmitters that drive-in theaters used. (I came up with the bumper, "Now coming to you, with thirty thousand milliwatts of power!" as kind of a knock-off of the other stations bragging about their signal strength.)

But we DJs were pretty sure nobody was listening most of the time. One week we were given some CDs for a free giveaway, so we offered them to the 10th caller. After an hour, we offered them to the first caller. Still nothing.

So I threw in the station's spare CD player. (This was 1991, when those things still ran in the hundreds of dollars.) Still nothing. So I added the tape deck. And the equalizer. And the turntables, the mixing board, the reel-to-reel, all the latest CDs, and gradually everything in the studio. Still nothing.

Everyone in the booth found it hilarious, but we really were only entertaining ourselves.

Anonymous said...

AM radio held on in Syracuse longer than a lot of other places -- until the late 70s if you wanted rock music on FM, you had to listen to WOUR out of Utica (you also had to be able to get the NBC station out of Utica to watch the first couple of seasons of Saturday Night Live Live -- too hedonistic for the Salt City regulars). The problem for the Chiefs always was the strong signal AM stations at the bottom of the dial, WSYR and WHEN, were only really interested in doing Syracuse University sports, leaving the Chiefs in the upper reaches of the band where the long-distance trains don't run, like WNDR and WOLF. Those stations were OK in the daytime, but had a hard time getting their signals much past downtown at night.

(Any Joel Mareiniss-Syracuse Chiefs stories, Ken? Joel followed you as their voice after doing SU football for years. He was the master of the forced segue doing sports on TV and while he looked Native American, was actually Jewish and said when he was asked what tribe he was from, would tell people "The tribe of Israel".)

RS Gray said...

My college radio experience was similar to KW's. Our station somehow went through the electrical system instead of the airwaves do only the dining hall, student center, and any radio plugged into a campus outlet could get the station. My freshman year I got stuck with the Friday midnight to four shift. With the dining hall and student center closed and everyone either out for the night or not listening to their radios, you can guess how high the listenership was. I tried call-in contests too, and the phone never rang. For our format we could play whatever we liked, but had to play one track from the College Music Journal Hot 100 at the top and bottom of the hour. One shift, I forgot I'd left the cart in, and ended up playing the B-52s Love Shack at the top and bottom of the hour. I apologized to my hypothetical listeners and then decided to test and see how many there were. I told them, "I'm going to play Love Shack non-stop until someone calls in and tells me to stop." I played it for two solid hours, packed up and went home. Tin roof, rusted.

Diwa said...

now everyone is creating blogs, and the worst is that they all look alike and are copied to each others. few succeed because they are mere imitations of those in the first page of google. At least you have more creativity and your blog has more variety than the others:)

a greeting! keep it up!

Anonymous said...

Sam King said

I love this story. I live in DC and often wonder how many people are watching the during the ninth inning of 6-0 Nationals game in Dodger stadium. This story shows it could be less than I think.

I do have a side question. How well did Mile High Stadium work for Baseball? The picture you posted makes it seem like it had decent sight lines especially for a football stadium.

Charles H. Bryan said...

There are cable channels (and Sirius/XM stations) that should try that experiment.

Michael said...

Jay Randolph said one night he and Jim Simpson did a baseball game for NBC. There was a rain delay and they came back and did the rest of the game, long after midnight, and then learned the network had cut away so they literally had broadcast to nobody. As he said, they lamented their fate the only way they felt they could: at a bar.

Ken's story brings to mind the legendary Byrum Saam, the longtime voice of the Philadelphia Phillies before Harry Kalas. It was an extra-inning game in San Francisco, so it was REALLY late back east, and it had been a long road trip. By was tired. And then came a rundown play where it seemed that everybody on the field touched the ball. He called it and then wanted to explain how to write it down, so he said, "Now for all of you scoring in bed ...."

Rich said...

In the early 90's (91-92) I was the Entertainment Reporter for Channel 13 in L.A. (with the bad, pretends-to-be-you Ken Levine). One night we were outpointed by KCAL 9 from midnight to 3. They got a 0.1, our station got a 0.0.

Oh, one more detail. We were showing infomercials. They were off-the-air for maintenance.

VP81955 said...

Ken's story brings to mind the legendary Byrum Saam, the longtime voice of the Philadelphia Phillies before Harry Kalas. It was an extra-inning game in San Francisco, so it was REALLY late back east, and it had been a long road trip. By was tired. And then came a rundown play where it seemed that everybody on the field touched the ball. He called it and then wanted to explain how to write it down, so he said, "Now for all of you scoring in bed ...."

Now that is funny. (BTW, in 1976, when the Phillies clinched their first postseason berth in 26 years, Harry made sure By was able to broadcast the moment, a Sunday afternoon game at old Jarry Park in Montreal. Saam had missed the 1950 "Whiz Kids" since that year, the sponsor switched him to Philadelphia Athletics games in honor of Connie Mack's 50th (and final) season. (BTW, RIP to Andy Musser, longtime Philadelphia sportscaster and a guy who perfectly fit the thankless role of being the #2 announcer.)

Ken, what station in Syracuse was it? I grew up there, and where I lived in the Valley, all five principal AM stations (WSYR, WHEN, WNDR, WFBL and WOLF) came in fine at nighttime; I can't imagine what station didn't come in well on the North Side, where the ballpark was located. And from doing occasional overnight shifts on Iowa State's student-run FM station (KUSR) in the mid-eighties, I know what it's like when no one is listening.

Mister Charlie said...

The first time I had to give away tickets on-air back in the 80's I said I would take the tenth caller. No one called. And the next time, I got one call, who I immediately dubbed caller #10 and awarded the tickets to. No one else ever called.

It was like sitting in a closet broadcasting to myself.

Prince Cecil Pillmet said...

Because of the product on the field, your following in Seattle may be comparable to that in Syracuse. After another dismal off-season, I have no plans to waste another second of my time following such a pathetic venture. Good luck staying awake in 2012.

Mahesh said...

Hope you get to catch some of the Nadal/Federer match later tonight.

D. McEwan said...

This reminded me of when Alan Thicke had his brief talk show back in 1993, The Alan Thicke Show. One week its ratings were actually posted as a negative number! Apparently a few thousand people nationwide needed to start watching it to get its rating up to Zero!

Jim said...

Even in the big towns the numbers who call in are next to nothing. British comedian Peter Cook (I'm sure Dougie McEwan can tell you more about him) used to regularly ring up a late night show pretending to be Sven, the Norwegian fisherman, talking about fish, family life and fish. There's nothing unusual about the length of time that the presenter lets him go on, and he didn't sound much less of a looney than the other callers.

Michael said...

VP8, thanks, and I appreciate your passing along the news about Andy Musser, who I got to hear a couple of times and was a marvelous broadcaster, apparently without a trace of ego.

By the way, By Saam said that he had a choice in 1950, and since he was a close friend of Connie Mack, he went with the A's. His most famous (infamous) moment was supposedly when Mel Allen introduced him on the 1959 World Series on radio by saying how terrific he was, and By, who wasn't listening, when he did hear his name mentioned, said, "Right you are, Mel!" When he got the Frick Award at Cooperstown, there was a reception, and that was written on all of the napkins.

Don K. said...

Back around 1980, I was 22 and living on my own for the first time in south Orange County, CA. KLOS and KMET were the big radio stations for people my age then. Around midnight, the KLOS DJ said the sixth caller was going to get Jimmy Buffet tickets for a show at the Anaheim Convention Center. I wasn't and still am not a big Buffet fan. My roommate called, and was the first caller. He was also second, third, fourth and fifth. By the fifth time, he informed the DJ he had been the only caller. The DJ said "quit calling and give someone else a chance" and hung up on him. My roomie was kinda pissed off about that, but he didn't call back. About two minutes later I decided to call. Yup, I was caller six and won the tickets. My girlfriend and I went to the show and left after we had heard the only two songs we knew at the time, Cheesburger in Paradise and Margaritaville.

Mike B. said...

I do have a side question. How well did Mile High Stadium work for Baseball? The picture you posted makes it seem like it had decent sight lines especially for a football stadium.
Mile High was a baseball stadium first with a single deck and a bare outfield. After renovations for the Broncos, the upper deck of the third base side couldn't see parts of leftfield. I went to the Rockies' first ever game, sat five rows from the top, and couldn't even read the numbers on the players backs. Unlike other multi-purpose parks of that era which would configure to an oval for football, this one had the left field stands on a lift system that would be brought in for football and pushed back for baseball. All of the other stands were the same for both.

John said...

(I came up with the bumper, "Now coming to you, with thirty thousand milliwatts of power!" as kind of a knock-off of the other stations bragging about their signal strength.)
Back in the day, Pete Franklin used to say that WWWE was broadcasting to "38 states and half of Canada". Many years later, Les Levine said that (whatever 1350 was called then) was broadcasting to "38 streets and half of Canton". He was way overselling the strength of their signal.

Pat Reeder said...

I've done a lot of overnight radio, but most of it was at pretty powerful stations in major markets. Still, I would occasionally wonder if anyone was listening and invite them to call in. In my case, call in they did. I can assure you that unless you want to talk so some, let us say, "interesting" people, you should not invite random strangers who are awake and listening to the radio at 3 a.m. to call you for a conversation.

D. McEwan said...

"Jim said...
Even in the big towns the numbers who call in are next to nothing. British comedian Peter Cook (I'm sure Dougie McEwan can tell you more about him)"


Indeed I could. I venerate the great Peter Cook, a sly, definitely oddball genius. Among other things, he was the Birtisher who "discovered" Barry Humphries for England, and boosted Barry's early career as much as he possibly could. Cook's drinking problem was sad, but the man was great. He could break me up by merely raising an eyebrow. Sadly , I never got to meet him, though I did once spend a lovely evening at a party (The wrap party for Foul {Play as a matter of bragging fact) sitting and chatting with Dudley Moore, just he, I, and Billy Barty. (Well, they were both in the movie, but everyone was fussing over Goldie and Chevy, and ignoring "the Limey and the dwarf." Not me.)

Pat Reeder said...

I've always been a huge fan of Peter Cook (even have old tapes of him and Dud riffing hilariously on the National Lampoon Radio Hour.) If you want to see how highly he was thought of in comedy circles, check out "The Secret Policeman's Ball." Members of Monty Python (Cleese, Palin, etc., generally considered the funniest men in Britain at the time) do one of their classic sketches. Then you see them backstage afterward, trying to figure out why one bit wasn't as funny as it could have been. So they ask Peter Cook what the problem was, and he explains it to them.

Anonymous said...

Great story! Laughed out loud.

carter said...

I would venture to guess that I have been in similar situations at a time or two. I have done radio interviews or podcasts for one or another that had next to no hits. It bothers me a bit, because I would always prepare, then someway half way through I would have the feeling...wait, nobody cares.

D. McEwan said...

"Pat Reeder said...
I've always been a huge fan of Peter Cook (even have old tapes of him and Dud riffing hilariously on the National Lampoon Radio Hour.) If you want to see how highly he was thought of in comedy circles, check out "The Secret Policeman's Ball." Members of Monty Python(Cleese, Palin, etc., generally considered the funniest men in Britain at the time) do one of their classic sketches. Then you see them backstage afterward, trying to figure out why one bit wasn't as funny as it could have been. So they ask Peter Cook what the problem was, and he explains it to them."


You have excellent taste. I'd love to hear those Lampoos riffing recordngs. I have, of course, seen all the Secret Policeman shows.

Vann's Electronics said...

This post is amazing, as well as all the comments. Great to hear "nostalgic" talk of radio...like its almost extinct. Made for a great laugh.

dougR said...

I had less than an hour left before a midnight Sunday sign-off, in the main air studio of the then-rural town's Number One (as in, only) AM radio station. One of the turntables was on the fritz, the gear lever wouldn't stay disengaged, but I discovered that if you wedged a coke bottle against the lever, it would stay out of gear until you were ready to slipcue the record onto air. Suddenly I needed an emergency bathroom break (having consumed questionable comestibles from the local greasy spoon) and just had time to cue up and launch a long live-concert recording of The Carpenters on one TT and cue up a huge long easy-listening medley on the other TT, wedged the coke bottle carefully to keep it out of gear, and headed off to the can at a gallop.

Must have bumped the board on the way out, though, because when I came back from the bathroom, probably eight minutes later, both turntables were spinning merrily, and what was going out on the air was pure godawful cacaphony (yeah, I'd left both TT pots up). And how many people called to complain? Fewer than two. In fact, if I remember correctly, the exact number was.....

Anonymous said...

What the days at WHEN doing games thru recreation by the ticker