Wednesday, June 04, 2014

One of my radio pranks

As a long time radio guy I’ve pretty much done it all. I’ve been a disc jockey on numerous formats (Top 40, classic rock, rock of the ‘90s, oldies, chicken rock, country-western, standards, beautiful music, Broadway), talk show host, sportstalk show host, movie critic, newsman, field reporter, play-by-play, disaster coverage anchor, charity radiothon anchor, host of swap meets, and even co-host of a car talk show (despite the fact that I know nothing about cars).

And then, a few years ago, I did traffic reports.

At this point, let me pause and say part of the fun of radio is pulling pranks – either on other jocks, other stations, or the listeners. But for the most part these are done in small markets. There is too much money involved and too much scrutiny to be pulling shit on major stations in Los Angeles, New York, and Boca. If you get fired in Modesto you can probably find a comparable job. If you get canned in Chicago that’s a different story. Of course, I never adhered by that rule.  Just this weekend I shared a prank I pulled once in San Francisco.  Gee, and you wonder why I got fired from so many stations.  Okay, back to today’s post, but this paragraph will tie in.

From 2008-2010 you might remember I co-hosted Dodger Talk with Josh Suchon on KABC, Los Angeles. It was a fun gig and I only left to do play-by-play for the Mariners. In 2009, one of the salesmen at KABC sold a nightly traffic report to be done during each Dodger pre-game show. Traffic reports are big deals in LA where everyone commutes by car (despite the subway system that no one knows about and rarely goes anywhere anyone would want to go). Stations in LA boast “Traffic on the 2’s”, “Traffic on the 4’s”, “Traffic on the 8’s.” Some stations have helicopters. Smarter ones have helicopter sound effects.

So KABC sells a traffic report in the Dodger pre-game show, but who’s going to do it? The Dodgers announcers sure aren’t. I’d like to see the salesman who asks Vin Scully if he wouldn’t mind reporting on fender benders. Since I hosted Dodger Talk after the game they thought, why not dump it on Ken? I graciously declined. They said they’d pay me double my salary. I graciously accepted.

How do you do traffic reports? There are websites you log onto that have the latest traffic info for every major city. I’d log on, enter my password, click “Los Angeles” and cut and paste the most pressing traffic slowdowns. I asked the salesman how long the report should be and he said, “I don’t care. A minute. Forty-five seconds. Whatever. All I give a shit about is that you read the Sprint commercial at the end of it.”

So that’s what I did. It took maybe five minutes to prepare and a minute to deliver. I was usually reporting from the “Massive high-tech space age KABC traffic center sequestered in a secret location.”

Doing this was no problem during home games because I was at the stadium, but when the team was on the road and I wasn’t traveling, I’d have to go to the station to do them. I wanted to record a week’s worth at once and just air them over the course of seven days but that idea didn’t go over very well.

But I always wondered – was anybody actually listening to these traffic reports? One evening, late in the season, the Dodgers were in San Francisco and I was at the station preparing for my big minute. I was hanging out with Howard Hoffman, the production director, and I suggested a way to see if listeners paid any attention. He laughed and said, “you wouldn’t dare.” (This is where that paragraph on pranks pays off.) I gave him a sly smile and headed for my booth.

I opened the report by saying, “If you’re going to the Dodger game tonight, there’s a fifteen minute delay on the Golden Gate Bridge, the 880-Nimitz in the east bay reports slow and go from Concord…”

I just gave the San Francisco traffic report. Super straight, as if this were a San Francisco station. And I tagged it with the Sprint commercial.

Howard came into the booth hysterical. Now we waited to see how many phone calls we got. This was 6:45 in the evening, during the peak afternoon commute.

So how many did we get? I bet you’re ahead of me. That’s right. None. Not a single one. Zero. The big goose egg. No one from the station ever called me. No one from the Dodgers. Nothing.

The following year there was no traffic. I hope Sprint took that money and used it to buy another repeater tower.

22 comments:

Dan Ball said...

I know the Sales dep't brings home the bacon for a station, but I never get tired of hearing tales of their ad-oversaturation going wrong or getting completely schooled by the public's apathy. Fluff advertising like sponsored traffic reports and, in the TV business, "squeezebacks" are just silly and futile. Why does market research never seem to inform salespeople and marketing folk that their target demo probably doesn't give a rat's ass about their client or their product? They should stop needlessly cluttering up the end product and let the real creatives do their thang and generate sales with an excellent product.

Sorry for the crazy rant. But hey...this is a blog, a place for ranting.

RockGolf said...

In Canada, Closed Captioning is sponsored and announced during the broadcast. Frequently, these sponsors are new album releases - Katy Perry, Rihanna, Coldplay.

What better market for new albums than people who can't hear?

404 said...

What the heck is "chicken rock?" I'm pretty savvy with music, but that's new one for me.

Douglas Trapasso said...

No station ever aired "Traffic on the 7 point 3s?" You would think one or two stations would experiment a little with the timing. Oh wait, this is radio.

Scooter Schechtman said...

Here's where you went wrong. In a country where 57.5% of the population can't tell their ass from a hole in the ground you assumed listeners would recognize the name Nimitz.In 2008, with your baby boomer book-larnin' smarts.

Igor said...

Scotter - Yeh, that reference there sounds satirical, something like "the General Ripper bypass". Except that "the 880-Nimitz" is a real freeway.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nimitz_Freeway

benson said...

@Dan Ball..

If there's no ads, there's no broadcast, and no jobs.

@404 Think Celine Dion with a drum

SharoneRosen said...

several years ago while I, too, was in traffic reporter purgatory, I was filling in doing traffic during Peter Greenberg's travel show (also on KABC). He was describing the fabulous charity dinner he'd attended the night before, complete with singing chefs. When he tossed to me, I said, "you've never asked me to sing the traffic." In a disgusted tone, Peter said, "fine, sing the traffic." I came back with a show stopping version of the tune "Hooray for Hollywood" describing traffic conditions on the 101 between the Cahuenga Pass and Downtown L-A.

It became our thing. I sang the traffic reports on Peter's show for three months. Apparently, that's how long it took for the PD and/or GM to notice and tell us to stop.

I love live radio!
(btw, on that show, I was "Ginger Rose." Yes, my stripper name)

Scooter Schechtman said...

Thanks, Igor. I thought I was smarter than all those whippersnappers but I was dumber than a California freeway.

Dan Ball said...

@Benson

I know you need ads, but there's a point where there's an over-saturation that goes unnoticed by most people because they don't care. The point of advertising is to get people to care, so it's silly and pointless. Couldn't the station have done just as well if they had invested the 45-60 seconds in presenting superior programming that increases popular demand and allows them to charge more for their regular advertising time?

Sponsored traffic reports & squeezebacks are nothing more than get-rich-quick schemes for sales departments. A worthless distraction from just doing the job better than the other guys.

Adm. Halsey said...

Funny. And odd that there wasn't one call. There's always at least one someone who feels the need to straighten another someone out, regardless of pertinence and yet nobody called?

Cap'n Bob said...

Chester A. Nimitz, Admiral, US Navy. WWII, the big one.

Speaking of dumb sponsorships, I was driving one night listening to the World Series when someone hit a homer. A moment later they repeated the call, but first announced that the replay was being sponsored by XYZ Auto Sales or whoever. Sheesh.

Brian Phillips said...

Friday question: You've said that many comedies are written by the room, and the credit for the episodes rotate from person to person.

The Tracey Ullman Show from the 1980's was a "skit-com" as I believe James Brooks called it. There were sketches that were one-offs and some with recurring characters. No sketch lasted the whole episode. Did the room work differently there? Were there writers assigned to Ullman's different characters?

404 said...

@benson

Ah . . . got it. Thanks!

Jon J said...

As a "real radio DJ" you didn't actually call it "country-western" did you? I don't think you'll hear that term spoken once this week as 80,000 have descended on Nashville for the Country Music Association Music Festival. They mostly came to hear country music but there may be some western swing thrown in along the way.

benson said...

@Dan Ball
Being from the programming side, I get what you're saying. But, to use an example from tomorrow's headlines, the Chicago Cubs will announce they're moving their games to a new radio station. The former station (WGN) is losing, by some reported estimates, $6 mil per year. Teams want more rights money. It's gotta come from somewhere. Though I know, as with all the non-free entertainment options for consumers, the pot of gold is not bottomless.

Jeffrey Mark said...

404: Chicken rock is just that. AM stations in the mid-'70s played songs that seemed like rock music, but weren't. They were chicken rock songs...rock disguised as pop music...or the other way around, something like that. In other words the songs were frickin' chicken to really be rock music.

Igor said...

Ken, a FRIDAY QUESTION...

To what extent is a great MLB hitter great because he knows what pitch is coming, and where that pitch is going, before the pitcher starts his delivery? IOW, because he takes in a bunch of factors and figures what this pitcher is likely to throw - at this moment, to him - and, this hitter is so often correct?

I ask because, if that is a major reason for great hitters being great hitters - knowing in advance, versus simply seeing the ball as it comes and swinging at it - then why aren't TV execs able to do the comparable thing?

That is: Take in a bunch of relevant factors and then know where the audience is... and then "swing" new TV shows there? Presumably, the successful execs have that skill to some extent, but are any of them as good at doing that as are the great hitters of baseball?

Igor said...

^^^

Oh, when I wrote, "and where that pitch is going", I meant - where it's going over the plate; I didn't mean where he's going to hit it.

Anonymous said...

Igor, that's what executives are trying to do, and it is failing. The difference is that hitters know what the audience wants, and whether something is an out or a hit.

JR Smith said...

Keep the radio posts coming Ken. Love 'em. I used to listen to you back in the late 70s when I was living in LA going to broadcasting school. You were working at Ten-Q then. Damn that was a high energy station!

Brother Herbert said...

@ Igor

Yes, 880/Nimitz is indeed a real freeway, but FYI it goes nowhere near Concord.

/Concord native