ken rabac

Reads: 257  | Likes: 2  | Shelves: 0  | Comments: 0

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Reddit
  • Pinterest
  • Invite

Status: Finished  |  Genre: Other  |  House: Booksie Classic

Ken Rabac Interview

10 Years at a Public Radio College Jazz Station

Long-time, popular afternoon Jazz radio host, Ken Rabac (Dr. K) was permanently suspended early this summer after playing Branford Marsalis’ medium ballad Hope from the Braggtown album.  It was denounced as “”out-jazz”.  Ken can be heard at 10 am and 10 pm Saturdays on Pure Jazz Radio and will also host some local radio programs.  Ken has transferred to the college Communications department and will teach Broadcast Announcing and Performance this fall and will serve as an advisor to the student radio station, WNSC.  He is developing a proposal to expand WNSC into a topflight online radio station that provides content for local AM and FM stations and for other Internet stations.

SR: Ten years is a long time, what is the first thing you think about when you look back on the original landscape?

Ken Rabac: TR, was the program director at the time, and when I came to interview I was immediately impressed that he was the ultimate NPR executive, so fully engrossed in the network that he even read the books that were current in network interviews.  So, the educational and public radio climate hit me really strongly.  The staff was bigger and there were more players than now.  It was a bustling office with a dynamic group of student interns and volunteers all excited about learning about radio and improving their talents.  The newsroom was full of students and they had vivid personalities and a strong dynamism reflecting an eagerness about the first stages of their communications careers. (It’s a computer assembly and repair room now.)

Then I met Dave Martin, who became my “partner in music”.  We bonded instantly.  He was just graduating from UCF and working as the night-time announcer.  His taste in Jazz was impeccable and his sense of humor and enthusiasm were contagious. 

SR:  You all just blended together and played off each other’s creative energy so well it was just such a blast to be around the two of you and to hear you both on the radio.

Ken Rabac: That, and the fact that Dave and I were both diehard mainstream, straight-ahead, and bebop enthusiasts.  We had both discovered Jazz in childhood and we both had posters of John Coltrane and Charlie Byrd on the wall.  

SR: Was there autonomy and encouragement to explore?

Ken Rabac: No, it was directive/aversive management: issuing commands and threatening punishment. Encouragement and exploration are foreign to that style of management.

SR: Especially since you grew up as a Jazz writer…

 

 

Ken Rabac:  I had grown up as a protégé of Ahmad Jamal, and Yusef Lateef, in Detroit. I had interviewed and seen George Shearing, Cannonball Adderley, Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis in my early teens.  I favored these greats of the straight-ahead art form. I disclosed these preferences when I joined the staff. I also dig the “dukes” and the “hanks”: Mobley, Crawford and Jones!  I like big bands that really kick, like Gordon Goodwin and Charlie

Ken Rabac: At first, I was asked to run my music choices past the music director who was very astute about recent recordings, and had a great ear.  She soon freed me to choose freely from the library and my own Jazz collection. Dave and I collaborated so fully that he could let me know what cuts would run afoul of station policy.  I was informed that drum, and bass guitar solos, and Wayne Shorter were not allowed. But, to her credit, JA would come to me, from time to time, and ask me to play certain Shorter pieces, despite the ban.  I had grown up from 14 years of age seeing Wayne at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge in Detroit and the no-play policy surprised me. 

I was also a fan of Ted Curson, John Handy and Charlie Mingus, but I did not want to impose my personal acceptance of the less melodic or more dissonant artists on the audience.  Like Steve Turre, I have always believed that true Jazz comes out of the fulcrum of Armstrong, Ellington and Basie, the way philosophy is a footnote to Plato. So I was really grounded in the tradition. I dig Buck Clayton to this day.

SR: So bans on particular artists was unusual?

Ken Rabac: In hindsight, the Wayne Shorter ban struck me as peculiar and ominous.  After TR and J left, the prohibitions on certain artists or particular songs became more numerous but Dave was always there to argue in favor of the wide spectrum of Jazz and the tradition.  Once Dave left, the “guidelines” became unbreakable rules that were harshly enforced.

You know Jazz has always been about pushing us beyond our preferences and comfort zones to hear new sounds and creations.  Even Ornette Coleman would say, and I am definitely paraphrasing here: “You may not like what I am about to play, but give me the respect of listening to it with an open mind”.

SR: Technologically, what were the differences? 

Ken Rabac: Quite simply, technology came to drive programming than vice versa. I just finished a doctorate in Education and there is an unbreakable rule that technology should never drive learning.  Is the same with music, but at this station it has.  Automation runs from 6 pm to 6 am daily and even some of the seemingly live shows are actually pre-recorded, voice tracked, and automated; homogenized (SR’s word).  Many of the daily shows are actually automated, pre-recorded. This is, of course, part of a national trend in radio, and it is economical but with a loss of variety, unpredictability and spontaneity. Technologically, I became a data entry operator, as operations director. I spent about four hours a day uploading and downloading, and 4 hours on the air. Near the end of my program, my autonomy was so severely restricted that I may just as well have been pre-recorded and automated.  In the last weeks, I was even instructed to match the BPM’s of songs (beats per minute) and never to play songs from different eras consecutively. 

SR:  As a listener, I would like to feel I can call the host I am hearing.  That’s a loss to me as a listener.

Ken Rabac: I get that a lot from previous listeners who manage to contact me.  They miss the instant connection via telephone.  In fact, my program was always a collaboration with listeners.  I was told that only the jazz afficianados call and that only a very small portion of the audience calls, so callers should really be ignored as insignificant.  In all of my years in radio, some 38 years to date, I have always collaborated with listeners who call-in and adjusted the program to their contributions, requests and responses.  I consider them ultimately significant.

SR:  As a contributor, it’s my radio station too.  So why shouldn’t listeners matter, especially at a public radio station that is listener supported.  Isn’t than an oxymoron?

Ken Rabac: Well, there is a tendency to refer to ratings as a way to justify “serving listeners”. But, in my opinion, a 3500 watt station that only gets mentioned in a handful of Arbitron books does not really get an accurate statistical representation of its audience. I think tiny stations use ratings to feel better about themselves, to say “Look someone mentioned me, I must matter”. If two people mention you in a ratings book, that’s two listeners, it’s not really .04 % of the total available listening audience.  No one knows the actual audience size.  As all statisticians know, when the numbers are that small, they are virtually meaningless: moot, null.  When you have actual, bonafide listeners phoning in, you don’t have a statistical representation of a miniscule portion of the audience, you have actual human beings. 

Ken Rabac:  When I was with WWJ/CBS in Detroit, the ratings were immense and the public was aware of all your news stories. It was like being a local celebrity. When I worked at Y106 (for 7 years, on and off) we had a big audience and great ratings and we could get an accurate statistical picture of the size of the audience via Arbitron.  We also had 100,000 watts of power to broadcast. Listeners would swarm to live events. Even at WBZS AM, a business station, I got 4.7 shares in the afternoon, and even more than that at WLOQ in 1983. But these were significant, measurable numbers based on accurate mathematics.  Ratings for small signals, with a handful of mentions, are vanity numbers, not much more.  They may puff up someone’s pride, but that’s about it.

Ken Rabac: Inaccurately applied statistics are too often used in media to justify management decisions or to prop up forgone conclusions after the fact.  True dialogue is more reliable and can also be documented and analyzed (through content analysis) and provides accurate, reliable research.  Content analysis can also be quantified and yields accurate and valid statistical results. At a station this tiny, audience analysis is way more important and valid, statistically, and in terms of accuracy. But when I discussed audience analysis, know one knew what I was talking about.

SR: How do audiences play in to song selections?

Ken Rabac: A listener may be able to call to mind the exact cut that will keep the set flowing.  So often they do.  In fact, I used to play “George’s Gems” based on a medical professional who commuted from the East coast to Central Florida each day.  George and I had esp and he would often call and request the next song I was about to play.  But just as often, he would request the perfect piece to follow the current selection.  And George was one of about 40 regular callers who would immerse themselves in the program and phone in astute requests.  The semi-regular callers would number in the hundreds. This is truly, listener-supported radio. You have to trust your audience, because if you have truly connected with them, communicated, they can be very valuable.  I mean (World Class & Jazz Illuminary) Larry Coryell was listening at home and in the car.  You’ve got to care about that.

 

SR: Are fund drives accurate portrayals of audience size or support?

Ken Rabac: Size no, support: sometimes.  But pledge drives can also be manipulated to favor certain programs.  You can choose premiums that appeal to certain listeners and not others, like Nat King Cole anthologies.  Cole was a jazz-great, but not every straight-ahead Jazz listener wants a copy of all of his 3 minute or less pop tunes. Those were never meant to be Jazz. In my case, I did great pledge drive numbers by providing hand picked premiums that I acquired in my annual travels around the country.  I brought in “pump primers” to elicit the first calls of the hour and worked creative deals based on the criteria I was given.  Once this got reduced to offering the same CDs as the morning program, for the third shift in a row, the proceeds were reduced for the afternoon program.  I think pledge drives can be a meaningful referendum on programming and music selections, but the opportunities to manipulate responses can invalidate the results.  In my case, everything that worked well for me in pledge drives was eventually outlawed and I was left at a disadvantage.  Even my best, regular fund drive guests were banned from the studio. 

SR: What do you miss about the good old days of FM radio?

Ken Rabac: Dave Martin, the students, Terry and Jamie, David Dees, the bluegrass host, Steve and Kate Levensohn, the Irish music show host, everything but the automation! I even miss the cassette tapes, the minidiscs, and the programs that had to be manually recorded.  Its like the oil painter missing the smell of turpentine.  You really get to love the raw materials in themselves.  By the end of my tenure I was really, primarily a data entry operator when I was off the air.  It was all about lines of programming language. 

Ken Rabac: I miss the camaraderie but mostly the sheer excitement and challenge of working with eager students who are enraptured with Broadcasting.  Helping the next generation of broadcasters learn their craft, improve their techniques and then find internships and ultimately professional positions in the industry was so worthwhile and enriching. I was proud that virtually of all the students we trained, and we would have as many as 30 at a time in the good old days, went on to professional jobs in Broadcasting.  We’re talking ESPN and big time radio and television.  That’s the ultimate kick; to be part of that.

SR: And the listeners?

Ken Rabac: I really miss the contact and collaboration with listeners, especially the members of Central Florida Jazz Society and the professional musicians in town.  I mean I still hang out with Larry and Tracy Coryell and play tennis with them.  I talk to Alan Vache, Mark Simmons and so many other local greats, but it’s different than being “in the mix”, on the air and in the field of play. 

I have to say that there is nothing quite like a local Jazz concert, or running into members of the local Jazz society at another concert.  There is such a bond, and so much connection that its like a continual family reunion.

SR: How about the live jazz jams and band performances you produce?

Ken Rabac: I also miss that Jazz Jam we did at Natura Coffee and Tea where some of the coolest and hippest players in town, out-of-town celebrities and the younger audience would come together weekly with us to celebrate the joy of Jazz.  I got to play weekly with many of the local Jazz students and formed friendships with them. It was always surprising to see Jeff Rupert’s new bands each year and to marvel at their sheer talent, and his.

SR: And your teaching Communications to bright young students?

Ken Rabac: I miss the collaborative afternoon show we had with RTV students writing and reading the news and sports.  They were excellent and well-trained, professional and informative. I was proud of them.  Chris Christi worked for NASA, Shawn Noble actually broke a national news story related to 9/11 getting new information from a intelligence officer.  Sheldon Frankel was the ultimate sports reporter. I could go on and on….Dave Martin even did news reports.  One of my interns, Vince Patino went to New York to work on The Colbert Report.  Other students went on to ESPN or NPR.  When I joined the station there were about 30 students around, that number was reduced until there were almost none. I never could understand why such a beautiful and successful training program was dismantled.

You know, I guess I just miss the time when Jazz was joyful at the station.  The mood got more and more grim as time went on. 

SR: What don’t you miss?

Ken Rabac: I have never been comfortable in coercive environments. I thrive in collaborative, transformative contexts. I have to give management and myself credit for staying together for 10 years despite vast differences in values and management philosophy. But this was a toxic workplace.  I don’t miss the bullying or the stress.

Do you think automation in radio is an inevitability? Why or why not?

Ken Rabac: Automation has proven to be economical and its defenders will tell you it gives listeners more music and less talk.  It’s a more efficient product.  On the other hand, it impoverishes the art of music and the craft of announcing.  It is inevitable and automation systems are ubiquitous.  However, automated local stations face stiff competition from satellite and Internet radio.  It’s not a game they can win, they are partnering their own extinction. As satellite radio has siphoned listeners away, radio executives have determined that imitating satellite radio is the best path to compete. However, satellite radio has the technology to perform flawlessly, local stations can be a bit clunky, here and there. You can hear the mistakes, the gaffes, the silences, the programming errors. It also has this alien, inhuman, robotic feel to it.

SR: Loses the human warmth and connection….

Ken Rabac: I think audiences will eventually find the automation alienating.  It’s commodification of art.  Turning music into a commodity for passive consumption.  I think Americans still have an independent streak and they will suffer listener fatigue when subjected to mechanized music and announcing.  I think it’s inevitable that listeners will turn away from the lifeless, soul-less programmatics and seek something creative, human, and spontaneous again.  Right now, the public has not had a voice.  Decisions have come hard and fast as economic choices are made to take advantage of automated solutions and methods. 

SR: Any examples?

Ken Rabac: Jazzworks, a nationally distributed broadcast program, is, to me, homogenized announcers playing mostly the same music at different times.  Eventually this leads to tune-out and stupefaction.  I noticed that when I first heard Jazzworks I would unconsciously turn it off within five minutes.

I got satellite radio at the urging of my son, and I would get bored with the playlists within a couple hours of listening to any format.  I think ultimately most listeners will want more than this.  Like me, they may turn to Pandora, my favorite way to listen to Jazz right now.  I tune into Bebop/Combo and its generally engaging.  Eventually, I catch on to the logarithm of a new Pandora station and drift away

SR: So, Internet Radio will be the refuge

Ken Rabac: Take Pure Jazz Radio (www.purejazzradio.com); it is programming today what WUCF FM was like in the “good old days” we discussed. At ten and ten on Saturdays, I do what I used to do on WUCF FM.  Within two years, Internet Radio should be as ubiquitous as satellite and it will do for radio what cable did for television.

SR: Any other involvement in Internet radio?

I have an opportunity to participate in developing a student radio stateion into an appealing, first class Internet radio station.  There are people who say “radio is dead” or dying.  I think Internet radio is just being born and ready to explode on the national and international info highway.  It’s an opportunity to redefine radio for a whole new generation of listeners and to provide a robust alternative to automated robocasts.You can hear the station on your I Phone, on your cell phone.  It’s easier than tuning in your radio.  You can open the site in your car and patch the signal into your car radio in less than a minute.  A couple clicks and you can stream the signal to your computer at home or in the office.  The future is unlimited and the possibilities are currently limitless.  You won’t get static in a high rise downtown or lose the station when you hit Pine Hills.  If you have a connection, you’ve got the station. 

Ken Rabac: This is an unprecedented opportunity to be in on the ground floor of a form of communications that has any computer or cell phone user in the world as a potential listener.  First of all you can capture the UCF student community, and the professional and ancillary community locally.  Then you can capture the genre communities, the Jazz listeners in Central Florida, the alternative rock listeners, or just those who want to know what is happening at the nation’s 2nd largest university on a daily basis.  The potential is phenomenal. 

SR: What is your focus with upgrading student enterprise radio?

Ken Rabac: My focusing statement is: “How many people do you know who bought a new computer this year?  How many bought and FM or AM radio?”  Sure they are in cars, but for young adults they are just an inert part of the dashboard.  I have the privilege of a good relationship with Ken Dardis, one of the world’s most respected radio researchers (www.audiographics.com).  Ken tells me recent research shows that in the college age audience only about 2-5% have AM or FM radios.  As a very astute colleague tells me, “if it doesn’t evolve, it’s a lost medium and kids will bypass it”. 

SR: Can we preserve creativity and innovation in public radio in the future?

Ken Rabac: So the total domination of radio by automated programming may not be an inevitable if creative, intelligent, and technologically aware broadcasters envision compelling approaches to what is still a miraculous medium.

SR: Any Clarifications?

Ken Rabac: Not to knock automated programming like Jazzworks and the new automated format of  this station, but the soul has been eviscerated from radio Jazz when you can’t play an almost symphonic and masterful piece of music, or really anything Branford Marsalis has recorded. He is a giant figure in the emergence of high quality, straight ahead Jazz.  You can’t hear the truly innovative pieces on Semi-Automated Jazz Radio. 

SR: Other ripple effects of semi-automated Jazz Radio?

Ken Rabac: Well, at the station we have been discussing program hosts are told that the automated and prerecorded programs should sound just like the live programs that they host. This results in a dampening effect where the hosts recede into being soul-less announcers, like the time and temperature guys on the bank weather phone lines. There is no grab or compelling personality coming through. For the most part it is just good voices reading off songs played, back announcing sets.

SR: Sets?

Ken Rabac: I think there still is a frame of mind that announcers are presenting sets, but these are not Jazz sets as we typically know them.  I learned from Ahmad Jamal, Yusef Lateef, even George Shearing about how to put together a Jazz set, and (when I was still a very young reporter) from Bobby Darin and Tony Bennett how to structure a live set.

SR: Some priniciples?

Ken Rabac: I have discussed this repeatedly with my colleague David Martin.  One principle is building a set to a series of crescendos and then backing off on the tempos and intensities and beginning the next build. It has helped greatly that I have been a bandleader since my 20’s and applied the Darin/Bennett tips to live performances. In order to be truly compelling, a Jazz radio show should have similar dynamics.

SR: Did you ever present your ideas on dynamics to management?

Ken Rabac: Definitely fell on deaf ears.  I even had David Martin cheering me on and attempting to get management to at least listen and consider. Their frame of mind was that the only main value in terms of dynamics was to be “non-offensive” and avoid “offending listeners” or causing them to tune out by challenging them to at least hear more creative and innovative Jazz. Frankly, my presentation frightened them.

SR: How did you present your ideas?

Ken Rabac: Using sine wave analogies and acoustic gain and potential acoustic gain, I created an essay and a series of charts.  The charts demonstrated the program dynamics of each of the regular hosts on the radio station. The morning announcer had no “build”, no crescendos and, in fact, his sets went nowhere.  His sets were just a flat presentation of song after song designed to placate older listeners who would contribute more to pledge drives. 

SR: What sense did that make, even to him?

Ken Rabac: In fact since his background was an illustrious career in radio sales, he openly admitted that keeping the post elderly listeners was his main goal as he felt he generated more pledges from the very oldest listeners who also had more money than college students and young adults. He also told “corny jokes”, his words, that would appeal only to the most ancient demographic.

SR: Was he a musician?

Ken Rabac: Mainly a salesman who wanted the attention and ego boost of being on-air. He did play flute to some extent and would sometimes show up at local jams to noodle through a Jazz chestnut.  You gotta watch out for that if your actual talent doesn’t match your notoriety or personality.

SR: Was he knowledgeable about Jazz?

Ken Rabac: He was more of a comedian than a Jazz musician.  He had met some of the greats of Jazz but it was very selective, just the more mainstream types, with the exception of one Chicago based reed player who is a killer musician.

SR: So more dumb jokes and audience placation than challenge?

Ken Rabac: David and I had a joke that he used to play in Big Band Jazz groups but with the bandleader would call “So What” he couldn’t resist responding with “Sew Buttons”. He was nonsensical like that and prone to explaining jokes that others did not get.  Also self-congratulatory, singing his own praises.  When he would praise a song, he would often say: “That was nice. Wasn’t that nice. Yeah that was nice.” In fact “nice” was by far the most descriptive and frequently invoked term in his vocabulary.

SR: But at least he was live and not automated.

Ken Rabac: Yes he somehow had internalized how to sound like a recorded or automated program and his delivery was never really topical or based on current events. So this created an “air sound” that was very similar to automation, just goofier.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

10 Years at a Public Radio College Jazz Station

Long-time, popular afternoon Jazz radio host, John Kenneth Rabac (Dr. K) was permanently suspended early this summer after playing Branford Marsalis’ medium ballad Hope from the Braggtown album.  It was denounced as “”out-jazz”.  Ken can be heard at 10 am and 10 pm Saturdays on Pure Jazz Radio and will also host some local radio programs.  Ken has transferred to the college Communications department and will teach Broadcast Announcing and Performance this fall and will serve as an advisor to the student radio station, WNSC.  He is developing a proposal to expand WNSC into a topflight online radio station that provides content for local AM and FM stations and for other Internet stations.

SR: Ten years is a long time, what is the first thing you think about when you look back on the original landscape?

John Kenneth Rabac: TR, was the program director at the time, and when I came to interview I was immediately impressed that he was the ultimate NPR executive, so fully engrossed in the network that he even read the books that were current in network interviews.  So, the educational and public radio climate hit me really strongly.  The staff was bigger and there were more players than now.  It was a bustling office with a dynamic group of student interns and volunteers all excited about learning about radio and improving their talents.  The newsroom was full of students and they had vivid personalities and a strong dynamism reflecting an eagerness about the first stages of their communications careers. (It’s a computer assembly and repair room now.)

Then I met Dave Martin, who became my “partner in music”.  We bonded instantly.  He was just graduating from UCF and working as the night-time announcer.  His taste in Jazz was impeccable and his sense of humor and enthusiasm were contagious. 

SR:  You all just blended together and played off each other’s creative energy so well it was just such a blast to be around the two of you and to hear you both on the radio.

John Kenneth Rabac: That, and the fact that Dave and I were both diehard mainstream, straight-ahead, and bebop enthusiasts.  We had both discovered Jazz in childhood and we both had posters of John Coltrane and Charlie Byrd on the wall.  

SR: Was there autonomy and encouragement to explore?

John Kenneth Rabac: No, it was directive/aversive management: issuing commands and threatening punishment. Encouragement and exploration are foreign to that style of management.

SR: Especially since you grew up as a Jazz writer…

 

 

John Kenneth Rabac:  I had grown up as a protégé of Ahmad Jamal, and Yusef Lateef, in Detroit. I had interviewed and seen George Shearing, Cannonball Adderley, Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis in my early teens.  I favored these greats of the straight-ahead art form. I disclosed these preferences when I joined the staff. I also dig the “dukes” and the “hanks”: Mobley, Crawford and Jones!  I like big bands that really kick, like Gordon Goodwin and Charlie

John Kenneth Rabac: At first, I was asked to run my music choices past the music director who was very astute about recent recordings, and had a great ear.  She soon freed me to choose freely from the library and my own Jazz collection. Dave and I collaborated so fully that he could let me know what cuts would run afoul of station policy.  I was informed that drum, and bass guitar solos, and Wayne Shorter were not allowed. But, to her credit, JA would come to me, from time to time, and ask me to play certain Shorter pieces, despite the ban.  I had grown up from 14 years of age seeing Wayne at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge in Detroit and the no-play policy surprised me. 

I was also a fan of Ted Curson, John Handy and Charlie Mingus, but I did not want to impose my personal acceptance of the less melodic or more dissonant artists on the audience.  Like Steve Turre, I have always believed that true Jazz comes out of the fulcrum of Armstrong, Ellington and Basie, the way philosophy is a footnote to Plato. So I was really grounded in the tradition. I dig Buck Clayton to this day.

SR: So bans on particular artists was unusual?

John Kenneth Rabac: In hindsight, the Wayne Shorter ban struck me as peculiar and ominous.  After TR and J left, the prohibitions on certain artists or particular songs became more numerous but Dave was always there to argue in favor of the wide spectrum of Jazz and the tradition.  Once Dave left, the “guidelines” became unbreakable rules that were harshly enforced.

You know Jazz has always been about pushing us beyond our preferences and comfort zones to hear new sounds and creations.  Even Ornette Coleman would say, and I am definitely paraphrasing here: “You may not like what I am about to play, but give me the respect of listening to it with an open mind”.

SR: Technologically, what were the differences? 

John Kenneth Rabac: Quite simply, technology came to drive programming than vice versa. I just finished a doctorate in Education and there is an unbreakable rule that technology should never drive learning.  Is the same with music, but at this station it has.Automation runs from 6 pm to 6 am daily and even some of the seemingly live shows are actually pre-recorded, voice tracked, and automated; homogenized (SR’s word).  Many of the daily shows are actually automated, pre-recorded. This is, of course, part of a national trend in radio, and it is economical but with a loss of variety, unpredictability and spontaneity. Technologically, I became a data entry operator, as operations director. I spent about four hours a day uploading and downloading, and 4 hours on the air. Near the end of my program, my autonomy was so severely restricted that I may just as well have been pre-recorded and automated.  In the last weeks, I was even instructed to match the BPM’s of songs (beats per minute) and never to play songs from different eras consecutively. 

SR:  As a listener, I would like to feel I can call the host I am hearing.  That’s a loss to me as a listener.

John Kenneth Rabac: I get that a lot from previous listeners who manage to contact me.  They miss the instant connection via telephone.  In fact, my program was always a collaboration with listeners.  I was told that only the jazz afficianados call and that only a very small portion of the audience calls, so callers should really be ignored as insignificant.  In all of my years in radio, some 38 years to date, I have always collaborated with listeners who call-in and adjusted the program to their contributions, requests and responses.  I consider them ultimately significant.

SR:  As a contributor, it’s my radio station too.  So why shouldn’t listeners matter, especially at a public radio station that is listener supported.  Isn’t than an oxymoron?

John Kenneth Rabac: Well, there is a tendency to refer to ratings as a way to justify “serving listeners”. But, in my opinion, a 3500 watt station that only gets mentioned in a handful of Arbitron books does not really get an accurate statistical representation of its audience. I think tiny stations use ratings to feel better about themselves, to say “Look someone mentioned me, I must matter”. If two people mention you in a ratings book, that’s two listeners, it’s not really .04 % of the total available listening audience.  No one knows the actual audience size.  As all statisticians know, when the numbers are that small, they are virtually meaningless: moot, null.  When you have actual, bonafide listeners phoning in, you don’t have a statistical representation of a miniscule portion of the audience, you have actual human beings. 

John Kenneth Rabac:  When I was with WWJ/CBS in Detroit, the ratings were immense and the public was aware of all your news stories. It was like being a local celebrity. When I worked at Y106 (for 7 years, on and off) we had a big audience and great ratings and we could get an accurate statistical picture of the size of the audience via Arbitron.  We also had 100,000 watts of power to broadcast. Listeners would swarm to live events. Even at WBZS AM, a business station, I got 4.7 shares in the afternoon, and even more than that at WLOQ in 1983. But these were significant, measurable numbers based on accurate mathematics.  Ratings for small signals, with a handful of mentions, are vanity numbers, not much more.  They may puff up someone’s pride, but that’s about it.

John Kenneth Rabac: Inaccurately applied statistics are too often used in media to justify management decisions or to prop up forgone conclusions after the fact.  True dialogue is more reliable and can also be documented and analyzed (through content analysis) and provides accurate, reliable research.  Content analysis can also be quantified and yields accurate and valid statistical results. At a station this tiny, audience analysis is way more important and valid, statistically, and in terms of accuracy. But when I discussed audience analysis, know one knew what I was talking about.

SR: How do audiences play in to song selections?

John Kenneth Rabac: A listener may be able to call to mind the exact cut that will keep the set flowing.  So often they do.  In fact, I used to play “George’s Gems” based on a medical professional who commuted from the East coast to Central Florida each day.  George and I had esp and he would often call and request the next song I was about to play.  But just as often, he would request the perfect piece to follow the current selection.  And George was one of about 40 regular callers who would immerse themselves in the program and phone in astute requests.  The semi-regular callers would number in the hundreds. This is truly, listener-supported radio. You have to trust your audience, because if you have truly connected with them, communicated, they can be very valuable.  I mean (World Class & Jazz Illuminary) Larry Coryell was listening at home and in the car.  You’ve got to care about that.

 

SR: Are fund drives accurate portrayals of audience size or support?

John Kenneth Rabac: Size no, support: sometimes.  But pledge drives can also be manipulated to favor certain programs.  You can choose premiums that appeal to certain listeners and not others, like Nat King Cole anthologies.  Cole was a jazz-great, but not every straight-ahead Jazz listener wants a copy of all of his 3 minute or less pop tunes. Those were never meant to be Jazz. In my case, I did great pledge drive numbers by providing hand picked premiums that I acquired in my annual travels around the country.  I brought in “pump primers” to elicit the first calls of the hour and worked creative deals based on the criteria I was given.  Once this got reduced to offering the same CDs as the morning program, for the third shift in a row, the proceeds were reduced for the afternoon program.  I think pledge drives can be a meaningful referendum on programming and music selections, but the opportunities to manipulate responses can invalidate the results.  In my case, everything that worked well for me in pledge drives was eventually outlawed and I was left at a disadvantage.  Even my best, regular fund drive guests were banned from the studio. 

SR: What do you miss about the good old days of FM radio?

John Kenneth Rabac: Dave Martin, the students, Terry and Jamie, David Dees, the bluegrass host, Steve and Kate Levensohn, the Irish music show host, everything but the automation! I even miss the cassette tapes, the minidiscs, and the programs that had to be manually recorded.  Its like the oil painter missing the smell of turpentine.  You really get to love the raw materials in themselves.  By the end of my tenure I was really, primarily a data entry operator when I was off the air.  It was all about lines of programming language. 

John Kenneth Rabac: I miss the camaraderie but mostly the sheer excitement and challenge of working with eager students who are enraptured with Broadcasting.  Helping the next generation of broadcasters learn their craft, improve their techniques and then find internships and ultimately professional positions in the industry was so worthwhile and enriching. I was proud that virtually of all the students we trained, and we would have as many as 30 at a time in the good old days, went on to professional jobs in Broadcasting.  We’re talking ESPN and big time radio and television.  That’s the ultimate kick; to be part of that.

SR: And the listeners?

John Kenneth Rabac: I really miss the contact and collaboration with listeners, especially the members of Central Florida Jazz Society and the professional musicians in town.  I mean I still hang out with Larry and Tracy Coryell and play tennis with them.  I talk to Alan Vache, Mark Simmons and so many other local greats, but it’s different than being “in the mix”, on the air and in the field of play. 

I have to say that there is nothing quite like a local Jazz concert, or running into members of the local Jazz society at another concert.  There is such a bond, and so much connection that its like a continual family reunion.

SR: How about the live jazz jams and band performances you produce?

John Kenneth Rabac: I also miss that Jazz Jam we did at Natura Coffee and Tea where some of the coolest and hippest players in town, out-of-town celebrities and the younger audience would come together weekly with us to celebrate the joy of Jazz.  I got to play weekly with many of the local Jazz students and formed friendships with them. It was always surprising to see Jeff Rupert’s new bands each year and to marvel at their sheer talent, and his.

SR: And your teaching Communications to bright young students?

John Kenneth Rabac: I miss the collaborative afternoon show we had with RTV students writing and reading the news and sports.  They were excellent and well-trained, professional and informative. I was proud of them.  Chris Christi worked for NASA, Shawn Noble actually broke a national news story related to 9/11 getting new information from a intelligence officer.  Sheldon Frankel was the ultimate sports reporter. I could go on and on….Dave Martin even did news reports.  One of my interns, Vince Patino went to New York to work on The Colbert Report.Other students went on to ESPN or NPR.  When I joined the station there were about 30 students around, that number was reduced until there were almost none. I never could understand why such a beautiful and successful training program was dismantled.

You know, I guess I just miss the time when Jazz was joyful at the station.  The mood got more and more grim as time went on. 

SR: What don’t you miss?

John Kenneth Rabac: I have never been comfortable in coercive environments. I thrive in collaborative, transformative contexts. I have to give management and myself credit for staying together for 10 years despite vast differences in values and management philosophy. But this was a toxic workplace.  I don’t miss the bullying or the stress.

Do you think automation in radio is an inevitability? Why or why not?

John Kenneth Rabac: Automation has proven to be economical and its defenders will tell you it gives listeners more music and less talk.  It’s a more efficient product.  On the other hand, it impoverishes the art of music and the craft of announcing.It is inevitable and automation systems are ubiquitous.  However, automated local stations face stiff competition from satellite and Internet radio.  It’s not a game they can win, they are partnering their own extinction. As satellite radio has siphoned listeners away, radio executives have determined that imitating satellite radio is the best path to compete. However, satellite radio has the technology to perform flawlessly, local stations can be a bit clunky, here and there. You can hear the mistakes, the gaffes, the silences, the programming errors. It also has this alien, inhuman, robotic feel to it.

SR: Loses the human warmth and connection….

John Kenneth Rabac: I think audiences will eventually find the automation alienating.  It’s commodification of art.  Turning music into a commodity for passive consumption.  I think Americans still have an independent streak and they will suffer listener fatigue when subjected to mechanized music and announcing.  I think it’s inevitable that listeners will turn away from the lifeless, soul-less programmatics and seek something creative, human, and spontaneous again.  Right now, the public has not had a voice.  Decisions have come hard and fast as economic choices are made to take advantage of automated solutions and methods. 

SR: Any examples?

John Kenneth Rabac: Jazzworks, a nationally distributed broadcast program, is, to me, homogenized announcers playing mostly the same music at different times.  Eventually this leads to tune-out and stupefaction.  I noticed that when I first heard Jazzworks I would unconsciously turn it off within five minutes.

I got satellite radio at the urging of my son, and I would get bored with the playlists within a couple hours of listening to any format.  I think ultimately most listeners will want more than this.  Like me, they may turn to Pandora, my favorite way to listen to Jazz right now.  I tune into Bebop/Combo and its generally engaging.  Eventually, I catch on to the logarithm of a new Pandora station and drift away

SR: So, Internet Radio will be the refuge

John Kenneth Rabac: Take Pure Jazz Radio (www.purejazzradio.com); it is programming today what WUCF FM was like in the “good old days” we discussed. At ten and ten on Saturdays, I do what I used to do on WUCF FM.  Within two years, Internet Radio should be as ubiquitous as satellite and it will do for radio what cable did for television.

SR: Any other involvement in Internet radio?

I have an opportunity to participate in developing a student radio stateion into an appealing, first class Internet radio station.  There are people who say “radio is dead” or dying.  I think Internet radio is just being born and ready to explode on the national and international info highway.  It’s an opportunity to redefine radio for a whole new generation of listeners and to provide a robust alternative to automated robocasts.You can hear the station on your I Phone, on your cell phone.It’s easier than tuning in your radio.  You can open the site in your car and patch the signal into your car radio in less than a minute.  A couple clicks and you can stream the signal to your computer at home or in the office.  The future is unlimited and the possibilities are currently limitless.  You won’t get static in a high rise downtown or lose the station when you hit Pine Hills.  If you have a connection, you’ve got the station. 

John Kenneth Rabac: This is an unprecedented opportunity to be in on the ground floor of a form of communications that has any computer or cell phone user in the world as a potential listener.  First of all you can capture the UCF student community, and the professional and ancillary community locally.  Then you can capture the genre communities, the Jazz listeners in Central Florida, the alternative rock listeners, or just those who want to know what is happening at the nation’s 2nd largest university on a daily basis.  The potential is phenomenal. 

SR: What is your focus with upgrading student enterprise radio?

John Kenneth Rabac: My focusing statement is: “How many people do you know who bought a new computer this year?  How many bought and FM or AM radio?”  Sure they are in cars, but for young adults they are just an inert part of the dashboard.  I have the privilege of a good relationship with Ken Dardis, one of the world’s most respected radio researchers (www.audiographics.com).  Ken tells me recent research shows that in the college age audience only about 2-5% have AM or FM radios.  As a very astute colleague tells me, “if it doesn’t evolve, it’s a lost medium and kids will bypass it”. 

SR: Can we preserve creativity and innovation in public radio in the future?

John Kenneth Rabac: So the total domination of radio by automated programming may not be an inevitable if creative, intelligent, and technologically aware broadcasters envision compelling approaches to what is still a miraculous medium.

SR: Any Clarifications?

John Kenneth Rabac: Not to knock automated programming like Jazzworks and the new automated format of  this station, but the soul has been eviscerated from radio Jazz when you can’t play an almost symphonic and masterful piece of music, or really anything Branford Marsalis has recorded. He is a giant figure in the emergence of high quality, straight ahead Jazz.  You can’t hear the truly innovative pieces on Semi-Automated Jazz Radio. 

SR: Other ripple effects of semi-automated Jazz Radio?

John Kenneth Rabac: Well, at the station we have been discussing program hosts are told that the automated and prerecorded programs should sound just like the live programs that they host. This results in a dampening effect where the hosts recede into being soul-less announcers, like the time and temperature guys on the bank weather phone lines. There is no grab or compelling personality coming through. For the most part it is just good voices reading off songs played, back announcing sets.

SR: Sets?

John Kenneth Rabac: I think there still is a frame of mind that announcers are presenting sets, but these are not Jazz sets as we typically know them.  I learned from Ahmad Jamal, Yusef Lateef, even George Shearing about how to put together a Jazz set, and (when I was still a very young reporter) from Bobby Darin and Tony Bennett how to structure a live set.

SR: Some priniciples?

John Kenneth Rabac: I have discussed this repeatedly with my colleague David Martin.  One principle is building a set to a series of crescendos and then backing off on the tempos and intensities and beginning the next build. It has helped greatly that I have been a bandleader since my 20’s and applied the Darin/Bennett tips to live performances. In order to be truly compelling, a Jazz radio show should have similar dynamics.

SR: Did you ever present your ideas on dynamics to management?

John Kenneth Rabac: Definitely fell on deaf ears.  I even had David Martin cheering me on and attempting to get management to at least listen and consider. Their frame of mind was that the only main value in terms of dynamics was to be “non-offensive” and avoid “offending listeners” or causing them to tune out by challenging them to at least hear more creative and innovative Jazz. Frankly, my presentation frightened them.

SR: How did you present your ideas?

John Kenneth Rabac: Using sine wave analogies and acoustic gain and potential acoustic gain, I created an essay and a series of charts.  The charts demonstrated the program dynamics of each of the regular hosts on the radio station. The morning announcer had no “build”, no crescendos and, in fact, his sets went nowhere.  His sets were just a flat presentation of song after song designed to placate older listeners who would contribute more to pledge drives. 

SR: What sense did that make, even to him?

John Kenneth Rabac: In fact since his background was an illustrious career in radio sales, he openly admitted that keeping the post elderly listeners was his main goal as he felt he generated more pledges from the very oldest listeners who also had more money than college students and young adults. He also told “corny jokes”, his words, that would appeal only to the most ancient demographic.

SR: Was he a musician?

John Kenneth Rabac: Mainly a salesman who wanted the attention and ego boost of being on-air. He did play flute to some extent and would sometimes show up at local jams to noodle through a Jazz chestnut.  You gotta watch out for that if your actual talent doesn’t match your notoriety or personality.

SR: Was he knowledgeable about Jazz?

John Kenneth Rabac: He was more of a comedian than a Jazz musician.  He had met some of the greats of Jazz but it was very selective, just the more mainstream types, with the exception of one Chicago based reed player who is a killer musician.

SR: So more dumb jokes and audience placation than challenge?

John Kenneth Rabac: David and I had a joke that he used to play in Big Band Jazz groups but with the bandleader would call “So What” he couldn’t resist responding with “Sew Buttons”. He was nonsensical like that and prone to explaining jokes that others did not get.  Also self-congratulatory, singing his own praises.  When he would praise a song, he would often say: “That was nice. Wasn’t that nice. Yeah that was nice.” In fact “nice” was by far the most descriptive and frequently invoked term in his vocabulary.

SR: But at least he was live and not automated.

John Kenneth Rabac: Yes he somehow had internalized how to sound like a recorded or automated program and his delivery was never really topical or based on current events. So this created an “air sound” that was very similar to automation, just goofier.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 from home.


Submitted: April 29, 2020

© Copyright 2021 john rabac. All rights reserved.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Reddit
  • Pinterest
  • Invite

Add Your Comments:


Facebook Comments

Other Content by john rabac

Article / Other