There’s an old saying in broadcasting. It probably started in radio. When you get into that business, especially on the air, you need to know there are two kinds of broadcasters. Those who have been fired. And those who will be fired.
Nobody reinforced the lessons about the realities of the radio business than the man who taught many of the nation’s best broadcast professionals – now-retired Professor Rick Wright at the Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, my alma mater. (Full disclosure: Rick Wright helped start WJPZ-FM, where I worked in college. I took two of his classes and he was my faculty advisor on my independent study. I inducted him into the WJPZ Hall of Fame in 2009.)
Unlike many academics, Rick was always grounded in the real world of the profession and taught every student about “The Ziggy,” often abbreviated as “The Zig.” Getting fired, for talent in particular, was part of the deal. It was always about ratings, money, or both. But like Rick, passion and enthusiasm for radio made the career choice a calling that you may not be able to fight, so you may as well become great. Or, as he put it, “An act that attracts.”
Last week, we told you about the devastating cuts made by a company that calls itself iHeartMedia and its app, ironically, iHeartRadio. Today, officially, we found out those cuts included a retired professor, a living legend of the airwaves in Central New York, who was paid next-to-nothing to do an “Old School” live radio show on an otherwise automated AM radio station on Sundays. Really. That was among the items busting the budget?
This corporate behemoth, in the same market, gave “The Zig” to the top-rated morning show in the market, on its #1 station. So it’s not about ratings. Rick was making peanuts, doing it for the love of the job and connecting with the community. So it can’t really be about money. As a PR move, it makes no sense. We can only speculate as to why a corporation would seemingly want to run an asset into the ground, giving its listeners little reason to stay and local businesses little reason to spend money.
The cruel irony here is that Rick Wright has forgotten more about radio than the profit-mongers and bean counters have ever known. If you believe “those who can’t do, teach” then you’ve never met Rick. He did and taught in order to take his unadulterated joy for radio and spread it to generations who he believed would staff the industry he loved and carry it into a successful future.
But, ultimately, politicians who changed the rules and hedge fund managers who didn’t care about the product, got in the way. Those of us who cherish Rick could rest assured that at at least he had his Sunday gig. Now that’s gone and, with it, goes a little more of the hope for the future of the medium.