Some Radio People Still Want Station Tours, Anyway

A few weeks ago, an industry friend in Australia radio dropped me a note. A protégé of his was coming to several cities in the United States. Could I help her arrange some station tours? On Saturday, I sent several emails to industry friends in a number of different markets. Within a day-and-a-half, I’d heard from three major-market PDs—some of whom hadn’t even waited for Monday to get back to me.

While I’d like you to think this is an indication of my industry clout, it probably better illustrates programmers’ nostalgia for the station tour in their own industry educations. For many, the station tour was an early rite of passage—the first step to becoming more deeply connected to radio than all of your other radio- and music-loving friends. And if that’s how it started, there’s still an impetus to pay it forward.

My Australian contact, Mark Newstead, still remembered his own U.S. radio station tour, of R&B WOL Washington, D.C., in the early ‘70s by legendary jock Bobby Bennett, now of SiriusXM. As it turned out, that was the first radio station where I had hung out. (My dad had briefly worked there a few years earlier.) It might not have been many broadcasters’ first stop, but it was a great choice—an incredible station, still at its peak. 

I remember a lot of my tours just as fondly. The suburban D.C. station my dad took me to at age 8 turned out to be the first one I worked at. I went to Toronto for the first time while in college, and while top 40 CHUM and CFTR didn’t give tours, nearby CKOC Hamilton (in a building previously occupied by a school for the blind) did. Dave Smith spent an hour with me; PD Nevin Grant said hello and hung out. I’d always preferred CKOC anyway (it played more new music), but I left with a special fondness for it. 

Whether conducted by a PD or a sales staffer, station tours always began with the same disclaimer: “There’s really nothing to see here.” It didn’t matter, of course. Besides, I was always looking for access to the discard records or what would now be known as the “informational interview” with anybody willing to spend the time. I would learn something about programming; I would try to say something that proved I knew more than all the other kids who wanted tours. In college, I wrote a senior thesis on CKLW Detroit as a way of getting into PD Pat Holiday’s office.

Today, of course, there often really is nothing to see here. The trend of selling top-of-the-hour naming rights to a station or cluster’s studio makes it sound bigger than ever on the air. But even if a station is “broadcasting to four states from atop the Friendly Ed Kramer Chevrolet broadcast complex,” that can still be from an unmanned room. (Related story, I recently e-mailed the promotions director of a major cluster to ask what their official studio name was; they promised to ask the OM and get back to me. That was two days ago.)

I went to visit Top 40 Update’s Rich Appel on the air on his weekend job at Northwest’s classic hits WRNJ Hackettstown, N.J. Even on Sunday, there were other people at the station. Most impressive were the staff photos in the lobby; there were about two dozen of them. And while that included the part-time meteorologists, I always marvel how it is that certain small-market stations somehow maintain a full staff when so many big-city stations have one full-timer.

The encouraging news here is that there was still somebody who wanted a station tour, and there were still PDs who were willing to arrange them. Today, radio detractors could probably be forced to admit that teen usage of radio hasn’t completely disappeared. Boosters would have to allow that radio doesn’t have the same cultural sway over a high schooler that it did in 1987. Even if there was that same fascination with radio, YouTube means that you don’t need a friend of a friend to know what a station’s studios look like. (In fact, most stations probably should offer a virtual tour on their websites.) 

So I’m curious. Are you ever still asked for a station tour, either by students or aspiring broadcasters from smaller markets? And was there an influential station tour in your formative years? E-mail me or leave a comment.