Melissa McConnell Wilson remembers the "good ol' days" of radio. As a girl she would listen to her transistor under the covers at night. The distinct voices on the other end, with names like "Bobby Ocean" and "Dr. Don Rose," had "fantastic personalities." And they inspired her.
"It was so wonderful," McConnell Wilson recalled. "It was enticing and involving and sexy. You wanted to listen. You couldn't wait to listen."
But these days, with media consolidation and companies watching the bottom line, radio personalities have become an endangered species. Consultants say modern listeners don't want to hear people talking, so stations are populated with automated systems and "liner" jocks (i.e., those who read pre-written one-liners and station identifications).
The phenomenon has been ongoing for some time now, but McConnell Wilson thinks things are slowly changing — and she's partly responsible. For the past thirteen years she has been the general manager and faculty advisor at KVHS "The Edge," an Active Rock station based out of Clayton Valley High School in Concord that serves as a job training program through Contra Costa County's Office of Education. Free to anyone age sixteen and up, the year-long class trains students in all aspects of radio (promotions, sales, programming, etc.), but the focus is on personality radio.
"I don't train liner jocks," said McConnell Wilson. "They know they have to work on show prep. They have to work on their demo tape."
Except for McConnell Wilson, the station is run entirely by the students. Located at 90.5 on the FM dial, the non-commercial station broadcasts 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Contra Costa County's Regional Occupational Program pays for McConnell Wilson's salary, but otherwise the students raise their own money for just about everything through four live-remote fund-raisers per year and by soliciting donations from businesses. They have regular music meetings where they vote on which songs to add to the rotation. (Artists include Killswitch Engage, Ozzy Osbourne, and Deftones.)
Whatever McConnell Wilson is doing seems to be working. Her alumni are on air (or behind the mic) all over the country. "They're all over the place, literally," she said. "The vice president of sales for CBS Radio is from KVHS. The chief engineer from Mix 106 in San Jose — Mike Stockwell. ... All the PDs in San Francisco know us, all the way to New York. We're the farm team." KVHS's list of famous alumni also includes KBLX's Sterling James and comedian Jeff Richards, who has appeared on Saturday Night Live.
"The first thing that strikes me is how much it trains you for a real job in radio," said Aaron Cordray, who goes by the on-air name "Lint" and has been taking the course on and off since 1999. (The class technically lasts one year, but students can continue learning.) "It's not like a college course. It's really hands-on, very involved."
So what is the secret to good radio personality? "Talk as if you're speaking to one person," said twenty-seven-year-old Cordray.. "It's a very intimate form of communication between you and your listener." Despite that emphasis on intimate dialogue, Cordray says he generally avoids using "I," "me," or "my."
He chalks the rest up to perona., "If you have a dull personality, you might be dull on the air, too."
Though most of the students in the class, whose numbers average about 25, are in high school or are young adults, it also attracts those seeking a career change, or those who've always wanted to go into radio. Thirty-six-year-old Jason Lannum is a husband and father who has taken the class for the last three years. His current day job is delivering appliances, but he's hoping to become a DJ or programmer. He attends class every day after work from 3 to 5 p.m. "People told me that I was kind of funny and goofy and they said I should be on the radio or TV," explained Lannum, who is KVHS's music director. "I've always told myself I wanted to do something with music but didn't know what. I landed here and think this is meant to be kinda thing."
As 410-watt stations go, KVHS is pretty successful. While its rankings are relatively low compared to stations like KCBS (especially because it only broadcasts to three Bay Area counties), its TSL, or Time Spent Listening, shows that listeners listen a lot and for a long time, says McConnell Wilson. No doubt, the station's personalities help contribute to that — especially since the Bay Area in particular has a dearth of good on-air talent. But it didn't always used to be like that.
"They are a lot of good people who are proficient in their craft," McConnell Wilson said. "They're not bad disc jockeys, but the ones that shine — I couldn't name one. In New York I could rattle off half a dozen, but not in San Francisco. It's sad because San Francisco used to be a feeder market. This is not a jumping-off-point place anymore. The new up-and-coming stars don't come from San Francisco anymore, they come from places like Atlanta." Some stations are becoming more local, however. She says that KOIT is adding some personality to its liner jocks. "That's probably why they're doing so well," she said.
As for the future, McConnell Wilson doesn't think radio will ever go back to the way it was when she was growing up. But technology means good radio can travel even further. Anyone can listen to KVHS's online stream (KVHS.com) — and they do, from places as far away as France, Japan, and Canada, says McConnell Wilson. "Terrestrial radio isn't what it used to be," she said. "The people who are the personalities of the future know about all these choices."