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Backstage in South Florida: the Radio Roller Coaster

Music vet and New Times scribe Lee Zimmerman offers his insights, opinions, and observations about the local scene. This week: the story behind DJ migrations.

In the world of radio, anything can happen, even at a moment's notice. The news that DJ Laz, a radio institution in South Florida for well over two decades, had suddenly parted company with Power 96 came as a shock to longtime listeners this past week. Likewise, the unexpected departure of morning staple Donna Davis from oldies station Majic 102.7 a few months back was equally surprising, considering how she had become a well-known morning voice in our market. A few months ago, Coast 97.3 made a similar move, removing the popular Tamara G from the Two Girls in the Morning program, where she had been a fixture for several years. The reasons for these changes aren't altogether clear. DJ Laz has remained tight-lipped about his leaving, merely saying in a statement that it was his decision and he wished his former station well. Davis' scenario allegedly had something to do with new management at Majic and a reshuffling of more than a dozen positions. (Indeed, both the station's program director and promotion director also left at nearly the same time.)

For the most part, South Florida radio seems relatively stable by comparison to the rest of the nation. One glimpse at those who remain on the local airwaves -- the longevity of Paul and Young Ron at Big 105.9 and Joe Johnson, Davis' former morning partner, at Majic all attest to that fact -- but they are the exception rather than the rule. 

Working on the airwaves is a decidedly insecure gig, one fraught with peril and vulnerability when measured against ratings. The fact is, ratings are the lifeblood of the media. Ratings are what entice sponsors, the thing that tells potential sponsors that if they advertise over their airwaves, they're bound to reach a lot of potential customers. When ratings suffer, so do revenues, and when that happens, business suffers as a result. 

To stop that downslide, disc jockeys who aren't drawing adequate numbers in terms of listeners -- and oftentimes their program directors as well -- are shown the door. It's an occupational hazard that often finds radio professionals moving from market to market and, as the old analogy goes, living out of a station wagon until they get grounded.

On the other hand, mobility in the radio biz is synonymous with advancement. "To get ahead and grow in this business, you have to start in a small market, gain skills and experience, and then move up to larger markets," notes Ken Charles, program director for news/talk station WIOD/610-AM and 100.3-FM. "In my almost 30 years in the media, I've moved from Tampa to Orlando to Houston to Syracuse to Atlanta to Houston to Miami. Each move had its unique challenges, but professionally, every move has given me a broader perspective of my job and this business."

Talk about being a gypsy! Amazingly, Ken -- and more importantly, his wife -- seems to have taken it all in stride. "I've been blessed, because I'm married to a woman who understood what I do and has been my partner for over 26 years," he explains. "I truly believe I would not be where I am today if it weren't for the moves."

Consequently, many radio professionals have to pay their dues before hitting the big time. When I was a promotions rep for Capitol Records, I worked with a number of DJs who have been fortunate enough and talented enough to obtain high-profile gigs. Scott Shannon, whom I knew when he was program director for Q105 in Tampa, is now part of a successful morning team at WPLJ in New York and the announcer for conservative talk-show host Sean Hannity. Ron Parker, my colleague when he was music director at WLCY, is now a successful evening disc jockey at WCBS in New York City. I knew the now-famous shock jock Moby when he worked up in Jacksonville; despite his outrageous reputation, he was one of the nicest guys I ever worked with. Ditto for my pal Steve Huntington, a onetime music director at progressive rock station in WQSR in Sarasota and, later, at the old Love 94 in its soft-rock days. Steve now programs Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville radio network, a good gig indeed.

Then too, there's Jeff Chase, former sidekick for Greg Budell on their popular morning show on the old WAXY FM. Jeff now resides in Chicago and runs his own production company. I know this for a fact, because... well... Jeff happens to be my brother. His "Mommy the Swami" routine, which found him asking our mother for her weekend football predictions and getting, in return, absurd answers that were totally off-point, was radio shtick at its best.

Ultimately, talented radio people neither die nor fade away. They resurface with a better gig, in a bigger market. And for those who don't advance their radio careers accordingly, well, they find a more stable profession and hopefully thrive regardless.

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Lee Zimmerman

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