There is a fine line that must be walked by anyone with a public voice, especially a radio host whose momentary thoughts can go immediately on the air. That funny line that pops into your head has to go through a quick filter that asks the question – ‘is this the zinger that will lose me my job, my integrity and my bank account?’
If you are lucky you’ll be part of a team of people watching each others back, like morning radio host Rick Rumble of FM99 in Norfolk, Virginia has.
“I have a pretty good sense of where the ‘line’ is. I don’t consciously think about it, but when we near that territory during a discussion, I can sense it and pay closer attention,” says the veteran radio host.
“On the Rumble in the Morning show we all watch each others backs. If someone steps over the line, you need to address it right there – ‘Rick, you don’t really think that?’ or, ‘Remember, these are only allegations that the pastor romanced a sheep. He is innocent until proven guilty’.”
Knowing how to walk the line while still being interesting and relevant to today’s audience is just one small piece of becoming a radio host, for the rest of the pieces we pummeled FM99’s Rick Rumble with questions and expected good answers.
Despite some initial hesitation (apparently he didn’t like being approached by strange men on the internet – i.e. me) the veteran radio host delivered:
Let’s talk about how to become a radio host – how did you begin in the radio industry and what would you consider your big break?
Rumble: My brother introduced me to a guy at a party. Now I had been cutting up, doing impressions, and probably behaving badly.
That guy, Kevin Matthews (who went on to become an award winning fixture in Chicago radio), had a new morning radio show and asked if I wanted to come down and hang out.
Being unemployed at the time, I said “Yes”, which beat another day, alone in my underwear, staring out the window from my Mom’s couch.
I did this for months, doing character voices and trying to make myself useful. Just as my unemployment benefits were running out, I got my first “big break”…the guy that did the morning news quit. Guess who was already in the room?
Did you have any mentors early in your career and if so was there any advice they gave you which sticks with you today?
Rumble: I have had several mentors over the years, and some people who may not have noticed I watching them so closely (Hey, Steve Goldstein, get thicker drapes), but I always go back to this moment:
I remember seeing my first General Manager dangling from a ladder while hanging a station banner. This, clearly, was not his job, but it was a job that needed doing.
Note to self…If it needs to be done, do it.
It seems to me most radio hosts nowadays just read off some pop culture news of the day and then play another song – the Rumble in the Morning show on the other hand has a clearly defined team of voices contributing to the conversation and various bits – does it frustrate you to see so many radio stations get watered down, or does it make you happy because there is less real competition?
Rumble: Well, as a guy with a son in college and a daughter almost there, I’m real excited about the less competition aspect, at least for the social satire kind of talk radio that we do. However, as someone who truly loves radio, there is a part of me that mourns the “jukebox effect” you describe.
By the way, I think some perspective is needed here. Although you and I may not want to hear how Miley Cyrus twerked up and down on Robin Thicke at the VMA’s, followed by a Katy Perry tune, radio does tons of expensive research to determine what audiences like. So the “pop culture mention followed by a song” formula must be somebody’s favorite.
I checked your blog as I was researching for this interview and the first headline I saw was “Pot Smoking, Full Frontal Nudity and Necrophilia” – George Carlin would be proud – is this your personal style to push the edge, or is it just a matter of delivering what the audience wants?
Rumble: What you read was a hyperlink to our newscast!
Those are actual stories as selected by Shelley, our news girl/babe/chick…she would say “newsb**ch” (lovingly) but this is a family publication.
Pot Smoking was about the Hempfest in Denver, Full-frontal was some movie star, and necrophilia was about…well…necrophilia.
On our show the news is our biggest bit of the day. We do it at the top of every hour for 10 to 15 minutes. We discuss it all. We try to pick news stories that people are interested in. I know that sounds obvious, but think about it. While you may not admit it, you KNOW you want to hear that necrophilia story. And you’re not going to hear it on the Morning Zoo.
As far as my own style, I am curious about, and interested in, everything.
Curiosity is arguably the most important thing you can bring to a radio show. Curiosity doesn’t limit. It doesn’t dismiss. It just asks another question.
So the answer is “Picking stuff that people are interested in, as guided by your own sense of style”…or “C”.
A good friend of mine was hosting a sports radio show in Atlanta for over a decade – he and his crew did a bit that went south quickly and lost their jobs overnight – how hard is it for you to push the envelope while walking the line, or does that not even enter your mind?
Rumble: I have a pretty good sense of where the “line” is. I don’t consciously think about it, but when we near that territory during a discussion, I can sense it and pay closer attention. And of course, there is the dump button. Just drop the last 8 seconds out of any conversation.
Now here’s where a lot of guys get into trouble, when they should be watching each other’s backs, they are instead trying to outdo each other.
Recipe for disaster.
You have to really listen to what is being said in order to respond. You can’t be thinking about your next witty “zinger”, and missing what’s currently being said. It’s easy to get carried away in the moment. Guard against it.
Of course after writing this, I’ll go on the air tomorrow and drop the F-Bomb during a discussion about the Pope.
You’ve been with WNOR as a morning host since 1995 – back before cell phones, Twitter and YouTube – how much has technology changed radio?
Rumble: Enormously. From the technical standpoint, we now broadcast digitally. If we want to do a show from another location, all it takes is a converter the size of a shoe box, and an air card or Internet access. Back in the days of “steam-powered” radio, you needed a truck with a 40 foot antenna.
I can record a “man-on-the-street” bit, or commercial from a remote, with my iPhone recorder…email it to the station, and it’s on the air in a couple of minutes. Broadcast quality.
Digital recording and editing have allowed us to make the best sounding radio ever – and allows us to seamlessly cut out all of or screw-ups.
Technology has also changed the way we gather material for the show. Used to be all you had was USA Today, your local paper, TV news, and People magazine to draw from. Now, the term “newspaper” is an oxymoron. If there is time to put it on paper, it’s probably no longer news.
You’ve worked with all types of people in your career – what do you think is the key to finding success in radio – whether it’s in front of the mic or behind it?
Rumble: In my first radio job the saying was “You gotta feel it”. Do you really love this? The people I know who do this well, whether on the air or not, have a genuine passion for radio.
Technologies like Pandora, Spotify and iTunes radio threaten the popularity of broadcast radio, do you find that your style of programming, being more than just music, is the best way to combat these technologies?
Rumble: Absolutely. What we offer is unique content. You can’t get what we do on a music service, because we don’t play any music. We create. Monologues, funny songs, the fake commercials, guy on the street stuff.
Plus, the occasional scantily-clad DJ pics on our Facebook page helps…yikes.