Connected To The Music
Greg Brown has been a radio disc jockey in Chicago for more than 40 years now. For the past six years, he’s been plying his trade at WLS-FM. You would think that working in a format that provides precious few opportunities to speak would be frustrating for someone who is hired specifically to speak, but Greg Brown has never, and will never, look at it that way.
“As a jock your job is to be creative within whatever bounds you’re given,” he explains. “It’s kind of like an artist who is given a different sized canvas. If it’s the size of a postage stamp, you’ve got to be creative within that. If your canvas is the size of a building, the same is true. It’s no different for jocks. Our job is to work within the bounds of what we have to make that come alive.”
In the new People Meter world of radio ratings, that canvas has been shrinking over the past few years. It appears clear that radio listeners don’t want a lot of chatter from their music disc jockeys, and radio programmers across the country are cracking down on excessive disc jockey talk. That makes a jock’s canvas much smaller than it used to be. Brown accepts and embraces the challenge. “I only have ten or fifteen seconds to connect with someone, which means I have to make that time work, and I’ve got to make those words work. It’s imperative to always bring my best.”
When you treat each word as if it is precious, it’s amazing what can be communicated. Anyone with a Twitter account can relate. “It’s a matter of constant rewriting. When you meet a comedian, those jokes he tells, the one-liners, are not something that just jump into his head. He has really worked at it, come at it from every conceivable angle to make sure the joke is just right, that every word is in its place, that the rhythm is just right, and the punch line is exactly right. There’s an economy of words.”
There’s also a danger of sounding scripted, and Greg is constantly cognizant of that. “There are things I will write down because there’s an exact way I want to say them, but there are things that are simply ad-libbed too. I’m certainly aware of how I want to get into something, and I’m aware of how I’m going to get out of it, but in-between it can go a variety of different ways. You don’t want to sound like you’re reading something, but you also have to respect the audience. I’m taking up their time. I want to be articulate in what I’m saying to them, and not bumbling and fumbling. It’s important to me to show them that I respect them enough to come prepared each and every day.”
Of course, it’s one thing to communicate a message; it’s another to transmit a personality, to get a personal connection with a listener. Greg has a philosophy for accomplishing that as well. “I just try to be me. I’ll talk about something that I’d tell my friends if I ran into them, because I consider my listeners to be my friends. I try to capture the mood of the day. In my mind I just go back to when I was a kid listening to the radio and try to remember the things that jumped out at me. Things that touched me or made me feel like those guys on the radio knew exactly what I was thinking. I honestly try to recapture that every day.”
Some days those moments are easier to recapture than others. “As a kid I used to play radio in my room. I’d buy my favorite records and play disc jockey, and write commercials and create my own little radio station. I did that a lot on snow days, when my folks weren’t home and it was just me. When I come to work on those kinds of days now, it connects with me in a special way. Those songs take me back to a time and place.”
It helps that he’s playing songs that mean something to him personally. “There should be a connection to the music. People are listening because they love the music, and you need to connect to it too. There are mechanics to get through any format, but the emotional attachment to the music certainly makes it easier.
Every song we play is something that I’ve played before, either as a new song or an old song. It’s a part of my life. These songs are part of the fabric of this city and who I’ve been. Every now and then when I hear a song I’ll flash back to the very first time I heard that song, and how cool or different I thought it sounded when it jumped out of the radio, and I get that feeling again. Just like that first time.”
There’s a reason why Greg Brown keeps getting hired. (He’s had long stints at WBBM-FM, Q-101, and WJMK before coming to WLS). He’s a program director’s dream; a disc jockey who takes his job seriously, never phones it in, and seems to accept and understand the changing radio landscape. There’s a word for that: Professional.