The Buggles famously sand, “Video Killed the Radio Star”. Truth be told, radio killed the radio star. Truth be told, radio management killed the radio station.
Not so far in the distant past there was a mythical oasis called a radio station. They had funny little call letters and they were there day and night. They kept us occupied while we worked, traveled, studied or killed time. When we were sad, the music consoled us. When we were happy or celebrated an achievement it was there. As we road tripped it was our soundtrack. In the day prior before the Internet when news broke it told us what happened. It alerted us when traffic was bad and let us know of impending bad weather.
At the helm of these radio stations were the golden voices behind the microphone called the deejay – short for disc jockey. You see before mp3s music physically came on vinyl records, CDs and other platforms – hence the name disc jockey. Their voices were part of our world for hours a day – usually in four-hour shifts. Unlike our TV gods who we only saw for a half hour at a time, these deejays spent an afternoon, evening and even overnight when we needed them. They were the calming voice when we were upset. They would take our phone calls and play songs we requested to put us in the mood or keep the mood going. Often we had an equally emotional tied to the disc jockey as we did the song. Most songs last only three minutes, whereas the deejay was there for hours a day. They were the magical Oz behind the curtain that orchestrated our emotions at time and always seemed to be there when others weren’t.
Radio ruled the world until the mid ‘90s when radio stations realized they could cut expenses and increase profits by using technology that allowed them to do a thing called voice tracking. They would get a voice talent to prerecord breaks between songs that made it sound like they were actually on the air live and a computer would play these breaks between an automated programmed music totally eliminating the need for a live deejay. Many radio stations over the years have actually had no live talent. Station owners would refer to their station as the “station in the closet” – basically a computer with all the music, traffic, weather and voice announcements. There was no longer any interaction with the voice on the radio. Any contest had listeners call into a 1-800 number and not a local one. Everything was outsourced.
Around the turn of the century satellite radio came out and truly segmented radio into different categories. If you only liked classic rock that was all you had to listen to. ‘80s? There was a channel for that. Country? Yep. Indie? Yep even that. Clear Channel tried to bring that to terrestrial radio – referring to local radio. Instead of getting to hear everything under the sun on one radio station the listener often surfed channels. Loyalty was a thing of the past. Radio stations that once had a 20 share of the market (two out of ten radios being tuned to the station) were at a share of 10 or below.
For the most part lost in everything was that collective name and voice. I realize we are in the 21st Century, but radio once meant a lot to many of us and still does. Today many stations are only “live” middays with a syndicated morning show, a syndicated evening show and voice tracking overnight. Men and women once known as radio personalities were marginalized. However before the technology that ruined a great institution the fact most personalities weren’t paid like the gods we thought they were. One day your favorite deejay is playing your favorite songs and the next they’re gone. They either go to another station in the market or an entirely different city. The primary cause if money – either the station doesn’t want to pay enough or the personality got a better offer. Most even to this day will send off what is referred to as a “sound check” to see what is out there hoping to better themselves. It’s an electric resume with the difference more than coworkers know they are gone a loyal group of listeners that in some markets means tens of thousands of people.
Despite the fact that the business of radio has pretty much ruined their business model there are few and unfortunately far between examples of what makes radio great and still worth listening to. I realize this is a long roundabout way to get to the subject of this article, yet here we are.
On Saturday, August 3 at a ceremony in Murfreesboro, TN Gene Lovin will be inducted into the Tennessee Broadcasters Hall of Fame. The Atlanta area native got his start almost literally as a kid to have a very respectable career that has spanned over six decades as a radio personality with stints in markets in Atlanta, Birmingham, Florida but most know him for his work behind the microphone in has adopted hometown of Chattanooga.
In spite of all the changes in radio Lovin has managed to stay above the fray. Listening to him on the radio it is obvious he loves what he does. That love is contagious to the listener who in turn loves Gene. You might say his last name fits him perfectly as everyone who listens to or for that matter love Lovin.
The course that Lovin’s career has taken mirrors that of what I’ve already written. In Chattanooga alone he’s done a tour of duty with most of the radio groups in town playing just about every format there is out there. While many have come and gone in the market or moved on to TV or a marketing job Lovin continues to thrive and today despite decades of accomplishments and being on the radio he has perhaps become even more relevant in recent years.
A little over a year ago radio station WFLI was purchased by Evan Stone and Marshall Bandy and theoretically returned the station to it’s old glory. In 1961 WFLI 1070 AM came on the air as the first Top 40 station in the Chattanooga market where it was beast. After its first ratings book the station held a 20 share of the market, something it held for the most part until FM took over the market in 1978. In the late ‘60s legendary local jock Tommy Jett’s drive time show garnered a 70 share of the market, meaning seven out of every ten radios in the Chattanooga area were tuned into the station. In the ‘70s they found themselves in a dogfight at times with WGOW AM, then a Top 40 station as well. Then the bottom dropped out as FM took over popular radio when WSKZ, better known as KZ106 came on the air and AM radio almost overnight became an afterthought.
WFLI launched a FM signal now known as WJTT (Power 94) but WSKZ got the jump on them and was unable to compete. WFLI changed their format to country briefly before switching to a religious format that remained until the spring of 2018 when the station was about to go silent. Stone and Bandy bought the station and converted the station to its original format, Top 40 with the caveat that it was classic Top 40, playing the songs from their original run from 1961 to fall of 1980 when they switched to country with an occasional song from 1981 making into the playlist. The station’s building was converted into the National Top 40 Radio Museum and Hall of Fame. The station was restored to its old glory complete with era appropriate furnishings including the radio control and productions rooms complete with the equipment from circa 1970 complete with turntables, cart machines and a control board that looks like something out of an old movie – all in perfect working condition. The only modern additions are computers and software that have the station’s music catalog marrying vintage and modern technology well. The new owners wanted to broadcast live from the museum and picked Lovin to be not only the voice, but also the face of WFLI.
It’s during the past year that I really started to get to knowing Gene Lovin. Having lived here most of my life I have been a radio/music fan my entire life. I intently listen to the music, listen to what the deejay has to say, judging it if it’s clever, appropriate or not. As I’ve said earlier many a deejay have been there for me over the years through good and bad and at times seemed to know magically what I needed to hear next on the radio. Gene Lovin is one of those names I heard countless times and often on different frequencies. I knew who he was – at least on the radio and now I have been able to put a face to a voice I have heard for decades. Over the years I have met many a radio personality only to having my bubble burst when I discovered they were nothing like I imagined. They always tell you that you should never meet your idols because they will disappoint. While Gene Lovin’s name was one I was familiar it wasn’t until he was introduced at a press conference for WFLI that I got to meet him. Since that time he has proven that old adage wrong for me.
Upon meeting Gene I thought he was a fireplug looking life a life-sized Fred Flintstone with sandy hair and minus the “Yabba Dabba Doo”, although if he yelled that out I wouldn’t have been surprised. Who I met was a humble, almost self-effacing man who isn’t given the credit he deserves. On August 3 he’ll finally get the accolades that are too long in coming. Since meeting Gene Lovin I have gone to the radio station and sat in as he broadcasts live every weekday from 2-7pm and I regret waiting as long as I did to meet him. He’s kind of like that cool uncle that your parents trust and once they leave he gets that twinkle in his eye and you know you’re going to have fun. The man with the strong, distinctive voice has a demeanor opposite of what you hear on the radio. Humble to a fault he is quick to compliment others in his line of work and those around him and acts embarrassed at times when deserved praise is heaped upon him including the induction into the Tennessee Broadcasters Hall of Fame.
Over the last year not only has Gene Lovin become the voice of WFLI (his second stint with the station – the first many years ago) he’s become the face. Many joke about being the hardest working man or woman in show business. Gene actually is. Besides being on the air he has made multiple appearances at station promotions and a Goodwill ambassador for the station and museum including helping a random sales person close a deal by simply giving his approval to the potential advertiser. He can be found picking up station swag for giveaways all the while making sure everyone at WFLI is happy and often asks if he can do anything to help.
And while I was familiar with the name Gene Lovin, I never realized what his presence meant to many and quite frankly since I’ve been getting to know him mean even myself. On many occasions when I stopped by the station random people have showed up to see the station. Many are excited and thankful it’s back to it’s old format playing the music they grew up on. The next thing I hear is, “Is Gene here? Can I see him?” You would think Elvis was in the building. It wasn’t until a few months ago when I went to lunch with an old friend and said, “Yeah, I was talking to Gene Lovin the other day…” My friend interrupted me and said, “YOU know Gene Lovin?” Yeah, I said, I talk with him all the time and sometimes even sit in with him when he’s on the air. My friend’s eyes got big and he said, “WOW!” I never knew. Neither did Gene until I told him. I knew I was hanging out with someone special who means more to more people that he realizes. Gene is almost embarrassed by the attention. He shouldn’t be. He should relish in it.
Besides being a genuinely good person the one thing I notice about Gene Lovin is he actually enjoys what he does. Gene’s love of music, being on the radio personality is addictive and humbling to everyone around him and myself to witness. We should all love what we do and be as good as it as Gene Lovin is. I’m happy that I have gotten to write this now so Gene could actually read it instead of being a eulogy as I’ve written over the years for other local radio and TV personalities. Long live Gene Lovin and thank you my friend.
– Dave Weinthal