A change for your morning commute, music on KSHE-95: An interview with John Ulett
Tomorrow, St. Louis rock and roll radio station KSHE-95 changes the morning drive time programming for the first time in more than a decade.
The station will move to a format of all music in the morning putting the emphasis back on the roots of the station and its slogan of ‘Real Rock Radio.’ To contrast the morning talk that dominated for years, the venerable station will place long time disc jockey John Ulett in the spot in an attempt to resurrect falling ratings.
Late last week I spent roughly 25 minutes talking with Ulett by phone for an interview prior to the change. First, we discussed the reasons station management changed the morning drive slot and what the reaction from the public has been to the announcement. Further, we discussed what listeners can expect from the change and how much input he has on the music he plays on the air. Finally, we discussed the St. Louis radio market and a formula for DJs to get their foot in the door in the radio business.
Scott Allen: The big news is that starting on Tuesday, January 17, you’re moving to the morning drive time slot on KSHE-95. Tell me about the big decision to change the drive time per Bob and Tom had filled that slot for a long time.
John Ulett: Yeah, 16 years I think it was. Arbittron has a new ratings system to rate radio stations. People who are involved in the survey wear these meters instead of the old diary system. Once they switched over to this system we noticed that music stations that had talk shows on them the morning talk shows were sliding in the ratings. I was part of the morning show with JC Corcoran on KHITS (KIHT 96.3) when all this started. We were consistently in the top 5 or 6 and sometimes as high as two, but we dropped to #16 and #17. The same thing happened to Bob and Tom. They were consistently #1 and #2 in this marketplace in the old rating system. The new ratings system comes along and they dropped to 14 and 15. It’s really dramatic. So the station hung in there for a while with them because they had a contract. They were trying to do things to help, but nothing changed. So, they decided they needed to go back to the music and play as much music as they possibly can. That’s what worked for KHITS when JC left. On KHITS we started playing nothing but music and try to make our breaks real short – in and out. The ratings went up to where KHITS was #2. That’s what we’re going to try to do with KSHE as well. If you’re a music station I guess you better be music 24 hours a day now. This new rating system is punishing talk on music stations.
That’s interesting that it had that much of an effect when you changed systems. It almost seems that there could be a glitch in there someplace.
We thought that for a while, but after a while we thought, “how come this glitch is not working out?” You can only linger like that ratings wise for so long until your ad rates go down and affecting the bottom line so they had to do something.
Just from my standpoint as a long time listener of St. Louis radio Bob and Tom wasn’t necessarily my favorite thing. I would stop there from time to time and listen to somebody like singer-songwriter Todd Snider or somebody else they were interviewing, but it wasn’t must listen radio. Maybe that’s what you’re referring to that it’s time for a change.
The responses that we’ve gotten from various venues – feed back on our own email system, response on the website, my Facebook page and the station’s Facebook page and stltoday.com – have overwhelmingly been received well. So we get a good response to it. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not your typical morning guy and the station knows that too. My history with the station and playing music, and being a part of the music and growing up inside the station for all these years they just felt like -- Put me on there. Do the basics and let the music play as much as possible. Keep the breaks short and hopefully we’ll get a good response.
I read through some of the responses on the KSHE website after the publicity roll out and I saw some listeners against the change. What would you tell listeners who wanted to stay with the status quo?
Well, I’ll tell you Bob and Tom, Chick and Christy you talk about consistency and talent and a solid morning show. Those guys are really good. I think that everything runs its course after a period of time. 16 years is by far the longest running morning show in the history of KSHE radio and KSHE has been around 45 years. They knocked it out of the park for a good number of years. For a good 12 years they were consistently #1 or #2. I would tell those people that we did all we could and we were patient when we brought them in. When we first brought those guys in it took them two years before we got response and ratings. Our listeners did not like them for the longest period of time, but our management was patient and almost two years to the day they became #1. They stayed #1 or #2 of for a good dozen years. I explained the whole ratings system change and what happened. Those are good guys and we have no hard feelings towards them and they have no hard feelings towards us. They know it’s purely a business decision and I think they are getting the same response elsewhere. I don’t know there’s much they can do about it. If they were on a talk formatted radio station I’m sure they’d be absolutely fine.
Like you said you’ve worked mornings for a long time with JC Corcoran, Rick Sanborn and others. How much local flavor do you plan to inject into the programming or is it just going to be in and out and back to the music?
The initial plan is to play as much music as possible. Make my comments whenever I open the microphone to say anything give some good information, get it out fast and get back to the music as quick as possible. People in the morning they want a lot of music, but they also want to be informed too. They want to know what’s going on. You can’t just play the music and not say anything. This is morning radio. People are getting up and want to know what the weather is and what the high temperature is going to be today. What happened last night in sports after they went to bed and things like that. We’re going to get in and get out and do the basics the best I can and see where that takes us. It’s a cleansing of the palette, if you will, from all the talk. It’s got to be stark and it’s got to stand out. It has to be completely different. There will be no chit-chat. As a listener if I’m hearing mindless chit-chat I hit the button so fast it’s ridiculous. If we do fall into that it’s going to be totally by accident.
That makes sense. Obviously you start with the other end of the spectrum and then move a little closer to the middle if things warrant that.
That’s right. As time goes on if things warrant it because it’s been 16 years of no music in the morning. (Laughs) There’s been a pretty good coverage of it in the media and talk on the air. However, there are still so many people out there that have no idea what’s going to happen. We live in the center of this universe and we get caught up thinking everybody knows, well that’s not the case. It’s amazing how many people are not listening to your radio station even if you have good ratings. There are still 1.8 million people out there who don’t listen to your station and have no idea what’s going on. It’s going to take time for people to realize. When they hit the button and say, “Whoa, wait a minute. KSHE is playing music. What’s this?” We want to make sure we’re playing music when they come to check us out.
Speaking of the music - how much freedom will you have as a DJ to play what you want on the air during the new morning show?
I’ll get to pick a couple of songs during the course of a morning. Every show will start with a KSHE Klassic at 6 a.m. and I’ll play “The Lone Klassic” at 9 a.m. Other than that the music is all programmed by the program director and our music director. They want to have pretty tight control over the situation especially right out of the box. That could change as time goes along if I can prove to them that I can get the ratings up and maybe loosen the reins a little bit. They’re not going to loosen them a whole lot. There is so much that is riding on the ratings and the program director’s job is on the line with these things, so he’s going to want to have control. I’ve got not problem with that. I gave up freedom of music selection in the ‘80s. That’s when that went out the window. Of course on the Klassics show on Sunday I get to pick whatever I want, but not Monday through Friday.
The KSHE Klassics show has been a long time staple of the station with Ruth Hutchinson and Rich Dalton preceding your tenure. With your new duties will you still be running that show as well?
Yes, absolutely. As a matter of fact we’re in the middle of playing the entire KSHE Klassic list that we use from A to Z. It started October 9 of last year and won’t finish until August or September. You can go to our [Klassics] website and follow the list of what we’ve played so far. When we’re done our entire list will be on the website. We’ve never made the list like that available in the past. It’s a first time thing and the listeners have really responded. They want that list. They are listening and going to the website and checking the list out every Monday and Tuesday.
You were discussing the programming thing - with the program director and music director making the choices on what songs to play on the air why doesn’t a station like KSHE play newer songs by the established artists that made the station great in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s?
That’s a good question and one we’ve wrestled with over time. Funny you bring it up now because we’re playing the new Van Halen song. I would not rule out something like that happening in the future here. Right now we’re evolving and in this environment with all the competition that’s out there we’re trying to figure out where we fit it which direction is the best for us. Nothing is set in stone. Right now we’re a classic rock station and not playing any new music. I don’t know how long that will last, but right now the programmers want to go in this direction. They changed the morning show and re-establish the roots of what KSHE has been all about over the years and go from there.
I had noticed that over the past couple weeks, especially since this announcement went out, that when I spun the dial to KSHE there was no new music being played.
There could be changes in that coming up pretty soon.
As a DJ, what was your reaction to a classic artist like Tom Petty releasing a song like “The Last DJ” based on long time Los Angeles DJ Jim Ladd?
Well, to be honest with you, I’m not familiar with the song. I’ve not heard it.
It’s certainly a record to check out. In my opinion Tom Petty doesn’t put out bad records. Over his career his albums have been pretty solid.
I’ll have to do that.
It’s a critique of the music industry at the time and definitely one about the DJs losing their control on what they get to play.
How old is that song? When did it come out?
Being a DJ you’d think I’d be aware of that one. For whatever reason, I’m not. I don’t know. For KSHE too, up until about three or four months ago we didn’t play any Tom Petty. We’ve been rocking pretty hard for a long period of time. We’d play Metallica, Mötley Crüe. Tom Petty fell out of our play list for a long time. KHITS is playing it of course. I didn’t really follow him over the past 10 years or so. I’ve always been a fan. I like Tom Petty a lot. As a DJ you’d think I’d know that song. I’m kind of embarrassed.
The radio community here in St. Louis seems to be dominated by DJs who began in the ‘70s and ‘80s. When someone gets fired they usually find work at some other station in the market – either FM or AM dial. Is harder for young DJs to make a name in this market?
Yeah, it is I think. It’s unfortunate. This young lady that’s going to be working with me on the morning show - Lauren Colvin is her name. She goes by Lern on the air. I did a favor for a friend of ours. My daughter plays volleyball his daughter. He explained that a daughter of a friend of his is in the radio business and she went to Illinois State in communications. He asked me, “Can you get her an internship?” I said, “Yeah, I can probably help out.” I got her an internship in the promotions department. Now, a year and a half later, she’s my partner on the morning show. (Laughs) There’s an example of a young person getting a break and coming in and impressing people and now she’s in. I don’t know how often that’s happening in the radio business right now - especially not in the classic rock arena. You know, we’re a little older and you have to know your chops to get in where we are, but I would imagine at the Top 40 stations or a country station that people are getting their feet wet and getting in the business. You don’t see them much in our area.
You’re a native of St. Louis who attended Broadcast Center and made it to radio right out of high school. What would you tell someone trying to get into that industry?
I know it worked for me. I’ve seen what’s worked for other young people along the way that have come in behind me -- Lern being the most recent example. You get your foot in the door some way some how. I was lucky enough to get in and I was full-time right away. I didn’t have to an internship. I don’t know if they had interns back then to be honest with you. Now, maybe that’s the best way. Do whatever the established people ask you to do. Be a hard worker and be pleasant and easy to get along with and have no attitudes. No task is too small. Those people will fall in love with you and will want to help you. If you have any ability after that happens for you then you’ll do fine.
Sounds like very good advice. Obviously, that’s kept you on the air at one place for the last 35 plus years.
The main reason why I’ve been there as long as I have is the same format, same ownership and no changes in management. That’s made it possible. We’ve had the same general manager, John Beck, since 1985. That promotes stability.