New York Festivals International Radio Program Awards Grand Jury Confidential series profiles NYF’s award-winning Grand Jury members recruited from all facets of the radio industry to select the World’s Best Radio Programs℠. This week we spend a few minutes with Randall Davidson, Director of Radio Services/WRST-FM, University of Wisconsin Oshkosh.
Prior to joining UWO, Mr. Davidson spent eighteen years with Wisconsin Public Radio in Madison, where he was a news producer and the network’s afternoon newscaster. In addition, he was the network’s chief announcer, training new announcers and filling in on music programs where needed, most often on Simply Folk, the network’s weekly folk music program.
Along with his on air work, Mr. Davidson also served as the unofficial historian of WPR, answering listener questions about the early years and keeping track of historical artifacts and collections relating to the network’s history. His book on the topic, “9XM Talking: WHA Radio and the Wisconsin Idea” was published by the University of Wisconsin Press in 2006. It was honored by the Wisconsin State Historical Society as the best book on Wisconsin history published that year.
Mr. Davidson’s broadcasting work has won awards from the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association, the Wisconsin Associated Press and the Northwest Broadcast News Association.
In the interview below, Randall Davidson, shares his experiences that fostered his interest in radio, early leadership lessons, and the defining moment in his career.
New York Festivals: Who or what were your early influences in your career?
Randall Davidson: For me, two radio experiences fostered my interest in radio: the first was free-form “underground” rock radio, which I discovered during my teenage years and which opened up a whole world of previously unknown music to me along with the format’s unique aesthetic sense and connection with its audience. The other occurred when I was in my early 20s and discovered a folk music program on my local public radio station. I began listening to it regularly, then to shows around it, then on other days and gradually learned about public radio that way. Public radio eventually became my profession (and I became the backup host for that folk program for 18 years).
New York Festivals: What were some early leadership lessons for you?
Randall Davidson: Here’s a true story I share with students to demonstrate good leadership. When I was working part time as a commercial radio announcer, I came in one Christmas Eve to be on the air and learned from the announcer on before me that there was a commercial for a grocery store chain that needed to be produced for the next morning. The problem was that the station had promised the store that it would include audio of the winner of their year-end drawing for a new car. Unfortunately, the winner was not at the drawing to be recorded. We had left a cryptic phone message with the winner to call the station, but since it was the holidays, there was no assurance she’d even get the message. Happily, she did late that evening. I quickly put the call through the board and recorded her response when I told her she’d won. I then cut up her response and produced the commercial after I got off the air at midnight.
I had to be in the next (Christmas) morning at 5:30am and on until noon. The commercial played later that morning and I breathed a sigh of relief that everything had worked. About 20 minutes later, the Vice President of sales for our entire group of stations walked into my studio. I said: “What brings you in?” He said, “Well, that Food Center commercial.” I thought I’d somehow messed up and was going to be fired on Christmas. With some trepidation, I asked, “Problem?” He said, “No, no problem at all. That’s precisely what we promised the client. They’ll be thrilled and it will likely mean a lot of future business from them. I just wanted to come down to say thank you and personally wish you a Merry Christmas.”
Wow. In the grand scheme of things, I was pretty close to the bottom of the food chain: a part time weekend announcer on a 1,000 watt AM station with so little status that I was scheduled for both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Still, a Vice President of the company thought it important enough to thank me in person that he left his family on the holiday, got in his car on a bitterly cold Wisconsin morning and drove to the station. He could have called in by phone and it would have been 90% as good (or even waited until he saw me after the holidays). I learned more about how to treat employees from that episode than from all the business management classes I’ve taken.
New York Festivals: Tell us a bit about your evolution in the radio industry?
Randall Davidson:I started in college radio, first in news and then moving to music programming and later operations. While still in college radio, I started sending news stories to the UPI wire and then joined a local commercial station as an announcer, commercial producer and later, sportscaster. When I moved elsewhere in the state for graduate school, UPI asked if I’d continue to send them stories (and they sent me out on assignments as well). After graduating, I joined Wisconsin Public Radio as a statewide news anchor, first just on Saturdays, then weeknights and I eventually became a full-time staffer working in news and operations. I was later named the network’s Chief Announcer, and while continuing to be the afternoon news anchor, I also filled in as host of talk shows, classical music, jazz, folk, opera, etc. While there, my interest in the network’s history led to my being commissioned to write a book on the topic, which came out in 2006. After 18 years there, the instructor at my college station called to say he was retiring and urged me to apply for the job. I was hired for the position, so I’m now back as an instructor at the station where I started.
New York Festivals: What was a defining moment in your career?
Randall Davidson: Another true story and also from being on the air on Christmas: My first year in college radio, I had been named program director right before the end of the year, so was responsible for filling air shifts through the holidays. I put myself on the air midnight to 10:00am on Christmas morning: six hours of alternative rock and four of folk music. I made it through the overnight hours and ran the folk show with a combination of acoustic versions of Christmas music or the winter season along with other folk songs of home and hearth, etc. Despite being really tired, it was a pretty good folk show. About 9:30am that morning, I got a call on the studio line from a local listener. She asked what the last song was (‘The Train Carrying Jimmie Rodgers Home’ by Greg Brown). I told her and she said she really liked our morning folk program, which ran every morning during drive time. She said she had her clock radio set to us and called the show a “civilized” way to start her day when compared to other radio stations on the dial (and she was aware we were all students). I thanked her for the compliment and then she said something that radio announcers recognize as a red flag: “do you have another minute?” I said yes, and she proceeded to tell me her troubles: during the year, she’d broken up with a boyfriend, she’d lost her job, been evicted, etc. Basically, the year had been the worst one of her life. She said “I didn’t even bother to get a tree for Christmas this year.” Then she paused and added, “But this radio show…you saved my Christmas for me.”
I was struck by her comment (and lived on that compliment for a long time). Our station had very little money, low power, no network and all student volunteer announcers, but we were still able to touch a listener and make a positive difference in her life. It demonstrated to me the power of the radio medium and how if its practitioners are responsible, intelligent and, yes, civilized, it can do great things.