Theater of the Mind lost on youth today, Drake says

Published 12:44 pm Tuesday, August 24, 2010

You know Bill Drake is old school when he says he counts Arthur Godfrey (1903-1983) as his mentor.

He is so old school that when he teaches today, he sometimes loses his students. That hurts, he said, since as a longtime Spartanburg radio personality, he is a professional at engaging an audience. But, Drake said Monday that he has noticed a generational phenomenon when working with college students.

They cant picture the stories in their mind.

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Drake teaches as an adjunct professor at Wofford College, mostly Public Speaking classes. But one year, he was offered the chance to teach a course titled, The History of American Broadcast.

He described his work with students in that course during an interview for the Western Carolina Radio Club Monday at Isothermal Community College in Columbus.

Interviewing Drake for the club was Dick Briggs, also a man with a long career in radio and television. Briggs, who worked in broadcast in Texas, Augusta, Ga. Macon, Ga. and Hilton Head, S.C. was well-known locally as the newscaster for WSPA-TV in Spartanburg some years ago. Currently Briggs runs his own media brokerage business out of his home in Landrum.

Briggs asked Drake about the generational phenomenon.

When I was asked to teach the history of broadcast class, I asked the Wofford dean, What are my qualifications? Drake recalled. The dean said, You are the history of American broadcast!

I felt the class in the past had put too much emphasis on TV and not enough on radio, he explained. So when the semester began, Drake brought out tapes of Jack Benny, the incomparable master of radio.

I turned off the lights in the classroom, he said, so the class could listen without visual distractions. Always a mistake.

When he turned the lights back on, 75 percent of the students were asleep.

Drake kept trying. He brought out old Burns & Allen shows, Arthur Godfrey and Dragnet, but got the same reaction.

With the absence of visuals, the theater of the mind does not work for them, he concluded. We can visualize what radio was. We have the ability to picture things in our minds. Kids dont. If they cant see it, or watch it on their cell phone, they cant do it at all. They thought broadcasting started with All In The Family.

Even though a portion of his class was African American, Drake said he could not get across the radical significance of the old Amos & Andy shows, two white guys playing black guys.

It wasnt always a visual-only world. Drake remembers a time when AM radio was all the rage.

When Drake first went on air on WSPA in Spartanburg in 1976, there wasnt much competition from television or even other radio stations. AM radio was king, and WSPA wore the crown. FM had just 25 percent of the market.

AM radios market share is now down to just ten percent, Drake said.

The urge to broadcast was one he had nearly from birth, Drake said. He started practicing play-by-plays as a seven-year-old in Iowa, creating imaginary baseball games. His unique, high-pitched voice carried through the windows — there was no air conditioning at that time — and he said, Neighbors would stay up to see how the game came out.

He went to Rippon College in Wisconsin because it offered two student radio stations. After college, he began a journeymans career in broadcasting, moving to move up, eventually heading south from Milwaukee to Columbia, S.C. Finally, he landed, 34 years ago, in Spartanburg.

He credits his success to his versatility. He still does play-by-play sports announcing for Wofford College, is an accomplished disc jockey, does commercial work, and is well-versed in news reporting. His speciality is interviews.

When Drake arrived in Spartanburg, it had been three years since the legendary Cliff Farmer Grey had left the air, a mourning period which was just long enough that a newcomer could find comfort in the broadcasting booth without the ghost of Farmer looming over every broadcast.

Who can replace a legend? Drake asked.

Drake established his own status as a legend as a fixture on WSPA-AM radio for 29 years, earning the honorary title, Spartanburgs Goodwill Ambassador.

In 2004, S.C. Gov. Mark Sanford awarded Drake the Order of the Palmetto, the highest civilian honor awarded by the Governor of South Carolina. It is awarded to persons who make contributions of statewide significance. In addition to his radio show, Drake has run the Spartanburg County Christmas Music Festival for 32 years and started a Battle of the Brains competition which involves 32 middle schools in five counties.

Business dictated big changes for Drake in 2005.

After weathering several changes in station ownership, Drake began working with the new owners, Davidson Media Group. He purchased from Davidson 35 hours per week to air his variety shows on 103.3 FM WOLT and now is on air Monday through Saturday from 5 a.m. until 10 a.m.

He also broadcasts taped versions of his Songs of Inspiration show on Sunday mornings from 5 a.m. to 9 a.m.

At first, Davidson had no plans to continue with Drake after purchasing the station. But an intense letter and e-mail campaign by Spartanburg area community leaders, faithful advertisers and listeners prompted Davidson to offer Drake the time slots.

The 103.3 FM frequency serves an area from Gaffney, S.C. on the east, to Greenville, S.C. on the west, and from Union, S.C. to the south and Tryon, N.C. on the north.

Drake broadcasts from his same, former WSPA studio at 6665 Pottery Road, Spartanburg, now part of the Restoration Church property. His company, Awake With Drake LLC, sells its own sponsorships to pay the bills.

Its been five years and things are still tough, Drake told about 35 members of the Western Carolina Radio Club assembled Monday. Ive been on air for 51 years, and the question I ask myself about every five minutes now is, When do you hang it up? Do I quit or just downsize?

Im addicted. I really dont know if I could just give it up all at once.

While it is tough doing the show and marketing the sponsorships, Drake said he cant see simply being hired by someone else to do the same job.

There is no place for me in the new, modern (radio) formats, he said.

Drake still talks about whatever strikes him sports, politics, the weather. He practices what he calls relationship broadcasting, a term he draws from the book of Romans, where we are instructed to, Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.

Even in the disc jockey formats, there used to be a radio personality, speaking and engaging listeners between songs.

There is no one who does what I do anymore, Drake said. Variety broadcasting. Talking about what I want to talk about. Doing the positive side. There is so much negativity on. There is the negative, but there is still stuff to talk about that is not depressing. It used to be that everyone was doing it.