Wrigley’s success shows radio’s struggles

Wrigley using switchboard

Rick Wrigley recently celebrated 50 years with WUSC, and his experience with local radio stations and online radio has given him perspective on the current issues radio faces, as well as some of the things that need to be done to stay relevant.

By Damian Dominguez
April 23, 2014

Rick Wrigley has been in a loving relationship for 50 years – and his lover? Radio.

That relationship has been tested as computers have replaced many DJs and as the programming has shifted from the airwaves to digital streams. But Wrigley is still at it, whether he’s at the working end of a microphone or the front end of a computer.

Every Monday, from 10 a.m. to noon, he spends two hours on the air at WUSC, the University of South Carolina’s student-run station. His show, “50’s, 60’s and Soul,” blends the high-tech equipment of modern radio with the music and tone of the late 1960’s.

Wrigley at microphone
Rick Wrigley is on the air on WUSC 90.5 every Monday from 10 a.m. to noon.

“This is what radio is about, this is who I want to be like,” said Kate Appelbaum, WUSC’s station manager.

Wrigley, who has an electrical engineering degree from USC, also helps keep WUSC and two local commercial stations on the air. Three days a week, Wrigley also broadcasts out of his house at his website, Our Generation Radio, and in the UK on Replay radio online.

And if you talk to him for just a few minutes, as we did, you’ll hear his passion for radio through the stories he has from five decades of Columbia-area radio.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

(Listen to the entire podcast.)

How has the Rick Wrigley that came here to study chemistry in 1963 changed since then?

Well, what changed me was WUSC. I came here as a naval ROTC on, not a contract, but they had the full scholarship program. … But when I got here I ran across a fellow by the name of Steve Warkaske who was the manager of the station back in those days and he convinced me to come over. … I fell in love with the business, fell in love with doing radio. … The mechanics of doing the show, pulling the music and talking on the radio, it all just kind of captured my heart, and I knew that was what I wanted to do, so I was sort of changing plans to get out of the Navy after serving my tour of duty, and getting back into radio. …

How does all of that translate to a career in radio now, in 2014?

Unfortunately, I don’t think a lot of it does anymore. Today the number of people it takes to operate a radio station is greatly diminished from what it used to be back in the day because of automation. And that’s both a boon and a bane, in my mind. The boon is that it’s a lot less expensive to operate a radio station these days because you don’t have all those DJ salaries that you have. The bane is that it’s automated, and radio is, it’s kind of hard to differentiate radio today from being a jukebox or an Internet streaming service. …

Now you mentioned that you use a lot of tools like Facebook and your cellphone and the chat room on OurGenerationRadio.com to interact with your audience, but how has that interaction changed throughout the years for you? …

We had a thing we called the “instant 60” requests back at WCOS back in those days, and that was a really big audience grabber and a good way to react and interact with the audience. … An interesting story about that “instant 60” request is I’ve run into, in the last five or six years, a pair of couples, two couples that met each other through the “instant 60” requests. … Back in those days there was only one busy signal generator, a little device, for every telephone exchange, and the 252 exchange, that busy generator would have 50 or 60 people connected to it. And when that happened, the amount of noise, the “beep beep beep,” got lower, and lower, and lower, and the kids could talk to each other. So these two couples met each other over the “instant 60” busy signal. Eventually got married, and they’re still together today. So I guess in many ways that kind of shows you how radio used to be what social media is today. …

Wrigley using computers
The radio studio is filled with technology that helps make radio broadcasts smoother and easier than ever. Rick Wrigley integrates technology and the classical style of radio broadcasting from the 1960’s to make his show a retro hit on WUSC.

I know you mentioned automation, but other than the computerized automation, how has the technology changed the way you view radio?

It’s very interesting that the influx of computers into all branches of radio broadcasting, not just the automation, but also the selection of music is computerized these days. … Not only that, but transmitters, remote control systems, studio transfer links, all these are now controlled via computers, which means you don’t have to have that much human intervention anymore. I got my degree from Carolina in electrical and computer engineering, and when I was first working in radio, I mean it was a lot of hands-on de-soldering components and repairing components if something broke down in a radio or television station. Today, again because of computerization and miniaturization of electronic components through integrated circuits and things of that nature, there’s a lot less of that going on. If something fails you basically pull the entire unit out and replace it. So the kind of skill sets that we had in broadcast engineering, the ability to troubleshoot down to the component and correct the problem and put it back into service, isn’t needed nearly as much as a good knowledge of computers. …

Very briefly, with all of your experience with the technology and broadcasting using that technology, where do you see radio heading in the future?

Radio is going to go either one of two ways. It’s either going to find a way to differentiate itself from the music streams, the other music sources, be it Pandora, or iTunes, or Rhapsody, or whatever, and come back into a position of prominence and relevance to the target audience. Or it’s going to further diminish into a non-relevant source of entertainment, just another source of music out there or entertainment out there. It depends on which way it goes. … So we may see a shuffling of things in the future.

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