A Conversation With Radio DJ Michael Tearson

By Steven Brodsky

Michael Tearson is one of the most admired radio DJs of all time. Many readers know him from his years at WMMR, WMGK, and Sirius XM. About his time at each broadcasting venue, Michael told me: “I liked best what I could do on my own to create the content, when I could create shows entirely out of my imagination and without the station telling me what the content would be.”

You started on FM radio when there was a golden age of freedom for disc jockeys; they had far greater latitude in choosing the music that was aired. Where were you working and what did that freedom mean to you and to your listeners?
I started at WXPN where my very first show in October 1967 was the first album rock show at WXPN. Then in January 1968 I was first to do album rock on their FM. At the time the form was brand new and without history or rules, so I was making it up as I went along. It was entirely new and uncharted territory.

What caused the erosion of freedom?
The success of the format in drawing an audience led to the establishment of the Superstars format which skimmed off the album rock hits and boiled it down to a more predictable and even format–all hits all the time–and frankly that cleaned WMMR’s clocks for a while and caused management there to reel in their own format.

What did you most enjoy about your work at WMMR?
I most loved the idea that every night I would take listeners for a ride and that it was never the same twice. I loved that I could tell stories whether obvious or subliminal by selecting, sequencing and segueing. I loved the trust that was placed in me to do this, to not be unnecessarily self-serving, to deliver a balance of all the threads that made up the big picture of what the format was. These days DJs have not selected their own music since 1984 when the computer program Selector came on the market and made it simple for PDs and MDs to program a full day’s content with the push of a button. In an instant an entire generation of DJs skilled at creating shows had that forcibly removed from what we did. I submit radio has gotten nothing but worse and ever less imaginative and engaging/involving ever since.

At WMGK?
The Saturday Morning 60s show was entirely my baby. I did it on my own and delivered the complete self-contained show. On the other hand I came to loathe executing the format when doing fill-in shows. At the end of 5 hours I’d feel my soul had been forcibly sucked out of me.

What are you currently involved with?
Currently I do two weekly webcasts Michael Tearson’s Marconi Experiment and The ATTIC which are both available free and on demand Monday to Monday at www.iradiophilly.com/podcasts.php. Here I am granted total artistic freedom to create shows as I see fit and possible. It is likely the last work I will do as the fences have been set up to rein in the Internet. In 2010 through 2015 I did nearly 300 shows at www.radiothatdoesntsuck.com, the best platform I ever had as I was NOT held to a 60 minute length and was free to allow the shows to find their own lengths. RTDS went dark along with thousands of other small webcasters when at the beginning of 2016 the royalty rates for such as we were hiked 517% essentially to drive as many of us as possible away and off the web. It worked.
I also have returned to being a performing folk performer, something I did back in the 1960s before I did radio, and this has been wonderfully satisfying.
I do not miss broadcast or satellite radio in the slightest. And they don’t seem to miss me either. They do NOT want DJs who care at all about the content of their shows. They want people who will go in say what they must and leave without creating ripples.

Posted 9/27/2016

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