March 18, 2014

Our Neighbors: ‘On air’ aspirations from a young age

By Sue Minton
Lifestyles Editor

LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. — His voice is as familiar as an old friend, and many have never met him.

Each morning, at 6 a.m.,  many start the day with the sound of this voice over the airwaves saying — “Good Morning, Kip Jervis here, with the Big Ol’ Bandit Morning Show.”

Jervis has been a disc jockey (DJ) since the early 80s. His college major was communications, but it was originally the music that drew him into the radio business. He grew up in a musical family and music has always been his passion.

He landed his first job at the now defunct WLPQ in the metropolis of Pittsburg, Ky.  “It was 980 on the AM dial, and it’s still a functioning station, just not under those call letters. Dr. John Begley, owned it at the time, but his full-time job was president of Lindsey Wilson College,” Jervis recalls.

He grew up in the 70s, during the birth of the FM age of radio, and he knew this was something he wanted to do.

“Prior to the FM age, at night you could get all these AM stations because the FCC allows them to boost their power signal at dusk. One in particular was WLS out of Chicago. The way John ‘Records’ Landecker wrapped his voice and personality around those jingles and song intros, jumped right out of my speakers and took me to a magical place. I’ve never forgotten that. I can listen to anything from old Happy Goodmans records to John Coltrane’s ‘A Love Supreme’ to the Allman Brothers Band to Merle Haggard. My musical palette is quite varied.”

In today’s market, radio personalities need more than their love for music to make a go in the business. Jervis believes and has said many times — to be good at this craft, or to get people to listen to you, you can’t take yourself too seriously.

“In other words, no one will laugh along if you aren’t willing to laugh at yourself. You also have to communicate with your audience. Find a common ground, you have to make a connection. You have to be yourself, and you have to be everyman, all at once. If that makes sense.”

So, each time Jervis opens the mic, there’s a plan in place. While technology has allowed him “floating clocks,” meaning he no longer has to sit there and time out to the top of each hour’s news and so forth, there is still a schedule he sticks to.

The owners essentially decide what the format will be. But if a DJ  wants to take it even further than that, it would be the listeners who have the last word.

“If no one’s listening, the station won’t be selling any ads, and if revenue is down, in the immortal words of the great Sam Cooke, you can bet ‘A format change is gonna come!’”

Probably the most challenging or hardest part a DJ encounters these days is to stay relevant, because people have so many choices. They try to remain local to build a loyal audience, and of course the challenge is to be relevant while still being informative and entertaining.

“I think the most important part is probably getting timely information out to the public and on the air, but let’s face it: listeners also want to be entertained. So you try and strike that balance,” Jervis said.

And, throughout his radio career, Jervis has tried to maintain that balance.

“You must have thick skin because it’s a highly competitive entertainment medium. And most importantly, you must know your audience: who they are and how they tick.”

Although he  knows what his early morning listeners want, becoming an early morning personality has not been easy for him.

“My second job was at the (again now defunct) old WYGO radio in Corbin, which was at 99.5 on the FM dial. The late Bill Slone was the program director there, and they had gotten a license to increase their power to 50,000 watts, which was a pretty big deal. I was in school at the time, moonlighting doing afternoon drive. I’ll never forget, he came in and asked if I would be interested in doing mornings. Anyone who knew me then could tell you I was nowhere near a morning person, so it was a big ‘no’ right off the bat from me. It’s ironic now. The very thing I ran from back then is what I’m now known for.

“I have been doing mornings for several years now. I honestly did not know what I was missing before. I wouldn’t go back now if I could. And the solitude —  as long as you know there’s someone out there listening, you never really feel alone, even though, essentially, most of the time you are the only one in the room.”

Sometimes the perks and rewards can be great — concert and event tickets, plus access to celebrities.

Jervis recalls some of these rewards —  meeting and interviewing celebrities.

“I suppose among the ones that stand out is Jessi Colter. She was just the sweetest thing to me, and the whole time I was freaking out double, because not only was I speaking with Jessi Colter, but she was also married to Waylon Jennings, of whom I’m a huge fan. I did a phoner with Alan Parsons once. That was cool. We talked about his time spent engineering the Beatles and Pink Floyd, and we spoke at length about his amazing recording career with the Alan Parsons Project as well. I interviewed Ron Eckerman, who was a road manager for Lynyrd Skynyrd, and was actually on the Lynyrd Skynyrd plane when it went down in the swamp. That was chilling, just speaking with a survivor of that. I met and interviewed the true definition of a southern gentleman, Charlie Daniels, last year. That was a thrill, as was spending some conversational time with and having my picture taken with Joan Jett. I met Dale Earnhardt as well as Dale Earnhardt Jr., in different locations but in the same year, back in the late 90s. Meeting Dottie Rambo was a big thrill, too. I made sure to get a picture with her and my grandma together, two grand ladies of gospel music. And I ran smack into Taylor Swift at a Paul McCartney show in Nashville. That was pretty cool; at least to my teenage daughter.”

The one that stands out the most for Jervis is his visit with Garth Brooks.

“Garth Brooks was at the height of his success when he played Rupp Arena in the late 90s. He did a press conference and I was invited. So we’re backstage and he strolls into the conference room with Trisha Yearwood, who at the time was only opening his shows, not his mail. But you could just tell there was something ... I mean she hung on his every word, and the fact that she was even there said something too. At any rate, James Taylor had just filmed an A&E ‘Live by Request’ special, and Garth, who’s a huge J.T. fan, called in and requested an obscure song called ‘Frozen Man.’ So I asked him about that, and he got this big old smile and said, ‘hey so you know that song too!’, which I did, and it broke the ice, no pun intended. From there, it was on. I think I might have taken some time away from some of the bigger stations because he just kept talking to me.”

Jervis said sharing the celebrities’ interviews with his audience has been some of the highlights of his career. But there has also been times he had to share bad news with them.

“I’ve handled natural disasters like tornadoes, thunder storms, things like that. But in 2012, I had something happen that I wouldn’t wish on anyone. My dear friend of 30 plus years, Cathy Hall, lost a battle with cancer at a young age. We’d been morning show partners for several years, and besides being a great comic foil for my show, she was an excellent news director and a dear friend who truly was like a sister to me. After the grim news was broken to our staff, we moved on together each morning and did our show. But those were really rough months, watching her suffer while trying to be strong. Then together, through tears behind our microphones, we planned how to break the news to our listeners, and I watched her day by day fight the most valiant fight I’ve ever witnessed. When you work side by side with someone like that each and every day, an unavoidable bond forms.”

Whether a DJ is playing a listeners’ favorite artist, delivering good or bad news, broadcasting has changed over the years.

Jervis recalls starting out playing vinyl records on turntables, with a handwritten commercial log. Commercials were on cartridges that looked like 8 track tapes and “on the air” meant someone was actually in the building working, on the clock.

“I remember getting our first CD player when I was at WYGO. That was cool. Now those are obsolete. Everything we air, from the music to the commercials to the promos, with the exception of when we’re live on the mic, is on hard drive now. And with the onslaught of voicetracking, there are only a handful of us old school guys left. Note to media owners — we must start training some new blood or else local radio is a dying art.

“Also, back then there was country, top 40, AOR (album oriented rock), R&B, gospel, and maybe a few more. Now each of those have five or six different formats under their own umbrella. There’s hot country, classic country, oldies, adult contemporary, hot adult contemporary, alternative rock, classic rock, southern gospel, contemporary Christian, and of course now talk radio is a niche format of its own that’s becoming hugely popular, especially in metro areas.”

Jervis said although he has written plenty of promos in his time and done live remotes begrudgingly but with a smile, he is not much of a spotlight hog.

“I don’t mind being in a crowd; it’s never really been my favorite part of the job. Just give me my own little corner and I’m good,” he said. “But I love people, I love making them smile and it is easy relating to them.”

He has especially enjoyed being the stadium announcer and DJ for the North Laurel football and basketball teams for the past several seasons. “It keeps my pulse on my kids, who for me are priority one.”

Jervis supposes the same qualities that would make one a performer or comedian, perhaps would serve a DJ well, as well as an imagination, creativity, and a genuine interest in people, places, and things.

“It’s like being a musician or an athlete. Sometimes you’re just born with a certain skill set. I’m a drummer and I honestly don’t remember not knowing what to do when I sit down behind my kit. But you still practice to perfect your craft. I want to do my best show ever on the day I retire. When you lose that fire, that’s when you know you should hang it up. All of that applies in broadcasting. I consider myself fortunate to be able to making a living at this. It’s something I feel in my heart I was born to do. Some of my high school buddies and I recently got back together to play at our 30-year high school reunion, and I was looking back at an old yearbook. My aspiration in life said, ‘be a DJ.’ I had forgotten about that, but it made me grin. So, for the young people, some words to live by — ‘find your purpose.’ We all need a purpose.”