OFF-MIC: Drew Walker (US99)


OFF-MIC #7: DREW WALKER (US99)





Meet Drew Walker, affable afternoon driver at one of the top radio stations in Chicago, US99.  Drew’s always been an enthusiastic fan of radio, and has managed to turn that love into an enviable career.  My first encounter with him was at the beginning of the 00s, when he was building up original content for his Chicago radio-focused djheadlines site.  Back then, he threw five questions my way.  Here I am, returning the favor…only with a lot more than five questions.




James VanOsdol:
Drew, my early memories of your radio beginnings start with you being a lucky Mix contest winner.  Am I remembering things correctly?


 


Drew Walker:
Pretty close, yep! I’ve always loved radio, admiring Chicago from afar as a kid in West Lafayette, IN.  I remember listening to WLS with “John on a car phone.” The fact I could hear this booming signal from three hours away, it was intoxicating.


 


When I moved to Chicago after college, I was immediately drawn to Eric and Kathy.  I really loved how they made the listener such a big part of the show, plus the chemistry and orchestration is like nothing else on the air. A little known or forgotten fact: my wife and I actually got engaged on their show in 2001.  For us, there was no other perfect way.  Even better, the actual proposal got bumped to a later timeslot that morning, to follow “Krandel, The Butt Sketch Artist.”  Seriously! 




JVO:
Is it fair to say that you were a fan, if not well-educated student, of the medium who managed to crack the code and get his foot in the door?



DW:


Very much so. In 2000, I started blogging about radio before it was called blogging. I’ve always been a fan, and I still am.



JVO:
Tell me about your first professional on-air gig.


 


DW:
I’d met a few people through my website, then “DrewandJill.com,” and formed a few friendships. I knew that I wanted to work in radio, but needed a chance to get my foot in the door.  A conversation came up that there was a weekend board operator position open for a suburban AM, and would I be interested?  Absolutely!


 


I started at WKRS-AM in Waukegan, running the board Saturdays from 12 noon-5 p.m..  NASCAR, Paul Harvey, “The Movie Show on Radio,” and a few other brokered programs.  Some weeks, I actually got to do live news headlines and weather for 5-10 minutes before Paul Harvey.  I had made it!


 


I’ll always be grateful to Jim Moran for giving me my first break into what I’d always dreamed of doing.



JVO:
Going back to your web roots, djheadlines.com was a very ambitious thing to launch back in the early 00s.


 


DW:
The blog site started as DrewandJill.com, and when I wanted to expand what I was doing, I needed a better name and focus.  The name came from a friend whose television show I was working with; remember Nude Hippo?

JVO:
Of course.

DW:


My goal was always to be fact-oriented, no gossip…straight-shooter type stuff. And to present information you couldn’t find anywhere else.  Radio from a listener perspective.


 


There were plenty of other places–Crow-On, etc.–to get the nasty side of radio, so I really wanted to focus on the positive.


 


Today, I maintain it as a place to find Chicago personalities from 50 years ago through today, as well as hosting a comprehensive database of all the stations and their line-ups, contact information, and general programming data.


 


JVO:
You’ve really evolved your career and industry status to a point where you’re now on the inside looking out.  Did making the move from fan to afternoon star change your perception of the industry in any way?



DW:
Absolutely!  When you’re a fan listening or observing, you’re not aware of the work that goes behind what you hear on the radio. I’ve had a lot of listeners sit in on the show over the past 4 ½ yrs.  The one comment that I get more than anything else?  “I had no idea you were doing so much during the songs.”


 


JVO:
Given that New York has no country outlet, and KKGO is still a relative newcomer in L.A., that makes WUSN a go-to and frequently-imitated station in the country format.  Do you think there are aspiring talents in Lexington and Wichita who are combing through Drew Walker airchecks, looking for inspiration?


 


DW:
Ha. Great question!  I don’t know if that’s happening anymore. Not necessarily about me, but in general, especially with the growth of voice-tracking and budget cuts removing overnight and weekend talent.  I do hope so, though, because I truly believe that you only get better by learning from others.


 


I’m continuously interested in other folks’ interviews of stars, features on their show–whether it’s a method of conversation that works more smoothly, or an interviewing skill, or a better way to get in and out of something.


 


Oprah is one of the best interviewers on the planet.  I’ve learned a lot about relating to your guests from her, and it doesn’t matter if you’re talking to Toby Keith, or “Jenn from Bolingbrook.”


 


Basically, in today’s uber-technological world, you have to be open to change.  You can’t do the same thing you’ve been doing for years.



JVO:
You had embraced the web and its possibilities early on.  These days, it’s clear that you’ve made social networking and the one-on-one communication resources of the internet (Twitter, blogging, etc.) part of your show and how you interact.  What more would you like to do with the web?


 


DW:
I’d like to do more discussion that doesn’t necessarily happen on-air.  With 11-12 songs an hour, two traffic breaks, and minimal imaging–PPM turned us on to an even bigger “minimalistic” approach–the time that we have to chat is very structured in P.M. Drive.  Don’t get me wrong – my clock works really well for us, but sometimes, a topic might be great enough to continue in another forum.


 


I’d love to do more Facebook discussions of things like this, or moving people to a blog, or Twitter.  However, I’m still learning the best use of these tools, and with just me in charge of everything, versus the morning and midday shows both having a producer, it’s sometimes a bit harder to execute.


 


JVO:
What’s the most ridiculous thing that’s happened to you on the air at US99?


 
DW:
My wife decided to cut off 11 inches of hair for Pantene Beautiful Lengths, so I made plans for a big production–catering, family, salon–and we did it live on the air. I freaked out when the stylist pulled out clippers, and almost lost it when I saw the back of her head at the reveal. The video says it all


 


JVO:
What’s the one moment you’ll never forget while you were on the air at US99?


 
DW:
Without a doubt, announcing the birth of our son, and being able to share the amazing story and joy of adoption.



JVO:
You communicate on a very personal level, to the point that your fans know the names of your wife and child.  What lines do you draw, as far as what you’ll share with your audience?



DW:

I think you have to be personal in order to make an impact, to make a difference, to distinguish yourself.   No matter if they’re personal interests, causes you champion, your favorite song, family stories from weekend gatherings…the more you share, the more the listener may be drawn to you.


 


That said, I draw boundaries on sharing where we live and certain things regarding our son.  Maybe not as many photo updates as I used to post when he was a baby.


 


My ultimate goal is to establish a relationship and appointment listening, so much so that if they’re out of pocket for a day, they really want to come back to find out what they missed.



JVO:
I suspect that the very nature of the country format lends itself to more transparency.  Country radio engenders a genuine sense of community, so I suspect you’d almost have to be an open book in order to be welcomed in that community.  True?


 


DW:
Yes!  To be successful in our format, without a doubt.



JVO:
What advice would you give to an “old school” radio guy about how to use the web?


 


DW:
Think of your email, your station’s website, your personal one, texting, IM, Facebook, MySpace, etc. as another means to form and maintain a connection with your audience. I’ve really embraced it, and have seen nothing but positive results.  Even if your reply is a quick one or two-sentence note, the response will not go unnoticed.


 


Also, I’ve found that if the listener can’t get through on the phone, and a lot of people won’t even try anymore, they really enjoy getting you through these multiple other means.



For them, the chance to be connected to their favorite host on their terms, and with a method that’s easiest for them, creates a much-bigger draw. I’ve had a lot of success with it, but there’s still room to grow.



JVO:
The economy’s frightening.  Business is getting killed.  People are reacting more than acting.  What do you think is going to get radio over the hump and back on the proverbial golden road to prosperity?


 


DW:
Great programming. Compelling material. Songs and conversations that matter. I started branding my show as “Your favorite songs, great conversation, and big prizes” this year, and it’s what I try to deliver every day.


 


One other thing–minimal clutter. In the afternoon, with everything I have to get in, if the imaging is longer than 5-10 seconds, it doesn’t fit. In my humble opinion, gone are the days of the :35-:60 promo.



JVO:
If you had a time machine and could go back in time to talk to the Drew of ten years ago, what would you say?


 


DW:
Dream as big as you can, and don’t give up. The unthinkable may come true.


 


 

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