Ed Wenck

Weekly Newsletter
Issue #283

The Voices You Know

Ed Wenck was a comedian and broadcast Radio DJ for 26 years, whose voice was immediately recognizable across multiple markets and states. He hosted top-rated FM radio morning shows, including The Wank and O’Brien Show in my hometown of Indianapolis, of which, I was a certified fan. I tracked down the penultimate radio disk jockey of my childhood to discuss his career, comedy, and broadcast radio; what’s happened to it and where its future lies.

Bouncing out of my house, on the way to school, pockets stuffed with mashed DunkAroos, the air smells like fall. I jump into the backseat of my mom’s beat up four-door Subaru and buckle-up. She’s got the window cracked, so that she can smoke out the window, and NPR is drooling from the car’s radio. We back out of our driveway.

“93.1!” I say, before exchanging morning pleasantries. She relents and flips the station before asking me about my upcoming day. As it’s a commercial break I tell her about it in detail; the bubbling dramas, the snack-time wars, the little soap operas that build and destroy friendships day by day—never pausing to ask her a single question. But then they arrive, out of the commercial haze, my real before-school friends, calling me back to attention through the blown-out speakers.

“Hey RadioNOW! It’s Wank and O’Brien here, coming to you live from Indianapolis, Indiana!” They talk politics, pop culture, pull pranks, and make fart jokes that toe the line and make me feel more adult for hearing them. “Oops… I Did It Again,” by Britney Spears, bops in and I let down my window, despite the chill, knowing that today is going to be a good day.

Ed Wenck was introduced to professional comedy through his wife-to-this-day, Amy, who worked at a comedy club. Feeling inspired by the comedians and finding comradery in their community, Ed decided to give it a shot. He soon became a pretty successful touring comedian and was offered regular airtime in the Syracuse broadcast radio market. “When one dude left his position at a particular station, I became one of the players on that morning show.” From there, Ed hopped from station-to-station garnering a reputation as a smart, funny, and relatable personality who could juggle farcical comedy and a heartfelt connection with his audience.

I know Ed best from his morning show on RadioNOW! in Indianapolis, which he moved to after a brief stint in California. His California station was faltering and David Edgar—a rival DJ from his days in Pittsburg—invited him to make the move to Indy. “I started talking to [my cohost], O’Brien, and we hemmed and hawed over it and started talking about dollars. We realized that even though it was a pay cut, moving to Indianapolis would be a jump in quality of life. We could afford a lot more [there]. One of the reasons David wanted to bring us in, is because RadioNOW had become known as this kiddy-pop bubblegum station. They wanted to age the demographic, because they couldn’t sell to anybody appealing to 12-year-olds. They wanted to appeal to 18 to 34-year-olds.”

“A good radio show will make it sound easy and it’s not. It requires a ton of preparation the day beforehand.”

“A daily morning show sounds kind of daunting,” I said. “Did you have to fully prepare and script every episode or could you just kind of make sure the chemistry is right, play some music, and improv?”

“People never saw how the sausage was made,” he said. “A good radio show will make it sound easy and it’s not. It requires a ton of preparation the day beforehand. A typical day, we’d get into the station between 4 and 4:30 a.m. and sign off at 10 a.m. We’d still be in the station till about 3 p.m. Think about it, when you construct a great song parody for a bit, the audience gets 90 seconds to 2 minutes of great comedy, they don’t realize that’s two hours of preparation. That’s a great bit and all but you still have another 3 hours and 58 minutes of time to fill. Some of that time is music, but you still have a lot of time to fill. It takes a lot of hands [and] a lot of smarts…. Some markets still have a traditional morning show, larger markets especially, but a lot of that has been syndicated. Podcasts have replaced a lot of what you see as that old school great radio content.”

“Do you see a future for the traditional model?” I said. “Or do you think it’s all going to go the way of the podcast?”

“If radio doesn’t re-invent itself in the near future, it will be an endless cycle of diminishing returns,” he said. “They have syndicated, merged, and conglomerated themselves into very, very formulaic patterns that have a diminishing audience. [Now,] when somebody tells you they’re number one in the market, something important to remember, is that number one in the radio universe of listeners is a dwindling subset of media consumers. People do turn on the radio when they have no other option. There are so many other avenues to that kind of content. Radio really missed the boat. A lot of people played it very safe.”

This pessimism, however, has a few caveats. On the AM/FM markets there’s still a loyal market in sports, news, and conservative talk radio. “Some of the more successful stations right now are the Spanish language stations,” he added to the list. “That is a rallying point for that community and [tailored towards a] very specific audience.” When tasked, the biggest morning shows I could think of were syndicated programs like The Tom Joyner Morning Show and The Steve Harvey Morning Show—which, while of course starkly different from rightwing talk radio or Univision, also cater to a loyal niche cultural demographic and an older population.

“If radio doesn’t re-invent itself in the near future, it will be an endless cycle of diminishing returns.”

In fact, the reason Ed eventually left radio, was because his station had desired to rebrand itself into conservative talk radio to keep up with these trends. “I was doing talk radio [on WIBC]. It was pretty down the middle, a sort of news magazine approach, but with a local commercial bent. They decided they were going to take WIBC in a hard right direction. We both agreed that I was not a good fit for that at all. There was no way in hell I was going to become a little Limbaugh.” From there, forever the pragmatist, Ed made the sensible and lucrative decision to transition into local print journalism.

“Why do you think sports radio is so popular?” I asked. “It doesn’t fit neatly in with the other successful radio archetypes we’ve discussed.”

“It’s a soap opera, it’s the original reality show,” he said. “It’s a huge business. It’s wildly entertaining. The broadcast television numbers for NFL games have consistently had the biggest market share year after year. Other sports, [while not quite the NFL], all have their audiences.”

While the broadcast catalyst of radio is faltering, the medium is not, with podcasts becoming almost ubiquitous sources for many people’s news and entertainment. This market, like the larger internet, however, can be a source of misinformation, as compared to traditional radio. “Radio is regulated, by not only the FCC but the FEC, FDA, and SEC,” Ed explained. “Guys who were selling supplements on the air were found liable when those supplements were found to be harmful. There aren’t those same regulations on Spotify or YouTube. There are no gatekeepers there. There’s no one to say, ‘you can’t make statements on this product that are completely unfounded.’ On radio there is some form of monetary punishment for disseminating [disinformation].”

“Don’t you think ultimately this sort of pseudo-journalism can exist in traditional radio? Isn’t humanity just craving sensationalism and content that will grab their attention?” I asked.

“I was talking to a guy who was assessing a sports station based out of Buffalo, New York. They were like, ‘when the Bills aren’t playing in the off-season, we are getting killed.’ He was like, ‘well what kind of programming are you running during the off-season?’ They were like, ‘there’s a lot of high school sports in the off-season, everything from soccer to volleyball…’ [He cut them off.] ‘Stop! Stop! What other ways can you talk about the Buffalo Bills 365 days a year?’ It was like a lightbulb went off for these guys. They realized what their audience really wanted. All Bills talk, a little hockey thrown in, but all Bills talk primarily. The station changed its approach, looking for intrigue and story lines in the off-season—that creates its own set of problems. Are you manufacturing stories? But man, you aren’t going to get anywhere talking about high school volleyball.”

“Yea, but that seems like it echoes a lot of the problems with our news media,” I said. “When people get to dictate the information they’re getting, a lot of important stories get swept under the rug, a lot of stories get manufactured so that a given station can cover more salacious topics.”

“When something is good for numbers they keep going back to that well, even if that well is poison. The mainstream media tends to treat politics like sports. Who’s scoring, who’s winning, instead of actual policies,” he said.

Whether or not this impulse to cover the “juiciest” news story over the most important is as old as humanity itself, the syndication and dissolution of the local radio station mirrors the growing trend of the shuttering of local media outlets throughout journalism. This threatens the very role of journalism within our democracy, as historically, many of the most important national stories have been broken by the hard work of local investigative journalists. These journalists throughout mediums are our neighbors, and we can develop real and intimate relationships with them. A story Ed told me near the end of our time together really illustrates the emotional importance of local journalism.

“The most profound moments, for me, on the air, weren’t meeting this person, breaking this record, going to the Grammys—it was knowing that you had a responsibility when something like 9/11 went down. Understanding that the responsibility was to calm the shit down, take a step back, tell everybody to breathe, and give everyone the information as you understood it in the moment. A good morning show can be like a big brother or big sister to the audience when they really need it,” he said. “[On the morning of] 9/11, we got a flash that a plane had hit one of the World Trade Center towers. We flipped on the TV to see what was going on. I’ll never forget, we were coming back from Alicia Keys’ Falling, and right as the song began to fade out, the second plane hit. It was one of those moments when your stomach just dropped. Obviously, this was no longer an accident. It became frighteningly obvious that this was an intentional act. We told the audience, ‘It looks like the United States is under attack.’ We rapidly heard about the Pentagon. We turned the show into a talk show for the next two weeks. It was an interesting experience because we were trying to tamp down the lid on the growing islamophobia.”

“The most profound moments, for me, on the air, weren’t meeting this person, breaking this record, going to the Grammys—it was knowing that you had a responsibility when something like 9/11 went down.”

Only a neighbor can calm stuff down like that, only a neighbor, live on the air, can console those who really need comfort in that moment.

“That familial voice is something that people gravitate towards and embrace. That’s kind of lacking from the modern broadcast universe. It’s either sports, and there’s nothing wrong with that, or there’s these bombasts on the right or just music jocks. There are fewer and fewer shows—like Tom Joyner or The Breakfast Club—that are voices of a community and that’s a shame… Some of my favorite shows were listening to a guy named Vin Scelsa, who had a show called Idiot’s Delight that I’d listen to on my way back home to Syracuse from doing gigs late at night in NYC. It had a communal vibe. ‘You are in on something really cool.’ It’s company. It’s an intimate one-to-one medium, talking to a single person in a car.”

After our interview had ended, I meditated on this image: a lonely Ed driving back home at 3 in the morning, the smell of the night air and highway skunk seeping into his car through a cracked window. Podcasts are fantastic, they have opened up a world of on-demand knowledge and entertainment that traditional radio could never compete with. But, in this image, we see the element they lack: intimate friendship. I think back to another time in my own life, a few years after smashed DunkAroos, well into my adolescence, when I was discovering the horrors of insomnia. In bed, unable to sleep, sad and alone, I’d turn on the radio and find solace in the live voices that called-in between songs. Somewhere out there, in the cold and mysterious night, was someone else, living, maybe even, a friend.

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