By Mike Kinosian
Managing Editor/West Coast Bureau Chief
PALM BEACH, Fla. — Complete chaotic disarray in the radio industry easily prompts one to conjure up an image of a perimeter surrounded by a sea of yellow “Police Line: Do Not Cross” tapes. You can practically hear the utterances of, “Keep moving – nothing to see here.”
Positions have been skewered in a business destroyed by consolidation and no one wants to enter a once-vibrant profession that is close to flat lining on life support.
Okay – hold it – not so fast!
One of the most gregarious, gracious, charming, talented – and altogether colorful – characters one could ever encounter has proof that there is still a palpable interest out there by people wanting to chase a career in the still magical world of radio.
Where students learn the ‘real deal’
Twenty-four miles north-northeast of Springfield, and 27 miles west of Worcester is the Hampshire County (Massachusetts) town of Ware, which is “where” – in the late-1950s – Dick Robinson landed a fulltime on-air opportunity at WARE for $48.50 a week. An additional $20 per week came his way once he was bumped up to program director. The first job opening Robinson had to fill as the WARE PD was for a 7:00 pm – 12:00 midnight talent. “People coming in to apply didn’t know very much about the actual skill of the job, which back then, was not digital,” he recalls. “When I asked what they wanted to make, they would usually say at least $125 a week.”
Applicants were urged by friends to seek that amount but they did not comprehend it was unrealistic. Some who took radio-related mail-order courses would apply for jobs; however, as Robinson explains, “They knew a little theory but they had no clue about production, how to cue a record, or anything else that was practical. They did not know the ‘real deal.’
By 1960, Robinson thought that if he were ever able to get to a bigger market, he would launch a school for broadcasting. Sure enough, four years later (1964), he progressed to Hartford and decided that would be the birthplace for the Connecticut School of Broadcasting, which continues to strive more than one-half century later. “I did it with buddies of mine who were newscasters, sportscasters, and producers,” recollects Robinson, who was “president” of the Dick Robinson Company (“DRC on ‘DRC”) when – on Hartford’s WDRC AM & FM – he did 8:00 pm – 1:00 am and then later afternoon drive. “We spent over two years putting together lesson plans.”
Brutally candid philosophy for the school was, and still is, to “tell it like it is” and probably even worse than it is to students. “Some guys who would come in were married and had kids,” Robinson notes. “We told them they couldn’t begin in this field full time because they wouldn’t be able to afford it. They really had to start part time.”
Instantly ingratiating, Robinson is quite clearly an awe-inspiring core radio ambassador who eats, sleeps, and breathes broadcasting. Those attracted to the school come from all backgrounds and tend to mirror that mentality. “The more they got of it, the more they found it was a disease they could not shake loose,” the suburban Boston (Malden) native comments. “Back in those days, most who came in wanted to be on-air personalities or newscasters and primarily on radio, which was the thing in 1964.”
Even to this day, most CSB students desire to possess an on-air presence. “A person can rack up a $200,000 bill for four years of college but you do not need a college degree to be on radio or television,” Robinson stresses. “Having passion is the most important thing. Entry-level broadcast jobs tend to be poor paying. You don’t begin by making a lot of money, so to wind up with massive student loan debt is just crazy.”
Advertising for the school was strictly limited to radio. Anyone interested in pursuing a career in the medium was most likely listening, so Robinson reasons, “We never did anything in newspaper, television, or anything else. They wanted to leave here being the next mega-star but we had to tell them that was not going to be the first job.”
Among the most prominent Connecticut School of Broadcasting alumni was a then-41-year-old New York City cab driver; Robinson was at the Gotham campus when he graduated. “I asked Joe Benigno what he was going to do, and with his thick New York accent, he said, ‘Dickie, I’m going over to WFAN.'”
That was when Don Imus did mornings at the New York City all-sports outlet and Benigno called over there as “Joe from Saddle River” but as Robinson states, “Calling and working at WFAN are two different things. He actually got a job there [in the mid-1990s] and began doing 12:00 midnight – 6:00 am. His daughter wound up going to the school as well. Once in a while, a guy like that just clicks. He is a killer with what he has to say; the way he says it; and he knows how to talk to those New Yorkers.”
There was an 18-year-old student with “a wickedly great set of pipes,” as Robinson describes the man who went on to become the voice of “Dateline NBC,” ABC Radio’s “Flashback,” and numerous other credits. “When he was still going to high school, he did afternoons in Hartford on WDRC-FM. From there, he went to Philadelphia and later to New York City. He changed his name to Bill St. James. He was a natural talent and never took himself too seriously and still doesn’t today.”
Alum ascends to presidency
Yet another distinguished Connecticut School of Broadcasting graduate completed the course in 1986 when he was 16 and he is establishing an impressive name for himself as the school’s president. While sharing his father’s passion for the business, Jim Robinson wanted to be behind-the-scenes and in video production. “The school was just starting to change over to become more video-intensive,” remarks the younger Robinson, who began teaching with the company in the early-1990s. “Obviously, as the years went by, we have gotten even more into it. I worked in Rome for a while and I did a lot of work with Paul Newman. I got involved with the interactive gaming business with McGraw-Hill and some other companies.”
Each CSB class is comprised of 18 – 20 students. “Many people think that our school is the place to go to become a radio talent or to do voiceovers, but there is so much more to it,” Jim Robinson emphasizes. “There is video production, graphics, and the entire spectrum to where media is today. People can branch out to all these different areas. Back in the day, the way students used an Ampex tape machine was amazing. Picture what we have at our disposal today with Adobe Creative Cloud. It is phenomenal what they are doing with Photoshop, After Effects, and Adobe Audition. They just soak it up and, by the time the class is done, they are almost like a fully equipped broadcast house – it is cool that way.”
Course concentration is 112 hours, which translates to 16 weeks for those completing it at night, or eight weeks for students able to attend fulltime during the day. Syllabus has evolved but the length of the $12,840 program has always been the same, with classes commencing in March, July, and November.
Graduating from CSB does not necessarily mean cutting the cord. “We have workshops that give extra knowledge in certain areas and our graduates can come back for studio time,” Jim Robinson points out. “They can work with the school for job-placement assistance. Those who use the school correctly always come back and some end up being instructors. Many of our school directors are graduates of the school. They remember what is what like to come in on their first day. The most rewarding, therapeutic part of my day is going on Facebook to read about our graduates who are getting jobs and moving forward in their lives.”
Expansion of CSB has been significant as the original Connecticut locale has proliferated into 11 others, including sites in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Charlotte, and several in Florida. “Most people commute from within one hour of a particular campus,” Dick Robinson discloses. “Others come from out-of-state and out of the country. Our campus directors have been with us a long time and operate rather autonomously, although they all go by the same curriculum.”
Student demographic is customarily in the 20 – 28 range, although the school obviously gets those who are just coming out of high school. “They might choose us over going to a four-year college, or they leave college after a year or two because they aren’t getting the hands-on experience they need,” Jim Robinson declares. “In addition, there are those 35+ who are going through career changes. In some cases, it is because they have been told they have a great voice or they want to turn the hobby of taking family videos into a career.”
An in-place, online component to the school is not intended for distant learning. “You cannot learn this in a digital-type way,” Jim Robinson cautions. “We have reinforcement tools for those who need them. It is amazing how we have grown what my father put together. It is a cool environment and it is a neat thing to be part of on a daily basis.”
Job security concerns for those in radio are hardly new. Media though has spread out and become omnipresent. “Voiceover content, for example, is in so many more places than it used to be,” Jim Robinson accentuates. “Employers come to us looking for people who know what they are doing. As a result, there is more of an opportunity to get into this field. When a student first gets here, they might say they want to be an on-air talent but after we go through orientation, a studio tour, and give them our philosophy, they get excited that there are other kinds of opportunities out there for them. If the radio bug bites someone they will find a way to get into the business.”
Openings exist for those proficient in shooting/editing video. “A high school’s football games are not going to be on ESPN and are usually not going to be on local radio, but there are ways to stream video of the games on the internet so the games are seen worldwide,” Dick Robinson suggests. “Someone does the play-by-play and the games have a local sponsor. Every graduate of that high school would be able to see each game. That is just one example of a new kind of job that has come along.”
Commitment to legendary music
Entrepreneurship extends beyond the Connecticut School of Broadcasting for Dick Robinson, who has had ownership stakes in San Francisco’s KKHI – where he traded rent with the St. Francis Hotel – and KGIL in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley where a historic figure was heard on a regular basis. Specifically, in 1971, KGIL hired Francis Gary Powers – whose U-2 spy plane was shot down over Soviet Union airspace in May 1960 – as an air traffic reporter. It’s a job he kept for five years before joining KNBC-TV, Los Angeles.
As recently as the late-1980s, most major and medium markets had at least one beautiful music/easy-listening station, but by the early-1990s, virtually all evolved to adult contemporary. One such facility is CBS Radio’s Hartford AC WRCH “Lite 100.5,” a property Robinson owned (beginning in early-1976) in its beautiful music days. Then – as now – the station was #1.
Boasting a lengthy list of resume accomplishments and having relocated from New England to the Florida sunshine, Dick Robinson – who will turn 77 next month (April) – would seem to be the ideal retirement or at least semi-retirement candidate; such is hardly the case.
Slightly more than $2 million posted by Robinson Entertainment (Dick, Jim, and Jim’s sisters Missy and Jill) proved to be the highest/winning bid in the FCC’s 2013 Auction 94, enabling them to obtain a Lake Park-licensed Class A frequency at 100.3 with West Palm Beach city-grade coverage.
In September 2013, the property was cleared to use WLML (“Where Legendary Music Lives”) as its calls. Adult standards WLML celebrated its first-year anniversary last month (February 2015) and Dick Robinson maintains, “It’s my last chapter. Having all three of my kids in the business doing three entirely different things is such a blessing. Missy is the chief operating officer and Jill is the financial whiz. I might not be the brightest bulb, but it sure has been a lot of fun having my family with me to run this like a family station. My kids get along so well and on top of that, they go on vacation together.
Keenly aware of the Palm Beach culture, the elder Robinson has resided there for over 30 years and is a past president of the American Heart Association. “Even in a market such as Los Angeles, you can’t find a station that plays songs like this,” proclaims the founder of the Society for the Preservation of the Great American Songbook. “There’s an older demo here. There are so many people who just love that music and we can sell this demo.”
Trumpeting “live and local” as one of its strengths, WLML is all about Palm Beach County. “Our on-air people here are real – no one is slick,” Dick Robinson assures. “They love what they are doing and they love the music. Morning personalities Jill and Rich Switzer took a quick course at the Connecticut School of Broadcasting; he is a musician and she is a singer. I hired [10:00 am – 2:00 pm talent] Walt Pinto way back in 1966, and [2:00 pm – 6:00 pm personality] Lorna O’Connell graduated from CSB in the 1980s. The presentation style is real people talking about Palm Beach County.”
None other than Dick Robinson “From the Legends’ Loft” is heard weeknights 6:00 pm – 8:00 pm (live, not voice-tracked) and the still very much golden-throated personality manages to record a two-hour syndicated “American Standards by the Sea” show carried by more than 70 affiliates.
Representative WLML artists are not confined exclusively to those in the Frank Sinatra-era. “Legendary Music” on the station is performed by artists of yesterday and today, with Rod Stewart and Michael Buble examples of the latter. “I met Michael Buble in 2003 and people were swooning over him,” Dick Robinson asserts. “He can play before a crowd of 16,000 and open his show by singing Peggy Lee’s ‘Fever.’ Everyone from kids to older people will be screaming. Not many other artists are like that. Tony Bennett has the #1 album [‘Cheek to Cheek’] with Lady Gaga. Barbra Streisand has an album [‘Partners’] where she does duets with artists like Billy Joel, Elvis Presley, and Stevie Wonder. Bette Midler’s It’s The Girls! album is a collection of songs by female group singers such as the DeCastro Sisters while Barry Manilow has an album, Dream Duets, where he does songs with people who ‘have left us.'”
Most WLML listeners are 50+. Even so, Dick Robinson never imagined there would be as many younger people sampling the station. “They might be finding orchestrations to this music more pleasing and they could be getting tired of rap and all that other crap,” he opines. “Agencies these days don’t want people 50+. Young buyers think people in that demo don’t change their buying habits and that they are hooked up to tubes in nursing homes.”
Praising the brains and the builder
Father-son one-upsmanship is evidenced with Jim Robinson claiming his father is the brains behind WLML, while Dick contends Jim is the one who built the station. “All we had was a frequency assigned to us from the FCC,” Jim recounts. “We didn’t have a building, a tower, and I didn’t know anything about transmission. To put the station on from the ground up and get it to where it is [one year later] is just a tremendous thing. When we are out in the community, we get amazing feedback. Energy we get from that makes us want to drive it that much further.”
Notwithstanding that Jim Robinson runs CSB as its president, he has “the wherewithal to go out and do audio production for a Jack Jones concert; gala events for celebrities in New York City; or be a weekend mobile DJ. Whatever I do on the side, I like knowing I am still relevant in this world of media.”
Any way you slice it, the Robinsons are a refreshingly tight-knit family running a top 50 market, independent radio station and a 12-campus school that – for the last 51 years – has been developing fresh blood for the industry. “We dig what each of us does and what we bring to the table,” Jim Robinson assesses of his siblings. “I adapt to new technology and love to learn. I take to heart the lesson my father taught me early in life – refine, refresh, renew and I keep building on his foundation.”
To relish in the success of those who have studied at CSB is still Dick Robinson’s most significant satisfaction. “Jim and I have the biggest kick when we find out one of our graduates has been hired. I will never forget the day in Ware, Massachusetts when someone told me I had a job. It was not the Rock of Gibraltar, but I had a full-time job in radio. All my life, I have been able to do what I have wanted. I don’t know if I was ever capable of doing anything else other than broadcasting and I’ve been in it for 60 years.” Meet Dick Robinson – one of 65 outstanding speakers — at the forthcoming Talkers New York 2015 on Friday, June 12. Call 413-565-5413 to register.
Contact TALKERS magazine managing editor Mike Kinosian at Kinosian@Talkers.com.