2016-2018: The story of my life on the radio

The rise and fall of my AM radio career.

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“I’ll be back, in some form, but for the time being, goodnight St. Louis.”

On Friday, I signed off my weekly radio show, “A Dose of St. Louis”, for the final time. After just over three months and 14 shows, it was time to call it. Deciding to stop doing something that gives you pleasure is about as easy as saying no to fresh French fries at McDonald’s, but sometimes, it’s the wiser decision.

Why cut something so short? The answer is simple: AM radio is a brutal business to survive in. A place where making a buck and putting on a good show usually don’t run hand in hand. Like most true stories, going back to the beginning is important in grasping the entire scope of the story.

Jan. 12, 2016. A good man named Chris Denman messaged me on Facebook about coming on his CBS Sports radio show, “We Are Live”, to discuss the Rams departure from St. Louis as well as movies and the Cardinals/Blues. I was following comedian and actor Jay Mohr, and I had no idea what to expect. Why did he want me? Is this a joke? It all swirled around up there before I went on a little after 8 p.m. while I sat in my apartment in North Little Rock, Arkansas.

When I was done, I felt good, but as nervous as a visiting Giants fan in an Eagles bathroom. I chugged a beer, tried to sit down, and immediately threw on some music and paced around my apartment like an artist who just found a new audience, but didn’t know when his next show would be.

I was suddenly passionate about the radio-and I didn’t know how to handle it.

Up until then, I had done a handful of appearances on Rob Butler’s Jonesboro morning radio show, a few Cardinals podcasts, and a couple hits on ESPN’s Columbia, MO radio station, KTGR. In a way, I was everywhere except St. Louis, my hometown. If I told you finding the radio helped me get through a tumultuous stretch in Arkansas, I’d be lying. By the time I went on WAL, my family and I were almost home, so it was more of a hyperbolic stamp on the letter than the actual heart of the tale.

LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT

However, the spot in January grew into something more. I started doing weekly hits with Denman and Travis Terrell on WAL, joining them to talk sports and movies while I chugged a Shocktop in my apartment complex, burning the eardrums of my Razorback neighbors with my “St. Louis accent”. It was glorious, and one time I almost didn’t wear pants, but the ones I did decide to keep on read “MIZZOU” on the outside. Burn!!

I did a live studio show in March and hosted a total of four shows over the summer while writing for the WAL website and booking some guests for the show. A couple of those shows, I hosted solo, aka doing three hours by myself in a studio off Hampton Avenue next to I-64. It was exhilarating, terrifying, and gratifying. I wanted more.

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Denman and I got together for coffee one afternoon in July of that year, and he threw something up in the air to see what I’d do with it. He mentioned an opening in the 5-7 a.m. morning slot on CBS Sports 920 AM, the home base of InsideSTL, which was Tim McKernan’s station, and the same one I had contributed to for the past six months. I was flattered by the offer, but wondered if I could do it.

The first thing that hits a father and husband is logistics. My soon to be four year old son couldn’t drive yet, or walk to daycare/school. Finding a way to work around that was one avenue of deception, while another was the fact that Vinny and I were living in an empty house on Mardel Avenue while my wife finished her work in Arkansas. We had little food, furniture, and things to entertain ourselves with. WiFi was like a jacuzzi.

The second thing was finding a co-host, because ten hours of radio per week would get old pretty fast with one voice. The two men that came to mind were Matt Whitener (we had hosted a couple Cards pods together) and Patrick Imig (who came in to co-host WAL with me a month earlier). Both of these guys were seasoned sports pros who had a unique outlook on the game, smooth talkers, and diabolical thinkers. In order to develop chemistry on the air, you have to get someone who mixes well with your intentions.

FINDING A RADIO PARTNER

I offered it up to Whitener first and he ran with it. We fired up our first “Dose of Buffa from the Cheap Seats” on Aug. 2, 2016 at five in the morning. Between four cups of coffee and a half-awake thought process, we finished our first show, and the immediate idea was that this could work, but needed some tweaking.

After a couple weeks of shows, Matt and I were recording an interview with Bill DeWitt III, and afterwards Denman told us McKernan had offered us the spot once the station transitioned to 590 The Fan KFNS in September. We were thrilled, and I was terrified. Now, there would be a brokerage, a need for sponsors, and of course, money to be made.

Radio isn’t just going into a studio with a microphone and speaking your mind. It’s a lot of business, and this sad but true fact would eventually knock me out like Mike Tyson. Initially, it was a mere stepping stone.

I found an investor for the first month, and we would later land Southwest Diner as a title sponsor.

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Matt and I found a good speed on air together. As my friend Stew later said, I was the gas, and Whitener was the brakes. The reason to my rhyme. Matt was an extremely well-spoken and highly knowledgeable sports mind. He had a unique way of looking at sports, and it melded perfectly with mine. He put together a spreadsheet schedule that got us in tune, and together with our board operator Matt Davis, the show found some legs.

After two and a half months though, Whitener was offered the producer position for the new Cam Janssen-T.J. Moe led afternoon, The Line Change. He rightly accepted.

A CHANGE IN PLAN

I’ll never forget McKernan’s call to me on a November afternoon. “Do you want to keep going?” First, let me say McKernan is a first class individual. I knew him from the TMA radio show before I got involved with the station, but I had the opportunity to get to know him a little as I played on his team for those few months. He worked with Whitener and I on the Daybreak Dose show, and was giving me a chance to continue chugging along.

It wasn’t easy. Again, doing ten hours of radio a week is the opposite of easy, even for a guy like me who won’t shut up. I found good friends like Carly Schaber, Holy Elle, Brad Lee, and Jeff Jones to come in and co-host with me on certain days, but it was a lot of work for very little money.

Let’s get something straight: I am not a good salesman. AM radio sales are tough, especially if you are a new voice in the area on a new show in a very early time slot. People aren’t handing out cash these days, so it was rough putting together content for a two hour daily show, producing guests, and conducting sales. Add in some other off-air drama that I won’t get into, and it was buried me. I was clearly in over my head and needed a change.

Luckily, Brad and Jeff were hockey maestros and were looking for an opening. They can say they weren’t, but when you come on someone else’s show for free, the hopes of getting more time or your own show is comfortably resting in your mind. The paper Brad published that Jeff and I wrote for, St. Louis Game Time, needed a radio outlet, so the two gents took over the morning show and I joined Matt Berger’s evening show, The Heavy Hitters.

EVENING RADIO LIFE

A different Matt on an evening show meant lesser brokerage owed and less producing required. The initial thought was the evening timeslot would work better with my family and I could find a small sponsor or two to make some money, but that hope quickly dissolved. The show had worse ratings than my short-lived morning show, and while I loved Berger like a brother, he wanted to discuss the NFL and NBA, two sports I wanted to discuss as much as I wanted to hold a conversation with my dentist hygienist as she worked on my teeth.

As I was about to depart, the show was soon to be scrapped, as the station was adding new shows and rearranging the evening drive programming. Berger moved a new show, That 590 Show, to the 6-8 pm slot, and I became a radio free agent.

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I told my wife that I was done. We both knew I was full of it, because I clearly had a desire to do my own show. A show that wouldn’t have to blend with someone else’s needs. After I signed off the air with Berger on April 6, 2017, I quickly started drawing up my own show. It would be a one hour daily show, presumably in the late morning hours.

The WGNU 920 AM owner, Burt Kaufman, didn’t have a late morning slot. He had early morning, an area I gleefully departed months before. After some deliberation, I settled on 6-7 in the morning, which is real morning drive gold–for a guy who can actually sell radio airtime. Someone not named Dan Buffa.

GOING SOLO

“Fresh Brew” debuted on the air in late May without a single sponsor, something any seasoned radio vet would advise you not to do. I’d do the morning show, drive like Bourne home to get my kid to school, do some writing, run errands, do house husband stuff, and try to shove radio sales pitches into the daily grind. It was brutal. I wasn’t good at it, and before the show was a month old, I was emailing Burt that I had to end the show.

Let me talk to you about Burt Kaufman. The man has comfortably cruised past 80 years of age, knows the radio business better than most, and is a kind yet honest soul. He handled my situation with first class care. He told me from the get-go that starting a show without sponsors was a risk, but when I returned with my hat in my hand, he didn’t say I told you so, instead talking about how good the show was and how well I handled myself well. I was blown away. A defeated man with some life left in his fastball.

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FRESH BREW GOES STALE QUICK!

We agreed that a reunion could be in order if I found sponsors and had another idea.

When October came around, I had a plan. I wanted to do a weekly two hour show, and settled on Friday nights as a landing spot. WAL had moved to WGNU for a morning show called “Saint Louis Live”, bringing along Jones as a producer and contributor. WAL/SLL did a Friday Night Live High School football broadcast, and it was coming to an end around the start of November.

“A Dose of St. Louis” went live on Friday, Nov. 3 on WGNU. I had found three sponsors through friends and known contacts. Stew Clark joined on a bi-monthly basis with The Golden Eagle Inn, an Airbnb in Illinois. Jonathan Keller and Mosaic Sports Counseling joined, as well as local coffee shop favorite, La Cosecha Coffee Roasters. I was able to pay the first two months in advance, and prepare for the third month.

The show was fun to do in the early going. I had local sportswriters on the show, as well as filmmakers like Jeremy Rush and Angela Hochman. It was two hours of work on a Friday night, with some pre-recording required from time to time during the week. I wasn’t making any money, but was comfortably ahead in brokerage payments as the new year approached. Most importantly, it wasn’t costing my family money like “Fresh Brew” ultimately did.

There were some problems. There was no legit podcast outlet for the show. SLL and WAL had their own podcast network, but that was costly and not easy to do on your own. My individual shows were shared to a page on the WGNU site, but they weren’t individually clickable, which made them harder to share without including directions. If I wanted any of this to change, I would have to donate more time to it, something I didn’t have a lot of, and wasn’t getting paid to do in the first place.

Then, I lost a huge sponsor. You see, getting low key sponsors to agree to a deal extending past three months is so difficult, and then you are left waiting to see if they will pay or leave you hanging with the bill. Well, one did, and I had to make a decision.

IT’S TIME TO CALL A SPADE A SPADE

When I started radio show #3, I told my wife it wouldn’t cost us money. If it did, I would quit. That time was now. It was time to call it.

I could have gone out and tried to find another sponsor, but it would only be to pay brokerage and not take any bacon home. It simply wasn’t worth it. Being an Uber driver, giving two hours of my coveted Friday night was also a big ask for such little return.

If you are single and unattached, doing the radio is a lot easier, because you can come and go freely and not feel bad where your time is placed. I made a choice to call a spade a spade. I had three radio shows, and they all ended. Failed isn’t the right word, but it didn’t work out.

“Daybreak Dose” lasted nearly seven months. “Fresh Brew” only lasted six weeks, and “A Dose of St. Louis” made it three months. Add it up and you don’t even get a year. Forget about it!

I informed Burt that I was ending my second show in less than a year, and the man was gracious and understanding once again. He didn’t have to be. Burt showed remorse that I was leaving, because he enjoyed the show and how I conducted myself. It wasn’t easy leaving, but it was the right decision.

WHAT NOW?

Outside of my shows, I wasn’t leaving the airwaves completely. I do a weekly hit on the popular Frank O. Pinion show on Tuesday afternoons, and could be adding another contributing gig this month. There will also be random spots on the ESPN show in Columbia, Missouri. Contributing is so easy. You call in or come into the studio for 15-30 minutes, talk, and depart. No other strings attached or being flung towards you. It’s quick work. It’s like driving a car without owning it.

For the time being, that will be my focus. Along with writing tenaciously for KSDK News as well as some work for St. Louis Game Time, the SB Nation website and paper sold outside Scottrade Center.

Is this the absolute end for me and AM radio show hosting? You never say never, especially in radio. If someone offers me a salary gig to host a show, I’m there. If I am hunting down sponsors again with a brokerage hanging over my head, forget that.

A PODCAST?

As my fellow film critic Tom O’Keefe said, “if you want to do a radio show without making money, do a podcast.” That will be my new focus, developing a podcast. A place where I can say what I want, and do my own thing without a huge financial blow landing at my feet.

This podcast will not be a sports show, because sports talk radio is so exhausting. You discuss a topic that has already been torn apart in six different ways and try to find new meaning and give people a reason to listen. “Today in Cardinal Nation” or “What’s new with the Blues?” became a tiring mantra that I grew tired of quickly on the morning shows. Friday nights became tiresome, because I didn’t leave the air thinking I produced much new content.

Film is entirely different. Movies are an endless realm of possibility and have so many angles and avenues to explore. Artform creates a conversation that is passionately singular. They go year-round and can divide people while requiring them to come together on opinions. While baseball can break my heart and hockey is so exciting, movies are my niche and something I know more about than most people. I have a knack for walking into a room and being able to name a movie after seeing a few seconds of it.

I know it. You know it if you’ve read the doses lately. Movies are my thing. If three radio shows taught me one thing, you need to find a specialty in order to truly carve a career out in this business.

Writing is a different story. I can pack a sports story into a column and send it off forever. Unlike a radio discussion, it won’t come back within five minutes.

For just over two years, I was a radio fighting man, but the financial side of it burned me out quick. You have to be able to give a large portion of time to the process and see if it grows, but it’s not easy making that donation if you have a life and/or a family.

In the end, I had to grow up, make a big boy decision, and dial it back down.

When will the podcast debut? I have no clue. 

When will I get a clue? Slowly, but surely. 

I will continue to make money writing, driving for Uber, and contributing to other radio shows while I am Mr. Mom at home. I can do that and do it well.

Holy smokies, this post went extremely long-like an Oscar speech without an orchestra to cut me off or commercials to play.

Thanks for reading a few paragraphs. Talk soon.

-DLB

Author: D. Buffa

A regular guy who feels a journalistic hunger to tell the news. I blog because its wired into my brain to write what I think in print. I offer an opinion. A solo tour here. Take regular stories and offer my spin on them. Sports, film, television, music, fatherhood, culture, food, and so on. Commentary on everything. A St. Louis native and Little Rock resident who wants to write just to keep the hands fresh and ready.

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