Interview with Rick Kaempfer, author of $everance

Rick Kaempfer is a successful Chicago writer who wrote the excellent book $everance, which is a satire about the radio industry.

Why did you write this book?

I started writing this book in my head while I was still employed in radio, and just couldn't believe what I was seeing during the deregulation era. The entire industry was being transformed, and not in a good way. I consider my first book The Radio Producer's Handbook my love letter to the industry, and $everance my "Dear John" letter to the industry, formally breaking up with it.

Why did you break up with it?

I could see the direction it was headed, and I no longer wanted to be a part of it. Providing a quality product literally didn't mean anything anymore. I would sit in promotion meetings and ask questions like "Why would the listeners want to hear this?" and they would reply "Our customer is not the listener. Our customer is the client." I knew enough people in the business to know this was happening at all of the big corporately owned radio stations, so I had two choices at that point. Re-calibrate my brain to think that way, or break up with them until they regained their sanity.

What in your own radio experience shaped this book?

There were three main things that happened directly to me that made me realize this "five or six companies owning everything" media could be headed for disaster. The first one was the time I was called into my general manager's office and ordered to write a letter to the F.C.C. supporting further deregulation. I said to him, "but I don't agree with that." And he said, "If you don't write it, you'll be fired." I buckled and told him I would write it, though I never did.

The second incident occurred a few years later. Our morning show started the show every day with the National Anthem sung by the Dixie Chicks. When the Dixie Chicks got into hot water for criticizing the president, we were ordered to stop playing it. When I pointed out that we weren't getting complaints about it, and after all, it was the National Anthem, I was told that we would be fired if we played it again. And the last thing thing that influenced me was the last few months of my time at WJMK, when the station clearly didn't want us anymore, so they tried to make us miserable, hoping we would quit and forfeit our severances.

The first incident opened my eyes to the new realities of corporate owned radio. The second incident opened my eyes to the possibility of the media being used to further a political agenda (not to mention the ease with which a group could be blackballed when only a few companies owned everything). And the last incident gave me the idea for the plot of the novel.

Why did your general manager care about furthering deregulation? When he threatened you, could you go to some legal authority to file a complaint?

He cared about furthering deregulation because he owned a ton of stock, and he knew that he would be personally enriched in the short term. I kid you not, the day it went through, he held a staff meeting, and said to everyone, "I just got off the phone with my broker and he said 'Congratulations, you're f***** rich!'" Talk about an awkward moment. That was so strange.

As for filing a complaint, I didn't want to be branded as a troublemaker. I never really considered it, because every avenue led to "you'll never work in this business again."

Did you get your severance?

We did get our severance.

Why choose satire fiction? Why not write a non-fiction book or essay about the radio business?

I purposely chose satire because I wanted to point out how ridiculous the media world already was--and how much more ridiculous it could become. A few of things I predicted in the story as a joke have actually come true since the book came out. The ridiculous cost cutting (way beyond what anyone anticipated), the creation of a liberal clone of Fox News (MSNBC), the Nascarization of television (the ads all over the screen all the time), the rigged game on Wall Street (remember, this was written before the collapse of 2008). I thought it was satire, but it turned out to be true. So maybe it really is non-fiction. :)

By doing a satire, were you afraid of sounding preachy?

I never really considered satire to be preachy. It's more like "Please tell me I'm not the only one seeing this." If I am the only one seeing it, it's not funny, and the whole book is a failure. If I'm not the only one seeing it, the satire works. It's a big risk, I suppose. But I figured that since my publisher instantly saw it as "a truth that needs to be told", I wasn't alone.

Did anyone from such companies as Clear Channel complain?

The companies themselves didn't complain about the book, but I did run into a few radio and television personalities that said things to me like "Oh man I loved the book, but you know we're owned by Clear Channel (or CBS or whatever), don't you? My boss would kill me if I had you on the show." I did learn something important about the business during the publicity portion of the book. If you're criticizing the media, it's not that easy to get coverage in the media. (I eventually found ways around it, but only because I personally know so many media personalities). I was very pleasantly surprised how well the book sold under the circumstances. Remember, all of the major publishing houses are also owned by the media giants, so there was no way I was going to get this published by a major publisher. ENC Press (a boutique New York publisher) was willing to take a chance on me because they wanted this message to get out there too, and I'll always be grateful to them for that.

I didn't expect any complaints, so I wasn't surprised I didn't get any. The thesis of my book is that the only thing they care about, and I really mean literally the only thing they care about, is the price of the stock and the amount of money they personally make. As long as my book didn't affect that in any way, and of course it didn't, I was invisible to them.

Has your book influenced anyone in the business?

I'm not sure if my book has influenced anyone, but I do know that the big companies I skewered in the book like Clear Channel and CBS have begun to realize the mistakes that were made. I'm told that sales departments and programming departments are working together much better than they used to. That's a step in the right direction. Both sides used to feel a sort of "you're nothing without me" attitude towards the other, and while that was true (you have to have content in order to sell, and you have to have sales in order to survive), it was needlessly antagonistic. The hard times in the industry forced the two sides to get along a little better. At least that's what people have told me. I'm not in the trenches anymore, so I can't officially confirm whether or not that's true. I hope it is.

Do you think the radio business will fail?

No, I don't think the radio business will fail. It just has too much to offer. It may change, and it may change drastically, but it still offers a valuable service to the community--especially if it provides local content.

Who did you base the characters on?

The characters are pretty obviously fictionalized versions of the real media tycoons of that era (early-to-mid 00s). I read everything I could about all of them, and discovered that they shared certain traits and characteristics. Each of them was wildly interesting and entertaining in their own way, and though each of them were rich beyond their wildest dreams, they were, to a man, miserable and incredibly disliked by everyone that knew them. That was my leaping off point. From there, I just let my imagination run wild.

How did you maintain your narrative voice?

The narrative voice was something that came naturally to me. The main character, Zagorski, was someone I knew. It was a mixture of people I had worked with and for, with a pinch of me thrown in there. I witnessed so many radio personalities exhibiting Zagorski's righteous indignation for all of the wrong things, he almost wrote himself. As for the other characters, I felt like I personally knew them too. I had read just about everything written about all the media moguls, I knew exactly how to passive-aggressively confront them if I ever got the chance. Zagorski got the chance, and boy was that fun to write. Keeping a consistent narrative voice under those circumstances was incredibly easy.

How do you write a novel?

There are so many different ways to write a novel and I've now written three of them in three different ways, so there's no obviously no correct way to do it. I still think the best way is to know the ending and to work backwards from there, but with my latest novel The Living Wills we didn't do it that way, and it also worked out just fine. The most important thing is that you need to motivate yourself to keep on writing. Find ways to reward yourself along the way. Finished the chapter! Cheers! Finished the first draft! Cheers! Finished the second draft! Cheers! Got a publisher! Got a cover! Etc. By the time you get the actual copy of the book in your hand you've celebrated a zillion times. Then again, maybe I'm just a lush, looking for an excuse to celebrate.

Did you do an outline?

Yes, I did do an outline. A pretty extensive one. I had to create an entire imaginary media world, so I had a big chart on my wall as I wrote, showing me which mogul controlled which company. I created a company profile of each little subsidiary. Then I mapped out each individual chapter and began to write.

How did you know how to craft a good chapter, and how did you know when it was finished, and done well?

I knew what had to be included in the chapter, information wise, to progress the plot and story line, but I left myself the freedom to write it in whatever location I chose at that moment. That made it more fun for me--and provided some of the funnier moments in the book. I always knew where the story was going, but the fun was going to be in the journey, and not so much in the destination, so each chapter had to have a life of it's own. So, I wrote and re-wrote each chapter, and then read it out loud until it sounded just right, and limited myself to a chapter a day to make sure I didn't take any shortcuts. And I concentrated on making sure the ending of the chapter wasn't an ending, as much as it was a prelude to the next chapter.

How do you stay motivated and know when it sounds right without an editor checking it, and how can you write without feedback from an outside person? I'm asking this because I find it difficult to write for long periods of time with no external feedback or audience.

I pride myself in my ability to self-motivate...but I get your point about outside feedback. My wife really helps me out with that--at least she did during the writing of $everance. She's very good at smaller picture issues like grammar and verb usage, and she's a tough critic. She won't hesitate to tell me when it's not up to snuff, or when something doesn't make sense. For the big picture items, my editor at ENC Press helped me realize I was over-explaining things--and guided me how to better use subtext. She also pointed out which characters needed to be fleshed out and which ones needed to be eliminated. I found out pretty quickly that I had a gifted editor on my hands.

What is your writing approach?

I'm an incredibly disciplined writer, but that's mainly out of necessity. I'm at home with my kids, so my work day is really limited to the time they are in school. So, I start writing the moment the last kid leaves for school, and I stop writing the moment the first kid comes home from school. At night after the kids go to bed I plan out what I'm going to write the following day and let it gestate in my brain, so that I can hit the ground running.

Even without responsibilities, people would still not have such discipline. How did you develop it, or was that just part of your personality?

I'd say it's not really a part of my personality, because in every other way I'm a lazy sack. I just happen to love writing, and I feel so lucky to have been given the opportunity to do it for a living. I don't want to do anything to screw it up. I was the same way when I was working in radio. Even though I had issues with the business, I never had issues with creating radio shows. That creative process was exhilarating. I absolutely loved it. Nobody was more surprised than I was when I found something I loved even more. Writing gives me all the thrills creative radio gave me, and I don't have to get up at 2AM to experience it. Honestly, these last five or six years have just been bliss for me.

Writing is a solitary endeavor. How do you deal with working like that? Do you balance working alone with socializing? And was working in radio more social?

Radio was way more social than writing, no doubt about it, but I kind of like the solitude of writing. I still get plenty of social interaction through my kids, my friends, and my various interview projects, so I don't feel like I'm missing out. I always say, imagine how much work you would get done if nobody interrupted you for six hours every day. I really concentrate virtually of my writing into those six hours, and I love it.

Is the key to publishing/writing success to know people in the media so that you can get coverage? Does media coverage lead to sales success, or is it possible to achieve that without media coverage?

Media coverage does lead to sales success, but only if the product is good. If you have bad word of mouth once people start reading your book, then all the media coverage in the world won't help. There are lots of ways to get media coverage these days, without knowing someone in the traditional media. The internet and social media are great equalizers now, but they weren't powerful yet when $everance came out. Facebook was still in it's infancy, and Twitter didn't even exist (or at least I had never heard of it). One of the reasons I started my blog in the first place was that I wanted a place to promote my writing; a place to build an audience. When $everance came out I was only getting about a hundred hits a day, so it didn't help me much at the time. Since then, the audience for my blogs (I have several) has grown to over a million visitors a year, so now it's a viable platform--and I've seen how much it helped sales with my latest book The Living Wills.

What's a good way to build an audience? How did yours grow so large?

I think the key is to be as professional as possible. I was accustomed to coming up with a ton of material every day when I was a radio producer, and I just continued doing that on my blog. I quickly found out what stuff interested people and what stuff didn't, based on audience reaction, and it slowly built from there.

My Chicago Radio Spotlight blog started at a time when Robert Feder was briefly absent from the scene (after his time at the Sun-Times), and I think people were starved for information about radio folks. I know Larz at the Chicagoland Radio and Media site gave me a few plugs and that certainly helped. My Just One Bad Century website started up the season the Cubs looked like they were going to put it all together, and it garnered a lot of attention that year, which has translated into a fairly loyal audience. My Father Knows Nothing column was just a lark at first--I started that because I wanted to chronicle the childhood of my kids for their future adult selves to enjoy--and it caught on unexpectedly. Last year I was a finalist for a Chicago Headline Club Peter Lisagor Award for that column...losing out to Roger Ebert. Along the way I've been asked to do media interviews about all of these blogs/websites, and that has also expanded the audience.

There are probably very few people that are interested in all three of these subjects (media, Cubs, and parenting), so I've tapped into three totally different types of audiences. I can't say I had this master plan to do it this way--it all sort of just happened. I just follow my own interests, and hope that people follow along.

Since the general theme of this blog is language, I have a language question: you speak German. What is your Germanic background? Do you read German books and magazines?

Yes I do speak German, but we no longer speak it in my mom's house since my father passed away. My mom now generally speaks to us in German, and my brother, sister, and I answer in English.

My mom is from Bavaria (Regensburg), and my father is from Austria (near Vienna), but both of them are ethnically German from Romania (my father was actually born in Romania). Their families fled Romania during the war when the Russians arrived. I was born in Chicago (my parents met here in the late 50s), and then grew up in Heidelberg (in Southwestern Germany) because my father was transferred there by the Department of Defense (he was a civilian in the Corp of Engineers).

I used to read Kicker magazine when I still followed German soccer, but I gave that up more than ten years ago. Now I don't really read German anymore, unless I'm given something to translate.


John St. Augustine interview

People who read this blog might be interested in the interview I did with John St. Augustine, who has his own blog and has written a couple of books: Living an Uncommon Life and Every Moment Matters.

I didn't talk to him about the content of his books, but mainly about his positive attitude, his perseverance, and his career, which included working for the Oprah Radio Channel. He also talks about what happened after he took a very long walk from upper Michigan to Chicago.

He's a cool, talented guy who also speaks around the world. Click here to listen to the interview.


I would be on my way to class now

Today is Presidents' Day, which means I don't have to teach tonight. Usually I'd start wrapping up my day now to get on the road for my annoying commute to the southern part of the city, and I'd usually be tired and would be wondering what happened to my day as it seemed to disappear so quickly. After class I'd *really* be tired and would make the non-annoying commute back home after 10 pm.

I should have planned my day off better. I got a lot of stuff done, and even read a big chunk of my manga, but I still feel like I squandered the time. Perhaps it's because I operated more slowly than usual, and I have a meeting to go to tonight, which means there won't be much time left for reading and finishing up the interview with Rick Kaempfer. Lesson learned!

As it's Presidents' Day in the USA and Family Day in parts of Canada...happy holidays folks!


A Valentine to No One

It's Valentine's Day, which means it's time to share a Valentine to No One:

I can't tell you what I think
I can't tell you how I feel
So I will send a Valentine to No One

A Valentine to No One
Because you'll never know
And you will never care
How much I meant what I said
That I was truly there

You will never know
And you will never care


Got a new manga

I have been consistently reading Japanese since I finished my third manga, even though I haven't had much time due to my usual complex work schedule and non-work responsibilities.

I bought another manga, the very first one in the Kacho Shima Kousaku (課長島耕作) series, and it's entertaining, though once again I'm puzzled by some of the colloquial phrases. I'm thinking of going over to the library in the Japanese Consulate to ask them what some of them mean. I get the gist, but want to know the exact meaning of what they're saying, and it's sort of annoying to not know :|

I can't sit down for chunks of time to read it, so I end up reading it briefly before I teach or during my break. Also, I'm in the process of interviewing Rick Kaempfer about his excellent book Severence, and I feel bad about putting that to the side while I read the manga, but hey, we have to get our language fix in sometime, n'est-ce pas?