After 43 years, leaving ‘the magic of radio’ behind

Richard Peterson, a fixture on Rochester, Minn., radio, used a traditional phrase when describing his chosen field: “the magic of radio.”

Peterson, who has spent 43 years as a radio magician, left the business on Friday, retiring from KROC’s “Rochester’s Good Morning” show, the Rochester Post-Bulletin says.

His path to radio was a typical — if dying — one. He listened to radio — AM radio — growing up in Richfield. His parents were big WCCO fans.

“The Beatles were getting popular, and I just thought it’d be cool to someday play records and say stupid things,” he told the PB. “It kind of stuck with me then.”

Those who worked closely with Peterson over the decades have come to rely on his friendly and relatable approach to interviews while on the show. One such friend includes Sherwood Peterson Jr., who appeared in a monthly segment called “The Corner Pharmacist,” which started in 1994.

“You can certainly tell by how many people he’s impacted by who called,” Peterson Jr. said. “(Rich) is that guy you’d consider sitting across the kitchen table with, and strike up a conversation with. He’s friendly, and he’s survived … and he’s done well.”

There was only one time the Corner Pharmacist didn’t air, and it was on a day that Peterson considered to be the most harrowing day in his four-decade career — 9/11.

“I can remember exactly what I was doing, we were on the air when the planes started crashing into the World Trade Center,” Peterson said. “We went into 24 hours worth of news coverage, and not knowing what was next.”

Peterson recounted the somber feeling many had.

“We opened the microphone, and we didn’t know what to say,” he said. “From that point on, everything becomes a blur. With the constant updates and everything else, it was so fresh and so painful.”

There aren’t many people left in the business who open the microphone, not knowing what to say, and just talk with the people at the other end of the frequency. Radio is slickly programmed, the listener’s role is to ask a question and get off the phone.

“It wasn’t as fun as it used to be,” he said of his decision to retire. “There were some changes in the business, you know what, why not get out now while I’m still fairly young and still do some other things before it becomes a job. … It was never a job for me. It was very difficult as I’ve enjoyed the people I worked with, we’ve grown up together.”

Britain’s The Guardian, coincidentally, opines today that radio’s time for banter is long gone. It’s not our alarm clock anymore. If we think about turning on morning radio, it says, it’s only an afterthought.

This isn’t an era where passive listeners are happy to soak up a foghorn of morning talk backed up by a playlist which, aimed at a broad range of tastes, manages to satisfy none. Once news is covered, podcasts scratch the itch for talk in a more targeted way, from TED Talks Daily to My Dad Wrote a Porno. If there’s anyone who’s still relevant in the morning, it’s Radio 1’s Nick Grimshaw, once a glitter-covered new broom who cleared out the station’s older listeners from the back of the cupboard. Now he offers just the right amount of up-all-night anarchy that’s relevant for millennial listeners. You don’t need a focus group to tell that his self-deprecating style and ravey Friday Nixtape resonate with a younger generation – and when he has the delicate task of going on air after a horrific news story or celebrity death, he has a knack of pitching it just right.

As streaming, podcasts and the morning ritual of shouting: “Alexa, play Despacito” at the Echo Dot take up more of potential listeners’ attention, the time has come for the broad and banterous breakfast show to hang up its headphones.

The “magic” of radio was — and in some places still is — its ability to provide a shared experience. The Rich Petersons catered to an audience that didn’t want to be alone, even when they were alone.