Photo submitted – Bill Keeler, center, with Jeff Monaski, left, and Andrew Derminio, right, of WIBX in-studio Friday, April 14, 2017, in Utica, NY. (PHOTO BY NANCY L. FORD)
by Dave Warner
Bill Keeler hails from Mohawk but spent a lot of years in Little Falls from when he was 16 years old, on. He was a junior in high school and shopping at the JC Penney in the City when he decided to just cross the street and knock on the door at the radio station to ask for a job.
“The DJ answered the door and I told him I was interested in getting an internship job, and within a day I was reading a newscast,” said Keeler.
Keeler said he was probably terrible at it but thought that it was the coolest thing in the world to be doing. “From there, I just interned at WLFH plus two other radio stations when I was a senior, but I had the most opportunities in Little Falls, so that’s where I ended up,” he said.
He spent eight years at WLFH before moving on, doing a little bit of everything but finally ending up with his own show. “I’d fill in for people and all sorts of things there.”
“The first time I had a show that was my own I was doing a thing called Battle of the Country Stars on Sunday afternoon. I’d pick two artists, maybe Alabama and Hank Williams Jr. as if I was doing a battle of the bands and feature them for a couple of hours and people would call in and vote for their favorite,” Keeler stated. At the end, he’d crown a champion. “It was kind of cool.”
From there, he went to work in Herkimer for radio and television and when he was 21, he was hired as the program director for Mid-Day. “It was a big opportunity for me,” he said.
In 1989, Keeler took his first morning job at Rock 107 in Utica, where he says things blew up for him as he lost that job in a controversial situation. “I refused to stop saying the word ‘condom’ on the air,” stated Keeler. “It shows how times have changed.”
From there, he was picked up by K-Rock and was on in Syracuse and Utica.
He also worked in Providence Rhode Island for a couple of years, before returning to upstate New York to be closer to family. “That’s one of the great medium-sized markets in the country.”
After losing another radio job, he decided to start a TV show that lasted for three years on FOX in Utica and Syracuse.
Six years ago though, he had the opportunity to come back to morning radio and ended up on WIBX. “It’s a long span and a lot of different places, but that’s the path I took.”
Keeler says that the biggest change across the breadth of his career has been the reduction in on-air people. “It used to be that you could only own a limited number of radio stations. But they got rid of that and enter a Clear Channel or IHeart Radio and they buy up all the stations,” he said.
“There used to be ten different owners in the Utica market and the nice thing was, they were all competing against each other so, you needed air staff,” stated Keeler.
Now, he says that the conglomerates share employees across different markets. “An announcer from Ohio might be doing mid-days in Utica. It’s really reduced the number of people who are employed.”
He says that after the latest layoffs in Syracuse for IHeart Radio, there are more radio stations than there are DJ’s in the market. “That’s the big change…the big negative,” he stated.
Keeler thinks that he’s in a really good position though because they are talk radio, so no one can duplicate what he does. “A music show is easily duplicated. For me, talk is all about the individuals…the personalities. If you can get an audience to follow you, you have a real advantage.”
He says that they compete really well, even against satellite competitors. “I don’t think they have affected our radio station one bit. The numbers are up, the ratings are up, and revenue is up,” he said.
Keeler believes the success of the show is because they keep it moving and are always going after interesting people that are in the news, and it doesn’t always have to be local people. “Obviously, impeachment was a pretty big topic for the last couple of months,” he said.
“It’s about putting the work in in advance to bring great content to the radio every day.”
Keeler says that for him, “It’s the easiest three hours of my day. I love it. Although there are some mornings where I’m thinking ‘oh my God, what am I thinking’, but there’s always something big that we’re going to do that day.”
Getting that ‘something big’ every day is what he thinks is a reason for the success of the show. “It’s exciting and it keeps me going. I always have that fight in me to be number one and always fight for every listener. That competitive nature – I think that’s a big driver for me,” he said.
But does he miss Little Falls? “I have great memories of being there. I worked for Gary VanVeghten and he’s still there and does a lot of things. I talk to Gary often.”
And, when Keeler was in Little Falls, they were still playing vinyl. “Music companies were just starting to release music on CD’s.”
One of the other things he did while working in the City is PA announcing for the Little Falls Mets when they were on the road. “I loved doing that. I also did high school football and basketball games and that’s the part that I think I miss the most,” he said.
And what’s the future of radio? “I’m lucky that the company I work for (Town Square Media) is very local and they rely on local people. I think that radio is very healthy right now. It’s not like newspapers, which is a scary thing if you’re in that business.”
Keeler believes that radio has been able to adapt, by having apps, streaming over the Internet, and other steps that they’ve taken.
“I think that in the future, it’s going to be all digital so that your analog AM and FM stations will cease to transmit and we’ll be getting everything digitally. That’s going to be the big change and when that happens, your AM Radio station will sound as good as your FM station,” Keeler said. “The quality will be completely improved.”
“I think that will be the saving grace for AM Radio,” he said.
Does he think there could be a return of micro-local radio stations like WLFH? “The problem you have is that the demographics probably won’t support it. In 1982 there were major stores up and down Main Street in Little Falls, Herkimer, Fort Plain, and all the surrounding area, so that has disappeared.”
Because of that, he doesn’t feel that there’s enough ad revenue to support a local initiative. “That does make it difficult. There are some operations that have popped up online, but the challenge is, how do you make money so you can pay people and make money for yourself. That’s the biggest trick to all of this,” he said.
Keeler said, “It’s a shame the station isn’t still active. If I could go back to 1984-85…the Little Falls Mets were playing and you had huge names coming to town and they’re in the restaurants and bars and the players were some of the top prospects in the country. The City was bustling. It was an exciting time to be in Little Falls.”
“Boy, I love those memories from back then,” he said.
Keeler thinks that Little Falls looks so much better than many other communities right now. “There’s so much going on and so much to offer. I think you guys are on the move and who knows, maybe there’s room for a small operating radio station again where somebody could make a go of it?”
You can find the Bill Keeler show on WIBX 950 AM in Utica and simulcast every morning from 6-9 on WFXV Fox 33 TV.