Behind the Microphone

Claire B. Lang, SIRIUS NASCAR Radio, The Hardest Working Woman in NASCAR
by Cheryl Lauer, April 12, 2010

Through the series of articles on Behind the Microphone, Speedcouch brings you additional insight into and knowledge of the people you see on camera or hear on the radio. This time SIRIUS NASCAR Radio’s Claire B. Lang is in the spotlight.

I’ve been a subscriber to XM satellite radio for about six years. One of the reasons I got satellite radio was so I could hear the NASCAR radio broadcasts. In the area where I live in Maryland, there are no stations that carry MRN or PRN close enough to pick up. Many who have read my articles will know I’m not much of a fan of the current NASCAR TV partners, so I wanted the option to switch to the more traditional radio coverage offered by radio during races. What I didn’t realize when I subscribed to XM in 2004 was the great programming I would learn to love on the NASCAR channel! The mainstay of that coverage was the Dialed In, hosted by Claire B. Lang afternoons from 4:00 until 7:00 p.m. Claire’s show was always a wonderful mix of “insider” stories from the garage, call-ins from listeners, and other great content that she has enhanced over the years.

In 2007, when NASCAR decided to switch their “official” channel to SIRIUS satellite radio, Claire decided to stay with XM and continued her Dialed In show on channel 144. She had a large fan base and we all appreciated her staying with us. I went back to trying to find an MRN station on terrestrial radio when we were traveling in the south, so I could catch race broadcasts. But I found it was worth staying with XM and hear Claire’s great show every afternoon. In July 2008, the FCC approved a merger between the two satellite services. After the 2008 season ended, Claire’s show was moved to the NASCAR channel. Those of us with XM were fortunate that we could now add the Best of Sirius to our XM subscriptions and follow Claire to her new home on the NASCAR channel on 128.

Because I admired Claire’s work, I was interested in interviewing her. Let me tell you, it’s quite interesting interviewing the interviewer. We had a wonderful conversation that I really enjoyed a lot!

Knowing how hard Claire works to give her listeners unique views from the garage and provide information on of some of the “unsung heroes” involved in racing, I was particularly curious about her broadcast background and what led her to satellite radio, but I was particularly interested to hear the origins of one of the first woman journalists in a previously male-dominated sport.

Most of Claire’s long-time listeners know that she was born and raised in Wisconsin. Perhaps Claire’s story should be titled “raised on the radio.” As Claire’s mother tells it, Claire woke up extremely early when she was small. Her mother asked the doctor what to do with a child who woke up at 5 a.m. and was ready to start her day. The doctor suggested her mother put Claire in her playpen and put the morning news on the radio to entertain her. Since she grew up listening to morning radio from the time she was a baby, Claire figures she was destined to work in radio one day.

When she grew up, Claire headed to college at the University of Wisconsin in Eau Claire, WI (Claire in Eau Claire – how appropriate!). She initially planned to study English and to become a teacher. Believe it or not, Claire admits to being very shy in her early college years, but a true case of serendipity forced her into the limelight. While in college, she was approached by someone at the college radio station asking her to read the morning news and Claire decided to give that try. Claire said, “Had I not stumbled into the job at the campus station, because someone else didn’t show up for their shift, I’m not sure I would have found my way into broadcasting. I was always willing to do the morning shift when other people maybe didn’t want to get up at the crack of dawn and I guess that got me in the door.” Claire eventually decided, when she was a junior in college, to change her major to journalism, with a minor in radio and television.

After graduating from college, Claire sent out her first audition tape and got a job doing the morning news in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. She never considered that she was setting a precedent in radio with this move. Claire explained, “I had no idea that I was breaking a door down. The first station I went to, there were no women doing it full-time and I never even thought about that. I just had huge goals and kept working hard. I was anchoring the news in the morning and was kind of the “news girl” and the sidekick to a guy named Ron “Ugly” Thompson. I moved by myself to Iowa - It was my first job and I was scared to death. Cedar Rapids was always featured big time in broadcast magazines. It was always considered a major-market feel in a medium market.”

From there, Claire moved to doing the news on another radio station, KCLD, in St. Cloud, Minnesota, north of Minneapolis. She was there for seven years, eventually becoming the news director for that station. “I had a news department with about 4-5 people and I did news and commentary in the mornings, as a side-kick, co-host.”

In 1984, she relocated to Charlotte, North Carolina with her family. Unfortunately at the time, a talk radio station in Charlotte had just shut down. There were a lot of local broadcasters looking for work who had been in Charlotte for many years. Since Claire didn’t see any opening in radio at the time, she put her public relations education to use and took a job as Public Relations Manager with the theme park, Carowinds. While there, Claire worked her way up to be named national PR Director with the eventual theme park parent company, Paramount. She worked a number of years helping to integrate the intellectual properties of Paramount motion pictures into the theme parks. “They would introduce a Cone Head or Wayne’s World movie, for example, and I would work with the PR people on how the Cone Head or Wayne’s World theme would be integrated into the theme park publicity.” Another important part of Claire’s job would involve developing crisis management statements and plans for handling communications in the event of potential accidents in the theme parks.

Although Claire got out of broadcasting when she first came to Charlotte, her job at Paramount eventually brought her back in touch with the radio industry. This happened shortly after she arrived in Charlotte, when she was a guest on the popular syndicated Charlotte radio show, John Boy & Billy on classic rock station, WRFX. While she was still working at the local park in Charlotte, Claire went on John Boy & Billy to promote concerts at the Palladian Amphitheater at Carowinds. As Claire said, “I just hit it off with those guys and they asked me to fill in for the morning guy who did commentary. Those familiar with the show know their resident “curmudgeon” Robert Rayford. Claire filled in for Rayford when he went on vacation while still doing her PR job at the theme park. “Then, when I moved to the national PR job, I continued to fill in on the show. On days that I filled in for Rayford, I would go in at 5 in the morning and would do political or funny commentary until 10 a.m. Eventually, they hired me full time.” By the mid-90’s, Clare was working full time on the John Boy & Billy Show.

It wasn’t long before Claire was back into broadcasting big time and things really began to happen fast for her. After working with John Boy & Billy for a couple of years, she got her own show on country station WSOC in Charlotte. Again, she was the co-host/side kick – this time on a country music show. Throughout both radio jobs, Claire got more involved in racing. She said, “I had followed racing in Wisconsin, but I really started getting hardcore into it, covering it when I was on John Boy & Billy.”

As her listeners know, Claire always has a lot going on and it was no different back then. She began going to races to cover them and got involved in the racing community. All of a sudden, there were a lot more opportunities involving racing. She wrote a column for NASCAR Illustrated and then began doing a weekly feature on Ned Jarrett’s Inside Winston Cup show on The Nashville Network (TNN). I remember seeing Claire on TNN until that network got out of racing after the 2000 season. She began writing columns and doing television after she got off the radio at 10 a.m. Claire was again multi-tasking: “I opened up my own little media company while I was working at WSOC.” She did public relations and free-lance writing, voice work and emcee projects, including helping to develop and emcee a pit tour show for kids, which she hosted on stage at races across the country.

By this time, Claire B. had become well known in the garage for many years and the next thing she knew she was being offered a job by XM Satellite Radio when they were starting up their dedicated NASCAR channel in 2001. Claire was a bit skeptical about what her role might be, and had no interest in being on air to simply provide laughter and pizzazz to the host. ”When I was first contacted by XM, I initially said I didn’t want to do it because I didn’t want to be a swizzle stick on the radio. I had my own media company. I really didn’t want to just be laughing in the background kind of thing. They told me if you do this, you will be the anchor. I said this has never been done before – there were no women on MRN or PRN at the time. They convinced me that I was the one for the job - and so I took it on.”

There are a lot of unique things that Claire does on her show that really made me a fan. For one, Claire is never rude or ridiculing with her listeners like some other talk shows hosts I’ve heard. Claire explained: “When I came to XM from day one, the listeners were so good to me. I’ve never once had someone give me a hard time for being the first woman who really anchored NASCAR talk radio. They were so kind and respectful. I’m really impressed with the listening audience – they’re really good people, I think.”

Another thing I really admire about Claire is that she really tries to stay objective on racing topics and race car drivers. “I try really hard to be fair. I decided early on that I don’t mind giving my opinion, but I don’t think my opinion is more important than the opinion of the fans. The only thing that makes my opinion have any more weight is that I have more information because I’m closer to it and have access to more information. So I decided why don’t I give that information away to the fans instead of hoarding it. I’m not afraid to give my opinion on anything, but never really thought my opinion was worth more than anyone else’s. I’m very interested in what the listeners have to say after I find the facts and give them as much as I can find out about something. Then, I’m dying to hear what they think about it. It’s just fascinating to me - their opinions. I’m a story teller and I love telling stories of the sport and the people in it.” Anyone who has listened to Claire’s show knows how true this is. I think that’s also why she has so many loyal listeners who stayed with her at XM even when NASCAR radio moved to Sirius in 2007. Like myself, there were a ton of regular callers to her show every day.

Claire always has a lot of great features on her shows like the ripping off of the rookie stripe for first-time callers or spotter Mike Calinoff’s “radio calls” that bring Claire into the pits for commercial breaks or at the end of the show, or letting the callers “send their driver around” at the end of their calls. Things like this really let the callers feel like they are part of the show. But I think my favorite feature that Claire had when she was with XM was the “tear down” with the winning driver/crews each week.

Claire would put together interviews from Victory Lane and after with the team members and would, in the past, ask the driver what song he’d like played with the edited feature on Monday evenings. Two songs I remember because they seemed surprising for the drivers were Kevin Harvick asking for a Johnny Cash song when he won the Brickyard and Jeff Gordon asking for Enter the Sandman by Metallica when he won a couple of years ago. I’d never heard that song before that, but now if I hear it on XM, I remember it’s use in the teardown piece for the 24 team. The songs and comments from various crew members on the winning team really made that feature unique and enjoyable. You really got to see a bit more into their personalities beyond the repetitive sound bites we hear over and over again on radio and TV shows.

I think what impresses me the most about Claire is her un-ending energy and enthusiasm for the sport. She’s always positive about covering the sport (something I’ll admit I’m not always). She really gets out there and finds interesting things to feature on her show every night. Whether it’s just spending a lot of time in the NASCAR garage or going to various events involving drivers to give those of us at home a real feel for what’s going on – such as the pit crew championships every year, the charity “Jail and Bail” with some drivers and NASCAR officials, the opening of Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s night club, broadcasting live from a fan favorite bar at Milwaukee when the trucks and Nationwide series were there in 2008, or getting comments from drivers after the the Wii boxing championship last year at Bristol.

Then there are the weekly features Claire has done with people like John Darby on Competition Wednesday and the Tissot segment with various pit crew members. She even gets out to talk to fans at the races, such as in 2008 with the XM Mobile Unit where she talked to fans tailgating or walking around the track live on the air. Claire’s gone out to the campgrounds to get the “fan’s voice” at places like Talladega, Atlanta and Bristol. She’s also made sure the hauler drivers get the recognition they deserve for the long hours they spend on the road and away from home. She provides the listeners excerpts from the drivers’ meeting on Sunday morning, which is something I always find interesting. For instance, if David Hoots or other NASCAR officials tell the drivers something special that day like a low tolerance for bump drafting at a restrictor plate track or something like that. Claire always makes sure her shows are packed with interesting content for the listeners every week and that’s what makes them so enjoyable and fast-paced.

Since Claire moved over to SIRIUS NASCAR Radio at the beginning of December 2008, she’s not only doing her Dialed-In show Wednesday through Fridays, but also anchoring the pre and post-race shows on Saturdays and Sundays. On Sundays for pre-race, Claire anchors the show with Steve Post of MRN in the garage. During the post-race shows, Claire is the one interviewing the winning team LIVE in Victory Lane. During these shows, Claire and her co-hosts provide a lot of great information to the listener. After the post-race show, Claire also does a special edition of Dialed-In, many times up until 10 or 11pm on Sunday nights. It’s quite amazing the long day and many hours Claire puts in on race days, but I know all the fans appreciate her hard work and the uniqueness she always brings to the listeners.

Over the years, you could catch glimpses of Claire’s microphone on TV coverage getting in there to get quotes from the winners or drivers knocked out of the events. Claire believes she works for the listeners and it’s clear she’s very sincere when she says she feels she is the eyes and ears for her listeners by getting out of the media center and going after the stories or the interesting people involved in NASCAR.

To sum up the course of Claire’s professional career that brought her to SIRIUS NASCAR Radio, Claire said: “There had been so many opportunities that came my way and I had followed racing since I was a young girl back in Wisconsin. Someone once said that if you always had faith and just went where the raft floated you through life – and worked hard, it would take you to the right place. I kind of floated on the stream of opportunity.”

I’ve heard Jim Hunter of NASCAR call Claire “the hardest working woman in NASCAR” and from this listener’s standpoint, truer words were never spoken! But to use one of Claire’s favorite phrases when describing the comments of race fans passionate about a particular issue, rather than floating these days, I’d say Claire is definitely “up on the wheel” all the time.

Again, I want to thank Claire for taking some on her precious weekend off to speak with me. For those of you still with XM and miss hearing Claire’s great show, remember you can subscribe to the Best of Sirius and get the NASCAR package for just a few dollars more a month. To me, it’s well worth those few dollars to continue to hear all the unique things Claire brings to NASCAR coverage.

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