Monday, August 19, 2013

Radio Daze

Every now and then, it is fun to look back at my time as aradio broadcaster about thirty-five years ago.  Here is the first in a series that will feature some of my escapades…

We’ll start at secondary market station, WMIR in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin (a bustling resort town midway between Chicago and Milwaukee). Where I was combo Program Director/Music Director, and also hosted the afternoon/early evening drive-time slot.  When you wear multiple hats at small operation like that, it’s not odd to put in seventy-hour weeks.  I took my M.D. job seriously, and since our format was Top 40 during the day and A.O.R. (Album Oriented Rock) at night/weekends, I had lots of music to consider. It was not odd to preview dozens of albums (sometimes over a hundred) per week, as well as loads of singles, and then all the dealings with numerous promo guys from all the labels.  On top of that there were meetings with concert promoters, critiquing air staff air checks, training new jocks, and cutting endless spots for this station that saw nothing wrong with running upwards of twenty minutes of commercials per hour during peak periods (disgusting). 

But since it was a high-falootin’ area where rich folks from Chicago would come for playtime (the first Playboy Club Resort was across the street from the studio), a guy who earned $110 a week in take-home pay had few choices.  As one of my co-workers said, “Without cash, there’s not much to do around here ‘cept go bowling and make babies.”  I’ve never been much for splitting the pins (at least not as a nightly endeavor), and I had very little coinage for trying to woo the opposite sex—so my life was pretty much my work, except for going to loads of concerts in Chicago, or Milwaukee, or nearby Alpine Valley Music Theater via the backstage passes I earned for my position.

These were also the days where you had to select all the music for your show, pull out all your pre-recorded “cart” spots (a version of old 8 track tapes), organize all liners (verbal spots, PSA’s, and teasers to be read on air), phone-in reports from on-site “remote” locations, thoughtful segues, etc. No computer touch screens existed back then to simply trigger the next item on the pre-planned agenda---we had to produce our own shows from top to bottom every day. And there was certainly no such thing as voice tracking where I could get all my breaks sounding completely smooth and “heartfelt” over numerous takes and then load them on the system (what system?).  It was all “live” babeee!  If I got the hiccups, or a record skipped, or had a sneezing fit (not out of the ordinary considering the station was located in a huge field of ragweed that made my sinuses go into hyper-drive during spring and late summer), or a cart jammed, or a mic shorted out, it all had to be dealt with pronto with ease and charm…supposedly.

One area that was usually pretty low on the checklist before any air shift was preparing the newscast (yes—we had a GM that insisted we have hourly news, weather, and sports on top of everything else we had to orchestrate).  Hence, it was the norm for most of us D.J.’s to “rip and read”…that is, go into the teletype room (once again, this was eons before internet news feeds) while a song was playing, and quickly tear off various stories that were coming in from United Press International or Associated Press. We would race back into the studio and quickly glance over the headlines, and edit a newscast on the fly—often with no time whatsoever to actually proof-read what it was we were about to relay to our listeners—with occasionally humorous results.

One particular afternoon, I was just at the top of my shift, and Ron, who was our mid-day host, was still filing carts and LPs in the shelving immediately behind me as I was cold-reading a story about a group of Dairy State elementary kids who had been lost on a field trip expedition. Ron nonchalantly leaned over my shoulder and set the teletype paper on fire with his cigarette lighter.  These kinds of hijinks were common, and I normally could deal calmly with the disruption by adlibbing and moving on to another story while simultaneously tramping the paper out quietly on the floor with my foot.

However, since I hadn’t previewed the article, I had no idea what the outcome was…and it happened to be the last story I had in my stack.  With listeners quite concerned about the fate of twenty-eight second graders who had somehow been “misplaced” I had to pull a Paul Harvey by stating the “the rest of the story” would be given to them in the next hour.  Unfortunately, the article never repeated on the wire service, and I had nothing further to work with since the copy I had was burnt to a crisp. I just blew it off and hoped all my listeners would do the same. But, I’m sad to report, that I got at least a dozen calls wondering what had happened to the cute kiddies. I told each one that due to “technical difficulties” the rest of the cliffhanger was lost, and perhaps they should—horror of horrors—go to our competing news/talk station up the dial in Kenosha to listen for further developments.

Another instance happened during what was supposed to have been my last week on the air.  I had given my notice earlier that month for another radio gig in Chicago. We had some rowdy guys on our sales team, and they felt it was their calling in life to try and get the staff to crack up while on the air.  Knowing that I had not wilted under the pressure of any of their stunts in the year I had been there, they were always concocting new ways to try and get me to lose my composure.

After most of the front office crew had already departed on a Tuesday evening drive-time, these clowns marched into the production room which was on the other side of a large window from the main studio while I was reading the news.  Cranking up Ted Nugent’s “Wango Tango” on the speakers in the adjoining chamber, each dropped their trousers, then their shorts, and began hopping around like little bunny rabbits…their giblets bouncing and swinging hither and yon.  This was not just for ten seconds…it lasted several minutes.  Seeing three chubby twenty-something guys with dress shirts and ties flailing about (as well as….ummm…you know), Hagar slacks bunched around their ankles while pogoing, and colliding into each other like kangaroos on acid is quite the image, let me tell you. 

One of them jumped up on the control board immediately on the other side of the glass and pressed his spotty behind against the surface, flattening the cheeks to the beat of the Motor City Mad Man, while the others were grabbing their own fifth appendage and somehow acting like they were flailing away on “air guitar”…except with their own “instrument,” a unique interpretation of the “whammy bar” if you will.  Concentration can be challenging in a scenario like this, especially when you’re attempting to cover news items like anti-nuclear proliferation treaties, a flu epidemic, and an airline hijacking.  But, as always, I was able to keep collected and focused. Maintaining a straight face, I even nodded, winked, and gave them the thumbs-up for their attempts as I read my stories with all the professional journalistic acumen of Walter Cronkite. 

After about three minutes of this, they realized they had failed once again, and when their ridiculous enterprise sunk in, they sheepishly began pulling up their pants, shaking their heads at their own stupidity while sulking out of the room. As my newscast continued I moved from international affairs to state/local items. 

I shall never forget what commenced as I was reading a sad story about a young guy who had met his demise by sliding off an icy road in the next county and wrapped his brand new Camaro around at tree trunk.  Just as I was heading into the last line or two of the account, one of the salesmen wandered back into the adjacent room, apparently looking for his keys that had fallen out during their escapade.  After he collected them, he looked up and we made eye contact.  Without even touching his belt or doing anything rude, he simply made four little jumps up and down. 

Who knows exactly why, but I started to smile…and just like the phenomenon where laughing at a funeral can feel so wickedly wonderful, I started to chuckle while essentially giving an obituary live on the air. Of course I tried bringing my microphone volume down a time or two, acting as if I was clearing my throat…but it was obviously more pernicious than that.  There is no way to mask laughter, especially in what should be a somewhat somber moment in a broadcast. 

Knowing that I was finally breaking, the other sales guys all quickly rushed back into the room…but rather than disrobe, they simply stared at me with glum faces as if to say, “You wouldn’t possibly go to pieces now would you?”  It was classic.  And it was potent.  The previous twelve months of bottling-it-in through all their shenanigans came sweeping through my mind, and I just started giggling, then chortling, and then stifling howls while I was talking about the deadly accident. Tears were beginning to trickle down my cheeks.  One of the guys quickly scribbled a note on a paper and held it up saying: “Please don’t laugh—you’re talking about a dead person.”  This clearly did not help. I tried explaining to the listeners that something was going on behind the scenes, and bypassed weather and sports to exit into the first song of the hour as quickly as I could…but the damage was done. 

Within fifteen minutes, the General Manager came storming into the building, and burst into the studio screaming, “What the hell is your problem?!  When your shift is done, gather up your crap, turn in your keys, and leave!” 

Oh well…I had grown weary of the joint anyway.  It was on to more radio revelry in Chi-town starting the next week. More of these stories to come, featuring AC/DC’s Bon Scott, rude prankcalls to call-in shows, the dreaded “open mic that should’ve been closed,” and more will grace these blogs in the near future.   

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