Sunday, September 29, 2013

More letters about Embracing the Gray, Fall 2013 edition

My book, Embracing the Gray: A Wing a Prayer, and A Doubter’s Resolve, has elicited a slew of letters and e-mails.  Here are excerpts of some that have come in…

Just finished Embracing the Gray, and there were so many lessons. Thanks Mark for writing it down, I cried more than a couple of times. Great Book!

Mark, I am about 1/4 of the way into it and I had to stop be cause my husband wanted to read it. So, we compromised... I started over and am reading it out loud to him. I can't wait till morning so I can pick up where i left off tonight! When you make this a movie... oh and yes you should!! Fantastic stuff Mark!

My soul is being fed. Grateful. I finished your book tonight. Wow! There are so many things running through my head. It came at a very important and significant weekend for me. And even the process of getting your book into my hands (well, downloaded to my computer) was God given and ordained . . . and I don't say that lightly.

Okay I just finished the book. Thanks for having the last chapter on how you are embracing the gray, it is helpful as I am spent and hurt all over. I think it will help a lot of people understand that they are not the only ones to question God and to suffer with confusion with God. Your words in the last chapter will comfort me, as I am sure I will read them often.

Thank you for writing Embracing the Gray.  I downloaded it from your website because it sounded like it would address some problems I am having of understanding my son.  I really liked the last chapter and found it to be encouraging. The Psalms tell us that His Word is a lamp for our steps, a light for our path - not a floodlight to see ahead, but a light to see each step.  That's the encouragement I get from your book.  

I have to say I am not sure how anyone can put your book down; maybe they didn't ever have to face the world. It is a tough life and I can relate to your brother and your friend who wanted to kill himself while he is drunk. I never reached that but I understand addiction. Your book is bringing me face to face with these demons and I pray and have been praying I can break away. I am close to 60 and not sure how much longer I will be here.

Your book is full of life-changing thought. A word I never use must be used in reflecting on it: profound. I will be loaning it to several others I know, and I am sure when it comes back to me it will be well worn. Right now a lady who wants to commit suicide will be reading it and I never felt a calling but when I thought about who I would share it with next; I was compelled to share the book. Other people are in mind but they are not suicidal but have faith so I put the books in the hand of the needy. If I never get it back, I will buy others because I believe this is something people should read. As much as I like Chuck Swindoll and Charles Stanley; I don't think they have the experiences to share because they were always surrounded by believers with issues rather than the sinners of the world. Excellent book, everyone should read it.

Wow!  Next step is the movie!

I continue to be humbled by the response the book is generating.  If you have read it and wish to correspond with me, I always interact with any communiqu├ęs.   You can also read many reader reviews (97% are Five Stars) at:

Embracing the Gray is still available for a limited time as a 99 cent Kindle download at that same link, or as a free PDF download at my website (donations accepted):

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Francis: Pastor, Prophet, Pope

From Sept. 2013 issue of Sojourners Magazine
Francis—refreshingly candid and seemingly repelled by the perks of the papacy—offers new hope for the Catholic Church and beyond.
For Catholics—and many others—what happens in Rome doesn’t stay in Rome. The seating of a new pope has the power to affect believers across the globe, in ways direct, indirect, and unpredictable. And when a surprising sea change occurs in a hide-bound, steeped-in-tradition place like the Vatican—the unexpected resignation of a pope, the selection of a Jesuit from the Americas as his replacement, and the powerful symbolism of a new leader who literally stoops to wash a Muslim woman’s feet—people of faith of all traditions sit up and take notice.
In these early days of Francis’ papacy, we asked three prominent Catholic thinkers and leaders to help us understand what it all might mean. How will the spirit of reform that has marked Pope Francis’ first few months in office affect the worldwide church? Will change at the top trickle down to parishes and neighborhoods here in the United States and elsewhere? And what will Francis’ leadership mean not only for Catholics, but for all people of faith engaged in the work of making justice and building peace? The Editors
CATHOLICS AROUND THE WORLD are transfixed by Pope Francis. We love his simplicity of life, his humble faith, his welcoming attitude to all, and his way of being Christian in the contemporary world that takes its bearings from the poor. Lace and gilt are no longer fashion statements at the Vatican. From his small apartment, the pope speaks bluntly about worrying less about rules and more about love. An utterly refreshing breeze blows through the Catholic Church.
But what does it really mean for Catholics today? The church still reels with the moral and spiritual damage done by members of the clergy as perpetrators or accomplices in the sex abuse scandals, from fiscal mismanagement, and from institutional infighting. Does Pope Francis change that? And what does the new pope signify for the young, for women, and for the many issues that vex the church’s engagement in today’s world?
In Argentina, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio—now Pope Francis—was a bishop of the people. He was dedicated to serving the poor who lived in the so-called villas miseria, the shantytown housing surrounding Buenos Aires and elsewhere. Known for his personal humility, Bergoglio eschewed the palatial archbishop’s residence. He chose to live in a small apartment where he cooked his own meals. Stories tell of his traveling the archdiocese by bus and train. His friend Rabbi Abraham Skorka, rector of the Latin American Rabbinical Seminary, has said that among all Bergoglio’s titles, “pastor” best describes the man he knows.
As pope, it has been these same pastoral qualities—his humility and his dedication to the poor—that have so impressed the world. Who can forget the extraordinary Holy Thursday service, just days after becoming pope, where he knelt to wash the feet of young prison inmates, among them a Muslim woman? This was the first time a pope had ever officially washed the foot of a woman. Just as in Buenos Aires, the fancy papal residence was abandoned as this Jesuit pontiff opted to live in only a few small rooms. The pope doesn’t wear Prada. And, from its first days, the gospel’s social teaching has been the central theme of his pontificate. The Catholic Church should be, he told reporters, a “poor church, for the poor.”
Blunt words have been spoken against unbridled capitalism, against consumerism, against what the pontiff has called “a culture of waste” and the “cult of money.” Unchecked capitalism, Pope Francis insists, has fomented “a new, invisible, and at times virtual, tyranny,” and the “worship of the golden calf of old has found a new and heartless image in the cult of money and the dictatorship of an economy which is faceless and lacking any truly humane goal.” Consumerism, he argues, has led to today’s culture of waste.
At a weekly audience in June, Pope Francis explained: “If in so many parts of the world there are children who have nothing to eat, that’s not news; it seems normal. It cannot be this way! Yet these things become the norm: that some homeless people die of cold on the streets is not news. In contrast, a 10-point drop on the stock markets of some cities is ‘a tragedy.’ Thus people are disposed of, as if they were trash.”
Such outrage about economic injustice in no way differs in essence from pronouncements of his predecessor Benedict XVI. But where the magisterial style of his predecessor was reminiscent of a college professor, the language of Pope Francis is that of a Hebrew prophet.
The new pope’s concern for the environment and about caring for creation is also clear. In choosing the name Francis, in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, he was inspired by both the saint’s concern for the poor and his care of creation. In the same June address, for example, Pope Francis invoked the famous lines from Genesis wherein God gives to humankind the responsibility to care for and cultivate the earth. Today, Francis believes, we are derelict in that sacred responsibility. “Driven by pride of domination, of possessions, manipulation, of exploitation,” he maintained, the environment is neglected. “We do not ‘care’ for it, we do not respect it, we do not consider it as a free gift that we must care for.”
Yet in his environmentalism the focus is not material. It’s not automobiles or carbon dioxide or plastic bottles or power plants. The cause of our ecological irresponsibility is moral and anthropological. We are not (perhaps increasingly) the human beings that God created us to be. Pope Francis worries that “[w]e are losing the attitude of wonder, contemplation, listening to creation; thus we are no longer able to read what Benedict XVI calls the rhythm of the love story of God and [humanity].”
Why is this happening? The pontiff contends that it is because we now, more and more, live in a “horizontal manner.” “We have moved away from God, we no longer read [God’s] signs.” For Pope Francis, the root cause of our dereliction of duty to creation, like the root cause of the contemporary world’s grave economic injustice, is an ongoing, profound deformation of the human person. In the same way, he sees a similar deformation of the person at work in policies allowing abortion, euthanasia, the death penalty, and same-sex marriage.
American progressives should understand that Pope Francis perceives the unbridled market of lifestyle and moral “choice” as no different from the unbridled market of economic choice. Both are driven by faceless logics, oblivious to how God created us to be. The pontiff believes that both deform the person, reducing real human beings into mere things to be manipulated, used, and ultimately disposed of like commodities. Speaking at a Mass honoring the gospel of life, he spoke of these forces in the modern world as constructing a new “tower of Babel”—a human-made city without a foundation in God.
No changes in the church’s position on abortion will come from Pope Francis. He is stridently opposed to it and will advance the church’s opposition to laws that support it.  In On Heaven and Earth, his published discussion of current issues with Rabbi Skorka, Bergoglio insisted that a human being is present at the moment of conception. “To not allow further progress in the development of a being that already has the entire genetic code of a human being is not ethical,” he said.
Euthanasia is similarly killing. For the pontiff, euthanasia reflects thinking about human persons as if they are mere things, much as commodities that no longer command value in the marketplace and are simply disposed of in our culture of waste.
Same-sex marriage concerns the pontiff in a similar way. Marriage is a foundational and divinely ordained institution, he believes, not a construct of society; it was laid down by God in creation. Popular opinion or the invisible hands of the free market of lifestyles cannot change that. In his discussion with Rabbi Skorka, Bergoglio described same-sex marriage as “anthropologic regression,” and argued that “[e]very person needs a male father and a female mother that can help them shape their identity.” At the same time, in Argentina he apparently discussed the possibility of civil unions with some openness. It is surprising, too, how muted this pontiff has been about the issue in comparison with his predecessor.
The pontiff’s liberal-seeming positions on matters of economics and creation care and his conservative-seeming positions on abortion, euthanasia, and same-sex marriage are not contradictory, but derive from the singular, seamless fabric of his understanding of the divine plan for the human person, in creation and en route toward salvation.
By some accounts, the internal issues of the institutional Catholic Church hastened the retirement of Benedict XVI. Pope Francis inherits a church whose mission is undercut by a dysfunctional Roman Curia (the central governing body that assists the pope), financial mismanagement, too much centralization in Rome, and a worldwide community of bishops rent by clericalism, turf battles, and ideology. Establishing binding procedures for resolving past and current pedophilia horrors remains an imperative. The place of women in the church is still an issue. The “New Evangelization,” a mission outreach effort begun under John Paul II, is still struggling in its most important effort, that of re-evangelizing Catholic youth.
The pope began his office with immediate steps toward addressing these matters. Among his first decisions was to establish what amounts to an ad hoc cabinet to assess and advise him. This so-called “gang of eight” is comprised of cardinals representing different regions and perspectives within the church, but who are for the most part distanced from the Roman Curia. Expectations are that a significant shake-up of the Curia is in the works, that church-wide procedures for addressing pedophilia are being reconsidered, and that re-empowerment of national bishops’ conferences is coming. Part of what’s behind the Curial shake up is Pope Francis’ impatience with clericalism, the church’s “old boy’s club.” From his first hours as pope, Francis has warned against clericalism, comparing it with heresy for the harm that it does to the Christian community.
Fiscal reform got a boost in June with the appointment of Battista Ricca as head of the troubled Vatican bank. Expect a sweeping reappraisal of the bank’s purpose and operations along with implementation of industry-standard banking practices and transparency. The pope’s hand was evident in the arrest of Nunzio Scarano, a high-ranking cleric and Vatican bank accountant, and in the July resignations of other high-level bank officials.
In the 1980s, the first cases of sex abuse by Catholic clergy in the U.S. began to make national news. Since then, however, the horror of these terrible violations has been discovered in dioceses around the world. Though progress has been made, the clericalism embedded in the traditional structure of the Catholic episcopacy has impeded attempts to develop comprehensive and uniform church-wide or even nationwide procedures for addressing abuse, preventing abuse, and promoting transparency. Many Vatican observers anticipate that Pope Francis wants changes that would overcome the structural impediments to more binding and uniform procedures.
The role of women in the church is a particular interest of the new pope. Throughout his writings he evidences a great appreciation for what women’s strength and leadership mean for every part of society, including for the church. Indeed, he remarks in his discussion with Skorka that if women “are not integrated, a religious community not only transforms into a chauvinist society, but also into one that is austere, hard, and hardly sacred.” He does not support the idea of women priests. But women are increasingly assuming greater leadership in the church. This is something that the pope welcomed in Argentina, and new roles for women in the church under his leadership can surely be expected.
While the Catholic Church is growing rapidly in Africa and parts of Asia, many Catholics are leaving or having only nominal associations with the church in Europe. Young people are at the heart of the new evangelization under Pope Francis—and his message of a “poor church, for the poor” has been well-received among the world’s youth.         
So a fresh breeze is swirling in the Vatican. A new kind of pope is on the Chair of Peter. Pope Francis is blunt-spoken, prophetic, utterly genuine, and seemingly repelled by the perquisites of power. For Americans, the unique charisma of Pope Francis is compelling. As a people, we have no truck with pomp. We celebrate plain talk and pragmatism. We valorize those who serve. And we demand authenticity.
In modern memory, no pope has seemed more reflective of our American ideals than this Argentine Jesuit. We cannot forget the enormity of the challenges that the pope has inherited and faces, perhaps the greatest being his own radical hope for a Christianity that is a poor church, for the poor. It is that radical hope, however, that holds out the greatest promise for us all.
Stephen F. Schneck is director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Bearing a Gift Beyond Price (Part 4 of Radio Daze)

I had been applying regularly at WXRT, Chicago’s Fine Rock Station (still a radio icon to this day after forty years on the air) and was down to one of the finalists for new openings on two occasions—but it just wasn’t to be. So, with funds so thin from being woefully underpaid so, I decided to take a job as the Marketing Director for a cool music chain in the northern ‘burbs of Chicago, Dog Ear Records.  But WJKL, “The Fox,” broadcasting from the western edge of Chicagoland, did offer me another weekend gig: the graveyard shift of midnight to six AM on Fridays and Saturdays. 

This was a progressive format as well, and many of the jocks who worked there ended up at some of the other top rockers in Chicago.  So, I felt if I kept my foot in the proverbial door that perhaps something might happen at XRT eventually.

No real snafus to speak of during those long, lonely shifts—other than the misfortune of choosing to utilize the “water closet” while playing The Outlaws’ twenty minute epic “Green Grass and High Tides.” It was common practice in those days to void one’s bowels while playing a long cut so as to not feel overly rushed.  As fate would have it, however, the record started to skip on the line “high tides for-ever-er-er.”  It repeated a good fifty times before I could hastily clean my bum, flush, and race back down the hall trying to pull my pants up as I galloped. Careening into the studio I then gently nudged the needle forward to get past the bump and finish out the guitar army anthem.  Without another soul in the building, there was no embarrassment in my unkempt cavorting.

In fact, that was one of the benefits to working the all-nighter—freedom to jump around when I would get groggy, run the stairs, do push-ups—anything to keep the blood and adrenaline coursing (I don’t do caffeine because it gives me migraines).  I would end up having long chats while songs were playing with callers who wanted to talk about music or sports or comedy.  I got to know some of them fairly well.  Many were folks who worked third shift at area warehouses and factories.  Some were cops.  Some were students cramming for exams. A few were just night owls who dug the great variety of music we offered.

I was tuning in the shine on the light night dial
doing anything my radio advised
with every one of those late night stations
playing songs bringing tears to me eyes

(“Radio, Radio” by Elvis Costello from This Year’s Model , 1979)

I had always enjoyed listening to “The Fox” because it was a slightly harder-edged version of WXRT.  There was an abundance of rock you wouldn’t hear elsewhere (they were the first station in Chicago to play Rush for instance), and the jocks were encouraged to push the envelope with creative blends of music and commentary.  The overnight shift was a truly fun place to get my ya-ya’s out.

We had a Music Director there, Frankie, who was really enamored with the punk movement (this was the late 70s).  She was also becoming frustrated with other forms of rock, and hence there was some definite disagreements brewing between her and the rest of the air staff about how much of the “new wave” to be playing.  If she had her druthers, it would’ve been “All Sex Pistols All the Time.”  The rest of us thought it had its place, but certainly didn’t want to see it overrun the format.

On each album that was in the library there was a tracking sheet taped to the cover.  That way we would know the last time/jock who played a particular cut so as not to repeat anything that day, and to be careful not to play anything from that album in the same hour anytime within a week (boy, would that frustrate the heck out of all these tightly-wound programmers and their infinitesimally controlled rotations now).  There was also room on the tracking sheet for us to write comments about the artist, album, etc. that might be of interest to other jocks.

Frankie felt it was her duty on these little editorial sections to trash every album she thought was bad (but somehow still worthy of being on our play list).  She also heaped unadulterated praise on lousy “artists” like The Buzzcocks, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, Nina Hagen, Destroy All Monsters, etc.  Some friendly jibes would go back and forth. But, as it turned out, she didn’t appreciate being disagreed with—especially by a weekend overnight jock like me.  It didn’t stop me however—I was part of the team, and my opinion counted too.  I think she just couldn’t stand it that I was a lot funnier in my banter about the musical skill (or lack thereof) demonstrated by The Stranglers, The Vibraters, The Undertones, The Saints, The Slits, The Damned, The Flying Lizards, and The Cramps (what was the deal that seemingly every punk outfit needed that definite article to mark a proper noun?  I remember a post-punk band in the early 80s known as The The, which was pretty funny). 

Most of these acts had little musical training, let alone talent.  They relied on anger, rage, self-mutilation, and copious displays of disrespect for anyone and everything.  Their medium was their message, and it was none-too-pleasant for most people to tolerate, and few that I knew of gained any sense of enjoyment from them.  Bands like Suicide, The Dead Kennedy’s, Gang of Four, Throbbing Gristle, Stiff Little Fingers, Sham 69, and Siouxsie and the Banshees were just downright grating to the ears, and are all rightfully forgotten all these years later for musical contributions any of them made.  They were just pissed (or at least acting that way to get attention). 

Take The Dead Boys, for instance. What a bunch of losers.  Towards the end of each concert, lead singer Stiv Bators would challenge any girl from the crowd to come on stage and give him a blow-job as they “performed.”  Unfortunately, some skanky git would nearly always take him up on it.  This, I would contend, had very little to do with rock‘n’roll, and everything to do with sensationalism and appealing to the most base of instincts.  Frankie heartily argued with me on these topics.

Invisible airwaves
Crackle with life
Bright antennae bristle
With the energy
Emotional feedback
On a timeless wavelength
Bearing a gift beyond price ---
Almost free...

(“The Spirit of Radio” by Rush from Permanent Waves, 1980)

One frigid early Sunday AM in December, I was feeling particularly playful.  I had just heard the new Cheech and Chong piece about a slick manager trying to get a punk band signed at a label because of their unique take on “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem.”  By the end of the skit, the poor A&R representative was cowering under his desk.  I thought it as the time of year for a yuletide set, so I dove in:

“The season is upon us where we all enjoy hearing those Christmas classics that warm the cockles of our hearts—whatever those are exactly.  I’ve been humming some of those familiar strains over the past few days, and it made me wonder why we don’t hear more contemporary versions for the young people of this generation to better relate.  So, with that in mind…”

I then played the aforementioned comedy piece, and as it faded with the record executive fretting in a catatonic stupor, I then segued into The Dickies’ incredibly tasteless rendition of “Silent Night.”  After about forty-five seconds of that ear-bleeding wank splash, I then faded over to the beginning of a Monty Python album where Michael Jones starts screaming at the top of his lungs, “Not this record! Not THIS record!  NOT THIS RECORRRRD!” and then there is the sudden horrific screech of a stylus being dragged diagonally across the vinyl for about five seconds.  That unceremonious dismissal of those Richards then segued tightly into Pat Travers’ feisty “Life In London” which lamented the decay of the British music scene—especially the posing of the punk underground--in syncopated rifle-rock mastery.  Upon its climactic power chord ending I cued-up the crunching, frenetic “Let There Be Rock” from AC/DC’s sweaty If You Want Blood You Got It: Live, where Bon Scott and Angus Young shredded their voice and guitar respectively. The same simplicity of the punks, but with so much more actual rhythm, back beat, and ability.

If I do say so myself, the set rocked like a freakin’ big dawg.  Even though it was 2:55 in the morning, the phone lines lit up.  “Now this is rock’n’roll!” was the basic sentiment of most calls.  “I’m sick of hearing that pathetic punk shit!  Keep it up, buddy!”

My shift continued with the renewed vigor of an involved listenership.  I played many of our progressive staples ranging from Tom Waits to Yes, from Graham Parker to Bob Marley, from Crack the Sky to Wishbone Ash, from Queen to B.B. King.  The fun mixes were flowing, and the synergy of vital rock radio was palpable.

As I drove the hour back to my home into the sunrise at the end of my shift, I was reminded once again of how great it was to help people along with their lives by blending music that invigorated and even surprised them.

I slept soundly that morning, but was awakened just after noon by a call from Tom, the Program Director.

They say you better listen to the voice of reason
But they don't give you any choice
'cause they think that it's treason.
So you had better do as you are told.
You better listen to the radio.

(“Radio, Radio” by Elvis Costello from This Year’s Model, 1979)

Apparently Frankie had been listening to my shift (obviously she had very little in the way of a life), and was incensed that I had dissed her beloved genre.  Tom asked for me to explain my side, and I told him what tunes were in that particular set, what I had said, and the kind of response it got on the phones. He actually chuckled, and thought it was creative and fun.  “But,” he paused, “Frankie is livid and feels you should be dismissed for trashing a core element of our format.”

All this machinery
Making modern music
Can still be open-hearted
Not so coldly charted
Its really just a question
Of your honesty

(“The Spirit of Radio” by Rush from Permanent Waves, 1980)

“Tom,” I reasoned, “do you really think having a little fun at the expense of a savage rendition of a Christmas carol by talentless hacks like The Dickies is worth this kind of rage on her part?” 

“I’m with you, Mark, but I think if I don’t make an example of you, she will feel threatened in her ability to guide the musical integrity of the station.” Tom then proffered,  “Maybe if you were to call her and apologize, she would look at things differently.”

“It appears that maybe she’s wearing the pants there, Tom.  Aren’t you the one in charge?” I responded.  He chuckled nervously.  I continued, “Listen, I’m not about to atone for something which was clearly intended to be funny.  She’s just threatened because someone on the staff demonstrated how flawed so much of the punk trend is in comparison to where many of your listeners are.”

“So, you’re not going say you’re sorry to her?” he queried. 

“I see no reason to.  You hired me for my knowledge of music, and my wit on the air.  You admitted you don’t see anything wrong in what I did…”

“You’re right,” he interrupted. “In fact, it sounds like it was good progressive radio to me.  But, I’m gonna have to let you go in order to keep the peace here.”

You either shut up or get cut out;
they don't wanna hear about it.
It's only inches on the reel-to-reel.
And the radio is in the hands of such a lot of fools
tryin' to anaesthetize the way that you feel

(“Radio, Radio” by Elvis Costello from This Year’s Model, 1979)

Tom went on to explain that he hoped he could work with me again somewhere down the road.  We brought it to closure on good terms I suppose, and Tom was always kind to me when we’d see each other as the years went by. 

Isn’t it odd that I got fired for casting comic aspersions on a movement that prided itself on taunting the status quo…that I was released because I ruffled the feathers of someone who wanted to rattle the cage of the boring radio industry?  That frigid evening that I tinkled on the punk movement was the last time I slaved over some hot turntables and a sizzling mic.

One likes to believe
In the freedom of music
But glittering prizes
And endless compromises
Shatter the illusion
Of integrity

(“The Spirit of Radio,” by Rush from Permanent Waves, 1980)

Monday, September 2, 2013

The Dreaded Seven Words You Can't Say on Radio (Part 3 of Radio Daze)

The third installment of Radio Daze involves my time with Y-95, an Album Oriented Rocker in Rockford, Illinois. I was working Saturday mornings there while pulling a full-time shift in Lake Geneva, about ninety minutes away, so I had to get up around 3 AM on Saturdays in order to get there for my 6 AM show call.

The PD there was heavily into all the latest research techniques, and pretty much pre-selected most of the songs to be played on air, but we did have some latitude on a several cuts per hour.  Since I was from the “progressive radio” school of thought, this really rubbed me the wrong way.  I hated having to play more slick stuff like Billy Joel, Foreigner, and E.L.O. ad nausea—I liked mixing it up more, and getting creative with themes and musical flow.  But, this was a gig to help pay bills and develop more connections within the industry, and hence I tried to grin and bear it.

When I arrived my first day the overnight jock who was on before me was hardly in the mood to hold the new guy’s hand.  He was toast, and really wanted to get home and crash.  So he gave me a cursory overview of reading the transmitter, their logging system, song charts to follow, etc.  I commented to him that they had the exact same board that we had at WMIR, even down to the colors on all the pots (dials for volume).  You see, each microphone, turntable, tape deck, and cart machine had its own sound channel. What was especially interesting (and challenging) was that the entire control room was set up the opposite of what I had been using for close to a year in Lake Geneva.  All the turntables were on the left instead of right, all the carts were to the right instead of left.  And, most amusing  of all (as it would turn out), the microphone levels were opposite of the turntable volume, but, as I said, everything appeared exactly the same.

We are creatures of habit, are we not?  We get used to tying our shoes a certain way every day without even thinking about it.  Just for fun one morning, slow the process way down and actually try to think about what you’re doing as you lace knot your shoes—you’ll suddenly screw it up.  Or think about how you brush your teeth—you open the cabinet the same way (perhaps just missing the tip of your nose by and inch without even realizing it), squirting the toothpaste on in the same motion, and utilizing the same amount of strokes, rinsing technique, etc. day after day.  When you use your car, think how close your head is to banging into the edge of the door opening every time you lunge in and leap out.  One could easily suffer a major concussion if everything was changed by just a few inches.

So, here I was, my rookie day on the Number One station in Rockford.  Saturday mornings are one of the more listened-to day parts in rock radio—lots of people running errands and listening in their cars.  I’m fumbling about trying to keep everything on a good pace, and noticing that the phone lines are almost constantly blinking with requests—something we didn’t often see in a smaller market like southern Wisconsin.  I had to try to answer as many of them as possible, because Armand, the PD there, was going to call in regularly from pay phones (this was way before cells) as he was out and about to give me pointers on how I was sounding—so I couldn’t blow them off.

I was feeling relatively good about things when the transmitter began to beep just a little after 7:00 AM.  We were getting a bit of lightning, especially to the north where the broadcast tower was.  I suddenly noticed that we were flat lining on the amp meter. We were off the air, and I was the only person in the building! The previous jock had pointed quickly to main equipment and vaguely mentioned a few things, but dismissed it all by saying, “Nothing ever goes wrong—don’t worry about this stuff.” 

I frantically called the previous guy, but he must’ve taken his phone off the hook so he could sleep.  I tried calling the chief engineer, but no answer.  Finally, through some reasoned thinking, I tried toggling a few switches, and somehow got the station back on the air (all the while wondering if I would hit the absolute wrong button and crash the system completely).  I’m guessing we were off the air for a total of about five minutes. I got a fair amount of calls, but none from the PD.  He must’ve been in the shower or something. If he wasn’t going to ask, I certainly wasn’t going to tell.

As the next hour went along, I felt like I was getting in a groove, although I was certainly chagrined about the lame music mix they employed.  I really detested some of the songs in the rotation, and found myself almost gritting my teeth as I would announce swill like “Baby Come Back” by Player or “I Wanna Kiss You All Over” by Exile.  Yuck.  Patooie.

Not very long into the nine o’clock hour, when the listenership was really beginning to peak for Saturday mornings, a cart tape player jammed while running a commercial.  A grinding, distorted, drugged-out sounding voice track was agonizingly drawing out words to ten times their normal length.  For several seconds I froze because second nature was for me to deal with everything on the opposite side of the control board.  Finally I gathered which channel to “pot down” and then quickly fumbled to push another one in the secondary slot and crank it up. When I began to pull the first one out, tape was wrapped around an inner head, and began to unravel and tear.  If I didn’t fix this one, I would be down to one machine to operate up to six spots per break.  This would sound horribly choppy—especially because most carts were a bit longer than the actual spot length, and you had let them play out so they could automatically re-loop to the beginning for the next time they were to be aired.

During the next song, I was frantically trying to pull all the creased and spooled tape out of the damaged tape player using my plastic comb, a pencil, and anything else not metal so as to not get an electrical shock.  After several minutes of arguing with the inanimate object, and barking some rather spicy commentary in its direction, I realized I hadn’t cued-up my next record…and “The Grand Illusion” by Styx was beginning its fade-out.  I quickly looked at the index card system for what track I was supposed to play next, but couldn’t find the Fleetwood Mac Rumours album that I had played a cut from just the previous hour—I had already filed it back in the library outside the studio not realizing it was going to come up again so quickly (in my primary life at a progressive radio format it was a cardinal sin to play the same artist, let alone the same song by an artist, in a four hour shift…diversity was paramount). 

Now I was really getting vexed.  No time to race out and locate that record, I thought.  So I grabbed an album from my “DJ’s choice” pile that had some longer cuts on it: the Jethro Tull Bursting Out Live album.  I quickly pulled out disc two, lined-up “Locomotive Breath,” and let it fly just as the last notes of Dennis DeYoung’s keyboards were fading into the nether world.  They had a great sound system in the studio, and I had it cranked. 

I turned my attention back to the cart machine and further berated it.  My ongoing woeful commentary was inclusive (but not limited to) phraseology on the variations and permutations on the depths of Sheol, the Puritan judgment For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge, unwanted pregnancies, God’s eternal sentence to those who choose to live outside His will, the male offspring of a female canine, illegitimate children, the partial vacuum formed with the lips, bovine excrement, equine waste product, bowel movements of nocturnal flying mammals,  and not-so-clinical descriptors of reproductive organs of both genders.  All were liberally peppered with demonstrative pronouns. A goodly amount of this was being articulated with extreme prejudice, and quite vociferously.  

As Martin Barre’s familiar riff was wailing over Ian Anderson’s lament about the downfall of human condition, I noticed out of the corner of my eye that all sixteen lines of the phone system were blinking like a Christmas tree.  On top of trying to be a technical engineer, and electrical repairman, and a radio host, now I was gonna have to be a switchboard operator and figure out quickly which one of these might be my boss calling in about the weird sounding commercial.  To put it mildly, I was losing it.

More indelicate obscenities and accompanying scatological adjectives were hurled in between each hastily answered call while I simultaneously battled with the jammed playback unit.  A couple of the folks were complaining about the quality of the sound on the air—making me think that there still might be transmitter problems.  One wondered if we were jointly broadcasting with some talk station.  I had no idea what the hell they were talking about.  As I hung up each line, it was quickly replaced by a new incoming call.  Was there some sort of contest going on I was unaware of? Why were so many freaking people calling all of sudden?

Then, on about the eighth call, as I had a ruler and a plastic letter opener wedged deep into he recesses of the cart machine’s mouth, the guy on the other end of the line was laughing robustly as he said, “This is the most interesting version of Jethro Tull I’ve ever heard!” 

“How so?  It’s right off their Live album,” I smugly replied.

“Well, it sounds like you’ve got George Carlin’s “The Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television” playing at the same time.”

That’s when it dawned on me in a millisecond…while I was so distracted with the technical malfunction I fell into being a creature of habit, and instead of turning the second turntable up for the new song, I had turned my microphone back on full volume.  But because Y-95 had such an awesome sound system, even when turntables were in “cue” setting, it sounded fantastic.  So the music the listeners were hearing was actually coming out of the in-house speakers and being picked up by the LIVE microphone, which, coincidentally, was absorbing the manic and unmannerly play-by-play of my plight. 

I immediately dropped the phone, lunged at the sound board and reversed all my ill-advised motions, putting the turntable directly into the mix, and “potting down” my open confessional.  Gathering myself, I quickly thanked the chortling caller, got the next song cued-up, and finally ripped the final strands of wayward tape out of the cart machine, quickly testing another commercial tape—in audition mode—and then looked apprehensively at those sixteen flashing phone lines. 

One by one I answered them with an apology about technical difficulties.  Around the tenth line I heard my Program Director’s surprisingly calm voice.  “Mark?” he queried, “Do you have everything under control now?”  He was actually chuckling. 

“I am so, so sorry!” I exclaimed. “I’m guessing this is my first and last day.”

“Listen, it’s happened to all of us at one time or another,” he reasoned.  “I’m just glad you had music playing underneath it all.  If you were right on the microphone, we would probably both be fired and the station would lose its FCC license. But it was buried enough in the mix that it was flowing in and out of Jethro Tull.  Overall, besides that incident, you sound pretty good—keep up the fine work.” 

I was amazed.  I’ll never forget his grace under pressure.  Nor will I soon forget my lack thereof. 

The subsequent week Armand told me he only got a few comments from listeners, all of them rather funny, about the “swearing DJ.”  They all thought it was hilarious. Since they were of a good-natured quality, there were no further implications.  I stayed on there doing weekends for another few months, then took a job in Chicago, which I’ll go into during the final chapter coming soon.