Earlier this week, I started thinking about the jobs we don’t get, and how they sometimes turn out to be more significant than the jobs we do get. The most significant job in my life was one I got, and then decided to give back.
On the first working day of 1994, I got fired from what turned out to be my last full-time radio gig, in Iowa. I spent that year working part-time in radio, looking for a job in (or, preferably, out) of the broadcasting industry, and thinking about going back to college. In November, I answered a blind-box ad in Radio and Records for a jock job that matched my qualifications–and got it. They’d advertised it as being “in the Milwaukee area,” although it turned out to be in Racine, Wisconsin, which is about 30 miles south of Milwaukee, far enough to be its own radio market with nearby Kenosha. But it was close enough for The Mrs. and me, so we made plans to move. We’d dreamed of moving home to Wisconsin for most of our married life.
The general manager and I decided that I would start in January, but he asked if I’d consider coming to town on a couple of weekends in December to do some remote broadcasts for them. Sure, I said. The first weekend, the program director and I did our remote at a jewelry store. Between segments, the PD, whom we will call Chuck because that is not his real name, shared with me a few tales that sounded pretty far out of school, about the incompetence of the owner, the ineptitude of the staff, and the station’s lousy equipment–none of which had been apparent to me when I interviewed. I didn’t say much, but I kept careful mental notes.
The next weekend, the general manager invited me to his house for dinner. “There are a couple of things you need to know,” he told me as he handed me a beer. “First, there was a little problem with your remote last weekend.” It turns out the client had been very dissatisfied with my performance. He apparently didn’t like what I said on the air or how I was dressed, despite the fact I said and wore the same things I’d said at and worn for every remote I’d done in my life–and despite the fact that the store was full of listeners spending money the whole time I was there. The general manager downplayed the objections, although he did let slip that the station’s absentee owner had parachuted into town from his suburban-Chicago home for the sole purpose of assuaging the client.
“The other thing you need to know,” said the GM as he handed me a second beer, “is that Chuck gave his notice this week.” He had been the station’s third PD in the last eight months. (At my interview, they had explained the high turnover as a combination of new ownership and format changes. I don’t know why it didn’t make me more suspicious. I suppose it was because we really wanted to move home, and we didn’t much care how we got there. Stupid, stupid, stupid.) During the interview process, I had vehemently insisted that I had no interest in being program director of the station, ever. Now the job was looking me right in the face, on top of the other stuff I’d learned about the station since I took the job.
It made for a long and sleepless night at the Super 8.
The next day, Chuck and I did our remote. We talked more about the station, and about his decision to leave. I asked a lot more questions this time. As we were pulling back into the station’s parking lot, I said to him: “You don’t have to answer this question if you don’t want to, but if you were me, would you take this job?” Chuck, without pausing for a second (and to his eternal credit), said, “No.”
Monday morning, back home in Iowa, I called the general manager and told him I’d changed my mind. I felt badly about it, because he was a decent guy, and I was pretty sure we would get along. He sounded shocked, but I also sensed that he was smart enough to know why I was bailing. Tuesday, I drove over to Iowa City and registered for the teacher ed program at the University of Iowa and officially began my second career.
Although I have done some part-time radio since then, I’ve never seriously considered going back full-time. I never say never, because the one thing my working life has taught me is to expect the unexpected. But apart from a couple of very specific situations I can imagine, I don’t expect I will ever collect a full-time radio paycheck again–mostly because the career I started in the wake of the near-debacle in Racine has been more successful than my radio career ever was.
And that’s how the job I didn’t take ended up being the most important job of all.