I Guess That’s Why They Call it the Blues

As you know, I’m a big fan of JasonHare.com–especially his latest Chart Attack, featuring January 1984. Those songs reminded me of the sort of gig every radio person has along the way–one that was fairly miserable at the time, but has made for some good stories ever since. I’ve told some of them before, I think, but here goes anyhow.

The Mrs. and I had moved to Macomb, Illinois, in November 1983. I needed a job and a little station down there had one. The PD and the general manager impressed me when I met them, I’d passed through that town on vacation once when I was a kid, and that was enough. In those days when I was still just starting out in radio, I knew I’d probably have to work in places like that. So I was OK with it. And it wasn’t a bad little town, really, thanks to the presence of Western Illinois University, which brought in a little culture, at least.

After working at the station for a couple of months, it was clear that the place had some serious problems. For example: One of the sales people came to me that first week and asked how I was adjusting to “the heavy production load” of commercials. At my previous gig in Dubuque, I’d gotten used to doing as many as 30 spots, dubs, and tags every day, but I think in that first week in Macomb I’d done seven or eight altogether. (I was spending most of my time sitting on my ass waiting to go on the air.) Another sales rep found herself caught between a feuding husband and wife who owned a clothing store. The husband wanted the store to project a western image; the wife wanted a more hip and contemporary image. The sales rep’s compromise was to ask me to produce a spot in a John Wayne voice over Michael Jackson music. Due to an obscure Illinois law regarding hourly employees (which I think the station misunderstood), I was required to leave the building for at least 30 minutes on my lunch break–having a sandwich at my desk while I was writing a spot or prepping my show was not allowed.

I remember coming home to our one-bedroom basement apartment on what might have been the fourth day and telling The Mrs. that I’d made a horrible mistake. However, the worst problem didn’t manifest itself until year’s end. While the station was running a $1000 cash-call contest (“answer your phone with the phrase that pays, and we’ll give you $1000”), it was issuing partial paychecks to salaried employees because it didn’t have enough operating cash on hand. During the holiday season. This was partly due to the owner’s excessive “trading out”–exchanging advertising time for goods and services. Everything from a luxury car for himself to office supplies for us–we joked that he’d trade the light bill if he could, and I don’t doubt that he tried.

However: Despite all the weirdness going on behind the scenes, the station sounded reasonably good. As I’ve said, the general manager impressed me–he’d been a major-market sales manager and had apparently been promised a piece of the company if he’d move to the middle of nowhere and make a success of the little station there. (If the owner had just left him the hell alone, he might have done it.) The news director and sports director were solid pros. The morning guy had a natural gift of gab. The midday guy later ended up in Orlando, I think. The PD, who did afternoons, was the classic radio drifter–pleasant personality, decent voice, and good enough on details to make a competent manager–but not exceptional enough at anything to ensure that he’d last a long time anywhere, as we shall see. The night guy was too talented for nights, but he seemed content with where he was–and he was the guy who knew where the bodies were buried. That seems to be a night-guy tendency, in my experience. They’d answer the questions you didn’t want to ask the boss, and this guy did so with an almost-reckless honesty.

I did an oddball 5-8pm shift for awhile before moving up to 2-6pm. (I have a tape of what I think was my second day on the air. I won’t post it here because it sounds just hideous to me now–my voice is high and nasal, and although I clearly had some skills, I wasn’t nearly as good as I thought I was at the time.) The music mix was bizarre–pop/country during the day to capture the adult audience, but moving in a top 40/album rock direction at night in hopes of snagging the kids–an all-things-to-all-people format that many small-market stations used to try back in the day. We were playing, at various times of the day, all of the songs Jason mentions except for Numbers 2, 5, and 6, but we were also playing country hits by the likes of Merle Haggard, Crystal Gayle, and the Judds.

So: January 1984. The Mrs. is watching General Hospital professionally, as she put it–still unemployed after three months. I am already beginning to surreptitiously look for another job, somewhere, for reasons that will soon become clear. Neither of us is particularly happy. Fortunately for us, things were about to change.

Coming tomorrow: It’s easy to outsmart yourself when you’re not too bright to begin with.

4 thoughts on “I Guess That’s Why They Call it the Blues

  1. Anonymous

    I had a 3 month gig (that’s how long it lasted) working for a very rich man. I thought this would be one great job — doing mornings for someone I respected.

    Well, that certainly wasn’t the case. I lost all respect for him and will never work for him again or tell anyone else to do it, either.

    Luckily, I went on to another job in another town and things got much better.

  2. Anonymous

    Your Macomb in 1984 was my Marquette, Michigan in 1986 and Freeport, Illinois in 1991. Those are classic examples of bad places that didn’t kill you but, in the end, it made you stronger.—Shark

  3. I love stories like these. Even in these moments which don’t seem too “fond” even in retrospect, I still live vicariously through you, as I think I always would have enjoyed a career in radio. Can’t wait to read Part 2!

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