Pulling the Plug

When I got fired from my first full-time radio job, they didn’t blow me out the door right away. They let me work for six weeks while I was finding another job—and while they were finding my replacement.

Why I decided to hang around where I wasn’t wanted is simple to explain: I was 23 years old, and I didn’t know any better. I gladly accepted the opportunity to stay on while job-hunting, and I continued as a productive employee and genial colleague right through my last day. What I should have done with their offer was to say, “Thanks but no thanks, I’ll be fine,” and hit the street the same day they told me I was out. But since I was newly married and afraid to be unemployed, I did what seemed like the right thing.

On the air that last day, I didn’t explain precisely why I was leaving, only that I was. Because KDTH jocks were embraced by listeners as part of the family, I took lots of calls from well-wishers that day, and it was a gratifying experience. It could have been otherwise. I could have told the audience that I had been fired and why, and expressed bitterness about it—and I was indeed bitter. But I thought of myself as a consummate professional, so I went out the door like I imagined a consummate professional would.

Only in later years did I realize how unusual my situation had been. Usually, when you get fired, you’re out the door instantly. (Ken Levine says he thinks that studio chairs are on wheels so management can roll guys out in a hurry when the time comes.) That’s because not everybody reacts well to being fired.

On March 1, 1976, the decade-long Top 40 duke-out in Chicago between WLS and WCFL ended with WCFL’s surrender. Rather than simply throwing the switch on a new format out of the blue, WCFL announced it in advance, a couple of weeks before they intended to switch to elevator music. They told the jocks that all of them would be fired except for Larry Lujack, who would serve out his expensive contract by playing the Swelling Strings Orchestra in afternoon drive.

The jocks were told not to discuss the format change on the air. They worked their shifts as usual for the next two weeks (like consummate professionals), with one exception. The morning after the announcement, the morning team of Dick Sainte and Doug Dahlgren, freed from the need to toe anyone’s line, spent their show fooling around, bashing the management, bashing the current format and the coming format change—and even calling WLS morning man Fred Winston live on the air. The show went on for nearly four hours before management finally pulled the plug on Dick and Doug a half-hour early. They never returned to WCFL’s air, although a couple of weeks later, they spent an hour on WLS with Winston, continuing the farewell anarchy that had marked their final morning on WCFL.

The audio archive at Chicagoland Radio and Media has airchecks of Dick and Doug’s last show and their appearance with Winston. The site calls them “classic 70s radio” and that’s right—36 years later, nobody does this kind of thing anymore, and those of us who loved it then love hearing it now. Nevertheless, I wonder how the average listener felt about those shows while they were actually happening on those fabled mornings. Both are remarkably silly, even by standards of Top-40 morning shows, and are crowded with in-jokes that likely zoomed over the heads of most of the audience. But for fans of Chicago Top 40, they’re a time-trip worth taking. It’s the style of radio I fell in love with; Dick, Doug, and Fred were who I wanted to be when I grew up.

Still do.

3 responses

  1. Charlie Honold | Reply

    Good one, Jim. Anyone who’s worked any time at all in radio knows exactly what you’re talking about…you’re ambivalent about the happy trails thing, most of the time management thinks you’re going to say something snarky at the end, and it never quite wraps up the way you think it should. And the listeners tune in later and go…what? Where? Damn!
    (And I forgot that you worked in Dubuque! ‘KDTH is Dubuque!’ as the cover of the old sales piece used to say. Think I still have one of those around somewhere.)

  2. I tell our KROQ audience all the time to expect that one day they will wake up and our show will just be gone. To please understand that we will not be able to say goodbye and it is not our choice but that’s radio. Great post!

  3. Fantastic post.

    And loved the Dick & Doug clips. (Forget porn, *this* is why the internet was invented!)

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