On the Air on a Holiday

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(Pictured: “Kids, let’s make a plate for that nice young man from the radio station. He can sit at your table.”) 

This Thanksgiving, more retailers than ever are opening on the Day Itself—and this year, some of them are not merely open in the evening, they opened first thing this morning. Why Radio Shack, Dollar Tree, and Staples need to be open during the day on Thanksgiving Day I cannot imagine, but I am sure of this: the executives who decided it was necessary won’t be at their desks today. It’s only the front-line workers who suffer, and whose only reward for disrupting their family’s holiday is that they get to keep their jobs (so they can stay until 10:00 on Christmas Eve, probably). Within a couple of years, Thanksgiving Day will be just another all-day retail day like New Year’s Day, which was once a holiday on which all the stores were closed, but isn’t anymore. (And you can book it: within a decade, some retailer will decide to start its after-Christmas sale on Christmas night.)

In radio, the trend is in the opposite direction. Time was, a few people had to be at the station all day today, doing routine DJ stuff (including transmitter operation), playing syndicated holiday programming, anchoring news, and suchlike. Today, technology makes it possible to go unstaffed for all or part of the day. Automation is sophisticated enough to handle everything, right up to controlling the transmitters and automatically contacting an engineer if something goes wrong. I don’t have a problem with this, for a couple of reasons. Selfishly, it benefits me: I work less on holidays now than I did years ago. And it also makes economic sense. Why pay staffers when you don’t have to?

Automation or not, working Thanksgiving, Christmas, or New Year’s is a fact of radio life—or it was, back when I signed up for it. And it is—or it was, back when I signed up for it—how you earned your way into the fraternity. Full-time jocks could often get holidays off, but the new kids and the part-timers had to work. After a while, holiday shifts took on a certain feeling of importance—somebody has to be here to serve the public interest, convenience, and necessity, and not everybody’s qualified to do it, so why not me? You might be tracking Ray Conniff records and reading sponsors’ holiday greetings, but you were there, which is the main thing listeners expect of their radio stations. And on those odd holidays when the weather or the news was bad, you were there for that, too.

As you gain seniority, it is a fine thing to occupy an exalted-enough position to merit holidays off. Some people take every one of them, all they can get, and that’s OK with me. But some of us, as we gained seniority (or age, or wisdom, or whatever the opposite of wisdom is), discovered that we actually like working on holidays. My pleasure at being on the air on Christmas Eve is well chronicled at this blog, and I never minded Thanksgivings either, as long as there was time for a nice meal somewhere. During his early years in Chicago, Larry Lujack used to volunteer for holidays “so the guys with kids can spend it with their families,” even though Lujack had a wife and kid of his own. And on my own hometown radio station, the general manager almost always did a shift on Christmas morning.

I asked some of my radio pals for work-related holiday memories that stood out to them. One remembers triple-shifting on Christmas during a blizzard. Another recalls a three-way conference call during the wee hours of a New Year’s Day, three friends on three stations in three states, doing their respective shows but talking to each other while the records were playing. A couple noted the remarkable generosity of listeners, who called in to make sure the jock or newsman would be getting a Thanksgiving dinner at some point, and/or offering an invitation to one.

On this day, radio people on the job are like cops, nurses, firemen, convenience store clerks, and hookers—we’re providing a vital public service like we always have. It’s what we’re called to do. And many of us are happy to do it, even if you don’t invite us to your house for dinner.

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