(Pictured: “It’s bad enough I have to get up so early, but I have to listen to that idiot, too?”)
On December 3, 1985—the Tuesday after Thanksgiving and 30 years ago today—I began my brief tenure as a regular morning-show host.
I had been doing a voice-tracked morning show on my Top 40 station in Illinois for a few months beforehand. Every afternoon before I went home, I’d cart up a few bits and song introductions to air the next morning between 7:00 and 9:00 amidst the automated music programming. It sounded a little clunky, but it was the best we could do with the technology of the time. A live show, we all agreed, would be much better.
Our AM station didn’t sign on until 7AM, so the general manager wanted a morning news and farm block as part of my show. I was not wild about it, but I was mollified by the idea that the college students who made up the bulk of our audience were either in bed or going to class early in the morning. So we signed on at 5:30 with a statewide farm show called RFD Illinois, which was delivered over a phone line. At 6, we ran an hour of local news and sports, during which I had only a small presence, introducing various features and reading the weather forecast.
At 7AM, my show actually began. I played a lot of music, and we ran local news twice an hour until 9AM. The news guy and I would banter about whatever came to mind on the spur of the moment; we didn’t plan much of anything, and it probably sounded like it. (I don’t have any tapes from that time, and I’m not sure I could stand listening to them if I did—we needed to be coached, but there was nobody in the building to do it.) Our fooling-around nevertheless developed a following; by summer, when we’d do sponsor remotes or appear at community events, people would say, “I listen to you every morning.”
The modest degree of recognition we got for the show was gratifying, and I soon began to imagine that I could parlay it into a step up the market ladder. I went to a seminar presented by consultant Dan O’Day and bravely let him critique an aircheck in front of everybody. He said I had potential, which was all I wanted to hear—and which contributed to a growing wanderlust as autumn came.
As I have written before, I didn’t see eye-to-eye with the station’s new owner, who had taken over earlier in 1985. His ideas of what constituted good radio were different from mine. That summer, he hired an old friend of his, and he put him above me on the organizational chart without explaining how our relationship was supposed to work. And so I found myself beginning to inch out the door. Almost exactly a year after starting the morning show, I found another job, and at the end of 1986, we moved to Davenport, Iowa.
That morning-show year was memorable. We had just rented a big old house. The Mrs. was selling advertising for a regional tourism magazine, which led to a few good stories but not much else, and by the end of 1986 she would be working at the radio station again. We took our first lengthy vacation together in the summer of 1986, driving from Illinois to Maine for a friend’s wedding. I liked the rhythm of my working days, 5:15AM to 1:00 or 2:00 in the afternoon, once I got used to rising so early. What I was doing seemed important, and at the age of 26, I felt like I was on my way.
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