(Before we begin: there’s a new post at One Day in Your Life today, which I hope you will read.)
Nearly every radio jock who’s been around a little bit can tell you stories about working at the badly run station in the nowhere town. Different stations, different towns, same kind of stories: of managers who couldn’t manage and owners who got owned, but also of other victims of circumstance similarly trapped, and ultimately, how the story ended.
Thirty-five years ago this week, The Mrs. and I drove a U-Haul to the nowhere town. And on November 1, 1983, I spent my first day at the badly run station.
I’d been fired from my previous job, and I needed a new one. This station offered me one, and I took it. Whether that was a good idea never really entered our minds. We were 23 and 22 years old, married six months, and had no money in the bank. Beyond the obvious need to keep a roof over our heads, it seemed to me that this was how radio worked: you went where a job was, and your talent would move you up from there.
But I wish it had been clearer to me that I shouldn’t have gone where this job was.
It did become clear, however, and pretty damn quick. From the moment I accepted the job in October 1983, nothing about it seemed quite right. It’s said that pioneers in wagon trains sometimes found the Great Plains oppressive in its vastness and suffered from whatever is the opposite of claustrophobia. We felt the same way about the flat Illinois prairie. The one-bedroom basement apartment we took cost more than we wanted to pay, but it was the only one we saw that was close to acceptable. They told me I’d be doing afternoons, but I didn’t find out until the day before that my shift would be 5 to 8PM. The station’s music format was crazily schizophrenic, twangy country during the day and rock-leaning Top 40 at night. My first day, I discovered that quite literally everyone in the office was a smoker. Smokers were not yet banished outdoors, so I breathed second-hand smoke all day long. I had been told the company offered health insurance, but it didn’t. They told me I’d be doing lots of production, but it wasn’t remotely the volume of work I was used to. I was soon spending half of my 11AM-8PM working day reading every word in the newspaper because they didn’t have enough work to fill my time.
It was no more than a week before I came home and told The Mrs. I’d made a terrible mistake. But when you’re young and green and you think you understand how it’s supposed to be, you persevere. You hope that things will get better.
Except things didn’t get better, not in any significant way. I eventually got moved to a real afternoon drive-time slot, but only because the guy who had been doing it—the amiable doofus of a program director who had hired me—got fired. He was replaced by a martinet who started from the proposition that every jock on the staff was incompetent and had to reinvent themselves, in his image. This proposition was doomed, however, because he wasn’t as talented as he made himself out to be, and all of us could see it.
It wasn’t long before I got fired myself. Officially, all they told me was, “It’s not working out.” Unofficially, they were paranoid about my ties to the prospective owner of the other station in town, who had been the general manager of the station I’d just left. I hadn’t been at the new place for five months yet.
(I would later hear that the news director, another victim of circumstance, stormed into the program director’s office upon hearing the news and shouted, “I can’t believe you fired Jim! You need more people like him!”)
One of the cruelest facts of this life is that there can be grave consequences for not knowing what you aren’t equipped to know at the moment you most need to know it. You have to make the best decision you can with whatever information you have, and it may take years before you realize you decided wrong. At that point, all you can do is “chalk it up to experience,” whatever the hell that means. But a wrong decision is still a wrong decision. And 35 years ago today, I started living with one of mine.
(Your stories about the badly run station and/or the nowhere town are welcome in the comments.)