The Wrong Decision

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(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.)

5 responses

  1. Great story, Jim. We’ve all been there (at least, most of us have) and hopefully learned from our mistakes. You certainly rose above the horrid circumstances described here. As the Arabs say, “living well is the best revenge.”

  2. JB: I’ve had blessedly few (two, exactly) of those and was saved by Providence (not the one in Rhode Island).

    The first was my first, KIBS in Bishop, California, where I was hired by a great GM who did his best with the venal absentee owner who had bought and was in the process of bleeding dry what had been a thriving local station.

    About a year in (I was still in high school and not able to go elsewhere), the GM was canned and replaced with a belligerent drunk. In short order, ABC News cancelled our service for non-payment. We replaced their newscasts with rip-and-read UPI copy…until UPI cancelled our service for non-payment.

    Belligerent drunk GM then ordered us to read stories out of the local newspaper and the L.A. Times—both of which sued us for copyright infringement. The FCC required news in those days, so UPI came back—but the GM (and I imagine the owner) was steamed at having to pay the months in arrears to get the teletype ticking again.

    I rolled with the punches until shortly after graduation from high school, when a friend at ABC Records came up for a visit, rolled tape on my show without my knowledge, and sent it to KSLY in San Luis Obispo, where I wound up as Music Director and morning man.

    The other was KUKI in Ukiah, California. In this case, ownership was okay—and so was the GM who hired me (originally for weekends and production, but promoted me to morning drive after my first weekend). Within a month, I was Program Director (this after the PD wordlessly put a few armloads of albums into his VW bug and drove off, never to be seen again.

    Good GM moved on and was replaced by a guy who decided he would cut costs in every way possible. That included firing the guy who mowed the lawn in front of the station and cut the grass out by the tower and replacing him with goats and sheep. Bad (and probably insane) GM also brought an unhousebroken German Shepherd puppy to work with him every day.

    I got out in a shade under two years (to KOLO, Reno). But the upside to having taken that job—that’s where I first met my wife, whom I married 40 years later.

  3. Been there, twice, myself. I should’ve trusted the bad feeling I got with the first bad experience. I interviewed at the station on the day after Thanksgiving. There was only one person in the building…the mid-day jock who was also the Program Director. Since it was the day after Thanksgiving, I just figured everybody else was off for that day. WRONG! It was like that everyday. Lack of staff, lack of organization, lack of direction with an owner who had people hired to just “do stuff.” The tell-tale sign was when I met the guy who served as the engineer telling me how cheap the place was and what a revolving door the place had been. The other experience was a station owned by a clueless ex-dentist, who bought the station shortly after the big radio sell-offs of the mid-1980s, thinking it was going to make him rich. When you get that sour feeling in your stomach as you drive up to work at a bad radio station, it is a feeling of utter despair.

  4. I forgot the biggie from KIBS—normally, I’d not come back for a PS, but this is too good:

    The relay that allowed us to switch from day power (1,000 watts) to night power (250 watts) crapped out. How expensive could that part be, right? Apparently too expensive, because the owner wouldn’t approve one, forcing the engineer to come up with a Rube Goldberg solution involving taking the back of the transmitter off, sticking a broom handle into a specific part of the guts of the transmitter and pushing down.

    We’d been doing that for eight or nine months when one evening, a gray station wagon with a whole lot of antennas pulled into the parking lot. FCC. Surprise inspection. I’m 16 years old and alone in the building. I call the GM and he’s beyond drunk. Not wanting him involved in that state, I say “wrong number” and hang up.

    The FCC inspector asks for a whole lot of files and begins taking notes. At one point, he asks me to take the station from night power up to day power and back down again. I go around to the back of the transmitter and begin loosening the screws.

    “What are you doing?”

    “Changing power. The switch on the front doesn’t work.”

    The disbelief only increased when he saw the broom handle trick.

    The FCC inspector was there until I signed off at 10. At the end of it all, there were 106 written violations—thankfully none of them blamed on the operator (me).

  5. To quote The Carpenters, “So it’s one more round for experience
    And I’m on the road again”

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