Split Shift

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Thirty-five years ago, as spring turned into summer, I was in the middle of a weird little interlude in my radio career.

In mid-March 1984, I got fired after six months at a little stand-alone FM station in Illinois. So I filed for unemployment, then I started applying for radio jobs. At the time, the unemployment rules required job seekers to make contacts in person, two a week, to keep getting a check. Because of the nature of my career, I was given permission to make my contacts by mail and phone. The Mrs. and I were prepared to go anywhere, and I applied at stations as far away as Alabama and North Carolina, and to any place that was advertising a job that looked halfway plausible.

The first call I made, however, was to the radio station across town, which is what jocks have done since God was a boy. If Station A lets you go, you see if Station B has anything for you so it’s not necessary to move. And this AM/FM combo did—a part-time, night-and-weekend, automation-tending job. It wasn’t what I wanted, but it would help keep the wolf from the door until I found something else. They wanted me to start on the night of April 9—which was our first wedding anniversary. Rather than biting the bullet and showing up, I asked if I could start the next night, and explained the reason why. The station’s general manager chuckled softly and said, “Of course,” and my radio career continued, one day later than it would have otherwise.

It wasn’t long before the night-and-weekend job turned into a split shift, weekdays from 11AM til 1PM and 7:00 til midnight and 4:00 til midnight on Saturdays. I don’t think I was ever officially declared a full-timer during this period, although I was working 40 hours plus. I do remember that I was glad to have the work, even at the minimum wage of $3.35 an hour.

The AM station was a daytimer that signed off at 4:30 in the afternoon even in the summer, when it could have stayed on longer. It ran a lot of local news and farm programming and played country music the rest of the time. I pushed buttons for the noon news block on the AM, which was entirely pre-recorded. Part of my job was to run the news carts down the hall after I was done with them and stick them into the FM automation system.

(Digression: Nobody in the news department ever went on the air live on either station. The news staff would show up at 2:30AM to record the FM morning news block, then sit drinking coffee from 5:30 until 8 while the tapes played. Late in the summer, after the new owner took over and decreed an end to this practice, one of the reporters quit rather than face a live microphone.)

On the FM night shift, I was there to operate the transmitter, mostly. I also had to record and play back the network news once per hour. The only time my voice was heard was on the weather forecast, and on a short sports report that ran in the late news block. I also had to tend the automation that ran the station’s very soft adult-contemporary format, which pretty much avoided anything with a beat or too much electric guitar. Given the generally old-fashioned and conservative outlook of the people who owned and ran the station, it was probably hipper than they wanted to be, but the best they could get from a syndicator if they didn’t want straight-up elevator music. (The one song that always makes me think of it is Peabo Bryson’s “If Ever You’re in My Arms Again.”)

Come the summer, with the new ownership, I got off the bottom of the food chain. I became an official full-timer and was elevated to program director, at the princely annual salary of $13,200. The split shift was over. It had lasted two months at the outside and possibly less than that. It’s been so long I can’t remember.

I was not happy to have been fired from radio jobs twice in six months, and to have to settle for whatever unglamorous thing I could get (even though what I got would get better). But I don’t recall becoming disillusioned with radio. A young jock at the bottom of the food chain, in love with the profession he’s chosen, is willing to eat whatever he has to eat for a while, in hopes of getting a better meal someday.

5 responses

  1. 1984…I was the overnight jock and making $162/week where I was at. What in the world were we thinking?

    1. Last paragraph, my friend. We loved it, and we didn’t care that it paid nothing. Trouble is, after a while you love it less, and it still pays nothing.

  2. Boy, does every word ring true there. I made between $990 (not a typo) and $13,000 a year in my first ten years in radio—and worked every shift there was. Smallest market was 3,000 people, the largest was 200,000.

    It was only after a 30-year detour in TV news that I had any success in radio—and that’s all been in the last couple of years. Afternoon drive anchor on a 50,000 watt radio station that covers the western third of America when the sun goes down (which gives me that kind of reach part of the year). Of course, what matters are the metro numbers for the FM simulcast, but still. I’ve been on stations that start to fade ten miles from the transmitter.

    But despite poverty, sleep deprivation and the rest, being a young guy (between 15 and 25 the first time around) paid to play music on the radio was pretty fun. And almost exactly midway through that, I met the woman who would become my wife—39 years later.

    Time well spent.

  3. Tim Morrissey | Reply

    A hundred dollars a week and all the records you could steal. 1970.

  4. John Gallagher | Reply

    I grossed 175.00 a week for my last full-time radio gig ending in 1997. By that point, the fun and the run was over.

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