Sunday, November 29, 2009

Radio Days


I got my job at WCIR through my dad. He had met the program director, who let slip that he was in desperate need of a gopher/office slave. Dad told him I’d be interested and soon enough I began sorting cds, copying reel-to-reel tapes, handing out contest prizes, setting up the transmitter for remote broadcasts and doing all sorts of other odd jobs for the radio station to the tune of $3.35 an hour, which was the minimum wage in 1989. I was 16, though, and it seemed like a pretty good deal.

I didn't really have a desire to get on the air, but eventually did as the result of some dumb luck. There was a week-long teacher's strike in March 1990. With no school, I’d drive up to the station every day to see if there was anything they needed me to do. One morning I arrived to find the P.D. in a heated argument with the overnight guy, whose shift had ended an hour or two before. The overnight guy had somehow locked himself out of the station at 4AM, leaving nearly two hours of dead air until the morning guy arrived, making no effort to bust back in or call anyone about his dilemma. He just sat on the hood of his car and smoked. The P.D. hadn't planned on firing Mr. Overnight, but when people argue for a long enough time someone is going to eventually say something stupid. Mr. Overnight did, and he was gone.

A few minutes later the P.D. came by where I was copying some tapes and asked me if I wanted to go on the air. After an hour or two of the most basic training, he told me to go home and come back that night, as I would be working the 11pm-6am shift until the teacher's strike was over. If things worked out, the weekend overnight guy would move to full time, and I would take over the weekend shifts. Things worked out, and I had the job for the next couple of years.

Like almost everyone else at the station, I was given an awful air name. Following 1950s-era conventional wisdom which held that people won't want to listen to a DJ with an "ethnic" name, the P.D. changed me from Craig Calcaterra to Craig Miller. Within the first couple of weeks the jock who worked before me took to calling me "Madman Miller" as I was coming on the air. While it was stupid I didn't really object, and Craig “The Madman” Miller stuck.

Though it was by far the biggest, most popular station in town, WCIR had antiquated equipment, making the technical part of the job pretty easy. The 1960s-era control board consisted of several round mixing "pots" as opposed to the more modern sliders and equalizers, and the two cd players were haphazardly patched into the board. A rarely-used turntable sat off to the left. Commercials were all played on cartridges that resembled old eight track tapes which would give off a deep and satisfying clunk when you pressed the play button. Rather than sit as if at a desk, the DJ would stand in front of the board while on the air with the microphone hanging at mouth level, much like it would in a recording studio. There was a comfy leather chair in which to sit for the three to five minutes one had to wait before the next station identification, weather report, or segue between songs.

And, oh, were those songs terrible. The pop charts of the late 80s and early 90s were dominated by hair metal bands singing power ballads and some of the most soulless R&B ever recorded. There were some bright spots – REM had a couple of mainstream hits by that point, and you could always count on war horses like Tom Petty and Madonna to have a hit or two – but my play lists were dominated by the likes of Milli Vanilli, M.C. Hammer, Wilson Phillips, Poison, and Michael Bolton. Since the P.D. slept during my graveyard shift I could get away with a bit more freelancing than the other jocks, but I usually found it easier to simply play what was programmed, mostly because people would call in to complain if I didn't play the hits on a constant rotation. Today there is no small amount of grumbling about the bland repetition of top 40 radio, but Clear Channel and the other corporate radio behemoths are giving the people what they want. Or at the very least, are giving the people what they've trained them to want and with what they now feel they cannot do without.

Music aside, I loved the job. No dress code. No paperwork. No manual labor. Working from 11pm until 6am gave me almost total solitude, and as long as I was able to do the station ID at the top of every hour, play the commercials when programmed, and segue from song to song without dead air, I could do almost anything I wanted. Some nights I spent reading a book. Others I spent on the phone, talking to girlfriends, buddies, or whoever was bored enough to call the DJ to chat. When I got really bored I would make up contests. Within a month or two of beginning the job, I met the guy who worked the same shift at the big country station in town, WJLS. He and I would talk on the phone all night, comparing the weirdos who would call in and daring each other to do silly things on the air.

Perhaps the oddest thing about the job was that there were groupies. I thought the P.D. was joking when he told me to expect it, but I’ll be damned if I didn't have women calling me at all hours of the night. I was flattered at first, but it quickly became obvious that only the truly deranged among us obsess about someone just because they’re on the air at a piddling little radio station in a podunk little mountain town. Maybe “deranged” is too strong a word. For the most part they were simply lonely people who felt comforted by a familiar voice coming out of their radio each night. In this way the DJ isn’t all that different than a bartender. You listen to people talk. You act interested but you never pry. When the person asks for a drink – or in my case a song – you give it to them.

I never had a stalker, and despite some random threats over the phone, I never came face to face with an angry fan. The weirdest thing that would ever happen would be when women would call in and ask me how old I was. Seeing no reason to lie about it, I would tell them that I was sixteen or seventeen or whatever. Most giggled about it. A visible minority seemed aroused by the idea, which creeped me out quite a bit. One took to calling me "baby," and referred to herself as "mama." I quickly memorized her phone number and avoided her whenever it popped up on the ID. For the most part, however, it was harmless, and given the format of the station, the vast majority of callers were teenagers wanting to here the latest tripe from the New Kids on the Block or Bell Biv Devoe. I got a lot of nice cards and letters from twelve year-old girls.

Within a month or two of starting, the guy working the weekday overnight shift quit, and it would be over a year until the P.D. could find a stable replacement. Despite school still being in session, I pulled several seven-night weeks during the frequent intervals between replacements. I would work until 6am, leave the station, grab breakfast, and then go on to school. I'd go home after school, crash for a couple of hours, eat dinner with my parents, and then crash for a few more until it was time to work again. I'm sure all of this was in violation of all kinds of labor laws, but as long as my grades stayed solid Mom and Dad didn't much care.

After some initial bumps I quickly developed a fairly smooth and confident on-air persona. Maybe too confident, as I found myself in trouble on a few occasions for being a smartass. The first time was when I introduced a Wilson Phillips song by saying something like "here’s that new girl group; you may have seen them on MTV; the one with the two hot women and the fat chick . . ." My phone line lit up. It was a woman angry that I'd make fun of someone's weight problem. I asked her if she was mad because she herself was a fat chick. She hung up. The next morning the P.D. came in to tell me that the woman I was insulting was the wife of a friend of his. Turns out I hit the nail on the head about her being fat. The P.D. thought it was kind of funny but he made me write a letter of apology anyway.

On another occasion I got in trouble for allegedly interfering with police business. On most Saturday nights, the first hour of my shift was a remote broadcast from the lobby of the movie theater, promoting the theater's Midnight Movie series. Following my last break at 11:45, I would get in the car and race to the station, hopefully in time to make my first commercial break after midnight. If I didn't, the guy who played the prerecorded show from 8pm until midnight and manned the boards for my remote would have to do the break. I hated that, so I usually drove like a maniac to make it.

One night, doing about 60 m.p.h. in a 35 zone, I was pulled over by a policeman running a speed trap. Obviously dead to rights, I figured that I would quickly cop to being a lead foot, accept my ticket, and do my best to get to the station as soon as I could. The cop, thinking he had pulled over a partying teenager on a Saturday night, took forever to walk up to my window. When he got there I apologized for my speed, explained that I was late for work, and basically did everything I could think of to make the whole transaction go smoothly. Rather than ticket me, he asked a hundred questions about where I was going and why. He thought I was lying about working at the radio station and gave me a hard time about that. Then he made me get out of the car while he gave the backseat a once-over, looking for drugs or beer or whatever he assumed I was on. Eventually he went back to his car. After an extended lecture about my speed (which I deserved) and a bunch of criticisms about the radio station (which I didn't) he gave me my ticket and let me go. The stop probably took three times as long as a usual traffic stop and by the time I finally got to the station I was pissed and the guy working the board was having a meltdown.

During my first commercial break I took the opportunity to alert anyone who may be out driving where the speed trap was and to watch out because it was manned by a cop who liked to hassle people. About twenty minutes later someone at the police station called me. It wasn't the cop who had pulled me over, but he was angry all the same. Immediately sensing that I may be in trouble, but not knowing for what, I hit "record" on the reel to reel machine attached to the phone. After a minute it seemed clear to me that the call was less than official. Yes, it was a cop (caller ID confirmed that), but it wasn't anyone in a position of authority. Maybe Officer Speed Trap's buddy. He complained that by saying what I said I not only was disrespecting a police officer, but I was "interfering in official law enforcement business." Though I knew enough about the First Amendment to be pretty confident that I hadn't done anything wrong, I kept my responses to simple "yes sirs" and "no sirs" out of an abundance of caution. After a couple of minutes the cop hung up.

I got my wits about me and listened to the tape. I hadn't realized it during the call, but it turns out that the conversation was pretty damn funny. As my "yes sirs" and "no sirs" got quieter and less respectful, the cop got angrier and angrier. Eventually he was ranting incoherently, calling me "son" and starting every sentence with "listen here!" and stuff like that. I decided it was too good not to use, so at the next break I took to the mic in a solemn tone, referenced my earlier comments about the speed trap and apologized for being disrespectful to the professionals of the Beckley Police Department. Then I played the tape over the theme to the Dukes of Hazard. A couple of days later someone at the police department called my boss to voice his "profound disappointment" that a station as active in the community as WCIR would exhibit such an immature disrespect for law enforcement. I had to write another letter of apology. If I wasn't working an impossible-to-fill shift for minimum wage, I suppose I could have been fired.

I manned the DJ booth from March 1990 until I left for college in September 1991. Just before leaving, the P.D. sat me down and told me that, my mouth aside, he thought I had what it took to make a career out of it, and that he'd be willing to offer me a full time job on the spot with actual adult pay and benefits and everything. Though I agreed to think about it for a couple of days I knew I would never seriously consider the offer. I didn’t yet know what I wanted to do for a living, but I knew I wanted something more stable than radio. For all of the fun and flair of the job, the DJ was becoming increasingly superfluous to the modern radio business. My sense was that any stations that weren't already automated or run by giant corporations soon would be, and even if you could make a life out of radio, it would be a pretty itinerant one. I thanked the P.D. for the offer, politely declined, and went off to college. With the exception of a couple of months back at the station the summer after my freshman year, my radio days were over.

Though I still have a lot of life left at this point, I’m pretty sure that I'll never have a better job. And that’s true even if it would take me a decade or so of full time overnights at the wages I made back them to make what I now make in a single year.