Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Top 5: This Much Is True

In the fall of 1983, I got sacked at my first full-time radio job. At age 23, married six months and with no money in the bank, I was deathly afraid of being unemployed. So, when I was offered a job in a little town in Illinois, for the same money I'd been making, I took it. The Mrs. and I packed up our lives and moved to the prairie.

One of the first things I learned when I got there was this: Just as a prospective employee does his best to sell himself to an employer, so a prospective employer does its best to sell itself to an employee--and what I'd been told by these people when they were selling themselves to me didn't match what they actually intended to deliver after I bought. For example, they told me I'd be on the air in the afternoon. Technically, this was true--although the shift was actually 5PM to 8PM. This was partly my fault, because I didn't ask, but if I'd known that was the shift, I wouldn't have taken the job.

The second thing I learned there might have been the most important radio lesson I ever got. It was certainly one that would be reinforced a lot during the years to come. The lesson is: Just because a person has enough money to own a radio station doesn't mean they have a clue about running one. The station's owner had been a major-market executive who apparently bought his hometown station somewhere in the South, and then acquired the construction permit for the Illinois station and put it on the air. He had lured a general manager of his acquaintance from Houston and a news director from Louisville. He should have been content to sit back and watch the place grow--but instead, he micromanaged from a distance, and seemed to have set a wildly impossible corporate goal: The station was out not just to compete with the established station in town, but to take all of its business and drive it off the air. Thus, in only a few months of existence, it had already changed formats twice and would re-tweak almost continuously while I was there, searching for the magic bullet. Such a goal was, of course, staggeringly unrealistic, especially when the established station in town had been on the air since the 1950s.

And they weren't remotely close to scoring an economic knockout. The station I had come from was incredibly profitable, so I was used to cutting 20 or 25 commercials per day, some days. But this station wasn't billing nearly as much, so on a typical day, I'd cut five commercials if I was lucky. On Thursday of my first week, when one of the sales reps asked how I was adjusting to the "heavy" production load, I looked around to see if there was somebody else in the room he was talking to, because he couldn't be referring to my minuscule assignments. (I think that was the same day I went home to our one-bedroom basement apartment and told The Mrs. that I'd made a horrible vocational mistake.) The lack of commercials would lead to a serious problem by the end of the year--the salaried employees got half paychecks one week in December because there simply wasn't enough money in the bank to pay everybody.

Because the jocks wrote the commercials we recorded, we worked pretty closely with the sales department, and I was able to size the department up pretty quickly. It was, as small-market sales departments often were back in the day, populated by eager young hustlers looking to make a mark in the world, eager older hustlers who believed they could sell anything, and eager ne'er-do-wells trying to find something they wouldn't fail at. The general manager was also the sales manager, and he had his hands full making professionals out of these people. Some became pros, others didn't.

Then came the the week after Thanksgiving, when I'd been there about four weeks. That was when the owner came to town for the first time during my tenure. A memo was quietly circulated to the jocks that while he was in town, we were to avoid announcing the names of certain artists on the air (Kool and the Gang and Culture Club are two I can remember), because the owner would not approve of artists who were black or gay.

I didn't discover until a couple of years later how close I'd come to losing my job that week--not for anything I did, but because the owner, listening to the station on the way in from the airport, decided he didn't like the sound of it and wanted to fire everyone and start over. The general manager had to talk the owner out of it, and the primary argument he used was that he had just hired this talented young guy who had uprooted his newlywed wife and moved to town just four weeks before.

Not that it was entirely awful working there. The program director was a nice-enough guy, a radio nomad who'd been almost everywhere without ever making it out of the minor leagues. I soon discovered it was because he had no patience for details, and so never dealt with them. The news and sports directors were far too talented for where they were. The morning guy had never worked in radio before, but had a natural gift of gab that eventually curdled into an ego far beyond what his talent entitled him to. The midday guy ended up in Orlando a few years later, I think. The night guy was a pleasant and quiet man, the person who had the answers to any question a new guy might want to ask--whether it was about station procedures, or candid assessments of the station and the people working there. (That seemed to be a night-guy trait, in my career, at least--night guys often knew where the bodies were buried and weren't afraid to tell you.)

So anyway: Twenty-two years ago this week, there I was, on the prairie, wondering why the hell I'd come, but hoping to make the best of it, somehow. And here are the top five songs according to Cash Box from this week in 1983. We were playing them all--and lots of others, because we were uncluttered by commercials.

5. "Making Love Out of Nothing at All"/Air Supply
4. "True"/Spandau Ballet
3. "All Night Long"/Lionel Richie
2. "Total Eclipse of the Heart"/Bonnie Tyler
1. "Islands in the Stream"/Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton

The really interesting story from that station involves the sordidly entertaining way in which my tenure came to an end less than six months after I started. But that's another post another time.


At 9:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm sure that the station owner is no longer involved in radio station ownership. What would be interesting is to find out what he did when he got out of it. Maybe he cashed out and bought a motorcycle dealership...or a sports bar...or a furniture store. Who knows, maybe he invested in a dot com in the 90's and lost his ass. In this day and age, it's not uncommon for some people to know very little about something but they have the equity to own it. When they succeed, it's usually because they surrounded themselves with people they can trust. When they fail, it's usually because they got bad advice. I have to hand it to those individuals who took the risk of starting up a radio station from scratch and making it work.

At 2:14 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"When they succeed, it's usually becaues they surrounded themselves with people they can trust."

Right,and part of the trust involves trusting the people you surround yourself with to know what they're doing and leave them alone to do it. It looks like the guy in Illinois didn't.

At 8:32 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know the feeling. I worked in Illinois at a radio station owned by a former dentist. I didn't work there for very long. After he canned me, I lost track of the place over the years. An old acquaintence last summer told me the ex-dentist bought another radio station in Indiana, sold the one in Illinois, then ran the Indiana radio station into the ground. No one knows what became of the ex-dentist. My guess is that he convinced some lending institution to prop him up to buy some other line of business and run THAT into the ground. Don't these people ever run out of money?


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