Monday, December 19, 2005

Radio Christmas

As I wrote here a year ago, the intersection between radio and Christmas is an important part of my personal mythology. From my first radio Christmas at the age of 10, it seemed to me a magical thing to be on the air on Christmas Eve. What a gift, it seemed to my 10-year-old self, to be able to ring in the holiday in such a wondrous way. And it wasn't just a gift to the person who got to do it, but it seemed like a gift from the person doing it, too. Here is someone, giving his time, on this day of all days, for listeners to enjoy. I, for one, appreciated it.

So I never minded working radio on Christmas. And even after my romantic impressions of holiday work were replaced by knowledge of the reality (I worked my first radio Christmas in 1979), it still wasn't that bad. Working Christmas got to be like changing diapers is part of parenthood--a little unpleasant, but something you can't help doing, so you don't stress over it.

My most memorable radio Christmas was one I didn't expect to work at all. In 1983, The Mrs. and I, still newlyweds, had just moved to rural Illinois. I was scheduled to work 6 to noon on Christmas Eve, and then we were going to drive home to Wisconsin. We awoke to a blizzard and record subzero cold, however, and were marooned. So we improvised a Christmas celebration. We went to a bar with the program director and his wife in the afternoon, and then I worked the night shift to cover for a guy who couldn't get out of his house to come to work. That night, the pipes froze in our one-bedroom basement apartment. On Christmas Day, the general manager and his wife invited us to their house for dinner with the owner and his wife, who had made it in from Louisiana just before the blizzard hit. It was a thoroughly pleasant evening, and I left quite impressed with the owner. Only later did I discover how close the station had come to missing its payroll entirely that very week, and how inept a businessman he was.

The Christmases blur between the mid 80s and the early 90s. I know I worked at least one 5:30-9AM shift on Christmas morning. And one year in the late 80s, I worked a full eight hours on Christmas Day to get New Year's off, in accordance with a station owner's policy that if you wanted one holiday off, you had to work a double shift on the other.

By the early 90s, I was operations manager of a small-town station in Iowa, and the guy in charge of scheduling the jocks. I did my best to accomodate my staff's requests to work or be off on specific holidays. One year, however, I ended up scheduling one of my part-timers, who hadn't given any indication of when he could work, for Christmas Eve from 6 to midnight. "I can't do it," he said on December 22. "I have to referee a basketball game that night." "A basketball game on Christmas Eve?" I asked. "Some of these little towns play basketball on Christmas Eve," he said. Well, they don't, and I knew it--and he knew that I knew it, but he thought he could brazen it out anyhow. He couldn't, mostly because I, like Santa, had made my list and checked it twice, and this wasn't the first time he'd complicated my life during his brief tenure at the station, so I fired him. Merry Christmas to you, too, fella, and have a nice time at the game.

The best Christmases I had were at that station, though. I usually worked the afternoon show on Christmas Eve, the same show that had captivated me when I was 10 years old, and so I did my best to conjure up some of that 1970 radio magic each time. Same for the last Christmas Eve radio show I did, at a classic rock station in another town, in 1996. No matter where I was, no matter what format I was doing, I couldn't forget how it was to listen to Christmas coming in over the radio as night fell on Christmas Eve.

For a couple of years after that, I would surf the radio dial on Christmas Eve, listening to what people were doing. I don't anymore. In an era of voice-tracking and sophisticated digital automation, the Christmas Eve show on your hometown station may have been recorded three days before by someone living a thousand miles away, and it's just not the same without that element of real time--without the sense that the person on the radio has given up some time he might be spending with his family to spend it with you.


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