Category Archives: Radio Daze

Russ, Heather and me

I’d been out of work for about three months when I got a call from the program director at a popular FM rock station located in a northeastern college town. He’d just listened to my audition tape (a three minute hodgepodge of my on-air banter and newscasts from the past couple of years) and wanted to meet for an interview. He needed a news anchor (a female) who would also play the foil to the DJ on the morning show.

I needed the job and wanted a position at a rock station. I had been working at stations that specialized in “adult contemporary” music. It was the dullest radio format since Muzak, featuring such “artists” as Peter Cetera, Michael Bolton, and (gag) Celine Dion.  I didn’t personally have to play this schlock since I worked in the news department but I was subjected to it on an hourly basis. That is until new owners arrived and, three weeks later, fired the entire on-air staff.* It was just as well. I was ready for a change.

*The Number One Survival Rule of Radio:  When new owners tell you they don’t plan on making any changes, start looking for another job.

So I  told the p.d.—Russ  Myers—I looked forward to driving up and meeting him for the interview. He didn’t waste any time, asking me to be there on Friday. This was Wednesday.

“Don’t worry about a  hotel room, Pat. We’ll have it all taken care of by the time you get here Friday. How’s early afternoon? You can sit in during my air shift.”

Well, this sure didn’t give me much time to get ready but I figured I’d better move on it. Morning show gigs (the most listened-to time of day) were hard to come by. I told Russ I’d be there.

“Great! That is super, Pat, just super!”

He certainly sounded excited. This might be good news; I could have a job! Added bonus—I would be working in the same town where my best girlfriend lived. Yes! It was time to start packing.

+++

Friday morning. I’ve loaded up the car and chosen my outfit carefully. A simple white cotton shirt with a black skirt and fitted sweater. A bit conservative for a rock station but I wanted to exude professionalism.  The night before I’d come home from some last-minute shopping to a message from Russ. He wanted me to know he’d been re-listening to my tape and really “dug” my on-air interaction with the morning DJ. It was “flirty and kinda sassy.Can’t wait to meet you.” Hmmm.

It was a four hour drive with plenty of time to ruminate. I repeatedly listened to a copy of the tape I had sent Russ. Was my exchange with the DJ really “flirty?” My job had required me to engage in small talk with the DJ after I read the news. We had been kidding around about a new poll that had come out in the USA Today which listed the worst pick-up lines of all time. When he tried a few of them on me, I joked that they were lame. That was the extent of my “flirty and sassy” repartee but Russ had honed in on it not even mentioning my news delivery.

At 1:00 P.M. I pulled into the station’s parking lot and tried to smooth the wrinkles from my skirt. On the drive, I had forced down a peanut butter sandwich. My mouth was dry and I was out of water. Ready or not, I headed towards the front door.

+++

“Well, hi there,” the receptionist said, waving me in.” “Russ wants you to go on into the studio. It’s down the hall to the right,” she pointed and sent me on my way.

Finding the studio wasn’t hard;  I just followed the blast of Aerosmith. When I arrived at the  door, the on-air light flashed and Russ identified the station—WMCP, rockin’ the Northeast—and went to a commercial.  I opened the door and walked inside. Russ, a fortyish guy with a Budweiser gut, turned to greet me. When I introduced myself, his face fell.

I caught on immediately. I should have known by his last phone call. Russ wasn’t expecting me. He was expecting Heather Locklear or some comparable giggling blonde of the era. I was a good looking redhead but no beach bunny.

“Well, Pat,” said Russ, looking like someone who had just learned he had terminal cancer. “I planned a little surprise gift for you. I was going to send you down the coast to cover Spring Break next week. I thought that might be fun for you.”

Are you kidding me? Wander around the beach and watch the dudes and babes get drunk? It didn’t sound fun. It sounded awful.

“I, uh, can’t start that soon. It will take me a couple of weeks to  get ready to move.”

Russ was apparently not amused. “I’m on the air. Go on out and meet Jesse. He starts on Monday. We’ll just have to figure out what to do since you can’t start then.”

Now if I’d been older and more experienced, I would have hightailed it out of there at that point. But I had my pride and I’d given my word that I would meet the general manager. I wanted to be professional even if this jerk was being anything but.

I wandered into the break room to meet Jesse.

“Oh, yeah, how ya doin’?” Jesse, wearing rumpled jeans and a face to match, looked like he had just woken up from a thirty year nap. God only knows how, but we ended up in a discussion about politics. “Yeah,” Jesse said. “They just elected a lady mayor here.” Shaking his head in disgust, he went on to tell me he was sleeping on a mattress in his van until his furniture arrived from Detroit. I wanted to go home.

“There’s the g.m.,” whispered Jesse.

“Hi, Pat. I’m Michael.” The general manager extended his hand. “Let’s talk.”

Home would have to wait.

+++

Forty five minutes later, I was back at the receptionist’s desk. I needed to go to the hotel and freshen up before retuning to the station, this time for a joint meeting with Russ and Michael.

“Excuse me—“

“Yes, sweetie? Call me Kitty.”

“Hi, uh, Kitty. Could I get the name of the hotel where I’m staying? And directions?”

“Directions? I don’t follow you, hon.”

“To the hotel.  Where I’m supposed to stay. Russ said you would make the arrangements.”

“Oh.” Kitty looked at me. “Oh, my.”

Oh, shit.

“I need a place to stay for the night. I was assured that this would be taken care of!”

(Calm. Keep calm.)

Kitty responded by bolting from her chair and running down the hall toward Michael’s office.

Jesse ambled into the lobby. “Where’s Kitty?” I told him she went to see about getting me a hotel room.

“Wow,” he said.” That’s going to be  kind of hard to do on a Friday. There’s a game this weekend.”

I needed a drink.

+++

After showering and changing at the Motel 6 across the highway from WMCP, I returned to the station. It was after 5:00 so, as instructed, I walked around to the back and knocked directly on the studio door.

“Just a minute,” yelled Russ, still agitated that I had shattered his wet dream of hiring a Heather Locklear lookalike.

“Hi, Russ,” I said when he opened the door. “How are—“

“Go on into Mike’s office. I’ll meet you there.”

While we waited for Russ to join us, Michael (aka Mike) and I politely made small talk. He had already explained what my duties would be should I accept the job: Copy writing, news anchoring, producing the weekend public affairs show. Nothing I hadn’t done before.

Finally, Russ came in and plunked down in a chair on my right.  Making zero eye contact with me, he looked at Mike and gestured in my direction. “What are we going to do about this?”

About this? I had encountered sexism before but had never been described as a this.

I don’t remember much of what Michael said afterwards. Something about the three of us meeting at Barnacle Joe’s for oysters and beer to discuss salary. See you there in an hour.

When I got back to the hotel room, I poured a glass of Chardonnay. I was supposed to visit my old friend Sandy around 9:00 P.M after my dinner with Russ and Michael. I sipped the cold wine and mulled over my situation. I couldn’t bear the idea of sitting across from those men, watching them knock back oysters while they discussed how much money they weren’t willing to pay me. Russ’s brand of sexism—describing me to his boss as a “this” when I was sitting right next to him–felt not just appalling but dehumanizing.

I called Sandy to tell her I’d be early.

+++

Michael didn’t sound surprised when I told him I had decided against taking the job, although he did ask why.

“It just doesn’t feel right,” I said.  (No, actually it felt downright litigious and no doubt would have been had I been dumb enough to accept a job in that work environment.)

Twenty years later, I wonder what happened to Russ Myers. Did he ever realize that it’s not okay to treat women—people—like that? I hope so.

But I doubt it.

FM BLAH, Enoch Light, and that big band sound

The other evening I was flipping around the TV channels and came across one of those fundraisers for public television. For whatever reason, the powers-that-be in public television always trot out the worst kinds programs for their membership drives. That evening’s feature presentation was a two-hour “look back” at the history of big band music. All of the usual heavy-hitters were on board–Duke Ellington, Harry James, Benny Goodman. I didn’t bother to watch but was pretty sure that the program would omit a certain name from the proceedings–the name, Enoch  Light.

  If Enoch Light doesn’t sound familiar to you, you’re not alone. I imagine only diehard fans of big band or popular 20th century music have any firsthand experience with the late maestro. Light  became known for his fascination with mastering  “stereophonic sound,” and was the owner of  Command Records, an early 1960s record label that specialized in a type of lounge lizard music that mistook velvet robes, light dimmers, and round beds with being cool.

Light started out as a violinist who went on to form his band, The Light Brigade, in the 1940s. The Light  Brigade covered numerous hits of the big band era–Begin the Beguine, Satin Doll, Chattanooga Choo Choo– but any legitimate comparisons between Light and the major  artists of the era pretty much end there. At least they do for me, thanks to my experiences as a DJ at a college radio station.

 I had already worked in radio for a little over a year when I got the part-time job at the station. I had learned the hard way that no matter how made-for-radio your voice, you didn’t just walk into the local FM rock station and get a job. Dues-paying was a requirement. In my case, that entailed driving approximately 25 miles at 4:30 A.M. on Sundays to sign on a small town Mom and Pop country music station. Although I had some memorable and unique experiences there, when I got the chance to work at  the college station–it was FM for crying out loud–I couldn’t wait to get started. The way I looked at it, I had paid my dues trying to sound enthusiastic as I introduced cringe-inducing songs by The Oak Ridge Boys and Barbara Mandrell. I was more than ready to share my passion for rock and roll, for Bob Dylan and Chrissie Hynde and Lou Reed with, well, not the world, but at least the 20 people who listened to the station.

But that didn’t happen. Oh, no, it did not. The free form style (meaning the disc jockeys played whatever music they wanted) of my college radio dreams had been dumped. And there was more bad news: Some mean ol’ administrators had wrested control of the station from the students. There was to be no Dylan or Hynde.  No old rock and roll or new “alternative”  music.  Instead, Enoch Light and his Light Brigade were coming.  Big band was the station’s new dominant format.

The students were understandably angry. They staged a protest. Meetings with university higher-ups. They managed to wrangle two late night hours (11 to 1 A.M., Monday through Friday), devoted to the rock or “alternative” music of their choice, but that was all. The few remaining hours not consigned to big band would be filled by canned classical music programs.   

By the time I started my 9am to noon shift, the protests were over and gloomy expressions of defeat and bitter acceptance were plastered across the faces of the student staff. Haggling over the coveted late night slots had already started.  Being a newcomer, I knew my chances of getting any of those shifts were nil, at least for a while. Queue up Enoch Light.

I went in an hour and a half early for my first shift. I wanted to check out the big band library (most of which was newly acquired) and get an idea of just what I would be dealing with. It didn’t take long to find out.

The station’s rock music albums lined the tops of two long shelves that sat against the front and back walls of the studio. The shelves were filled to capacity, with newer albums piling up on the floor beneath.

“Where are the big band albums,” I asked. Mitch, the morning DJ,  hunched over the control board. Having signed on the station at 6 A.M.,  he had subsequently managed to endure three rousing hours of “light classical” (let’s put it this way, Pachelbel’s Canon in D was in heavy rotation).

Without raising his head, Mitch pointed.

“Over there.”

 I turned around and saw a small stand-alone bookcase.  I counted about  forty albums inside.

“This is it? How am I going to fill three hours?”

“Beats me,” said Mitch.

I took a record out of its sleeve. Jackie Gleason Presents: Music for Lovers Only

Mitch continued to be helpful. “You can only play the songs that are checked.”

I read over the album’s song list. My Funny Valentine. Check. In the Mood for Love. Check. Jealous. Check. Three songs out of ten. For unknown reasons, Body and Soul and I’m Thru with Love didn’t measure up.

I began flipping through the other albums on the shelf. 101 Strings Orchestra. The Ray Coniff  Singers (wow, I could play all the songs on their album). Perry Como. I picked up another record. I didn’t know much about big band music, but I knew that  Andy Williams’ Sings Steve Allen wasn’t it.

“Who picked this stuff?”

“Dunno. Some guy on the board.”

Who had probably bought most of it at a local garage sale. I could see some young homeowner trying to get rid of his musically disinclined parents old  record collection.

I checked the program “clock,” which instructed me at which points to play music, give the weather report and make various promotional announcements. Most of the songs on the “approved list” were no longer than two and a-half minutes. I was going to be busy.

About halfway through my shift, as I started growing used to the rhythm, so to speak, of my job’s demands, I was able to actually listen and pay attention to some of the dreck coming out of the speakers. Very little of this music came anywhere near qualifying as big band. There was no Artie Shaw or Woody Herman. No Ella Fitzgerald and Chick Webb. To be fair, there was one Duke Ellington album but the record was in such poor condition that it gave the needle something akin to a bad case of the hiccups when any of the DJs tried to play it.*  The sound of these faux big band records was flat, soulless, and completely devoid of the swing which defined much of the genre’s style. Foisting Enoch Light’s version of One O’Clock Jump on the listening audience when we should have played the Count Basie original was no different from decades previous when early rock and roll audiences craved Little Richard but were instead tortured with Pat Boone. To further mix musical metaphors, Enoch Light and the Light Brigade were the Stars on 45 of the big band era minus the aerobics class.

As ticked off as my co-workers and I were at the absurdity of forcing this kind of crap on a student-based audience, what really angers me when I think back on this time was the complete lack of concern or passion on the part of the administration for any kind of real authenticity in the music. I mean if you’re going to change it up, do it right. Give people the real deal not some puerile imitation. When I come over to your house for Christmas dinner, I want roasted turkey and homemade dressing not some Swanson’s TV tin.

When the powers-that-be at FM BLAH ordered students to play faux big band music instead of the artists genuinely affiliated with the genre, they were not only sending a message that taking the cheap, easy way out was okay, they were teaching the students that artistry and originality don’t matter, that it’s okay to insult your audience and make fools of your employees.

 Still, being that we were kids hungry for radio experience, we had to take what we could get, so we logged our hours and honed our skills, and as a result, many of us went on to find jobs in professional broadcast media.  But between our shifts as college DJs, a group of us often fantasized about meeting at the station in the middle of the night,  rounding up all the “big band” records, and carting  them out to the beach of a popular nearby lake. Once there we would toss back a beer or two, say a few words and bury those vile discs of acetate in the sand. However, since none of us was radical enough to be willing to go to jail for artistic freedom (not even close), we satisfied ourselves instead by occasionally queuing up Led Zeppelin II and  dropping the needle onto the opening riffs of Whole Lot of Love. By the time Dave, the station manager–in full panic mode–arrived in the on-air studio, the Romantic Strings and their version of Polka Dots and  Moonbeams were safely revolving on the turntable, Led Zeppelin nowhere in sight–or ear shot. 

(Wonder if Dave ever had to see a therapist?)

*To those of my readers (if there are any) who have never played a vinyl recording on a turntable, I realize some of the terminology–needle, for example–may be unfamiliar.  If you’re at all interested, this might help: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Record_player