Twist of Fate

(Second of two parts. Part 1 is here.)

My little radio station in Illinois, which I will call WXXX because that wasn’t its real name, was run like a medieval kingdom–the out-of-town owner made his own rules and governed by whim. He was due back in town in December 1983. In advance of his visit, we were told not to back-announce Culture Club or Kool and the Gang while he was in town because of his feelings toward gays and black people. When he finally arrived from his Louisiana home base just before Christmas, his initial decree, upon learning that he hadn’t run the other station in town off the air and out of business yet, was that he would fire the entire airstaff and try again. The general manager talked him out of it, at least in part by saying that he’d just hired a bright young guy from Iowa who’d uprooted his wife to move and had only been there two months, and it wouldn’t be fair. But the owner insisted on firing somebody–and so the program director who had hired me was turfed shortly after the first of the year.

An odd coincidence occurred about the same time. The general manager of KDTH, the Dubuque station that had fired me less than three months before, had come to town in his capacity as head of acquisitions for KDTH’s parent company. He was scouting WKAI, the other station in Macomb. As it turned out, the parent company wasn’t interested in buying WKAI. However, the GM, whom we will call George because that is his real name, decided to buy it himself. On his next visit to town, and knowing The Mrs. and I were in Macomb, George kindly invited us to dinner. I didn’t hide it from XXX. In fact, when they asked me directly if I had any intention of jumping ship, I said I didn’t–which was true. I felt that George hadn’t done enough to stop my unjust firing from KDTH. I couldn’t see going to work for him, and I told them so.

Meanwhile, I was getting a new boss. The new PD (we’ll call him Frank, because that is not his real name), was an old friend of the owner. And it became pretty clear pretty quickly that Frank was neither especially talented nor particularly bright. He had worked in Denver, however, and his first meeting with the airstaff, where he told us that he’d worked in Denver, was all about the things we were doing wrong, and how all that shit was going to stop now, because he’d worked in Denver, see, and we were going to start doing things the way they did them in Denver, where he had worked. We all sucked it up and vowed to try–until a day or two later when he did his first airshift, and broke every rule he’d harped on us to follow. (Thus I formulated for the first time another of Bartlett’s Laws of Radio: Never work for anyone dumber than you are. You won’t learn anything, and you’ll have a hard time maintaining any respect for them.)

Soon it was March. I hadn’t earned any vacation yet, but I asked if I could have a Friday off to go back to Dubuque for an event KDTH was sponsoring, so we could see some friends. Frank grudgingly let me–and then fired me on Monday morning. “It’s not working out,” he said. Which was true, although I’d rather have left on my terms instead of theirs.

(Permit me to digress for a moment, because this next is typical. After sacking me, XXX replaced me with nobody. The night guy went to afternoons, the overnight guy went to nights, and Frank hired a Nigerian student from the university to push buttons on some kind of satellite-delivered overnight show. One night a few months later, the satellite fell into the sea or something, and the program dropped off the air. So the kid Frank hired did the only thing Frank had taught him how to do–he played public-service announcements. The same three public service announcements. For 45 minutes straight. Until a client finally got Frank on the phone and told him, “I think there’s something wrong with your radio station.”)

I wasn’t out of work long–although it was long enough for The Mrs. and I to collect some of the free government cheese that was being handed out around the country back then. (We still have the box it came in.) As it turned out, WKAI had a part-time opening, which I took even before George’s purchase of the station became final. But as soon as it was, George took me on full-time, and I would stay for 2 1/2 years.

Later in 1984, well after I’d gone full-time at WKAI, I learned that XXX was putting it around town that I was an industrial spy. George had hired me to steal all of their secrets, see, but they’d figured it out and fired me, cleverly thwarting the Devious Plan. There was no plan, of course–as I told them in response to their direct questions, I had no intention of going to work for George again. And they didn’t have any secrets worth stealing, anyhow. So in the end, the people at WXXX outsmarted themselves–which was easy, because they weren’t all that bright to begin with.

Postscript: George didn’t own WKAI for very long. He sold it after about 18 months, and I was concerned about the future direction of the place under the new owner, Don. So you can perhaps imagine how I felt the day I looked through Don’s office window and saw Frank in there. Later that day, I ran into Don in the hallway. I said to him, “I notice you were talking to Frank today.” “Yeah,” said Don. “He got fired at XXX and dropped in for a visit. I decided to pick his brain a little . . . but there wasn’t much there.”

Very well put.

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5 responses

  1. Great stories! I remember hearing the same sorts of tales from friends of mine who went into radio. (That was my original intent when I started college, but television news/sports caught my attention, and I ended up working in newspapering! Things go that way sometimes, as you know: I never could connect with the audience on camera, and a kind sports director pointed that out and suggested I take my writing talents — which he praised — toward newspapering!

  2. I wish I could put into words stories about my dark radio days, the way you do.
    And why are those who come from larger market stations automatically labeled as “know all about radio” — just because they worked at a large market station?
    Usually the ones who return to a smaller market are there because they were tossed out of said large market or just couldn’t cut it there.
    Musicradio

  3. Brilliant soap opera! I was guessing that Frank was going to end up your boss again, but glad to hear that Don didn’t hire him.

    I was also hoping there’d be a third part called “Karma Chameleon,” just to see what you’d write. (I bet you could have written a great entry titled “Union Of The Snake.”)

  4. Dude i grew up thirty miles from Macomb Il. That’s where us young uns used to go when we wanted to see a movie or go shopping cause there was nothin in our little hick village. Cool.

  5. […] second was the famous “industrial espionage” firing in Macomb, in which my employers outsmarted themselves right into the very situation they thought they were […]

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