One of the comments on Monday’s post about minor-league baseball on the radio came from Gene, who was my station’s general manager in 1993. The three years I spent working for him were my last three full-time years in radio, and three of the better ones.
I was out of work in the spring of 1990 when a friend put me in touch with Gene. Enough time has gone by that I don’t remember specifically what he hired me to do—what my job title was at first—but in small-market radio you end up doing everything. Before I was done, I’d be operations manager and pretty much in charge of the day-to-day on two stations, although that wasn’t what I was hired for initially. I board-opped the syndicated programming on the AM station for a while (which marked my first exposure to Rush Limbaugh, who was at that time a brilliant radio entertainer whose schtick had not yet curdled into meanness), and I started doing a live afternoon show on the FM late in the summer.
When Gene and his partner bought the stations (shortly before I came aboard), there were people in Clinton, Iowa, who didn’t know they existed, so it wasn’t merely a matter of building stations from scratch, it was like building them from less than scratch. The AM station eventually put on a satellite-delivered nostalgia format and did a great deal of news; the FM stayed with its satellite-delivered adult contemporary format. Gene was an easy guy to work for, because he didn’t hide behind the title of GM and co-owner, and he didn’t expect us to defer to him that way. He treated everybody as if their jobs were equally important, from bookkeeping to engineering to sales to the people who worked part-time nights and weekends, and he frequently rolled up his sleeves and helped out with whatever needed doing. Personally we hit it off—he and his wife frequently took me in on snowy nights when the weather was too bad for me to get home, and many full bottles were turned into empties.
We didn’t always see eye-to-eye. The FM morning guy was a prima donna with a fragile ego, and the two of us frequently clashed. I didn’t always feel like Gene supported me in dealing with him. After one especially ugly blowup, I asked Gene to fire the guy; when he wouldn’t, I asked angrily, “What precisely does a guy have to do to get fired around here?” I suppose I’m lucky I didn’t find out. (Not then, anyhow.) Once while I was on vacation, he hired a morning guy for the AM. The guy was a good choice and I said so, but at the same time, I felt like I should have been involved in the process just a little.
So by the spring of 1993, many of the little seeds we had planted and nurtured for three years were beginning to grow. Winning the broadcast rights for the minor-league baseball team was only one of them. But by the spring of 1993, I was sinking into burnout. I was in my early 30s, 11 years into my full-time career, and it was clear that I wasn’t going to climb the market ladder the way I’d always dreamed. As a result, it got harder to go to work every day, and the work seemed to matter less. I am pretty sure I grew more and more unpleasant to be around as the year went on—and on the first working day of 1994, Gene fired me. It wasn’t an especially bad breakup, however. We stayed in touch, and I did a little freelance consulting for the stations over the next couple of years.
I wasn’t happy about it at the time, but when Gene fired me, he was doing me a favor. Forcing me to decide about my future, instead of allowing me to postpone deciding by continuing to plod along one day at a time, led me into the multiplicity of careers I’ve had since.
Gene eventually sold the stations and moved to Florida, where he brokered stations and worked in the public-information office of FEMA for a while. Now he’s spending most of his time hanging out close to the beach. His daughters, who were adorable little toddlers who’d come visit me in the studio while I was on the air, are young women with their own careers now.
So often in radio, we remember the dipsticks and numbskulls more vividly than the good guys. It shouldn’t be that way.