(Pictured: Elvis? Heck no, that’s not Elvis.)
On this April Fool’s Day, I find myself thinking about the best April Fool’s prank ever pulled by one of my radio stations.
Small-town Iowa, early 90s—possibly 25 years ago today. Our morning team—call them Mike and Micki because those are not their names—did everything they would normally do, nothing out of the ordinary, except that every song they played was the same recording of Elvis Presley’s “Viva Las Vegas.” They would back- and front-announce the current hits we were normally playing—Richard Marx, Amy Grant, and so forth—but no matter what they said they were playing, it was actually “Viva Las Vegas.”
After a while, people started calling in to ask what the hell was going on, but the jocks refused to take the bait. “No, not Elvis, we just played Elton John.” They played some of the calls back on the air, and as the morning went on, the callers got progressively more agitated. When the show was over, the station went back to its regular format as if nothing unusual had happened. “The hardest thing about it,” Mike told me, “was that ‘Viva Las Vegas’ only runs about 1:45.”
Some of what happened during my three-plus years at that station was lightning in a bottle, and Mike and Micki’s tenure on the morning show was an example. They were already in place when I got there in 1990. Mike was your typical small-market radio guy, with raw talent but with nobody to coach him up. How Micki ended up on the air I can’t remember—I think she started working in the office—but she had a natural gift of gab and terrific chemistry with Mike. Both had been born and raised in the area, so they understood who they were talking to better than most jocks can.
When their show was good, it was very good—better than we had any right to expect for a town that size. But when it was bad, it was terrible. And that caused problems.
Mike and Micki were both fairly insecure about their talents; Mike’s ego was extremely fragile. When I came aboard, it wasn’t as program director—I gradually ascended to the position over a period of months. I am not sure when or how—or even if—it was made clear to them that I was supposed to be their boss. And so the first few times I wanted to critique them, they didn’t take it well. We eventually had to resort to subterfuge to get them to accept aircheck notes. One time we told them they had come from some friend of the owner who had been listening on a trip to town. And even after they got used to hearing them from me, they continued to kick over the traces.
It wasn’t long before Micki left the station—I forget precisely why; something resulting from her chaotic personal life. We tried hiring a sidekick but couldn’t find anybody who wanted to work for the money we could offer, so Mike ended up a solo act. He got better on his own, and he became one of only two radio jocks who would make me laugh out loud every day. (Bob Collins of WGN was the other.) But praise from me didn’t help our relationship. He thought of it as an empty attempt to ingratiate myself with him. As for criticism, he was utterly unable to accept it from me.
The inevitable eventually happened—a shouting argument in which he proclaimed that he would never consider me his boss, would never do anything I asked him to do, and furthermore I should go fuck myself. Afterward, I asked the GM to fire him, which the GM would not do. Within a few months, I was the one who got fired. On my way out of the building, I passed Mike’s office, pausing for a moment to say, “Congratulations, you won.”
In retrospect, it was not exactly my proudest moment.
Mike isn’t in radio anymore, as far as I know. Too bad. He was good at it.