I haven’t talked much here about my brief sojourn in radio, have I?
Well, I’ve probably mentioned it. It wasn’t all bad. But it was brief, and it was many years ago, and sometimes it seems it took place in a galaxy far, far away.
Here’s what happened: The program director at the local 50,000-watt clear-channel (lower-case; not the evil corporation we’ll hear more about in a paragraph or two) AM station called me up and said this station, which, like most institutions in Fort Wayne, wears cement overshoes, was considering a maybe moderate not too fast slow easy experiment with possibly not to be hasty just thinking about it — transition to a talk format. And would I maybe like to have a show?
This was in 1993. Yes, five full years after Rush Limbaugh had raised AM from its deathbed. Things happen slowly in Fort Wayne.
Hey, I’ll try anything once. So I said yes.
And so I entered the strange world of radio, on a show destined to fail, on a station run by the clueless leading the blind, and I had an interesting few weeks before I got a memo from the station manager advising me to be “less liberal” and “keep my opinions to myself,” because “this is what the most successful national hosts do.”
See, I told you.
That’s when I quit. I quit because the show was one lousy hour, at 2 p.m., wedged between two music shifts, an hour that was neither drive nor much of anything else. And it was astonishing, how much preparation that lousy hour took. I kept my eyes open for interesting talk topics all morning long, frequently to the exclusion of everything else in my life. It wasn’t uncommon to come back from the station, exhausted, at 3:15 p.m., and only then start working on my column for the next day.
But the station had a big reach — 50,000 watts travel a long way, especially at night. Once, driving home from Atlanta, I heard a promo for my show. In Tennessee. So that was sort of cool.
Anyway, the problem is, I just don’t have the common touch. Whatever it takes to have your finger on the pulse of the nation’s water cooler — this is something I lack. I’d scan the wires, printing out a dozen or more stories I found fascinating, things I’d love to chat with anyone about, stories that raised Larger Issues and posed Interesting Questions, and run through those in about seven minutes. “What are we teaching girls when we allow them to do whatever was mentioned in this story I just read?” I’d ask. Radio silence. “What about Bosnia-Herzegovinia? What course should the world take with these bellicose Serbs?” Nothing.
And then, in desperation, “You know why Hoosiers are fat? Because they eat chicken and noodles over mashed potatoes, that’s why.” And the phones would light up like a Christmas tree! And stay that way. Dozens of old people called to offer their opinion of potatoes and noodles together on the same plate.
It was a very strange experience.
But along the way, I saw many things that stayed with me. One was the culture of radio, which was, at least at this station, belligerent, ignorant, frat-housey, paranoid and proud of it. There were some good guys there, but I was always being shocked by something around the place. Things went up on the bulletin board that would have gotten you sent to re-education camp at the company I worked for. “Proposed new uniforms for Clinton’s all-gay military,” was one, posted during the don’t-ask-don’t-tell debate. It showed a cartoon of a limp-wristed fairy wearing sort of a military drag, with little arrows pointing to details of the uniform: “Spurs. Oooh, baby!” And so on. After the gay march on Washington that same year, one guy was practically foaming at the mouth. He told me he was glad his daughter was deaf, so she would never have to hear such smut as was spoken there.
I also got a look at the meme-spreading function of radio, the daily memos and weekly newsletters sent by consultants and the industry press. They suggested hot topics, pointed to research resources, touted interview possibilities. It helped me understand how stories and slogans can sweep across the country in an afternoon (this was before the popular discovery of the internet), why the same “experts” kept getting interviewed over and over, saying the same things over and over.
(It also made me realize, too late, that I didn’t need to spend five hours preparing for a one-hour show. I could have gotten the faxes and sliced my prep time in half.) I’m convinced these newsletters are the prototype for the Fox News daily memo, but that’s another overlong post.
Anyway, when I read this story, about morning DJs in three different, far-flung Clear Channel radio stations suggesting the same hilariously funny punishments motorists can inflict upon bicyclists — a harmonic convergence that Clear Channel claims is, really, honest, entirely coincidental — well, it brought back some memories. It made me think that things haven’t changed much at all, that true creativity in this game is still a rare talent, that I’m glad my heavy radio-listening days came before the industry was taken over by outfits like Clear Channel, et al.
But mostly it made me glad I switched my j-school concentration from broadcasting to newspapers. Yes, even newspapers are better.
(P.S. There’s a chapter two in my radio career, which we can discuss another time. The theme: It pays to have a partner.)