We took a little road trip today, and I was watching the mile markers click by when I suddenly started thinking about my brief and intermittent career in talk radio. Yes, people, I sat behind a microphone for a while and said, “Jean, you’re on the air. … Yes, Jean, it’s you. You’re on the air. …Jean, please turn down your radio.”
I started at WOWO, the 50,000-watt AM powerhouse that is many people’s sole knowledge of Fort Wayne; at night, its firehose of a signal reached 23 states and three Canadian provinces. Snowbirds could listen to Komets hockey games in Florida, and a DJ there once received a letter from a soldier in Vietnam, who picked up the station on one of those weird atmospheric hop-skips that AM signals do now and again. But my show wasn’t on at night. WOWO was a music station that ground to a halt at 2 p.m. five days a week for a single hour of “In Touch” with your host, Nancy Nall. At 3 p.m., we waved goodbye to everyone and the music started again. If it sounds like the sort of programming only a madman would try, well, you’re right. Even stranger was the station management, who hired me after I had written a four-day-a-week newspaper column in their very city for nine years and only discovered I wasn’t Rush Limbaugh after I was on the air. Admittedly, it was probably a mistake to keep that guy on the line for five minutes arguing about the Confederate flag, but at least it stripped away the last veil from the station manager’s eyes. I quit after about four months, when I was handed a memo strongly suggesting I keep my personal opinions to myself, “the way the most successful hosts do.”
I really didn’t like the gig, anyway. People speak of the intimacy of radio, but it’s a one-way street. I always closed the show feeling bummed out that I lived in the same community with some of these bitter lemon-suckers, like the guy who called every day to talk about the Federal Reserve, and the old people who bitched about Social Security with the tone of toddlers who’d missed their naps. The program director wanted every reasonably sane caller to get on the air, and so no matter what we were talking about, anyone could change the subject. (It was educational, however. I never knew all that stuff about Ezra Pound and his time in the nuthatch until Federal Reserve Frank brought it up one day.)
After I quit I vowed never again, but a few months later I got a call from Mark the Shark, who asked me to co-host his Thursday-morning show on WGL, another station in town, this one with an all-talk format. It was run by an entertaining but odd couple who could pinch a penny until Abe Lincoln begged for mercy. They’d recently instituted a one-hour show for the 8-9 a.m. slot, with a different host every day. Each one had a measure of prominence in the community and tended to be Republicans. Mark, a Democratic city councilman, was added for balance. He was — is — very smart and very funny, and his show was a bright spot in the week, so I thought what the hell.
(What did this gig pay? you’re wondering. WOWO, a temple of progressive ideas, including that people should be financially compensated for their work, paid me $25 per show. WGL paid us, the celebrity hosts…nothing. One year we all got a half-pound box of DeBrand chocolates for Christmas.)
But it was fun! Mark was fun. We had a blast. It wasn’t depressing, there was no station management micromanaging anything. We just took calls and drank coffee and laughed for an hour a week, and then we both went to the office.
It soon became evident, however, that we were working in some strange stratum of radio. Those of you who mourn the lost spontaneity of what was once an unpredictable medium? You should have been there. Shows came on the air and went off — we were cancelled twice and rehired a few months later for no apparent reason other than the time change, always a headache for Indiana broadcasters back when the state ignored Daylight Saving Time. Piles of old equipment, seemingly from the ’30s, grew in the hallways under a coating of dust. There was a station cat and, for a while, a dog. Every show was prefaced by a mad dash to find headphones that worked, essential in talk radio. The station owners were regular callers to the shows, dialing in from their offices, I suppose. Everyone shared one producer/engineer/screener, who was the host of the show that came on before ours. I tried to keep a file through the week of topics to discuss, but we rarely opened it. We just talked for a few minutes and then went to the phones.
This was sort of the model for all the shows in this slot, which was called “Windows.”
Every so often we’d go out for donuts with the station owner and his wife, Frank and Connie, afterward. Frank would tell stories. There was one about a day-long negotiation for a major military contract in Egypt — Frank sold radio communication systems, too — and it was really getting heated between Frank and the European head of Motorola and some other swell in a Bond Street suit. (Frank was probably wearing one of his best outfits, perhaps the shirt with mustard stains with the pilled polyester pants.) During the break, one of the Egyptians showed off his new business cards, very nice engraved ones, etc. So did everyone else, and then Frank pulled out his. It had his name and phone number, and running around the edge of the card the services he offered: “Virgins converted,” “Revolutions fomented,” “20-minute oil changes,” etc. The translator ran through the phrases, and all the Egyptians crowded around, laughing — they all wanted one, too. Frank got the contract.
And it wasn’t just our show, either. There was a show called “Roman Around the Dial,” hosted by Andy Roman. I found a website that gave his tenure at the station: August 1998 – August 1998. In about his second week, his producer called in sick, and there was no one to fill in, which meant he had to screen his calls live. After about the third call from someone who wanted the ad department, he went off on a rant about this cheap station and he can’t even get a damn call screener, but he went on the air anyway, because he’s a professional, and, and, and… Hold on, the phone’s ringing. And it’s Frank! Saying, “Why didn’t you come down to my office and ask me, I can run the board. You don’t need to be so immature.” Andy went buh buh buh and cut to a commercial; when the show came back on, Frank was hosting, and Andy was on his way back to Cleveland or thereabouts.
The only time you hear radio like that anymore is when someone stages it as a stunt. And people think making jokes about the Pope is outrageous.
There were other shows, many of which gave the impression the hosts had been dragged in off the street, shown which buttons to push, and thrown on the air. There was one called “Grumpy Old Men,” everything about the show revealed in its name. And there was the Jennifer and Nancy show. Not me, another Nancy. She had a voice like one of Marge Simpson’s sisters, and Jennifer was either a moron, or just played one on the radio. They made Mark’s and my “Windows” hour sound like the McNeil-Lehrer report. “Remember saving foil?” Jennifer reminisced one day, after taking note of how poor people just didn’t know how to economize. Jennifer had saved foil in her marital salad days, when her husband was in medical school. I waited for the slightest flicker of understanding that two college-educated people, one in med school, might experience poverty a little differently from those for whom it’s a multi-generational condition, but no. The unexamined life, ah.
One day Jennifer was handed a breaking-news traffic report: There was a major accident on I-69 at the 110 mile marker, and motorists were being urged to find alternate routes. She read it, paused, and then went off on a housewifey tirade about these stupid things called “mile markers,” and why do the police always talk about them? What’s a mile marker? Who knows what they are? How is this information helpful in any way? And so on.
“We’ve got Bob on the line from a car phone. Go ahead, Bob.”
Bob explained what mile markers were, how to find them, what their relationship to exit numbers was. Then he said, “I swear, you two are the dumbest people I’ve ever heard on a radio show. How can you function, being so stupid?” Jennifer and Nancy thanked him for the information and blundered on, oblivious. Now, whenever I see a mile marker, I think, “there’s a mile marker” and recall Jennifer, Nancy and Bob. Good times, good times.
What happens when you screw up one big corporation? You get hired in Detroit.
Hey, Mrs. Giuliani! How do you like your new one? (Orifice, not husband. Vanity Fair ripped her one.)