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Happy St. Paddy's Day: A Radio War Story







slickster-1978-s
Mike Slickster at WQUT-FM, Johnson City, TN; 1978

March 17th is a distinctive mark on the calendar for me: not only is it St. Patrick's Day, but also a day that will live forever in infamy—at least in my mind— for it's the date on which I was fired from my first job in radio broadcasting (if this was social media, an emoticon would replace the period):(


I had just graduated from Connecticut School of Broadcasting, Stratford, during the preceding November and landed my first gig in the dead of winter, January 1976, at an AM/FM-simulcasted radio station in the Catskills of NY. My shift started at 4:30 A.M., beginning at the local police station to read their blotter of things that went on overnight, which for a town of barely 4,000 was next to nothing other than a birth of a child or a car wreck. Being the news writer and announcer, I broadcasted the current events at 6, 7, and 8 A.M.; thank goodness for the ancient, black, robotic-looking teletype machine for gathering something newsworthy to blab about.


After the eight-o'clock edition of my report, I went back to snooze for a bit at the rooming house where I rented a space temporarily from an elderly, overtly Christian woman for next to nothing. Mrs. Allen (not her real name) was a well-meaning, sweet old gal, who made me breakfast when I arrived at 8:30 A.M., and dinner at night after my returning home from a 2 P.M-'til-sunset, afternoon extravaganza behind the illustrious, on-air-broadcasting console, playing vinyl records on turntables as old as the aforementioned teletype, which probably dated back to the time of Edison and was like the remainder of the fusty equipment in these forlorn studios; yet it was a job. My landlady's favorite television programs were the PTL Club with Jim Baker, and the Waltons. Sometimes I'd watch the latter with her, but usually went to bed early for having to get up at 3:30 in the morning.


The station owner, Mr. Dreadner, was a real son of a bitch: a lawyer who owned two radio stations in the Mid-Hudson/Catskill Region, and never had a good word to say about anybody. The station engineer Rex, who was also the night man due to his having a coveted, first-class radio-telephone operator's license needed to run AM-directional towers after the sun went down, had a mild case of Tourette syndrome which caused him to make a mass-array of contorted facial expressions with a variety of animal-like snorts and grunts, uttering obscene phrases especially behind our boss's back: Rex didn't like being called a dumb ass by him from time to time. It was hard on occasions to take the technician seriously. Once during my morning newscast, I played a prerecorded tape given to me by Dreadner of his interviewing a local politician, after which I attempted to pay my superior a complement by saying the report sounded most professional. His reply was, "I wish you sounded that way." Ouch, what a reality check; but he could have been a lot less blunt in his scathing critique.

The music programming and features at Radio Ranch of the Catskills were geared towards people like Mrs. Allen and the majority of the elderly residents in this small, rural town of Mountainville (not the actual names of the station or city). Amongst the cavalcade of hit records on our playlist was B.J. Thomas's "Help Me Make It To My Rocking Chair," with block-formating throughout the day containing such favorites as "Polka Party," "Lawrence Welk Hour," and "Big Band Swing Time."

My day off was Saturday, but I had to return back for the afternoon shift on Sunday. At the last weekend I worked there, I accidentally let go of one of the turntables' tone arms, allowing it to bounce twice on the metal frame of the record player. For those who are not familiar with playing vinyl records, the tone arm was what contained the stylus that fit into the tiny grooves of the record (see illustration below):

Stones-grrrr07-s
Somehow these new-fangled tiny records don't seen to work!

Calling Rex, who was always on stand-by, I learned with utmost shock and dismay that we didn't have any replacements for the now destroyed, diamond-needle cantilever, sheared clean off and resting in my hand. I said, "Can't we solder it back on?"

"Possible, but not probable," he said. "The preacher in town has one like it. I'll call him right up. In the meantime, you'll have to use just one turntable."

Right, use one turntable, I thought. Here I was a newbie in radio, who had to have both my hands plastered around the large control knobs, or "pots" by which they were known, for at least 60 seconds before turning on the microphone, struck with broadcaster's stage fright if I was caught unprepared and had to ad-lib my way out of things, never mind having to rap while changing and cueing up the next record on the only turntable left. Looking back retrospectively, one has to wonder, what kind of outfit didn't have vital-replacement parts essential for the seamless, continual operation of their business: a scotch-tape and glue-type organization if I ever saw one? I let an album by Freddy Fender track for the time being, getting a phone call on the hotline by the owner after a couple of songs played, asking what in the devil was going on? I heard an earful from him after my explaining the dilemma. His foul mouth and sharp tongue lectured me about being totally irresponsible for breaking the stylus, and outright unprofessional for allowing dead air in between tracks on the long-playing record. He hung up after calling me a nincompoop.

The Reverend Barlow (not his actual name), who did a daily semonette on Radio Ranch of the Catskills from the comforts of his basement studio tied into the station's main control board by a telephone line, had the same antediluvian turntables as were found at WDUMP-AM/FM—not the station's actual call letters; note one letter too many—and the preacher had the business sense to purchase and store a substantial amount of cartridges before they became obsolete, which were monstrous in size back in those dark ages. Funny, how for many, the present will be known later as the dark ages as well. The good reverend arrived forthrightly, since he lived less than a mile away; and the man of the cloth was gracious enough to replace the component straightaway, sending me back most appreciatively on the road to playing more moldy oldies, as far as I was concerned. I wanted to rock and roll, not play stuff to which my grandparents used to listen. Imagine if kids felt that way today? The Stones, The Who, or many of the still-successful acts from that era would have been passed off as pathetically passé, left to fade away into oblivion; but we all know that rock 'n' roll will never die.

Before his shift started that evening, Ernie, the new part-timer who had the necessary first-class license, came charging into the broadcasting studio, all excited like he had just discovered a mother lode of gold; for which he actually did relatively. In a large cardboard carton found under a table in the newsroom, hundreds of 45-rpm records were stashed together; methinks the gems were hidden from the staff as they were the devil's music: those nasty hootchy-kootchy rhythms that deafened the ears of stuffy old farts, the owner and program director; driving the young people wild with drugs and violence. Woodstock was still fresh in Dreadner's mind, I suppose. His car got turned over on the New York State Thruway during that infamous weekend by "a horrific troupe of heinous hippies," as the lawyer called them, who were evidently tripping on acid, led to destruction and repercussion for being stuck in the massive traffic gridlock with the other half-million people waiting to get to the festival. Back to the box, we found music from Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Grateful Dead, Alice Cooper, The Who, Doors, Byrds, Stones, The Beatles, The Beach Boys; you name 'em, a single of theirs awaited inside of this tremendous treasure trove of top-40 tunes, crying out for me to start playing them.

Ernie and I were having a blast. I spun all this great music, getting a tremendous response on the telephones from people calling in out of the blue, telling me to keep on rocking. My sidekick kept running into the studio saying, "Holy shit, look what I found," or, "You've got to play this," handing me another classic nugget: this time was Black Sabbath's "Iron Man," for which I took great pleasure in cranking up the headphones, laying back in my chair with me eyes closed, jamming away until feeling a tap on my left shoulder, turning around and seeing it was Tommy Walker (not his real name), the program director, who had just returned to town after visiting his ailing mother in New York City.

"I can't believe what you were playing for the past half-hour. I've been listening since I could get the station's signal on the Thruway," the flustered administrator bellowed. "And what was that wailing-horn music you played, with them singing about dying and lying on a cold, white table? My mother's lying in her deathbed at home, being cared for by nurses," he added. "That's not the type of music our listeners nor I want to be hearing."

"It was an old blues classic, 'St. James Infirmary,' performed by Louis Armstrong. Our listeners should recognize him. He had a fairly big band," I responded. "Tommy, you need to relax, enjoy this music. Look at the phones, they're all lit up and blinking. You never see that kind of reaction normally around here."

The Beatles' "Hey Jude," an unusually long, seven-minute single, was currently on the spinning platter, giving us time for this extended discussion.

"I need to relax? I'm the program director and what I say, goes. Those callers are probably our loyal listeners, waiting to make a complaint."

"Oh yeah? Go ahead and answer a few and see what they have to say." He did and all were positive responses as far as I could tell; for Tommy didn't say too much during each call, only thanking them for their feedback.

"We'll see what Mr. Dreadner has to say about this," he countered once finished with a dozen or so, back-to-back telephone conversations; storming out the studio, leaving for the night shortly thereafter.

The next couple of days went by as they normally had done. I didn't want to push the issue and reverted back to playing only the station's self-prescribed chamber music. The carton with the 45s disappeared Monday morning. Rex said he brought them to the transmitter shack up in the mountains towards Kerhonkson. No way could I air them again, anyway. Nothing was mentioned about either of my seemingly outrageous episodes from Sunday until Wednesday, payday, and St. Patrick's Day. At the end of my early-morning shift, I collected my check from Milly, the secretary and a very nice lady who was friends with Mrs. Allen and referred me to the latter upon my first day up there with only a duffel bag and suitcase for my clothing and personal items.

"Mr. Dreadner wants to speak with you," she said. "He had me deduct one hundred and twenty-five dollars from your weekly pay."

"For what?"

"That's what he want's to talk to you about." Milly had such a pitifully worrisome expression on her face, as if she knew this wasn't going to be a cordial confrontation. I ripped open the envelope and saw the check was indeed for only thirty-five dollars. Radio personalities in small markets make peanuts, as did I back then. I couldn't afford such a loss from my weekly salary. I walked over to the owner's office and knocked on the wooden door: the typical type of portal that had a frosted window on its upper portion, where you could only see the florescent lights' glowing on the other side of the pane and obscured shadows moving from within the room.

"Come in," he said. "Sit down, Mr. Slickster. Now, what's this I hear about your afternoon shindig on Sunday, playing all that prohibited music, if you can call it that?"

"I was trying to score more listeners," I replied. "You should have seen the phone response. People were complimenting our change in format. Hundreds of calls must have come in."

"Yes, but who were the callers? Probably they were drunks or hopped up on drugs like that dreadful LSD. Did I ever tell you about the time when . . . ?" I deliberately cut him off before hearing the same, overturned-car story for the umpteenth time.

"Mr. Dreadner, they were normal-sounding people on the phones. Some were a bit overly ecstatic about the wonderful tunes they were hearing," I explained. "Others were folks in their thirties and forties, expressing sincere gratitude for hearing modern-day tunes, especially rock and roll, in the rugged nooks and crannies of the surrounding mountains where all the other stations couldn't reach," I noted further. "The callers gave me their ages after I asked them, to survey the broad range of listeners."

"Our specifically targeted, listening audience is for those in their 50s, 60s, and golden years. They're the majority of the population here in this area."

"The people who buy the goods advertised on TV and radio are those 18 through 35, the largest demographic right now," I exclaimed.

"Who are you to tell me what to do? This is my station; I'm an attorney, and I know the demographics around here. You will never play music like you did again, do you hear me?"

"Yes, sir," I said; "but can you tell me why you've deducted $125.00 from my paycheck?"

"Well, who's going to pay for the stylus you broke and for the Pastor's time fixing the turntable?"

"I don't thinks it's fair to expect me to pay for something that was accidentally damaged," I declared. "I can't believe the preacher charged you to make that simple repair. I can understand his billing for the full price of the stylus, maybe even tacking on a few bucks," I surmised. "But $125.00 is extremely expensive, if you ask me."

"Let me ask you this. Whose responsible for my equipment?"

"You are," I shot back. "I'll maintain it to the best of my ability, but should an accident occur, with the meager salary I'm making, you should pick up the cost."

"Au contrair, mon amie; you damaged it, so you should have to pay the consequences."

"I still think that's unfair and uncalled for. Had I maliciously torn the tone arm out of its base, then I would accept the deduction in my check," I said. "This was an accident and I don't think I should have to pay for it."

"You aren't going to pay for this?" he asked.

"I suppose I have no choice. You've already deducted it."

"I'll make that choice for you, Mr. Slickster. Milly, write this scoundrel a check for his full salary," the stone-faced, pompous, shylock/shyster announced into his intercom connected to the secretary's desk, looking me straight in my eyes afterward. "Give her back that check in exchange for the new one with the full amount. Now, get out of here. You're fired!" I imagined instantly that then was indisputably too late to ask him for that raise I'd been contemplating, which was a drag since I had recently moved into my own digs on the outskirts of the county. My car had broken down, needing a new clutch while I slowly was saving up for the repair; and I was fortunately getting a ride into town every day by a kind neighbor who left early enough to get to me and him to our respective jobs, picking me up in the evening as well. I began singing the St. Patrick's Day Blues.

On the way out of town, hitchhiking home in the freezing sleet and rain—thank goodness I had on my down-insulated, waterproof, winter coat with a fur-lined hood—on a desolate stretch of highway and not getting picked up, I let the worst of my emotions get to me, making me blubber like a troubled child who had lost his most prized possession, looking like the Wreck of the Hesperous, wretched as I could possibly be, when as if by godsend, two young women in a psychedelically painted, bright, multicolored Volkswagon Bug pulled over up ahead of me. The passenger door swung wide-open, and a gorgeous, long-haired lady was waving frantically at me to come over there, for which I wiped my eyes beforehand, ran and got into the Beetle's tiny back seat. "We're going to a St. Paddy's Day party," the driver said. "You look like you need to have some fun. Do you want to go with us?"

"That would be great," I said; "but I'm not wearing anything green."

"Here, put this green scarf around your neck," the one in the passenger seat said. "Now you have no excuse."

The rest of this tale leaves fodder for yet another extraordinary short story, albeit I was able to forget my immediate problems for the rest of that night and throughout the next few days, thanks to my new friends, Hanna and Anne-Marie.

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