The Mafia of Radio
I often joke that working in radio is like the mafia: once you’re in, you never get out. And it’s been a sad truism that my work in radio has been a series of moments when I think I’m out…only to be pulled back in again. This time, it was my choosing. I was on fairly good terms with the owner of the radio station I worked at, and went to him one day and asked for a job. Just said, “I’m quitting the teaching profession and I’m wondering if you have any full-time openings.” He looked at me with a kind of “You’re kidding me, right?” look, and then said that he didn’t have anything. So I asked if he could check with his network to see if there were jobs at other stations. He said, “I don’t have any connections in the industry.” I knew he was kidding with me, but what I think he was saying that despite the fact that he was a radio owner, he didn’t have any influence at other stations — almost all of them were owned by large companies like Clear Channel or CBS. Well, a few months pass by, I one night I drank one too many glasses of liquid courage and fired off an email to the owner of the station. I told him that I could do news, public affairs, and even help program the music. I’m not sure if my moxie was appreciated or whether he was annoyed by it, but I didn’t hear anything.
Around Thanksgiving, I was doing a bunch of fill-in work at the station, and at another low. I couldn’t go on doing this. I felt like it was a dead end and I could just keep doing this low-pay job, or I could make a clean break and start looking for work outside of radio on a full-time basis. I decided I was going to quit. I just needed to tell my boss that I was going to work until the end of December and then I was out. The day I decided to quit, my boss came into the studio.
“Hey, I can talk to you?” He said
“Sure. What’s up?”
“Um. I was talking to the owner and we’d like to know if you’d be interested in being our morning news anchor? This is a full-time position and we’d like to start at the beginning of the year. I’m sure you’ve figured out by now that we’re going to let some people go, so I’d like to ask you not to say anything to anyone until all the pieces are in place. So, with that said: are you interested?”
“Yes I am. I’m sorry about the people who are going to lose their jobs, but I really need this right now that I want to know what the next steps are.” I said.
He told me that I had to make a recording (i.e., aircheck) of me doing news so they could hear what I sound like as a newscaster. A few days later, I went into the production room and created a newscast complete with an updated music bed and little music stingers to signal a transition from one story to the next. I emailed it off and waited. And waited. It took them about a week and a half to get back to me. After one kind of hush-hush meeting, I was made a formal offer. I took it and started a job with an okay starting salary, but it was full-time. There were benefits, and I was finally able to contribute to the household in a way that I hadn’t before. Things were looking good!
That job lasted three years. Two and half were extremely fun. I was a paired with a morning show host who I didn’t know, but we became such good friends that it was a pure joy to go into work every day. The two of us just had a lot of great on-air chemistry that worked very well. We liked each other off-air, and that translated into a genuine on-air presence that listeners could sense. We’re still friends, but working with her for those years was just an amazingly good time.
And then she quit. She wasn’t making the kind of money she wanted, and was going to go back to a job that would get her to where she wanted to be — in a monetary sense. I was sad, but I knew that she and her hubby were both working hard but not gaining the kind economic ground they wanted. So, her last day came, but before we could do a “last show” on the air, she got in an email battle with our program director and she quit the day before her last day.
After that, the search was on for a replacement. I did the show with my program director for a couple of months while they interviewed people. They hired this guy who lived out of state to be the new host. Long story short: we did not get along. He was a classic bully who thought because he has over 30 years in the business it gave him the right to treat everyone else in the station like they were less than. For some reason, the owners backed him, and his job was golden. Me? I was looking for other work. I wanted out because I was tired of this guy’s bullshit. I got in one argument with him (which he later apologized for), but I could see that for him, an apology was just a way for him to get out of the proverbial “principal’s office.” He was fine for about three weeks, and then his old bullying ways started to creep back in. It was around that time, that one of the other DJs was leaving the station to move to San Diego. Her father was sick and she wanted to be there for him. This opened up an opportunity for me to get out of the morning show and away from The Bully.
Well, I got the job! I was thrilled to be hosting my own show and not just doing traffic reports (they took me off news about 6 month into my gig, which I almost quit over). I was having fun. I didn’t have to get up early anymore, I was in charge of my own show and things seemed to be going well.
And then The Great Recession happened…
Radio is often an industry that feels the effects of an economic slowdown before other industries because they make their money selling advertising. When big advertisers scale back their media buys, it means something big is afoot and there will be cuts coming down the road. It was hard not to see the writing on the wall. I was doing my afternoon show and noticed that there were absolutely no commercials after 4pm on my show. None. Afternoon shows (or “afternoon drive,” as they call it in the industry) is a prime daypart. Advertisers know that when people commute, they are a captive audience in their cars. Sure, they have choices, but radio is one of them because they want to be entertained with music and listen to traffic reports. I knew my job was to entertain and build an audience. It’s was fun for the short period I was on the air.
One day, I came into work and saw our morning newscaster packing up his desk. I asked him what he was doing?
“Um, did you just quit?” I asked
“I didn’t quit.” He responded.
“Oh shit. Laid off?”
“I hope I’m not next,” I said.
“Well. Watch out because the ax is coming down.”
I went to put my lunch in the fridge and when I was making my way to my desk, my boss came out of the owner’s office.
“Hey Ted, can you come in here for a minute?”
“Oh no, ” was my response.
Before I even sat down, I said, “You’re laying me off, right?”
They were. I asked if it was about my performance. They said no. It was about them losing money and not being able to continue to keep certain staff members. I got a severance and Unemployment Insurance. As I left the building, I thought, “Now I have to tell Julie the bad news.”
I called her on the way home and told her what happened. She started crying because she wasn’t sure what we were going to do for money. I said she shouldn’t worry because I would find another job pretty quickly and I had enough money to last for a few months. By the time I got home, my phone was ringing with calls from co-workers freaking out over the layoffs. I wished them well, and said we’d stay in touch and yadda, yadda, yadda…but we all know that once you leave a job, you don’t stay in touch with co-workers all that much.