Tuesday, September 30, 2008

On the radio

I was reading over at 5th column about the problems at WVPR/WVPBS. To give a little perspective about how bad things could be, I thought I'd mention the kind of radio I was used to do before I got into the relative calm of WVPR.

My first radio gig was at WWNR in Beckley. The guy who owned it was a crook named Al. Al ran a scam where people were called directly from the phone book and asked to give to some charity. I think it was about flooding. By and by people did this. A driver was dispatched to collect the check and deliver a poorly photocopied certificate of appreciation. Little to no money went to the charity. Most of it went to prop up the failing radio station.

I found this all out after he left the station permanently. You see, I was the driver.

Al wouldn't turn on the furnace. In the middle of winter, the new engineer told him the antique machines being used really couldn't handle the cold. It was bad for the tape reels, too. He wanted to turn on the furnace.

Al's response?

"Turn the heat on for the machines? Hell, I don't turn the heat on for the people."

The station manager was named John. John used to start drinking some mornings around nine, but most mornings he held on to eleven or so. Once, after a particularly difficult meeting with Al, John went into his office, spun the cap off a bottle of booze and proceeded to chug it while the receptionist and I watched. After that, he went on a few sales calls.

I used to drink with John on Sunday nights, after the preacher came and did his show. Part of John's compensation was the use of an unheated, but generally spacious upstairs apartment. He had one of the best record collections I have ever seen and better stereo equipment than we had in the studio.

The building, which Al owned, was mostly vacant. Only the top three floors were used. The bottom two and the parking garage were considered a no-man's land inhabited by junkies, hobos and black bears. Paint huffers used to congregate on the roof under the satellite dish. One night, a grubby looking vagrant attempted to break in through the fire exit. John called the police, who were located across the street. The police declined to come over since the vagrant hadn't actually broken through the door. At that point, John fired two rounds into the door, which attracted the attention of the local cops. They carted off the junkie and collected John's gun.

I remember John telling me it didn't matter. He'd get it back and besides, he had three other guns upstairs in his apartment.

Most of the time, we were all pissed off at Al. He was late with our pay occasionally and he was always trying to scam the rest of us out of something. To get even, all of us took to breaking into his office to steal the key to the soda machine. It was a pretty pathetic rebellion, but we were radio people. None of us knew how to actually do anything else.

Eventually, he sold the station to one of the Capertons who did, at least, turn on the heat. It didn't last. He eventually turned over the radio station to a competitor. He offered to sell it to a group of the employees, but they couldn't put together the money. I don't think they even tried to get a loan. The sales manager had a felony conviction. She didn't think it would help their chances.

Eventually, just about everyone was cut loose.

I thought working in Bluefield would be an improvement. The station appeared to be successful. For the first couple of years, the place was run by a woman named Sandy. Over the course of about two years, she seemed to slowly lose her mind. She became extremely caustic and very clearly sabotaged the careers of her best sales performers.

Instead, she hired her daughter, a waitress at a local restaurant. Her friends at the restaurant called the girl "Crackhead." It was her nickname. Really, she wasn't a bad kid, but she was 21 or 22 and completely unreliable. She also had some very obvious chemical problems. Once, her mother held up the printing of the station log, waiting for her to come back with a contract for some advertising. She called every few minutes to tell us, she was on her way. This went on for a couple of hours until someone called the place she was supposed to have been coming from. If memory serves, they never saw her. The daughter was just too freaked out to admit she'd skipped the sales call.

Sandy scared the fuck out of everyone... and was also sleeping with the owner. The nasty divorce that followed directly led to the station being sold.

Actually, there was a lot of bed hopping going around. Different sales people boned each other or customers. After my first wife and I split, even I got involved in a rather pathetic office romance that lingered like infected poison oak for almost two years. There was no sex. At least, she wasn't sleeping with me. She was busy boning the very much married handyman and managed to hide a pregnancy to term.

It was pretty fucked up.

The guy who replaced Sandy made everyone believe that good times were just around the corner. Really, they weren't. Things got a little better. He had some decent ideas, but he didn't want to pay anybody anything. He referred to radio as a lifestyle, meaning it was okay to starve for the sake of working in radio. Everybody with any sense got out and almost all of us did.

Compared to any of that, WVPR is a sane, happy place. It's the happy hunting grounds for dead DJs. It's a little dull, but the pay is decent and there are benefits. The managers might not be incredibly dynamic, but no one needs a trip to rehab or should be doing time.

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