Stories Told

Playing by radio’s rules

What’s the most embarrassed or humiliated you’ve ever been?

I used to think it was the day a female friend of mine cried out as we parted in a crowd, “But Jim! You can’t leave! What about the baby?” She got hers some time later when she tried this bit on another friend. Without missing a beat, he yelled back, “How do you know it’s mine?”

But that doesn’t come close to the time I was laid low on the public airwaves.

WZZQ 1993

Me on the air. Check out the Sennheisers.

I was once a part-time DJ at Terre Haute’s only rock radio station, the number two station in town. Being number two may not sound like a big deal, but we were in that part of Indiana where country is king. The local country station commanded a third of the audience without even trying. We, on the other hand, worked our butts off to be second, and as I recall it was by a comfortable margin. People in town knew who we were. The full-time jocks were all minor local celebrities.

Since Terre Haute is a blue-collar and college town, we did lots of events at bars, the kind that serve pisswater beer in plastic cups. We’d promote some band that was playing and the DJs would turn out wearing station swag. Now, when you’re wearing a staff shirt with the station logo across your chest big enough to be seen by passing satellites, you get attention. People would act like I was their long lost buddy. It was kind of fun until too much beer had flowed, at which point some guy would start telling you at top volume how much your station really sucked because it didn’t play enough Ozzy, or some girl missing her front teeth would ask if you had a girlfriend. Even if she had all of her teeth, every DJ knows that Radio Rule #1 is don’t date your listeners. It never goes well.

So at one Saturday night event I sat down at a table with the program director and the two DJs from the morning show, “Scott and Debbie in the Morning.” Now, a part-timer like me would not normally spend time with such lofty talent as the morning show, as Radio Rule #2 is part-timers are in the lowest caste, the sort of people the full-timers ignore. But the program director liked me. “Jim, you are like gold,” he told me, “because you show up for all your shifts and you follow the format.” I said, “Wow, um, that bar’s pretty low. What does that say about the other part-timers?” He wouldn’t answer. Anyway, he usually invited me to hang out with him at these events, and when I did, the morning show had to give me the time of day.

A young woman, probably a listener, was sharing the table that night. She was sixteen kinds of cute. Young and slender with big eyes and long hair and wow was she ever nicely made. She increasingly turned her attention to me, moving in closer, smiling big and looking away when I caught her gaze, and giggling a lot. By the time she had downed a couple more beers, her body language said she’d follow me anywhere I wanted to go.

What I must look like

What I must have looked like

But then she started to talk – of hating her fast-food job, of wanting to get on at the record-and-CD club that employed half the town because it would free up her nights and she could hit the bars with her friends more often, of her three small children from three different dads, and of how she had to call the cops on one ex the night before and how another ex was getting out of prison in a couple months. The look in her eye seemed to say, “Will you be baby daddy number four?” Images of paternity suits and paychecks garnisheed for child support began to fill my head. Red alert! Evasive maneuvers! Fully grasping the wisdom of Radio Rule #1, I stared into my empty plastic beer cup, looking for a way to gracefully exit. Which I did, except for the gracefully part. “Wow, lookit the time, gotta go!”

Monday morning as I drove to my regular job, Scott and Debbie were talking about the Saturday-night event, what a great time it was, and all the DJs who were there. They talked about the full-timers, anyway. Part-timers don’t normally get mentioned, because let’s face it, listeners don’t remember their names. Do you remember who the DJ is on Sunday afternoons on your favorite station? Right. But then Debbie said, “And did you believe Jim Grey, who works weekends here? This super cute chick was coming on to him, she was so hot! I wanted to tell them to get a room! And then he just sat there! He didn’t do anything! He could have done anything he wanted with her that night, but he wouldn’t even look at her! You have to wonder if he likes girls!

My stomach knotted and I saw red. She had just made me look like a geek with no social skills in front of every listener in a 50-mile radius! And this was the kind of screw that no matter which way you turned it, it went further in. I would just have to suck it up. Of course, I barely made it past the front door at work before someone said, with a big question-mark look on their face, “I heard about you on the radio this morning! What was that all about?” Two more people asked about it before I made it to my cube – where I hid out the rest of the day under headphones so I could pretend not to notice people who came by.

And so I learned a corollary to Radio Rule #2: uppity part-timers will be put in their place!

ReadMore Also check out my story about how I broke into professional radio. And then there was the time I was wanted by the FBI.

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14 thoughts on “Playing by radio’s rules

  1. Laura says:

    Well, I’m honored to be your 2nd most embarrassing public moment. I didn’t learn my lesson after Mikey though. I was still using it after college to great effect. LOL!

    Like

  2. Guy Blogman says:

    Jim:

    Great story. I don’t remember Debbie Hunter doing that to you, but in my mind, I could hear it and picture it. She had a special knack for doing those kinds of things, but you couldn’t stay mad at her.

    You may have heard that Debra passed away, last Sunday. She lost a battle with brain cancer. She was 47.

    Stay well, my friend!
    Tom Lisella

    Like

  3. Scott M says:

    Your blog was spot on to my experience as a part timer at WZZQ, loved it! I worked at the old and new studio. Hot but scary chicks pounding on the station door, drunk callers wanting more Seger, live remotes, parades, ISU football games, etc. Good times!

    Like

    • Hi Scott, thanks for commenting! Our time probably overlapped, as I worked on WBOW for a couple years starting shortly after the new studio opened. My favorite requests-line calls were from the prison. “Will you accept a collect call from PLAY SOME OZZY MAN!!!!!!!”

      Like

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