Stories Told

Playing by radio’s rules

I’ve found that after I write a story from my life here, I tend to retell the story in person in much the same way – to the story’s benefit, as writing it makes me work out its structure. I told this story in a gathering not long ago, which reminded me that I wrote it long before most of you found this blog. It’s one of my favorites.

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

Terre Haute is a blue-collar and college town. So when the radio station where I worked held an event, it was always at a bar, the kind that serves thin, fizzy 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 T-shirt with the station logo emblazoned across your chest big enough that passing satellites could see it, 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 small and slender with big, deep brown eyes and long chestnut 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. Normally they wouldn’t talk about the part-timers 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!

A recording of me on the air is here. This story tells why I wouldn’t enjoy radio anymore.


17 thoughts on “Playing by radio’s rules

  1. N.S. Palmer says:

    At that age, I probably would have reacted the same way. Now, however, my first thoughts were: “Did they pronounce his name right? And they were talking about him.”

    People who “put down” others show only their own pettiness, and tell us nothing about the people they criticize — except that those people are important and threatening enough to be targets.

    Your program director dropped a bit of wisdom that’s worth remembering: “Jim, you are like gold,” he told me, “because you show up for all your shifts and you follow the format.”

    Most jobs are like that. If you just do the basics well, you’ll out-perform most of the people who try to impress everyone with the fancy stuff.

    • Debbie and I never clicked, for whatever reason, and I actually took barbs from her pretty much every time I saw her. So after a while I just decided to ignore her. Except for this incident, my strategy worked pretty well.

      And yes, a major secret of success is showing up and being minimally competent.

  2. The really “uppity” response would have been to call into the morning show and say “Debbie, if I told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times, I like girls! Which is why I’m just not interested in you!” Of course hindsight is always 20/20. And if Mikey hadn’t caught me off guard with his response, I might of turned it back on him. LOL! Oh those lazy, hazy, crazy college days.

    I always loved your radio voice.

    Have a good day sugar!

  3. Mark Bianchi says:

    Jim: you were one of the two most reliable and consistent people at WZZQ. The other being Danny Wayne. That’s good company!

    • You know how I am, Mark – I remember my mistakes and failures more than my successes. So thanks for saying I was on Danny’s plane. I built my own style, of course, but Danny was always the guy I otherwise tried to emulate.

  4. That would have demanded a confrontation from you and an apology from her! She had NO right saying ANYTHING like that on the air about you. She was just observing, she had NO idea what was really going on. I would have saw red too! Don’t blame ya! I hope you got some sort of retaliation on her for that!

  5. ZIPPY says:

    Love the story. Rule 1 at work, ” if you’re not busy at least look busy”!

    After listening to homophobic people at work spout off on their own superiority and great attributes , my male buddy and I skipped down the hallway while holding hands and singing ” la la la la , la”.

  6. Thanks for sharing the “rules” of radio, good stuff, and I think in most jobs, certainly the jobs I’ve worked in, part-timers get no respect! :-)

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