Stories Told

Night game

I knew professional radio was a brutal business. But when Chip, who hired me into my first on-air job, whose blunt critiques of my work made me minimally competent, was fired, I was deeply angry just the same.

The station’s owner awaited trial on felony sex-crime charges. Yes, you read that right. It was obvious that he was trimming station costs to finance his useless defense. It was also obvious that he and Chip had disagreed lately over the station’s format.

I was loyal to Chip and thought the owner was a creep. Experience had not yet punched down my youthful ideals, not yet taught me which battles to fight. So I quit. And I decided I’d lay flame to that bridge and end my radio career. My resignation letter said bluntly what utter bullshit the firing had been.

I expected they’d change the locks and tell me not to come back, but my letter was met with silence. I went on the air until the end. But word got around: a photocopy of my letter was tacked to the newsroom wall, and the news director and one of the other disk jockeys told me that I said what everybody else was thinking. But my anger wasn’t yet satisfied.

My final airshift was on a Sunday. The building was empty but for me and the jock on the FM station down the hall. I walked in with a vinyl record tucked under my arm. I was going to commit a cardinal sin: I would break format and play a song in tribute to Chip. He deeply loved the Chicago White Sox. A baseball song for a baseball fan, a song of loss and endings.

I can still hear and see those last moments in my mind. I told my listeners that I thought Chip had gotten a raw deal, and so this would be my last show. The song played out, the jingle singers sang the call letters and our city of license, and a booming voice said it was two o’clock. I pressed the button to take ABC Radio News, flipped the switch to take the satellite-fed program that followed mine, and walked out into the summer sun triumphant. And defeated.

A bolder man could have spent the whole four-hour shift slandering the owner and playing the same death-metal record until someone showed up to drag him from the building. Instead, my fruitless protest probably puzzled any listeners who were paying attention. And I doubt Chip ever heard his tribute. But from this quiet fellow who basically follows the rules and wants to get along, it was a roaring statement, a shoving of this injustice right up the company’s ass.

I did it for myself. I see that now. More than 20 years have passed, and I have a much firmer grip on how unfair the world can be and how little I can do about much of it. I don’t have to like it, but I have learned how to let go and move on. If the same happened today, I’d still quit. I’d just skip the theatrics.

A month later, the program director of the FM station called me and offered me a job. He said management would pretend my flaming resignation letter never happened. He didn’t bring up my final on-air minutes, so I didn’t either. I went back to work, buggering owner notwithstanding. While radio is a cruel mistress, she’s a mistress nevertheless and I ran right back into her arms.

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6 thoughts on “Night game

    • Oh, thank you so much for saying so. This was a rare moment for me when there was a story in me that I needed, needed to tell. It happened when I heard this song one day recently and this memory came back. The first draft of this was so internally focused I couldn’t imagine why anybody would care to read it. I revised and revised and revised, trying to find something in this story that would connect with somebody else. I finally realized that the link, perhaps tenuous, was that we all have to figure out which hills to die on. I was fortunate to practice on one that didn’t have wide-ranging life consequences.

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