Playing by radio’s rules

I love this story, which I’ve published twice before (2008 and 2013).

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?”

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

On the air, WZZQ Terre Haute, 1994

I was in my early 20s, working part time on the air for Terre Haute’s rock radio station. We were proud to be number two in the market in a part of the world where country music was king. The country station commanded a third of the audience by just showing up. We, on the other hand, worked our butts off to stay in second place. We were successful enough that our full-time DJs were all minor local celebrities.

To stay visible we did lots of events. Terre Haute being a blue-collar and college town we wound up at a lot of bars, the kind that serve watery beer in red plastic cups. We’d promote some band that was playing and we DJs would turn out wearing station swag.

Because I wore my staff shirt, people acted 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 sweetly 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.

One Saturday night at an event I sat down 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. But 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 was sharing our table that night. She was sixteen kinds of cute. Young and slender, doe eyed with long brown hair, so nicely built. 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. It was flattering. It was exciting.

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.

What I must have looked like

Red alert! Evasive maneuvers! Fully grasping the wisdom of Radio Rule #1, I stared into my empty cup trying to find a way to exit with grace. Which I did, except for the with-grace 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 wouldn’t normally mention lowly part-timers, because let’s face it, listeners don’t remember their names. 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.

That’s how I learned a corollary to Radio Rule #2: uppity part-timers will be put in their place!

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23 responses to “Playing by radio’s rules”

  1. J P Cavanaugh Avatar

    Wow, what a way to stick a knife in and twist it!

    It must seem pretty funny now. “I once got insulted on the air by the second-place morning DJ in Terre Haute Indiana.” I was in Terre Haute earlier this week. What a great place that must be to not live any more.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I actually liked living there! Quiet and safe. Inexpensive.

      1. J P Cavanaugh Avatar

        I guess I always figured that living in Terre Haute would be like living in Muncie. I hated Muncie.

        1. Jim Grey Avatar

          There isn’t much to do in Terre Haute and the place is run down. But there is charm, for me, in the small city. It took me 10 years to adapt to living in Indy.

  2. George Denzinger Avatar
    George Denzinger

    Nice to know you’re loved… Not!

    Once the whole three kids by three different dads spiel started I would have done the EXACT same thing you did. GTFO! Maybe the sex is great temporarily, but the crazy is permanent. Good call!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      There’s a crude saying I won’t entirely repeat about not having sex with crazy.

  3. retrocrank Avatar

    …and Radio Rule #4 . . . success as a full-timer is like modelling or sports. Once the sheen wears off, there’s not much left. Uppity part-timers use their experience to go on to something greater.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      That is so true. I stuck with my day job, software development, and it’s been a great gig.

  4. Andy Umbo Avatar
    Andy Umbo

    Wow! One thing I’ve learned from my “coming on” four years in Indiana, is that they get married early and often! Lucky I’m past the age where even if I had a few nickels, I’d be a target (I’m too ugly too, thank God, nothing like being poor and ugly to keep away the “baby daddy” predators!) But speculating about your proclivities on the air shows bad form! I would have made up an elaborate story of international intrigue!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Debbie heard the whole exchange and if she had half a brain she knew exactly why I bailed. She just wanted to use the story on the air for entertainment, at cost to me.

  5. Heide Avatar

    Oh, Jim … you poor guy! The only thing worse than a mortifying encounter is a public mortifying encounter. But at least now we know the REAL reason you left Terre Haute, ha ha. Although the whole episode may still make you cringe, you made the wise decision.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      You might think I slunk (slinked?) away after this event but no. The company I worked for weekdays started the obvious slide toward bankruptcy. I knew there were no other jobs in town for my skillset so I hightailed it up here to Indy.

      1. Heide Avatar

        I don’t see you as the slinking (slunking?) type, Jim — and although the circumstances of your departure are different than I jokingly suggested, I still think you made the right choice. ;)

  6. Nancy Stewart Avatar
    Nancy Stewart

    I can’t believe that little ” cutie ” would think any guy would be interested after hearing that story !!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      She was hot, but she was not wise.

  7. M.B. Henry Avatar

    Oh my…. lol.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar


  8. Tom in Phoenix Avatar
    Tom in Phoenix

    Having worked in an industry with lots of women, I have seen so many of this type of woman. Your story made me cringe but made me proud of you. Smart choice to run as fast as possible!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Yeah, didn’t need trouble. But also, I was/am not someone who slept around.

  9. Lynd Avatar

    Just as a thought, wonder what number she eventually got her clutches into….??

    Unusual story mind and interesting.. thanks…


    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I am so happy to have no idea what became of that young woman. Even in a city as small as Terre Haute (~60,000 people), I never saw her again.

  10. Russ Ray Avatar

    You are part of Indiana radio history:

    Funny story at the end about how the FCC closed down that station…

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Ah yes! The Indiana Radio Archive!

      I personally knew Ken Brown, Robert Cox, Mark Bianchi (air name Mark Savage), Ben Jacobs, Jack Lawson, Debbie Hunter, Mark Edwards, Jude Corbett, Linda Jones, Danny Wayne, Dean Taylor, Christina Collins, BJ Hickman, Rick Huffman, and John Evans, all listed on that site.

      I have yet to tell the story here of why WZZQ went dark. It was the craziest thing I’ve ever experienced in my adult life.

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