Stories Told

Sometimes wrong things just happen to people who don’t deserve it

When I tell stories from my life, I like to find the happy ending, the lesson learned, or the growth experienced. We all relate to those things. But more importantly for me, finding the good in a story helps me make good sense of my life.

Try as I might, I can’t find good in the story I’m about to tell. The owner of a company I once worked for did something that sent him to prison, and it laid a path of destruction through the lives of his victims and of his employees.

Sometimes, wrong things just happen to people who don’t deserve it. This is the strangest and saddest story of my working life.

I got hired as a disk jockey at WBOW in Terre Haute, Indiana, in the summer of 1990. WBOW was an AM station where bright, engaging disk jockeys played old, familiar songs, with news every hour on the hour. We called the format “full service,” but we couldn’t see yet that stations like it would all die off before the turn of the millennium. I worked part time, a side gig, and I enjoyed it a lot. My boss, Chip, the Program Director, was a blunt coach who built my skill and talent.

On the air, WZZQ Terre Haute, 1994

“We’re having a mandatory staff meeting tonight at 7 pm.” It was my boss, Chip, on the phone, and he sounded grave. “Hunh? What’s going on?” I asked. “Just be there at 7,” he said, and hung up.

I’d worked at the station four or five months that November evening when we all assembled. I was surprised to see everyone at the station file in: the DJs from WBOW as well as WZZQ, the rock station the company also owned; the news crew; and all of the salespeople, administrative staff, and management.

Our General Manager delivered news that blew us out of our chairs: Mike, the stations’ owner, had been arrested in his home state of Missouri on charges of sexual activity with boys.

After almost 30 years I no longer remember how the staff reacted in that moment. But I remember very well how this news plunged the stations into disarray.

When you choose a radio career, you can count on being fired from time to time. It’s just how the industry works. A couple bad ratings reports and heads will roll. A new Program Director doesn’t like your sound and you’re gone. Ownership changes the station format and replaces the entire on-air staff. WBOW and WZZQ had seen a normal amount of personnel changes over the years.

But after Mike’s arrest, the pace of terminations increased dramatically. Management became a revolving door. In my four years with the stations, we had two (or was it three?) General Managers, four Program Directors on WZZQ, three Program Directors on WBOW, and three News Directors.

On WBOW, most live disk jockeys were replaced with a cheaper automated music service that was delivered via satellite. Before long we had live DJs only on the weekday morning and afternoon “drive time” shows — and me, 10 am to 2 pm Sundays.

The buzz around the stations was that they were looking to cut costs as much as they could to fund Mike’s legal defense. I don’t know if that was true, but it fit what I was seeing. I assume they kept me on because they paid me minimum wage. My four-hour weekly shift cost them just $13.40.

Then Chip suddenly got the sack. I thought it was strange that the following weekend during my shift, owner Mike was in the building. He made it a point to badmouth Chip to me. I thought Chip was fired for no good reason, and I quit in protest. But a few weeks later I got a call from Mark, the brand-new Program Director on WZZQ, offering me a weekly shift. I already badly missed being on the air, so I took it.

That wasn’t the first time I met Mike. He was in the building during my weekend airshift once every month or two. He started his radio career as an engineer, which meant improving and maintaining the electronic equipment that keeps a station on the air. He liked to drive up to Terre Haute from his suburban St. Louis home some weekends to tinker with his stations’ equipment. Sometimes it was just him and me in the building. He tried to be friendly, but I didn’t like his vibe.

I remember one wicked hot day when I came to work in cutoffs and a thin tank top. I figured it would be just me and the WZZQ DJ in the building, and she would be busy with her own airshift. Who cared what I looked like? I miscalculated: the studios were heavily air conditioned and I shivered through my shift.

Mike was there that day, and he came into the studio to chat me up. I was intensely naive at just 22 or 23 years old, but there was something about his body language that made me feel awkward and unsure. He insisted on photographing me in the studio, which I didn’t want but didn’t feel like I could decline. I always dressed fully for my shifts after that.

Mike stepped aside after his arrest and a company vice president named Janet became acting president. Word around the station was that she had told the Federal Communications Commission that Mike would not be involved in operating or managing his stations in any way while he awaited trial. That made some sense, because in those days the FCC considered the moral character of its licensees. They would take a dim view of Mike’s charges. Janet was trying to keep the stations alive.

Yet it seemed clear to me, even as young an inexperienced as I was, that Mike was still involved. For example, his presence after Chip’s termination and the things he said to me sent me the message that it was his decision. And Mark, the WZZQ Program Director, gave me the strong impression that Mike was trying to guide his programming choices.

Several months after I was hired at WZZQ, Mark was fired. The official reason was that they were not happy with the ratings under his leadership, but Mark told me that his ratings were the highest the station had enjoyed in years. Mark believed that Mike was behind the firing, because Mark wouldn’t accept the meddling in his programming choices. The fellow they brought in to replace him, Ben, seemed to be a puppet for Mike’s loyal managers in Missouri. Ben made a bunch of changes in the music we played — changes that seemed to me were directed by the managers in Missouri — and ratings fell way off. They fired Ben for the poor ratings that probably weren’t even his fault. Then they brought in Jack and gave him greater autonomy to program the station. Jack brought the ratings back up.

Because I worked so inexpensively and caused no trouble, upper management left me alone. I kept my head down and enjoyed my airshifts.

In July of 1994, word came down: Mike was convicted on twelve counts of various sex crimes involving five boys. He would go to prison.

By this time, my main job in a software company was in jeopardy as that company had hit the skids. I found a new job in Indianapolis and rented an apartment there. I could have stayed on at WZZQ; a once-a week commute back to Terre Haute wouldn’t have killed me. But I decided to let radio go. My last airshift was on August 28, 1994, which I remember because I recorded it and marked the date on the tapes. As usual, I was alone in the building.

I was gobsmacked when Mike walked into the studio.

He said to me that a lot of people had come and gone over the years and I had become one of the longest tenured people at his stations. I was thinking, “Yeah, because you fired half of them and chased the rest away with a toxic workplace.” But instead I said, “Then you’ll be surprised to learn that this is my last show,” I told him. “I got a new job and I’m moving away for it.” He offered a quick congratulations but then changed the subject to his recent conviction, which he described as having gone “exactly as I wanted it to.” I didn’t, and still don’t, understand that statement. Mike went to prison for five years!

The FCC found evidence that Mike was still involved with his stations after having been assured he was not. The FCC called him out for misrepresentation and “lack of candor” — and revoked his licenses.

Mike fought it hard, appealing all the way to the United States Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case.

The FCC ordered all of Mike’s stations shut down on October 4, 2001. The two stations used three frequencies, as WBOW changed frequencies while I worked there and the company simulcast WZZQ over WBOW’s old frequency. WBOW’s newer frequency remains silent. It took the FCC years to issue licenses to new operators for the other two frequencies. WBOW’s old frequency got a new station in 2011, and WZZQ’s frequency got a new station in 2017.

WBOW is the sadder case to me. It went on the air in 1927 and was Terre Haute’s oldest radio station. But heritage matters less than employment. Those stations going dark brought a loss of radio jobs in Terre Haute for many years.

As recently as 2017, Mike was still trying to get back into radio through seeking to buy stations. The FCC has so far denied him at every turn.

Mike left a lot of wreckage behind him — the boys he molested, the radio professionals whose careers he sidelined or even derailed, and the jobs that were eliminated after his stations went off the air.

Like I said, I can’t find a positive in this difficult story. Those boys and WBOW/WZZQ’s employees suffered unearned consequences, and all they could do was figure out how to go on.

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18 thoughts on “Sometimes wrong things just happen to people who don’t deserve it

  1. How tragic for everyone. The license revocation could probably have been avoided if he had sold the stations to someone else, but his attempts to hold onto them resulted in them turning to dust. I think someone who commits crimes of that sort spends little time thinking of others.

    • I wonder whether the FCC would have revoked his licenses had he not tried to operate his stations while he awaited trial. But yeah, your last point is spot on.

  2. There is no good, but I am sure you learnt something. To trust your instincts, to speak up. They all come with maturity, but incidents like these brings that maturity to the fore.

    • As you can see, 25+ years later I’m still processing this. Even if this happened in my workplace today, with all of the maturity I’ve gained over the years, it would be like a bomb going off.

  3. I am usually able to make sense of most things in my life, but there have been a few instances where, no matter how much I tried to reconcile or process, tie it up neatly with a bow and put it up on a shelf…I just can’t. This, for you, just may be one of those times. Writing about is cathartic I hope?

  4. Andy Umbo says:

    The thing that glares out at me immediately, is that he stated that the situation went “…exactly as he wanted it to…”. You bet it did! 5 years in jail for molesting 5 boys, 12 counts, in the mid-90’s? Even in Wisconsin that would have resulted in about 20 years in the can, and a listing on the states sexual predators list in perpetuity! He did the same time as someone robbing a gas-station of 50 bucks with no weapon!

    The title of this blog entry is very impactful for me, tho. I currently live in an inexpensive apartment in a “bridge” neighborhood, which is populated by young people starting their careers and older folks trying to keep their heads above water. Many times in the evening, people sort of congregate out in the courtyard and talk about their lives and other lies, and it’s always both sad and interesting. It’s amazing how many college educated people about 20-25 years into their careers, just turn the corner in some situation and fall from grace and valued employment.

    People get divorced because they lose their upper-middle-income employment, and before they can recover; their wife bounces them for not funding the life they expected! People that get sick with sub-standard insurance and generate big medical debt. People that get into debilitating accidents! Careers that disappear virtually overnight, with no option except trying to move to the coasts, late in life (really no option).

    It is apparent in modern America, how much we are all virtually on the razors edge and could tumble in the wrong direction at any minute! It’s no surprise that since I was in senior advertising management, how much research I’d been reading since the mid-90’s have been predicting 35%+ unemployment by 2035!

    Bad things happen to good people all the time, and for the most part, few can recover…

    • Hard failure — even unearned — can come to us all. It’s happened to me a couple times in my life. I’d be ready to retire (at age 53) if I had not had the bad things happen to me that have.

  5. -N- says:

    You are very right: there is no happy ending here except that you are looking at evil square in the face. Seeing it in action. Yes, attrition because of industry changes, but more, there is cruelty and self-centeredness. Lies. Flunkies. This story is today’s story, today’s politics, today’s quandary. What to do in the face of such evil? Nothing? Speak up? Sometimes things do happen because of evil people, things which negatively affect others deeply. But, despite that, I really do think we will find good – and perhaps there is good that came to those you do not know, who found something better despite the evil that dealt them blows. Thanks for sharing. A lesson in what NOT to be is the good of learning this story.

    • I kept in touch with Chip and Mark. Chip stayed in radio for many years, though he had some very lean times for a couple years after WBOW. Mark never programmed another station, though he stayed in the business overall on the sales side. But WBOW/WZZQ was a major setback to both of them, one that was not earned.

      One of the news directors ended up as a weekend weatherman on a local TV station and he’s still doing that, this many years later. Another news director became a morning TV anchor at that same local station for a while and then went back into radio in another nearby market, before passing away last year. One DJ is a photographer for a TV station in another market. Another DJ splits his time between working for a funeral service and driving donated organs to their destination. I’ve lost track of everybody else.

      The staffs of WBOW/WZZQ probably all recovered. Most of us do from most things that happen — like this. I wonder whether Mike’s victims ever recovered.

      • -N- says:

        It’s good you stayed in touch with these people over the years, and know what has been happening. Of course Mike’s other victims will remain unknown quantities. My own family was in TV for many years – WBKB in the 40s out of Chicago and then CBS – as well as currently; my BIL has managed to survive 40 years in TV to today because he picked up computer and other highly technical skills along the way. Today he produces / directs news from home during Covid-19, all on computer. You were smart to move into technology. This is a digression, though, from your main point. I also thought of your statement that Mike gave off weird vibes. Listening to those vibes is so important. Cognitive dissonance can result if not heeded. Anyway, I really liked your post in its depth and thoughtfulness.

        • Wow, WBKB in the ’40s — your family were television pioneers!

          I started in tech. I taught myself to code in the early 80s and when I figured out that they pay grownups to do this for a living, the direction of my life was set. But I always wanted to be on the radio. When I got my chance in college I took it, and then because of random chance I got the chance to do it part-time at WBOW/WZZQ. I hoped I could keep doing it after I moved to Indianapolis, but wherever I applied for part-time radio work I was always passed over, or I got the gig but it was overnight and that was a problem given my full-time daytime job. So my radio days ended on that August Sunday in Terre Haute!

          My sense of personal boundaries was poor when I was in my 20s. I can tell that Mike creeped me out only in hindsight. I would have had a better 20s had I had better personal boundaries.

  6. Jim Lucas says:

    WBOW . 1230 on your AM dial. WBOW is interwoven on the fabric on the lives of anybody who grew up in Terre Haute in the 60’s and 70’s.

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