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.
“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.