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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History

Interviewed on the radio about the Michigan Road

Yesterday I got to talk about the Michigan Road on radio station WKVI in Knox, Indiana. This town of about 3,500 residents is about 40 miles southwest of South Bend. Have a listen! (If you’re seeing this in your email or in your reader, click the title to see this on my site, where a video will appear below.)

The short of the story: when the Michigan Road was surveyed in the 1830s, the desire was to route it directly from Logansport to Michigan City. But the marshes of the Kankakee River blocked the way and it was impossible to build a road through them. So the road was routed through Rochester, Plymouth, and South Bend instead before heading to Michigan City.

The marshes were drained starting in the mid-late 1800s, and by 1920 the work was complete. While it opened up a huge amount of incredibly fertile farmland, it also destroyed the habitat for a number of wildlife species.

With the advent of the automobile, Indiana was again interested in building the direct road between Logansport and Michigan City. They built it in the 1930s as highway US 35, which runs right through Knox. Were it not for the marshlands, Knox could have been a Michigan Road town!

Small world department: WKVI morning host Charlie Adams was the sports anchor on WSBT-TV in my hometown starting in the late 1980s, and I used to watch him when I’d go home to visit my family. Near the end of the clip above Charlie talks about a motivational talk he gave at my high school with the South Bend Police Chief Information Officer, who arrived in the gym on his motorcycle.

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Personal

Briefly back on the “radio”

I got to be on the “radio” briefly recently.

My alma mater’s radio station, WMHD, gave up its broadcast license several years ago. But it continued streaming online, fully automated, with a skeleton crew.

On WMHD in 1989

In the last couple years a new generation of students realized they could make something much more of their online stream. They’ve revitalized the online “station” with new studios and office space. It’s down the hall from the original space. The original studios and office have been removed and that space repurposed. The school also repainted the entire floor, which means the giant WMHD logo I painted on the wall in 1988 is finally gone.

About a year ago, current General Manager Katana Colledge found my posts about WMHD here and reached out via my contact form. We’ve corresponded ever since, me telling my old WMHD stories and Katana telling me all the great stuff the station is working on.

They’ve continued their stream, but have improved the software that runs it for better sound quality. They have also returned to having some DJs, but rather than them being live as back in my day they all prerecord their shows and queue them up in the stream for the right time. They also upload those shows to Mixcloud; see them here. You’ll also find several shows from the old days there, including all of my shows that I recorded.

WMHD has also added a podcast recording room, offers guitar lessons, and holds jam sessions for students, staff, and faculty. They also bring their DJ equipment to campus events and provide music. Or at least they did before COVID-19 paused it all; they’re finding creative ways to stay connected with students online now.

As Katana told me all about it, I could feel the same level of excitement and commitment as students had in my time. That energy has waxed and waned over the years. It’s great to see it back.

The station put together a show to relaunch WMHD, and asked a few alumni to choose three songs and introduce them. I was one of those alumni! Here is the entire launch show. My intro and three songs begin a few seconds before the 40 minute mark.

Go here to read my alma mater’s news story about the relaunch, in which I’m quoted!

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Stories Told

A lifetime of hobbies

Fellow photoblogger JR Smith recently posted about the hobbies he’s pursued through his life. It made me think about mine.

Home of Vintage Treasures photo

I collected things. Cameras probably came first, starting at age eight. I started collecting coins at about the same time. Mom brought me an old “wheat ears” penny and explained how the mint had changed the design on the back at some point (1959, it turns out). That was all it took to hook me. I went after pennies first, then nickels, dimes, and quarters. I got into the habit of always checking my change for old coins, and that’s how I filled most of my collection. In the late 1970s and through the 80s it was still fairly common to find coins in your pocket that dated back to World War II. I had one of every penny from 1941 through about 1985. I pressed each coin into Whitman cardboard albums.

The summer I worked at the Dairy Queen, my cash drawer was a goldmine of old coins. Once I found an 1898 Indian head penny in there. I always had a dollar or so of replacement change in my pocket to swap for the treasures in the cash drawer. I quit actively collecting coins during college. But I still have all the coins from childhood in a box, and I still habitually look through my change. Sometimes I’ll still find a “wheat ears” penny in there.

I also collected stamps for a while, laying them into giant albums. I thought the most beautiful stamps came from Hungary. I remember a series of Hungarian stamps about lace doilies. They’d printed the stamps so the lace pattern was raised. I’d never had such a tactile experience with a tiny piece of paper! Yet I gave up stamps after just a few years because I felt like I could never collect them all, as I could coins. I liked completing the coin albums (all of the Washington quarters! all of the Roosevelt dimes!), and stamps just never ended.

Collectors Weekly photo

I also collected Coca-Cola stuff: bottles, glasses, advertising signs. I liked the bottles the best. I learned how to read the codes stamped into the sides to determine when they were made, and I loved how the older ones had the original bottling company pressed into the glass on the bottom. I sought bottles embossed with Indiana cities. Fun fact: the iconic Coca-Cola bottle was designed by the Root Glass Company of Terre Haute, Indiana.

For several of my teenage years I assembled plastic model cars. I spent hours and hours at a work table in our basement rec room with the special model glue and endless little bottles of paint. Here’s a fuzzy 1981 photo of some of my model cars on my bookshelf in my childhood room.

By my teenage years my introversion had bloomed. I had just a couple friends, but that was all I really wanted or needed. I liked doing things alone! I was making a little money mowing lawns, shoveling snow, and delivering papers, enough to keep laying down the $5 that a model kit cost. I enjoyed the assembly and the fine painting of the details. I always bought models where the plastic was colored as I didn’t enjoy spray painting the bodies. I didn’t have a good place to do it anyway.

Putting these kits together in the basement, I came to thoroughly enjoy radio as a companion. I’d turn to 92.9 FM to listen to U93, our city’s Top 40 station. (Unbelievably, that station is still going and celebrated 40 years in 2019.) I quietly put together my kits while listening to the day’s top hits, sometimes singing along, always stopping to listen to whatever the DJ had to say. Knowing that a real person was at the station playing music for everyone helped me feel connected to my city. I was too nervous to call in requests. I tried to win a few contests, but we still had rotary phones and they were too slow. By the time I got a ring, they’d already have their winner.

I’d always been charmed by the voices I heard coming out of the radio and TV speaker. But my time in the basement cemented my interest in radio, and made me wish I could be that companion for many others. I got my chance in college, which I parlayed into four years part-time in professional radio. I’ve been out of radio since 1994, but even today I can’t believe I got to do it and am grateful.

During my difficult first marriage, I let all of my hobbies slip away. I thought I had to devote myself to my family. What I did was utterly lose myself. When that marriage ended, I picked up a camera as a form of recovery. I took cameras onto the open road and photographed whatever I found. Soon I started writing about my cameras and the photos I make with them. Today, photography and blogging are my hobbies. Thanks for coming along!

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Personal, Stories Told

How to make a bumper sticker in the 1980s

I’ve written many times about my experience in college at the campus radio station, WMHD. I’d always loved radio and was thrilled to be on the air.

The station went on the air in 1981, and off the air for good in 2013. Who could have foreseen how radio would be come less and less vital? Fewer and fewer students wanted to be on the air, and finally the school threw in the towel.

A small group of students shifted the station to online streaming and still operate it that way. You can listen here. Over the summer, the current station manager found some of my old blog posts about WMHD and emailed me to ask about the old days. She described a small but vibrant group that keeps WMHD streaming, but also involved in providing live music at campus events. It’s exciting to see.

I was looking through some old files the other day when I came upon these two WMHD bumper stickers from around 1987. I designed them myself.

It’s crazy to imagine it now, but in 1987 computers were primitive compared to what we have today and they lacked the tools to design such things. I used paper and pencil to design this sticker. I used a straightedge to draw the WMHD logo. If I recall correctly, I traced some curved object to get the D right.

I used rub-on letters for “Rose-Hulman 90.5FM.” These were sheets with lots of letters on them. You could get them in a bunch of different fonts, but I chose this typewriter font because it looked clean. I drew a faint line and then, letter by letter, put the sheet down onto the paper letter side down, lined up the letter on the line and next to the adjacent letter, and used a pencil to scribble across each letter to transfer it from the sheet to the paper. It was exacting work.

Then I sent the finished artwork off to a bumper-sticker company with written instructions to make the background black, the WMHD and 90.5FM letters yellow, and Rose-Hulman white. I forget how many we ordered, probably 1,000. They came back perfect.

After I graduated I put one on my new car. Looking at it now, I see that it is a slightly different design. We must have run out of the original stickers and lost the original artwork. I would have had to recreate the artwork for a second sticker run!

This wasn’t the only time or way I rendered the WMHD logo. The school let me and some buddies paint the hallway in the dormitory our station was in. We chose this red-stripe-on-white scheme to replace a drab beige. I painted our logo on the wall next to the broadcast-studio door. Because I always did our logo by hand, they came out a little different every time. We painted these walls in 1988 and they stayed this way for nearly three decades. My son made this photo of me next to the logo in 2012.

Me at WMHD

I loved my time on WMHD. It gave me pleasure and joy as I ground my way through engineering school. I used to do the morning show (story here), and I was on the air when Space Shuttle Challenger exploded (story here).

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Film Photography, Personal

From the archives: WMHD-FM Terre Haute, 1986-87

I was 20 and thrilled.

So many children dream of being a fireman or a policeman when they grew up. Not me. I wanted to be the voice on the radio. And look: here I am! Microphone before me, Sennheiser HD40s hanging around my neck, my finger on the turntable’s go button. Let’s do this!

Me on the air at WMHD, 1987

I’ve written many times about my time at WMHD (click here to read every story) but have shown few photographs. I dug through my archives to find some. While you’re looking at what I found, here’s 45 minutes of my show from Dec. 8, 1987, to provide the soundtrack!

WMHD was the student station at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, a tough engineering school in Terre Haute, Indiana. Students built this station from the ground up, including its studios.

WMHD studio

Here are our station’s engineers, Steve and Tim, doing some late-night work to keep the equipment in fine tune. It was their custom to take over the station on Saturday nights, playing album sides into the wee hours as they worked.

WMHD engineers working

This was the lobby of our broadcast studio. If you know your rock album covers you’ll recognize our mural as being a reproduction of the 1981 Yes album, Classic Yes.

WMHD lobby

The station’s office was across the hall. I became station manager in 1987; this was my desk.

WMHD office

Here’s the rest of the office. That’s the Program Director’s desk, our cabinet full of public files behind it. I remember the discussion that led to the drawing on the chalkboard: this is the layout for the booth in the production studio we were building.

WMHD office

My buddies tolerated my random photography but I don’t think they understood it. I simply wanted a record of this place so I could remember it better. Mission accomplished; seeing these images puts me right back in that studio, keeping my good memories fully intact. I feel incredibly fortunate that I got to be a part of WMHD, and to fulfill my childhood dream of being on the air.

Times change. Radio started to lose its luster with the millennial generation, and Generation Z abandoned it in favor of streaming. Student interest in WMHD flagged; the station quit broadcasting over the air in 2013. Rose-Hulman sold the license to crosstown Indiana State University, which operates the station now as WZIS-FM from studios on their campus. The former WMHD studios don’t exist anymore.

The desire to broadcast hasn’t died entirely, however. A small group of Rose students operate an Internet music stream that they call WMHD. You can listen here if you’re curious.

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