Growth, Stories told

Knowing when to quit

I think you just know when it’s time to quit. Quit anything, really. Look back at your life, at the things you’ve quit. I’ll bet that you can pinpoint the moment when you knew. Even if you didn’t recognize it at the time.

It was 1992. I had graduated from engineering school almost four years before and had a job with a local software company. I’d even picked up part-time work in pro radio thanks to my experience at my alma mater’s station, WMHD. But I was still doing a weekly show there, too. I had been station manager while I was a student, and was well known and liked by staff and listeners. And so when I asked the next station manager if I could still do a show even after I graduated he was thrilled. “You’d do that? Really? Well, of course you can!”

Me at WMHD

Me outside the WMHD studio in 2012. Some buddies and I painted that wall in 1988.

It was exciting and weird to keep playing records on that little 160-watt pea shooter. Thursday right after work I’d drive over to the station and park in visitor parking, a clutch of records from home under my arm as I headed into the basement studio. Students who remembered me, themselves now about to graduate, would come by to say hello. The phone would ring with longtime listeners on the other end telling me they were glad to hear me and hey can you play a song for me?

For a couple years it was great fun and I felt like a local celebrity. And as the coaching I got in my pro gig made me a better disk jockey, my work on WMHD sounded better and better too. Here’s 45 minutes from a show on a late-January day a quarter century ago.

But it was about this time it started to feel different, like it was time to move on from it. I had the time to do it. It was still fun. And management told me that I could keep doing it for as long as I wanted. But I was just playing the same classic and progressive rock I’d always played, even as the youngest students were starting to introduce hip hop on the station. Students from my era would have had none of that nonsense! But I was about to turn 25. I couldn’t even pretend to feel like a college student anymore. My world had moved on, even if I hadn’t from here yet.

So I quit. I don’t remember when my last show was; probably in February at the end of that academic quarter. I wish I had recorded that show. But I remember telling listeners that this was it, and getting their very kind phone calls telling me they enjoyed hearing me and wished I’d stay. But then the time came, and I played my last song, and walked out of the studio for the last time. And while it felt odd to know it was over, it didn’t feel bad. I could tell: it was time, and this was right.

There have been other times I knew it was time to quit and I didn’t honor it.

I knew it was time to quit collecting coins, a hobby I’d had since childhood, when checking my change stopped being an exciting hunt and started feeling like an obligation. I hung on anyway for years, hoping it would become fun again. It never did.

I knew it was time to quit that first career job when one day the controller, who was kind of a friend, stopped by my desk to tell me that I should go straight to the bank and deposit the paycheck I had just received, as not everybody’s check would clear that day. I made a beeline for the bank. Yet I had been comfortable there, and I hoped in futility that it would become comfortable again. And so I hung on for two brutal years as the company circled the drain.

I knew it was time to quit being a technical writer when I grew weary of writing things like, “Open the File menu and choose Print,” over and over. Yet I did it for a couple years more as it took me that long to push through fears that I couldn’t successfully shift my career into something different.

I knew it was time to quit my first marriage one afternoon when my wife did something particularly ugly to me, something I don’t particularly feel like sharing. There are two sides to every story anyway. Yet I hung on for a couple more years for a whole bunch of complicated reasons, and it about put me into a rubber room. I quit only when she filed for divorce.

I knew it was time to quit riding my youngest son’s butt about doing his homework when I recognized that homework was all we ever talked about. It drove a wedge between us. Yet my fears that he would fail to launch kept me at it for months after I recognized that. I finally forced myself to quit, regardless of my fear. Our relationship rebounded quickly. And then he figured his focus challenges out on his own.

Sometimes even when you know it’s time to quit, you can’t. Not just yet. Maybe it’s a job, and you can’t live without that income. Maybe it’s a marriage, something not to be quit lightly, something to be quit only after all alternatives are exhausted.

Or maybe you simply forget that you have agency, that you get to choose your life, that you are not actually enslaved to the choices you made. Even if you feel enslaved, because you’re addicted to something, there is help out there for you.

Because you can lay plans. You can get help if you need it. You can keep trying to make the changes necessary so that you can quit. And move on into the phase of your life you’re meant to be fully living.

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Stories told, Ten Years of Down the Road

The Electric Breakfast

Blogging today is like radio was for me 30 years ago, when I was a disk jockey.

Does anybody listen to the radio anymore? Even for the listeners who hang on, it’s not like it was even 20 years ago. Stations increasingly automate everything. A computer runs the show, playing both songs and commercials. The disk jockey in Denver might actually have been recorded yesterday in Albuquerque. The computer knows when to make the recorded disk jockey speak, too. It’s driven the feeling of connection out of the medium.

mewmhd1989aI got my start in radio long before all that, at my college’s station. Our biggest audience tuned in weeknights after 6 pm, which was when students settled in for a long night of homework. It was an engineering school, an they worked us hard.

Sometimes I’d break from my own homework and walk through the residence halls. I’d hear our station coming from dozens of rooms. Or I’d visit the broadcast studio, where the phone rang off the hook with students and townies calling to request their favorite music.

Radio was still live and local everywhere then, not just at college stations like ours. We engaged with our listeners, and they responded. It made the evening shows so much fun! Our best jocks lined up to take them. Afternoon shows were next most popular, but shows before noon were hard to fill. The morning show was nearly impossible to staff, as it meant being on the air at 7 am.

I was station manager, the top dog, and I could have any show I wanted. But I chose the morning shift whenever my class schedule allowed. I loved it.

WMHD was in the basement of a residence hall. I lived in a room about a hundred feet away. When my alarm went off at 6:45 a.m., I’d put on my glasses and head right for the station, barefoot and in my nightclothes, stopping only to answer nature’s call. I’d pick out the first four or five songs, fire up the transmitter, and play the sign-on message. The Electric Breakfast was on the air!

mewmhd1989bOur station’s hallmark was that each disk jockey got to play whatever he wanted. For the morning show, I chose mellow acoustic music to gently ease listeners into the morning. It really stood out against the station’s regular alt-rock and heavy-metal programming.

I figure that most mornings I had at most a handful of listeners. I am sure that sometimes I played music for nobody at all. At 160 watts, WMHD could be heard within only about a two-mile radius, half of which was a cornfield and a horse farm.

I would have been thrilled for hundreds of people to hear my show, but I was plenty happy with the way things were. You see, I loved to match key, tempo, and mood, mixing songs so that each one seemed a natural extension of the one before. I did it all by feel, and was supremely satisfied each time I nailed it.

But more importantly, once in a while the phone would ring. It was usually a fellow from Seelyville, a nearby tiny town. He often listened to me as he got ready for work. He enjoyed the tapestries of music I wove and would call to tell me when he especially enjoyed a transition I made between songs. And once in a while someone would stop me on my way to class to say that he heard me that morning and liked it.

This occasional praise was all I needed to keep at it.

I am so glad I recorded a few Electric Breakfasts. Here is the first 45 minutes of the show from Wednesday, April 6, 1988. You can hear pops and scratches in the records I played – unlike most radio stations, we didn’t compress our audio to eliminate noise and make the music seem louder. You can also hear the sleepiness in my voice; it usually took me most of the first hour to shake it. But I was not so sleepy that I couldn’t manage a few good transitions between songs. Check it out.

My blogging experience has been very much like The Electric Breakfast. Down the Road is a mere blip in the blogosphere, barely a whisper among the Internet’s clamoring voices. This post might find 25 views today, and maybe that many more the rest of this week. Thanks to the Internet’s long tail, it might find another 50 readers in the next year.

But I love the writing process and find it supremely satisfying when my sentences flow seamlessly into powerful paragraphs, which build an engaging story. And I love it when you leave comments, sharing your experiences or challenging my assertions or just saying that you enjoyed what I wrote. This is enough to keep me blogging indefinitely.

I never thanked that guy from Seelyville for listening. But I thank you for reading!

I first published this story in 2010. I revised it significantly for this retelling.

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History, Stories told

Breaking the news of Space Shuttle Challenger

It was my generation’s “I remember where I was when I heard the news” moment: the day Space Shuttle Challenger exploded in the air after launch. It happened 30 years ago today.

My “where was I” story is a little unusual — I was on the radio, and I broke the news to our listeners.

CBS News photo

CBS News photo

That makes it sound like so much more than it was. I was a freshman in college playing records on the campus radio station. WMHD broadcast at 160 watts from the eastern edge of Terre Haute, Indiana. Our signal could be heard well only up to about two miles away. I figure our listenership at that time of day was in the dozens.

My friend Michael burst into the studio carrying a portable television. He said, “The space shuttle just blew up,” as he plugged the TV in and turned it on. ABC News was already replaying the explosion over and over.

We watched silently, in disbelief, for several minutes. And then I realized I had a certain responsibility to tell our listeners, however few.

I let the song play out, and then I played our news sounder. I shook as I stood at the mic; my voice shook as I began to speak. I don’t remember just what I said, but I do remember tripping over my tongue. At least I got the word out.

And then I felt useless. WMHD had no real news department, just a couple students who rewrote stories out of the paper and off the UPI wire and read them on the air. All I could do, just like anybody else, was to keep watching TV. I went on the air after every record to update the story, but eventually told our listeners to find a TV and follow the story there.

I finished my shift playing records, I’m sure, for nobody.

Where were you when you heard the news about Challenger? Tell the story in the comments, or on your own blog (and please link back here)!

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Music, Stories told

Connecting through the ether

I miss radio, the kind where I could put on a pot of coffee on a rainy and quiet Sunday afternoon and be kept company by some pleasant music and a live disk jockey.

Time was, most towns had such a station. It played a variety of middle-of-the-road soft pop and standards. You could imagine the DJ humming along to the music he was playing, his own cup of coffee at his right hand. He’d open his mic as a song faded out and speak as if only you were in the audience. He’d tell you who sang that last song, read a PSA or a commercial, and then give a weather forecast, all in tones as rich and smooth as the coffee you were both sipping. There were recorded commercials, of course; never desired, but accepted as part of the implicit station-listener contract. But then it was back to the music and the light banter, just the DJ and you.

That kind of radio is all but extinct today. So many of the music stations on the dial where I live try hard to create some high-energy hip attitude, or play to a narrow music niche that shortly wears on me, or are simply overrun with commercials. And almost none of the stations are live anymore. When the DJ is live, you can almost sense that they’re breathing air at the same time you are. But a prerecorded (voicetracked, they call it in the biz) DJ is just another cold programming element, disconnected, lifeless. I might as well listen to Pandora or Spotify.

Me on the air

Me on the air

I feel privileged that I got to deliver that kind of radio once. In the early 1990s I worked weekends on a little AM station in Terre Haute, Indiana, one of a breed of “full service” stations that was already dying across the country. It was the station Terre Haute turned to for news, and then stuck around for the pleasant music and the personalities of the live DJs.

I worked Sundays mostly, but occasionally a Saturday. I’d go down into the studio and get out all my music as the playlist directed, stacking the tape cartridges on the counter, playing the songs one by one. It was mostly standards mixed with a little adult contemporary and a little popular jazz: Johnny Mathis, Dinah Washington, Fleetwood Mac, Les Paul and Mary Ford, James Taylor, Frank Sinatra, Glenn Miller, the Carpenters, Artie Shaw, Neil Diamond … you get the idea.

The phone would ring. Not off the hook, but occasionally. Sometimes it was someone wanting me to announce their lost dog or asking when I’d have the next trivia contest. But several people in my audience were older and lived alone, and wanted just to talk to someone. I loved those calls. My favorite frequent caller was a woman, 87 years old (she reminded me every call), whose name I’ve not remembered for twenty years. Mildred, maybe, or Edith; a sturdy name, as you’d expect of a woman born shortly after 1900. She never stayed on the phone long, a couple minutes, just to tell me she enjoyed hearing such-and-such song and to share a memory it kindled. Perhaps she danced to it when it was new, or maybe she heard it several times on several stations as she and her husband, long deceased, took a cross-country road trip. She told me once she was so happy that a youngster like me, a fellow in his early 20s, was sharing this good old music. She felt the connection, and I loved having it reflected back to me.

I have only two shifts recorded from my time on that station, from one weekend in 1992, a Saturday midday followed by a Sunday morning. I wish I had more. I especially wish I had a couple hours “untelescoped,” that is, with the music not cut out. I’d love to hear the full station sound again, not just the songs, but the jingles that transitioned between songs, and the IDs. I can hear those IDs in my mind: a booming voice said, “Serving the community 24 hours a day, we’re Terre Haute’s number one news voice.” And then there was a downbeat, and polished, impossibly happy jingle singers sang “WBOW, Terre Haute.” And then I’d press the button to take ABC network news; it was exactly the top of the hour.

Here it is, the entire recording. 17 minutes and 40 seconds, with a 15-second gap between the two shifts. It starts abruptly, in the middle of a weather forecast. I feel sure you won’t stick through it all, but do listen for a minute, anyway. If you listen through, you’ll hear some snippets of that booming ID voice, and you’ll hear me trip over my tongue here and there. But I hope you can feel that friendliness, that pleasantness, that connection through the ether. I tried hard to create it.

I wish now that I had called some of those disk jockeys when I was younger, just to say hello, just to let them know in some indirect way that I was glad they were on the job. Weekend shifts can be kind of lonely. It’s just you, the music, the mixing board, and the microphone — and occasionally a voice on the other end of the phone that lets you know that you’ve connected with them in some way that day. That connection made it feel worthwhile.

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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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Stories told

An early morning New Year’s wish

I write my blog early in the morning: up at 5, at the keyboard by 5:30, off to work shortly after 7.

WZZQ 1993Another thing I used to do early, 20 years ago, was get up on New Year’s morning to do a morning radio show. I worked for a station part time, normally pulling weekend shifts. But for obvious reasons all the jocks wanted New Year’s morning off.

I always celebrated New Year’s Eve, staying out until well after the ball dropped. But then I’d be up at 5 and on the air at 6.

Why in heaven’s name would I volunteer for that? Well, I wasn’t much of a drinker then, and being in my 20s I was resilient and could easily function on just a few hours’ sleep. But even more, I did it because mornings were the most listened-to time in radio. I liked feeling like I was a morning radio star, even for one day, even though listenership was down because so many people were sleeping it off.

I’m not up early writing my blog today, though. I stayed up last night to watch the ball drop with friends and family in my home, and I might have had a couple drinks along the way. As I push 50, I don’t bounce back like I used to. But because I wrote this in advance and scheduled it to post automatically at 5 a.m., I can still wish you a happy New Year early in the morning. And because this is in your e-mail inbox or your feed reader, the wish can reach you whenever you get to it. However you receive it, I hope it finds you well and happy.

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