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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Stories Told

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.

MeOnWZZQ
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.

sugardaddy2
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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Personal, Stories Told

Everybody wants to know where Jimmy has gone

My brief radio career ended just before Labor Day 23 years ago.

MeOnWZZQ
On the air at WZZQ, Terre Haute, Indiana, in 1994

I’ve written about my broadcasting days many times because it remains a proud, fond memory. As a boy, I wanted to be the voice coming out of the radio speaker. I got my chance in college, and parlayed that experience into two part-time gigs on commercial stations.

After I moved to Indianapolis I sent an audition tape to every station in town. None of them bit. Only one station bothered to send me a rejection letter, which kindly said that I might have been fine for Terre Haute but I wasn’t ready for the big time. I took the hint and moved on from radio forever.

But I still remember the fun I had. And I have lots of aircheck tapes, all of which I digitized a few years ago so I can enjoy those memories anytime.

For my last show, I asked the program director to schedule a certain song coming out of my last break, a song new that year from The Allman Brothers Band. Its first two lines were spot on:

Everybody wants to know where Jimmy has gone
He left town, I doubt if he’s coming back home

Here’s the audio I recorded of that last break. You’ll hear me talk after a song and start the first commercial. Then you’ll hear the end of the last commercial in that break – and then you’ll hear me sign off for good.

I walked out of the building and out of radio forever. I listened to the rest of the song in my car as I drove home.

Eagle-eyed readers will remember this post from the first time I published it, about this time of year in 2012.

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