Saturday, November 29, 2014

Radio Days

I got my first Christmas card yesterday. It was from a priest who used to be a high official in the diocese back when I was a reporter/editor for the diocesan newspaper. I always respected his intelligence and spirituality, and once even asked if he'd consider being my spiritual director; alas, he had to turn me down due to commitments, and, indeed, later became the rector of the cathedral.

We exchange Christmas cards still, though it's been years since we have had direct contact.

In this year's card he wrote, "I still miss your dulcet tones on W_ _ _ on Saturday."

That brought back a flood of memories. For some 21 years I was a radio announcer/newscaster/reporter for a local PBS affiliate. For most of that time, I was the Saturday morning host from 6-noon.

My radio career began while I was teaching at a Catholic high school that paid poorly, and had a growing family with a stay-at-home wife. I was doing coaching to supplement my income, but I needed something more steady - and that had better hours.

On a lark I applied at our local PBS affiliate, which had just begun an AM station to go along with its FM and television stations. The AM station had begun to take the news/public affairs programs from the FM station, allowing the FM station to focus on classical music.

I'd been on my college radio station, but other than that, I had no real experience. I had no sound samples, nothing. If I were applying today, I'd have no chance. But somehow, for some reason, they hired me to be the Saturday night board operator.

The programming on Saturday nights (6-12) was basically all recorded jazz shows. I did the announcing in between shows, did spot weather casts, made sure tapes - it was still the reel-to-reel tape days! - were cued up, played all the required promotions. Pretty easy. It gave me time to read and grade papers.

My voice seemed to sound fine on air, and I was reliable, so my bosses were generally pleased. Except for the night I had a problem with a tape and quickly shoved in what I thought was an emergency music cart to go out on the air while I fixed and cued the tape. Turns out it was joke cart  recorded by another announcer. The station manager came in fuming. I was lucky not to be fired.

After six months, the announcer who had been doing Saturday and Sunday mornings left. I applied, and got the shifts - and ended up staying with the Saturday shift for 21 years.

The weekend morning shifts focused more on news, public affairs, and talk programming. I got to play some great shows (Inside Europe, Only a Game, and Studs Terkel's Almanac, for example). The Saturday shift also at first included an hour or  two of jazz. I got to plan what recordings to play, coming up with all sorts of themes - like noting performers' birthdays, playing music by Irish-sir-named performers for St. Patrick's day, and so on). I loved that. But then more shows came on air, including Weekend Edition, and the jazz programming ended. I did do some sub shifts overnight when they had jazz and blues programming, but then they ended the local playing of music (letting the overnight guy go as well).

One happy consequence: Working Sunday mornings meant going to Mass Saturday evening. I sat at the back at church, and spotted an attractive woman who was always at the same Mass sitting at the back. We were soon sitting together - and have now been married 20 years.

Early on, a part-time newscaster came in to do the news for those morning shifts. But he was inconsistent about making it in on time - or at all - so to make sure we had something I started putting together newscasts and doing them myself. Plus, I had left my teaching position and was working as a weekly newspaper reporter, so I knew the local news scene anyway. The news director heard what I was doing, fired the newscaster, gave me a small raise, and I became the weekend morning announcer/newscaster. I also provided news for the FM announcers, recorded newscasts for later in the day, and put together short pieces to be used on Monday morning.

I eventually gave up the Sunday shift. It was the less interesting one, anyway, and I was then able to play music and sing in the choir at church.

I watched as the station grew and the technology changed. Reel-to-reel tapes gave way to computers and satellite uplinks. We began using digital recorders for news reports. I kept learning and adapting.

My greatest  - and saddest - news coup was when the Shuttle Columbia broke up on reentry. I happened to be monitoring the news wires, caught wind of the problem, notified our news director, and went on the air to announce that there was a problem and we were monitoring the situation and would break into regular programming when more information became available. My announcement was the first on local radio - we basically broke the story locally. NPR started live coverage, which I put on the air. Our local news reporters supplemented the NPR pieces with local angles including ones on a shuttle astronaut from our region (who was, fortunately, not on the Columbia). The Station manager later complimented the news team for getting on the story so quickly and the good job we did.

I became somewhat well-known locally - at least among folks who listen to public radio. When introduced to people they'd know who I was. I knew local newsmakers on sight - and they knew me. Even the county executive knew me well enough to sneer at me whenever he spotted me. When I applied for my current teaching job the principal arranged to meet with me even before the actual interviews just because he knew of my work on air and wanted to meet me!

Getting up Saturdays at 4 a.m. got to be a bit of a drag, and I began thinking about how I could move up in the news department and the station. During school breaks I sometimes subbed as the local announcer/newscaster for Morning Edition, and I like it. I also began to do spot news coverage.

Then the local All Things Considered local anchor shift opened. That was the flagship news program on NPR, and would be a great career move. I applied.

The new news director (the fourth I'd been under) who did not know me well, gave me the courtesy of an interview, and later admitted that he was surprised by my knowledge of local news, my newspaper and writing background, and the quality of my reports. I became one of the finalists.

BUT there was a problem. (Shh: No one could say it openly.)

To be blunt, the news department at that point consisted entirely of middle-aged white males (there was one woman who did some reports, but she was not interested in news, and was primarily an FM announcer who later become a great classical music host).

The other finalist was a young Hispanic female from out of state.

She got the job.

The reason I was given was that she had more sound clips and some full-time experience. Okay. I understood.

She was terrible. She did not know the community. Her on-air delivery was poor. She lasted one year.

Meanwhile, I had been busy doing more spot news coverage and mastering the equipment.

When she left, I became one of the three local rotating hosts of All Things Considered. We did that for an entire summer. But when it came time to apply, one of the senior members of the news staff took me aside. He said I was qualified. I knew the local news beat. I knew the shift. But ...

The news staff was the same as it had been the year before. White. Middle-aged. Male.

I didn't even get a formal interview.

They hired a young Jewish woman from New York City. I will admit, however, she was very good. She did an excellent job. She's still on the air, though in a different capacity.

But I realized at that point there was no full-time future for me there.

Other factors came into play.

One came over the issue of abortion.

In the news department we received a directive about how we were to cover abortion stories - giving the newscasts a clear pro-choice bias. I objected, argued for balance. I was overruled. I should mention that at the time the directive was issued the head of the station's board of trustees was the president of the local Planned Parenthood.

So, after 21 years, I gave notice.

The last news director I worked under was later let go - replaced by a woman. He now works in public relations.

The news director before him - who had remained with the station as a reporter - was also let go. I now hear him doing fill-in shifts and reports for another local station (I hope he gets a full-time gig. He's a good guy, and a good reporter.)

The overnight guy who had a national reputation for his knowledge of jazz and blues - and whose shift I occasionally subbed for - was let go.

The morning guy who's shift I often took over during vacations was let go. He was working odd shifts at another station, last I heard.

The midday guy moved to mornings, then when ATC Jewish female moved on to other on-air programming,  moved to ATC - and a woman (who'd been let go by another local station) was hired for the morning shift.

The station did later hire another male news reporter (who'd been let go by another local station).

The radio business is not a secure one. It's probably for the best that I did move on when I did.

To be honest, I don't miss it. It's much nicer to be out walking my dog in the wee hours on Saturdays than it was putting together a newscast and getting ready to go on the air at 6 a.m.

So thanks father. But I'm happy with my decision.

Signing off.

Pax et bonum

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