I always get nostalgic in September. I began my radio career in the fall of 1976 -- geez, is that 40 YEARS ago? -- at WQCM-FM in Hagerstown, Maryland. I had failed to land an on-air job when I graduated college and went to work instead for an organization that distributed religious radio programs that played early Sunday mornings at stations across America. (What? You never got up at 3 AM on Sunday to listen to PCS News? What are you, a heathen?) I took a two-week vacation from all the godliness and visited a couple of friends who were on the air -- one of them sort-of thanks to me -- at WRNR in Martinsburg, West Virginia. The morning guy, Ed Alexander, was an old high school buddy who skipped college and had already bounced around at a couple of radio stations. The midday jock, Rick Lucas, was a friend from northern California who'd been let go by a station up there; when RNR needed to fill their midday slot, Ed called me, but I was THIS CLOSE to landing a radio job in Southern California, so I recommended Rick, who got the job. Of course, I didn't get my radio job and went to work for the distributor.
During my vacation, I stayed a week with Ed and a week with Rick. In the middle of the second week I got a little stir-crazy and decided to take some daytrips -- to radio stations, of course. I'd walk in, tell them I was in the business and visiting from California and ask for a look around. The magic word was "California;" it got me into every station except one (what were you hiding, WEPM and WESM? Locals later told me the call letters at these elevator-music stations stood for "We Enjoy Poor Music" and "We Enjoy Shitty Music," so maybe they were just embarrassed.). When I visited Pete, the program director at WQCM, he offered me a job: playing rock and roll overnights for $100 a week. Pete's overnight jock had just quit because he found out he could make more money as a carpenter. It took me 20 seconds to say yes.
I flew back to California, gave away my furniture, packed everything else I owned in my 1967 Ford Falcon, and drove to Maryland in three days. (Remind me to tell you the story someday of that cross-country trip, especially the harrowing rainy night I spent on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, a road I now travel regularly. It's still harrowing.)
And here's where we arrive at the theme of today's essay. WQCM gave me the complete radio experience in about nine months. I arrived to take the lowliest job there, overnights. Within a month, the woman doing afternoons quit, and I leapfrogged to afternoons, traditionally the second-best shift at a radio station. New owners came in January, and they kept Pete as Program Director and named me Music Director, a "management" job with a slight uptick in pay (I was up to $125 a week now!). That step became a leap when Pete argued with the new owners and quit as PD -- he stayed on the air mornings, but the ownership named me the new PD. "Can I get a raise?" I asked. Of course, they said, we'll increase your salary in $5 increments every pay period until we get you to $140 a week!
I was riding high. We tweaked the format to play the hits more often and we were the talk of the town. Yay!
Much like sex, the tale of the first time you're fired is usually the best. One of the services WQCM offered was a Weather Phone -- at the end of each airshift, each jock would go into the lobby and record a weather forecast followed by a sponsor's commercial message into sort of a reverse answering machine that would play the recording back to incoming callers. I was performing this important duty one Friday afternoon when the station owner walked in to the lobby and asked me what I was doing. What a stupid question, I thought -- in fact, it occurred to me that if I had left the building with the wrong sponsor's commercial message playing on the Weather Phone, he probably would have fired me. I resisted the urge to use the word stupid and instead told him, in a cheery voice, "Recording the Weather Phone, of course!" He replied by taking an envelope out of his jacket pocket and throwing it at me. "Why don't you let a paid employee do that?" he asked and walked out.
Inside the envelope was my last paycheck and a letter telling me the owner was dissatisfied with my work, both on and off the air. (Two weeks later the ratings came out: WQCM was #1 overall and my afternoon slot beat the competition 3 to 1. I can see why he was dissatisfied.) (Actually, no, I can't. That's sarcasm.)
After about a month I realized the owner had fired me the very week my pay had reached the magic $140 level. It's true -- everything has its price. For me, it was $140 a week.