Wednesday, January 30, 2008

My Brief Career In Broadcasting

Some fledgling writers I've known have had trouble getting started. I know what that's like -- I got my first break in sheer desperation, throwing myself at the mercy of the editor of The Monitor in McAllen, Texas, promising Jack King I'd write anything, obituaries, ads, anything -- just give me a job.

See, I'd really only done radio -- and half that time was spent as a country music announcer, where much of my verbalization was limited to time, temperature and something snappy and forgettable about twangy cheatin' songs and the occasional interview, if I begged. I had a pleasant but forgettable voice -- not the kind you wanted in radio, the kind that sounded like you'd been smoking for centuries -- but the farmers who tended their milk cows in the middle of the night and the truckers up north tuned in faithfully for Lefty Frizzell and Dolly Parton.

One night, after doing live remotes at a fishing tournament and way too much sun and way too much diet soft drink and definitely too much fishing talk, I put an album on for the album hour. I had the station all to myself, and pretty much the airwaves too -- and the mike was turned on, so I couldn't hear the phone. I passed out. Just laid my head down on the desk and a cushion of oblivion.

I woke up 45 minutes later in a little puddle of spit to the sound of the late, great, soused Hank Williams, Sr., long since finished wailing about being so lonesome he could cry, reduced to a simple, repetitive "thwp, thwp, thwp" which is an approximate transliteration of the sound a 33 rpm record makes when it goes around and around for, oh, I'd say half an hour maybe? Disoriented and groggy, I made three befuddled runs at doing a station break, sports and weather before turning the mike off -- at which point I noticed the phone light board blinking like Times Square with hiccups. "Lady, you okay?" More than okay. Fully rested.

Oh, and I was a "host/producer" at a cable station, where I hosted the most boring talking heads show on the air. Occasionally I was camerawoman for my friend Susan's offbeat public information show where she read public service announcements wearing a dramatic hot pink mermaid dress and looked a little like a Betty Boop impression of Barbara Walters.

My biggest editorial stand there was insisting that a teen punk host who didn't know anybetter turn his T-shirt around because it read, in big letters, "F*** METRIC." Only without the asterisks. I was nominated for an award, once -- I think for managing to talk the elusive publisher of the local daily newspaper, into "coming onto my show." Never been done before. He was so soft-spoken and I so awe-struckedly polite, we just kind of both faded into the background. It was basically 20 minutes of torture for both of us. Needless to say, I didn't win the award.

Come to think of it, I did have a brief stint as a radio news director at a fabulous little radio station in a tiny town. It was a great station -- the kind that caters to a listenership so small, there is a different sound depending on the time of day you're listening. Livestock reports, hick country, rock oldies, pop for the young'uns.

This was my all-time favorite job. I got to do everything -- newscasts, breaking news when the Catholic church burned to the ground (I was somehow able to resist using the phrase Holy Smoke! but it took discipline). I even used my almost-useless talent for voiceover to read a Christmas story from the point of view of an elderly pioneer woman. I never did get to use my Sean Connery impression, though.

Funnest perhaps was the live on-air debate between candidates for member of the legislative assembly (this was Canada.) It was a triple-coup for the radio station -- no one else had thought of it, and we made the cover of the local newspaper and the first item on the evening TV news. Most embarrassing moment? No tape delay, so the guy who called in and drunkenly asked for a hangover remedy caught me (and my listeners, by default) by total surprise. "Tomato juice?" I proffered before changing the subject in total awkwardness.

Heady days indeed. But I fostered an early willingness to do two things -- ask anybody anything, and never say no to an idea that seems like it has even the slightest chance. I adhere to that philosophy today.

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