Monday, May 05, 2003
by Lenka Reznicek [permalink] 
Radio Days: Dead Air

Last night I had another episode of my recurring "radio station" dream.
Once upon a time, I worked as a DJ at a radio station in Plattsburgh, New York. Okay, it was during the late 80's and early 90's. The FM station's (WGFB 99.9 FM) 100 kilowatt signal covered a healthy portion of the Quebec broadcast market including Montreal, and the AM station (WEAV 960) was a small "sister station" - but the funny thing was, one person manned both stations simultaneously. Remember, this was before the industry had widespread digital pre-recorded programming that let DJ's blabber for half an hour into a computer, then go home while the machine automatically interspersed their soundbites between Britney Spears and Madonna tracks.

Back then, Britney Spears was in diapers.

The one-DJ-two-stations feat involved recording voice and announcement tapes at strategic times to play on the partly-live "automation-assisted" FM station, while entertaining the rest of the folks on the AM "live" station - and while operating the station's switchboard and answering the doorbell. Later, we had a new mixing board that allowed both the AM and FM stations to be fed into one board, but each was still programmed differently. It was a rather ass-backwards operation - having the double-duty on-air staff be the receptionist - considering there was usually someone in the office. Plus, we often worked split shifts that required us to start the broadcast day at 5:00am, work until 10:00am; then return at 4:00pm and work until 7:00pm. This allowed the station to get by with one "drive time" DJ through majority of the broadcast day.

In effect it was like having the public exposure of working at two stations in a major broadcast market, but at a fraction of major-market pay. The honest truth of the matter is that your garden variety local radio DJ usually makes less than $10 per hour. At the time, I made considerably less than that. If I told you what my hourly pay rate was back then - as a "morning radio personality" - you would (a) gasp, (b) roll on the floor laughing, or (c) call me an idiot for working there for seven full years. All of the above would be fair reactions, in my opinion.
In my recurring dream I am always late to work and the station is empty; there's dead air, the phone is often ringing and the person on the other end of the line is either my boss or some irate caller. But the surreal-ly disturbing part is that I can never find the right music and none of the equipment works. I think it's a variation on the "naked in public" dream.

Sometimes, the turntables and tonearms are jelly-soft, or the "carts" are filled with tangled loops of magnetic tape and have snarled up the player heads. For those that haven't worked at a radio station, a "cart" (short for cartridge) is an endless-loop playback format that looked a lot like a 8-track tape (and sounded about the same), but was still in use less than ten years ago - at least at the station I worked at.

In my nightmare I don't recognize any of the artists and songs. They are all some sort of ungodly amalgam of adult contemporary, rap and urban music - probably the effect of someone's late-night jeeping past my bedroom window - and I grow increasingly panicked until I wake up.
For several years, at the real-life counterpart of this nightmare station we had an hourly "clock" that dictated which category of song got played at which position during the hour. A "red" song was a new, hot-rotation hit; "yellow" was a recurrent (six months to one year old) song, and "green" was an oldie. The definition of "oldie" was rather broad, and often encompassed anything from Taylor Dayne's "Tell It To My Heart" to "Flowers on the Wall" by the Statler Brothers.

Yes, we actually did play those songs next to one another at WGFB. In waking life.
In my dream I dig and dig through boxes and racks looking for a song to play, or a commercial that's scheduled but I can't find anywhere. When I open the mike, I have absolutely nothing coherent to say.
However, what's really interesting is that I have never had "television station" nightmares about the NBC affiliate I worked at from '96-2000, WPTZ-TV. Hmm. I wonder if that's because I had a really cool boss and co-workers. At the radio station, co-workers had the unfortunate habit of dying on me.

My immediate boss and program director died of pancreatic cancer two years after I left the radio station; another DJ finally succumbed to the cystic fibrosis he battled all his life, another was killed in a fiery head-on car crash at the age of 25, and yet another died of kidney cancer shortly after I started working at WPTZ. Longtime Plattsburgh DJ Gordie Little recalls this story in the local paper, the Press Republican.

I wouldn't call these fantastic odds, considering no more that ten people worked at the radio station at any given time: secretly, I suspect the place was cursed.
What's truly creepy is that the last DJ I mentioned, Bob, was in my dream last night. He appeared alive and well, although he passed away on May 21, 2000. In this dream, he had just stopped by to help me find some music to play.
Thanks, Bob M. I hope you're doing well wherever you are, up in that "big station in the sky".

The Irony of It All: Here's the short, sour story told in RadioSpeak™. In 1996, WGFB-FM in Plattsburgh, NY was "LMA"-ed to a station in Burlington, Vermont and format-swapped into a Modern Rock station called WBTZ, The Buzz (not to be confused with WPTZ-TV, the television station I worked at). All of us were fired and replaced by a staff of tattooed college kids with tongue piercings lead by a girl who called herself The Monkey (bitter, moi? Non!).

Not that I have nothing against tattoos (I have one myself), but tongue-piercings should be anathema to anyone that makes their living with their speaking voice. Divine karmic punishment for playing Taylor Dayne back-to-back with the Statler Brothers,perhaps?

On the plus side, the call letters WGFB came home westward to roost. They now belong to a station called B103 in Rockford, Illinois. I can just fold my arms behind my head and smile at it all.