Read my guest post on Lazy Day Books blog about my time in small-market radio.
Setting a novel in a radio station has been a long-time dream of mine. Early in my career, when I had no concept of how much money was required to both pay rent and eat, I worked at a small-market top-forty station in a Midwestern college town. My current thriller Body and Bone is set in a radio station modeled on that one, and the memory of it sparks almost insane levels of weepy nostalgia.
This was my first full-time job after graduating from the University of Kansas, and most of the employees were early-twenties recent college grads eager to take on the broadcasting world. We built that station from the ground up—the building wasn’t even finished when I was hired—and worked twelve- to sixteen-hour days for weeks ramping up to go on the air.
The creativity and camaraderie among the staff was electric. I was hired as the traffic manager (ad scheduler, essentially), but this was before computers, so I had to program the commercials manually. I learned to write radio ad copy during my time there, which taught me to get ideas across in a thirty-second time span. And eventually I made it on the air after telling the midday jock about a dream I’d had about Elvis Presley. This led to a daily show called “People Are So Stupid,” where we discussed things like why the federal government has a stockpile of wolfs bane. The program director hated the show and used to stand outside the studio window with his middle finger in the air while we broadcast.
Only in small-market radio could the kinds of things that happened happen. For instance, we ran a contest to win a VW Bug if you could guess the number of Xes stamped onto the car’s body. We figured it would be a great promotional gimmick to have a beat-up Volkswagen driving around town with one of our call letters all over it.
We announced our winner’s name over the air to great fanfare and almost immediately received a call from local law enforcement letting us know that the girl was a runaway. They told us they would be staking out the station to nab her when she appeared to claim her prize. One of the station jocks thought it would be funny to broadcast the confrontation live on the air with Bon Jovi’s “She’s a Little Runaway” playing in the background. The general manager did not.
Every week, we received a fax from Crimestoppers, detailing the featured crime of the week and a number to call if listeners had any information on said crime. One week, our newsguy looked at the fax and experienced déjà vu as he read a list of items that had been stolen from a local electronics store. Why did this seem so familiar? When he visited the storeroom later that day, he realized why: all of the stolen items were stockpiled there. One of the jocks had robbed the electronics store. Our GM persuaded him to turn himself in.
Our mascot was a kangaroo, so we had a roo suit made that one of our jocks, L, could wear to events. The suit was poorly constructed and slightly sinister-looking. In addition to that, L’s personal hygiene was questionable at best, and in the hot summer sun and humidity, that suit began to reek like a giant kangaroo-shaped sack full of rotting fish. Our GM was a) not good at confrontation, so he just couldn’t bring himself to tell L to take a shower, and b) cheap, so he wouldn’t pay to get the suit dry cleaned. Consequently, at events, when L approached people at events, his ripe stench parted crowds like Moses parting the Red Sea. He could clear out a room better than a bomb threat, which, as it turned out, was not an effective promotional strategy.
Alas, I was unable to stay at that radio station beyond a year because the pay was so low—the equivalent of $1100 per month in today’s dollars, so I moved home to my parents’ basement. I got another (low-paying) radio job in Denver at an AM station that played ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s music. No such format exists today, but I got an outstanding musical education there from the Mills Brothers, Guy Mitchell, the Ink Spots, Les Paul and Mary Ford, Johnny Ray—all stuff I never would have heard otherwise.
As it turned out, that was the only upside of this new station. It had recently switched to an automated format, which meant I sat in the studio from ten p.m. to 6 a.m. watching a machine. The general manager, who we affectionately referred to as the Antichrist, forbade me from doing anything but watching the computer in the unlikely event that it crashed (it never did). I was not even allowed to read—just literally stare at the machine for eight hours. So not only was I not surrounded by the same enthusiasm and friendship, I had no creative outlet.
The only interesting aspect of that station was its location—the penthouse of the Warwick Hotel, which had originally been the location of Denver’s Playboy Club. The Antichrist’s office was located in Hugh Hefner’s former bedroom, which still had tacky shag carpeting, as well as the giant round riser where Hef’s massive round bed had been. The GM’s desk sat where Hef used to…um…sleep.
That was my last radio station, and I was glad to leave. But my first one lingers in my imagination. Why? After all, I was so poor during that time that at one point I subsisted on English muffins for six weeks. So what is it about the memory of being young and poor that inspires such wistfulness? Looking back, I realize when you have nothing, you have nothing to lose. We were all young and excited, at the beginning of our careers, and it seemed that anything was possible for us. That there was only one way to go, and it was up. And we were right.
What happened to Petty’s dogs?
I’ve gotten this question so many times, I thought it was time to address it.
Originally, it was explained in the novel, but that part was cut. So here’s the explanation for you dog lovers out there.
Dekker called Uncle Curt from Motel 9 and asked him to go with a vet to Saw Pole to round up Sarx and Tesla and rehabilitate them. Uncle Curt of course complied. Once the dogs learned not to attack everyone who wasn’t Petty, they went to live in Wamego with Uncle Curt, Aunt Rita, China Cat Sunflower, and Bob, until Petty had a permanent residence where she could keep them.
I’ve never seen so many grown men cry in one place in my life and probably never will again.
It was New Year’s Day, 1978, at Denver’s old Mile High Stadium. I was in the north stands with my family, like every home game, but that day was different. That day, the Broncos won their first AFC Championship. And grown men cried.
The Broncos have just won Super Bowl 50, and I’ll bet not a few fans cried (I was one of them). We’d waited nearly two decades for another Super Bowl win, and we finally got it with Peyton Manning at the helm and a defense that hearkens back to the 1977 Orange Crush. As a matter of fact, at the beginning of the season, my friend John, a bitter, long-suffering KC Chiefs fan, mentioned that Manning was beginning to remind him of Craig Morton. John used to joke that they had to wheel Morton out on to the field on a dolly for every game.
This season has been reminiscent of that golden Broncos season of 1977 in many ways, but it had a far better ending. I’m grateful to our team for bringing the Vince Lombardi trophy back to its rightful home. I’m grateful that one of the all-time great quarterbacks, Peyton Manning, gets to go out on top where he belongs. I’m grateful to the best defense in the NFL. I’m grateful, most of all, that the Broncos have reminded me of the great life lessons of 1977.
That 1977 Cinderella season started off dubiously—with Red Miller, the Broncos’ brand-new, untested coach, and Craig Morton, a broken-down, has-been, ancient (he was 34) quarterback. But as we did every year, we hoped for great things, even though we’d experienced only three winning seasons in the Broncos’ 18-year history.
Our first inkling that the ’77 Broncos were something special came on October 13, 1977, when the Broncos beat the Oakland Raiders in Oakland for the first time ever. We were so gobsmacked by this that my family drove straight out to Denver’s old Stapleton Airport to welcome the team home.
You could never get away with that today, of course. We lined the concourse right up to the jetway door, waiting for the team plane. It was sweaty and loud in there, and we fans were as delirious with happiness as the team members, who debarked the plane and giddily doled out hugs and handshakes, posed for Kodak photos, and accepted gifts and tearful congratulations.
One moment sticks out, though. We tailgated outside the stadium before each home game with the Gray family, who accompanied us to the airport. Their oldest son, Jerry, was twelve at the time, and he had recently attended a player signing event at a Denver car dealership. Legendary linebacker Tom Jackson, one of the funniest, most talented men to ever play the position exited the plane. (That was the Oakland game where Tom trotted to the Raiders’ sideline and hollered to coach John Madden, “It’s all over, fat man! It’s all over!” He also regularly called Madden “The Egg.”) As Jackson burst through the plane door, Jerry seized his hand. “Hey, Tom!” Jerry said. “Remember me? I got your autograph at Sill-Terhar Ford!”
And what did TJ say? “Aw, hell, kid. All you whities look alike to me!” Then he crushed Jerry in an ecstatic bear hug.
The Raiders beat us at home just two weeks later, and it was one of only two losses that season—the second was to the Cowboys in Dallas. With each succeeding win, we grew more anxious and hopeful. Was it possible? We just couldn’t picture what it would look like to play in The Big Game.
Even before this big season, my family were devoted Broncomaniacs. These were the times of my family’s life, and we have a giant box full of Bronco memorabilia—ticket stubs (that year, our seats were $12 apiece), banners, programs, shirts, autographs. My dad belonged to the Denver Bronco Quarterback Club, we went to training camp every year, and we counted the days until pre-season started. We wore orange every Sunday and memorized all the players’ names and numbers. I can still remember the ’77 roster today.
The Broncos clinched their first-ever playoff spot and home-field advantage with the best record in the AFC at 12-2. Their first opponent was the Pittsburgh Steelers, who were at their peak, and the game fell on Christmas Eve. What I remember best from that game was Mean Joe Greene’s epic frustration. He was so frustrated, in fact, that he was ejected from the game for punching first our center, Mike Montler, and then our opposing guard Paul Howard so hard that he crumpled to the field. We were able to see it from clear up at the top of the north stands.
Christmas came early that year when we won decisively, 34-21.
One week later, on New Year’s Day, 1978, we played in the AFC Championship. It was freezing but sunny that day, and we all told each other it was enough just to get this far. If we didn’t make it to the Super Bowl, at least we got to see the playoffs at home. But as we faced our arch-rivals, the evil Oakland Raiders, it soon became clear that it was all happening.
The old Mile High was one of the loudest stadiums ever, and was designated the biggest home-field advantage in the NFL at one time. We
rocked that place, never more so than on that day. When fans stomped their feet, the old steel structure swayed and bounced, and players could feel it down on the field. But after the clock ticked down to zero on January 1, 1978, and the final score was Denver 20, Oakland 17, there was a beat of absolute silence.
That silence was pure disbelief. We’d been the Rodney Dangerfields of pro football nearly from the the Broncos’ first kickoff (vs the Patriots at Boston University’s Nickerson Field) thanks to the Broncos’ comical vertically striped socks, the city’s reputation as a cowtown, and the team’s membership in the outsider AFL. So no one was more surprised that we were actually going to the Super Bowl than the fans.
And that beat of stunned silence said more than all the cheers that followed it.
It was the first time in my life I felt I belonged to something greater than myself, my family, my little world. It was the first time I witnessed 75,000 people share a common goal and set of emotions at the same moment, celebrating and rejoicing and reveling in victory together. As corny as it sounds, that moment cracked open the universe and proved to me that hopes could be realized and that absolutely anything was possible.
Up at the top of the world, the north stands of Mile High Stadium, my family watched as the fans poured onto the field and ripped down the goalposts. My brother, sister, and I watched enviously, and finally Mom and Dad allowed us to join the action on the ground. It was like being told we could enter and loot the Forbidden City.
The three of us ran down five levels and threaded our way through the throng, sharing hugs, smiles, tears, laughter, and joy with our massive extended family. We made our way toward the center of the field. There lay the NFL logo, painted on the turf. Lori, Rob, and I kicked up part of the “N.” We carried it out of the stadium, took it home, and planted it in our backyard.
For my family, that piece of turf came to symbolize the endurance of hope.
Like the Broncos, the darkest of times came for my family just a few years later, and also like our team, they stayed for a long, long time. The Broncos went on to lose more Super Bowls than any other team in NFL history. But thanks to that moment of victory and the stolen sod, we could all look back and cling to those feelings, that unity, that joy. When the darkness came, we could go outside and run our fingers through our little piece of sports and family history, and still believe that anything was possible. We could remember that even in the worst of times, hope endures.
Because years after that, the sun came out again, both for my family and for the Broncos. And that sun shone bright last Sunday, when the Broncos, in spite of past failures and against the odds, won their third Super Bowl.
An interviewer recently posed this question to me: Do you have a signature accessory, color, fragrance, phrase, or meal?
Which caused my inner twelve-year-old boy to roll his eyes (What kinda girlie question is that?) and decide that the question required an asshole answer, like
If you consider bourbon-water-rocks a meal, then YES, I DO.
But upon further review, I realized I do kind of have a signature thang, or used to, anyway. (So I tied the little monster up and banished him to the basement so I could tell you about it.)
As it turns out, I’ve always carried kind of…weird purses. Maybe this is because the adolescent male who runs my brain part-time hates carrying a purse and therefore has the final word on handbag styles.
In high school, I had a clutch that resembled a rolled-up magazine (Playgirl, that bizarre ’70s answer to Playboy Magazine) with a half-nekkid man and blissful-looking woman lying next to him on the cover. You can imagine the kind of attention my clutch attracted, which came to an end when it began to disintegrate at the end of junior year, being constructed partially from an actual paper magazine cover. The Playgirl purse passed into history, much like articles with titles like CIRCUMCISION FOR WOMEN: The Kindest Cut of All, which was one of the WTF headlines on the cover of that particular issue. I mean, were they actually advocating genital mutilation?
In college I went through a gigantic-purse phase so I could carry around all the accoutrements of a pre-hipster writer wannabe: a miniature tape recorder, a notebook and assortment of pens, a pack or two of cigarettes, a lighter. My favorite enormous one was black, big enough to fit a ten-gallon aquarium in it, made of sturdy strips of cloth in different textures sewn into an Escheresque pattern.
One weekend I traveled from Lawrence to Manhattan to visit my K-State friend Marianne. We went to our favorite club, the Avalon Ballroom, to hear Glow, one of our favorite Kansas City-based bands. After much dancing and imbibing, I took a dance break and happily swayed to Glow’s note-perfect rendition of “Let Me Roll it” by Paul McCartney and Wings, drink in hand, smoking a Marlboro Light 100. Out of nowhere, this guy runs up, wrestles my purse away from me, drops it to the ground, and empties my bourbon and water on it. As you can imagine, I was not happy. I started to scream at him when he held my purse up and showed me the smoking, smoldering hole the size of a tambourine in it. So I bought him a drink, because he saved me from not-so-spontaneous combustion. I wore a lot of hairspray in those days.
Years later, as a subversive suburban mom, I carried a purse constructed from a Colorado license plate (not mine). The ends were made from metal center hubcaps, the strap was tire rubber, and a bottle cap made up the hasp. It was always a great conversation starter, but I had to stop carrying it when my daughters reached a certain age. Along about the time they turned three, they were at the perfect height to experience the over-the-shoulder battering-ram effect. When one of them walked at my side, that purse would smash into the back of her head and knock her to the ground.
The metallic tube turned out to be an effective assault deterrent. Once potential assailants witnessed the Power of the Purse, and heard the solid, substantial-sounding thunk of it bashing into my kids’ skulls, they ran the other way. Don’t worry—there were no concussions, but it was painful nonetheless. For me, I mean, having to give up that purse for a period of time.
Finally, there are my electric guitar purses. The smaller one depicts Elvis in his heyday before the peanut-butter-and-bacon sandwiches kicked in that I purchased in Vegas. The larger came from Walt Disney World and is emblazoned with the Aerosmith Rock ’n Roller Coaster logo.
These days, I carry the smallest possible purse with just enough room for credit cards and my driver’s license. My former self would be bitterly disappointed, but the junior-high-school basement-monster boy in me is overjoyed.
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