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.