Thursday, November 24, 2016

Radio Daze, Part 2

Oh, the humanity.
It being the Thanksgiving weekend, it’s traditional that someone posts something from the infamous “Turkey Drop” episode of WKRP in Cincinnati.  I’ve seen it a half-dozen times already in my Facebook feed, mostly from non-radio people.  We radio folks know it by heart because we lived it.  Not necessarily a promotional stunt just like the Turkey Drop, but something similar. 

Radio is nothing but weird stories like that, and yeah, most of WKRP was based on actual stuff that did happen – including the Turkey Drop.  The original event was in Georgia somewhere, and had turkeys thrown from trucks…with the same “splat” result. As God is my witness, these stories are (mostly) true.

Today’s story from yours truly surpasses WKRP in sheer weirdness, and frankly, it’s a gag I don’t remember seeing on the show.  Perhaps because it doesn’t translate well to TV.  Perhaps it’s because it’s so ubiquitous.  Certainly at a student station like WQBR the “I left the mic open” scenario was so. 

My favorite “forgettee” was Mark Santa Maria, who would always move and groove to the tunes he was playing, and neglect to turn his mic off.  One Friday afternoon he was especially vocal, and was singing and banging around the studio, and making a horrible racket.  As we watched from the office, no matter how hard gestured, we could not get his attention to the open mic, and he was oblivious to his own noise.  Finally looked up, saw us out in the office making all sorts of pointed movement towards him, and shouted,


What we want is to let you know your microphone is still on.

But that’s not the story I wanted to tell you, though it does involve an open microphone.  In the fall of 1985, I went to work for KRXX in Eugene, OR.  K-rocks was an AM rocker with an eclectic format, and DJs were pretty much on their own, which meant blues in the morning, pop in mid-day, album oriented rock in PM drive, new wave at night, and ratings a bit lower than WKRP had.  Actually, the local high-school student station had better ratings.  It was a weird thing, trust me, but the story begins a few weeks after my hire, and I am at home, in bed awakening and listening to the station as my alarm.  It’s 6:30, and time for the news.

The morning format was news at the top and bottom for about five minutes, then back to music.  Annie would throw it back to John, the morning guy, with a question about what was going to played next, something like, “It’s 51 degrees at the Rock, KRXX, and what do we have coming up, John?”  John would reply with something like, “In this next hour we’ll have some music from Bonnie Raitt, John Lee Hooker, and the Doors.”  Pretty standard stuff.

John had been living with our overnight jock Syd for a while before I started working at the station.  They were quite an item for a while, then, had a big falling out.  It got ugly, and to the point where they were no longer on speaking terms (but both continued to work at the station).  This was awkward, perhaps no more so than at 6:00 when Syd’s shift ended and John’s began.  

On this day, John was running a bit late.  As Syd descended the stairs to the front door, he was coming up those same stairs.  Words were exchanged.  Things got hot.  John, realizing that he was late and still needing to get upstairs and put on the next record, attempted to get by Syd.  She grabbed his leather jacket, ripping it (in her version his jacket got “caught on something”).  He pushed by her and moved to the studio (in her version he “pushed me violently down the stairs”).  He grabbed a record, tossed it on the turntable, deftly cued it up, and began his show just as Syd’s record faded out.

And now it’s 6:35.  “It’s 51 degrees at the Rock, KRXX, and what do we have coming up this half hour, John?”

“John?”  Five seconds of dead air, then, “John?”  And then a grunt.  And then, silence.

The news studio is right next to the main studio, with the customary window between so that the DJ and the newscaster can see each other.  However, at KRXX the news audio board was placed on a high table in front of this window.  And Annie was short…very short.  So she couldn’t see John when he was in his chair…which he wasn’t, but she didn’t know that.  So she stood, and saw that he wasn’t in the chair.  And he wasn’t anywhere in the studio.  As she stood on tiptoe (the grunt), she could see outside the open door of the newsroom, and out the window of the building of our facilities on Charnelton in downtown Eugene into a parking lot which we shared with other businesses in the building. 

And she saw John being helped into a police car.  So, being the intrepid newscaster she was, she raced downstairs to see why.

Leaving her door open and the microphone on.

At home, I am hearing mostly silence and muffled sounds.  No Bonnie Raitt.  No Doors.  Nothing.  I drag my butt out of bed and call the station.  No answer.  Meanwhile, there’s still nothing but nothing emanating from 1450AM on my radio.

Meanwhile, down in the parking lot, Annie is getting the lowdown that John is being arrested on Assault and Battery charges (via Syd, of course).  In an amazing coincidence, she spots one of our local interns walking to school, and frantically persuades him to go up to the studio and take John’s spot until she can call someone and get a replacement.  “Just play anything, quick,” she says.  I know this is what she says because her news mic is still on and I can hear her saying this to him as they come up the stairs.  I know it’s the intern because he had a bad leg and is clomping up the stairs like step-CLOMP, step-CLOMP, and Annie is imploring him to hurry because we’ve got (almost) nothing but dead air.

And I know this because I can hear all of this (somewhat faintly)…because her microphone is still on. 

In fact, the last thing I hear is her realization that it’s still on, as she sees the light (literally) and then I hear “Oh, shhh…” and then complete silence.  And then a few moments later a song comes on.

I took a shower and got dressed, and headed for the phone to find out what the hell happened, but before I could, John’s voice was on the radio, apologizing for the time out, thanking the intern, “and now, here are the Doors, on KRXX.” 

Later at work, I got the whole low-down.

Once at the police station, John explained what happened on the stairway, and somehow got the cops to drive him BACK to the radio station, all within 20 minutes.  Later that morning Syd and John went to the police station to deal with the situation.  She eventually dropped charges and from then on would hide in the Production studio until she heard John’s voice on the air, and then she would leave the station.  BTW, that procedure lasted about two weeks before the next blowup (at an all-staff meeting – how fun!).  That just might be another story.

I kept waiting for some fallout from listeners about the silence, the dead air, the weird background noise instead of music.  No one called, no one complained. 

We really did have lousy ratings.

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