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After high school, I wanted to pursue a career in a stable and thriving industry. So naturally, I chose radio. "There are jobs in radio?" you ask. Not really, but you can still get a degree in it! I worked part-time at two different local stations while I was in school, while also employed at my college station, and I interned at one of the largest radio stations in New York City. Yeah, I radioed the shit out of college.
Unfortunately, after graduating, I realized there were more career opportunities in Zune manufacturing than in radio. Here are some things you learn when you spend any amount of time in the business.
The first station I worked at was locally owned, the music was programmed into the system in-house, and only certain shows accepted requests. A conglomerate that ran stations all over the Midwest owned the second station I worked at. That place was truly bizarre. Like, more bizarre than the fact that radio is still around when Spotify and YouTube exist. Radio still existing is like trying to sell torches in a flashlight store.
At the corporate station, the music was programmed at the main office, and touching that program was a mortal sin. And punishment was being forced to play Miley Cyrus songs over and over, every hour, until ... wait, sorry, that was just my job. The corporate office knows down to the second when you want to hear Nicki Minaj, and if some asshole plays Demi Lovato instead, there's hell to pay. Since we weren't allowed to change the music in any way whatsoever, it was pretty weird that they had a call-in request show.
That's when I learned that it's surprisingly easy to fake a request show. People mostly call in wanting to hear whatever is most popular -- stuff that's on the schedule to play anyway. Surprisingly enough, if 90 percent of your output is the new Katy Perry single, 90 percent of people only want to hear that. I would record them saying they wanted to hear something I knew was coming up in the next hour, and then play it during the break before that song. If they wanted something other than the 12 songs the station usually played on a loop, things got a little bloody.
It was mostly little kids and drunk people who called in to request music, and they did it for the novelty of hearing themselves on the radio. If I denied them that immense pleasure, they tended to get upset. Insane Clown Posse fans and 12-year-old girls who wanted to hear 50 Cent's "In Da Club" were sent away equally disappointed. And we all know that if there's one group of people you don't want to piss off, its 12-year-old girls. They're brutal. That's why if you mention high school, people get all nostalgic, while if you mention middle school, the room goes silent. We don't talk about the Dark Times.
The typical weekend crew for a radio station is one bored college student named Lydia eating hot wings and watching Seinfeld reruns while making sure nothing burns to the ground. If it catches fire a little bit, that's fine. That's a Saturday. Even though you're always hearing someone on-air, what you're hearing is mostly prerecorded or syndicated material.
I thought that everyone understood what syndication meant until I started working in radio. Without fail, 100 percent of the time anyone asked me where I worked, the second question they asked was "Do you know Delilah?" Delilah records one of the few successful syndicated radio shows still going, and she does that recording from her stately farm in Oregon. So yes, I know her. We're dressage buddies.
The people actually watching the station do very little beyond answer the phone and take meter readings once an hour. I was considered a hard worker because I didn't nap on the comfy couch in the sales managers officer or hook up a PlayStation and marathon Call Of Duty during my entire shift. I know, I deserve a medal and a spot in one of those 30 Under 30 articles which detail stuff like "This is Mark. He's 25 and owns a successful business where he makes toilets out of discarded copies of Super Mario Land."
If I wasn't working on a fake call-in show, I was barely in the studio for the station I was live on. Stations run in little clusters, so you'll have one building that houses a sports talk station, a lite rock station, a country station, and probably some Fox News AM bullshit. At night and on the weekends, one person monitors all the stations. There would be times when I was live on a pop station while my recorded breaks played on a lite rock station. It was like I was in two places at once! And no one was paying any attention to either of them.
One of the sadder jobs I had was fending off bill collectors for one of the station directors. If anyone called and asked for him by anything other than his on-air name, I had to pretend that he didn't work there. And neither did I. We were all ghosts. Ghosts can't work. You can't monetize a boo. Beetlejuice has cornered what little market we have. Now that we've gotten the issues of haunting economy out of the way, I must admit that I wasn't very good at saying "Oh, you want Rick? You don't understand. Rick hasn't worked here for 20 years." You might even say that I was bad at it.
That station manager wasn't the only one with a chronic cash flow issue. I made the same amount working in radio as I did at my previous part-time job carefully folding paper-thin T-shirts at Old Navy. People imagine radio personalities are out hobnobbing with Lady Gaga, but we're mostly hobnobbing with Lady Linda from the Visa collections department. No one works as just an on-air personality anymore. A lot of people you hear on the radio are doing double duty in the sales or promotions department. In the case of the first station I worked at, the most popular morning show host was also the station manager. There was a guy they brought in who had worked for the station in the past to launch a new classic rock channel in the same cluster. Everyone was shocked that he agreed to come back because he was making a killing in the garage doors business. The glamorous world of garage door sales is apparently more alluring than a job in the radio industry these days.
I should mention that these are the lucky few people who actually made it into paying radio jobs. The profession has a fairly high bar for entry. The college station I worked at as part of my education has a reunion every five years, and when I went to one as a senior, I quickly discovered that one in every hundred radio/television graduates actually ended up the radio industry. The only other woman at the event sold horse insurance, which is objectively a way cooler and better paying job than working in radio.
I really liked working in small-town radio, so I decided to go for an internship at one of the largest stations in New York City. If I was going to be in radio and make money, pretty much the only way to do it was at a large-market station. The downside is that large radio stations are entirely populated by the worst trash fire people you will ever meet.
One of our bosses kept trying to buy weed from the interns. Not me specifically, because he apparently took one look at me and knew I wasn't cool enough to be a big-city pot dealer, but a bunch of other interns complained about this a lot. And why wouldn't they? It's weird to be asked "Get me a cup of coffee! Also, are you holding?" There was also a ton of gossip and jealousy in the office. There was a guy who was recently promoted to the executive producer role of the morning show, and everyone said he got the job by sleeping with the head of the promotions department. If you listened to everyone there, you would think no one ever actually did any work. They were all just blowing each other all the time for career advancement purposes. I honestly don't think any of it was even true. No one was ever happy to see someone else succeed, so if someone accomplished something, everyone else had to diminish it by making it blowjob fodder.
A remote job at the Bronx Zoo killed my passion for radio forever. I was assisting an on-air personality who went by a name that ended in "Boy," even though he was clearly a 40-year-old man. Boyman showed up late and obviously hungover to the event, and the fact that he did not want to be there was radiating off of him. I did not want that to be my future. My future needed to include way more dick jokes.
Basically, if the television isn't working and Spotify won't tell you if you're going to die or not, people will reluctantly flip on the radio, even in 2017. If there's a tornado warning, everyone available immediately books it to the station in the worst possible weather and bursts in the door with an attitude of "HAHAHA I almost died. Where are my headphones? I'm on in five."
Radio people seem to be immune to fear of bad weather. Maybe it's from years of working through storms, or maybe it's just because most of the people I worked with were 100 years old and no longer feared petty mortality. I remember seeing grizzled DJs crowding by the back door of the station so they could lean outside and smoke as hail pounded the building.
Working during storms was my favorite part of the job. I used to be deathly afraid of tornadoes as a little kid, but working through them really helped me kick my phobia. For some reason, it made me feel like I was in charge of the tornado, and I wasn't going to let it backtalk or murder me. Everyone says that if your kid sees something bad happen, you should comfort them by telling them to "Look for the helpers." If there's a fire, the firemen come to help. If people are having too good of a time, Chris Christie will appear out of thin air. Stuff like that. In the case of tornado weather, I was the helper. All you can really do in that situation is let people know when they're in danger, and that was part of my job.
In a way, I was the answer to the tornado, and therefore I mastered it. Basically, working in radio made me a weather deity. So I guess I recommend it. I mean, it's been around since 1920, so is the industry really dying, or is it an unkillable god-thing? I pick the latter, and I'm putting Assistant to Unkillable God on my resume.
You can follow Lydia on Twitter.
These dope bags will keep that radio spirit alive, or just get one even if you've never used a boombox. You do you.
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