(Above: Some of the trucks I’ve rented over the years.)
One of the rarest things in radio is a planned, scheduled last show. I’ve had more than my share of them, across almost 30 years on the air. Usually, air talent don’t get a last show. It can be risky: a story that I heard (but a show that I didn’t) involved talent in the Quad Cities who were given plenty of notice that the format of their station would be changing. The new owner thought he was performing a kindness to give such advance notice, and was thanked for his trouble by a morning jock who signed off at 10am with a heartfelt goodbye to the audience, followed by a calm, repeated stream of profanity. (Yes, he said THE WORD. The queen mother…)
Maybe I’m a little more trusted, because I usually got one when I went to leave a station. Most of the time I said very little about what was to come next if anything. (As I shared in my story about leaving 97X, I reminded the program director that the station wasn’t going off the air; I was simply leaving.) My most recent radio departure came last month: I’ve been providing news anchoring services for a few radio stations, and one asked if I’d agree to a 30% pay cut for the same amount of work. I counter-offered them what amounted to a 50% pay cut for a 50% cut in work, which they declined to accept. So, I simply did my last newscast, and no one was the wiser for it. When I left WFGR in Grand Rapids to move over to launch WGVU’s oldies station, I simply said “I’ll talk to you soon – check local listings for time and station.” It took about a week before anyone even noticed I was gone. (The station’s ill-advised format change had decimated the audience, so I doubt anyone even heard the joke.)
When I was younger, though, I always made sure to let people know I was leaving. I was The Star, and desperately wanted the attention. And so it was 27 years ago tonight when I signed off of KRVR in Davenport, Iowa for the final time. KRVR was my first full-time radio job. I had only started it in October, and it went sour very quickly. We had a program director who could best be described as unhinged. (My friend Jim Bartlett, who I met at KRVR, wrote a great piece about him on his blog.) We’ll call him “J.”, since that was what he called himself. Just the letter.
The end of the road was right after Christmas. My car died on a very cold Christmas Eve morning AND had a flat tire. Some good friends drove out to Davenport to get me, and my parents arranged for me to fly back to work on Christmas night in time for my show, since I did not have the night off. As fate would have it, my flight was a bit delayed, and I got to the station almost an hour after my show was supposed to start. Since the show was automated, this didn’t seem like a big deal, and in a pre-cellphone world it wasn’t exactly possible to call from the cab. Anyway, I got there with my luggage in tow and did the show, catching a ride home later that night.
The next day I got a handwritten memo from J. I wish I still had it, since it was full of errors: spelling, grammar, and decency. Rather than ask to see me, he scrawled a note to let me know that I was “on probation.” We didn’t have any sort of handbook or rules of this nature at the station, so I simply took “probation” to mean “the writing was on the wall.” I made arrangements with my friend John, who lived in Macomb, Illinois – about an hour away – to move into their apartment. Plan was to get there, regroup, maybe hang out at the college station, and then look for work.
Once I had everything lined up, I asked J. for a meeting. I gave him a resignation letter, saying that clearly this wasn’t working for either of us, and offered my two weeks’ notice. I figured that someone should be the adult, and at 20, it would have to be me. He said that the market was “too big for me,” that I clearly wasn’t ready for it, and only requested one week. I didn’t argue.
The night of January 12 I did my show as scheduled. When the last break before midnight happened, I told the audience that I would be there no more. I thanked members of the airstaff who were decent (darn it, I overlooked the management team!) and my friends who supported me. I was able to figure out what the song that would follow the break on the reel-to-reel automation was, and – as luck would have it – it was “Leaving On a Jet Plane.” I introduced it, said goodbye, and left. The next day I loaded my things into a U-Haul, went to Macomb, and that was that.
Epilogue: Within about a month J. fired everyone at the station and brought in several of his radio cronies. The first one was hired to replace me, and his availability hastened my exit. But J. didn’t last, either. When 97X hired me that following fall I showed up at an event to find him representing a different radio station. He remembered me, walked right up to me, and said hello, asking what I was doing there. I told him that I had been hired across town at the top-rated station. His smile disappeared, he turned around, and we never spoke again.
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