I woke up in a cold sweat this morning for no accountable reason.
Let’s just say that I had spent at least a full two REM cycles maniacally searching for 45’s to spin in a sound booth devoid of vinyl while the dead air dragged on and on and on…
I had several jobs as a kid. Delivering papers, busing tables, working in a corner ice cream shop. They were decent jobs and kept me in Tootsie Rolls and the occasional sparkly Wal-Mart belt, but they weren’t REAL jobs. As in, jobs to pay for school clothes, KFC and anything extracurricular.
No. My first real job was as an evening DJ for our local radio station: KNEM, Nevada, Missouri. I was 15, desperate for cash, and this job surely trumped the idea of flipping burgers at the local McDonald’s. Not that burger flipping isn’t a real job – but given my penchant for the McRib sandwich with salty fries, I am pretty sure I would not have brought home much of my pay.
Hence, my humble introduction to the world of radio.
It was one of the perks of being in the Music/Drama/Speech & Debate clique. I was able to rub elbows with my more famous upper classmen who were already being paid to spin the vinyl on alternating evenings at our local station. On the recommendation of my illustrious schoolmate Leslie Welch, who incidentally went on to a very successful major market radio career in Houston, I landed a job 2 evenings a week.
We high school jocks worked from 7 p.m. when the daytime country music stopped and the evening rock and roll began, right up until we signed off at midnight with the national anthem, and the airwaves fell silent until the morning man signed back on. Unless there was a KC Royals game running into extra innings, that is. On those rare occasions, who knew what time we would be allowed to sign off? I am sure the one person in town up at 2 a.m. to hear a late game on the west coast was really going to miss it! Be that as it may, if there was any possibility of George Brett coming up to bat, we remained on the air.
In the ensuing years, through college and into the early years of my marriage, I continued to work off and on in radio, graduating from Sunday mornings to overnights, and in time landing a morning news anchor position at a medium market station in Tulsa. My journey from high school DJ to morning news personality was something of an adventure and is worth an entire entry of its own. Working with egos the size of Texas was something of an eye opener for a girl barely old enough to drink. Remote broadcasts, hosting the Ice Capades and evening Happy Hour parties, interviewing minor celebrities, emceeing charity events and fundraisers and festivals: All of these carried varying degrees of stress.
Oddly enough, my recurrent Radio Nightmare has nothing to do with any of those stressors. What every DJ fears are those 2 little words: DEAD AIR.
So you take a bathroom break only while playing the 17-minute version of “Stairway to Heaven.” You can guarantee the request line will ring during the last 3 seconds of a record and you have nothing cued up to play next. Your boyfriend will drive past the station window and blow you a kiss at the precise moment you are meant to be pushing the button on an ad you have not yet loaded into the deck. Someone has carried a load of 45’s into the production room, buried them under a stack of newspapers and you are short of music to fill the hour… The record is running out. You hear the tick tick of the needle hitting the label and you are scrambling to find something – ANYTHING – to play next.
You are scheduled to read the news and have not checked the AP printer yet and when you do, it is out of paper and typing away merrily onto a black roller… you have no news. Can you recycle old news? No. Where are my commercials? The reel-to-reel is twisted. There is a scratch on The Coleman Report. Casey Kasem’s Top 40 feed has been interrupted. The weather is to be read at the quarter hour and you have not checked the temperature. Is it raining? Is it sunny? You have no idea. Gaaaaaaaaa. Tick tick tick. Where is the music? Where are my spots (commercials)? I gotta go to the bathroom!!!
Yes, my friends. The scramble and the fight against dead air haunts me to this very day. It is sometimes manifested in my staunch refusal to allow awkward silences in any social setting. I tend to assign myself the unofficial emcee of whatever room I am in. It is an annoying habit I can’t seem to shake, yet, oddly enough, I still have friends who tolerate it. Some of them actually love me for it, can you believe?
It has also taken the form of a recurrent nightmare that generally rears its ugly head in response to stress. But sometimes it just likes to drag itself out of the archives and live its hideous moment under the awkward glow of a fluorescent bulb. My radio nightmare takes on a life of its own and transports me back to the brown-carpeted walls of a sound booth and the swivel chair. I am out of music. I watch the red needles dribble slowly to the left as the sound fades and I am sitting with an open mic and nothing to say.
Which is how I woke this morning. I have no particular stress that I can name, but I dearly hope this is not a metaphor for my life. There is yet plenty of music on my shelves. My mind has more words than my mouth can speak or my fingers can type.
Perhaps, then, this was just my old nemesis out for a stroll through the gray matter again.
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