My first lesson in radio was how to say the letter “W”. Dave Stone, the program director who hired me to cover weekends on Q98, WQSM, in Fayetteville, North Carolina, informed me it is “Double-You”, not “Dubya”. I spent my high school years competing in speech and debate, graduated college with a theatre degree and acted professionally in a few productions, but Southern accents die hard.
Before I could leave his office, he instructed me to learn a few other things about radio:
1. No one wants to hear you blather. Shut up and play the music.
2. Caller number 10 isn’t really the winner. Women age 18-45 are our demographic. They win. If a man calls in tenth, take another call.
3. It doesn’t matter if you detest R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly”, you are not paid to play music you like. Play what’s on the list. So, stop spinning Crash Test Dummies.
Radio in 1996 was not like it looked on WKRP in Cincinnati in 1980.
I came to radio via theatre. After college I worked as a regional theatre stage manager and then an actor with a traveling children’s theatre show. It was a two-person play designed for easy portability so we could hit two to three schools a day with our forty-five minute versions of Robin Hood and the Greek Myths. We traveled from one school cafetorium to another, criss-crossing the Southeast. I swear they all served the exact same Salisbury steak, whipped potatoes and green beans on the days we performed.
Somewhere in the middle of a 300-mile day, driving a white kidnapper van with my reticent acting partner, I decided I wasn’t cut out for the theatre life. I tried to imagine how I’d feel with a more engaging role in a real play, better hotels, audiences that used full-size toilets, but I still couldn’t see how I’d like the endless touring, never feeling like I really belonged anywhere.
The balm to my brain on those tedious drives was listening to the radio. NPR interviews and shows kept me company, and they kept my mind from turning the consistency of those Salisbury steaks. I didn’t feel so alone when I was sitting down with Terry Gross and another fascinating guest.
About three months into the tour, I began to strategize about getting a public radio job. It had all the performance and arts I wanted, but hosts got to use their own words. I liked talking with real people more than following someone else’s dialogue over and over and over and over and…
On top of that, I was in love. I fell for a cool younger guy who was the Assistant Technical Director at the regional theatre. He was going to school in Fayetteville, where all my family was. I wanted to spend time with him, and an acting career demands absolute loyalty. Love doesn’t lead to stardom.
Luckily, I wasn’t the only person getting out of theatre. The Operations Manager at the theatre in Fayetteville recently left to start at Q98, running the overnight shift. He put in a word for me to fill-in on weekends once I got off tour.
Only theatre people would think moving into radio in the 90’s was a good career move.
Q98 wasn’t the public radio job I dreamed of during those long van trips. It was a commercial adult contemporary station, 100,000 watts, playing hits from Mariah Carey, Hootie and the Blowfish, and Celine Dion. It wasn’t my kind of music, but it was a chance to get experience that I thought might help me move into the coveted coffee cup and Birkenstock culture of non-profit radio.
Even though I had little enthusiasm for Q98’s music in 1996, it was the station I loved as a kid. I still have cassette tapes I made of broadcasts in the 80’s, recording “Say You, Say Me” from Lionel Richie. “I Want To Know What Love Is” by Foreigner and John Parr’s “St. Elmo’s Fire”. At slumber parties we would call up the Q98 DJ’s to giggle and request Duran Duran. So, part of me was a *little* excited to work there.
Before my first Saturday running the board all by myself I told all my friends, my family, and my boyfriend to listen. I imagined I’d blow them away, like MTV’s Nina Blackood, all smooth tones and cool vibes. Unfortunately, after I announced a call-in contest for tickets to see Toni Braxton, I forgot to turn off the mic. So, while I tried to answer the phones – which were muted when the mic was open – everyone I cared about heard me fumble with the controls, talking to myself, “Huh, why isn’t this phone working? Hello? Q98, hello?” Surprisingly, Dave Stone gave me a second chance.
Within a few weeks, I got to earn the sweetest money of the gig, a remote broadcast. I only made $6 an hour to forward promote Duncan Shiek’s “Barely Breathing”, but taking the station van to a car dealership paid $50 an hour for three hours. Easy. Money.
This time I didn’t tell anyone, in case I had another disaster. I did tell my mom. She had to listen, she was my mom.
It was a weekday afternoon and I sat by the van in a vast parking lot, surrounded by Escorts and Probes. Twice an hour the DJ tossed it over to me so I could smile and say, “Hey, hey, come on down to Lafayette Ford on Raeford Road! I’m here with great deals and the prize wheel. Drop on by, take a spin, and get your pick of a CD, a T-shirt or a bunch of other great gifts. Then you gotta check out these super sales they’ve got on the Fiesta and a four-wheel drive Bronco. Lafayette Ford and Q98, hot fun in the summertime!” If I could, I’d wrestle some passer-by to cheer and yell behind me while I talked, to make it sound even more like a raucous party.
When I got home, my mom asked me if I had a great time. I looked at her with my fresh sunburn, hair plastered to my head with sweat, my head still spinning from exhaust fumes. “NO.”
“But it sounded like you were having a great time.”
“Welcome to the reality of radio, mom. I get paid to fake it. Everything in radio is fake. Caller number 10… isn’t. Turns out I didn’t leave acting after all.”
By the time a few more weeks passed, the thrill was long gone. I wasn’t making much more than minimum wage. I was bored. Sitting at the controls all weekend, I’d mutter to myself, “I graduated summa cum laude and THIS is the best I can do. I’m twenty-freaking-three years old with a high school job.” I played Alanis Morrisette’s “Ironic” and had to agree with her. It was like a free ride when I already paid.
I considered calling up the touring children’s theatre and begging for my job back. But then, I got a tiny break. The evening DJ took a job with a dance club. My friend got promoted out of overnights and took over the seven to midnight shift. The station needed an overnight announcer.
To be clear, Q98 did not need dulcet tunes and a wicked personality to rock the Sandhills all night long. The station needed a living human being capable of pushing a button in case of disaster. WQSM was the Emergency Alert Repeater for the five county area.
Every other station in the region automated overnights. If an emergency occurred, the overnight DJ at Q98 had to be able to push the button to override those other frequencies and deliver alerts and public safety information.
My big break required none of my education and talent, just my finger. Or possibly an elbow if I was eating a sandwich at the time. Still, a break is a break. It kept me in town, close to my boyfriend. I took the job. I did not get a raise.
It didn’t take long for me to start automating myself overnight. I’d spend the first hour taping all the breaks till 6 a.m. into the computer system. Then I’d go to my boss’s desk and take a spin on a new-fangled thing called the Internet. Searching Yahoo, looking up old friends, eating Lean Cuisine microwave meals and making sure disaster didn’t go unnoticed. That was my job.
The building housed both Q98 and its AM news-radio sister station, WFNC. Another part of my job was making sure that signal stayed on the air, so that listeners wouldn’t miss The Art Bell Show, Coast to Coast, broadcast from the “Land of Nye”, Nevada.
Art Bell talked about the paranormal, the occult, pseudoscience, and UFO’s. As I floated through the halls of the station, all alone, a ghost in the middle of the machines, I’d hear his guests discuss topics that were far scarier in the dark of 2 a.m. One night he hosted “honest-to-goodness vampires”. I had to hide in the FM control booth because it creeped me out so badly.
Art Bell had 15 million listeners, the highest rated late-night radio host in the country. I maybe had 15. There were fans of my shift, though. Convenience store attendants appreciated knowing someone else was awake like them. And then there were the boys at the glue factory.
One night the glue guys called up the request line and said they wanted to know what I looked like. The sad truth about radio is that most people who go into it have a face for radio. So, I lied.
I said, “Well, I’m five-foot ten, I have long, blonde hair, blue eyes…”
The guy on the other end of the phone relayed each trait to the guys standing near him, “She says she’s blonde!”
Then I said, “And my real name is Christie Brinkley.”
They were disappointed. But, desperate for human contact, I started asking them about their jobs, why they got into glue manufacturing, what the most interesting thing about their work was. Finally I jokingly asked, “When do the horses arrive?”
He said, “They come in on Thursday.”
I learned too much. But, they were my fans.
The date passed when I would have started rehearsing the next season at the children’s theatre. My boyfriend transferred to a new university an hour-and-a-half up the Interstate. Since I worked all night, I slept all day and never saw anybody socially. I had the radio remorse real bad. Then, Mother Nature came to rescue.
Hurricane Fran was a Category 3 storm, bigger than Hugo or Andrew. In early September ’96, she blew past South Carolina and made her way toward Cape Fear. From there, the hurricane followed the Cape Fear River into the mainland and headed right for Fayetteville. It was getting dark when the winds picked up and the entire news team and on-air staff hunkered down for a long night of tracking.
I showed up for my shift early in the evening and ran the board while reporters came in during the commercial breaks to deliver updates and emergency shelter information. The winds and rain kept getting worse, and finally the news director made the call. They suspended all programs, simulcast on both the AM and FM, and went wall-to-wall with Fran coverage. I had never seen that kind of news action. I loved it.
A little before midnight, power went out around the area. More than a million people lost electricity. The station had a backup generator for just that reason. We kept broadcasting.
Hurricane Fran was exactly the emergency that made my job necessary. It was the moment when I was supposed to push the button and take over five counties worth of signal. Unfortunately, the engineer was there and he did it for me.
Then, the news wire went down. Phone lines snapped. The fledgling Internet was no use for real-time information. News staff scrambled to get reliable reports from TV, but every other station was in the same situation.
The news director debated about how to address our limitations on-air without inciting panic. We were broadcasting, but we were as blind about events as our listeners. Outside, gusts reached almost 100 mph, and tornadoes began to spin off the winds. I got scared. That’s when a woman named Wendy Riddle taught me what radio is all about.
Wendy was the voice of my childhood. My dad was a devoted listener of her daily call-in show, “Sound Off”. When she wasn’t on the air, she was a wickedly good actor, singer and stage performer. Her picture hung all over the regional theatre where I used to work. I wanted to be like Wendy.
She walked into the control booth and said, “We’re going all phones.” With a calm, warm voice, Wendy told the listeners exactly what happened, that we needed them as much as they needed us. She told everyone that they were our eyes and ears, that as long as we had a signal we would let each other know that we weren’t alone.
The calls flooded in. People were hiding in bathtubs, watching 100 year-old trees snap in two, worrying about neighbors whose houses were obscured by sheets of sideways rain. Each and every caller said how much it meant to hear the voices in the dark coming through on their little battery radios.
Reporters tried to track the storm by the places people called from: Lumberton, then Red Springs, then Dunn. We knew Fran would keep moving, that it wouldn’t last forever, but every moment felt like an eternity.
When Wendy started to get hoarse from non-stop talking, the other hosts stepped in. I even got a chance to take calls. My voice was thin and shaky, but I was fueled by the intensity of talking with strangers in the middle of a terrifying night.
Finally, Fran moved on, smashing through Raleigh and wreaking havoc all the way up the Eastern seaboard. She managed to make it as far as southern Canada before finally venting all her force and settling into a light rain.
In Fayetteville, the sun rose on a scene of incredible damage. Neighborhoods were covered in splintered trees, powered stay out for days, sewage overflowed into the Cape Fear River, and at the station we all stayed in action-mode. I loved it.
That night I decided I definitely wanted to have a radio career. I knew it wasn’t the medium of the future. I suspected that the Internet might soon have more to offer than a dancing baby viral video. But, I wanted to learn how to bring a community together with nothing more than the power of voice.
I didn’t stay on overnights forever. I started producing the morning show. Then I got a job in North Myrtle Beach, not much better than Q98, but I got to be a morning show co-host. A little over a year later I got a job in public radio in Rocky Mount, North Carolina – where my boyfriend was in college. Eventually, I made my way to the Pacific Northwest and twelve years as a host and producer at an NPR station in Seattle. My dream.
But, two years ago I quit my radio career. This Internet thing IS big. Trying to stay relevant in the smart phone era, radio … didn’t feel like radio anymore. Audience numbers mattered more than making connections with the audience. I spent longer hours in the studio, and fewer at home.
I wasn’t the only one to step away from the mic. The guy who helped me get my first job left his gig and now has his own photography studio. Wendy Riddle retired. Even my first program director, Dave Stone, quit the business, changed his name, and moved to Portland.
I’ve been building my own business since then, and at the age of 41 I’m not even making what I did at Q98. It’s probably a good thing I didn’t know how things would turn out back when I was twenty-freaking-three.
In the wake of my radio life, I look back and wonder what I can take with me. Is there anything about radio that I loved and didn’t lose by giving up the air shift? For one, I’m spending more time with my husband. He was the cool boyfriend I wanted to be near in the first place. But, there’s more.
That night during Hurricane Fran we depended on a radio signal to stay in touch. But, it wasn’t really technology that brought thousands of people together. Radio didn’t make the magic, and neither does the Internet now. It was the voices in the dark. People sharing their fears, their hopes, and their lives with each other, that’s the magic.
I now co-produce a live storytelling show, Drunken Telegraph. It takes me full circle back to theatre. My husband runs tech for me, just like that first job out of college.
We invite people to take the stage and share real-life experiences with a roomful of strangers. Sharing and listening to those stories gives me what I loved most about radio, what made me want a radio career in the first place, the opposite of loneliness: community.