During my life I’ve held many jobs. I’ve been “Part-Time Employee #3” and a “Chairman and Chief Executive Officer,” though when you’re the creator of a business and have the ability to give yourself a title, it rings a bit hollow. Gradually entering the non-profit (and now I’m so “non-profit,” for the past few years due to illness I’ve also been “non-paid”) sector, for the past 23 years I’ve served in a position that’s evolved into that of being the Executive Director of Oak City Media, Inc., and with it General Manager of a radio station, 101.9 WKRP.
I first got into radio in April, 1982, at age 12 (and a half). I was in a building visiting an older friend around lunchtime, and as we were talking and walking down a hallway on our way to the Coke machine, I was approached by a man who asked me to repeat something I’d just said. Having forgotten whatever it was in that moment and thinking I’d offended him, I replied with “I’m sorry. Were we disturbing you?”
As it turned out, the man was the program director of one of the town’s radio stations. My friend and I had just passed his open office door, and he overheard me speaking. While since I was 9 years old watching “WKRP in Cincinnati,” I always thought it’d be cool to get into broadcasting as a profession, I wasn’t naive enough to think that a radio station was going to hire a kid, so I never considered pursuing the notion, figuring I could do that as an adult. “Would you come with me, please?” At this point my mind’s racing, “I said something that pissed this guy off,” I thought. But what? But I also followed him. I was a 12 year old kid, what was he going to do? Beat me up?
Walking into his office from the hallway I heard a teletype in the background at around the same time he handed me the first piece of teletype paper I would ever hold. “Read this aloud for me, would you?”
I took it and read it. I remember it was an A.P. article about then-Secretary of State doing something, well, Al Haig-like. When I finished, he asked “How old are you?” At that moment it suddenly dawned on me that (a) though I saw no broadcast equipment, I was in a radio station, and (b) this was the first job interview of my life. And knew immediately what to do next: lie.
“18, Sir,” I replied.
“What’s the capital of Kentucky?” he retorted. ‘Frankfort,” I responded. That tripped him up, as he believed it to be Louisville – the magic word he was trying to get me to say. After a moment’s debate he broke out a copy of the 1981 World Almanac and Book of Facts and learned that the capital of Kentucky was, in fact, Frankfort. “Okay, smart guy. So where’s the Kentucky Derby held each year?” Knowing what he wanted me to respond with (“Louisville”), I decided to play with him. “Churchill Downs,” I replied, smiling. He laughed. “Okay, really smart guy,” he says, so where is Churchill Downs?” At that point I gave the answer he’d wanted, but more importantly with the pronunciation he wanted: “Lou-eh-vull.” Not “Louis-ville” or “Louie-ville,” but “Lou-eh-vull.” He wrote down a name on a piece of paper and asked me to pronounce it. “It’s pronounced Zuh-big-new Bre-zin-ski, but you misspelled it… you see, there’s a first ‘z’ between the ‘r’ and ‘e’,” I replied, “He was Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor.” Yes, I knew that kind of thing at 12 (and a half). My grandmother told me I’d be President of the United States if I wanted to be someday, and I took that thought and considered a political path as an adult as a result. Had he written any other Polish name down, I’dve blown it. But that one? I knew.
“You’re a really smart kid with a helluva voice,” he said as he reached his point. “Ever think about working in radio?” Again, I took the smart course – I lied. “No, not really.” He told me he’d just had his 5:00 news anchor quit for a job at a TV station in Lubbock, Texas, and asked if I’d like a shot at the job. “Sure, that might be fun,” I said. This was at 12:45. I was on the air that afternoon at 5.
Flash forward, 37 years later. I’ve bounced in and out of radio a few times in between. At my first jobs I usually stuck around just long enough to get fired for saying the wrong thing not on the air, but off it. Like the time I told my boss he “couldn’t write a decent suicide note, let alone decent air copy.” Had I any idea six weeks earlier his brother had taken his own life? I’d never have said it. I once got fired by FAX machine as part of a station format change, which was amusing. Mostly though I left on my own terms, including one instance where I scribbled out a resignation on the back of 3″ x 5″ index card and handed it to the station’s General Manager during a staff meeting in which he’d just announced a change in format to all country, starting at the first of the next month. I left the room, but thanks to the GM I left it laughing, as he called out to me, “Mac! Wait! I want you as the new program director!” Yes. I hate country music to the point where I gave up a job (and what would’ve been a $20,000/year bump in pay – which for a then-23 year old kid would’ve been huge). I got a similar chuckle 15 years later from a new station owner who wanted to me as program director of his urban format (e.g., rap, hip-hop, R&B) station. Me. Mr. Lackof Melanin. Unlike country I’ve no issue with urban music, but I knew enough to know I couldn’t program it, so I took a hard pass there as well.
As I write this I find myself back in it, albeit with much different goals (and zero financial reward) in mind. 101.9 WKRP is about to undergo a slight modification to its format, beginning in January. Not a change – and definitely not to a country format, but merely an evolution of what we presently have. I’m listening to airchecks of people who want to be on our air with our (also unpaid) program director, deciding who we want, who we don’t; and if we want them, where we can put them in our schedule. I could technically be fired by Oak City Media’s board of directors, but after 23 years I think I’m fairly safe in my job (especially as long as I don’t ask them to start paying me a salary again). As I did that first day in April 1982? I love what I’ll be doing in January 2019. I consider myself very fortunate, in that I’ve maybe actually “worked” 5 years in my life; the rest has either been (a) doing something I’ve enjoyed, and having someone else pay me to do what I’dve likely done for free anyway, or (b) being in an environment that was such fun that I wanted to work there because it was fun, and not because of a paycheck.
Lately I’ve been counting my blessing a lot more than I had in the past. I’m not really sure why, but while I’m not looking back with nostalgia or looking forward with apprehension, I’m for once living in the present; cognizant of how different factors have shaped my life and made me what and who I’ve become. And appreciative of those factors – even the bad ones. When I was 19 I thought I knew everything in the world. When I was 30 I didn’t think I knew anything. Now as I combine the two at 49, I realize I know a lot more than most but don’t feel like I know as much as I should. Maybe that’s a sign of “adultin’,” as my kids call it.