I hear the same digital explosion-sweeping sound at 59:50 every hour. It’s the legal ID that’s required to play according to FCC regulations. It’s almost like an alarm, a trigger, I stop whatever I’m doing and methodically put my hands on the sound board to prepare myself to time into the news. The AP news plays at the top of each hour for exactly two minutes. This is where you can hear the sonic subtle bliss that is my magical contribution to the station. Since the AP news is delivered via satellite the news plays on a different channel than the station’s commercials and prerecorded segments. Those play out of Wide Orbit a software that we use to load and manipulate the elements that go on-air. Therefore, some poor-soul struggling against the current of a dying industry with intent of gaining some type of footing to take a stride in the direction of a radio career is given the duty of timing into the news at the top of the hour. I’m not sure why but hitting it perfectly every hour feels like a small victory. I always picture that infamous image of Mahammad Ali towering over Sonny Liston in the first minute of the first round. And then that’s it. My work is done until the next 59:50.
My expectations had already built the radio world up to unreachable heights by the time I had my first interview with 720 KDWN’s program director John Shaffer. Especially when I learned that the Beasley building housed different stations each specializing in a genre. There’s a Country station, an Adult Contemporary station, Old School R&B station and of course a Classic Rock station. I imagined myself bumping into to Taylor Swift on the way to the restroom or holding the door for Brandy and her publicist while sarcastically humming the melody to “the Boy is Mine.” Or cracking my knuckles after they’ve been released from Keith Urban’s or Jason Aldean’s firm handshake.
I also was excited about the prospect of getting to dress the part. My interest in fashion will no longer have to hide behind a company’s uniform policy or the shameful need for comfortable clothes while on the clock. So I tucked a vintage shirt into high waisted skinny jeans and tied on the clunkiest pair of TUK creepers I owned. Shaffer’s polo shirt, khaki shorts and sandals were not impressed or envious of the limited range of motion that my outfit implied. It was my first lesson in radio fashion which is a nice mix of confidence, comfort and apathy.
I was years away on both accounts. Part of radio fashion stems from the harsh reality of the new industry. It’s no secret that radio is having a hard time finding it’s footing in the new world of technology. Streaming services, podcast and Sirius radio have beaten radio into a fraction of what it once was. Sports X Radio hosts Ken Thompson started his career in 1991 in Southern California. “Radio was like the main avenue as far as media especially in Los Angeles because so many people were stuck in their cars commuting,” Thompson said. Over the years while traffic hasn’t improved listening options have been greatly expanded, making it hard for smaller shows to catch a break in a market. As a result, radio stations have been drying up. The usual career trajectory from board operator to successful on-air personality is a path that’s harder to travel currently. When Thompson reminisces about the past he gets a little bitter comparing it to the future. “Everything seems to keep getting more and more diluted with everyone worrying about their own brand…Many stations don’t even use live talent, they go satellite from somewhere else to keep cost down,” Thompson said.
With KDWN, the AM station that I spend most of my time with I feel every inch of Thompson’s comments. The building is mostly empty, especially on weekends and any day after 5:00 PM. Sure there’s a certain sense of accomplishment that comes with having the option of drinking on the clock and taking 420 friendly smoke breaks at your convenience but you also begin to miss gossiping with coworkers, talking endlessly about nothing until it’s literally not an option.
Though my preconceived notions of a career in radio were shattered I would never write them off as a loss. In my short experience as a board operator I’ve been able to pick up a few traits that I’ll be able to carry throughout my life. While there’s the obvious ones like time management, back timing and multitasking the only that gets used every shift is patience.
KDWN’s local 6:00 show The Vegas Take is hosted by a professional sports handicapper and a disillusioned reporter. Under the guise of being a current events, politics, sports and entertainment show the hosts stumble through two hours of a mix of socially awkward and irate callers. I feel like I constantly have to pray for forgiveness from the radio Gods for broadcasting what must be the lowest points in radio history. Now that anyone with a mic, an opinion and enough money to afford the monthly contract can broadcast their thoughts to thousands of retired upper middle-class Baby Boomers, shows like these have become the brunt of AM radio.
The relationships between the host and their listeners is much like the mentality of teenage boys in the locker room. Of course, there’s the potential for it to stay mature and civilized but the mob mentality IQ level can get real low real quick. It just takes one wet towel snap for a room full of gentlemen to behave like foals galloping towards a stag party. Since your average person would recognize the fact that the host’s opinions are just that and not based in any type of fact or research, the type of listener that calls in on a regular basis is an all-American mix of guts, piss and misinformation. To them the boarder wall is the best option despite the data. Gun control is what led to Nazi Germany. And beer should be light, cheap and have a camouflage can option, none of this high gravity IPA nonsense. While working for the show I’ve heard enough rude, narrow minded and racist statements to match my South Carolina upbringing. Which is a bold statement. Despite these crude and completely ridiculous comments it’s my job to stay neutral, level-headed and friendly. No one dictated these terms to me I just realized it was a role I had to fill.
A lot of a board operator’s job is looking at the situation and seeing what needs to be done. Including everything from mic placement to damage control, it just helps if you’re sensitive to the situation. The listeners especially the ones who muster the courage to call in and spar with the host are usually from a group that already feels like they’re on the fringe of society and that people are trying to take away their voice. So despite the host barrage of insults I try to at least thank them for listening before they hang up.
Often some callers are so upset that they’ll call back multiple times. To be honest there’s not a wide pool of callers so many of them already know that they’re not allowed on air twice in one show. So they’ll call specifically to vent to me. To be quite honest a range of topics are covered in these moments. Everything from regret that they didn’t get to finish their point before the host cut in making them look foolish to larger concerns like the effect of global warming on dolphins being a hoax.
Willfree, one of the most regular and strange callers, has opened up about a lot during our brief interactions. He’s always immensely polite and articulate, attributions I hardly ever associate with racist-narrow-minded people. Once Willfree told me that a revolution to the extent that we’ve never seen before was coming and we needed to be prepared. He was surprised to hear that I had already considered this and planned on being a hostage for whichever side got to me first. One day Willfree told me that he wanted to state the obvious that, “African-Americans or Blacks are just not evolving at the same rate as the rest of the population.” His comments seemed harsh and particularly ridiculous; his comments were always ridiculous, but this was the first time they seemed cruel. Willfree had always complimented me on my communication skills and my willingness to listen and sympathize, so somehow I felt it wasn’t my place to tell him I was black. I didn’t want to shatter his theory. This one backwards ass-racist-idea might be the only thing that Willfree is hanging onto. What if he found out that African Americans had the potential to be smart, intelligent, kind people but they were being held down by institutions and societal standards that were put into place years ago? It might be too much for him. So I did what any good radio board operator would do, I thanked him for listening and asked that he enjoyed the rest of the evening. You have to be patient.