April 17, 2004

All Talk

Radio has been a two-edged sword in my life. Radio was my first big passion. It is also an industry full of deeply, crushingly dysfunctional people - and I was one of them, when I was in the business. Maybe worse than most.

Radio was my first really bad crush. I got into it when I was 16. The first time I got fired from a radio job - when I was 17, and the station I started at was bought by some people from out of town who fired everyone and started over from scratch - I reacted like any high school kid acts when his first love dumps him; I mooned around the house, got depressed, figured I'd never love like that again. Then I found another, and forgot about it.

The first really serious love of my life was talk radio. We met when I was 22, just out of college, in one of the strangest incidents I've had happen to me. I got on the air, got my own talk show, and fell deeply in love with the business - and, more importantly, what I felt the business made me.

And when, after about two years, I got caught in one of Hubbard Broadcasting's spasms of firings, it was just like I'd broken up with the biggest real love of my life. I was 24, and like a lot of people in radio, had spent all of my mental and emotional energy on my career; I'd spent no time on any form of self-awareness. So it was only in retrospect - years later - that I could see that I spent several years in a self-perpetuating spiral of depression, failure and misery. The harder I worked to get back into talk radio, the farther the goal seemed, and the worse my depression got.

By 1989, two years after I'd gotten diced at KSTP, I didn't think life could possibly get any lower.

It did. But not forever.


The Northern Alliance filled in for Hugh Hewitt last Tuesday and Wednesday night.

How did it sound? I'm always the worst possible judge - like a lot of radio people, I hate the sound of my own voice, at least on tape after the show, when your own mistakes, "ums", ahs, and bobbles practically jump through the speakers at you. But a bunch of emails and a compliment or two can't all all be wrong, so I think I'll be cautiously satisfied...

The rest of the guys, by the way, have actually really warmed up to doing the show. Peoples' timing is coming along nicely; cues that used to get dropped are getting picked up; interviews that used to have gaps and ums and ahs are now tight and fairly incisive. And, as Lileks noted in his Bleat the other day, group talk shows are usually complete train wrecks; if you remember any of the mid-nineties incarnations of the Barbara Carlson show, or for that matter any of the various "Morning Zoo" radio shows that were in vogue in the eighties, you know what I'm talking about.

In fact, given what I remember about the business - radio, TV, the media in general - it's really an incredible exception - a radio show full of non-radio guys! I think that helps.

The industry is a breeding ground for dysfunctional people. It's no wonder; people usually start in the business at a very impressionable age (late teens, early twenties), when so much of one's adult personality is formed. It's a crappy field for people who want to have a life like everyone around them You almost never quit a job; you get fired, for every kind of reason. If you stink on the air, sure, but if your boss is replaced, you can count on the new boss bringing in a clutch of their own people; if your station is sold and the format changes, or just sold, or (these days) goes from being a live to a satellite operation, it's back to the trades, looking for that next job. As competitive as the field is, it requires monastic dedication not only to advance, but to stay employed. And it draws that dedication - you could call it an addiction, because being on the air is truly addictive. It's not a recipe for well-rounded human beings.

A lot of radio people act like addicts, in fact. Disk-jockeys at small-town stations are like alcoholics - enduring a long, slow slide until death, rehab, or going into insurance sales. Major market jocks? They're smack junkies, stylish enough, but having to chase harder and harder to get the bigger fix market. Talk radio? It's one of the tonier drugs - the people are usually smart, witty, very sharp; think cocaine in the seventies.

And, like all addicts, once you scratch under the surface, the pathology is the same. I say this admitting to being, metaphorically, a guy who started bogarting other guys' chiba when I was 15 and graduated to hoovering up stray granules from other peoples' coffeetables by the mid-eighties.

I started in the business in 1979, at KEYJ in my hometown of Jamestown, North Dakota; I spent a year hanging around the station with my pal, Dick Ingstad (younger brother of radio megapersonality Shadoe Stevens and himself a major syndicated personality today), so owner Bob Richardson figured he'd save himself some liability if he just hired me and got it over with. I worked at a couple of stations through high school and college, and learned two things: I loved being on the air, but being a disk jockey bored me stiff; I loved doing news, and sports, and pretty much anything but sitting and playing records (Records! That's how long ago I started in the business!). I was sick of the racket already, and moved to the Twin Cities after college figuring I was done with radio forever.

I had never heard of talk radio. It didn't exist when I was in high school and college, not in North Dakota. So when I moved to the Twin Cities and, through bizarre circumstances (subject of a post on its own) got a job at KSTP-AM as a phone screener for Don Vogel, it was like a whole new world opened up for me. People arguing politics with other people? People acting juvenile? And getting paid, for doing things I gladly do for free?

It didn't take long before, as Don put it, I got the talk radio infection. I started nagging boss Scott Meyer to put me on the air - and, eventually, Scott took the huge risk of putting me on the air from 2-4 AM Monday mornings.

I was 23. I jumped at it.

I was amazed; there were so many people up and awake at 3AM, with the radio on. I became a minor (very minor) celebrity among insomniacs, third-shifters, aspiring novelists (James Lileks was an occasional caller), was love.

And as self-illiterate as I was, I realized one key thing - I loved doing talk radio. Call it "extreme barroom conversation", if you'd like; it probably fits. I love conversation, and that's what talk radio is, to one extent or another.

And then it ended. I spent probably three years looking, constantly, for the next job, during which time I became so depressed that I, basically, fell off the face of the earth. I disappeared from my friends' radar (and for most of them, I never reappeared).

At the bottom of the spiral, I was 26, working as a night-club disk jockey; up all night, asleep all day. The search for the next talk gig became more and more desultory.

Then I met the woman who became my ex-wife, right around the bottom of the spiral. In Hollywood, that'd be where things start improving. Nah. It was a bad idea - hence the divorce. But we had two kids, and when they came along I had to get my act together. I left radio behind for good, and figured I'd never go back.

Didn't want to, really.


So today we'll do the seventh local Northern Alliance Radio Network show, after doing two Hugh Hewitt shows. And I'm having the time of my life. I'm doing talk radio, without it being my entire reason for existence. I'm having fun argung politics with complete strangers, without the underlying desperation of needing it to be forever. I can see the guy behind the mike, reflected in the window to the control room, and know that he's done things other than talk into the mike and beg for the chance to talk into others. The same guy, just less desperate, less monochromatic, more interesting, less angry..., no. Not less angry. Can you believe that allegedly-rational people would vote for John Freakin' Kerry?

Anyway - if it all ended tomorrow, I'd be happy enough - it's a blast, but it's not my life. Which is a good thing. It's like being able to take a social drink after coming out of rehab, and not having to worry about a relapse.

Anyway - tune in!

Posted by Mitch at April 17, 2004 08:29 AM

Saturday afternoon radio has been wonderful. I have been listening while doing yard work. The Patriot needs to spring for additional microphones, chairs, space, etc. It sounds like you are sitting in each others laps sharing a single microphone.

Posted by: kevin at April 19, 2004 09:50 AM

Forget mics, chairs, etc. How about getting the Patriot to spring for a few more watts (or maybe a repeater station) for us folks up NW of the metro area!

Posted by: Mike at April 19, 2004 06:25 PM

I'll second the comment on a few more watts, but for me it's the SE metro. I love listening to it, but by the time I cross the Wakota Bridge on 494 I have to switch to KSTP or plop in a CD since the signal just dies. That gives me a 30-minute window every day to get my fix of Hugh and that just reeks.

Posted by: nerdbert at April 19, 2004 11:19 PM

I've enjoyed the NA (incidentally, if you were the Northern Viking Alliance you would be the NVA) guest-hosting for Hugh. You fellows are certainly intellectual and informative. More importantly, you are entertaining.

One quibble. You need to improve on stepping on each other's lines. Allow some breathing room and don't be so breathless in launching into an opposing view.

Posted by: Colorado Conservative at April 20, 2004 09:58 AM