(The famous Los Angeles Times photo of the Bronco chase.)
“So – what are we going to do about the O.J. thing?”
This was the topic of conversation after my morning show finished on Monday, June 20, 1994. I was working as the lead character of the show on Oldies WQQL-FM in Springfield, Illinois. The station had gone on the air earlier that year, and I was brought aboard shortly after the final demise of WCFL-FM in Morris, where I had been toiling as the last employee kept after the rest of the airstaff was sent home as part of the station’s bankruptcy. I only spent, when all was said and done, five months working at this station, ending my contract early to move to New Zealand that August. But I learned a whole lot in that experience: most importantly – and I perhaps didn’t realize it at the time – that I was not cut out to do a morning show.
The powers that be at the cluster didn’t seem entirely comfortable with having an Oldies station. The flagship station in the building was legendary rocker WYMG-FM, and I worked down the hall from Don and Liz, who ruled mornings in Springfield for quite some time. (When I came on board, my contract provided for a bonus for making #2, “since we don’t expect that you’ll ever hit #1 with them in the market.” I hit #2, and they fell to #4, and were shown the door, if I recall correctly. Tough room.) The edgy stuff that passed for fun on WYMG wasn’t going to work with the Oldies audience, and yet it was constantly suggested for our show. To wit: once, in a meeting, it was proposed that my female co-host and I take a group of listeners with us to Las Vegas, NV, where they’d watch us get married. Then we’d take them to Reno where they’d watch us get divorced. I am not making this up. I objected to the idea, and that’s where I first earned the “negative” label. A team player would do this, you know, sanctity of marriage argument be damned.
The “negative” label followed me as a program director, too, usually by upper management who had a tendency to not think things through. Any time I asked questions like “So, we have an all-day event in the park? What’s our rain plan?” I was being unnecessarily negative; I thought I was looking out for the health and safety of my underpaid staff. It’s a label I didn’t mind having.
It got trotted out the morning of June 20th. Every day after the show there was a meeting/critique session with our program director, and that’s when the OJ question came up. What sort of wacky fun would we have with the topic? Could we start writing parody songs? Do we know anyone who could do an OJ impression? What sort of jokes could be done? I wasn’t having any of it. “Maybe I am no fun,” I recall saying, “but I am not seeing the comedic angle in a double murder. Could someone show me what I am missing here?”
I was the only one. Many other morning shows did do the bits and go for the laughs. I naively thought that the listeners wouldn’t go for it, and – perhaps more importantly – I didn’t go for doing it. I’ve always enjoyed making people laugh or smile on my radio show, and I always tried to do it in what I thought was a fun and “smart” way. Not all the jokes worked, but I never wanted to punch down. And that’s when I realized that perhaps morning radio wasn’t going to be for me as a primary role.
It turned out I was right, but not immediately. It took five more morning shows. I moved to Gisborne, New Zealand and took a position with 89FM as programme director (with extra letters added) and did the afternoon show for several months. When our morning host left, I moved to the breakfast show; the same thing happened at WODJ/Grand Rapids in 1999, at WROK/Rockford in 2000, as a replacement at WZFS/Chicago in 2003, and then again in 2007 when I came back to Grand Rapids to WFGR. I also filled-in as morning guy at WJMK and WRLL in Chicago when needed. In all of those cases, though, my primary job was to be something else at the station. The morning shows I hosted leaned heavily on music and information rather than pre-packaged bits and stunts. Those morning shows were also generally relegated to the second tier of the ratings in their respective markets. In order to win, I needed to be more shocking, I guess, and I wasn’t having any of it. I’ve been off mornings now for ten years and haven’t looked back.
I suppose the musical selection needs some explanation. On the previous Friday, June 17, 1994, the nation stared at their television sets as the slow-speed Bronco chase wove its way across Los Angeles. Domino’s Pizza set a sales record that night. NBC carried the chase live and bumped the NBA Finals to the bottom corner of the screen. And I passed up an opportunity to see REO Speedwagon at the Sangamon County Fair in favor of watching this thing on television.
Since I didn’t see it live, I can hear it now: so too can you hear “Roll with the Changes” by clicking here.