Signing Off

CARRADIOI was 16 when I first walked into a newsroom.

It was WCCM in Lawrence, Massachusetts (city motto:  Arson Capital of the Nation!). I was a high-school senior in the town next door. My school had an internship program where I could get out of the hellish school day on a half-day and intern in what would allegedly be my chosen career. I wanted to be a writer, but the local paper didn’t take high school interns.  

WCCM was happy for the free labor, and I was treated as a very dumb member of the staff.

I was amazed and overwhelmed when I walked in. It was 1990. WCCM had reel-to-reels, round pots on the analog studio boards, and used carts, all of which were recording devices used in the Before Time. (Carts were great because you could throw them at the wall and they would rarely break.) The newsroom was filled with smoke, with stand-up Mad-Men-esque gold ashtrays everywhere. There were months’ worth of newspapers piled in every corner. The AP and UPI wires were constantly spewing out reams of paper from their dot matrix printers, with the wires setting off alarm bells for urgents, which I learned to ignore because an urgent could be for something as silly as a college sports score (sports editors!) or a bulletin, which you never ignore.

We had typewriters. Typewriters! The old brown typewriters? That’s what we had. Three versions of every story had be written, to rotate among the newscasts. What aired at 5am didn’t air again until 90 minutes later. I interviewed Congressmen, Senators, City Councillors, the Mayor, community activists, criminal lawyers and DAs– you name it. Often I was an idiot and forgot to hit both “play” and “record” on that damn reel-to-reel.  “Do it again,” the news director said.  “I don’t give a shit.” I would record the carts wrong, not test my sound, and hand in blank carts for broadcast. The news director, who was also the PM drive anchor, would come out of the studio and throw them at me, barely missing my head.

George admitted 20 years later, when we found each other on Facebook, that he forgot I was only a teenager, and that he was a 28-year-old asshole. He was appalled to find out I often cried in the ladies’ room. He visits NYC frequently and I am still scared to meet with him. I will be 40 in October.

George taught me, though. I brought him a story I was working on for my school paper. I had heard the new gym in my school was built wrong; that it was two small and regulation games could not be played there. I have always been a master eavesdropper. So I interviewed the Athletic Director. This was the wrong person to interview. I asked the principal, who was not my pal in this story. I called the superintendent’s office. I brought my notes to George, who, in a rare Prozac moment, sat down and flipped through my little notebook.

“You have no idea what you’re sitting on, do you?” he asked.

It turns out what I was sitting upon was a story involving the city council president throwing the inside bid to a family member who owned a construction company and said construction company then upping his lowest bid due to cost “overruns” then, indeed, building the gym wrong not only with non-regulation specifications but with unsafe bleachers. It lead to resignation of the city council president and criminal charges.

It was one of the region’s biggest stories of the year. George gave me a gift certificate to a local restaurant.

The day the Gulf War broke out, I walked into the newsroom, entranced. George told me:  “You’re in charge of local news.”

I went to the bathroom, threw up, and went to work.

George gave me my first Malboro.

I got my first broadcast paycheck at WCCM.  I was paid 25 bucks for guarding an open payphone line at Lawrence City Hall on election night so we could get the results from the City Clerk on the air as fast as possible. I was not to give in to the begging of reporters from WBZ, WRKO, The Lawrence Eagle-Tribune, The Boston Globe, or The Boston Herald. This was difficult for a teenager with an undiagnosed anxiety disorder. “C’mon, honey,” the men said, and they were all men. “Just for a second. A minute.” “No!  No!”

The thrill of news was addicting, but so were the radio shenanigans. The morning talk show man — who just marked 60 years on the air at WCCM — never seemed to have a bad day, despite getting up at 3 am every day. For decades. Tie perpetually loosened, sleeves rolled up, cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, a mug of coffee in his hand. “Have some fresh, hot coffee,” he said, and still says, to everyone he passes.

The other man and woman in the newsroom took to making out in the cubicles while I silently sat a fragile wall away, asking myself:  What is the etiquette here? Do I leave the room? That will make noise. Then the phone will ring. Then they’ll know I left. Do I just pretend I know nothing? Do I tap my pen so they realize they are corrupting the morals of a minor? 

They’ve been married for about 20 years now.

A reporter friend of mine, still in the business, describes radio as being a real-life Island of Misfit Toys. “We understand each other,” he says.

I loved news radio, and I’m sad to leave it, even though I’m happy to have a stable job with a future.

My generation was probably the last to gather round the on speakers on snowy mornings, cheering like mad when our school was declared cancelled. We listened on election nights, to hear who was in or out in our town, too small for the big city media to care about. We listened to local talk shows during the day, to debate why our tax dollars were being used for this, instead of that. We listened on our commutes, to see if we should take I-93 or Route 128 to get to where we were going. It was a community.

Then Radio got greedy. It lobbied the government to get rid of the ownership rules, so a handful of companies could control all the stations in America. Then those companies tried to squeeze more profits out of stations, replacing local talk shows with syndicated shows like Rush Limbaugh. That made money. So then the companies pruned the newsrooms, arranging for two or three anchors to handle the news on multiple stations. Detroit’s local news is handled out of New York now. Did you know that? There was no budget for street reporting. As for music — well, that could be cheaped down, too. DJs were canned, and replaced with automation systems. What played on the classic rock station in Chicago was played on the classic rocker in New York.

It all sounds the same. And it sounds cheap. The same voices, up and down the the dial. The same subtle clicks as the computer shifts from canned music to canned announcements to commercials. No wonder the listeners stopped tuning in. Why bother, when nothing interesting, innovative, or exciting is going on? An iPod can give you music without the commercial overload.

Don’t get me wrong. I like the new job. I like the people; I’m still dealing with information and media; it’s like moving to another house in the same neighborhood. But I need heath insurance and steady hours and sick days and vacation. 

I feel like I’m divorcing my first love.  The week I started at the state job, the Boston Marathon bombing happened. And I should have been on the air. But I wasn’t. I can’t be. What I loved doesn’t exist anymore.

Photo credit:  Wikipedia Commons

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