On the first Wednesday of each month a group of about a dozen mostly middle-aged (mostly male) people gather at a restaurant in West Des Moines to enjoy the one thing we all have in common. We are all former radio broadcasters.
While my radio experience was in Webster City and Sioux City, the Des Moines group welcomed me to the table. We share tales of working in a unique industry when radio was still very much a local, hands-on industry.
If you think local radio was a glamorous high-paying gig, you are wrong. When I began working full time my weekly salary divided by the number of hours I worked resulted in a below minimum wage hourly rate. I initially worked six long days a week and every other Sunday morning.
When I was fired six years later it was because, I later learned, I had had several modest raises over the years and the new owner hired someone cheaper. Most of the folks sitting around the old broadcasters' table can tell a similar story. In fact, it is assumed by many that you are not a veteran broadcaster unless you have been fired at least once.
A longstanding joke is that radio involves long unusual hours and low pay, but hey it's show business.
I was fortunate to have a great boss during the bulk of my years in radio and worked for an honorable company. There were some exceptions in the industry.
Inflated egos abounded in local radio back then and in some cases the biggest egos were found in the owners' offices.
The large majority of the people I worked with were hardworking, kind and decent men and women. A country bumpkin like me, however, was surprised at the personal lives of a few of those people.
One co-worker, a married man in his 30s, asked me if I liked to look at pictures of naked women. I was in my early 20s and can't say that I was repulsed by such, but this guy was strange... very strange. I said, "No, thanks."
He explained that he had a large collection of photos of nude women at his apartment (which he shared with his wife) and that if I ever wanted to see them he'd be happy to show them to me. Ick.
Again, the large majority of my co-workers were wonderful people. However, we had a co-worker who refused to shower or bathe and had an unbearable body odor. His stench lingered long after he left the tiny studio, making it miserable for those who had to work there after he left.
Still reticent at being blunt, something I have overcome, I put a can of deodorant and a bar of bath soap on his desk before he arrived at work.
Upon discovering the items on his desk he set out to determine who was to blame. He walked into the studio while I was on the air and during a commercial break asked if I was the culprit. I admitted I was.
He wanted to know why I had done so. I tried to explain as nicely as I could that he stunk.
He didn't stink, he said. His aroma was a "manly scent."
"No," I said, "you stink."
He demanded an apology in front of the rest of the staff. I refused. He angrily stomped out of the studio and into the manager's office where he resigned on the spot. Problem solved.
It took resourcefulness back then to keep a small town station on the air. I remember a Sunday afternoon, alone in the building, when one of the turntables died. I put a long-play record on the working turntable and let it play while crawling under the other turntable to solder a connection and bring it back to life.
Though I ultimately moved to a newspaper career where I spent the bulk of my years, I have no regrets over the time I spent in radio. I met and worked with scores of great people and learned skills that I still use today.
The industry has changed dramatically since I left radio in 1975 with some of those changes being for the better. Still, there is an entire generation of broadcast veterans who can tell some weird and wonderful stories.
Old broadcasters never die, you know. They just change frequencies.