Sunday, July 02, 2006

Playback to the future

Did I ever tell you about how I got into radio?
I never meant to.
For most people who go into radio, the desire is deep and the dream is long cherished and passionately pursued.
They’re the people who’ll tell how they'd lay awake long into the night – night after night – pup-tented under the covers, transistor radios with the volume reduced to the softest whisper pressed against their adolescent ears. They’d listen to late night disc jockeys and radio programs tuned in from way down the AM or FM dial. Some tell of being able to tune in to far off cities (also part of the dream – the escape; getting out of their – hick, one-horse, crummy little - town) only accessible during particular seasons or as a result of unusual weather conditions, sounds of the exotic far away cities drawing them breathlessly further into their burgeoning fantasy.
They’ll regale you with how they listened to music programs or big city talk shows, drinking in the patter of (imagined, usually) cool and studly males and dream-goddess women speaking with voices so laden with sophistication and sexual growl that even years later (or so I’ve heard) a particular tonal quality can drive a man – or a woman – instantly hot with memory and desire.
If you ask, you’ll hear near-mythical tales of legendary announcers, whose voices stimulated something deep inside the future radio-head, planting the seed of the dream and verbally stimulating it to grow. It’s one of those professions – right up there with the church, the theatre and the space program – that draw adherents and ardent believers who feel as though this is the one way, truth, light or frequency that will satisfy their deepest and most passionate wishes. For them, it’s a calling.
But I wasn’t one of them.
For one thing, my parents didn’t listen to the radio, so it wasn’t really on my radar. For another, with so many moves to so many different countries, building the habit and the kind of dedicated fan commitment that's step one for a dedicated follower was nigh on impossible.
But by the time high school rolled around, I was, like my peers, addicted to AM hit radio. I loved Cat Stevens and Carole King and Pink Floyd and the Guess Who. I sniffed with disdain at Elton John, (until Too Low for Zero) and though too young for the Stones, the Who and the Beatles, came to appreciate them the second time around in the first wave of rock nostalgia.
But the deep, desperate ‘wanna’ had been missed, filled instead with dreams of acting, or veterinary school, or something, anything to do with horses.
That’s why, in 1981 when life dealt me a series of cards that meant folding my first dream (acting) as a result of an industry strike, the next dream had yet to be dreamt.
What would I do? With university courses in General Arts I wasn’t trained to do anything… seriously, anything at all. Obvious answer? P.R. .
(See ‘Alligator Pie’; August 9th, 2004.)
The first place I tried – a radio station in Calgary – had neither need nor use of my (nonexistent) abilities, but the Program Director who agreed to see me after I wandered in unannounced off the street saw – or heard –something else.
Here’s how it happened…
(And by the way, I was as shocked as anyone when the man offered to see me.)
I don’t think I even knew what a Program Director was, I certainly didn’t know who HE was, but his office was near the front door, so he saw and heard me make my enquiry, coming out to interrupt my increasingly muddled and pointless conversation with the receptionist before drawing me into his office, offering me a seat and a chat.
His long, long office. With a couch and coffee table at one end and his desk at the other. 10 yards apart? Twenty? A thousand? Almost as soon as we entered the room, the phone rang, so he directed me to the couch while he trekked down to the other end of the room to pick up the receiver.
I could barely see him – I certainly couldn’t see his fuzzy face, or make out for certain what looked (to my surreptitious squint) like nods and smiles directly at me. Should I nod and smile? Should I stare off into space as though I couldn’t hear his conversation, offering the faux privacy manners would seem to dictate in tight quarters?
I wasn’t wearing my glasses or the contact lenses that had recently been irritating my eyes. Vanity had driven me blind – and was making me far more embarrassed than sitting in a strange man’s (blob's) office under essentially false pretences. (As a total lack of PR training, experience or the most minimal knowledge almost certainly should have…) I was starting to perspire as I couldn’t gauge on just exactly which level I was potentially being rude.
I had an agonizing moment of two of indecision as his glance and gestures seemed ever more me-directed.
It was the social discomfort that was so excruciating; I had to take the initiative.
I got up from the couch, made the long, long walk down the length of his office, stopping once to pick up a chair placed against the wall before pulling it right up to his desk like it was a table in a cafeteria. Relieved to be operating within my limited visual range, I sat myself down, elbows perched somewhere amongst the papers and pen holders and other desky paraphernalia.
He told me later that was the moment. The moment he decided the kid had guts – there must be something special about the kid – maybe the kid had the kind of guts and initiative it would take to make it in the hard world of soft rock.
The truth is ‘the kid’ was myopic.
We talked for a bit. He told me they never had had and couldn’t anticipate a time when they would require a P.R. professional, but maybe with a voice like mine I’d like to be on the radio…?
This is the thing – for anyone who’s ever found themselves suffering the tortures of unrequited love, or smack in the middle of a really tough negotiation – you can’t ‘play’ hard to get; you can’t fake the ability to get up and walk away. (Well you can, but woe betide…)
You either are hard to get, or you really could walk away.
And I really didn’t care. The suggestion came from too far out of left field; it was something I had never dreamt of, nor even then, imagined I would ever particularly want to dream it. I was just weeks from having been signed to two of the top Hollywood agencies - William Morris and Norby Walters – and though I’d hated LA and the parts of the business I’d seen, I hadn’t entirely given up on acting. The P.R. thing was always meant to be a stop gap whilst waiting for the actor’s strike to end.
I told him I’d never thought about it… but, umm, gee, well… maybe, sure – why not – I’d take a crack at it... if he really wanted me to.
After the gesture of pulling the chair up to his desk, this was what made him certain I was the girl for him: raging ambivalence.
(That’s the other thing – the male ego; with dozens of young men throwing themselves at him, begging for a chance – they’d work for nothing, they’d pay for the privilege – it was likely intoxicating to offer the opportunity to someone who wasn’t all that impressed.)
And I wasn’t un-impressed; I would likely have had the same reaction to being offered the Presidency of the United States: I could see it was good position, I could imagine others wanting it – I just wasn’t all that sure it was something I was prepared for, or even particularly wanted to do.
Long story short, I was brought in that evening to sit in on the all-night show with the current disc jockey… brought in the next evening to do one or two cut- ins with him…brought in the next evening to try an hour or two on my own… offered the job the next day after the poor guy I’d sat in with had been dismissed.
(And for those of you hating me now, I beg to remind you that most of my most fervent desires and dreams have met with disappointment. And I didn’t know the other kid had been fired – I was told he was going to be ‘filling in’ for vacationing announcers; ‘filling in’ a euphemism for ‘filling in unemployment forms’ as it turned out…)
I did the all-night show for six months or so, then was brought in to do mid-days, which in turn became the afternoon program for a couple of years. Then after moving to Europe, stints at a Riviera radio station, an English rock station and the BBC World Service.
Then it was 1987 and I left Europe and radio for Canada and television, never to return.
But maybe…
I have a chance now to do something interesting with a very smart and funny guy. Talk radio – he said/she said – funny, informed, topical, part scripted/part improvised, call in – interview, you name it. We’re working out the details now. And I’m feeling something a little like what I felt in Bob Morris’ office all those years ago: a little unsure, a little inexperienced, not entirely sure this is the right thing for me, but this time with just a hint of a growing excitement.
Do I want to be on the radio? This time, I think I’ll say ‘yes’.
Maybe even passionately.

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