Yup, I was a teenage DJ.
NOTE: Due to a shortage of submissions, I’m posting a biographical story taken from four Ask Bob columns, written a year ago. If you would like to share your fiction with the world, click this link to submit a story! Seems like many websites that feature fiction make promises of boosting your career as a writer and making you rich. We don’t do that, we just share fiction people have written that they’d like to share.
I was in a Broadcast Radio Class at a Technical High School in my hometown of good ol’ Omaha, Nebraska. In Nebraska, radio was new state of the art technology. As part of the class, I interned at a local Christian Radio station where I pulled weather forecasts off the telegraph machine. The machine stood about 3 feet off the ground and was wired thru telephone cables to a weather company.
The whole machine would shake as the weather came in, chip, chip, chip, chipin’ away as the weather was telegraphed too us. This was before dot matrix machines or computers existed. It was big and noisy with an old timey typewriter thing that chiped each letter. I would eagerly await the forcast and rip the paper from the machine and run to the broadcast studio to deliver the latest weather to the DJ. Then, I would take out the garbage and other important tasks, as I was basically a free janitor.
One day, the morning DJ, Vernon, offered to let me actually read the weather forcast on-air! I was nervous, but I stumbled thru it. Actually, there was no need to be nervous since Omaha only had about 2000 residents and only half of them owned radios. Even less had TV’s. In fact, at that time most of us still had outhouses and had to risk our lives walking thru grass with rattlers everytime we went to the bathroom.
As the week passed, Vernon let me go on air more and more, then he convinced our program director to let me go on air live for a half hour each day. The request was approved as long as it didn’t interfear with my weather and janitor duties.
It just so happend that at that time the company that owned the radio station was going to be sold. The Christian AM station was being sold to one company from Indianapolis (WNTS where David Letterman got his start). The FM station that played funky soul music for funky soul brothers, was being sold to another company that wanted the FM frequency for KYNN, our country cousin, which played…you guessed it, country music.
Turns out, that when word gets out your gonna loose your job, people start getting new jobs. And as luck would have it the 6 to midnight DJ quite on the spot with no notice. That morning, Vernon told me I should apply.
I was hesitant, insecure, and positive I would never get the job ’cause I was just a kid. Then Vernon said I could use him as a reference, and he would vouch that I knew how to operate an on-air shift.
He urged, “They’re desprate Bob, they need someone to fill in the shift tonight…TONIGHT! They got nobody, plus they’re all loosing their jobs in a month, so they really don’t care who they get. It’s a perfect opportunity to get a real broadcasting job under your belt.”
I thought about it, “I guess it would be a pretty good opportunity if they gave me the job.”
“Go, go now. The managers in, and he needs someone now! Go-Go, Now!”
“I don’t even have a demo tape or a resume.” I stammered nervously.
“You don’t need one…they need someone for tonight’s shift! Go, go now!’
So I did, I went to the manager’s office and said I would like the new position and I have been on the air live and Vernon can vouch for that.
“The FM station is automated; do you know how to operate the automation machine?” He asked, he almost looked relieved that he had someone to fill the shift. At that time, automation just meant that all the music was on big reel to reels, that you put on and let them run. Then you cut in once in a while and gave the weather. Not too technical by today’s standards.
“No, not really.” I was sure this was the nail in the coffin.
“Well, you can learn. Can you make it in an hour early to train? Tonight?”
“Your hired, be here at five and John will train you how to use the automation.”
“Ok, I’ll be here at five.” I was stunned and just stood there for an uncomfortable amount of time, not knowing what to say or do.
“Ok…you can go now.” He said as he started looking thru some papers.
I heard a hundred “I told you so’s…” from Vernon. He kept laughing and saying, “I told you so…”
Then he asked, “So what are they paying you?”
“I don’t know. I forgot to ask.” I explained.
“Probably minimum wage, but you got the job! I told you…!”
High School DJ
So there I was, a 17-year-old kid doing a 6 to midnight shift at the local funky, soul, disco station. It didn’t affect school at all, I just recorded a weather, put it in the machine that would automatically play it at the assigned times and changed a reel-to-reel tape once or twice during the night. Once that was done, I just sat in the program director’s office and did homework. I kept the music quietly in the background, just in case we went off the air unexpectedly.
At midnight, Ted McConahey came in to do the midnight to 6am shift. He was an odd, ex-cool man luke, jazz, hipster type, with a goatee. He didn’t play tapes, he went live old timey albums. Mostly, he talked non-stop over the music. It was insanely annoying and to this day I have no idea why they let him play music and mumble in the background. He actually talked about nothing for six hours everyday. Every so often, he’d mention a local restaurant or store and talk about what fantastic service they had and what-not. I was sure he was getting paid on the side for those “mentions of excellence” as he called it.
At my high school, which composed of mostly African Americans, I became noticed as the guy on the radio. Mostly I was referred too as that Mexican DJ on the radio. So folks, would often stop me in the hall and ask, “Are you Ricky Hernandez on KOWH?” Or, “Hey, your Johnny Gonzales on the radio aren’t you?” Every time it was a different name, but whatever name it was, I’d say, “Yeah, that’s me.”
It became common for someone to approach me in the hallway, with the “is that you?” question. A few times they’d make a spectacle out of it, “Hey everybody…look it’s Jose Senitramos from the radio!” It was fun to get recognized, but also embarrassing because I was shy.
Having someone from our school with a job other than fast food was kind of a big deal at our school. Most kids from our school ended up as janitors. Or in jail. Or a janitor in a jail.
That job ended up lasting way longer than expected. When I was hired, the company was supposed to be sold within a month. Then that would end my big radio gig. But that didn’t happen for about 4 or 5 months. Once I graduated, I was still working as the night DJ. When the bad news came, the program director decided we’d ditch the taped music and go live for the last two weeks. It was fun, I showed up an hour early pulled a bunch of albums from the library, got a good stack ready and did my shift on “The Only Show In Town.” It was called that because we were the only radio station in Omaha, NE that featured music by black artists.
Then, on my second to last shift, some businessmen from the Indianapolis radio station showed up in smart suites to tour the station they just bought.
Looking in the window of the studio was the CEO of the company. I heard him say, “Is that the DJ? He can’t be more than 12 years old!” Once the “On Air” light went out, he poked his head in the studio, “Are you doing the night shift all by your-self?”
“Sure.” I replied.
“Jesus, how old are you?”
“17, but my names not Jesus, it’s Bob.”
At 17 I was barely 5 foot tall and had the stature of 12 yr. old without even a hint of facial hair. I didn’t shave yet, a real baby-face.
The big time CEO chucked and walked out. I heard him thru the glass window as he instructed another guy who would end up being the new station manager. “You have to hire that kid!”
The manager replied, “I don’t know anything about him, I don’t…”
“I said, YOU…HAVE…TO…HIRE…HIM.” The CEO said rather loudly while looking in my direction.
I sunk in my chair.
“I’ll talk to him after the shift.” came the reply.
So now I have a job at the new station. I was one of three people they kept on staff.
The Wrath of Marge
There I was, a teenage DJ working part time at a religious radio station. I did a weekend shift, and, in the summer, I worked evenings. The pay would be low if you were raising a family, but for a teenager it wasn’t too bad.
I did other chores too, the first year they were in business, I painted the interior of the building. I was also their janitor service, which entailed cleaning the bathrooms and vacuuming the building once a week. It was a small-time station with 2 offices, 2 studios and a reception area. There was never more than three people working at any given time.
My favorite employee was the receptionist Marge. She was an elderly lady that had been at KOWH AM since it was a top 40 station in the 60s. She still fashioned that WWII hair-doo, puffy on top and shaped in a square. Most noticeable was her bright red lipstick that would stick to her cigarette butts in the ashtray, which was always full because she chained smoked. No rules about smoking indoors back then.
She had a deep rough cigarette voice that was twice as deep as mine. She talked like a dunk sailor too, which was extra funny because KOWH was a Christian radio station. Political correctness didn’t exist yet, so she would say anything that came to mind.
An example of her pleasant banter was the time she was complained that the morning DJ had the air conditioner set at 65 degrees. “I told him, you don’t need to keep it so god-damn cold in here…are you getting hot flashes or what? I thought I was the old lady in this building.”
She continued, “I had to run the whole radio station yesterday because Bill (the manager) took off at noon with one of his bufu buddies…God knows what he does with his friends when they leave the building. They’re all gay, I can tell. He needs to stop pretending he’s not gay, he’s not fooliing anybody. Not me anyways.”
“And you, just standing there laughing…what are you high again? It’s only a matter of time before you end up in jail with your Mexican Ganster Buddies…then we’ll see who’s laughing!”
“Ok, okay Marge. How’s Vernon doing these days?” I replied.
She flicked a cigarette ash on the carpet and stomped on it, then ground it into the carpet. “Vernon! Vernon had a run-in with Bill last week. You should have seen the two go at it! I though Vernon was gonna punch him in the mouth…God know where that mouth has been! Vernon said he was a pole barer for his grandpa’s funeral…I told Bill, Vernon took time off for his grandpa’s funeral two years ago.”
She lite another cigarette and continued, “Then Bill went into the studio and started yelling at him. Vernon jumped out of his seat and told Bill to back off. If Vernon wasn’t black, I’m sure his face would have been red as a beet. He yelled right back, ‘Oh, no you didn’t! You don’t yell at me…you don’t yell at me! You wanna yell at someone, go have kids and yell at them!”
She flicked more ashes on the carpet even though there was an ashtray right next to her. “You should have seen Bill, he was ready to shit his pants. You know those types aren’t built for confrontation like that. He just high-tailed out of there. I know Vernon’s gonna quite I could see it in his face…”
“Well, we’ll see, I gotta start my shift.” I replied.
“Try not to screw up too badly, you need to rehearse your news updates so you don’t sound like a 12 yr old retard…” Marge commented as I left.
The All Night DJ at WJAZ
Dumb luck landed me a pretty sweet part time in radio job as a teen. Now I’m in my early twenties and still workin the Christian radio station.
I got to meet a few semi-famous people in the Christian music world of the early 80s. Amy Grant (she still owes me money for a soda by the way), The Imperials, The Lanny Wolfe Trio, Pat Boone, and David Meece to name a few. They usually did small gigs in Omaha at local churches with the album music on cassette and they sang live over the studio music.
Mostly I did they easy-peasy job of playing half hour tapes while I read magazines. Later that year, the manager Bill Butler, decided it would be cheaper to pay me to clean the radio station on weekends than hiring a cleaning company.
I wasn’t too thrilled at the idea at first, then he offered the option of letting me vacuum and clean the bathrooms while the tapes ran on air. So I would get double pay for 4 hours of my 6 hour shift. Seemed like a good deal. The station payed double the current minimum wage so for 4 hours I got paid quadruple the minimum wage. Pretty good pay for an 18 yr. old.
A few years later I got a full time job at a Fox Photo photo-finishing lab and went to the station on weekends. Not exactly a professional DJ job, but it was nice extra money. The whole time I was driving a car I bought as a senior in high school for $50.
My friends called it the “Rust Mobile” for obvious reasons. It barely ran and guzzled gas like there was no tomorrow. It didn’t have a back seat, so I went to “U Pull It” and bought a back seat that for $5. I didn’t attach it properly, I just sat it down in the space in the back of the car.
It was a joke item in high school. I’d drive somewhere with some friends, and put two unsuspecting passengers in the back. Then I’d slam on the breaks at a stop sign and the back seat would tilt and slide forward with the passengers getting jostled about. We all had a good laugh about it, but it probably wasn’t very safe. It sounds like a piece of junk, but by Omaha standards back then it was a sweet piece of machinery, considering my buddy Stan drove a tractor to school.
Lucky for me, Nebraska didn’t have very many rules on the books concerning the safety of motorized vehicles. The few they did have were regulations for tractors and farm equipment.
Eventually, I trashed that car and bought a sweet Pontiac with electric windows! It even looked nice! Dark red with a black cloth/plastic roof.
I really wanted a full time radio gig, so when I was twenty years old, I started applying to other radio stations and got a call back from Gene Piate who was a big time DJ at KFAB back in the day.
He offered me an all-night DJ job at WJAZ…and it was full time! I even got paid to have production time in the studio to make commercials. But they really didn’t trust me with commercials, mostly they assigned me to public service announcements. But still, I felt like I hit the big time!
They played music from big 4 hour tapes, so I just put on a tape, wait for a song to end and start the next tape. Once an hour I gave the weather with my cool melow voice, “Soooo good you could join us this evening to enjoy some cool jazzzzzz at W-J-A-ZZZZZZ…82 degrees in Omaha, with a chance of…blah, blah, blah.”
It was a weird radio station. An old remodeled blue house, not in a business strip, just between other houses where people lived, so you had to park in the street. When you walked in, the entrance was a small front room, and to your right was the on-air studio window. The on-air studio was just a tiny bedroom, with a big hole in the wall where they put the studio window looking down to the front room. The breakroom was a small kitchen, no room for chairs or a kitchen table, it was too small. Just a place to put your coffee pot and an old company fridge.
Another bedroom across from the on-air studio was a production studio to make commercials. Nothing fancy, just a couple of long homemade tables made out of plywood and two-by-fours, to hold the recording equipment It wasn’t even sanded down or painted.
The bathroom still had a bathtub with a piece of plywood on top of it, where they kept office supplies. Yup, I hit the big time.
But who was I to complain, another sweet job that fell in my lap for no particular reason at the age of 20. I took over after the evening chick Janet.
We played a game during our shifts where we’d try to make the other person laugh while they were on the air. Make a funny face, picking my nose…anything would make her laugh.
Being somewhat stoic by nature, it was hard to make me laugh. One time she came in the studio while I was on the air and grabbed the back of the chair and pulled me back farther and farther so I had to keep talking louder and louder for the mike to pick up my quite voice. That was cute, but my favorite prank was when she stood in front of the studio window and pulled up her shirt and showed me her big braless boobs. I still didn’t laugh, just a smile.
I showed up every night coffee in hand ready to stay up all night with mellow music that would put a pit bull on steroids to sleep.
Then one night I decided to rest my eyes around three in the morning. Just for a few minutes, lay my head on the table and rest a bit. I woke up an hour later with the sound of a reel to reel tape that ran out, flapping its merry way to nowheres-ville. I woke and started the next tape likety-split.
I was sure I would get fired for that. The program director would come in that morning with the bad “news notice”. But the daytime crew came in and just went about their business. I never heard anything about it. Just lucky, I guess.
I kept that job for a few more years until the owners of the company noticed that they never pulled a profit off that sorry-ass Jazz. (Sorry, jazz lovers.)
They fired everyone in the hopes that with a new staff, the profits would come rolling in.
And that was the end of my radio career, but it was a good run for an 17 year old kid just out of high school.
It didn’t work by the way, that station didn’t become popular until they changed the format to a light rock music. Now they’ve been one of the top ten stations for the last ten years.
I did end up going to college and getting a job, just like a good boy.