PERSONAL ESSAY WRITTEN IN AN INTRO CLASS


Tom Gromak
Revelation Radio


(RLC 110 Unit Paper #1)

.....Ask me about my future, at nineteen, and I’d gaze dramatically at the horizon, booming out three sonorous syllables in certain answer: ra-di-o. In college the only thing that I connected with was the campus radio station. The rest could just go to hell, and did. When I finally got my big break by landing a couple of weekend slots at the local AM powerhouse, nothing else mattered. In that initial rush I had no capacity to imagine just how wrong this path was for me, just how long it would take to realize it, or just how much it would suck.
.....Until my first taste of what it was like to be around a radio station, I felt as though nothing quite fit. Radio had been indispensable when I was a boy – from AM pop singles and FM rock anthems to shortwave broadcasts that brought the world into my bedroom – I was captivated. The disc jockeys always seemed to be popular, successful, and alluring. When they played a favorite song, I’d always perk up and find myself banging out a beat on whatever was handy. I imagined how happy they made people by bringing music into their lives.
.....In the late eighties, Central Connecticut State University’s radio station, WFCS, was a blissful pariah. They stuck it in a couple of closets at the back of the Student Center. You’d never find it if you didn’t follow your ears. Windowless, dingy, stale and claustrophobic, one of the rooms was stacked floor-to-ceiling with decades of audio subversion. It actually smelled like old records, pungent and plastic, and a bizarre-shaped fluorescent light bulb hung from the ceiling – Soviet surplus, we liked to think. It would buzz, softly annoyed, as I’d flip through my 3-6 AM late shift pile.
.....The studio seemed even smaller. Another interior room, it was dominated by an ancient, off-white metal slab of knobs and needles called “the board”. Two spring-loaded mechanical arms extended from it, ending in microphones. Flanked by worn turntables and duct-taped cart machines that played cheesy home-brewed public service announcements, at first glance it all felt so … amateur. The only thing that seemed somewhat professional was the boxy “on air” light in the wall next to the giant Mudhoney poster.
.....I spent more time at the radio station than in class. As dinky as it was, WFCS filled my life with a vibrancy I had never experienced. Before Nirvana broke the commercial barrier, “alternative” radio was filled with music and ideas that were new, wonderful and eclectic. Joni Mitchell, Fred Frith, The Smiths, Barry Adamson, Half Japanese, Gong, Babatunde Olatunji, Roger Miller, Hugh Mundell, Sonic Youth … the music spanned so many years and styles it was dizzying. I had found an underground radio subculture that valued rebellion and questioned the accepted values of the time. After all, communism and nuclear annihilation were still very real threats, Reagan was in the White House, and big hair still had a substantial hold on popular music.
.....The people at WFCS were also a bit dizzying, and just as diverse. Welcoming, eccentric, creative and motivated, many of them considered commercial radio to be the enemy. They were on a mission to expose the public to music that was being excluded by mainstream media, and felt that becoming a part of the corporate machine was an abomination. Their friendship and the times we shared were profound influences on my formerly limited, high school world. .....As we struggled together to make a low-budget college radio station work, I found the first place I ever felt totally at home.
.....In person I was an introverted, overweight, spectacled computer geek. On the radio my extrovert side finally awoke, and it was exhilarating. Suddenly I felt completely at ease. My deep voice, love for music, and genuine joy at discovering this wonderful new world carried through with conviction ... I was good.
I took on as many radio shows as I could handle. I spun psychedelic sixties rock during the “Anderson Council Freak Out” on Sunday afternoons. Saturday mornings I was Moon Beam, bringing the best in World and New Age music to the Greater New Britain area. I would point a cheap plastic fan on some wind chimes hanging in the background when I was on the air – I thought it might help to evoke the exotic in my listener’s imagination. Early morning Tuesday and afternoons on Friday I became “The Flux”, broadcasting new alternative cuts mixed with obscure new wave and classic electronic tracks. I loved taking on cheesy names and wild personae, and tried not to make myself too seriously.
.....In time I was elected their Public Relations Director, and was helping the Music Director pick out the stuff we’d put in our “Hot 75” bin. Even the technical aspects of radio appealed to the electronics nerd within me. While at WFCS the music, people, and technology combined with my passions and skills to convince me that radio was my chosen path.
.....The decision couldn’t have come soon enough, either. There was a great deal of pressure, now that I was out of high school, to make up my mind about a career and to complete my education as soon as possible. It seemed that my trolley never wanted to follow the track that was laid before it, though. I had very simple expectations placed upon me: finish high school, get a degree, work in a well-paying, high-prestige job, get a wife and house, and have children by twenty-five. Everything in society seemed to tell me that this was success, and my achievement of these goals would finally prove that I had done exactly as I should. Happiness was incidental, not essential.
.....When I decided to pursue a career in radio, my decision was based on a combination of childhood fantasies and a misguided attempt to do what I thought was expected of me. When faced with a future that looked like a blank page, I desperately wanted someone else to show me where to go and what to do. Tell me what the right thing was, and I would try to do it. The only roadmaps offered to me, though, seemed to lead to destinations that weren’t meant for me. My heart was never into it, no matter how strong my desire to conform. I had yet to learn that Howard Johnson’s hospitality isn’t for everyone on the road, and that while detours and back roads can be bumpy, they can also bring their own rewards.
.....After being at WFCS for a year, my friend Rita mentioned that there was an opening at the radio station where she worked. I was so excited I jumped at the chance. The place was a small, local AM outfit that broadcast middle-of-the-road hits and live news. I hadn’t ever actually tuned in, but it was just minutes from home, and the interview went well. I was overjoyed when I was offered the position the next day. The job seemed like a perfect entry into the business.
.....When I mentioned this offer to my mom, she was justifiably skeptical of my new “career path”, but she still wished me the best. My friends at WFCS had mixed feelings. Some were happy for me, some seemed jealous, some didn’t care, and some strongly urged me not to become a part of the dreaded commercial media conspiracy.
.....I accepted without hesitation, undaunted by the risk of becoming a soulless corporate shill. All I saw was a perfect opportunity. I’d be able to go to school during the week, and work for the better part of every weekend alone, spinning a little music, announcing the weather, producing commercials, and linking the station to their syndicated satellite audio feed. I was thrilled. This, finally, was the real thing. I was a professional broadcaster.
.....The job started well enough. I’d sit there with the wizened, ever-drooling calico cat who was the only full-time station resident, enthusiastically pushing buttons and turning knobs. Then it started to change. First were the commercials. Instead of the simple announcement spots I’d been used to, I’d now have to play “the cop” or “the nervous husband”, some hokey character used to promote a sale or promotion. It was an immediate disaster. I was extremely self-conscious and nervous when I tried to get into character. Wooden and phony, after a few tries they told me to just stick with the weather.
.....Then there was the music. Of course I knew it was a business and that I wouldn’t be able to play anything I wanted, but the watery, formulaic commercial pabulum I was forced to pump across town made my stomach turn. Nothing had the vision, energy, and creativity that I was used to broadcasting. They didn’t have one thing by the Beatles, and I still cringe every time I hear Whitney Huston. I’m sorry, believe me.
The last thing that burst my radio career bubble was the people. The late eighties had brought an accelerated decline in revenue for small, regional radio stations. Management was worried, anxious and overworked. What once had been the nerve center for a community was being forced to weather competition from multinational corporate media outlets and faced waning public interest. The concept of the hometown AM radio station was losing its relevance, being replaced by news, talk, and ethnic programming.
.....Technology could now also provide station owners with the ability to broadcast content via satellite – news, weather, music, any of dozens of formats – needing only a warm body to flip a few switches. It seems that I was to be their warm body. To them, weekend help was often unreliable, demonstrated little understanding of the big picture, and had no respect for management. I was just one in a long string of disposable board operators.
.....To me, the management seemed sleazy, careless, and indifferent. They left me to fend entirely for myself. Training consisted of verifying my FCC license and giving me twenty-five minutes to show them I could operate the board. I had nobody to call if I had a non life-threatening problem during my shift, and would have to wait interminably for a call back during regular business hours. One chilly, Saturday morning in October I received a call asking me why the hell the parade wasn’t on the air. I had no idea what they were talking about. Nobody had bothered to tell me about a harvest parade they’d been hyping for weeks, and I took the heat.
.....It seems that they also hadn’t bothered to hook up a live connection to the event. I couldn’t broadcast as much as one baton toss, though I was extremely tempted to try and fake it. Instead I had to field dozens of calls from furious invalids and other irate citizenry who couldn’t get out to see the parade. How could they miss the magic moment when they crowned the Harvest Queen? More importantly, what was I going to do about it?
.....As I talked about my frustrations to friends already in the business, including my original benefactor Rita, they told me it was nothing new. To make it in radio, I had to start as a grunt, “pay my dues”, and move from city to city improving my leverage and position each time. I was warned to prepare for backstabbing, immature, soap opera antics. I would need to make sacrifices that would force the rest of my life to the sidelines. Then, eventually … if I was lucky … I might make it. Of course it was all worth it, they assured me, but I should always be prepared.
.....When Rita was fired from the station a few months later because a satellite feed didn’t need benefits or a parking space, I was indeed prepared. I walked out that day, too. Rita was so delighted that someone had quit a job for her … I didn’t have the heart to mention that she had also provided me with an extremely convenient excuse. Unlike me, she had invested in her career considerably, and excelled in every aspect of the position. She had worked hard through the ranks at the station to get one of their prime time slots, and had understandably assumed that her years of dedication to the station would engender loyalty on their part.
.....The indignity of being replaced by a satellite feed was infuriating – it made her feel disposable and obsolete, and she placed great value on the prestige of her occupation and the esteem of her colleagues. Her experience was an important lesson to me.
.....For many years after quitting the station I felt guilty, nonetheless. I felt that if I had just done something different – worked harder, had more dedication, tried working someplace else – I might have found success in radio. Admittedly I couldn’t stand the job, and I realized that it probably wasn’t much different elsewhere, but at the time I was sure that the blame for my lack of success was ultimately mine. How many times had I heard that my destiny was entirely in my own hands? That wealth, success, and a yacht filled with Baywatch babes were mine if only I stepped up to the plate and made it so? Could the infomercials be wrong?
.....Some of the fault was certainly mine. I had a familiar pattern of not finishing what I’d started. In school, I seemed to put more energy into procrastination and anxiety than into simply doing the assignments. As the F’s rolled in and I eventually dropped out, it vindicated everything I’d heard about my inability to persist with anything worthwhile. When I quit the radio station, I was certain the old pattern had been repeated.
.....As I continued into my twenties, my definitions of success and failure shifted drastically. I faced the fact that Baywatch babes are really not my thing after all, and that my criteria for success can’t be dictated by others. My checkbook balance doesn’t measure my wealth. It’s the way I feel, the people I’m with, and doing what I can to make it better. It’s when I stand on a hill, transfixed by a cloud that looks exactly like Winston Churchill, and laugh. It’s when I burn dinner for friends who still pretend to enjoy it. My wealth is even in the moments when I do nothing but sit and listen to crickets chirp as night falls in late September … or when I listen, embarrassed, to Moon Beam reborn on a worn out old cassette.
.....“Follow your bliss,” Joseph Campbell said. Somewhere along the way I’ve been lucky enough to find a path that feels right. I’ve learned to relax and not worry as much about a quick degree, my weight, or other’s approval. I still have plenty of room for improvement, but I believe that if I stay true to myself, no matter where it takes me, then everything will be as it should. Based on who I truly am, and have always been, I am now lucky enough to have a great job, a healthy (and much lighter) body, a mostly happy mind, and a mom who couldn’t be more proud.
.....The infomercials might have hair in a can, but their definition of success is worthless. I go to bed too early now, anyway.