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The Seven Month Itch

by George Lester
George Lester
I look back and wonder why it took me so long to realize perfect working conditions at a radio station probably don’t, never have and never will exist. I kept up the quest in search of one for the better part of 40 years. All those decades I nurtured a dream of a nice, small town, “mom and pop” type operation where all the announcers were treated like family. Mr. and Mrs. Station Owner would take a personal interest in each announcer and try to make life as pleasant as possible for them. A place where coming to work each day would be a pleasure, not a dreaded chore. How nice it would be to complete my broadcast duties and bid good day to the smiling faces all around and have no cares or fears about my work as I enjoyed my leisure hours. Imagine, sleeping like a baby each night instead of tossing and turning and worrying about tomorrow. Had I found such a place I would never have left. Even after being away from the industry for over 16 years that fantasy still flits through my mind now and then. Oh, had it only been the way I dreamed.

Back to reality.

Here I was in Monroe, Louisiana working at the town’s original radio station. They were operating just as they had for over 25 years with no interest in trying to modernize the station. I was so happy to be gainfully employed after losing my television job in El Dorado, Arkansas that I didn’t complain. Well, at least not for a while. What transpired in the next few months became a familiar pattern that kept repeating itself over and over through most of my radio career. I tried really hard to keep a positive attitude and enjoy my work. As time wore on it became more and more difficult.

There was so much that could have been done to breath life into the monotonous broadcast day but part of the problem wasn’t their fault. They were encumbered by a contract with a radio network and a format about as exciting as listening to a ticking clock. The one redeeming quality there was job security. No one seemed to remember anyone ever getting fired That is a rarity in a very insecure industry.

I could have fit in better if I had been one of those who could just go with the flow and not try to find ways of improving things. That had always been one of my faults if, indeed, that is really a fault. Even before I entered the radio business I would always survey the way things were done and try to improve on the efficiency of the operation.

I recall when I worked in the office of a big machine shop where people were checking out and returning tools. Each day it took a clerk several hours to painfully hand write document numbers. I found a hand stamp that automatically advanced to the next higher number each time it was used. I took over the job and completed the task in about 20 minutes. The supervisor was not impressed. He said if we all worked that fast there would be nothing to do for the rest of the day and some of us might be out of a job. He took the automatic stamp away and we went back to the old method. I knew then I was not cut out for civil service bureaucracy.

A similar situation existed at the Monroe radio station. Things had always been done a certain way and no one cared to experiment with new and innovative ideas. My appreciation of just having a job began to diminish each day as I realized I was mired in a dead-end, no win situation. Still, I suppose I would have remained there for a long time while earning just enough to pay my child support and eke out a living. Not to forget the many times I had to go hungry for lack of funds. Asking for a raise was out of the question because of the humiliation I endured when I tried it back in Texarkana. I swore I would never subject myself to that degrading situation again. Just as I was at my lowest ebb I received some news I thought might help me find a way to climb out of this quagmire.

I learned that Monroe was getting a third radio station. It was only in the embryonic stage but I quickly found who was behind the venture. He already owned a radio station near the Mississippi border and wanted to try his luck in Monroe. I felt I had nothing to lose so I called him and sat up a meeting.

I followed his directions and waited for him in front of an old vacant office building in West Monroe. He unlocked the door and invited me in to see where his new radio station would be. We walked up a flight of stairs to the second floor. When he opened the second door the smell of history permeated the air. The empty rooms had a New Orleans French Quarters mystique about them with their high ceilings, ornate wrought iron windows and wooden floors that creaked with every step. “I’ve gotta get that fixed”, he said with his laugh echoing throughout the cavernous space.

I noticed that he kept an unlit cigar clenched between his teeth. I offered him a light. Then it dawned on me that he had never planned to light the cigar. It was one of his peculiar habits I was embarrassed until he threw back his head and laughed. Laughter came easily to him. Then he showed me where all the broadcast equipment would be placed and what each room would be used for. He had everything planned to the last detail. I had learned earlier that in addition to being a keen businessman he was an accomplished electronics engineer and inventor. His absolute confidence and ability greatly impressed me but he also had a casual air about him that put me at ease instantly. I sensed that this would be a great man to work for.

We then discussed programming ideas. I was delighted to hear that he had planned to have a fast paced, country music format. There was definitely a place for that kind of station in the market because neither of the other ones were doing it. We had a top 40 playing rock-’n-roll and another playing Guy Lombardo and Lawrence Welk between network programs. I told him about the “live auditorium” show I had been doing and how I thought it would be perfect for a country format. As luck would have it he had heard the show and agreed. He suggested airing it during the noon hour to catch the largest audience The more we talked I found that we seemed to be in sync on just about all programming ideas.

When we were just about to wind up our meeting he asked, “When can you come join our team?” I told him what salary I would need and told him to just let me know when he wanted me to come to work. “Great!” he said, ”Now, let’s grab some lunch. My treat”. I had been hungry for so long the invitation was like beautiful music to my ears. I thought of how wonderful the extra income would be. Now, maybe I could afford to eat the way normal people do. Could this be the “mom and pop” operation I had been searching for?

The roller coaster seemed to be headed upward again.
© George Lester
Spunky Flat and Beyond - A Memoir

June 15, 2007 column

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