Chapter 30 - Scumbags, Receptionist, and the AXE!
Every programmer, who has ever been fired, will recognize the feeling. Just like Poe's swinging ax, the sense of ill-ease hovers over everything. That describes my spring at K101 in San Francisco.
In the Home Page accompanying this chapter, I paraphrase the opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities. That fits my 1982 in San Francisco perfectly. Work had become tedious, my relationship with management was cool, and I spent too much time asking myself...What's it all about, Alfie? I woke each morning, walked my dog, Bozo, caught the 4:20am bus and arrived at the station just after 5am. I was happy to be home by 7pm. I wouldn't have minded it a bit if I was enjoying myself. I wasn't.
On the other hand, in 1982 San Francisco was still a great city. A city loaded with unique ideas and open to everyone. This was the city the birthed the Beat Generation in the 50's and the Love Children of the 60's. The place where stand-up comedy of the Borsch Belt type comedians of vaudeville were replaced by cutting edge geniuses like Lenny Bruce, Bob Newhart, Phylis Diller, Shelley Berman, and dozens of others. San Francisco was really a special place...then. Before. Now, it is a dirty, scummy, bigoted city. Every sub-group constantly offended. Living off that wonderful past, San Francisco seems only fit for the uber-payed tech industry to wear like social climbers wore mink coats.
In 1982, I was still taking advantage of the last vestiges of SF's Golden Age. I discovered my love of old black and white movies. I went to the Opera and ate in Chinese restaurants straight out of a Charlie Chan movie. With Don Bleu and his family I discovered the House of Peroski and continued to eat those greasy delights until it was replaced by a video rental store. I discovered nooks and crannies and spent hours nooked and crannied. Used book stores. Irish bars. Italian bars, Beatnik bars. There were strange little theaters and cinemas that only showed the B-est of B-Movies. (I am still traumatized by seeing Adrianne Barbeau Tommy-gun a bunch of nuns) I spent hours in a theater on Market Street. It showed triple features of movies from the late 50's and early 60's. Sometimes the prints were so bad, a Technicolor movie would be faded to a dull sepia. You could SMOKE. Between pictures they had a spin-the-wheel ticket-stub contest for cash and/or prizes. The same guy did the honors from noon to midnight. I never won, but I did take Don Bleu's kids to see movies there a few times. Once, his then little daughter, Jenny, was aghast when a guy with multiple piercings and tattoos sat in the same row with us. It was San Francisco. It seemed alright. Sadly, the earthquake in 1989 damaged that theater beyond repair and it was replaced with some really nice $7,000 a month apartments. I think.
As much as I remember fondly walking from the Castro Theater down Market on a foggy misty night, I suspect even the fog is different now. The silly and as our National PD said, puerile humor of our morning show would get me picketed and fired today. (Trouble with the phones in ChinaTown. Everyone is getting the wong number. Now THAT'S funny!) Of course it is offensive to China, Towns, Spell-check, the Chinese and gay phone repairmen, (Everything offends gays...except true love. Ha ha)
At the radio station I was paranoid every minute I was in the building. There is nothing wrong with being paranoid if people are out to get you. If I didn't tell you already, one of my first indications of the 'cold shoulder' was at corporate meetings in San Diego. At a dinner at the big-boss's home, the big-boss, and the various mid-size and small bosses weren't talking to me. It isn't like when I said something they plugged their ears and went la la la la la. But it was close. I took the train home to SF from San Diego so I had plenty of time to wonder why even the dog wouldn't sniff my ass.
Then there was the phone call. It was great working for my corporate boss and he had been great to me. When he found out about a health situation I was dealing with, he contacted a specialist he knew personally and arranged for him to get involved. My primary physician was named Cohan...as in George M. and not Cohen as in Myron. There were strong opinions about whether an Irish or Jewish doctor was superior. At least when I only had six months to live and couldn't pay the bill, the Irish doctor gave me six more months. (Opps. That also would get me fired in uber-correct San Francisco. Obviously it is offensive to the the Irish, potatoes, Jews, the medical profession and gay bill collectors)
Things were different. Calls from San Diego corporate offices weren't just cool, they were frigid. There was a lot of picky picky about day to day operation. There was a hypocrisy that was overwhelming.
A quick aside. I remember that hypocrisy in full bloom a few years later while attending some big convention. A panel of five or six of the most popular Shock Jocks was a highpoint. The room was packed with the entire panoply of radio types. From General Managers, Programmers, national and local to Engineers, music industry promo guys, and just plain jocks. Of course the panel had everyone in the aisle. It was ROTFLOL in a time where text-speak was years in the future. At some point, I couldn't take it anymore. I went to the mike and asked why everyone was enjoying it all so much when almost without exception every GM in the room would have kicked one of their staff out the door for duplicating what the panel had done and for which it was taking so many compliments. My comments got some scattered agreement applause and that was it.
He's a rebel and he's no good
He never does just what he should....
Ah, the Crystals. Back at K101, my bosses and their allies had nothing but compliments for the competition and criticism for their own team. I have written before about the daily meetings. I used to dread 9am when the morning show ended because the phone would ring and the GM's secretary would beckon me to a meeting. There I would be grilled on the why's and what's of the entire morning show. At least we were consistent because we did so many things wrong every day. On one scary morning, my partner in crime, Ken Copper, used the word...scumbag. In 1982, I guess, that was the slang for a used condom as well as a a not so nice person. You'd think the Hindenburg had crashed right outside the window on Montgomery. "Oh, the humanity!" Immediately we went to one of the production rooms where the production director was already making a copy of the offensive word from the air-check. Over and over the phrase "He's a scumbag". Each time I heard the word on the studio speakers MY face got paler and the GM's face got redder. Just seconds before he had a complete sub-arachnoid hemorrhage (Blew a gasket) the GM turned to me and said, "Why is he still working here?" Too much coincidence. It was just a week before that the receptionist was doing some filing for the sales department at the same time she handled the phones and front desk. Of course, the 'Big Boss' chose that moment to call and was quite perturbed when the phone rang 6 times before she got it. He asked to speak to the GM; he was out so he asked to speak to me. Without any knowledge or involvement in the incident I took my licking and said I'd check into it. Twenty five minutes later, the CEO called again. He was answered quickly and put directly through to me. I answered a blind phone call.
(I should explain something. It was the rule at K101 that we could not screen phone calls. The calls were put directly through or if the person was out or had informed the receptionist that they would be busy for a period, immediately told so-and-so wasn't available and a pink call note taken. The policy was a pain in the ass at times, but when you think about it, what is more obvious then a person calling and saying, "May I speak to Reggie" and whomever answered the phone saying, "One moment please" and them returning to say, "Reggie is out of the office, may I take a message?" Isn't it obvious that Reggie is ducking your phone call. You didn't pass the Reggie test.)
This time I picked up the phone, said, "This Rob Sherwood" and got this reply.
(Cleaned up) "Why is that c**t still working there?"
OMG! OMG! OMG! Sorry if I went all internet girly there but that is exactly how I felt. YabbadaYabbadaYabbada! Um Um Um! To this day I can't remember what happened after that. I only hope it was just that 'someone' was a little bit cranky. The only thing I DO remember is these words tumbling through my brain...over and over and over...
Paranoia strikes deep
Into your life it will creep
It starts when you're always afraid
Step out of line, the men come and take you away ….
In six weeks I'd be toast.
A lot of time has passed since since I last wrote about all this foolishness and my brain continues to wither. Just in case, I will now pause to re-read the entire San Francisco portion of My Story. (Please hum Jeopardy music here...This may take a while)
Damn! I thought that would be like slogging through rain and snow and dark of night. It didn't take much time at all. Cue the music.....
I made it through the rain
I kept my world protected
I made it through the rain
I kept my point of view
When I think back to my staff at K101 in San Francisco, I am proud to have worked with such talent. Ken Copper in the morning with me was a delight. He was quick, tolerant, positive, and in it to win it. He may not have been entirely happy to go from HIS show to Sidekick on MY show. If I hadn't been such a noodge, it could have been so much better.
Bruce Vidal. Damn it, but I believe he died a young man. He came to K101 from St. Louis and he was as smooth as glass. I have had the good fortune of often hiring people who were so good, I wanted to be just like them. I would have killed for the smoothness of Bruce. I aspired for years to be as good as Jerry St. James at U100 and never got there. There was a morning show dude at KDWB, and Chuck Browning at K101.
What can I say about Chuck Browning. He just was a consummate professional. I saw him first from the window of my office. He was getting out of a cab down on Montgomery Street and could have been someone coming for the accounting position. But when he cracked that mike, the DJ angels sang, my format never sounded so good, and I could lie down on the office floor, cross my legs, close my eyes and have a little bit of programming contentment. I think my night time crew, all three of them, sounded good and for the most part were consistent and dependable. News department, Traffic reporting, production, week-ends. All good. It is no wonder I had time to go to triple feature movies and just forget about work for a bit.
This is not to say , however, that there were never problems. I may have already told the Bruce Vidal story during our contest where we guaranteed to play three in a row. The contest was a nightmare and the $25,000 prize if we DID NOT play three in a row unfortunately changed the sound of our station. The contest and not the music and listeners was running the programming. We planned to build the anticipation and then quite purposefully make a 'mistake' and give away the money. We had budgeted for 3 mistakes. I was sitting with the Big Boss, the National PD, my GM, and maybe somebody else at a restaurant in San Diego. We had hardly gotten into the booth when there was a call for Rob Sherwood. From San Francisco. This, before cell phones, meant I had to take it on the house phone at the bar. The news was bad. Bruce had accidentally failed to play 3 in a row....and....we had a winner!!!!! Gulp!!!!! When I returned to the booth, the look on my face was enough for almost everyone to guess what had happened. Without being asked the question, I answer it. "Bruce didn't play 3 in a row and gave away the money."
At that exact minute the waiter returned to the booth, looked at me and asked me what kind of dressing I wanted on my salad. Without dropping a beat, the CEO...the Big Boss, said, "He'll have 25,000 Island Dressing." I always defended my team when confronted by above-me-management. I sort of wish everyone on the team had defended me. If wishes were fishes, pigs would fly.
I was leading too many lives. It's stressful. It doesn't lead to contentment. It can make a person crabby, stubborn and selfish. That was the sort of mood I was in when that big Gay Pride parade rolled around again. It was only a year since the last one had gotten me thinking of San Francisco-concentric programming. So much had happened in so little time. For this Pride Parade, many of the staff were planning to watch the parade from a permanent awning on a building on Market Street. That would have been most fun, but I had a conflict. My 'SF Family' had visitors in town from the midwest and I was invited to visit, spend the day, hang about, have dinner. On the way to BART I watched a bit of the parade, and after 45 minutes, or so, grabbed the train and headed to Walnut Creek. The rest of the day was wonderful. Wonderful. We ended up playing some board game late into the night and when I was driven to the BART station to get home, I just managed to catch the last train. As I hopped out of the car TDB asked me if I had decided what I was going to do with work. I called back that I thought I was toast. In the city I missed the connecting bus and had to wait a whole hour for the next. I managed to get home and in bed by 2:30am. I got an hour of sleep. The show was pretty good. Sometimes when you are super tired like that, things just click. Of course, I barely got to my office when I got the call the the GM wanted to see me. Of course the bastards didn't fire me on Friday so I could have had a pleasant week-end and slept in on Monday morning. Noooo! Fritz asked for my resignation. I refused so he said good bye. If it took more than five minutes I am surprised. My replacement was already 'in the building'. Over the week-end the whole thing was put into motion. At about 10am I called Don B. and told him the skinny. I tossed a few things into a box and sat on the steps of the building until he picked me up and we went to lunch at a Bar-B-Que joint out by Golden Gate Park. Just what I needed. Someone to say "There, There" and someone to make me laugh. That night I went to some movie at one of those theaters with the old movies I liked and then spent a few days getting used to being unemployed. I wasn't surprised but I wasn't happy. At the time I was angry and hurt. Deep inside I kept asking myself why I couldn't just learn to keep my mouth shut.
It was about this time that Don and his family were planning a camping trip to Big Sur and without a blink, I was included in the plans. They packed up their station wagon with tents and kids, packed away our dogs for a vacation of their own, and with my junk jammed here and there we headed south on Highway 1. We looked a little like the Beverly Hill Billies arriving in Los Angeles. Later Cathy would say it was a vacation for everyone but her because each day we were there she managed to cook the most wonderful meals. We sat late at night looking at the stars and telling stories. How I love to tell my "damn stories'. I sat in the flowing river for hours, slept fitfully on a rubber mattress and confronted dozens of racoons on every late night bathroom run. I will never forget it.
In September I did something I had always wanted to do. A cross country train ride, SF to Chicago to NY. When I got back, I had days and days to mosey around the city. Hours to spend at the museums, the theaters, the neighborhoods, in all the out-of-the-way spaces of The City. At some point in the beginning of October, I started wondering if I should get a job. I really was at a loss. I never was good at being out of work. I was loving my time at the beach, but in a quandary about being 'on the beach'. And that is when the phone rang.
In Cedar Rapids when I was ready to leave, the phone rang from Green Bay. When I decided I was good enough to work at WDGY, the phone rang from Minneapolis. A year or so later, the phone rang from KDWB and then five years later from WYOO. And from KSTP. And from Duluth. And from California and San Francisco. The phone always rang.
When the phone rang this time, it was someone I knew. Harold. Calling from San Jose. How did I end up in Washington?
Coming in Chapter 31 - Finally, I'm moving on up...