On The Radio – WTIC

This was my morning to be on WTIC. Even though I had been in radio for 11 years, I was apprehensive. I’ve only done talk shows a few times, and haven’t done one solo in better than 20 years.

I feared there would be no calls. What would I do or say? How could I fill that much time? And, what about topics I wanted to shy away from?

I have a rule to stay away from partisan politics because I work in a newsroom. Even though talk show hosts would normally be expected to let it all hang out, I had my ‘real’ job to return to. Even the weatherman should be ‘above’ the political fray.

I woke up early – around 7:15 AM. For me, who usually doesn’t go to bed until 3 or 4 AM, that’s the middle of the night! Actually, knowing I’d be home in time to catch a little nap made it easier to get into the shower and get dressed.

A definite advantage radio has over TV is the dress code. I could wear anything and not even shave. I went with a black pullover sweater and jeans with sneakers.

Remembering the last time, I left the house about 5 after 8 and headed directly to Dunkin’ Donuts. Medium coffee, cream and sugar, I was set. I had a long enough drive to allow the coffee to reach the correct drinking temperature.

This being the day after Christmas, traffic was fairly light. I absentmindedly blew by Route 9 on I91 and ended up heading to I84 in Hartford. Though I’ve been to WTIC before, I never remember how to get there. And, the directions are only moderately helpful because I never remember if the phrase “I84 West” means I’m driving west on I84 or coming from the west on I84!

WTIC is located in a nondescript, two story building in a Farmington office park. It’s a perfectly fine place for a radio station, I suppose. Deep inside, I really feel WTIC deserves to be in a free standing building of its own. It is one of America’s storied radio stations, with a long and rich history. It should be in a building that makes a statement. This building does not.

Mike Constantinou, my producer, was waiting in the parking lot when I arrived. The lot itself was 10% full. WTIC and its three sister stations were, in essence, still closed for Christmas. Only the air staff was on hand, and even then it was a smaller staff than usual. There was a sub for traffic, a sub for news, a sub for weather, and me subbing for Jim Vicevich.

We walked inside and I said hello to Ray Dunaway, who along with the vacationing Diane Smith, does the morning drive show. Ray has the deep, ballsy voice I always wanted, and never got. Like me, he had known from childhood that he was going to be in radio and then just followed through.

Before long I had headphones on and was schmoozing with Ray. We talked global warming (both of us are somewhat dubious of the gloom and doom) and how kids growing up have a misconception of the cleanliness of our air versus the pollution I knew as a kid.

He’s used to working with a partner and plays well with others, so I had no problems.

Ten O’clock came along and Ray left… leaving me the studio. I had told Mike that I wanted to run the board for the phones, but let him handle the commercials, news and traffic. As the news played out from a small studio off to the side, I sat down and got as comfortable as possible.

The studio is average sized for a radio studio. There are three mikes at the table surrounding the audio console, and one mike at the console itself. Off to the left were two computers – one for the commercials and logged content and another for communications between the producer and me. Slightly behind me and also to the left a lone PC on the Internet.

I had noticed a memo in the newsroom admonishing the staff not to use company computers to check their private email accounts whether they be Hotmail (actually, in the note it was Hot mail), Yahoo or anything else. At the same time, I couldn’t call home on the studio phone because you needed an accounting code to place an outside call. This is 2003 and I’m paying 3&#162 a minute for long distance service at home; they must be paying less. What are they worried about? After all, the studios are full of hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of equipment and there’s the liability that comes when the air staff is live. Internet and phone access should be way down the list of concerns.

News gave way to traffic and weather and then I was on. It was like getting back on a bicycle. I was ready to go.

In a talk show, you throw out topics in much the same way bartenders seed the tip jar. You’re trying to get your idea out to the audience. And, if they deviate or find a better place to go, you go there too.

Quickly, I started taking calls. After the fact, Helaine said I was trying too hard… and maybe I was. I didn’t have tomorrow to correct my mistakes. It was now or never. I wanted to limit calls – keep bringing in fresh ideas.

The common wisdom in talk shows is, it’s very easy to let someone go on too long. You’re better off moving through many calls. Of course to do that, you need calls.

A few minutes into the show, I started having technical troubles. It was my fault without a doubt. The controls for the phone lines were straight forward, but not very well marked. After a few calls I started pressing the wrong buttons and got trapped in some sort of talk show hell where I was camped on a line with someone who had been dispatched and no way to get to the next listener. Bad for the rhythm of the show.

I had received a note with the names of my traffic and news reporters. Next to the traffic reporters name, Rachel Duran, was a note saying, “Don’t call her Jill.” In some sort of radio insanity, the folks who report traffic on many different stations use many different names.

Best line of the morning (spoken on air but directed to Mike the producer): “Some people don’t call because they’re worried about being on hold too long. There should be a policy. If there are more than two callers waiting, we’ll open up another register.”

A woman called from Bristol. She had no idea who this new voice on the air was, and when I told her, she still didn’t know who I was. After nearly 20 years in the market, I’m entitled to have a little fun with that, so I told her we had given out $1,000 to each of our TV viewers last week and she had missed out.

From then on, I began to ask all the callers if they had gotten their $1,000 and everyone seemed to go along with the joke. Later, I began asking if anyone had gotten a hot tub from a friend… a not too veiled reference to Governor Rowland who had accepted a hot tub and is now in hot water.

I made it to the top of the hour newscast with only minor cuts and scratches.

Things went well as we began the second hour, but then trouble. The phone lines dried up. Beads of sweat began to form. I made a crucial mistake – a rookie mistake: I said we were out of calls.

As soon as I said it, I knew I had crossed some sacred talk show line. Sure, it’s not my job, but I’ll still kick myself every time I remember I did it.

With no traffic in Connecticut, every time Rachel (not Jill) came on the air, I asked her for a traffic report for some obscure area of the state, like Occum or Forestville or Union. She laughed and took it like a trooper.

The first rule of improv is going along with the bit. Rachel (not Jill) played the game correctly. Her willingness to have fun made the bit funnier. Actually, without her laughter it wasn’t funny at all. She made the bit.

As noon approached I was rolling and actually dreaded the end coming so soon.

I’m sure if I did it again, I would do some things differently. And, when I listen to the aircheck I brought home, some of my talk show shortcomings will come into sharp focus. I still have my amateur status, so that’s not a big deal.

Maybe there will be another time. You never know.