My First Time (s)

by POPSIE 1956

No…not THAT first time, it’s safe to keep reading.

I’m talking about my life long career in broadcasting, and what got me to where I am today, still at it after all these years, and still fighting to stay IN it after all these years.

It’s certainly not for love of money, quite frankly if I wanted a comfortable retirement, this is NOT the field to be in.

It’s certainly not for the freedom to do and say what I want to on the air…at least not anymore; my field, like many businesses, has joined the ranks of the “McDonaldlization of America,” the theory that you can go to ANY McDonald’s anywhere in the world, and a Quarter Pounder with Cheese will look, smell and taste the same.

(Might be why I’ve moved from being a Music Jock to a News Guy too).

And it’s certainly not the allure of a smiling happy large staff to work with. With consolidations, multitasking and automation, many radio stations work on skeleton crews. I’m lucky to be working as part of a quite large News Staff, in part, and probably ONLY because in addition to providing Local News, we also “farm out” news reports to a number of affiliates who have little to no staff, a hub providing to spokes, is how they call it.

So WHY, after all this time, do I continue to fight the good fight?

Honest to God, at one point I would have a good answer, nowadays, it might just be as I close up on 60, I’m scared shitless to “start again.”

CAN a new career start at my age? Absolutely. DO I WANT a new career at my age? Some days yes, some days no way.

What started my craving for all things radio?

Why did I think I would be comfortable “performing” in public?

When did the brain damage initially start?

Before radio, there was the stage.

Before acting, there was music.

Southgate School, Loudonville, NY. My mother and father tell me…not ask but tell…I’m going to learn to play a musical instrument.

A cello.

Must have been all they had left.

No disrespect to cello players, but a 4th grade, overweight, none too wise to the world and always getting picked on kid who plays the cello is just ASKING for beatings from his peers.

The lessons…and the cello…lasted only a year, but what I got out of it, which has lasted to THIS day, came from those lessons.

The name of the music teacher was Edward Rice, and he was a part of history on February 20, 1922, on the VERY FIRST broadcast of WGY AM in Schenectady NY, the VERY SAME station I work for today.

I can’t tell you a thing about the cello, but TO THIS DAY I can remember the afternoon when Mr. Rice came into class with photos of that first day and many others of WGY…THAT’S the day the word RADIO first had it’s hooks in me.

But I knew nothing else about it, except from that day forward I was NEVER without a radio to listen to, day and night. In fact, prior to this, I could NOT go to sleep at night without the radio ON, and after my mother turned it off in the middle of the night, if I woke up I turned it back on.

From music to the “stage.” First time as an “actor” was also in 4th Grade at Southgate. My class was to give a performance on Abraham Lincoln, from his early days to that “special night” at the theater.

In the “final scene,” they got the tallest kid (Rick Young) to play Lincoln, can’t remember the rest of the cast, but I was to play a bodyguard the night Lincoln was shot (who obviously didn’t do a good job based on the outcome of that night). My non speaking part was simple, stand there, and when “John Wilkes Booth” distracted me, I fall over while he takes Abe out.

And in rehearsal that’s how it played, the day or performance, not so much.

As God is my witness, I don’t know why I did what I did.

Instead of just falling over, I “shtick it up,” grabbing my leg which “Booth” hit, started hopping around and at the same time was screaming out like a Borscht Belt Comic, “OW OW OW!!!”

Everyone looked at me instead watching Lincoln get taken out.

And laughing their asses off.

To paraphrase Tom Hanks, there’s no laughing in Lincoln’s Assassination.

The NEXT time I was on stage was 11th Grade.

Before that, my first real brush with radio.

As I said earlier, it had easily become a part of my life. I’m sure many of my friends who hung out with me back then remember me with a nine volt transistor radio, I never went anywhere without it.

If I saw a radio station at a remote broadcast, I would ALWAYS go up to the disc jockey and ask him about his job.

My high school classmate Ken Haverly got a gig at college radio station WRPI FM in Troy NY, and on occasion he would ask me to join him.

I saw FIRST hand how it was done…and when he talked I walked around the studio, because I wanted everyone to hear my squeaky shoes and know I was the one “on the air.”

THAT’S where the brain damage started.

I became fascinated with the history of the business, and would read and listen to everything I could get my hands/ears on.

That time was coming, but the stage called first.

Junior Year at Shaker High School in Latham NY. The Spring Musical was going to be “West Side Story.”

At that time, 50’s Rock & Roll Music was having a popularity revival, and I became (still am) a major fan of all things roots; the idea of “greasing up,” singing and dancing on stage appealed to me, I auditioned for the very first time for a show, AND I GOT THE PART!

Point of fact, my FIRST show at Shaker was “West Side.” My FIRST show at Ashland College/University in Ohio WAS ALSO  “West Side Story.”

Still one of the Jets, but different parts.

To this day, I would not be doing what I do if not for (in part) directors Barbara Kelly at Shaker and Murray Hudson at Ashland. They gave me confidence, believed in me, and allowed me to finally become “me.”

“West Side” at Shaker was a MAJOR hit, even for a high school musical, we even got write ups in the local newspapers. We did an EXTRA weekend of performances due to the appeal.

That’s it…I AM GOING TO BE AN ACTOR!

At this point I am thankful to not only my mother but to Ed Gee, my Guidance Councilor at Shaker, who sat down and said “Mike, the theater is WAY too risky, you should look at a business where you can express yourself but have great job security…how about radio?”

I will pause for a moment while those in my business…or better yet those who USED TO be in my business can stop laughing.

Better?

One last high school theater story to show you how I and the thought of wanting to be in the spotlight eventually got out of hand.

Senior year at Shaker, the Spring Musical was “Mame.”

I played stuffed shirt banker Dwight Babcock, a small but essential (and non singing/non dancing) role.

Throughout the show, the lead character of Mame constantly was getting Mr. Babcock’s name wrong, there’s a peak towards the end of the show where he corrects her after calling him Mister Babbit, saying…..quite softly and refined I might add…”cock, Babcock.”

For each performance, and remember this is HIGH SCHOOL…..I…..played it different.

For each performance, I, a just turned 18 year old student, in public, in front of families, teachers and an occasional nun, yelled at the top of my voice….

“COCK!!!!! Bab…..COCK!!!!!

Silence followed by pockets of uncomfortable laughter.

And every night, that was the moment Barbara Kelly had a stroke.

Yup, performing in public is right for me!

Theater performances continued in college, and for about a year or so after that. My Bucket List has, at the top of the page, “GET BACK ON STAGE.”

Life took that away from me, not complaining, just way too many things got in the way, but before I die, I will return.

At my age it will be a small character part but that’s fine with me.

I went to Ashland to learn about broadcasting, radio AND television. I am CONVINCED my time as an actor helped me greatly when I became a radio guy at remotes, or concerts, Public TV auctions or a fundraising telethon.

I remember the VERY FIRST time I turned on a microphone at my college radio station, WRDL FM.

I remember the VERY FIRST time I went before a camera at my college radio station, WRDL TV 2.

In fact, I remember the VERY FIRST time I turned on the microphone at EVERY professional radio station I have worked for since 1977.

And I remember on EVERY ONE OF THOSE DAYS, I was scared shitless.

Five years ago, I was on WGY for the very first time, and the feeling was the same.

Locals and radio people will get this, but in my head I kept saying, ‘THIS IS W-G-FREAKING Y! DON’T SCREW THIS UP!”

They haven’t fired me yet, so far so good.

My business is NOT the same it was when I started.

What business is?

But my buzz, my love for what I do, comes out when I see new people coming in who still carry that passion, who can’t explain WHY they want to do this, only that they MUST, and who want to learn from the old farts like me what was it like, and what can they do to keep up that level of passion that I have.

A funny thing, since that was ME over 40 years ago.

Finally, and my fellow broadcasters can relate, but even as my opportunities for advancement start to dry up, making way for the next generation, I can tell you this…..I AIN’T DONE YET!

And I WILL go kicking and screaming.

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