Friday, November 12, 2010

As Long as There's No Dead-Air

She paid almost $12.00 for those two packs.  They didn't look like brand-name cigarettes.  Or, maybe they were, and I didn't know it.  It's been over 15 years since I've smoked, so I'm not nearly as well-versed on tobacco products now.  As she was paying for them, I looked up at the racks holding the various cartons.  I didn't see my brand.  Maybe Kent Golden Lights weren't even made anymore.  All I know is that back then, $12.00 would have probably given me a whole carton of cigarettes in return.  I also know that Kent Golden Lights, and an Elton John song, almost ruined my radio career.

I was doing Afternoon Drive at Arrow 94.7 (now Fresh-FM) in Washington, DC, back in 1994.  It was the day before a Holiday, and most people had left the building early. (although, as I would find out, I had completely forgotten that)  I was a smoker back then, and a pretty heavy one, averaging almost 2 packs per-day.  It was a bit after 4 p.m. and I just hit the button to start “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me”.  It was a pretty good smoke song.  Not as good as "Stairway to Heaven".  And certainly not as good as "Do You Feel Like We Do".  Hell, you could squeeze in a "100" or two regular smokes when Peter Frampton would come up on the log.  But this one would do the trick.

We were required to smoke outside of the building back then. The station was located in Rockville, Maryland, within a series of 2-story office complexes.  The entrance to the station had three front-doors…the main door, a door on the left that looked in to the production studio but was never used, and had an Otari reel-to-reel deck placed in front of it, and another to the right of the main door that opened into the sales office, also one that was rarely used.

The day was overcast and extremely windy!  After starting Elton, I pulled out a cigarette, leaned against the door, lit it, opened the door, and started enjoying my smoke.  The wind was blowing me away from the door for some reason.  So I turned slightly to face the road, with my butt and heel of my foot keeping the door propped open, giving me a chance to both brace myself against the gusts and allow me to still hear my song, which was playing on the radio on top of the receptionist’s desk.  Suddenly, (and still not completely understanding the meteorological effect that occurred) a huge jolt of wind slapped against me, knocking me forward, and the door blew shut behind me, slamming loudly.  I silently cursed, took a final drag off the cigarette, tossed it, and turned to open the door.  It was locked.  “Damn,” I thought.  I started knocking on the metal-door, and then peered in through the small slivers of glass that surrounded the door, to see if anyone was hearing my knock.

Of course, I had forgotten that everyone had left early.

As anyone who’s been on the air will tell you after gaining some experience behind the microphone, one’s mental “song-length timer” can be acutely developed over a short period of time.  I knew, intuitively, that at least 3 minutes or more had elapsed from my Elton John tune.  Continued rapping on the metal-door produced nothing, so I moved down to the door on the left with the Otari in front of it.  I looked in and saw nobody.  More pounding, this time on the wood door, also elicited nothing.  Now, a tiny bit of panic was starting to settle in.  This was PM Drive, in the seventh largest market in the country, and I had a Program Director (Craig Ashwood) who thought two sins to be unforgivable:  murder, and dead-air.  I returned to the metal-door and tapped a bit harder on it, again and again.  Still nothing.  While standing there walking around in circles, muttering to myself, the heavy wind started to merge with a rain/sleet mix, making it somewhat difficult to see through my glasses, and quickly penetrating the front of my shirt and khakis.

I could see the Denon CD-deck in my mind, the red numbers counting-down backwards, and I figured I had about a minute and-a-half before my song ended.  And the panic started to increase a bit.

I raced down to the door on the right, peering in through the window to see if I spotted anyone in the sales department.  Empty.  I quickly thought of my mental-timer, which prompted even more nervousness.  I then ran back up to the steel-door, and with every ounce of strength that I could summon,  pounded on it with both fists, repeatedly.  "Why wasn't anyone hearing this?" I mumbled.  I figured I would either put a dent in the door or break my hand, whichever came first, but I was going to get somebody to answer this door!  No response. 

Now, I was in full panic-mode.  My mind was reeling.  I knew that Bill, the Overnight guy, lived in the tall apartment complex next-door, but there was no time to run over to see if I could contact him and get a key to get in.  And I couldn’t believe that Tammy, the Evening host, and always consistently early for her show, hadn’t yet arrived from Baltimore.  “What the hell, Tammy”, I thought.  “You’re always here by now.  Why not today?!”  Someone from one of the buildings next to ours was getting into his car and, while putting down his umbrella, watched my now-audible tirade, as I bounced from door to door, streaming panic-infused profanities, all the while keeping track of the clock-timer in my head.  “Can I help?”, he yelled through the now-pouring cold rain. 

I didn’t respond.  I didn’t have to.  Through my rain-soaked spectacles, I looked again at the door on the far-right, and I knew what I had to do. I had to get in to this building.

They say that adrenaline will enable the body to do miraculous and sometimes devastating things.  I’ve read of people who, while watching a friend or loved one become trapped underneath a car, for instance, will suddenly be able to lift up the back-end of that automobile, thus sparing that person’s life.  Or a person normally unable to swim will, after seeing somebody about to drown, jump in to the water without fear, to try to save them.  It’s a kind of laser-focused will-power, some bizarre phenomenon even seemingly beyond the scope of requesting divine intervention.  Insta-Zen.  It’s almost as if no mind exists.  No mind, except the constant threat of that damned Elton John song ending! 

With 40 seconds or so on my internal-countdown, I ran briskly down the small sidewalk, through the now-formed puddles, to the door on the far-right, in front of the sales department.  I wiped some of the water off the lenses of my glasses, stood back, sized up the entrance-way, and, breathing heavily, charged towards the wooden-door, right shoulder-first.  Nothing.  I did it again.  And again.  And again.  Suddenly, on the next try, I could hear wood along the dead-bolt beginning to pop.  I felt like an offensive lineman slamming into the blocking-sled on the practice-field, repeatedly banging into it under the watchful-eye of my coach.  The next attempt splintered the frame at the top of the door near the lintel.  I lunged again and again, completely oblivious as to what the repercussions would be from the authorities, the building-owners, or the management at CBS.  I didn't know if that man with the umbrella was watching me or whether he was calling the police.  I did know that my Elton John song was about to end, that Craig Ashwood was about 20 seconds from executing me, that the sun was going down on my career at WARW-FM, and that dead-air would soon grip the Nation's Capital, during my watch, on Washington D.C.'s only station playing rock 'n roll oldies.  I simply could not allow that to happen.
     
It was on my 11th or 12th try that the door began to give way.  The cheap dead-bolt was now pushed almost all the way through the jamb.  The framing at the top and to the right of the door was completely disengaged.  Sore, exhausted, and almost unable to see because of the pelting rain, I managed one last shoulder-pound.  With a sickening explosion, the door finally gave-way!  The blowing wind lifted papers and folders off their desks and on to the carpet.  Upon falling through the opening, I immediately tripped over a chair leg and bounced to the floor.  Scrambling quickly to get up, I leaped over several wastebaskets that were in my path, around several cubicle-dividers, into the hallway past the reception area, and down to the studio, jarring the door open with the same shoulder that had been used to break into the building.  The final strains of "Don't Let the Sun Down on Me" were fading out, the station processing pushing the last audible note into the air.  Leaning over the board, panting, I hit the "on" button on the cart-deck, fired the next sweeper, and pounded on the button that kicked off the next song.  I had done it.

Almost immediately, though, whatever elation I had felt was quickly snuffed-out when I realized that I had just demolished station property.  I had completely screwed up.  All over a cigarette.

Through the tiny speaker next to the cart-decks, I could hear the voice of Walt Starling, our esteemed traffic reporter, repeating, "Matt?  Matt?  Hey, Matt!"  Still panting, I pushed the talk-back button.  "Walt, I screwed up, man, big time!!  I really screwed up!  Craig is gonna fucking kill me!"  After trying to acknowledge his pleas to calm down, I rapidly explained to him the drama that had unfolded.  "OK, listen," he said, "after the last report, I can go by a Home Depot for you and get one of those heavy-duty door-stops, so nobody gets into the building overnight.  But, you know you're gonna have to call Craig and tell him what happened."

I knew I had to.  And just then, skipping merrily into the studio with her headphones under her arm and dinner tucked away in her Tupperware container, was Tammy Jett.  "Hey, what's going o-- WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED TO YOU!?"  Between quick back-sells of songs, I recounted the afternoon's events, and then Tammy went to the other side of the building to inspect the damage.  "Oh, dude.  That's bad.  You, uh....you have to call Craig."

I continue to be amazed at the length of time that can pass when you're staring at a phone, stalling, attempting to put off a call that you know you have to make, but really don't want to.  You could be nervous about asking out a girl.  You could be apprehensive about passing on the bad news to somone that a mutual friend had died.  You could, as I've done, be frightened to call up the person who just hired you to tell that person that you've decided not to take the job after all.  Or you could feel unqualified terror at telling the person who just hired you that you just decimated station property because it was imperative that you fill your lungs up with nicotine during a 5:36 song.  So, after signing-off, I put my headphones in my assigned compartment and wandered over into the production studio with Craig's phone number in my hand, spending a long time staring at the phone and trying to rehearse the introduction and the lead-in to my tale. 

"Hey, Craig, it's Matt.  How's it going."  I was trembling.

"Hey, mate, what's up?"

I paused.  And then I completely abandoned my very logically-designed lead-in.  "Well, I screwed up."  I could feel my voice shaking.  "I locked myself out of the station and I had to break a door down to get in."

"You what!?", he screamed.

And I told him.  I gave him all the grisly details, hearing the occasional "um-hum" between segments.  As I recalled details about splintering wood and mangled dead-bolts, I simultaneously looked around the studio to see if there might be an empty box lying around, one that would contain all my belongings here, including my headphones.  One that would fit neatly in the trunk of my car.  I finally wrapped it up, and then Craig asked, quickly, "Did ya have any dead-air?"

I paused briefly.  "Uh, what?"

"Did you have any dead-air?"

I paused again.  "Uh, no.  No, I didn't.  None at all."

Craig quickly replied, "OK, cool, then.  Well, no worries, mate.  We'll get it fixed.  As long as you didn't miss a song or have any dead-air.  That lock probably needed replaced anyway.  Don't worry about it.  I'll tell Sarah when I get there in the morning and we'll get it fixed up.  We'll see you tomorrow."

There are those times when I can relate to  "Ralphie", Peter Billingsley, in A Christmas Story.  After almost shooting his eye out and breaking his glasses while trying out his new official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle, he realized that he wasn't going to be destroyed by his parents.  Of course, Ralphie lied, and I didn't.  Still, that same gooey feeling washed over me as I stood there in the production studio, and it continued to splatter me as I made my way home that evening on 66 towards Manassas.  I wasn't going to be destroyed by Craig Ashwood.  I wasn't going to have to relinquish my slot as the PM Drive personality on "Arrow 94.7".  And I wasn't going to have to stand in the hallway of our apartment and explain to my wife that the job-search was on yet again.  Calmly inhaling the final remnants of my cigarette, I vowed to quit someday.  It would be another year-and-a-half before I would, but I knew that it was possible.  "Hell", I thought.  "If I can break down a door and not have any dead-air in the seventh-largest radio market in the country, then I should be able to do anything!"

-30-

Image: Sebastien Beliveau / FreeDigitalPhotos.net