Thursday, May 16, 2013

Another "How I got fired" story

Here’s another tale from my radio disc jockey days. It was a great field to be in if you didn’t mind zero security and bosses who were mad as hatters.

In 1974 I was on KYA, San Francisco, doing the 10 pm – 2 am shift and happy as a clam. The program director liked me, the general manager liked me. I was the flavor-of-the-month. In radio that meant start sending out tapes.

The station was sold. This has happened to me numerous times. And the chain of events is always the same. A general staff meeting is called. The new owners assure everyone that their jobs are safe and there will be no changes. One of the attractions of purchasing this station was the format and people. They were honored to be working with all of us.

Almost immediately the program director is fired. Then various staff members get picked off as if there were a sniper on a hill. The format is altered, new rules and memos are generated hourly until three months later you don’t even recognize the station.

So we have the obligatory meeting at KYA. I’m in the Army Reserves and then have to go off for two weeks summer camp at Ford Ord. While I’m gone the program director is fired. Big shock.  I know my days are numbered too.

When radio stations want to fire disc jockeys and have no real cause they catch you on a minor infraction that normally wouldn't even warrant a mention and use that as your poison pill. I think my egregious error was that I forgot to read a live tag to a commercial (like “Open every night till 9”).  I returned home from the army and found my pink slip in my box. Because of my gross negligence and utter lack of professionalism I was terminated immediately.

Disappointed but not surprised, I returned to my studio apartment and made a few calls to see what else was available. As luck would have it, a friend who was program director of a station in San Diego had an opening and hired me on the spot. I would report in a week. Being out of work for one hour was far preferable to six months, which is what I suffered through in 1973.  (When you're cold, you're cold.  I couldn't get a job doing all-nights in Fresno.)

Then I got a call from KYA’s business affairs person. Because I was fired for cause they didn’t have to pay me severance. This of course, is bullshit, but lots of stations did it.

So I went back to KYA and stuck my head into the general manager’s office. Howard Kester was an older gentleman.  He had always been very nice to me. Cheery greetings, pats on the back, etc. The one thing I remember about him is that he blinked a thousand times a minute. I’ve never seen anything like it.

He invited me into his office, was very fatherly, and said he was sad to see me go. Hopefully I learned from my wanton irresponsibility and would go on to have a nice career. If it was up to him, he’d pay me the severance, but this was corporate policy. His hands were tied.

I told him I was going to take action. He blinked fifty times then shrugged. “Go ahead. Call the union if you like.”

“I’m not calling the union,” I said. “I’m calling the Adjutant General’s Office.”

“What?” he blinked.

“Yes. You fired me while I was on active military duty. That’s illegal. I’m filing a law suit.  You'll be hearing from the United States government.”

His eyes were now fluttering like a movie projector and I could tell he was a little thrown by this. He told me to hold on and quickly called his business affairs guy and relayed my threat. I could hear over the phone the guy yelling, “PAY HIM! PAY HIM RIGHT NOW!” Howard instructed him to cut a check.

Then he went absolutely ballistic on me. His face turned beet red and he started screaming random obscenities. I calmly sat there and said I wasn’t leaving until I had the check for the full amount in my hand. He said I had to sign a release relieving KYA of any further responsibility. I refused. Howard’s head almost came off.

He got right in my face and said, “I know your kind. You’re the type of person who likes to come back and hang around the vending machine!” Huh? That didn’t even make sense.

He continued screaming at me and sending Morse Code through his eyes until his secretary gingerly walked in with the check for him to sign. He scrawled his signature but just before he gave it to me he said, “If you take this I swear you will never work in this industry again. EVER!” I swiped the check out of his hand and casually said, “I’ve already got another job!”

Now he started screaming “GET OUT! GET THE FUCK OUT!” I stopped at the door and couldn't resist.  I turned back and said, “Would you mind if I got an Almond Joy from the vending machine?” He almost leaped across his desk.

I left and just a few months later he too was fired by the new owners.

I’m still friends with a lot of the people I worked with at KYA. Come to think of it, they all got fired too.  But that’s the thing about radio back then – even the bad parts were often fun. I’m glad I was a part of it. And even more glad I got out.

35 comments:

Johnny Walker said...

Just to let everyone know that Marc Maron has just released a brand new interview with Sam Simon.

You may not have heard (I only found out two days ago) that Simon is terminally ill with cancer. It's a wonderful interview, and fans of sitcom writing will undoubtedly be interested in hearing from the father of The Simpsons.

Steve Mc said...

As a UK scriptwriter who's been fired off scripts a couple of times I love these stories. I recall once shocking a BBC show which tried to fire me off a script, even though they freely admitted this was nothing to do with the quality of my work, by simply saying no, I don't accept that. They didn't know what to do. In the end, we had to cut a deal but seeing the memory of their shocked faces still gives me a warm glow.

Tudor Queen said...

I was in radio myself a few decades or so ago. I did news, talk and movie reviews (free movies! Yay!) It was, as you say, tremendous fun. But it was no way for a young lady (or young man, I assume), to reliably make the rent. I finally went into another, far less enjoyable field, then another, till I found my current career, which is nearly as much fun as radio. But I still remember those few years fondly.

John said...

Apparently from the station's point of view, KYA stood for Kover Your Ass when it came to finding ways to avoid severance. I'm guessing the GM went nuclear because he had told the higher-ups he had all bases covered, and didn't like either being blindsided by a surprise option or telling his bosses that personnel change plan was going to get up costing a little more than he projected (which may also be why he was the ex-GM a short time later).

Terry said...

Beautiful story, Ken. Nothing like sticking it to the man after he sticks it to you.

I had a similar experience getting fired from the advertising department of a newspaper I worked for years ago. They had the nerve to run an ad for my position in that same paper about two days before they fired me. They didn't know I'd seen it and when they did the deed I told them next time they might want to wait until the person they were firing was gone from the building before they started advertising for his position. Much stammering and backpedaling ensued.

I had my revenge, though, as I was hired back by a different department of that same paper (which is where I really wanted to work in the first place) a couple of weeks later. The looks on the faces of the people who'd fired me were priceless.

Mark Patterson said...

Mr. Levine: Great story. Any idea who did the art for the R. Crumb "Cheap Thrills" swipe you posted, the KYA poster?

Ed said...

Getting fired in radio is (or was) such a common occurance that I knew a station GM that refused to hire anyone that had not previously been fired somewhere else before. He believed you didn't really have experience in the business unless you had been fired.

Mitchell Hundred said...

Way back in the dawn of time, my mother was a server at a hotel. One day a new manager got hired, and he apparently decided that a display of his power was needed. So he fired every member of the staff and hired them all back the next day. Evidently he had just finished reading Machiavelli and opted for fear over love.

Mike Bell said...

Ken, I'm sure you've heard this classic firing story...

I'm not certain of the PD in question, so I'll leave his name out. He was known for having a collection of tin soldiers on his desk. One day he called one of his jocks in to his office and had him take a seat.

The PD made a big show of lining up six of the soldiers on his desk in front of the jock.

"Do you know what this represents?" He asked, referring to the toys.

"This is our staff. And this one on the end? This one is you!"

And with that, the PD flicked the soldier off his desk.

"You're outta here pal!"

Barefoot Billy Aloha said...

Wowie, you were brave!

Jack said...

As a fan of Don Geronimo (and being a radio guy myself), I love it when Don tells old radio stories, and the toy soldier one is a fave. Tom Bigby was the PD at KFI and fired Machine Gun Kelly. He then called in Geronimo and the late Big Ron O'Brien (my friend and radio hero) and said "one of you is taking over for MG and this is the other of you" and flicked the soldier off his desk. Bigby told Biggie to pick up the soldier and to GTFO.

Uncool, but a great story.

Sean in NoCal said...

Ken,
Between you and Don Geronimo here in NoCal, I never get tired of old radio stories! They make me glad I gave up that pariculrar career dream early! Great reading!

willieb said...

My favorite story of getting fired in radio (a business warped enough to generate favorite getting-fired stories)was actually my first paying job at a station in Maryland. I had been elevated from overnights to afternoons to Music Director to Program Director over a nine-month period. When I got off my afternoon shift, I went into the reception area to record the weather phone -- four times a day we recorded a sponsored weathercast onto a voice-mail-type tape device. Because it was sponsored, the owner/GM was a stickler about updating the weather phone. So imagine my surprise one Friday afternoon (you were generally fired on Fridays)when the owner/GM came in and asked what I was doing. "The weather phone, of course," was my reply. His reply to that was to reach into his pocket, pull out my severance check and toss it on the desk, saying "Why don't you let a PAID employee do that?"
Much later, I, too, stared down a GM for money. When he fired me the GM said he'd waive my non-compete (a mostly-illegal part of any jock's contract that says you can't work for a competitior for anywhere from one to three years)and let me work wherever I wanted, and in exchange he wouldn't pay me for the two weeks vacation I was owed. I got a lawyer friend of my wife's who carried a lot of weight in town to write the GM a letter suggesting legal action and got a call two days later to come pick up my check. Not at the station, though -- I had to go to the owner's house. And enter through the kitchen.

Eduardo Jencarelli said...

Zach Braff wasn't enough of a draw for Kickstarter.

Look who's also looking to crowdfunding their projects (including the upcoming Friday Night Lights movie).

http://www.deadline.com/2013/05/cannes-brian-grazer-ron-howard-introduce-imagine-2-0-a-pele-pic-on-the-croisette-a-crowd-funded-friday-night-lights-dark-tower-jay-z-and-one-angry-white-whale/

Victor Velasco said...

Jeez, what a beautiful story! I grew up on the Peninsula and was loyal to KEWB and KYA but, in '66 I switched allegiances to KFRC; tympani rolls and Bill Drake hooked me, I guess

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VincentS said...

Great story, Ken.

Mister Charlie said...

I still have that KYA vinyl album. Turned me on to some great music after having moved from Illinois to SF as this was being released.

RareWaves said...

Love the story, Ken. I was also in radio in the mid-seventies and remember one day we all saw these giant tape machines delivered. When we asked about them, they actually said they were new machines for recording airchecks. Seriously. We could all smell automation, even through the thick plastic that engulfed these job killers. Fortunately, we were all prepared for the "surprise" announcement a few weeks later that the station was going automated and we were all fired. Needless to say, the automated format was probably shorter lived than the warranty on the machines.

Patrick Murphy said...

As a comedy writer, would "Snickers" pop more than "Almond Joy"?

Phillip B said...

Note to Mark Patterson -

This source credits the cover art to WT Vinson

http://tralfaz-archives.com/coverart/V/Various/kya.html

benson said...

Just saw the headline...long time program director Paul Drew died today. He was 78.

DREW launched his radio career in ATLANTA, as a DJ at WAKE, WGST and WQXI -- the latter station promoted him to PD. He also held PD gigs at CKLW/WINDSOR-DETROIT, WIBG/PHILADELPHIA, KFRC/SAN FRANCISCO and KHJ/LOS ANGELES.

Roger said...

While viewing all the firings at KFRC, San Francisco in the early 70s, and the memos posted on the bulletin board regarding this, we posted a fake memo from the Consultants announcing the departure of the current PD. He almost left the building as surprise firings with little communication were common. He did make a call to confirm it and didn't find it as amusing as the rest of us though.

Ken Kurtis said...

Really too bad about Paul Drew. Very clever and innovative man. In keeping with the "firing" theme . . .

I actually got Paul Drew 'fired". I had been hired, with his blessing as he was the consultant, to program KAKC in Tulsa in 1976. Once I got there, they decided they didn't need Paul any more and terminated his consulting contract.

Ironically, four months later (and after a book where we went from #7 to #1) Paul called me one day and asked me to meet him at the Tulsa airport as he "happened to be flying through" and wanted to talk. (I found out later that this was his MO for hiring away people as you were less likely to be found out in an airport.) At that meeting, he offered me what was then my dream job, which was to go program RKO's 99X in New York and try to knock off KABC. I accepted.

For those of you who know your radio history, it didn't exactly work out the way I'd anticipated. But it combines the hiring/firing theme with the memory of a very clever programmer, Paul Drew.

Johnny Walker said...

Wow, that's some story!

I wish my brain was quick enough to come up quips like the Almond Joy comment in moments like that. How incredibly satisfying the whole thing must have been! It's almost like a scene from MASH.

Mike said...

For long time fan Ken, this Saturday is the final of the EuroVision Song Contest. No idea how you'd watch this in America, but it is screened in the tribal homeland of Israel. (Don't ask.)
To whet your appetite, here's Montenegro. Kidz tell me this is dubstep.

MikeBo said...

I remember Howard Kester. He was GM at KEZY when I tried out there in 1966. The following year after I did get the job at KFOG in SF, he came to KYA. I'm suprised he lasted long enough to fire you. Playing the military service card instead of the AFTRA card was a stroke of genius on your part. That was a rare victory in an industry where the body count was so high.

Len said...

Wish my brain was that quick, too. On the other hand Ken's had forty years to polish up this anecdote.

Pat Reeder said...

I had a brief foray into video as head writer for a production company that had a similar habit: whenever they fired someone, they'd tell the Texas Unemployment Commission that it was for cause, figuring the poor sap would be so desperate for money, he'd take any job available, and it would save them money (and they were a major producer of Catholic materials, giving a really dark spin to the question, "What would Jesus do?")

Unfortunately for them, I had worked in radio long enough that I knew to save EVERYTHING. I had already started a new job back in radio, but I kept appealing just out of spite. First they claimed at the district hearing that I was fired for not doing the work. I hauled up a memo from the boss praising my work. On to the regional hearing, where they claimed I didn't show up at the office. I hauled up a letter from the boss giving me permission to work at home. That bumped us up to a state level phone hearing where their lawyers had to be under oath. They never phoned in, and the judge summarily ordered them to send me a check. Moral: If you work for a weasel, be a pack rat.

BTW, I also once did some commercial writing for a cheapskate notorious for not paying writers. I prepared two invoices, one in each coat pocket. Went into his office and told him I had an invoice for the work I'd done at the very reasonable rate I'd normally charge. I took it out, put it in front of him, and watched him grab his heart. Then I said that today only, I was having a special and pulled out the other invoice for a fourth as much money. He grabbed his checkbook and paid me on the spot.

Of course, I never expected to get more than that out of him anyway, but at least I actually got it. Few other writers who worked for him could ever say that.

Cap'n Bob said...

I never worked in radio, but I was at a printing company around the same time as Ken's story (and in the Bay Area, so I might have heard him). The company started a bowling league and made me treasurer. A few weeks later they laid me off. I kept the league money and no one had the stones to ask me for it.

TV Sports Veteran said...

To echo Terry's story above, I had a weasel of a News Director in Omaha post my job on the station website hoping to get a few weeks to find a replacement & then can me. I boxed up everything that wasn't nailed down on Sunday night & waited for a call on Monday. (my normal day off)
After no call by lunch, I called the HR lady & requested a meeting. Told the GM how unprofessional it was that the ND posted my job before we even sat down. I threatened to talk to a lawyer & got my unemployment. Always get fired, never quit!
The same ND once told me he couldn't LEGALLY tell me not to go to my grandmother's funeral, but he also wanted to see me "step up" & prove my dedication to the station.
Needless to say, I was THRILLED when he got his 9 months after me.

Johnny Walker said...

Len, that's true, but Ken really is that fast in real life.

Jeffrey Mark said...

I had been out of radio for many years but decided to get back in again a couple of years ago after a long, long time. I was hired to do traffic reports on the weekends. Ok, fine, why not. I worked at the station about 7 weeks. I come in to do my usual Saturday afternoon traffic reports and the guy I reported to (not the program director) asked me what I was doing here. Whaaat? I asked. He said I wasn't on the schedule. I spent a half hour trying to get the guy to tell me what the real reason was, but he wasn't budging. I finally find out I was fired. The program director never called and told me. No calls, no getting called into his office, no nothing. I drove an hour up to the station only to find out I no longer had a job. What a shitty way to get fired. Typical radio.

Judy Berman said...

Judy Berman said ... I can so relate to this, Ken. I had been working at WHEN-AM radio in Syracuse/Liverpool, N.Y. I had turned down a slight promotion because they wanted me manage what was left of an excellent news department and still pay me less than the sales secretary. I had no sooner finished a news cast than I was told that was my last news cast. It WAS fun while it lasted. I had a job that paid much more at a newspaper about a month later. Doing well is its own reward.

Tom Richard said...

Hi Ken,

I interned at KYA in 1977 and listened to you when you were on in 1974. If you remember Steve Jordan, he's on Facebook. I worked at other stations in the Bay Area and heard the worst excuses in the book. When King Broadcasting took over KYA in 1977, they ruined it and also ruined the FM station. Changing the format was bad enough but NEVER touch a 3-letter call. AGGH!