Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Getting fired during Christmas

One of the many reasons I became a writer is that I got tired of being fired as a disc jockey. Today marks the 44th anniversary of the last time I signed off my show with “see you tomorrow” and was never heard from again.  

1974, I’m Beaver Cleaver on KSEA, San Diego, playing “The Night Chicago Died” and “Billy Don’t Be a Hero” five times a night and seriously considering blowing my brains out. Yes, I know – why “Beaver Cleaver”? Ken Levine sounded too Jewish.

The fall rating book came out, the numbers were not good, and at 3:00 I was told to hustle down to the station for an all-important staff meeting at 4:00. We all assembled and were told the station had decided to change formats to gospel and we were all being let go. “Even me?” I said in mock amazement. “Especially you.” “But I could change my name to Eldridge Cleaver.” “I’m going to need your station key”.

Quick aside: a year earlier at KMEN San Bernardino they wanted to get rid of me by moving me from the evening shift to the all-night show. The cheap bastards were hoping I’d quit so they wouldn’t have to pay severance (maybe $300 at most) and be on the hook for unemployment insurance. I asked the program director to at least do the humane thing and fire my sorry ass. “Nope”, he said, “Starting tonight you’re midnight to six.” So I stopped off at the local record store, picked up an LP, and dutifully reported on time for my shift.

Like KSEA, we were a high energy Top 40 station. (Our program director was in love with WLS whose slogan was “the Rock of Chicago” so we became the much catchier “Rock of the Inland Empire”.) I signed on and started playing the hits. Then at 12:30 segued smartly into FIDDLER ON THE ROOF….in Yiddish. The entire album. I was fired during “Anatefka”.

Back to the KSEA staff meeting -- Our morning man, Natural Neil Ross (a former guest on my podcast) asked when this format change was taking place. A month? A week? The program director looked at his watch and said “45 minutes”. And with that we were all canned. KSEA was gone…along with the promotion we were running at the time --

“Christmas the way it was meant to be!”


Michael said...

The "Fiddler On The Roof" story is similar to a story my father used to tell about Al "Jazzbo" Collins who was unhappy about being moved to overnight "Milkman's Matinee" shift on WNEW-AM in the 1950s. One night he played "Mr. Sandman" over and over the entire show. Another interesting story about "Milkman's Matinee" is that the government forced it to stop taking requests during World War Two because of concerns the enemy could use the requests to send encoded messages.

Janet said...

Hope you were able to collect enough unemployment to get through the holidays.

The same sort of thing happened to a journalist friend of mine, maybe 50 years ago now. He was in New York at the time and the outfit where he was went belly up. He went home to his small place despondent. He had almost no money to his name at that point. Mail came in, he found himself in no mood to open it so it stacked up.

Christmas Day came and went. After that, he began opening the mail and lo and behold, an unemployment check.

He likes to say, "That year I had a miserable Christmas but a helluva New Year!"

VincentS said...

I can certainly relate to that. Especially this year!

Roger Green said...

I love Fiddler! I've actually heard Sabbath Prayer and Sunrise, Sunset on "holiday" albums, in an awkward attempt to be "inclusive."

ODJennings said...

I've heard this story several times, and if anyone knows whether or not it's true it's probably this crowd, so here goes:

A Public Radio station somewhere wasn't getting the response they hoped for from their pledge drive, so the station manager finally said to Hell with it, started playing Kate Smith singing God Bless America in endless rotation, and announced that it wasn't gong to stop until they had reached their goal. Made it in a matter of hours.

Urban myth or true story?

Lemuel said...

@Michael: There are plenty of Jazzbo Collins airchecks for our listening pleasure.

Lemuel said...

Sorry, should have mentioned "on Youtube".

tb said...

"I can change my name to Eldridge Cleaver!" haha

kitano0 said...

I've worked at a lot of different jobs, but I can easily say the biggest assholes I ever came in contact with were in the radio business...

Mike Bloodworth said...

I never got to Christmas. I was fired from one radio job the day before Thanksgiving. There were several reasons. I admit I was kind of a smartass. I was frequently at odds with the station manager. BUT, I had the best interest of the station at heart. We had also voted to unionize. So, there was a massive layoff before they signed the AFTRA contract.
While I had worked all the shifts I actually enjoyed working overnights. We had much more freedom to do what we wanted. We weren't micromanaged as they were on the day shift. Although, my boss was kind of like you, Ken. He was one of these guys that never slept. Once, at 3:00AM I got a call from the boss telling me that he didn't like what I was doing on-the-air and to knock it off.
This takes me back to the "smartass" comment. The station from which I was fired was KMNY Money Radio. As far as I know it was the first radio station in the country to have an all business and financial news format. We syndicated soon after and became the MONEY RADIO NETWORK. But, because the format was so narrow and our target demographic was so small, I felt that in order to attract listeners that were non-investors I had to give them more than just raw numbers. I tried to inject some humor and irreverence into my shows. I think my listeners appreciated it, but the boss didn't.

The station/network hit its peak during the market collapse of the late 80's. But, when all the drama ended ratings fell and they couldn't sell enough advertising to remain viable. They stayed on the air for about a year-and-a-half after I was let go.
That's when I decided to try being an actor.
Yeah. That was a smart choice.

Peter said...

Penny Marshall RIP.

I loved Big, Jumpin Jack Flash, A League of Their Own and Awakenings.

Anonymous said...

Not radio but your comment about why you became a writer struck a echo.

Back in my youth I was employed as a deckhand on a commercial fishing boat. 2 people on board 2 week trips. Think a vessel similiar to the Orca from Jaws.
Over a season thinks get odder when you look back but seemed pefectly normal at the time.
One time just as I was finishing the lunch dishes, you don't think the skipper did them, when the skipper called for me to come out on deck. as I stepped out on deck I found myself faced with a flying LIVE shark ( small obviously) that my skipper threw at me as a joke. In that instant I decided to buy my own boat so if anyone did that to me again I could put them over the side.

Alas I was not as successful in my change as you, Ken, conspiciously are.

YEKIMI said...

Think I told this before but here goes anyways. Station I was on 35+ years ago had a soft AAA format which was doing crappy in the ratings. One day a friend called me and said "Hey, my wife was just stopped and asked to fill out a survey about what they'd like to hear on the radio and she asked the person what station they were surveying for." The person doing the survey said "We're not supposed to say anything but this company just bought [listed our stations call letters] and they'll be changing the format soon." His wife called him because she knew I worked at the station and he called me asking what was up. No one at the station had heard anything so I went to the PD and demanded to know what was going on. He said "First I've heard of it" so he and some other DJs went to the GM who fessed up that the owners were selling the station and format would be changing. Everyone was super pissed and the shit hit the fan. One DJ quit on the spot, the rest were told to say nothing over the air about it. No one did but you could tell by the on-air attitude of everyone something was up. The sale of the station was fast-tracked after that and those that didn't quit were let go shortly after the sale. They cobbled together some other DJs from somewhere else and managed to get through the rest of the year [couple of months] till they instituted the format change and let go the fill in DJs who had thought they were going to be hired for good after the format change. So in the end they pissed off about 10 DJs. Oh.....the only ones they kept were the salesmen.

Pete Grossman said...

"...playing “The Night Chicago Died” and “Billy Don’t Be a Hero” five times a night and seriously considering blowing my brains out."

As any listener with a modicum of taste who was limited to an AM radio, we felt the same way. Yes, we could change to another top 40 station, but it would be just as horrible. And don't get me started about being captive in a car with sibs and parents arguing over which station to play. If Dante's were alive he would have fodder for a 10th circle!

DBenson said...

Sort of a Friday question: There was a series of episodes where Frasier's station fired everybody for a format change (the direct result of Frasier encouraging the new owner to stop denying his heritage). One episode began with our unemployed heroes sulking in the coffee place; when the station reverted to its old format it closed with the now-unemployed replacements sulking, putting an edge on a "happy" ending. Then there was the longer Bulldog arc, following his fall from local stardom.

Did your own experiences figure in those story arcs? Was there a temptation to settle old accounts via fiction?

Andy Rose said...

Christmas... the season of eternal dread in radio. One of the most "this could only happen in radio" stories I ever heard was from a colleague who worked at a successful AOR station in the early 90s. They would have periodic "all hands" meetings, one purpose of which was to hand out an Employee of the Month award.

After a while, DJs started to notice a trend. People named Employee of the Month often ended up getting dismissed two or three months later. Eventually, someone cornered the PD and got him to fess up: The GM felt that some DJs were doing a lousy job, but might do better if they took more pride in their work. He decided to give his biggest laggards a shot as Employee of the Month on the theory that it would give them the motivation to do better. When they (inevitably) didn't shape up, he'd fire them.

The word quietly got out, and it didn't take long for people to dread the idea that they might be named Employee of the Month. It was the Mark of Death.

Douglas Trapasso said...

Possible Friday Q:

How common is it for radio folks to socialize with each other after hours and even years after working at a particular station? Did you try to stay in touch with your fellow fire-ees whenever the ax fell?

I (heart) WKRP in Cincinnati, but was always curious that the staff hung out so much together even off the air. That was fine within the context of the show, but not sure that rang true to most real life radio talent.

Todd Everett said...

How common is it for radio folks to socialize with each other after hours and even years after working at a particular station?

Kind of like This

Jahn Ghalt said...

"never heard from again"


You told a great podcast story about doing (4 hours?) after midnight for WLS (where your Dad was a suit).

I forget, did you ID yourself as Ken Levine or the Beav'??

Randy Kammrad said...

Hi Ken,
Love the blog.
Want to bring to your attention another "brother in sound" losing his job this Christmas. Steve Dahl has been replaced on WLS, no longer the Big 89, but, in Dahl's words, Hate90.

He's been sandwiched between right wing blowhards Rush Limbo and Mark Levin for several years, and he's being replaced by Ben Shapiro.

WLS tries to say he's retiring, but he's not, his daily podcast will continue, they're just going all right wing, all the time.

Big fall from the glory days of Larry Lujack.

Sami said...

I got fired on Christmas day in 2000. I was working at a long term temp job--making copies of proposals for some sort of oil services company. Oh--and I had to make coffee. I don't drink it, so I had to learn how to make it. I was the assistant to the assistant. My "boss" didn't like me because I did not eat doughnuts. (They keep visiting me for three days, so I avoid them.) She thought I was anti-social, but I was stuck in the copy room most of the day. Anyway, Christmas came and I was touched that one of the engineers actually got me a present--a snowman ornament--that I still have. Went to see my uncle on Christmas day and got home to not one, but three messages on the machine telling me that I did not need to go to work the next day. Or anymore ever. I threw away the little plastic parking thing that let me into the garage--with the torn up wrapping paper. Apparently, that thing cost a lot of money because the temp company was really ticked off about it. It was temp, so no severance or unemployment.