Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas on the Air

I've worked a few Christmases, mostly during my years in the newsroom, but the most memorable was 30 years ago tonight.

I had an evening talk show on KVOR-AM in Colorado Springs, which was just switching to a news/talk format. My show had begun that fall, which I remember because my time segment happened to be when the station in years past would have run the baseball playoffs.

That wouldn't have been a problem except that, for one thing, the station never came through with all the publicity they told me they were going to mount for this new program and, secondly, I had no producer answering phones in the control room, which meant that people were calling in to find out where the baseball game was and their calls were coming straight through to the studio.

So I'd be talking to an author about the ecological effects of Agent Orange on the people and wildlife in the Mekong Delta and I'd take a call and it would be someone asking when the ball game came on.

Later, as fall gave way to winter, that changed, so that, in the middle of interviewing someone, I'd get a call asking if Monument Pass was open, which was a reasonable question to ask our newsroom but not always relevant to the topic of the show.

I also had kids call in who had figured out that there was nobody screening calls and no 7-second delay, but, fortunately, they'd get so excited that they'd scream the F-word instead of just saying it, and all you'd hear on the air was a burst of incoherent noise.

And I would say to the program director that I really needed a call-screener, but, as with putting my face on the sides of buses, the answer was that, until the show was more established, they didn't have budget for that.

I'd done enough advertising work by then to know where publicity fits in the timeline of success, and I also knew that the quality of the show was suffering because of idiotic, irrelevant calls coming straight to the studio.

But I'd also done enough work in the world to know when the boss was going to get his own way regardless of whether or not it made good sense.

So Christmas comes along, and I get a few days off, because the station has bought a package of pre-recorded tapes of Christmas music and is about to become the community's Yuletide background sound for the week leading up to Christmas. And I had small boys and a wife and a home to go to, so it was fine with me.

Only the program director approached me a few days before the Christmas thing began and said they had miscalculated on something: The package ended at 6 p.m. Christmas day, the time my show would normally go on the air.

They could cobble something together, he said, but he wanted to let me know. And I said that I'd be happy to come in, because Christmas would be pretty much over at my house, and anybody who needed talk radio on Christmas Day really needed a familiar voice.

The problem was, I wasn't going to get any calls and I was going to be hard-pressed to line up a guest for a show that nobody was going to be listening to.

But the news director was letting his staff off for the night and he said he'd be happy to come be my guest. We'd sit and swap stories through the three hours, and if anyone called in, that would be a bonus.

So the program started and it was the two of us sitting there in the empty studio talking about the various holidays we'd had as kids and inviting listeners to share their favorite holiday story, and a little old lady called in to say how much she liked Perry Como and we talked to her for awhile and then we talked to each other about Christmas music, and TV specials and suchlike.

And then we got a call from someone who said, "I don't know what I'm going to do." And then he said it again, and then he said he was going to kill himself.

And then he hung up.

The plan for the evening had changed, and I told him he had to call back because it wasn't fair to lay this on me and not give me a chance to do anything about it. And the phone rang, and it was him again, and his voice was unnaturally low, the voice of someone in a deep depression, and he said he didn't want to talk to me because I knew too much about him already.

And then he hung up again.

He may have said something else, because, despite the depressed tone, I suddenly knew who it was: Steve, a regular caller who was a Biblical literalist who used to call me to debate Scripture.

And who, I knew, had a sister who had taken her own life.

So the show went from "What are your favorite Christmas memories?" to "Call me back, Steve." The news director was a gem -- he let me drive the bus while he just sat back and made calm, neutral comments of support.

And we went on for about half an hour, blowing off all the commercial breaks, blowing off the five minute Dan Rather commentary, and a young engineer came in, who was supposed to work later than night but had heard what was going on.

At some point, I said that, if Steve didn't want to talk on the air, I could understand that, so I turned over the on-air component to the news director and the engineer and went back into the control room. And they were champions -- they kept it low key and supportive and they didn't make any leading statements or say anything stupid and they were wonderful.

I was in the control room hoping Steve would call, but also going through the phone book looking for his church, which had a fairly generic name. I found one minister at home but he wasn't the right guy.

And then finally, nearly an hour after this whole thing had started, Steve called, and I hit the wrong button and hung up on him. But he called back, and he said he was all right now, and he thanked me for caring. And I made him promise to call me back in the morning and let me know he was really okay.

Which he did. Apparently, the problem was that he had fallen in love with a Jewish girl, so the people in his house told him he was going to Hell and they threw him out on the street as a sinner who they couldn't associate with anymore.

But he realized now that it was going to be okay, and he was going to be fine. And he thanked me again for being there.

Meanwhile, the news director and I had to explain to management why we had blown off all the commercials for over 45 minutes, including Dan Rather's commentary and the news at the top of the hour. And we explained it to them.

And the next time I went on the air, by golly, they had finally given me someone to screen my calls and hang up on anybody who shouldn't get on the air.

God bless us, every one!


Sherwood Harrington said...

Thanks for the story, Mike. I never had anything close to that happen during my time on the air, and I'm glad I didn't.

A question that hangs, though: if the call screener you eventually got had been on the job that Christmas, would Steve have passed muster?

Mike said...

Oh, certainly not. I have wondered what my screeners would have actually done, but he wouldn't have gotten on the air.

After all, we ended up blowing off ads because of him!

Ronnie said...

I had one of those calls when I was working at the volunteer center which was part of the United Way office in Buffalo. The social worker who took the call frantically handed over to me so he could call the police to intervene since this guy was ready to do it right that minute and had the gun to do it. I'd had no training or experience or anything and it was mighty scary. The police broke in while I was still on the phone.

Mike said...

I wanted him to call back so I could talk him down, but also, yes, to keep him on the line long enough to trace the call. No chance. And the fact that he wouldn't stay on the line added to my suspicion that he was more intent on dying than on talking, though that wasn't how it turned out after all.

ronnie said...

I got goosebumps reading this. What a profound difference you made in that person's life. I'm not sure most on-air personalities really understand the role they play in certain listener's lives. A happy Christmas story indeed.

Nostalgic for the Pleistocene said...

What ronnie said - goosebumps, about both stories - both Mike and Ronnie were the right person at the right time, in very delicate situations! Wow.

Brian Fies said...

Catching up, without much to contribute except to say, "Nice."

Terrence Feenstra said...

You are a good guy, Mike. Thanks for making my world a better place.

Mary McNeil said...

Wow ! Things really came together for ALL of you to create a Christmas (or call it what you will) Miracle. As Molly Ivins would've said, "Good on y'all !"