Radio for me is synonymous with family. I accept that.
There’s a number of reasons for this, but you really don’t notice it until someone from the outside comes in and tells you it’s all about family. And history.
This week we hired an engineer to re-tune the tower. I hung out with the guy while he connected an impedence bridge. We talked quarter waves, copper transductors, electricity loads, and Flash Gordon miracle watches.
After about an hour of this, my daughter showed up with a turkey sandwich.
“That’s kind of nice,” the tower tuner said. “You don’t see that kind of thing anymore.”
So I excused myself – “Can I split this sandwich with you? Would you like something from Wendy’s?” – and ate my sandwich.
A half hour later I stood there talking to Mr. Tower Tuner. He peered at the illuminated meter on his impedence bridge, pulled the pencil from behind his ear, scratched some numbers on the back of an envelope, hit a few numbers on a calculator, and scratched more numbers on the envelope.
That’s when my sister showed up.
“Did we get any mail? Did you listen to that spot?”
I introduced my sister as the person who watches the money and who worries about every detail of the radio station at all hours of the day and night.
“It’s a real family affair ‘round here at WJOB, eh?”
“I guess so.”
My sister and I sneered at each other and she went on her way. I fetched a water for Mr. Tower Tuner and sat there talking to him again. He had stories. Lots of old radio stories.
Mr. Tower Tuner told of one of his buddies who streams AM stereo and when you listen to it on the internet it’s the nearly the best music sound you’ll ever hear, better than CDs. But not better than vinyl albums, of course. He told me the story of his buddy who does an all-request Country music show on Saturday afternoons that rules northern Michigan. And he held up his hand and pointed to the skin – kinda wrinkled skin since he’s getting a little long in the tooth – that’s right below his fingers. That’s Midwestern sign language for northern Michigan.
And he told me about studying computers in Sault Saint Marie, Michigan (upper peninsula, not part of the hand) in the early 1970s, where he paid for his education by salvaging a few of the original Intel processors.
“Nobody wanted ‘em, so I put a few in my bag and sold them for $1800 apiece. No kidding.”
Anyways, after a while longer of the stories and the impedence bridge, my little brother showed up. We switched cars – “here’s your keys, give me mine” – and I introduced him to Mr. Tower Tuner as someone who helps out from time to time and then little brother went on his way.
“You know, “ Mr. Tower Tuner told me when we were back to the solitude of AM radio playing in the background and a ton of electronics equipment humming ever so rhythmically in the background – “that’s how it used to be in AM radio.”
“What do you mean, that’s how it used to be?”
“Radio used to be about family. It’s not anymore, hasn’t been for a long, long time.”
Mr. Tower Tuner told more stories to illustrate his point, about stations in the 60s that were run entirely by people who were related, from the hosts to the producers to the sales people to the guy who climbed the tower to change the bulbs. He told stories of two brothers getting all liquored up and engaging in a fist fight on the air that broke the mixing board. Dead air, dead air, dead air.
Eventually – after another hour of oldtime radio stories – Mr. Tower Tuner gathered his things and packed his SUV.
“I better get going. Now you keep these machines up, remember good radio maintenance. You don’t wanna have to bring this old buzzard in too many times. I’m expensive.”
“Yeah, I know, so we better quit talking and you be on your way.”
“Ah don’t worry. I ain’t been chargin’ you for this last part. Let’s call it my lunch hour.”
“Why thank you.”
“It’s just good to see a radio station run by a family. Can’t wait to tell the boys at the office about you people.”
And then he was gone, but he left the message of family. So I reflected on that the rest of the day. Sure, my wife actually owns the station and she comes on the air with me on Friday mornings. And she listens and critiques the programming and tells people what to do about possible legal pitfalls and you get the picture.
And sure, my sister does the books. And longtime family friend Debbie has been running the office and traffic and stuff for more than a decade. And my daughter helps with my social media and marketing stuff. And my nephew does stats for me when I announce basketball games. And my cousin sometimes fills in for me when I’m out of town. Our afternoon host, Harlow, he’s related by marriage.
You get the picture. There’s a lot of family and quasi-family that runs WJOB. I get it.
But it got a little clearer to me at dinner last night. Cousin Drew was in town from Portland, Oregon. So that meant a huge get-together at John’s Pizzeria.
Aunt Irene anchored the table at one end. She’s the matriarch of this branch of the family. She was also the best friend of my mom, who died almost 30 years ago. My wife Alexis sat next to Irene and then me and across was Drew and cousins Dana and Duane and his wife Lori and so on and so on all the way down a table that stretched for 25 people – every single one of them related.
That’s not such a huge thing in and of itself. A lot of families have big get-togethers at family-owned pizza places and they talk way too loudly and they get out of their seats and stand to talk way too loudly to another relative they haven’t seen in a while.
In short, a lot of families take over a restaurant, oblivious to the commotion they’re causing – and the noise.
Yes, the noise. My 77-year-old uncle Duane was there (ex-husband to matriarch Irene). He and I got in to a conversation across a sausage, mushroom, green pepper and onion pizza. We talked about the Cubs, how they’re finally interesting to watch now that Joe Maddon has come to town.
“Why are you guys shouting?” Duane’s wife, Connie, asked.
“What do you mean? Who’s shouting?”
“Both of you.”
That brought out comments about Grandma Dedelow, Duane’s mom who died at 93 a few years ago. She could barely hear. We all had to shout around her, even with the hearing aid.
“Yeah, I’m starting to get like grandma Dedelow,” I said. “Can’t hear shit anymore.”
“Me neither,” said uncle Duane.
“Me too,” said cousin Duane, his son.
“You know what, I have trouble hearing things also,” said cousin Drew.
“Me too,” said cousin Dana.
Yikes. So you can imagine what it’s like when 25 Dedelows and their spouses and grown kids get together in a crowded pizza place. Bring your earplugs. Or better yet, go eat somewhere else.
So I got in to a conversation with uncle Duane’s wife, Connie, who like everyone else at the table listens from time to time to my morning show. That’s 25 captive listeners right there. Add a few hundred more relatives around the area and I’m not lying when I say on the air that at this moment I could very well have 100 family members listening to this show.
I’m not kidding.
Anyways, Connie is not, by blood, a Dedelow, so I didn’t have to shout at her so she could hear me. She’s a Brewster, as in the Kingman Brewsters. He’s the former ambassador to England who also ran Yale and blah blah blah about their East Coast blue blood heritage.
“Are you writing it all down?” she asked.
“Writing what all down?”
“The radio. Are you taking notes, jotting down all the stuff that happens on the air and behind the scenes.”
“Why would I do that?” I asked, pretending that I didn’t write a blog that nobody reads.
“For history, Jimmy. For history. It’s most important.”
Hmmm, I thought, in that noisy Italian restaurant, it takes an outsider, someone from the East Coast, to understand the concept of the long, sweet goodbye of local (family) radio. Us Polish-German-Dutch Midwesterners, we don’t think about our place in history. We think about the pizza.
“What does that mean, the history?”
“What you do is part of history. Radio may never be like this again. You must record it. All of it. No one does radio like you and the family do it. Write it down.
“Also, it’s for your reality show. I’d watch that and I’m a snob.”
So there. East Coast. Tradition, heritage, bloodlines, I’m better than you are because I’m from an established and polished East Coast lineage. That’s not the air that Connie carries. How could she? She lives in Crown Point, Indiana, for crissakes.
But she somehow knows how things come and go. The power and prestige of families. Huge Cape Cod homes with maid’s quarters. Horses, photo albums, family lodges, gold earrings. Her niece, by the way, is Jordana Brewster, the famous actress. I don’t know if Jordana understands the importance of history also, but maybe.
So here I am on a Saturday morning at 5:22 am. I’ve been lying in bed a good hour thinking about radio - the tower, the spots that should have played yesterday afternoon, things I could do to make the morning show better. Did we say the legal ID at the top of the 8 o’clock hour? Did we bounce any checks?
And I think about family. Will nephew Craig, who’s a 6-4 centerfielder for IU, get in to the Cape Cod league? Will I be able to make nephew Alan’s 8am baseball game in Midlothian, Ill., and get back for niece Annie’s 11am softball game in Munster, Ind. What about niece Megan’s 4pm basketball game somewhere an hour from here.
And then daughter Jeanie and I are supposed to go work out, and wife Alexis wants to slip up to Chicago to have lunch with daughter Jackie, who’s going in to finals at DePaul.
I jump from radio to family and back in an instant. In one moment, I’m contemplating if we should change some of the imaging and the next moment I’m trying to remember whose birthday we forgot. And then I’m berating myself for not seeing my dad recently while I try to add up the checks outstanding at the radio station. The thoughts and mental images topple over each other. Radio, family. Family, radio. Radio, family. After a while of listening to the rhythm of semis on the Borman Expressway, family and radio become one. Family radio. And somehow I’m okay with that.