I found myself with a nasty case of insomnia last night. No amount of soft music, Melatonin, or Oprah would fix it, so I decided to get up and visit an old friend. I got in my car and drove to 10800 Main St in Fairfax, VA, parked my car in one of the rainy back roads, salt from the recent storms running viciously down the gutters (and off of my poor car, thank God), smiled at the VFW as the alleyway view broke way into an underwhelming semi-open parking garage under an old brick office building. The first two spots underneath the support column were off limits. Even though tonight they remain empty, it’s pouring rain, and no one would care, the echoes of the potential fallout from parking in those two spots are still loud and clear. My smile widens as I walk up the brick ramp and round the corner to a jagged slanted brick entryway that has taken many the balance of an unsuspecting intern, myself included. I plop myself on the wet thigh high ledge in front of the door, pull out a jar of my favorite brandy, cut the tip off my Maduro No.2 Torpedo (Cigar you pervs), light it with my 007 lighter and stare at the mammoth glass entry way, which had the same effect on me that night as it did every time I went through it 10 years ago. It was the same door that all of the greats in my world walked through. Don & Mike (Owners of the aforementioned parking spots), Ron & Fez, Big O and Dukes, The Junkies and more.
It was indeed the shell of the mighty WJFK, long since sold and most likely turned to office buildings, or semi-professional recording studios, its current inhabitants void of the knowledge and history and magic that went on in that old two story building that ushered out the last of a great generation of radio powerhouses to a niche group of listeners in the 8th largest market in the country. I didn’t have the heart to go in and peek through the cheap 5 dollar blinds adoring the other side of the glass which was the remains of the old call screening room, proving grounds for anyone new who entered into that building with hopes of conquering the talk world. It also turned out to be a physically dangerous room as it has been shot at and been driven through by a maniac (guess they weren’t Junkie’s fans).
It wasn’t however the room that I was afraid of seeing. It was the potential of seeing the old housing unit for “the board” right next to it, the technological heart of the Mighty WJFK. I couldn’t bear to peek through that glass and see a desk, or a pile of documents, or pictures of some soccer mom’s kids. It’s akin to avoiding the temptation to open a coffin at a funeral…you can open it up, but it AIN’T gonna be what you thought when you peer into that casket. No, instead I sit back in my nice clothes, fine brandy, and rare cigar and just smile…
I was in a much different position that night then I was when I used to burst the door open every day some 10 years ago. I was fatter, poorer, and more naive to the ways of the world. In fact, the FIRST time I kicked that door open…they kicked me back out. I rashly thought I could walk up to the receptionist and sweet-talk my way into an internship, I couldn’t have been more wrong. However, nothing was going to stop me from getting behind “the board”. I took classes, studied old time radio, and honed into my passion, my inner strength to get back into that door. Yeah, they kicked me out again, but THAT was due to a technical issue so I don’t count that one. REGARDLESS, I finally got in, and I would NOT be kicked out again. I wrote more pages of prep, and was doubted probably more than any other intern that walked through those doors. I busted my tail, I worked, went to school, interned, and finally FINALLY my day came. Cameron Gray approached me as I was in the old smelly production room working on a bit for Ron and Fez, and he said “Corolla, you got a job… don’t fuck it up!” I couldn’t believe it, I was in. It remains to this day one of the proudest moments of my life. Little did I know at that time however, the nuances that came with finally getting a chance behind running “the board.”
I’d like to get a little nerdy here at this point in the story, with a throwback to an old Star Trek episode. Just go with it for a second. I feel though that it’s relatable to everyone, and it’s integral to how I was feeling last night out in the rain in the shadow of the Mighty WJFK. In this episode Captain Picard is talking with Scotty (an old engineer from a different series) and the following dialogue bombarded me that night as the Brandy set in and the memories began to fly in from behind that “old board”.
“The first vessel that I served on as captain was called Stargazer. It was an overworked, underpowered vessel, always on the verge of flying apart at the seams. In every measurable sense, my Enterprise is far superior. But there are times when I would give almost anything… to command the Stargazer again.”
In every measurable sense my radio career and my life in general is better now than when it was my chance to run that board. The board was indeed its own entity, intimidating to look upon for the first time, when you pushed that chair out of the way and took your station (no one used the chair for fear of biological contamination). The board was old and smelly in itself, reflective of an era when you used to be able to smoke indoors. Stains of alcohol and God knows what else on the sides. Little doodles and drawings scattered about the frame, marks of previous helmsmen leaving their etches in the timeline of that old board’s life. The lights didn’t work right; sometimes you couldn’t tell if a microphone was on or not. CD players AND a reel to reel machine. The technology in this studio was only taught to us in school for historical references. We were told that with modern technology we’d most likely never have to experience cutting a reel to reel tape with a knife (a skill which I learned was quite useful at the mighty WJFK). The walls around it were covered in carts, old tape decks which were used to play commercials. 12 carts staked up on top of each other consisted of an average commercial break. They were in turn distributed through 3 half functional cart machines, old relics of production held on to by true diehards of the medium. There was no greater then a 50 percent chance of you getting a full commercial break out without some sort of malfunction. Each one of these separate parts were needed, and had to be fed to make a proper, professional broadcast. To run the Howard Stern show remotely, you even needed to listen in to the K-Rock feed on the phone to see when you’d need to get the carts ready to work properly within the designated break time.
The board was a monster, it was an animal, it would embarrass you during live broadcasts, and cause terror when you ran late nights, ever fearful that you messed something up, and the direct line would flash on the wall indicating that one of the higher ups thought you were costing him money by accidentally forgetting to run one of their commercials. Everything needed to be logged and signed on, you had to listen for rogue potty mouths and be vigilant on the dump button (which let the entire station know you hit it with a spine rattling buzz). The first lesson you learn while running that board is that you WILL fail. You will miss a cue, you won’t fire a reel, the instant replay machine wasn’t warmed up on the hood of your car (true story), you’ll miss out on a commercial, or the board will simply refuse to work, you’ll be doubted, yelled at, and shamed…with NO one in radio world ever knowing which replaceable cog happened to be behind the helm at that moment. On top of that, when your hell of a shift finally ended, you had no money, no chance of dating, no internet, TV, or cell phone, no dignity, no sense of cleanliness, and probably a huge headache.
And to finish Captain Picard’s quote, there are times in my life, like tonight, when I would trade almost anything to be behind that board again. You see the result of failing…is that you succeed. You learn resolve, you learn HOW to trick the failure, how to circumvent it and avoid it. You learn that your heroes who have and are running that board spilled their blood, talent, and passion with every button they hit, every cart they ran, and every pot turned down at the end of a show. They ignored every critic, exec, and sponsor that told them to give up so that YOU could be back there RIGHT now during YOUR moment to earn your right to carry the torch for the next generation of that last great radio demographic, the talk radio listener. And as a result of all of that you learn to LOVE that first…old…board.
We have all conquered and therefore learned to love and respect our own personal “old boards”. I myself have since seen many literal boards, as well as figurative “boards”. Death, depression, loss of friends, loss of loved ones, betrayal, broken back, etc. etc. What is the reason that first “board” stays in our mind? That first assignment, or job, or hardship we overcame. That first juncture in life we came to where we realized that talent, passion, and heart would see us through, and though there’s no logical reason…we enjoyed every trying minute of it. Well I think Scotty gives the best answer:
“Ah, it’s like the first time you fall in love. You don’t ever love a woman quite like that again.”
So yeah, I tend to write long blogs I guess. But in closing, please remember to reflect on your first “old board”. When you’re bummed or just can’t plain get to sleep, take a moment to remember your first happy time, that first moment you fell in love with what drives you. And if you haven’t found your version of a board yet…I envy you. Some of the best times in your life are about to happen. When it does come along, hold on to every emotion it gives you as long as you can because you never know how long you’ll get to spend with that first love before it leaves….
Let’s raise a glass to WJFK and all of our “old boards”.