Sunday, February 14, 2016

Radio Dazed

From 1999 to 2010, I worked at a radio station in some capacity. This ultimately fruitless pursuit of a life's dream could be broken down into four chapters. Chapter one would be my 3 1/2 years with WDGC-FM, my high school station. Chapter two (and to some extent, the epilogue) took place at 90.9 FM WDCB, my first paying job and as well as my first taste of professional radio. The final chapter was my two tumultuous years at Salem Communications' Chicago branch. The third chapter, however was relatively short but carried the longest-term consequences.

I was persuaded into going to community college after graduating high school. I was dead set upon attending North Central College in nearby Naperville, but the cost of tuition for a four-year private school forced my hand. As I was wrapping up my associates degree, I did some research on other schools, partially out of curiosity. I discovered that not only did Illinois State University's radio station (and school of communications) offer a higher quality program, but it was more cost-effective. After a short discussion with my parents, I set my sights on transferring to ISU in January 2006.

After settling into my dorm room at Watterson Towers and purchasing my textbooks, my first order of business was to get acquainted with the student radio station. I had first visited Z106 when I was on campus the previous October; I was impressed by the quality of the station's aesthetic and the various IBA accolades it had received over the years. I attended an open meeting where each department director (music, promotions, news and sports, etc.) introduced themselves and explained what they were seeking in a staff member. I ended up applying for four departments: rock music staff, rock DJ, traffic/billing, and sales. I eventually worked in three of these departments, but was only hired for the rock music staff.

For my first semester at Z106, I largely kept a low profile. I was happy to be there, but I didn't want to make waves. I tried out as a rock DJ again in May 2006, with a new programming director proctoring the auditions. Because of a miscommunication, I didn't know I made the cut until two weeks before Fall Semester started. After that, my presence around the office grew incrementally. By my third semester, I had been assigned to a special project reorganizing the station's manager handbook (the station bible, so to speak) and held two on-air shifts. After spending the Summer of 2007 interning at the station, I was on rock music staff, a rock DJ, an undergraduate teaching assistant, and working in the station's traffic/accounts receivable department. I had made a plethora of friends and contacts, and graduated in December 2007 thinking the impact I had made at Z106 would transition into a long career in the radio industry.

I soon discovered, however that staying in touch was easier said than done. Of the three people that made the greatest impact for me during my time at Z106, there's one person I've only run into twice since graduating (both in the same weekend in 2011), one I last saw the month after I graduated, and one right before I graduated. Social media helps, but the opportunity to have lunch or even grab a beer is scant to physically impossible. I blame part of that on geography, but also on a mountain of miscommunication.

Sometime in late 2009, I noticed that I was unfriended on Facebook by a fourth Z106 cohort. This particular girl was short in stature but big in personality; she was an aspiring comedian of sorts, and had created a persona of being bubbly and vapid. (Her signature bit of sorts was asking "what's a Porter Moser?" after our men's basketball coach was sacked.) At the same time, the station could be a hornet's nest of drama, and her cliquish and entitled mindset sometimes drove that undercurrent of tension. At the same time, I was on good terms with her (so I thought) and never had a personal issue with her.

After realizing I was unfriended, I waited a few days to message this girl and talk things out, but I never got a straight answer. I sent a friend request, which over six years later is still pending. When the station held its 30th anniversary reunion at Homecoming 2011, I approached a group of people that I was cordial with, with the girl in question somewhere in the middle of the cluster. Since I really hadn't discussed the situation with anyone, and didn't want to look squirrelly, I approached everyone in the group with a handshake and a hug. When it was this girl's turn, I embraced her gingerly and moved on to the next person; as I did so, she clenched a teeth for a split-second and muttered "well fuck, he's a hugger."

I don't think we spoke for the remainder of the evening.

Though this girl is not the only former co-worker to unfriend me on Facebook, she might have been the most astonishing. A couple of my old peers simply weren't that close, and as near as I can tell there's no tension between us. Another co-worker, the assistant traffic director during my one semester in that department, unfriended virtually everyone in our office and has totally fallen off the grid. One girl that I nominated for Staffer of the Semester (and ended up sharing the honor) proved to be humorless and easily offended. Granted, she wasn't that easygoing to begin with, but she was reliable and I admired her work ethic. In a way, her unfriending me in late 2012 felt like looking the gift horse in the mouth.

Admittedly, I am driving down to Normal in early April with some trepidation. The visit will be succinct; I'm attending a wedding in Texas the same weekend, so my time back at Z106 (now just WZND) will be somewhat abbreviated. There are a few people that I know will be happy to see me and vice versa, but it will be tricky to navigate around some of the drama and unresolved tension that lingers on after all this time. My career in radio didn't work out, and for most of the Z106 staff in the mid-to-late 2000s, they also saw their broadcasting pursuits sputter out a few years after graduation. We were a group of disparate college kids with a common goal. And we're gonna celebrate.


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