Sunday, June 24, 2007

Big Behinds Get Ahead

My boss forwarded me an email yesterday which asked simply, "What do you think of this?"

I have to sort of dance around my words a bit because my business is involved, but really only in a narrow aspect.

The email was from "Ed Riley" - that's not his real name - a man I worked with at the same radio station I'm still at maybe 21 years ago.

I remember when he blew into town. He had landed a job as sort of a morning host for WOAI, the guy who said, "Happy Morning!" and introduced the cast of characters from the traffic girl to the weatherman to the news anchors. He was responsible for really two things, being non-offensive and keeping everyone on time in their various elements. He also did the news on occasion and did some reporting.

The reason my boss sent me Ed Riley's email was that Ed had apparently learned the station is looking for a news anchor for the morning program. In his time, Ed could be a very good news anchor...but back then - he may possibly be a completely different person after all these years - he was what is commonly referred to in the broadcast industry as "radio slime."

Yes, that's sort of derogatory and considering how some radio programming has degenerated in the past couple of decades please don't confuse that term with "shock jocks" or quasi-racists or people who make far too much money with a steady diet of jokes about body parts and bodily functions which most intelligent people cease to find humorous in even small doses by the time they're seven or eight. That's not what I mean by "radio slime" and it would be far too insulting to think of Ed Riley in that manner.

Back in the 80's, it was common to work with one or more "radio slime." These were guys - mostly guys - who had talent and charisma but who lacked a work ethic, or were so caught up in themselves that they couldn't seem to keep a good job. It wasn't uncommon for even good radio people to move around a lot in those days...there were a lot of radio stations and if you were single and carefree, you could pursue greater opportunities in a lot of places...if you were "radio slime" you could throw a fit, get fired, and be working two days later at a station across the street. Getting fired didn't hold the stigma that it did in other industries...everyone in radio has been fired at least once.

Ed Riley was fired a lot...or quit...and although he worked for some major broadcast outlets, he never could seem to get his act fully together. When he arrived at WOAI he drove up in a beat up Yugo that was belching smoke and which literally contained everything he owned. There was widespread, never confirmed, speculation that he had actually been living in a "U-Lock-It" since losing his previous job. I don't know if that is true but I know this much, his car could have fit in a self storage outlet, with room to spare.

Ed made good money...but never had any money. He was a dope smoker, a party animal, thought himself a "ladies man" and did his best to act the part...which required him to spend his money on things like pot (to this day I have never met anyone who smoked as much pot as Ed - and I've known some pot smokers in my time) and hair care products, and if he managed to keep a job long enough he'd rent a "bachelor pad" furnished with a king sized water bed...and mirrors. The mirrors were mostly so he could check his hair, although some were used for chopping up cocaine on occasion.

Ed was a really nice guy most of the time. He was enthusiastic, and he could be a good reporter when he wanted to be. He could really have been a good anything had he devoted himself to it. He was charming and funny and the first to tell you he was good looking. He actually once "surveyed" the radio station employees - okay the female employees - asking them to write down their vote for "the hottest guy" who worked in the building. I think he won, I don't really remember...I do remember how amazed I was that any adult human being needed so much reassurance.

I forget the exact reason Ed left...not sure if he was fired, or if he quit in a huff, or if he simply stopped showing up for work. One day he was gone...and as far as my life went that only meant that I wouldn't have to say,"Excuse me" as often because he wouldn't be taking up space in front of the mirror in the men's room any more.

I heard from him every so often for a few years, then heard he had actually married someone and it apparently stuck, and I recall hearing he had a serious heart condition which doctors caught just in time...I praised God for that news.

Then I never heard another word about him.

I tried to track him down some months ago when my old boss George Jennings died, but I couldn't find him anywhere. I checked all the media people I could think of, and "Googled" him. I finally used a few tools I have and managed to track down his driver's license information. He was apparently in a small town in Florida, but his license only listed a P.O. Box...I couldn't find a phone number.

I really wasn't that surprised. Ed had apparently still been living the vagabond life that really you don't see much of any longer in radio. The only media reference I could find was for an apparently brief stint at a TV station, but when I tried to track him down there, I learned he no longer held that position and apparently hadn't for some time.

The email my boss forwarded me revealed Ed is currently working for a news/traffic service that is utilized by a lot of radio stations who don't want to hire news or traffic people. It's usually a place where people start their careers at very low wages, but sometimes it's a place where people who can't seem to live without being in the spotlight...any spotlight...gravitate too...just so they can still think of themselves as being a "radio personality."

And that's what got me thinking last night. My boss already knows my thoughts about actually hiring Ed's not something he was asking my input on in a serious manner. He only wanted me to know that Ed was still out there...and apparently still struggling.

I've seen a lot of people come and go in the broadcasting industry. Most folks who are really good, or even fairly good, land somewhere...usually for a decent length of time. The days of being fired every 2 years and walking across the street to another station are long odds are the company you just quit owns not only the station across the street...but the street itself.

"Radio slime" became extinct pretty soon after the big consolidation era of broadcasting. Most "radio slime" moved onto other jobs in sales of some form, or just burned themselves out mentally and physically.

There are a number of highly qualified people who my company could hire for the position we have open. In fact one is a guy I also worked with 20 some odd years ago too.
But unlike Ed, he has something else going besides talent and drive...and even passion for the industry....values.

I think about the folks like Ed Riley and imagine what the past 20 plus years have been like for him. His ego and self-worth were, at least when I knew him, so caught up in his appearance and his "star power." I imagine it's been a constant battle to keep looking in the mirror although I'd bet he doesn't have quite as many mirrors around.

The people who survive in this industry over the long haul learn somewhere along the way about where they should place their values. The healthy and happy ones I know, almost always made a decision at some point in time to work hard at achieving a deeper sense of purpose. They found how much more substantive family is to fame and that faith in something larger than themselves keeps their egos in check, their skills honed, and makes all of their relationships better.

When I started at WOAI there was a weatherman who was legendary in South Texas and beyond even back then. His name is Bill McReynolds. Bill came to work every day - I mean every day. He took one day off work over a more than 50 year period...and complained about being ordered to do that, but the doctors wouldn't let him go back to work the day after getting his appendix removed.

He was charismatic, charming, funny and always upbeat. He loved radio, loved doing the weather and agricultural news and he loved life. Everybody knew him, still knows him, loved him and still loves him. Bill never thought of himself as a "star." He thought of himself as "blessed."

I'm sure today he hasn't changed a lick although I only see him on rare occasions. That's because when "Billy Mack" retired, at the age of 78 or so, he left the radio stations - oh sure, the company gave him a big send-off a few weeks before his departure but I don't think he really cared much about it - no, when he left it was just like any other day, except perhaps if possible he had a bigger smile on his face than usual. He waved goodbye...and never looked back. Why should he? He had too much to look forward to for him to do that.

It's probably been eight or nine years since Bill left and he's spent that time with his bride of more than a half century traveling around the world, seeing great things, and also spent a lot of time with his children and their children and their children's children, I'm certain seeing things even greater.

Bill McReynolds I'm sure is still having a ball...

I suspect despite an unprecedented career, good health, "fame" that he never acknowledge, I'm sure there is one thing Billy Mack has never claimed - he's never boasted that he's "lived the life of Riley."