It was 50 years ago—on June 7, 1971, to be precise—that I launched a 22-year career at what was then one of America’s premier radio stations. The work was gratifying and rewarding. But my career there was almost ended prematurely by an inglorious beginning.
I had just received a graduate degree in journalism when WJBC Radio in Bloomington, Ill., offered me a fulltime gig, working in its reputable newsroom and hosting its long-established weekday call-in show, “Problems & Solutions.” I had done some part-time work for the station as an undergraduate. Some of my efforts as a grad student in Washington, D.C., had even made it onto the WJBC airwaves. Now I’d have the high-profile job of hosting a telephone talk show that seemed to play from most every radio in town every weekday afternoon.
My selection as the program host was news in the local daily. My “coming” was highly promoted and anticipated. The day finally arrived.
The show was broadcast live, of course. There was no call screener, no producer. That was part of its appeal: not knowing what the next call might bring.
The program did employ a six-second delay system. In other words, thanks to a continuous loop of recording tape, what was said at this instant didn’t go on the air until six seconds later. It gave the program host a measure of control to match the responsibility of protecting the radio station’s federal broadcast license.
It also gave one listener an opportunity to test the new guy.
“Hi, this is ‘Problems & Solutions’ and you’re on the air,” I intoned.
“F—, f—, f—, f—, f—f—,” he chanted. Except he didn’t say “Eff” with three hyphens behind it. He used that word, the uber-offensive intensifier that was much less prominent in public utterances back then. Yes, the one pronounced by Ralphie in “A Christmas Story” as “the queen mother of dirty words.” That’s the one.
I had been schooled in the use of the red button on the lower left side of the broadcast control panel. Push it, I was told, and you’ll be back to live, no-buffer programming, deleting from the on-air broadcast what had been spoken in the previous six seconds. In other words I had six seconds to dump the desperado.
Six seconds is a long time, right? Go ahead. Count six seconds. Thousand one. Thousand two. Thousand three. Thousand four. Thousand five. Thousand six. Plenty of time to move your right hand 20 inches to the left to punch a red button, right?
It’s an eternity. I watched as my trembling hand moved in slow motion toward the panic button. All the while a confluence of thoughts rotated through my mind. About a short-lived broadcast career. About how I would explain this to my mother. To a future employer. About endless mandated participation in the defense of the radio station’s FCC license. About whether I had thrown away the packing box I had used to bring a few personal items to the radio station.
The red button was pushed. Uncertain how many utterances, if any, of the verboten word had made it onto the public airwaves, I moved ahead to another caller, re-starting the delay system, waiting to see if my boss or his boss or his boss’s boss would be storming into the studio to end my career then and there. No, I learned, only I had heard the nasty word from the opportunist.
I hosted that talk show from 1971 to 1993, fielding nearly 300,000 calls over the years. It can be said with some certainty that my on-air, anxiety-produced blood pressure was never higher than it was on that June day a half century ago.