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Why I Hate Radio
by Chris T.
Art: Ivan Brunetti

I hate radio. Correction: I hate commercial radio. Clarification: I hate MODERN commercial radio.

Commercial radio had been around for a long time, since nearly the dawn of AM broadcasting. Yet with entertainment and commerce being the Siamese twins of the "American Way," it was inevitable that broadcasters would seek sponsors for a medium with such high operating costs. Carrying commercials to pay the nut was seen as a necessary accommodation: not the engine driving the train.

The music and other entertainment didn't suffer too greatly, as there were still "artists" involved, programming and piloting individual stations and networks. Words like "ratings," "format" and "demographics" hadn't yet entered the radio lexicon. But the money was so good that station owners found themselves increasingly beholden to sponsors, who began taking over complete shows, then buying radio stations from which to launch media empires.

Gone was a willingness to break NEW ARTISTS by spinning NEW RECORDS. With all that money at stake, no station owner was willing to gamble on the taste of individual "star" DJs. The choice of what to play became a crucial matter, driven by market research, proved on the testing grounds of college radio and MTV. Before long, content became safe filler between the truly important elements of a radio broadcast: the commercials.

Commercial radio - programmed by consultants, spat out by computers like some kind of extrusion - exists purely to create the highest dollar rate for ad time. It hinges on an arbitrary roster of "hot" songs, old or new, repeated ad nauseum in a blatant effort to "hook" the listener long enough for exposure to the ad. It's the repetition and lack of innovation that keeps me away. That and some bad memories.

When I was 20 years old I worked in an assembly factory called Vector Research in my hometown. The building was a huge, drab, dirty, depressing, machinery-crammed rectangle with a high ceiling and a permanent lingering smell comprised of equal parts lubricating oil, raw plastic, metal shavings and dust. It was no place to spend any time at all, yet for six months I was there from 8 am in the morning until 4 pm in the afternoon.

Those hours crawled by on their filthy belly, mocking me with their sing-song chant: "The world is continuing outside, where people are living and doing and going and smiling and breathing deeply, purely, lovingly, ecstatically and you are here and you are stuck here because you are too damn stupid to be anywhere else and too damn poor not to work and if you only had a rich daddy or enough sense to go to college or the will to leave then this wouldn't be the place where you spend your days and we crawl by on our filthy belly, mocking you as we go with our sing-song chant.

I spent those endless, numbing hours assembling relays, which are electrical shunting devices used in devices that must shunt electricity or suffer the consequences. Anybody who can't shunt when the time comes will tell you how truly awful it can be.

My part in the shunting scheme of things was to attach a tiny copper contact to a piece of plastic by means of a foot-operated riveting machine. For eight hours a day I'd fish the plastic relay bases out of a bottomless bin, place them on the machine's "nipple," fish a contact out of another bin, position its keyhole over the corresponding keyway on the plastic base and fasten them together with a rivet by stamping down on the machine's foot-pad - KA-CHUNK. All day long I'd fish, place, fish, place, stamp, KA-CHUNK. And over again: fish, place, fish, place, stamp, KA-CHUNK, fish, place, fish, place, stamp, KA-CHUNK, fish, place, fish, place, stamp, KA-CHUNK. On and on until blessed release came in the form of a lunch break or the four o'clock whistle.

Lunch breaks, actually, weren't a form of release at all; they were a different kind of hell. There was nowhere nearby to go and eat. We were in an industrial park and there was nothing I could drive to and back in half an hour. My lunch breaks were spent with my co-workers: four women much older than myself. The youngest among them was twice as old as me, the oldest three times my age and I had absolutely nothing in common with any of them. They had completely and utterly caved in to life and were far more stuck than I'd ever be, earning two-thirds what I earned (which was nothing) and rotting away before my very eyes. These women were, simply put, a fright. They wore WAY too much makeup, clothes from K-mart's bargain rack, bad wigs and overpowering amounts of the latest deliveries from the Avon lady. Hell, they WERE Avon ladies. And they disliked me intensely.

We went days without saying anything to each other. They'd sit at one end of the long folding lunch table and I'd sit at the other. It might as well have been a yawning chasm no living thing would dare cross. They all had children and grandchildren and were too happy to share their icky-sweet stories of the baby's latest doings, pushing photos across the table while gumming their tuna sandwiches, washing them down with battered thermoses full of Shop-Rite apple cider. Every day we'd spend half an hour together, yet completely apart, my head buried in a guitar magazine or a copy of Creem or a book with a picture-to-text ratio of 10:1. I didn't dare speak for fear of being drawn into a discussion about absolutely nothing from which there was no graceful exit.

Lack of a graceful exit wasn't a problem with the white-haired manager, Mr. C. - who may have been older than the four women and myself combined. He was a squat, smelly, miserable man with a perfectly white mustache, forever-dingy shop coat, celluloid visor and black heart. He never spoke to me, except to begrudgingly teach me how to do something or tell me when I was doing it wrong. Then he'd come up behind me to tap me on the shoulder and lecture me, or scold me or shove something in my face that I'd screwed up.

But the worst thing about Mr. C. was his death-hold on Vector Research's radio, a large, old Fisher, located high on a shelf and robust enough to blanket the whole building with its vile, putrid retching. Every minute of every day I spent beneath it, this instrument of torture, tuned to what was surely the crappiest radio station that's existed since wireless broadcasting began, emanated the most insipid pop songs ever recorded. I can no longer remember what station this worst of all possible stations was because I've repressed the memory to an entirely successful (yet dangerous) degree. I live in perpetual dread that someday, someone, somewhere will innocently mention the call letters of that filthy station and the memory will surface and whip me into a homicidal rage.

This "radio station" was nothing less than the devil's mouthpiece in electrical form. Every day I dreamt of conveying myself to the originating site of its awful transmissions to drive an oversized stake into its black soul. That was, however, as unlikely as convincing my co-workers or boss to change the station, if even for a minute. I begged and pleaded for a switch to something less irritating: WCBS-FM or even WNEW-AM, anything even the slightest bit less awful.

Why was it so irritating? This was a top 40 "hits" radio station and it played these "hits" OVER AND OVER AND OVER AGAIN UNTIL YOU'D WISH SOMEONE WOULD JUST STOMP ON YOUR HEAD AND CRACK IT LIKE AN EGG, LEAVING YOU TO DIE QUIETLY.

Every hour on the hour they'd begin their playlist over so that eight times a day I'd hear Stacy Lattisaw's thrilling rendition of "I found love on a two way street/but lost it on a lonely highway," or Grover Washington's so fine "Just the two of us/we can make it if we try/just the two of us/you and I," or Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean is not my lover/she's just a girl"... blah, blah, blah. Or the Saint of Long Island himself, Billy Joel, and his timeless classic "I love you just the way you are," a song written about his FIRST ex-wife. This station NEVER strayed from the "hits," playing them constantly, until the chosen medium of such radio stations, quarter-inch reel-to-reel tape, probably gave out from the strain, to be replaced by new versions.

Forbidden to wear a Walkman ("Regulations" said Mr. C), I was getting stupider every moment I stayed there, being fully bombarded with every note of every overwrought, incredibly cliched, throwaway piece of Tin Pan Alley tripe. Mr. C., despite my pleading, wouldn't change the station because "the ladies like it." That was it, end of discussion, you're outvoted, sit down, shut up, get used to it, learn to love it and get with the program. So, on and on the torment went, placing me at the brittle edge of sanity. I was trapped like a bug under a glass until eventually I began to find ways to leave early or not come in at all, creating ever more brazen excuses.

Once, I had a friend's girlfriend call Mr. C., saying she was from my dentist's office and I was missing a very crucial root canal appointment. Committed to her role, she even played dental-office muzak in the background, to heighten the illusion. Each time I gave him the slip, Mr. C.'s head would shake in wider and wider arcs, the disbelief finding it increasingly difficult not to register on his face. My lying in search of release eventually became an art form. Finally, my own personal "Guernica" came one fine autumn day when I realized I was just over the mark needed to collect unemployment. Clearly, drastic steps were needed to be free of Vector Research.

Sometime during lunch, I went out to my car, climbed into the passenger's side and pulled from my glove compartment a secret stash of Vampire's Blood (fake blood, sold in toothpaste-size tubes around Halloween, in finer convenience stores everywhere). I squirted some into my hands and rubbed my hands on my nose. Then I spurted a little into my right nostril, untied my right shoelace and walked back inside to tell Mr. C. one of the most bald-faced lies I've ever spoken with a straight face. With my right hand cupped over my nose, I said, "I was headed out to my car to get some lunch and I tripped over my shoelace and landed on my nose." Mr. C. said, "Let me see. Tilt your head back." He looked up my nostril, handed me a tissue and said, "Keep your head tilted back. You'll be okay in no time."

I thought, "No, you schmuck... send me home! Please, for God's sake, send me home before I go berserk and kill you all with your own radio. Please make the bad music stop or there'll be more than Vampire Blood flowing at Vector Research!" But he wasn't getting the mental message I was sending. So I finally had to tell him what I wanted: "Mr. C., can I go home and lie down? I don't feel so good." Mr. C. said, "Fine. But if you go home now, don't come back."

I don't think it was because he saw through my little charade, but because he probably felt I was just too frail to be an effective employee, what with the upset stomachs, the rotting teeth, the killer headaches and now bloody noses. I was already planning even more outrageous excuses for the future, as I wanted to push the envelope of unbelievable lies until I could believably pin my four-hour post-lunch disappearance on an alien abduction.

Sensing I had achieved my personal best, I handed Mr. C. the "blood"-soaked tissue, collected my lunch bag and coat, stepped out into the brilliant midday sunshine, climbed into my car, popped a Black Flag cassette into the tape deck and floored it home, singing all the way.

I don't listen to other people's radio stations anymore.

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