You can't lose what you don't have. So, to say I lost my "job," when my radio station recently changed formats from music to sports isn't really true.
Likewise, I don't like saying I was even "hired" in the first place. In my mind, I have not held a job in over 35 years. It can't really be a job if you would do it for nothing, right? It's not a job if it's motivated by love. It can't really be a job if you were pre-ordained to do it from birth.
Wait, what? Pre-ordained? That's not my ego talking. I don't even think I have one. So don't misunderstand me, this is not a story of how I was endowed with a gift of some kind. I am not now, nor have I ever been anywhere near the best in the game. I won't be inducted into any hall of fame. This is just me trying to explain why I love music and radio and the listeners who feel the same way.
Where was I?
Right, pre-ordained. A bit melodramatic, perhaps, but let's go with it for a while.
I was born in Lower Manhattan the day after the last Brooklyn Dodgers' home game at Ebbets Field, nine days before Sputnik, and as I "dropped" (clever use of a music industry phrase, don'tcha think?), these words played on the radio: "That'll be the day, ay, ay, that I die."
You can understand my panic every time I hear that Buddy Holly tune or even a cover version; from Bobby Vee, The Everly Brothers, Flaming Groovies, Foghat, Linda Ronstadt, or even The Beatles. I thought each spin was a sign of my apocalypse. It never was. Crises averted.
What I couldn't zig or zag away from was the way every other song I heard on the radio meant something to me, too. My earliest memories are of songs and their corresponding emotions. Johnny Mathis may have been my first musical hero, thanks to my parents' album collection, which also included The Brothers Four, Eddie Arnold, Perry Como, Jerry Vale, and Ahmad Jamal Live at the Pershing. They would play them on what could best be described as a record playing "unit," the size of a refrigerator, lying on its side. It was bigger than our TV set.
But it was the AM radio in "The Big Unit" which introduced me to the 45rpm single in all its monaural glory. Thanks to Brian, Carl, Dennis, Al and Mike I wanted to surf, I felt Frankie's pain when his folks told him the girl in the hand-me-downs was no good, I learned of amoré from Dino (the coolest man who ever lived) and I really, really wanted to know John's secret.* I even promised not to tell.
I literally loved every song I heard on the radio. Every single song. What I didn't realize at the time was every single song was also loved by a majority of the record-buying public in the New York/New Jersey and Fairfield County Connecticut area and they were even ranked by popularity. What I didn't know didn't hurt me. In fact, if anything hurt me, those songs on the radio made me all better.
There were also a bunch of throaty guys on the radio who seemed to love these songs as much as I did -- and they knew all about them. I hung on every word and, unlike my "real" school teachers, I remembered every single thing they said and how they said it.
In a sense, my schooling was delivered in short bursts between hit singles and I aced every class. I had the best teachers; Scott Muni, Herb Oscar Anderson, Harry Harrison, Ron Lundy, Cousin Brucie (he must've been from my father's side), Chuck Leonard, George Michael, Bob Cruz and my all-time favorite: Dan Ingram; the best Top 40 jock that ever lived. My school was PS 77 in New York and I had perfect attendance.
As the family migrated south to New Jersey, I also took classes at Famous 56 in Philadelphia. There I studied under Dr. Don Rose (he must've had a PhD or something), Jim Nettleton, Joel Denver and guys with weird names like Long John, Big Jim, Tiny Tom, Brother Love and Banana Joe.
When I graduated "elementary school," I wandered aimlessly for a while, finally landing on 102.7 WNEW in New York. There I found my old teacher, Professor Muni, waiting with an expanded curriculum. This was truly "higher" education. My little 7-inch mind grew 5-inches that first day and I burned the midnight oil just to keep up with the lessons. I took extension classes in Philly at 93.3 WMMR, 94 WYSP and Q102 WIOQ, where, to my surprise and delight, I was later asked to join the faculty. Listen to an aircheck
Sure, I had "real" friends and a life, too. I'm almost sure I did. Yes. In fact, I even had a best friend. We shared first names and even dated girls with the same first names for a while. We were joined at the hip and are friends still, but not before a stupid 30-year "breakup" caused by (some say) the new girl in my life, whom I later married. Life really does imitate art if you squint really hard.
Around that same time I got my first radio job... licensed to Ship Bottom, NJ. That's Ship, with a "P," but sometimes it was hard to tell.
After a few months practicing in a backup studio, my big break came. It was Thanksgiving Day, 1978 and I was awful. Really, really awful (Think: Fran Drescher on helium). BTW - I really love Fran Drescher.
By luck of the draw, the first song I got to play was "Hot Summer Nights" from Walter Egan. Imagine how I felt as I looked in the card box and the first song Russ Egan sees is Walter Egan. I know! If it wasn't pre-ordained, then what is it?
I sucked less each night after that. Thanks to my lack of concern for compensation, I suppose I was cost-effective and soon got more air time. When I would ask my first boss for advice, he would impart these sage words, which I carry with me to this day: "You would be okay if you had a better voice." Thanks, Brent, I'll mention that to my therapist. Frequently.
Okay, maybe that doesn't scream pre-ordained, but something kept pushing me to keep doing whatever this is 35+ years later, like a salmon swimming upstream, knowing there are bears waiting to eat him alive. Oh yeah, there were bears.
In any case, my "schooling" paid off and even though I may not be as gifted, vocally, as my teachers, apparently people picked up what I was laying down and to me, that's what's important. It was important when I was on the receiving end and I spend every moment making sure it's still important when I serve it up.
Does that sound like the story of a "job?" I didn't think so.
* Yeah, I know, George sang it, but John wrote it about his secret.