The Night Gig

Tumbling along the airwaves to nowhere

It's late at night and the radio station is empty. The desks in the newsroom are lined up like sentries guarding a lone police radio. The chatter bursts in spurts, matter of factly, as details of a robbery are relayed. In the studio the lights are dimmed. The daytime talk-hosts prefer the room bright, but at night the studio seems too large. To create proper intimacy for a lone host and his callers, the room is darkened and the red, gold, and green lights of the soundboard take over, creating the effect of a car dashboard at night.

 It's five minutes to show time and the host is parking in front of an Irish Pub on the street below. He passes the same faces each evening: the weary second-shift workers waiting for their bus, the valet at the hotel reading his paperback, the bartender from the pub, spied through the window cleaning beer glasses.

 The opening theme song is playing as the host takes his seat. He doesn't have two hours of material tonight. That's the case too many nights of late. When he was just starting out in the business, you couldn't shut him up. He had more to say than the time allowed. Back then he was more unstable and unpredictably wild, overly concerned with breaking rules, pushing people's buttons and hoping listeners would marvel as the moments passed, each filled with an image of a guy on a ledge. That was before the crash, before his mind hit the wall at 90, when it felt as though some joker was running through the hallways of his brain yanking cords from their sockets.

He's back at it now, but middle-aged. The gears move slower. Two hours seem longer than they used to. The callers help pull him through, however, as they always have. They are the wild card in every evening, the utterly unpredictable third rail of talk radio, capable of firing a show to life or frying it out all together. They aren't trained professionals; they have no investment in the program. Whether it succeeds or fails on a given night doesn't matter to them, nor should it, they aren't paid players. But they have power.

The board operator has his marching orders. For the nighttime screening process, the rules are altered. The sane, sober, and sensible are least likely to find their way onto the airwaves, unless there is a unique quality to their voice or their intellect, or a quirkiness that stands out, or a delightfully iconoclastic take on the world. Night radio is better suited for hearing from the eccentric, the mildly lit, the troubled, the fringe players, the pariahs, the forgotten characters of the city who live behind thick curtains off some beaten path. Nighttime radio is for delivering the intrigue and strange allure of the uncommon.

On this night it's Terry from Owatonna, who calls from her cell phone after hitting a dog with her Nissan. She's crying and wondering if she can give it CPR. And there's Teddy, an 11-year-old who listens at home under the blankets after his parents have sent him to bed. He asks if he can come down and watch the show live. The host says no, that it will ruin any sense of theater. Toward the end of the program there's Dean, a 32-year-old Iraq War veteran, who says he's sitting in his car, in the garage, with a six-pack and the engine running. The host tries to talk him back into the house but the line goes dead. It's impossible to know if the call is real or an act.

On the drive home the host replays the program in his head. Back in bed, the call from the veteran will keep him awake. He'll tell himself it wasn't real, that no suicidal person announces his death on a live radio show. But he'll never know for certain, and it will eat at him.

The next night the calls will return, like pillars holding up the roof. This time they'll be lighthearted: an old women singing off key, another man in his garage, but this time merely escaping a nagging wife, college kids attempting a prank call; average people becoming momentary media stars. 

Long before there was reality TV there was this: the quirky marriage of radio host and stranger, the mysterious coupling of disparate forces in the hopes of giving birth to some kind of minor magic. It has its place, its own worn seat, in the musty back rooms of American pop culture.  

 
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