Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Monkey see...

Having never been much of a bowler or even a fan of the game I found it odd that I was asked to be on a bowling team in 1983. I was working at a new radio station in town called Zebra 100.

In truth only the call letters WRMZ were new because the station was actually the FM band of a heritage country music station in Columbus, WMNI where I had been working for about seven years. Z-100 as we called it, was really the old WMNI-FM and had scrapped its easy listening format in favor of one that made little sense to those of us assigned to play the music on it. Our play list of songs was all over the road and included artists such as Dan Fogelberg, Sheena Easton, James Taylor and...Willie Nelson?

Let me explain that whole Willie Nelson thinking; In addition to him our music format also played every other song on the country music charts at the time. It was billed as "Three in a row Country" and for all intents and purposes we were another country station in town. Yet one that fell somewhere between WSNY, or as it is more commonly known, "Sunny 95" which played a format of syrupy pop love songs- and our own AM sister station known for its rowdy country format.

All of the DJ's on Z-100 were WMNI jocks so our names were more familiar to country music listeners than much of our music was. We might follow a song by Melissa Manchester with one by the Statler Brothers, or after something by Carol King we might play one by Waylon Jennings or Johnny Cash. It was the most insane radio idea I had ever been next to.

I had moved over from doing late nights on WMNI to host the mid-day show from 10:00 AM until 2:00PM and was never more confused in my life. I didn't get it and I absolutely hated it. The format and the hours.

I even thought our station mascot, an animated zebra was a little over the top of common sense or relativity to what we were putting out on the air. Had they made it look like Quick Draw McGraw and put a cowboy hat on it maybe I would have gotten that, but....never mind, this a bowling story remember?

I'll get to that soon.

Believe it or not this format change took a lot of planning on management's part and was actually months in the making before it was launched. And in those plans were intentional leaks to other media that a new country station would hit the airwaves on a certain date. Our rumors were true, but across town the rock station WNCI was putting out a few rumors of their own that they too were planning a format change on the same day and they were hinting that they were also switching to country music. The brain trust at our station feared they would do it so a few days before our announced change-over the decision was made to beat them to the punch.

So we started making announcements that we would move our launch date up one day. Not a brilliant move on our manager's part to tell the world when we were going to try to beat the competition to it. We even told everyone the exact time we were going to throw the switch.

Knowing as everyone else did what our plans were, WNCI announced the same thing, but they promised to do it one hour earlier than us. I kept telling our program director that they were bluffing, that I knew those guys over there and that when I worked there several years earlier we used to mess with other programmers heads in similar fashion. But our guys were worried, they were hoping to become the major provider of country music on the FM band and they feared that all of that work would go for naught if WNCI had the same idea. They feared they wouldn't be able to compete with the money muscle behind WNCI.

So an emergency DJ meeting was called on the Sunday afternoon we would change and there was some discussion that even though we had been telling the world that we were doing it on this day we might have to retool our plans. Then it was decided to move the time up one hour to be the first. At precisely 3:00 that afternoon one of our jocks in the control room played a song by the country band Alabama as the rest of us gathered around another monitor tuned to WNCI.

Their announcer said something like "Now the moment you have all waited for, a new era in Columbus radio begins..." and then he started the record "Take this job and shove it" by Johnny Paycheck. You could have heard a pin drop in our place. Our program director, Steve Cantrell and our music director Tim Rowe were staring at one another and saying nothing until the song ended and the DJ over there played a station jingle and went back into their rock & roll format.

It was a hoax.

But this really is a bowling story. We were invited to join a media bowling league to compete with other radio and television stations and for the next few months my Tuesday evenings were spoken for doing something I never really cared for. I was a terrible bowler with an average somewhere near the frequency of our new country station. But that isn't what this story is about, like I said, it is a bowling story but one that has to do with the photo shown above.

Years before my radio career I had a short-lived one as a bowling pin setter like these kids.

When I was fourteen years old I took a job at the local Moose Lodge that paid ninety cents an hour sitting in a cage at the business end of a bowling alley. The job of a pin setter consisted of picking up the bowling ball and rolling it back to the bowler after he knocked down the pins and then manually picking up the pins and setting them in a mechanical contraption that sat them neatly back down.

They called us pin monkeys... probably a reference attributed to the cages we sat in to protect us from flying bowling pins. Back breaking work for anyone, especially for a skinny kid like me who weighed something close to the bowling average I would develop in the years that followed.

And when that time did come I was telling this part of the story to our station programmer (Cantrell) one night while we were competing against some guys from, you guessed it, WNCI, and when I mentioned the pay I received as a pin-setter he remarked that if I didn't bring my average up I would see my wages fall back down to that level.

He obviously took the game more seriously than I did. And somewhere in that conversation he suggested that if we didn't bring the number's (ratings) up on the new station he helped create that we would all be taking pay cuts or hunting for new jobs.

WRMZ didn't last long as a country station and within months I left for what had always been my dream job anyway, playing rock & roll at WCOL. Today WRMZ is also a rock station and the zebra has long been retired. Now it is known as The Blitz 99.7 and is still being haunted in the ratings by WNCI.

If you click on that picture to enlarge it you will notice that these kids don't even have a protective cage to sit in. And considering that it is a photo from around the early 1900's I can only cringe when I wonder how many times they were beaned by flying pins or how much they were paid to even be there. I mean when I did it it was 1966 and ninety cents an hour wasn't that bad. To these boys that probably would have been more than their parents earned on their jobs. But whatever compensation they did get, they earned it.

Just as I did when I was asked to blend Willie Nelson songs with Barbra Streisand poems.

No comments:

Post a Comment