Days of Wine and Radio: Underwear models, cows, microphones and moths

POOR correspondent - Posted on 06 July 2010

Tony Robles/PNN
Sunday, October 11, 2009;

I remember my first job in radio. I was attending City College of San Francisco (“Harvard on the hill” or “Extended high school” as it was jokingly referred to), in my first semester. I was sent to an academic counselor who was to shine her guiding light upon me. After much back and forth about my dislike of anything resembling a suit and tie, the counselor blurted out the immortal words: Why don’t you major in business? I left her office, taking in an array of (mostly forgettable) faces about campus; many of whom were as confused as I was.

I checked the course directory and saw that the school offered classes in radio, had a radio station (which broadcast on a FM cable signal) and production studios. I signed up for the radio station class, but of course they wouldn’t just let you in. You had to learn about Marconi and the radio pioneers first; then you had to take a class on how to push buttons.

The radio station fascinated me. I’d watch the DJ’s and news reporters speak into the microphone from behind a glass. To me it was an aquarium of brilliance, each word uttered, profound—although I can’t recall for you anything that was ever said. After what seemed an extended period of voyeurism, I was “allowed” on the air, that is, given my own show. I had to be trained on the equipment so I sat in with an on-air guy who called himself Jackson Clarkson—his real name was Marco Bertolucci. I watched him play records and say things like, “It’s Jackson Clarkson with you…spinning tunes to keep you in tune”, or some sort. After the shift I said, “Wow, that was pretty good Marco”. He gave me a chickenshit grimace and replied curtly: “Where’d you get that Marco shit? My name is Jackson Clarkson”. “Oh”

Soon I was spinning records and uttering various radio bullshit (i.e.: time and temperature) on my own. I wasn’t smooth, every other word out of my mouth was “duh” or “uh” or a combination of both. I began taping my shows, listening over and over until I barely recognized my own voice. I was trying to sound like “them”, whoever they or them was. I didn’t’ sound like me anymore—I didn’t know what I sounded like. I started sending tapes to radio stations for possible employment as an announcer.

I sent tapes to all kinds of stations—country, adult contemporary, oldies, easy listening—I didn’t care, I just wanted to get on the air. At the same time I had an uncle who was involved in community work and struggle. He knew of my interest in radio and suggested I visit one of his friends who ran a radio apprenticeship at a community station across the bay. I went to an orientation—one of three people. I met my uncle’s friend Roman. Roman was an activist who fought the eviction of elders of the International Hotel in 1977. He spoke about the need for community radio, to serve underrepresented and silenced communities. After the orientation, I decided that community radio wasn’t real radio. I didn’t return.

I got a call from a guy with a booming radio voice a few weeks later. He was the program director of an AM station in Concord. He hired me to do weekends. “We’re startin’ you off at 3.35 an hour…ok?” I would have done it for free but I gave the impression that 3.35 represented, to me, a gold mine. I signed on. The studio was big and fancy; it had a news department and a little guy who did traffic reports dangling from a helicopter. We had color coded songs—reds were hot hits, blues were songs moving up the charts, greens and oranges were the tried and true—Beatles, Eagles, Abba—all the stuff I disliked (for every 10 of those, you might get one Marvin Gaye).

Somehow the Century 21 corporation supplied the bulk of the music on reel to reel tapes. The tape decks were mounted on the wall and were activated by remote control. We had to keep loading the tapes and cleaning the tape heads. In addition, the station had an FM sister station which was located down the hall in a room the size of a closet. We had to load tapes to keep that operation going as well. They were getting their $3.35’s worth. I lasted all of 2 weeks at the station. Rookie mistake—they told me to get to the station Midnight Saturday morning (i.e.: Friday midnight). I showed up Saturday at midnight, i.e.: Sunday morning. I was let go without a second chance.

After that debacle I worked at stations in Stockton, Napa and Vallejo. The Stockton gig was ok. The station was located in a cow pasture. On my first day, I was greeted by mounds of steaming cowshit. I knocked on the door and was greeted by the station secretary who informed me (while eating a hot dog on a stick) that the DJ’s had to enter through the back—which meant wading through more cowshit. I did my show in a bug-infested studio playing the likes of Michael Jackson, Madonna and Michael Bolton.

Sometimes I’d look at the window and a cow would be staring at me. An audience, at last! Sometimes I’d be in a pissy mood and say to the cow, “what the hell are you staring at you son of a bitch?” But those instances were more the exception than the rule. Things were ok until the station owner suggested I change my on-air name from Tony Robles to Jeff Scott. I told him that I didn’t look like a Jeff Scott. He said, “This is radio…they don’t see your face”. He jabbed his index finger close to my face as he spoke. I told him my idea for an on-air name. “Marco Bertolucci” I blurted out, thinking of the guy from City College. The owner looked at me and walked away.

I continued the weekend shift for a year or so, the most memorable moment being an hourly newscast. There I was reading stories I’d ripped from the Associated Press newswire when this moth appeared out of nowhere—hairy and ugly like the station owner. At the midpoint of the newscast, the moth decides to fly into my mouth. I coughed and gagged into the microphone. Luckily I had the presence of mind to hit the button for the commercial. It was for the US Army: Be all that you can be. As it played I ran to the bathroom.

And there were ladies and young girls, of course. I knew I was in trouble when I’d answer the request line and a sweet female voice would make a request. It would be followed up by a question such as, how tall are you or what color are your eyes? I got hung up on the request line with one such woman who hooked me by saying that she listened to my show regularly while flipping through the Victoria Secret Catalog, that she had been an underwear model at one time. We set a date to meet at a nearby restaurant. She described herself. I walked in the door and saw her. It was obvious that her underwear modeling days were well behind her. Where was the cow in the window? I rushed out of the restaurant and into my car.

After Stockton there was Napa and Vallejo. The Vallejo station was a “Hot Country Hits” station. The owner was a little old man named “Stu” who had a flatulence problem. He’d walk about the station farting after each step. It went kind of like this:


Then it was on to Napa to a station resembling a winery. It was there that I became acquainted with wine and I have forgotten (forgive me) most of what I did on (or off) the air. I don’t remember if I quit or was fired.

Fast-forward a few years. Ended up working in TV as a production assistant shooting dogs (with a camera) for TV 20 followed by a stint as a radio-advertising salesman for a Spanish station (owned by a gringo whose father was a diplomat in Costa Rica). I spoke no Spanish but looked Latino (I’m Filipino) so I was pimped to pimp a community…I mean…market. I got a few accounts—a car dealership, an appliance outlet—but not enough to keep from getting fired. My last job was at a station known as “The Quiet Dorm”. I produced commercials and worked with on-air talent. That was short-lived as I mislabeled a commercial, costing the station several thousand dollars—another common mistake, but this mistake took place during the year-end budget crunch. They did not forgive. Neither did I.

I quit, for good. Or so I thought. More than 10 years later I’m back where I started, in radio—a place I vowed I’d never return. I’m co-hosting the POOR Magazine radio show with Lisa Gray-Garcia, AKA Tiny at that community station my Uncle sent me to so long ago. I am having a good time…this time. And it’s real radio. I realize that now. I’m finally where I should have been all along. It just took me a while to realize it. I’m back.


Sign-up for POOR email!