Radio Roulette; For on-air personalities, firings are a part of life. There's just no way to dodge the bullet.


Allan Prell's early radio career had all the carnage of a horror movie. The blood on the floor was always his. "I've worked at 27 radio stations," Baltimore's premier radio talk-show host recounted recently. "At most of them I was fired."

Fired for asking for a raise. Fired because the station switched to rock. Fired for incompetence. (He couldn't work the automated equipment.) Fired because the station owner's son didn't like him. Fired because local mobsters didn't like him. (He scheduled guests who wanted to raise casino taxes.) Fired when a program manager -- who also didn't like him -- tried to strangle him. (OK, in this last episode, he wasn't technically fired, but Prell perceived that an attempted murder amounted largely to the same thing.)

In Gary, Ind., Prell was fired from his new job after only one show -- and after having just moved his family 600 miles from Topeka. In Atlanta, he was fired even though he was apparently the only one on the air not whacked out on cocaine. Maybe because he was the only one not whacked out on cocaine. And in Washington, he was fired despite having some of the best ratings in town. "Anybody with a brain would have gotten out," says Prell. "I mean, weren't the radio gods telling me something?"

Well, yes, they were. They were warning him and every other disc jockey paying attention that a radio job is to permanence what a mistress is to marital harmony. One rarely leads to the other. A career on the airwaves is a life sentence to abrupt departures, to moving vans and for sale signs. It is about not getting comfortable, digging in or establishing roots. Too often, it is about broken marriages.

As a general rule, most of us yearn for a certain predictability in our lives. We expect our homes to be where we left them in the morning, our cars to start when we turn the ignition key, our favorite shows to be on each week and Celine Dion to be wailing away every time we turn on the radio. We also expect that the job we leave today will be there tomorrow. Most of us are never fired in our lifetimes. We depend on not being fired.

Not deejays. They spend whole careers waiting for the ax to fall. A radio job means sweating out ratings, listener surveys, focus groups and brand-new program directors eager to make a mark. It's about being able to offer inane on-air chatter in the shadow of a guillotine. It's worrying if today is the day someone is waiting to have a word with you outside the radio booth after the show.

What job security?

"I can't think of a job with less security except for someone who hauls dynamite for a living," Prell says.

No one keeps statistics, but few successful deejays have not endured multiple firings. Many, such as Prell, number their dismissals in double digits. Happily for him, Prell finally did find a measure of stability in his career. He has occupied the all-important morning slot at WBAL for an astoundingly long time as radio stints go, particularly in the a.m. market.

How long? "It's been 16 years, 5 months and 4 days," he says, but exactly in the same way you might imagine Joe DiMaggio mentioning, "I've gotten a hit in 56 straight games." In other words, it's an impressive streak, but how much longer can this possibly go on?

After all, in the radio business, longevity doesn't necessarily lead to more longevity.

Just ask Dick Ireland, familiar to WLIF-FM listeners for 26 1/2 years, but not for one moment longer.

Last spring, on his first day back from a Bermuda vacation, Ireland finished his show to find the station's program manager and financial director waiting for him outside the radio booth.

The ratings are sliding, they said. They have to make a change, they said. Nice knowin' ya, they said.

Next morning, listeners were greeted by a new voice and no explanation for what had become of the man they had listened to for a quarter century. It was as though he'd never existed. But that's radio. History always begins today.

Even within the station, firings often go publicly unacknowledged. "I was at a station where a guy didn't show up one day, and I asked the boss what had happened," recalled Jo Jo Girard of WWMX-FM. "He said I shouldn't worry about it. There were no memos, no announcements. He was just gone without a trace."

Ireland, now on the Christian station WRBS-FM, figures he was luckier than most in his WLIF tenure. "What's so amazing is not that I got fired but that I didn't get fired for 26 1/2 years," he says. A mild man, especially in the ego-driven world of radio, he even credits WLIF for firing him more gingerly than is the norm in radio. One deejay friend learned of his firing only when he returned from vacation to find someone else in the radio booth at the start of his shift. "I'm your replacement," the stranger said.

Mike McCarthy, who was replaced at WWMX four years ago by Girard and his partner, Kenny Campbell, recalls a notably malevolent program director who would shoot a Polaroid of a deejay at his microphone and then present him with the photograph.

"Here," the program director would say. "This is a picture of you doing your last show."

McCarthy avoided that particular indignity but not another classic in radio firings. In this scenario, after you are axed, you are told to immediately collect your belongings and then escorted to your car by a security guard. The thinking is that your dismissal immediately transforms you into a potential saboteur or thief. For similar reasons, no fired disc jockey is ever allowed back on the air where he might vilify station management and members of their family, none of which is considered beneficial to the station's image.

"After a few years, you get used to it," says McCarthy, who, since leaving Baltimore, has been dumped from stations in Richmond and Phoenix. He now broadcasts -- temporarily one presumes -- in Houston.

On the other hand

From management's point of view, prudence dictates such precautions with the volatile characters who often occupy the airwaves. Mark Ondayko, a jockey at WIYY with firings in his past, understands the thinking. In a prior incarnation, he was himself a program director who cringed when he had to let a deejay go. "I've been yelled at, screamed at and had things thrown at me," says Ondayko. He learned something from those episodes. "I never fired someone at the station. Usually, it was a well-lit public place where I could get out alive."

Why all the firings in radio?

Competence is not always -- or even usually -- the reason. Sliding ratings are most often the cause, and it's typically the deejay who pays the price, even if he has virtually nothing to do with promotions, music selection or format.

"It's an occupational hazard to be blamed for consequences that are mainly not under your control," says Lopez who in 20 years at WIYY has been part of no fewer than 11 different morning teams.

Prell couldn't agree more. "Radio is totally ratings driven, and they have to find someone at fault when the ratings are no good," he says. "It usually has nothing to do with the deejay, but you are absolutely the lowest man on the totem pole. The secretary is more important than you. So is the guy who trims the shrubs."

Even high ratings are no guarantee of employment. Prell had a top-rated talk show on WTOP in Washington when the Washington Post Co., which then owned the station, decided to change to an all-news format. Prell was told Katherine Graham hated radio talk shows. He was out of a job.

New format, new deejay

Format changes are almost always a prelude to a housecleaning. Switching from "Classic Rock" to "Easy Listening" might seem about as taxing for a deejay as changing from Coke to Diet Coke. Still, station managers are loathe to keep the same on-air lineup after a format change.

"You don't want any vestige of the past when you want to convey that you are going to be new, fresh and different," says Jeff Beauchamp, vice president and station manager at WBAL. "And if you leave this same guy on the air, you may leave it in the mind of the listener that he doesn't understand this music or that this isn't that big a change after all."

So yes, Beauchamp says, "It's not unusual for someone in this business to lose their job when it has nothing to do with their performance."

Firings are understood to be so frequent and so arbitrary that they almost never stigmatize one's career. Unless the circumstances are particularly unsavory, radio employers aren't scared off by past firings. In fact, says Ondayko, "It's almost a badge of honor."

Not that it feels that way when it happens. "It's an absolutely devastating blow to your ego," says Prell. Even if your career recovers, sometimes marriages do not. Prell and McCarthy both say their multiple firings and forced relocations contributed to the break-up of their first marriages.

Unfortunately, it's only going to get worse. Relaxed federal regulation now allows greater consolidation in the ownership of radio stations. That means that more stations are turning to syndicated shows and "virtual deejays" who simultaneously broadcast for several stations. The result is fewer on-air jobs and ultimately even more firings. WWMX's Girard is one example. "I was replaced once by a satellite," he says.

It's a great life

Which returns us to Prell's question. Why would anyone subject themselves to such a cruel, faithless career? Money is one reason. Highly rated morning deejays in markets the size of Baltimore can earn six-figure salaries. But is that enough to compensate for the stress and inevitable humiliation?

Of course not. Like most things inexplicable, being on the radio is all about love. "It's what I was meant to do," says Prell in the dream-like way of any teen-ager dopey with romance.

Similarly, McCarthy's firings have bounced him all over the country like a pin-ball, costing him a marriage at one point and separating him from his children. Always, he says, he hoped for an endless run, knowing that the day would come when he would have to move on. Yet, even now, at 51, he can't think of a more satisfying way to have spent his career. "It's like that old joke about the guy in the circus who cleans up after the elephant," says McCarthy. "Someone asks him why he doesn't do something else for a living, and he says, 'What, and give up show biz?' "

Pub Date: 1/26/99

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