Marfa Public Radio in the Beginning – circa 2008
Monday morning very early I awake before the alarm rattles at 5:05 AM. The Alpine Canine Early Warning System ensures early rising. Struggling in the dark to reach the coffee pot in the kitchen to fire up my hot beverage. Decaffeinated coffee ground the night before. Why decaf? I have no reason or even a hint of a reason.
As the pot gurgles and drips its way to filling I locate suitable clothing, which is not difficult to do. Coordinated colors mean nothing to a radio announcer. Shoes? Just make sure one is for the left and one for the right foot. A matching pair makes little difference. Or go shoeless: hey, it’s Marfa. The eight-finger hairbrush works wonders.
Click on CNN and mindlessly watch the energetic announcer report on the latest scandal. Newsworthy events are not popular, but entertainment is in vogue.
Seated on a stool in front of the blinking TV, I eat what I find on the top shelf in the fridge. Impossible to bend over. At this hour I tend not to make wise food choices and am unable to make difficult decisions.
Because I know how useless I am in the pre-dawn hours, I did my radio preparation while drinking a box of wine Sunday evening. The documents and laptop are placed at the foot of the front door; impossible to depart without them.
I live in Alpine Central, AKA the middle of nowhere, and must drive the 26 miles to the edge of nowhere…Marfa, the location of KRTS 93.5 FM, West Texas’ new public radio station. Traffic is light as I am on the road before “rush hour.” Truck aimed with precision as the law is out there. Other obstacles include creatures large and small that wander the blacktop.
Descending into Marfa I see no sign of life until I reach the Stripes gas station. Stripes is the pulse of travelers on their way east, west, and especially headed south to our neighbor country, Mexico.
Take a right at the flashing light and I arrive at the radio station. (In those days it was downtown, in what is now the location of The Hotel St. George.) No competition for parking on most days, though occasionally there are a few cars out front which sets my imagination in gear. What circumstances would lead someone to abandon their car at a Public Radio Station? Perhaps people dropped their vehicle there to donate it? Tom Michael’s radio ad soliciting car donations is compelling.
I keep my station key on a lanyard tied to the handle of my laptop case so as not to forget it. That would be a disaster. Whoops, I forgot my laptop case. It’s fine. My early life as a Chicago punk prepared me to bypass any locked door. Oh, the night DJ didn’t lock it. Once inside, I listen carefully for rattles and squeaks of occupancy. Spooky in the station. Lights flash eerily and someone is talking in the other room. Is it the NPR satellite broadcast, or is it the Sunday overnight disc jockey still hanging around?
Two switches by the front door. One illuminates the reception area,
the other brightens the long corridor. I prefer not to walk down that corridor except that the coffee pot is in the kitchen at the end of the hall. Caffeine trumps Announcer’s fears.
While the fresh pot brews I fire up the station computer and begin my on-site prep. (Good thing I emailed my last night’s prep documents as a backup). Inbox[GP1] labeled Jorge is stuffed with PSAs. (Public Service Announcements) and paid ads. Each announcement must be timed so I can fit them seamlessly into the breaks scheduled by NPR. Sounds easy, and after a while I got pretty good at it. Very unprofessional to cut off the last few words of the NPR news and read an ad for quilts on display at a Marfa gift shop. Also, a major blunder to choose a fifteen second ad to read during a 30 second break. “Dead air,” as it is called in the profession, is uncool. Nowadays I would read it twice.
Occasionally I break the rules. One memorable situation was when a group of curious ranch goats wandered in front of the radio station. It was 25 minutes until my NPR break. I wisely made the decision to cut the NPR feed and made a local announcement to report the herd watching the flashing lights in my booth. That showed a Chicago big city boy had his priorities in order. Livestock is always a priority.
My Monday morning gig is for two hours. I like saying gig. It’s the show called Morning Edition. I sit in a very cool chair that rocks and rolls so I can control the knobs and switches like a pro. People look in at me and wave, always smiling. When I wave back, I give the chair a spin for color. My voice gets recognized from time to time. “Hey, aren’t you the guy on the radio?” I reply, “Yup. That’s me.” I pause, giving them time to ask for an autograph. Not once did that happen. I regret not giving them more time.
Marfa NPR grew, gaining recognition. Young professionals were hired. As I worked in the wee hours Monday mornings I was gone before most of the crew came in for the Monday Morning meeting. A few did investigate the broadcast booth as they passed but most slid on by. The meeting was happening behind closed doors when I finished my “gig.”
It was time for a change. I could feel it. The Board decided that it was time for change. The same voice for Morning Edition every day. So… was I laid off? Fired? Re-purposed?
I held this volunteer job for two years. Had a good time and grew as a person. The best part was that occasionally a local MPR listener said to me, “I sure liked knowing it was you talking to me.”
And the very, very best part of the experience was the morning when the NPR feed went dead for an hour. Nothing. Nada. Dead air. After spinning a few dials and messing with the flashing lights I realized I could still transmit. Yup, my own talk show. Bob Edwards, the NPR morning guy, could have learned a few tricks. I was ready for the big time.