• WMET Chicago is about to go away and I am job-hunting
• “The most exciting job in the world” is offered and I go after it.
• Does my interview with a porn star in the nude have anything to do with getting the job?
WMET-FM in Chicago had been sold, and back in 1982, radio station ownership transfers took ages to complete. WMET’s owners sent in a caretaker general manager to mind the shop and assure the staff that nothing would be changing for months. We were to continue to do our jobs, and – he said with a wink – “Don’t forget, this wet bar in my office is open for business every Friday afternoon at four; I expect to see you all.”
That summer a good day for me started with a noon newscast, read entirely from AP wire copy. I had no commission to cover local news and no staff if I wanted to. I would then take the El up to Wrigley Field, eat lunch in the press room and watch the Cubs play from the press box. Late in the game, with the Cubbies usually far behind, I’d take the El back downtown in time to do another couple of rip-and-read newscasts at 5 and 6.
By winter of ’82, the clock was continuing to tick. The sale of the station would go through any day. What I’d do after the gig was up was anyone’s guess. One day a radio friend in New York called to say, “I assume you’ve seen the ad in Broadcasting Magazine.” I hadn’t. It was a full page in the help-wanted section with a giant headline, “IF YOU THINK THIS IS THE MOST EXCITING JOB IN THE WORLD…YOU MIGHT HAVE A CHANCE AT IT.”
The copy continued: “How about this job description: We want you to be wherever something really fascinating is happening. We want you to tell millions of young Americans what it’s like.”
Well, that settled it. A dream job had just popped up and I had to go after it.
The position was at ABC Radio News. The network was fighting for affiliates and listeners against NBC’s “young adult” network, called The Source. ABC was creating a position called Reporter on the Road. It is safe to assume virtually every FM rock radio newsperson in the country would respond to the ad, at least those set on making it to the network level.
Step one: I thought I would make my response stand out from others by creating an “answer” ad. I crafted a full-page reply to accompany my tape and resume with the headline, “THE MOST EXCITING JOB IN THE WORLD? IT’S BEEN MINE FOR 11 YEARS.” Below it I described some of the stories I’d covered while at local radio. I tried to make the layout resemble the original ad, by using stick-on capital letters that came in sheets at stationery stores and then making a Xerox copy. Prehistoric Photoshop.
Next, an unknown number of applicants received a call from the ABC executive leading the search. I got one. He asked me to pretend I’d had the job for six months. Make a list, he said. Which news stories or events would I have covered – and what stories would I cover in the coming six months? I scoured calendars, almanacs, trade publications and out-of-town newspapers for story ideas. My first list prompted another phone call: Pretty good list, but not great; how about some more? I frantically began calling friends and relatives around the country. What’s going on in your town? What’s everybody talking about? Scandal? Looming crisis? Anything! Somehow, I came up with more story ideas, enough, it seemed, to satisfy him.
The final step: the field was narrowed to several candidates who were flown to New York individually for interviews. I was interviewed by several executives and editors in the morning and then taken to lunch at the swanky Lincoln Center restaurant Shun Lee. There, after we had placed our orders and engaged in small talk, one of the top guys said, “Now to the important stuff: tell us about your nude interview with Marilyn Chambers!”
The porn star who had started out modeling for Ivory Snow and wound up in a notorious XXX-rated film, “The Green Door,” had recently done a small number of interviews in the buff — on radio, where imaginations run wild. My imagination didn’t have to. She shared my studio, stark naked, for most of the 90 minutes of my Sunday night talk show, “Zero BS.” I was fully clothed. News had leaked. A couple members of the WMET sales staff found reasons why they had to stop by the station at 11:30 Sunday night. Paul Natkin, one of Chicago’s finest photographers, was on hand, a writer from the weekly Chicago Reader chronicled it in a humorous piece, and Playboy magazine – then headquartered in Chicago – ran one of Paul’s photos, then later voted it one of the highlights of 1982 in a feature, “The Year in Sex.” How many people do you know who have been a highlight of the year in sex?
Years later, Howard Stern reenacted his interview with a nude porn star in the movie version of his autobiography, “Private Parts,” in a setting that looked startlingly like my Chambers interview.
Once, while doing one of many interviews with Stern, I showed him the two scenes, side-by-side. He nodded and raised his eyebrows, as if they certainly looked similar. He muttered a “Hmm.” I got the feeling he might have been reluctant to say anything more for fear I might bring some sort of legal proceeding against him…but I have nothing really to base that on. If I had to guess that the photos were anything more than a coincidence, I would speculate the art director for Stern’s film did some research and may have come across the Playboy photo. There really were striking similarities, but I just wanted to show Howard, not blackmail him!
Whether aided or not by Ms. Chambers (who was sweet and smart and later sent me a handwritten thank-you note on pink, perfumed stationery), to my surprise I landed the position at ABC. I later asked one of my bosses if my supposedly clever “answer” ad had played a part in getting me the gig. He dismissively said, “Oh, we knew you were out there; we were expecting you to apply.” (Lest you assume my profile in the radio field was solely built on the bare back of a porn star, I had also begun writing articles in a radio news trade magazine, Earshot.)
I moved to New York in April of 1983. I knew that the Reporter on the Road was a coveted job and early on I found out that, since the search had included candidates from both outside and inside ABC News, there were some among my new colleagues who were envious, if not resentful.
My work at first was nothing special; I was getting the hang of things. What I didn’t know until later was that there were grumbles in the newsroom. “What’s so special about this guy? His stuff is run-of-the-mill.” Shortly, though, a new cultural phenomenon saved my bacon. I was covering the Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago where all the newest home entertainment gear was debuted yearly. I came across the latest thing from Japan. It was something I had to learn how to pronounce: karaoke. This was 1983. Karaoke bars did not exist yet in the States. A Japanese manufacturer was introducing a boombox CD player with microphones and a screen on which song lyrics scrolled. I chose an FM radio hit of the moment by Survivor and recorded myself belting along to the music at the top of my lungs, “It’s the eye of the tiger/It’s the thrill of the fight/Rising up to the challenge of our rival!”
This, of course, was far from prize-winning journalism, but our affiliated FM rock stations absolutely loved it. When I returned to NY, I got a memo from an editor saying in effect, THAT was more like it.