Radio Roulette

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

January 26, 1999|By Michael Ollove

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.

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