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Sunday, June 22, 2014

Did I ever tell you about the time I worked at WXRT?

By Ted Slowik

"A man's got to know his limitations."

Back when I was in college I got to fully appreciate those words spoken by Clint Eastwood's "Dirty" Harry Callahan character in "Magnum Force." I was always one to try too hard and do too much. My mom used to say I burned the candle at both ends. I was a candidate for burnout.

In high school I really wanted to be a morning show disc jockey. And I was! I did mornings on Lyons Township's excellent station WLTL-FM 88.1 with my good friend Phil Schrock. Our show started at 6 a.m. and ended at 8 a.m. every school day our senior year. I couldn't drive in high school (thanks to an irresponsible older brother the Slowik kids couldn't get licenses until they were 18) and it was too cold and icy that winter to ride a bicycle, so I'd get up at 4:30 every morning and walk the 2.2 miles to LTHS from my parent's home in Countryside.

I continued as a DJ at my college station but also got into journalism. I was editor in chief of the student paper my final two years of college. I also worked about 30 hours a week as a cook in a restaurant. I carried a full course load. It was a lot, but I managed it well. That is, until I got the internship.

Unpaid internships are a cruel form of free labor. They are great for gaining experience and making connections but the fact they don't pay sometimes forces difficult decisions. Like when there aren't enough hours in the day to do it all, what do you give up--the part-time restaurant job that actually pays for your car or the unpaid internship that could really help your future career?

Such was my dilemma in January 1987, the beginning of my final semester of college. I was selected as an intern in the news department at WXRT-FM 93.1. I got up at 4 in the morning and drove my battered 1972 four-door Olds Delta 88 from my parent's house in Countryside to 'XRT's studios on West Belmont Avenue in Chicago.

There, I ripped copy from an Associated Press machine (this was pre-Internet times, folks) and other sources and rewrote it for newscasters Neil Parker and Charlie Meyerson, complete with phonetic pronunciations and all. They read my stuff verbatim. I knew what I was doing.

In fact, I was so sure of myself and so happy to have my foot in the door at my favorite radio station that I was downright cocky. I started picking up on little hints that maybe I was behaving a bit too overconfidently, perhaps. For example, my shift would end at 10 a.m., and a new DJ would replace the morning person and start the midday shift. One day they were featuring Billy Joel and the guy started his shift by just saying "Big Shot" and playing that song. I knew he was talking about me.

Then my world fell apart.

I knew my car was having mechanical trouble but I was too busy and too broke to do anything about it. When it finally died I shouldn't have been surprised but I was helpless. How was I going to get to the northwest side of Chicago by 5 a.m. now? It not like buses run from LaGrange at that hour.

Other factors were piling up. I could handle the classes and the student newspaper but working at the restaurant past midnight was taking its toll. I was sleep deprived, like Alan Alda's Hawkeye Pierce character in an episode of "M*A*S*H." I was really losing it, and near my breaking point.

The day it happened was Charlie's birthday. Staff was called in to the control room to sing "Happy Birthday" to Charlie on the air. There were balloons, we sang, and Charlie was presented with a small cake with a few lit candles. The morning DJ at the time, Terri Hemmert, beseeched Charlie to make a wish.

Charlie hesitated. And hesitated. It couldn't have been more than five or 10 seconds but in my sleep-deprived, delusional state it felt like an eternity.

"Go ahead, Charlie, make a wish," Terri implored.

This was taking forever! There was dead air! So I took control of the situation. Standing next to my boss, Charlie, I took the ballon in my hand and held it momentarily over the cake. The lit candles caused the balloon to pop and extinguished the candles. Then Charlie spoke.

"I wish Ted hadn't popped that balloon."

My fate was sealed.

After that my shift was over and I had to get to class. I don't know if it was that day or the next, but around this time my car stopped running completely. More immediately I was afraid I had behaved unprofessionally with the little balloon stunt. Who does that intern think he is, anyway? My fears got the better of me, and with tears in my eyes I phoned Neil Parker and resigned from the internship.

I also quit the restaurant job at the same time. I spent the next two weeks stranded at college, spending nights in a sleeping bag in the record library of the radio station and eating meals in the dining hall purely on the kindness of the staff there who knew I had no meal tickets or money but who weren't about to let me go hungry.

I gradually got my sanity back, started sleeping better, got another car, resumed my "normal" life and graduated on time. I made up the internship that summer at my first job out of college, as a reporter for The LaGrange Sun.

I ran into Charlie recently at a networking event for media and publicity professionals. He didn't seem to remember me--he must have worked with hundreds of mentally unstable interns over the years--but he laughed genuinely when I told him the story of how we used to know each other.

WXRT is still my favorite radio station, though I've long abandoned thoughts of ever working there again.