Breaking and Entering
©2020, George J. Irwin. All rights reserved.


Well, I thought that my encounters with Rod Stewart had come to an end with the second and final encounter with the rock star at a model train shop. I actually spoke with my fellow model railroader the first time; the second, I just let him be a private citizen.

But Rod wasn't quite done with me yet, although not in a way he would ever know... which is not to say that he remembers his meeting me at a train store either.

By this time I had moved to the area I live in now, and my then wife and I had settled into an apartment. I don't know if it was out of her desire to contribute to the family finances (we were just a couple then), or simply boredom, but she'd secured a part time weeknight evening job downtown. I drove here there and back most nights.

I quickly learned that my choice of a career other than Big Time Radio Personality was once again reinforced as correct. One of my wife's workmates was, of all things, the morning DJ at what is known in the business as a "rimshot" radio station. This is a broadcaster that is technically considered part of a metropolitan area, but is actually so far out of town that it can't reach that entire area—in other words, the basketball hits the rim but doesn't go in. Particularly as far as ratings. He very likely needed the extra money from this moonlighting—small market stations simply could not pay very well. Considering that the evening part-time position ended at about 10 PM, that meant not much sleep between jobs. I supposed he could have taken a nap between the morning show and the evening hours.

My wife, knowing of my history, thought it would be fun for me to meet this man who did what I'd always wanted to do. So, some weeks after she started this job, she introduced me to him. We'll call him "Wiley" after his on-the-air moniker, very possibly supplied by the station manager, I might add. I can't remember his real name and since I know it wasn't "Wiley," I'm safe.

Wiley couldn't talk long—he had a drive back out of downtown to near where the radio station was located—but we hit it off immediately. He was surprised that I knew as much about radio as I did, and I was able to hide the fact that I'd not only never heard him on the station for which he worked, I'd never heard of it either.

I made a point to listen in the next morning as Wiley played a variety of rock and roll from the seventies and eighties, the latter decade having only ended a few years back. As I expected, his "radio voice" was quite different from his normal conversational voice. That's not unusual, from the artificially overexcited fast-paced patter of Top 40 Disc Jockeys to the dulcet, calming tones of National Public Radio presenters. The advertising on this small station ranged from nationally syndicated spots to plugs for local veteraniarians, car repair shops and restaurants. And the "rimshot" description was highly accurate. It took some doing to bring in this station, even though I later computed that it was only about twenty-five miles away as the crow flies. Wiley's station was definitely at the opposite end of the broadcasting spectrum from a "blowtorch," one nickname for a station that puts out so much power that its listening area is measured in states. Its transmitter could have easily been powered by hamsters on a wheel, or perhaps less cruelly, a couple of Double A batteries.

I couldn't help feeling both a little envious of and a little bit sad for Wiley, who was definitely not a beginner at this line of work and yet had either not advanced beyond the lowest rung of the radio ladder, or was on his way back down it with this being the final stop. But that was still one rung higher that I'd ever gotten.

A couple of weeks later, I found out just how low this rung of the radio ladder was. Wiley and my wife exited the part time job together and met me at my car. He had an interesting offer.

"Hey, are you interested in Rod Stewart tickets? He's playing at the Dome in a couple of days."

"Sure!" While I had met Rod Stewart in his non-celebrity mode, I had not actually seen him perform. "Why do you ask?"

"Because I have a contest for them, and no one has won them yet."

"Are you kidding..."

"No, I'm not. I pull a name out of a bunch of slips people filled in at local businesses, twice a morning, and no one's called in to claim them."

"I think you can talk him into it," my wife answered on our behalf.

"OK, then, just be listening in tomorrow at 7:20. Gotta go get some sleep now..."

And so we tuned in to Wiley's show well before the appointed time the next morning, and sure enough, at 7:20 actually, he called my wife's name and announced, "You have 103 minutes to call me to claim these Rod Stewart tickets!" That number, a play on the dial position of the station.

Wow, I thought, the contestants had close to two hours to respond, and no one had won these tickets? That's bad...

My wife was on the phone within 103 seconds, not minutes, and Wiley said, "Wow, amazing that I just happened to pull your name, isn't it?" I then got on the line for instructions on how to receive our prize.

"The show is in a couple of days, so I doubt they will get to you in time if I mail them. Would you be able to come to the studio to pick them up?"

The studio? I was not in the business, but I was certainly a radio geek. "Sure, when can I do that?"

"Tonight would be fine. I'll just leave them here for you." He gave me the location. I quickly computed that I could drop off my wife, run over to get the tickets and be back in plenty of time to pick her up.

"I can do that. Thanks!"

So that evening, I headed for my wife's part time job location with just that in mind. There was no handy-dandy satellite-based navigation then, but I had a general idea of where I was going, a small town east of the city on what was once a major route but was now a basic two-lane state highway over toward the next population center. My state road atlas provided a rough outline of what I had to do.

But by the time I got there, it was quite dark. Worse, it was quite overcast, which made certain things harder to see. Including old street signs. I don't remember at this point what the actual name of the street was that I was looking for, so let's just call it Maple Street. I went into, through, and out of the small center of town four times before I found Maple Street. OK, this should be easy from here, I thought, expecting to find a storefront on this side street off the State Highway, possibly with a small studio right in the front window. I had come across several of these in my travels. I did not come across one this time, and quickly found myself out of town again.

Worse, I could not make out any house numbers. Street signs were difficult enough, but finding a three inch-high number on a house, usually black, when they were set back from the road? I had enough trouble viewing these in suburbia in daylight, much less out in the sticks in darkness.

After about a mile of searching, I concluded that I must have missed it. I turned around, headed back into town, and tried again. Nope.

By this time, by my calculations, I was approaching the red zone in terms of getting back to collect my wife. I was going to look pretty stupid telling her—and Wiley—that I couldn't find the radio station and didn't have the tickets.

Back at the main drag through town again, I decided to ask for directions at a convenience store. That initially wasn't much help—just go down Maple and you'll see it on the left, one person suggested, another thought it was on the other side of town entirely, while another insisted that the town did not actually have a radio station. I guess that third person wouldn't have won the tickets were his name called, even given all of 103 minutes to call in.

A sudden follow-up occurred to me: how far down the road?

About two miles, I was told.

I had not gone that far out, so maybe that was the answer.

Back into the darkness. I checked the trip meter on the dashboard. It was at fifty-six point five, so at about fifty-eight point five I should have reached my destination, assuming that the advisory I'd received was correct.

I drove carefully and slowly, ignoring the jump in speed limit from thirty in town to fifty once reaching the outskirts. Highbeam headlights employed, I scanned both sides of the road. Nothing but cornfields and trees.

Finally, at about fifty-seven point eight on the trip meter, I saw... a rather large ranch house.

In front of its driveway was a very small sign with stick-on letters, the call letters of the radio station. That was not how it was referenced on the air, by the way; it had a nickname. The only time the call letters were heard were in what is called the "legal ID" which must be announced at or near the top of each hour. How loud this legal ID had to be was not specified, and so with stations with nicknames the calls are "buried" and said as quickly as possible. (Think audio disclaimers on car ads.) But I was enough of a radio geek to know that these were the station's calls, and there was no way that four letters starting with "W" could mean anything else in this area.

I pulled into the driveway and cut the high beams. From there I could see a radio studio alright... right through a picture window in what would be the living room of any other standard house. OK, I'd finally found it.

I got out of the car, walked up to the front screen door, behind which the main front door was not closed. I also heard a song playing, no doubt going over the airwaves as well. Perhaps appropriately, it was the relatively minor hit "Confusion" by the Electric Light Orchestra.

I knocked softly first, thinking that if the studio was just inside I didn't want to startle anyone, especially if they were on the air.

No answer. I tapped a little harder.

Still no answer.

"Hello?" I called out.

Still no answer.

Wait, there's no one here, is there?

I spotted a bulletin board on the other side of the room inside the door. Pinned to it was an envelope... with my name printed on it.

What? And now what?

Why couldn't Wiley have just brought the tickets over instead of me having to pick them up? I mused frustratedly. Probably because that would have been noticed and not looked kindly upon by the management. It would not have been good for Wiley's employment prospects if they suspected that the fix was in on those tickets. Who knows, they might have had someone else in mind to whom to award the prize, including themselves.

While I was thinking about this, "Confusion" faded out and a voice called out, "Your favorite place for rock and roll," followed by an unnatural pause and then the radio station's nickname, then another unnatural pause and the start of "It Hit Me Like A Hammer" by Huey Lewis and the News. Cute sequencing, I remarked to myself. I wonder who programmed that...

And then it did Hit Me Like A Hammer.

There wasn't anyone on the air in the house. The station was running on automation. This was already common at the time, and would become even more so later. The unnatural pause was probably for a signal to be sent to this station to cue the nickname, while other stations inserted their nicknames simultaneously into their over-the-air broadcast. If there was anyone live at all, he could be hundreds or thousands of miles away, or the entire program could have been "voicetracked" hours or days in advance. In short, the only person around this station was me.

Great, so am I just supposed to walk into this house and...

Isn't this breaking and entering?

My entire upbringing, plus my sky-high rule conformity, plus my unnatural fear of getting caught, all combined into my thought that there was absolutely no way I should be going into this building without permission.

But the envelope was right there in front of me. If I were to be seen, including possibly by local law enforcement , I would explain that the morning disc jockey on this radio station awarded the tickets to my wife and me, and that was my name on the envelope just on the other side of the room, and here's my driver's license to prove it.

Well, then, I asked myself, are you just going to stand there, increasing your chance of being seen?

I tried the screen door. It was unlocked.

Well, it was just entering, then. Breaking was off the table.

And now your fingerprints are on the door handle, so...

Hoping not to trip over anything, I pulled the screen door open, sped inside, pulled the envelope off the bulletin board, and not even pausing to look at the studio setup, which I certainly would have done under normal circumstances, streaked back to the car, got in, and got out of there. I didn't even look in the envelope until I got back into town.

Later that night, back downtown, Wiley asked if I had any trouble getting the tickets.

"No, not at all," I lied. "I was surprised that there was no one there."

"Other than drive times," he explained, "the station is ‘off the bird.'" That was slang for satellite-based programming. I was right, it was automated. The only times that the "rimshot" was truly live and local was from six to ten in the morning – Wiley's shift – and for a couple of hours in the late afternoon.

After all that, it was a good concert. Certainly we didn't have front row tickets; more like the middle of the middle deck, maybe purchased directly by the radio station itself—which would explain why us "winning" had to be kept quiet. Rod Stewart was much easier to see on the giant screens than in person. The first weekday morning after the concert, my wife and I called into Wiley's morning show to provide an impromptu review. We figured it was the least we could do, and besides, it might incent people to actually listen to Wiley's show. Maybe the next prize giveaway would go faster.

Not much later, the station changed formats, flipping from rock to "today's country," and also away from the idea of having any live disc jockeys at all. So Wiley was either knocked completely off the radio ladder or found another place to land. I tuned into the "rimshot" once in a while, but there were no more local contests, just giveaways that spanned across all of the stations that subscribed to this particular music service. We would not be winning any of those.

...