“What you say on the air has consequences.” Part 4 of the serialization of This Is Rage by Ken Goldstein.
Balthazer’s head hurt. It had been a long week. Or month. One of those. The days without a live shift and minimal human contact before happy hour were isolating and redundant. Discretionary cash was in short supply, and along with it, discretion. Cheap tequila remained plentiful, limes grew on trees. Somehow Balthazer knew this was not a recipe for reinvention.
Balthazer sat alone in his almost empty apartment, his laptop open to his own home page, not a lot of action there. As he searched random destinations and distances on Google Maps, his mobile rang and the smart phone recognized the caller. It was now Ex-Producer Lee Creighton, there in alphanumeric clarity on the tiny digital screen. Balthazer had not spoken with him since the incident, did not even know where he was. This was uncomfortably strange. Prior to separation they had been together for over twenty years, on the air in a half dozen markets, untold personal appearances in venues ranging from community college bars to third rate rodeos. They had spoken every single day of their working lives, but not since the incident. Balthazer did not want to answer the call, but he knew he could not do otherwise.
“Traitor pussy,” said Balthazer, biting open the discourse.
“Thanks, Kimo, how could I have expected less? You okay?”
Balthazer figured Creighton knew better than to come back viciously at his jugular. It seemed as though his ex-producer had a pretty good sense of what he was dealing with. “I am a reflection of delivered evolution,” answered Balthazer. “Unemployment doesn’t suit everyone quite so well in spirit, but for me, it’s a natural fit.”
“Kimo, what are you still doing in Fresno?” continued Creighton. “You have an ugly trail there, and you’re not making it better. You need to leave.”
“You must have some intelligence machine,” said Balthazer. “Are you stalking me? Where are you, anyway?”
“Back in LA,” answered Creighton. “I used all the political capital I had left to get a show. I’m at KFI.”
“Outstanding, KFI, fascism for dough!” replied Balthazer. “What political capital? You mean you blew one of those right wing flunkouts for a gig?”
“Yeah, Kimo, I begged. I’m doing the overnight. Some rookie they’re trying to break, a young Hannity, but he’s smarter, which takes so little. They think he has legs, but he needed a vet to make sure the right calls were put through. It’s a job. It’s a health plan. It was this or telemarketing. We aren’t trained for much outside the studio.”
“Three decades in the business and you’re producing the overnight as Satan’s tutor. That’s a career move.”
“You’re talking career moves, Kimo? It’s a major market and a paycheck. Remember what that woman Stiller said, where do you go after Fresno? Well, I found mine.”
Balthazer said nothing, leaving Creighton to break the brief silence at will. He knew Creighton had more to say, it just had to be extracted, no different than on-air torture.
“Something else,” continued Creighton in a weaker tone. “I think I’m getting back with my ex. She said as long as I don’t work for you, she’d give me another chance. It beats the cost of child support. She doesn’t hate me as much as she used to.”
“Why are you calling me?” asked Balthazer, unmoved by the confession. “Great, you’re working, I’m not. You’re back with your ex. Send out a press release, party at the Self Realization Center. We were done when I threw you out. You let me say cocksucker on the air, among other choice utterances. Did you tell your new boss Son of Gingrich that?”
“I didn’t have to, he read it in Talkers. Now he has the clipping on his Wall of Death, right next to every other cancelled bleeding heart who’s tried to stick in LA He’s got you up there twice now, Fresno is an honorary kill. I’m just calling to tell you if you haven’t figured it out yet, you need to be out of there, gone now. Where were you last night?”
“A bar, Creighton, is this News Talk? It’s where I’ve been every night. And don’t worry, I’m packed. I just gotta figure out where to go.”
“Some guys from the station saw you last night. I’m guessing you started at afternoon Happy Hour and closed the place before sunrise?”
“Free nachos and they let me run a tab. Sounds like home to me. Sometimes you just hang out.”
“The guys were surprised to see you still around. The FCC has been all over the station, and the station says they aren’t paying the fine, it’s your problem. You can expect visitors, I’m guessing soon.”
“My problem,” barked Balthazer. “Was I running the board? You pay the fine. You’re the putz who left me loud and naked.”
“It doesn’t work that way, Kimo. You know the game. The guys also told me your landlord called the station looking for the rent when you stopped answering your door. Now he knows you’re unemployed. I’m telling you as your friend, go somewhere now.”
Balthazer thought about it, relieved to know that Producer Lee Creighton cared enough to tip him off. “I appreciate the call. You know what? I miss working with you. I don’t miss you, but I miss working with you.”
“Same here, Kimo. Call me when you get something going. Just go somewhere.” Creighton hung up.
Balthazer put down his mobile. Too many drinks, too small a town. He knew he was stupidly late getting on his way, but he still could not figure out where to go. Where do you go after Fresno? The concept had not been lost on him. Ms. Stiller was no visionary, but about this she was right. His wave had not only crested, it had flat-lined. Balthazer knew he was screwing the pooch when he left his boss tied up with her mouth in front of a live mic on afternoon drive time. There was charming, there was stunt-like, and there was line crossing. These three gradients may not have been fully differentiated in the life of a radio talk show host, but he still knew when he discovered a new extreme. Talkers, the trade magazine of his chosen profession, had offered a special extended celebration of Balthazer’s “Afternoon in Fresno,” which normally would have been as much resume fuel as any jock could want. Yet Balthazer had gone the distance now: fired in Los Angeles for humiliating his station owners, fired before that in New York for less than patriotic discourse following 9-11, and now a triple crown—on air named sponsor bashing, a live string of expletives, and assault on female personnel, all in half a shift. Even if he could get an offer, and he couldn’t, there were legal battles in his rear view mirror, and that nasty nuisance of getting his broadcasting license reinstated following a hearing, where he would have to have a really good reason in a judge’s eyes why he did what he did, and even he couldn’t imagine what that might be.
Perhaps the only thing going Balthazer’s way was that Sherri Stiller had elected not to press charges, thinking the public embarrassment of losing control of a station under her direction was unequalled in value by the satisfaction of seeing Balthazer do time. She also knew that since he had not really physically hurt her, incarceration would be brief, and the attendant publicity would be more valuable to Balthazer’s reemergence campaign than any further detriment to his hiring. She had gotten what she wanted across the board. In the wake of the on-air fiasco, corporate had agreed to a program shift that reverted her format to Latin Top 40, with almost zero cost of talent replacing an entire line up of talk hosts, ensuring her better year end profits and a commensurately improved bonus. Balthazer was as unemployable as she could imagine for as long as she could imagine, so retribution was satisfied by taking from Balthazer what he most wanted, an audience. Clearly her corporate bosses were pleased that she was willing to take it on the chin for the company and get back to profit making. It was not a terribly noble change of events, but in that good corporate way, it worked for everyone at just the right level of sell out.
In retrospect, Balthazer was not sure why he melted down over so little. His hot head had always been an asset, the unique entertainment value he conjured four hours each day out of otherwise sad silence, but he had always played like a pro and known where to pull it back. The past year had not been ordinary times, but he could not pinpoint what had changed. What had pushed him over the edge in LA and then Fresno? What was so bothersome that he could not separate the act from the identity? Something was different, maybe it was the tone of the calls, or the tone of the corporate owners. It was irritating angst without answer, painfully intangible, metaphysically impenetrable, but materially present—like a pimple under your chin you could neither see, nor stop from forming.
What Balthazer did was a dying profession; it just did not have to die now unless someone forced it. Nearly every major radio station in the nation was in the hands of a very few media empires, mostly remaindered in terminal value extrapolations by shrewd private equity quants. While that might not have been great for emerging talk talent still finding a voice, the proven money machine line-up owned a chokehold on the podium. Major markets came with built in syndication, because owners could pay salaries once and monetize as many times as made sense. It was just so easy, so economical. All hosts had to do was draw an audience and stay on the air and they could literally die in the chair when all the air was gone. Balthazer knew this, he knew it was to his advantage, yet he chose to impale himself, spontaneous combustion without a traceable spark. It was that tone, that awful tone coming from below and above. A live call the week before he imploded sat long on his consciousness—a middle-aged sales rep for payroll services who covered remote towns in New England name Todd.
KIMO: Welcome, This Is Rage. We’re on with Todd.
CALLER TODD: Kimo, you got me fired.
KIMO: I got you fired? That’s a lot to put on me, pal.
CALLER TODD: You told me to be honest with my boss. I was honest. Now I’m on COBRA.
KIMO: Easy, pal, I’m just doing a show here. What exactly did you say to your boss that got you a walking package?
CALLER TODD: I told you when I called the first time. My company wants more accounts. They don’t care how I get them. I’m just supposed to get the accounts.
KIMO: Yeah, that’s called business development. As I recall, that’s what they pay you for.
CALLER TODD: Right, and do you recall what else you told me?
KIMO: Todd, I do about thirty calls a day, you’re going to have to help me here.
CALLER TODD: I sell online accounting packages, software as a service. I meet with small companies, figure out their staff costs to produce their financials, then give them a proposal for a package that saves them fifty cents on the dollar.
KIMO: I remember now, fifty cents on the dollar, every time. And that savings lasts for a good six months before the first change order, right?
CALLER TODD: There you go, your entire memory isn’t fried. So no matter what data they give me, I beat the price and tell them to fire the staff they have in place. So they do, and then strangely enough, their systems hiccup and we have to fix them. The costs go up quickly to get everything back to normal. By the time the client figures out they’re paying us more than they were before they cut the jobs, we are so deeply wound into their system, the switch back cost is more than they can afford. Besides, at that point all their people are gone. Switching back is not an option.
KIMO: And you were going to suggest to your boss that you only close the clients where you really could save them money, so you could feel good about yourself again, or at least good enough that the only people getting fired were people who really were obsolete?
CALLER TODD: Exactly, full honesty. I wanted to do the right thing, so I followed your advice. Now I’m writing a resume.
KIMO: So take it to the FTC, screw the lying bastards. Worst case you have a wrongful termination. Lawyer up and threaten to go to the feds. They’ll settle.
CALLER TODD: Kimo, I don’t want a settlement. I want a job. I like sales. I want to work.
KIMO: So what do you want me to tell you?
CALLER TODD: I want you to start giving people much better advice.
KIMO: Pal, this is a radio call-in show, not clinical therapy. Did I ask to run your Blue Shield card? You take what you want, you leave what you want. It’s a buffet, no one asks what’s on your plate when you take it from the cafeteria.
CALLER TODD: That’s BS, Kimo, and you know it. You sit there in that studio, people call in, you tell them what you think and they do it. I did it, now I’m jobless. That’s what I get for being a loyal listener.
KIMO: You can’t lay that on me, Todd. I’m a radio guy. You pay nothing for the call. You do with it what you want.
CALLER TODD: You’ve lost touch, Kimo. It’s rough out here. You can’t just use us for ratings. You want to give advice for a living, expect people to take it. Words lead to actions, actions have consequences. What you say on the air has consequences.
KIMO: You think I should be doing this differently? You sit in the chair. You get the ratings. You tell the schmoes I work for it’s about consequences. I create audiences, they sell ads, you get a free call-in show, that’s the contract. What I say has no consequences unless you stop listening. I say things to keep you from changing the channel.
CALLER TODD: You can’t just say things, Kimo. You’re supposed to be helping. You’re not helping.
Caller Todd was gone. Balthazer went to break, finished the show, but the call stuck like gum in his ear canal. He wasn’t helping, that’s what Todd had said. Balthazer had always thought he was helping, but maybe he wasn’t. Before Todd was Caller Todd, he was employed sales guy Todd. After the call, he was out-of-work Todd, because Balthazer told him to do the right thing, and he did. The right thing was the wrong thing, and it had not even been that entertaining, hardly even memorable. That was not This Is Rage.
No matter how he tried to shake it, there was something about the Todd call that would not settle with Balthazer. There had been others like it, though not as direct; but the anger was out there, too much anger, too many people hurt. Balthazer’s real job was to turn it into background noise, he knew that, but at a certain point all the advice could not be the same—hang in there, let it roll off your back, roll with the punches, the orchestra of passionless clichés. Frustration and failure were everywhere; he saw it in his own company, he kept hearing it from his callers. No one could tell the truth, no one could be themselves. Keep the job, keep the taxes paid, keep the health plan, keep the mortgage current. That was it for working America, he needed to tell them otherwise, but he kept making a market in hope, not reality. Balthazer needed to keep spinning, but he was spinning. How to turn it, how to work it? You had to take a stand, be honest, do what was right and yeah, that had consequences. Selling short was not what the show was supposed to do, it was supposed to help people do better, not send them scrambling, no more victims. If the show was not working, Balthazer had to make it work. That ate at him until it pushed him to defy his own comfort limits. Then with just a few bad decisions, it was over.
Fresno was not where Balthazer envisioned his career ending. The question remained, where to now? He had to stay ahead of the landlord, ahead of the FCC, ahead of three ex-wives hounding him. He had to find a way to reboot. The little savings he had could keep gas in his tank for a while, but he needed a plan. Emailing MP3 samples to third- and fourth-tier markets until some station called him back, hoping they would not check references, that was wafer thin. Besides, he had gone national already and the grand episode in Talkers was going to make it tough to hide from infamy. Maybe it did not matter, he just needed to hit the road and see where it took him—ABF—Anywhere But Fresno. Road trips were good for the leveraged soul, good for the creative spirit, and a sure way of collecting new material in each passing town in the unlikely event he ever again got a contract.
One thing Balthazer had done right was keep ownership of his website, despite the network’s demands in every negotiation he had fought since 1995. Balthazer was never entirely sure how valuable www.ThisIsRage.com might be someday, but he knew enough about “his own personal brand” that this was the one constant that traveled with him. In New York, the show had been This Is Rage, about politics and government abuse. In Los Angeles the show had been This Is Rage, about visceral extortion from wives, and ex-wives, and girlfriends. In Fresno the show had been This Is Rage, about how companies screw employees, and about how employees need to survive the system the best they can. Of the three latest incarnations, the third had been the least successful, but Balthazer found it the most interesting. He did not have many regrets, but about this he felt incomplete. Failing or not, the third generation voice for This Is Rage was just starting to come around when he managed to get himself yanked off the air, yet he still had the sense he was onto something. There was pain, and longing, and suffering, and injustice in cubicles all across the country. If he could somehow unleash that energy, it would be like splitting the atom, the nuclear explosion that would follow could be life changing, society changing. He had not cracked the code, and he wondered if he ever would—what that freak show genie would look like pouring out of the earnings bottle, and whose bottom-line butt it would kick when it was set free to do battle.
With his leased Infiniti M readied out front with the clothes he was going to take, along with the remains of his cheap tequila and a box of CDs dating three decades, Balthazer sat alone in the apartment he was about to abandon, staring at his website—the website that had been an endless struggle of contract war, but a website that was still his. What was it about this website that meant so much to him? He had left money on the table with every contract to keep it, and now it sat there before him, all but worthless. Right below the title, This Is Rage, was the subhead: Talk Shop with Kimo Balthazer. Below that: “We are temporarily off the air, but we won’t be gone forever.” It might have been wishful thinking. That was all the optimism Balthazer still had.
Balthazer had built the first version of the site himself, a single digital page when it launched, registered the web address and fiercely kept the account info secret from everyone. He paid the registration fees years in advance, and each month paid the modest hosting fees on a recurring credit card cycle. Over time other webmasters would come and go, run the site for him and add fanciful features, but the log in info was Balthazer’s alone, he kept it to himself and made sure he was always in control. There were his historic podcasts, there was his affiliate station list, and there was his email army, more than four hundred thousand names collected over the years and not one ever deleted—which meant sure enough a lot of them were bad addresses, but Balthazer liked the notion of “approaching a half million” names in his database, so that was the number. He emailed them weekly, but his last email had been a month ago, his farewell. He wondered how many of the approaching half million were still with him, how many had given up on him, how many even cared what happened to him. Balthazer was not naïve. He knew the law of media—go off the air and you really are gone. It would happen to Rush if he went off the air. Howard Stern simply went to satellite and that was pretty much the last time anyone outside his few million purposelessly devoted refuseniks ever heard his name.
For a strange moment, Balthazer wondered how many might be on his web page now, right now, this very millisecond he was looking at it. Twenty? Ten? Hundreds? There was no reason for anyone at all to be on his page since he was off the air. No new posts, no new podcasts, just the farewell message. What if someone was there? What if someone was looking at the same empty screen imprint he could see right now, could he say adieu? Could he be less than alone? It was a morbid thought, and of all things morbid, internet radio was probably the most morbid notion of all. If he thought Fresno was undersized, imagine how sub-measurable an internet audience might be, if it was even there. Balthazer could not help but wonder. He was ready to go, but he needed closure. He needed a live goodbye, just to someone. The streaming app was still there on the home page, dead as it could be, the microphone icon grayed out since the Fresno station signal link was shut down.
Only a live mic could change all that. Conveniently enough, no radio host—working or not—would be caught dead without one. Balthazer’s was standard issue Bluetooth, upgraded with studio quality headphones and a Madonna style wraparound windscreen. Just clamping it on put Balthazer back in the booth, he was right there where he was supposed to be, the fantasy image 32-bit color, dream clear in his mind. A few mouse clicks in the control panel and it could be live. So could the chat box where his listeners used to bombard him with asinine text questions. Oh how he longed for an asinine text just about now. It was tempting, too tempting. He switched it live.
KIMO: Hey gang, Welcome, This Is Rage. Well, it was. I think I took the label a little too seriously. But it’s me, and yeah, this is pathetic. I’m about to leave town. You probably thought I left already—or maybe you didn’t think anything at all. What the hell do you care about an ex talk guy on broadcast radio? You’re probably listening to Latin Top 40, more fun than my big mouth, anything has to be. That’s why they put more backbeat on the air and took me off. Well, sort of. I could tell you the whole story but you wouldn’t find it that interesting.
Balthazer paused. Sanity was draining without combat. He was sitting alone in an empty apartment, talking to his laptop, pondering if anyone alive might be listening to the farewell broadcast he never got to do. He was doing this of free will and at extreme risk, knowingly delusional. He knew he needed to be gone, before his landlord blocked his escape, before he was served to appear before the FCC, before any of his ex-wives had their attorneys hunt him down and restrict his freedom to evade. Even if anyone was listening, it would be counterproductive—whatever mystique still existed around him needed to be preserved so that he could someday ride again. Everything he was doing was wrong, except for the part where he needed to give better advice. There were consequences, words had consequences. He was supposed to be helping. So he continued.
KIMO: Like I said, I’m about to leave town, and I’m looking at my website, you know the address. I guess I should say our website, because it was created for all of us, where we got together. I think I gave some of you bad counsel. I’m sorry about that. That was not what this show was about. If I let you down, you need to know, I carry that with me. If I do get another show somewhere down the road, I won’t let you down again.
Balthazer knew his time was limited, and he did not have much to say anyway. It just felt good to be talking again. That was what he did. He talked, people listened, and every once in a while it was more than that. Yeah, he had led Caller Todd in the wrong direction, now both of them had lost their jobs. What about all the others? How many had he helped ask for a raise, stirring their courage to go to their bosses and insist on what they were due? How many had he helped set new goals, commit themselves to doing their best work, have the courage to look for a new job when everyone around them told them they were not good enough. He could help, he just had to control the tempo, keep the muse even, bring the listener from nowhere to somewhere. All that he needed was some dialogue, someone else present for an exchange. He stared at the chat box, the single flashing cursor inert, locked in place, dormant to the cosmos. If anyone was out there, if anyone made it move, that was all he needed, any nanoscopic indication that someone wanted to listen.
KIMO: Okay, gang, I know we’ve seen better days, maybe we’ll see them again. You have to know this, I really liked doing this show. Radio was all I knew. Who else would pay me to talk? So I let you down. I gave you bad advice. I got myself fired and now I can’t help you at all. But let me ask this, if anyone is out there, if anyone can hear my words right now, that means you’ve got the stream on This Is Rage dot com. There’s a chat box on that page, where you used to text me when you couldn’t get through on the phones. If anyone is out there and wants to say goodbye, go to the chat box and let me know. Just go to the chat box and type whatever you want. Then we’ll be done.
The chat box remained static. He had tried, he had reached out, he had said what he needed to say, but no one was listening. Balthazer knew what that meant. The cosmos had moved on. How about that?
KIMO: Well, we gave it a good shot. It was a decent enough run. You’ll hear me when you hear me, or maybe you won’t, but I’ll hear you every day. If I make it back, you have my promise, I will only say things that matter. Just good advice. It’s not like that wasn’t what I was trying to do before, but I’ll do better. I will do better. Until then . . .
Just as he was signing off, the cursor in the text box moved.
CHAT TEXT: Welcome, This Is Rage.
Balthazer wondered, was it a phantom blurt, some preprogrammed text left stagnant in the system? It had to be, just a screensaver, some old scrolling promo text. Then it moved again. Actual words appeared, a letter at a time.
CHAT TEXT: Kimo, I’m cool with you.
Balthazer blinked. Someone was listening. Someone out there, an actual verifiable human with a heartbeat, conscious and alive somewhere in the known world, was on his web page and listening to his voice.
KIMO: Gang, you aren’t going to believe this, but the chat box is active. Who is that?
CHAT TEXT: Missy, in Southern Illinois. You told me a few months ago that if my co-workers didn’t take me seriously, that was their problem, not mine.
KIMO: What’s the story now?
CHAT TEXT: I’m department manager. That wouldn’t have happened without you. Thank you, Kimo.
KIMO: That’s incredible. Congratulations, I think you got that one right, solid progress. Anyone else out there?
CHAT TEXT: Hey there, Kimo. This is Ed in Miami. I check this page every day to see if you’re coming back. You told me not to be afraid to take a relo offer, and I listened to you. I moved here with my family from Raleigh. I kept my job and it’s working out.
KIMO: Outstanding, Ed. Good luck to you! Anyone else out there who can hear me?
CHAT TEXT: Balthazer, you’re an asshole.
KIMO: Ah, a true fan! Where are you texting from?
CHAT TEXT: This is Justin in Boise. I thought we were done with you. You have nothing better to do than babble on the internet?
KIMO: You’re listening, aren’t you? That’s a good sign. What are you doing on my dead web page in the middle of the afternoon? Are you that engaged at work that you’re surfing mothballed web pages?
The text box went dead again. No more Justin in Boise.
KIMO: Okay, so I have an audience. This is a miracle. Who else is out there? Is anyone else out there?
No cursor movement. The chat box was dead.
KIMO: Come on, gang, This Is Rage. Make a case for internet radio. Give me a reason to try. Don’t make me opine on my own, you know where I’ll take that. You want to hear what I think, maybe about Malcolm Gladwell, that endless New Yorker crap about a tipping point? One paragraph, one Poindexter blog entry and he turns it into a published book and makes millions—vapid tin pan rubbish masquerading as meditative thought. Come on, don’t let me make this a monologue. Interrupt me, text me. Tell me we are still in business.
Nothing. Balthazer waited. That was it. An audience of three, texting on his home page, but that was enough. He had started the dialogue again. This Is Rage was still on the air, the tiniest, most insignificant audience in the world, but he still had one. There was hope. And now there was a path.
There was also the sound of footsteps coming up the back stairs of the apartment complex. His landlord must have seen the packed Infiniti and was coming for the rent. Or maybe the process server from the FCC. It did not matter. Time to go.
Balthazer powered down the laptop and flipped closed the lid. He took it under his arm, flew down the stairs and tossed the laptop onto the passenger seat of the Infiniti. Sunglasses mounted, he took his place behind the wheel and headed out of town, north from Fresno on Highway 99.
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This Is Rage: Serialization Schedule
We will be serializing the complete first section of This Is Rage.
August 5……..In Tres Partes Divisa Est
August 12…….It’s Terrestrial
August 19…… Never Bet Against the Bozos
August 26…….Let’s Get Small
September 2….No Such Thing as CEO School
September 9….Live from the Boulevard of Broken Dreams
September 16…The House Checks and Raises
September 20…If There Were Rules Who Would Listen?
September 30…Show Me Your Bulls