By Larry Gordon
Last week, when we were thumbing through boxes of old photos and other memorabilia from days gone by, I happened upon a series of letters from some people and organizations I was working with back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, many of them reacting to my sudden disappearance from the daily radio program I founded and hosted for about three years.
It was a real lesson in business for me—one that I could not have learned in the best MBA program anywhere. Actually, it was a combination of a business and human resource lesson, and at the time I was my own business and HR department.
For those who were not yet born at the time or just put it out of their minds, I thought I wanted a career in journalism or broadcasting or a combination of the two. I was also drawn to honing that craft and combining it with what seemed to the very young me to be a significantly underserved segment of our population, the Orthodox Jewish community.
In 1977, my friend and I were looking to buy time on a radio station in the New York–New Jersey area so that we could produce programs of interest to these far-flung islands of communities scattered around these two states.
The negotiations and the actual beginning of the radio program is another long and interesting story. The focus of this essay, and which these letters that I found last week addressed, was how one day I was on the radio, cruising along blissfully, and then one day I was gone. Boom! I was terminated—fired.
The bottom line was that it was not a good contract. We were so excited that the radio station would have us that we overlooked important details. The station was WFMU in East Orange, New Jersey, and it was owned and operated by Upsala College, which was part of the Lutheran Church educational domain.
What was a program like ours, which played Jewish music and featured guests like Rabbi Meir Kahane, Simon Wiesenthal, Shlomo Carlebach, and a series of shows on the Holocaust, doing on this college radio station? I never knew and I never asked.
My hunch was that by the time they found out that our show was on the air daily, it was too well-known and popular to get rid of. After a few years though, they figured out how to get rid of me.
The sad reality for me at the time was that they may have never made that move if they did not have help from within—that is, assistance in disposing of me from the very people I was kind enough to bring into the inner circle of the radio show and its production. Maybe it was naiveté or just being plain dumb, but being open and generous—especially about access to the airtime—is what brought about my early end as host of the program.
One of the vice presidents of the college called me into a meeting after the show one day at 9 a.m. The show was on the air Monday through Friday, 7–9 a.m. You see, the college wanted to change the deal we had. This was a noncommercial radio station, so we were not permitted by FCC law to sell or run ads. But we were allowed to take donations from listeners, not dissimilar to the way National Public Radio functions.
On our single two-hour daily morning show we were raising more money from listeners than all the other radio shows on the air the rest of the day. The VP of the college, who was new on the job and whom I did not know, wanted all the money raised to go directly to them, and they would pay me a salary.
I thought the idea was fair, but we were far apart on what they wanted to pay me and what I thought I should be paid. Unbeknownst to me, the young man I brought into the show was talking to them separately and ready to cut a deal with them for a fraction of what I wanted to be paid, so I don’t think they would have agreed to any amount of remuneration that I submitted.
So that’s the way it was. One day you’re in and the next day you’re out. A day or so later I received certified mail informing me that our relationship was being ended. I thought that the people who supported me would stand with me and that we would be able to negotiate our way out of a difficult situation.
The truth is that I have not thought about those of events of four decades ago in a very long time. It was my first experience of being double-crossed or, as some refer to it, as being stabbed in the back, especially by my own people. It was a horrible experience exacerbated by the fact that it was a very public ordeal playing itself out live on the air.
It is, of course, within the realm of possibility to be terminated from a job if you are not performing as expected. When the people you were exceedingly generous with use that largesse to their benefit and against you, it’s just a bitter and difficult experience.
Now that I am tapping out these words on this topic, I’m recalling how I dealt with this sobering situation. The most difficult aspect of the entire ordeal was the next day, when after three years of daily broadcasts I was no longer on the air.
It is difficult to adequately express what it meant to a 23-year-old kid to be handed the keys to a radio station, with instructions on how to turn on the transmitter by flicking a switch, with the potential every day to share thoughts, ideas, and music with hundreds of thousands of people. I considered myself to be very fortunate at the time—that is, until I ran into this difficult, knife-in-the-back situation.
After this experience I had to think hard about what I wanted to do going forward. There were several other Jewish community-related broadcast opportunities, and I pursued them. I managed Jewish programming at a fundamentalist Christian-owned radio station for about five years after that in New York City.
And there were a series of other projects that required this kind of experience and expertise. But all the while I thought that I was tired of having my professional life played out in public, on the radio every day.
So I turned to not-on-the-air types of business for about ten years until the idea for this newspaper popped into my head. The process from thinking about it to actually producing the first issue took about a year, from 1999 to 2000.
To this day, every time I run into my longtime friend and broadcast aficionado Zev Brenner, he asks me if I’m interested in doing a program on one of the several radio stations he is always involved in. Sometimes I respond to him that I have to think about it, but then a few hours later I wonder, “Why did I say that?” as I recall that I really don’t want to do that again. I always enjoyed my time behind the mike but there are other aspects of the business that potentially lead to an assortment of complications.
In the end, it’s about not placing yourself in a situation where you can be fired.
Over the last two decades, there were two other newspapers that were created by people who were employed here at the 5TJT. That’s not such a bad thing, except for the fact that they were still working here when they began developing their own publications.
To me, that is just another form of what the guy did back in 1980 when he undermined my deal with WFMU and the college that owned the station. In a sense, I suppose it’s another example of the saying “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
Read more of Larry Gordon’s articles at 5TJT.com. Follow 5 Towns Jewish Times on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for updates and live videos. Comments, questions, and suggestions are welcome at 5TJT.com and on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.