Radio Activityby Bill Fitzhugh
When a DJ stops showing up for work at WAOR-FM, Rick Shannon moves back to Mississippi to take the night shift. No sooner than he settles into the job, Rick finds a mysterious reel of tape that just might explain what happened to the missing DJ. His curiosity piqued, Rick starts poking around and soon finds himself going down a road littered with extortion, arson,
When a DJ stops showing up for work at WAOR-FM, Rick Shannon moves back to Mississippi to take the night shift. No sooner than he settles into the job, Rick finds a mysterious reel of tape that just might explain what happened to the missing DJ. His curiosity piqued, Rick starts poking around and soon finds himself going down a road littered with extortion, arson, murder, and an FCC violation that makes Howard Stern look like a Cub Scout.
Before you can say "Stairway to Heaven," Rick finds himself wading through a swamp of suspects, including a tough divorcée who rents construction equipment, a former local beauty pageant queen (Miss Tire & Auto Parts), WAOR's general manager, and the president of a local personal finance company who has peculiar ideas about collateral and who just might be part of the feared Dixie Mafia.
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Read an Excerpt
It was hard to say which looked more depressed, the seventies-era shopping center or the man pulling into its parking lot. Both had seen brighter days, though in fairness it had to be said the man wore it better than the shopping center.
He called himself Rick Shannon and there was a semitragic, end-of-the-line aspect about him. Time had chipped the youthful cockiness off the outside, but some of his underlying swagger remained. There were men Rick's age who envied his thick head of hair; others envied his freedom. The two things Rick had plenty of, freedom and hair, the currency of the sixties. But, like the songwriter said, the former was just another word for nothing left to lose. The latter, well, Rick could still lose that.
There were more weeds than cars in the parking lot. Half the storefronts were boarded, the rest were just waiting for the other shoe to drop. Rick parked his truck. This was exactly what he swore he'd never do. But here he was. He killed the engine and sat there, staring at the dashboard. The gas gauge. Empty. Same as his wallet. He mumbled, "Fuck."
Rick was unemployed again.When he worked, he worked in radio. He'd grown up listening to AM, when "Yesterday" and "Satisfaction" were Top 40 hits, when radio was all about singles. But his first job was on FM,during album-oriented radio's heyday. He'd been the youngest jock at the station when Imagine and Sticky Fingers were new. A few decades later Rick was doing the night shift at KBND-FM, Bismarck, North Dakota. Rockin' the Sioux State at 99.9. The pay was adequate and Bismarck was, well, it was more like every other city these days. The same franchised fast food and twenty-screen cineplexes lining indistinguishable main drags, town after town. Rick had worked in dozens of cities. He'd seen it everywhere. Homogenization was just a sign of the times.
Especially in radio. More stations owned by fewer corporations. Consultants and music researchers conspiring to make everything sound the same. And they weren't even looking for songs people liked. The research was geared to find songs people didn't dislike. That's what they played to keep listeners until the next commercial break. That's what so much of radio had become.
So Rick had been playing all the rock radio clichés until Clean Signal Radio Corporation bought the station and broomed the staff. It was Clean Signal's fifth station in the market and it showed. All sense of community had vanished as the satellite feed bounced in voice-tracked jocks from Chicago and Florida.
As he had walked out of KBND's studios with his final check, Rick had thought about how media watchers in the fifties had predicted that television would be the ruin of radio. He wondered if anyone would appreciate the irony that radio had killed itself.
Rick mailed tapes and résumés all over the country and spread the word on the grapevine. He was available. A rock-steady pro with production skills, on-air talent, whatever. Rick tried not to dwell on the fact that he and all the other DJs of his era were like silent movie stars at the dawn of the talkies. By and large their skills didn't transfer to the new iteration of the medium and they would soon be forgotten and replaced as things changed.
And now Rick found himself parked outside a storefront under a sign that said: b-side vinyl -- we buy and sell used tapes, cds, and lps. It was either this or start bouncing checks.
Rick looked down at his arm. He knew that big fat vein, blue and pulsing, was a potential source of revenue, a renewable resource he could tap again and again. But he also knew plasma didn't fetch much, and besides, that had always seemed to Rick like such a sure sign of having reached the last resort. He couldn't bring himself to check in there. Not yet anyway. So he had tapped his record collection instead.
Looking up and down the sidewalk in front of the shopping center, Rick saw only one person, a man who looked to be in his sixties. His shopping cart brimmed with indistinguishable bundles, folded cardboard boxes, a water jug, plastic bags filled with crushed cans. His face was sunburned and peeling as his cracked lips wrapped around the mouth of a bottle.
Rick took this as a reminder that things could be worse. He got out of his truck and walked around to the other side. He opened the passenger door and looked at the box filled with rare albums, including an original UK version of Pink Floyd's The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, signed by the entire band. Rick had promised himself that he wasn't going to part with that for less than two hundred. Of course, more than once he'd made the promise that he'd never sell any of his records, but things change.
Rick picked up the box and kicked the door shut. As he approached B-Side Vinyl, the homeless man made eye contact and extended a hand. "Help out a fellow record buff?"
Rick paused, a sympathetic look on his face. "Sorry," he said, shrugging with the heavy box in his hands. "Trying to get some together myself."
The old man gave a nod. "Don't sell 'em all," he said. "Hang on to something, you know, just in case."
Rick smiled and said, "Thanks for the advice." He pushed the door open and stepped inside. The bouquet of cardboard, dust, and vinyl welcomed him. Nothing else smelled quite like a room full of old albums. The cobwebs in the corners of the store spoke volumes. There were no other customers, just the owner sitting behind the counter reading a magazine. He lowered the magazine and looked over the top of his glasses. "Cleaning out your attic?"
Rick set the box on the counter and said, "Something like that."Radio Activity. Copyright © by Bill Fitzhugh. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Meet the Author
Bill Fitzhugh is the author of seven novels. He still has all of his original organs and plans to keep it that way until the very end, at which point he is willing to let the doctors divvy them up among anyone (with the exception of politicians) who might need them. However, he makes no promises about the quality of his liver. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and all of her organs.
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Okay, that headline might be stretching the premise a bit. But there's no arguing that Bill Fitzhugh's, "Radio Activity," is a better comic murder mystery than what a real combination of those two TV shows could muster. And that's because Fitzhugh gets the details of working in the desperate world of small-town media right. Radio Activity is that rare book that offers a true-to-life depiction of a piece of Americana that's all but disappeared from the landscape - the radio station run by flesh and blood disc jockeys who live and breathe rock 'n' roll music. When itinerant deejay Rick Shannon takes over as program director at a small Mississippi town's FM station, he sets out to resolve the unexplained disappearance of his predecessor while taking his best shot at revitalizing the station's market share. Shannon's leisurely investigation regularly takes a comfortable backseat to his romantic entanglements and comic run-ins with his patchwork quilt of a staff and his cagey, good-old-boy boss, Clay Stubblefield, the station's owner. And that's okay because Shannon could be a funnier but less resourceful cousin to Magnum P.I. And the unromanticized portrayal of subsistence-wage work performed by the radio station's diverse, impassioned staff, from teenagers honing their on-air shtick to older deejays desperate to stave off the end of their careers, is more painfully funny than most episodes of WKRP.
In 1970s Bismarck, rock and roll deejay Rick Shannon loses his job when his station is sold. He is despondent and concerned about finding work in a changing business climate in which corporate intrusion has led to one size fits all play lists and patter must be politically correct as defined by big brother owner........................... Desperate to remain in the field, Rick accepts work as the late evening host Buddy Miles in McRae, Mississippi. However, upon arriving in town, he learns that the station¿s general manager Clay Stubblefield expects Rick to serve as the program director. Rick agrees to stay on as program manager only if he also receives the night spot replacing local legend 'Captain' Jack Carter. Though the reader ironically knows, Rick wonders why the Captain left town without taking his valuable record collection. Rick investigates what happened to his predecessor helped by a tape that the captain took of Clay implying sexual misconduct and potential illegal drug activity. If Rick is not careful he might learn the hard way how the old boy method works on interfering outsiders...................... This is an engaging look back at an era in which radio is changing from local to regional and national. The amateur sleuth aspects of the tale are fun though the tension is more of a slow dance than a hustle. Rick is terrific as the outsider while Clay and his cohorts give southern living a sinister name. Bill Fitzhugh furbishes an insightful tale starring a fine protagonist who deserves a second gig from his new haunt in Gulfport.................... Harriet Klausner