Nothing Up My Sleeve
Fifteen Minutes of Fame
“Okay, let’s try that again,” says the voice in my headphones. “This time, try slowing it down about 75%. We want to understand every word.”
The voice belongs to Wendy Dorr and she’s sitting in a studio in New York City, directing me through the reading of an essay I’d written on the demise of Circuit City from an insider’s point of view. She’s one of the producers of This American Life, a radio show that airs weekends on National Public Radio.
I’m sitting in a recording studio at WCBU-FM at Bradley University, script in hands, knees knocking together in a calypso rhythm, wondering if we were going to be able to get through this in the hour allotted for recording.
I’m mention in this column that I was a manager at Circuit City in Peoria. On January 16, my employer shocked everyone by announcing that they were going out of business. The news was met at our store with a cornucopia of emotions including disbelief, anger, fear, and confusion. Within eight weeks, we were all going to be either working somewhere else or unemployed.
Our store consisted of 47 employees, both full and part time. Of that 47, 18 of them had been with the company for at least three years. Because we didn’t have the turnover that some stores our size have, we were a close-knit bunch with ties that went beyond the front doors and the hours on the time clock.
I started a blog almost immediately, not because I thought someone out there would care about what I thought, but because I wanted a way to keep track of my fellow employees. I graduated from high school with about 96 other students, and I’ll bet I haven’t seen one of them in the past ten years. I didn’t want my relationship with my fellow employees to end up that way, so the blog at http://circuitcity3167.wordpress.com was born.
It originally started as a way to keep track of what happened to employees, but from time to time, I threw in a mention here or there of what was going on in the store. I also felt compelled to offer some commentary from time to time about the jackasses who ran our company into bankruptcy. I’ve never been one to hold anything back, and I didn’t here either.
A few weeks after I started the blog, someone called our store. Her name was Lisa Pollak and she said she was from National Public Radio. She wanted to talk to whoever was in charge of the blog, so the phone call went to me. She was interested in doing a show for NPR’s This American Life, and wanted to know if I’d be interested in helping out.
I should mention that the liquidation company, Great American, and their representative in our store, has a strict policy about talking to the press. In a sentence, it’s not allowed. Anyone who talked to the press would be immediately terminated. Anyone who gave an interview to newspapers, radio, or TV would be immediately terminated (one of our employees talked to someone from AP and just mentioned that the number of employees losing their jobs was roughly the same number of people who live in Pekin. He was quoted and came within a micrometer of being fired). I believe they also had a policy about blogging, but no one ever found out about the blog other than employees, so I didn’t have anything to worry about.
As Lisa and I talked, she began to get a sense of which direction she wanted the program to go. She asked me to keep a journal of what was going on in the store. She asked that I write about funny things, problem customers (there were a lot of those), employees who left, and the general mood of the store and how it deteriorated over the course of the liquidation. She asked that it be completed by the time we closed (we didn’t know the date at this point) and that a final chapter be written the day after we closed.
Then she offered to pay me for my work.
I would have done it regardless, but the offer of payment sealed the deal.
The result was a 22,000 word journal which, when printed, spanned 46 pages. I held nothing back. I told about idiot customers who threw fits about prices (the most vocal was a guy arguing about sixty cents), employees who stopped caring about their job, the way the store was shrinking at an alarming rate, more lies from our corporate office, threats from the liquidators, and a double standard that existed between Circuit City employees and The Liquidator who was in charge of closing our store.
I delivered the final product to her on March 8, the same night we closed the store for good. Editors went to work, consolidating pieces of the journal, knocking out others, and correcting grammar (hey, I used to teach English… there ain’t no grammar problems in my journal).
By the time they were done, they’d trimmed about 95% of what I’d written. They modified it and put it into script form and sent it back to me. They wanted me to read my own work on the air.
Lisa turned things over to Wendy Dorr, another producer with the show and she made arrangements for me to visit WCBU-FM on the campus of Bradley University to record my segments.
Daryl Scott, the operations manager of the station met me and ushered me into a studio where I sat at a table with a large black box, a cup of ballpoint pens, and a set of headphones. A microphone was suspended in front of my face. Daryl showed me a control on the box which controlled the volume of the headphones, offered me a glass of water, then disappeared into another studio behind a thick pane of glass.
I’m not sure he could have been more accommodating or make me feel more at ease. To check the levels on his recording equipment, he had me tell him about breakfast rather than the usual “Testing, 1-2-3.”
Somehow, through the magic of technology, he got Wendy on the line and into my headphones. From hundreds of miles away, she directed my reading, offering suggestions as we went, telling me constantly to slow down (someone in New York telling someone from the Midwest to slow down… imagine that!) and encouraging me after a particularly good “treatment” or delivery of the script.
From the time I walked in the studio till the time I left, an hour had passed. Wendy and Daryl both handled me in a way that didn’t even give me time to get nervous (and I’d so been looking forward to a lunch of Tums and Pepto-Bismol).
I’m honestly not sure how it came out. We did several takes of each segment, adding a word here, subtracting a word there. One thing we were not sure about was the use of “Peoria.” There will be others on the broadcast with me, telling their stories from their stores. We’re not sure if anyone will be allowed to mention the name of their town or not. I’m not even sure if those of us appearing on the show will be mentioned by anything other than our first names. That will all be up to the host, Ira Glass, to ultimately decide.
The show is scheduled to be broadcast the weekend of March 27. Usually the show airs at noon on Saturdays on WCBU, but Daryl told me that they will be in the middle of pledge week and that the show might be pre-empted and played later. At any rate, This American Life is available for free on the web at, coincidently, www.thisamericanlife.com.
Meanwhile, I still retain the rights to the 22,000 word journal, so I can sell it again if someone wants it (I also have three novels that are completed). For some reason, I don’t think I’m going to have to clear a path to my door for all the literary agents who might be reading this.
Hey Norm, need to fill a WHOLE bunch of space in the coming weeks????