It’s 1991, and I’ve been hired at WKRC in Cincinnati (it’s a real station, look it up). They’re changing formats – sort of. They want to be part of the great Talk Experiment, and it’s my first full time gig. The problem is they only want a talk show from 10 am- 2 pm M-F; the rest of the time it’s oldies music. Oh, and then there’s the cinder block wall of a half hour newscast from Noon to 12:30, followed by 15 minutes of Paul Harvey.
Thinking I had a shot of making that horrible format work (ah, youth!), I took the job they offered me at the interview and agreed to move my family to Cincinnati in a few weeks. I was to start Monday.
That first day – April 1st – I’m ready to prove my mettle: The news ends, the sweeper plays and I’m waiting for “Wild, Wild West” by Escape Club to play. Instead the guitar riff from ‘The Bitch Is Back’ by Elton john starts cold.
I sit there for a minute blinking. First, I think the producer has made a mistake, but then I see the look on his face, he’s smiling. I’m confused and am trying to focus on opening my first show, and I realize the PD is at the door laughing, along with any number of male colleagues. It dawns on me what music is playing and I am hurt: Mortified, angry, humiliated. I feel the sting of tears in my eyes as I realize what they are doing to me. I swallow, breathe, smile like I’m in on the joke and open the mic and the show.
What I assumed was an April Fool’s first-day-on-the-job hazing was to be my regular music: My PD refused to allow me to use any other intro but ‘The Bitch Is Back.” Every. Single. Show.
Walking into that studio to hear myself called a bitch everyday was beyond degrading, but my male colleagues made sure I knew I was in a ‘Man’s Business’ and heaped the humiliation on me.
“You’re just not a good sport,” my Program Director was telling me at the end of my first week. You know, the one that started with my being forced to use ‘The Bitch Is Back’ as my theme music.
I’m sitting in my PD’s office for a sound check and show meeting – an event that shouldn’t even happen for a few weeks that he has turned into a daily exercise in torture that lasted at least an hour.
My ‘not being a good sport’ was because I had complained to him that the day before I found the picture of my 3 1/2 year-old son I had put on my cubical wall with red thumb tacks driven through the eyes. I was furious, and put a note up next to the picture, “This isn’t funny. This is a picture of my son, who is 1,200 miles away and whom I miss very much. His grandma sent me this picture.” That morning when I got to work the tacks were back in his eyes and more tacks outlined his smile, with 2 pennies taped to the note. I was apoplectic. The morning guy’s producer sauntered by and informed me that I had no sense of humor and admitted his boss had done it. Maybe I was not fit to be in radio, opined the teenager who had never – EVER – been on the air.
I listened to my boss tell me how I needed to roll with the punches, him being oblivious at how he utterly abused and misused the metaphor. You’re not supposed to dodge punches from your co-workers!
I couldn’t get back to my hotel room at the Omni fast enough, so I could call my son and ground myself – remind myself why I was doing this. As I was changing from my suit into my sweats I had the radio on, listening to the station. A promo came on that made me stop dead – my foot poised above my sweat pants. “Win lunch for your office for Secretary’s Day!! All you have to do is send Claudia Lamb a picture of you sitting in your bosses lap!!”
I tripped on my sweat pants, sprawling on the floor in my rush for the telephone to ask my boss what the hell was going on.
“Isn’t it great?” said my PD – I could hear him leering on the phone.
I spoke eloquently about how dehumanizing and sexist this promotion was and how it contributed to a culture of misogyny, and how I didn’t want the stink of it on me. He admitted that it was a publicity stunt he dreamed up to get some cheap publicity for my show. I was aghast and strenuously objected, but I was contractually obligated to participate.
The following Monday I read the promo liner cards in my utmost cardboard voice. I was white hot furious at being dragged into a sexist promotion. It was bad enough they were still calling it Secretary’s Day, but to drag me into humiliating people so they can eat? A few minutes later one of my callers lit into me, she couldn’t believe I’d do something so sexist. I told her that I found the whole thing in appallingly bad taste, but that I was a professional and would meet the terms of my contract.
The blow-back was swift and severe, and for the most part I avoided being the brunt of it. People were furious at my boss and the calls poured in that first afternoon – my boss grinning and loving it. The next day someone in corporate HR told him that the station could be liable if there were a sexual harassment suit filed and that promotion was pulled like a needle across a record.
He saved face by giving the prize to a small business owned by a married couple. He honestly thought the avalanche of shit he brought down for his sexist promotion was a success.
The hits kept coming when, about a month after I stared pushing a rock uphill for 4 hours a day, my PD announced we would be getting station jackets. He had decided on a Members Only-style silver satin jacket with the station logo on the back, and the employee’s name embroidered on the front.
Sure the style may have been half a decade late, but the good news was we would have to pay for it ourselves. This was something the PD didn’t bother to tell anyone before taking their size and ordering. I remember him walking around the station hitting people up for $60 to pay for their own company branding, and the stunned looks on everyone’s face. One person told him they’d have never ordered the jacket had they known they would have to pay for it themselves, and the PD grinning, “I know. That’s why I didn’t tell anybody. I wanted everybody to be wearing one!”
When the big day came and the jackets finally arrived the PD stood with a crowd gathered, handing them out of the box in a fashion that suggested they were gifts he had paid for. He made a show of handing each person their jacket.
Mine was one of the first he handed out – when the crowd was the largest. The PD took it out of the plastic bag it was in and held it up for all to see, first showing it to the left and to the right.
‘Bitch’ was embroidered in large cursive letters on the left breast. The assembled crowd roared with laughter. That asshole made me pay for my own jacket, and then ruined it with the repulsive epithet he knew offended me.
I again felt the sting of tears, but wouldn’t give them the satisfaction of seeing me cry, and gamely grinned. I snatched my jacket out of his hand and left the laughing crowd, going back to the desk upon which I knew I couldn’t put a picture of my family without it being defaced.
That night at home I took a pair of manicure scissors and tweezers and carefully cut that vile epithet off of my jacket. I painstakingly pulled every black thread out of the silver satin, and in the morning took it to a tailor on the way in to work, explaining what I wanted done.
A few days later I sported my WKRC jacket into work – with the name Claudia embroidered in cursive over my left breast. My PD was angry I’d changed the jacket he was so proud of. I was again told how little sense of humor I had – I was a bad sport.
Thankfully that job lasted only 4 months. The parent company switched formats again, and paid off my contract in full.
I earned every penny the hard way.
The sad thing is: I haven’t finished telling the worst stories of the sexism I have experienced over the years, and ‘Grab them by the pussy’ is long out of the news cycle. Sexual assault is passé and old news.
And that, my friends, is how rape culture festers: Society loses interest in the issue, and in doing so tells those who have survived that their story really doesn’t matter that much. Or, worse, in revealing what actually happened to us we will be judged or met with disbelief.
It wasn’t okay then, It’s #NotOkay now. #SexismIsReal.
With the election of Trump and the validation of racism, sexism misogyny and homophobia it’s only a matter of time until the bullying begins again.
For fuck’s sake – We elected a man who bragged about sexual assault.
Shame on us.