Geoff Scott strapped himself into the cockpit of the broadcast booth a few years ago and prepared for another night flight on the Spokane airwaves.
The rock ‘n’ roll DJ flipped a bunch of switches on the panel in front of him. Then he hit turbulence.
A male listener called, threatening to commit suicide.
“Life’s not worth it - it’s just not worth it,” the caller said.
Scott responded the only way he knew how.
“I’m sitting here telling the guy life is worth living because of all the great prizes we give away at the station,” he recalled. “I didn’t know what else to say.”
He kept the man on the line as long as he could. But he didn’t think to get the caller’s name or address - and he was too stunned to consider dialing police.
After a few anxious minutes, the listener made his decision.
“Naw, I think I’m going to end it,” the man said.
A gunshot echoed over the telephone line. Afterward, there was only silence. The line went dead.
“I hope it was a prank,” said Scott, who works for KAEP-FM. “The whole thing still freaks me out.”
After dark, Spokane DJs deal with a completely different group of listeners than do their daytime counterparts. At night, the lines light up with calls from the lonely, the frustrated and the depressed.
“I always tell my friends I’m DJ, bartender and hairdresser all at once,” said Devin James, the nighttime DJ at pop station KZZU-FM. “It can scare me because I really don’t know what I’m going to hear from a caller.”
Jeff Downz, who does the night shift at rock station KAEP, remembered a time three years ago when a woman called, asking to hear a song “as a last request.”
He kept the woman on the line, found out where she lived and got a station worker to call 911.
Police and paramedics arrived at the house before the woman could harm herself.
KISC Program Manager Rob Harder said most radio shows at night are designed to build “companionship” with listeners, some of whom adopt the DJ as their only friend.
“We drop our strict format beginning at the 7 o’clock hour,” said Ian Richards, host of “Love Notes” on KISC, or KISS as it’s nicknamed.
“In a lot of ways, we open ourselves up because of that.”
The program features mellow music and tends to interact with amorous listeners.
“A lot of people are looking for someone to talk to. They’re looking for a connection to a warm body or a set of ears,” Harder said.
That’s a big concern.
“Radio personalities are not trained psychologists,” Harder said. “We tell our DJs, ‘Don’t give them any help or advice you don’t feel comfortable giving.”’
When dealing with callers threatening suicide, Harder said, the station will call a suicide hotline or pass along its phone number to the caller.
While most DJs say they’ve never experienced a caller threatening suicide, they do get their share of eccentrics.
Almost every night, Downz gets a call from a woman who identifies herself only as Peggy. She talks about her recurring dream.
“Geoff, I had it again,” she says. “You know, it’s the dream where God is telling me to sell everything to buy a tavern.”
Downz said he suspects Peggy is in a tavern when she calls.
All the calls are recorded, and if the disc jockey thinks a call is inappropriate, he or she won’t broadcast it.
“Sometimes I wonder what’s going on in people’s minds,” KZZU’s James said. “Some of these people call here with some of the most (sexually) explicit stories. I just sit here and go, ‘Uh-huh …”’
But that’s where the upbeat personality of the nighttime DJs comes in. They are there to get listeners in a good mood.
Before joining KZZU two years ago, James was a dance club DJ for 10 years.
“That background helped me because you know how to turn it on and try to get people going,” James said. “And if I’m having a bad day, I’m not going to let that come across the air. You can’t shy away from any caller. You’ve got to listen to them all.”
Not every nighttime radio listener is a manic-depressive contemplating suicide.
On his “Love Notes” program, Richards, a native of Blackpool, England, receives lots of requests to play special songs. Some callers are grandmothers putting grandchildren to sleep; others are lovers dedicating songs.
Last week, a woman asked Richards to play Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven.” She was dedicating the song to her young son who recently had died.
Then there was the teenage boy, a frequent caller to Richards’ show, who just wanted to talk. The boy’s teenage girlfriend is about to deliver their first child.
Richards believes it’s all right for a DJ to be a listener’s confidant. But he draws the line at being an adviser.
“It’s important to not meddle in people’s affairs,” he said. “If you start giving advice, they can come back and say, ‘Well, you told me to do that.”’
Richards recently received a call from a woman who wanted to dedicate a song to the man of her dreams. There was one problem: The man she was in love with lived with his girlfriend.
“You can say to the caller, ‘Well, have you thought about this …?’ vs. ‘Here’s what you ought to do,”’ Richards said.
In spite of the turmoil, Richards said it’s important to send the show in an uplifting direction.
A woman called Richards shortly before the end of the program. She dedicated “I’ll Stand by You” by The Pretenders to her former fiance. The woman was feeling down.
By the end of the call, Richards had the woman laughing. She even signed off the show for him.
“Good night everybody, and thanks for listening to ‘Love Notes,”’ she said.
“I think it’s important to try to create a program which focuses on the positives of love and the upsides of life,” Richards said.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo