That Time I Left Cincinnati, Never to Return, and Tragedy Reminded Me Where I Should Be

I took the long way home.

Photograph by Aaron M. Conway

I have no illusions about Cincinnati. As an immigrant from Philadelphia who’s now lived here more than half of my life, I think I see this place with clearer eyes than natives do. Hometown memories—positive or negative—blur objectivity. I mean, do you really think your opinions about Marge Schott are objective? How about the Kwik Brothers? Bob Huggins and Nancy Zimpher?

Not being born here means my Cincinnati perceptions and sensitivities are different. I only recently stopped having nightmares about the floor layout at Swallen’s. But I came to love this town, and now I want to share a story about how much. Let’s start with the short version: I lived and worked here for five years, started a family, and things felt settled, but then I unexpectedly got an attractive job offer to return to Philadelphia. That was where the kids’ grandparents (babysitters!) lived, with the other grandparents in New York. After thinking it over, my wife and I made the decision to say goodbye to Cincinnati forever. And we left. One year later, we were back.

Don’t get cocky. The long version isn’t a tale about how I couldn’t bear to live without goetta and three-ways or how terrible the job turned out to be or how Philadelphia’s traffic was so much worse than Cincinnati’s (even though it was). The job was quite enjoyable, working at a radio station similar to WEBN in its prime. I’m still friends with the guy who hired me, despite having blindsided him with my two weeks’ notice. Likewise, the city of Philadelphia can’t be blamed for my crawling back to Cincinnati. The truth is simply this: I came to realize that 500 miles was the minimum safe distance I could live from my parents and siblings.

The world suffers no scarcity of family dysfunction stories. I tend not to share mine, because that often inspires competitive sharing, and I’m not good at sports. Let’s just say I wish all the best for the surviving members of my family of origin—them over there, me over here. The following story will therefore skate lightly across family details. Besides, the other parts are more fun to share. The part about missing Cincinnati, well, that takes a wrenching turn.

My year in the wilderness—the exact year will become apparent as we go along—started in January with the move back to Philly. I now worked at WYSP, a typical FM rock station of the era. It had the obligatory sooper cah-raaazy morning show, plus the same rock songs that still annoy millennials today. The station was also famous for funny fake commercials, along with real ones that local clients let us have fun with. That was my job: Adding a continuous stream of amusing stuff between the songs and the DJs.

The job was fun, and by springtime I’d made a national impact, single-handedly bringing Alvin and the Chipmunks back from the dead. This surprising development started with my fake commercial for Chipmunk Punk, a pretend album full of rock hits sung chipmunk-style. (Here’s the spoof commercial.) Public reaction was strong enough to reach the owners of the Chipmunks brand, who hurriedly made a real LP, bringing the then-moribund franchise back to life. My only remuneration was to have my name immortalized in a People magazine article about it.

By summer, things were going so well that I became a programming consultant to New York City’s top-ranked radio station. That station and WYSP were owned by the same company, and I was asked to join a team that developed ideas for keeping the New York station number one. Impressed? Then don’t read any further. I spent the first day learning about the station’s issues, the second day offering candid thoughts about what to do next, and then…there was no third day. Not only was I fired as a consultant, but my WYSP job was now in danger. Thanks to a sincere and well-faked apology, I managed to stay employed. Idiots.

Job tensions settled down by autumn, but now the home front was in chaos. By that I don’t mean the marriage or kids, but the home itself. Actually, two homes. The pending sale of our Cincinnati house fell through, and our mortgage application on a house in Philadelphia was rejected—both on the same day. What a mess. I’d already flown back to Cincinnati over two weekends to do real estate paperwork and prepare our house for the movers, and seeing everyone again was really good. I realized I missed Cincinnati in a way I’d never missed Philadelphia. It started to dawn on me that perhaps “home” was the place I’d left. Maybe I needed some ruby red shoes.

By Thanksgiving, we were talking about coming back. I contacted WEBN to see if they were interested in rehiring me, but their staff was stable, so no. I got desperate enough to contact WEBN’s mortal enemy, WSAI, Cincinnati’s other FM rock station of the era. This was so evil that their program director had to secretly fly to Philadelphia for a clandestine meeting that never left the airport. It looked like my family might be able to return to Cincinnati and reestablish the life we’d abandoned, but nothing was confirmed; we’d have to wait a while.

December came, and on a Monday night my wife and I looked forward as usual to the latest episode of WKRP in Cincinnati. That show, as you know, featured absolutely nothing about the real Cincinnati—it was even worse at portraying the radio business—but we felt slightly more connected to the city when watching. The local station did one-minute news capsules between shows, and neither of us was paying full attention when the anchorman came on. Maybe you’ve figured out where I’m going with this and exactly what year it was.

“A terrible, unimaginable tragedy reported tonight out of Cincinnati,” the anchorman said, “where 11 people at a rock concert were killed after the gates of the Riverfront Coliseum collapsed onto the crowd!” What? What? We looked at each other, trying to choose which thing was harder to process: 11 deaths in Cincinnati, or the fact that Riverfront Coliseum had no gates, only a series of glass doors. That was just wrong. Maybe there was a chance that everything the anchorman said was wrong.

I picked up the phone and called a number I still remembered: WEBN’s private line in the air studio, a room that was always occupied. Whoever might answer just had to know more than the doofus we’d seen on TV. Frank Johnson answered. He recently passed away after decades as a beloved presence on WGUC, our classical music station, but on this night he was a young part-timer at WEBN, stuck on the air while everyone else was at the Who concert. Frank was understandably rattled and didn’t know much beyond the latest media reports, but he did tell me that some of the night’s early accounts had mistakenly included the word gatecrashers. That word, we guessed, had somehow morphed into the clueless Philadelphia TV report. Ever since that night, I have always waited before believing any details of a breaking news story. You should, too.

Events of that horrible night in 1979 have been exhaustively documented and debated; I have no standing to weigh in on them. I can only say that two months later, after WSAI ultimately brought me back, the Cincinnati I returned to was a changed place. Contradictory narratives and investigations about the Who concert were still swirling. In my professional world of rock radio, the swagger of on-air personas had become muted. A City Council member proposed a moratorium on all Coliseum rock concerts until a deep study was completed, and in fact there were no rock shows until the following spring. That councilman worried about rowdy behavior? Jerry Springer.

This month, we’ll all reflect on the 40th year since the Who concert. My heart holds something different about it than most: I wasn’t in Cincinnati that night, but only a few days earlier I’d realized how much I’d become someone from Cincinnati. That night just made it even clearer.

I spent one year working with my new colleagues at WSAI and competing against my old ones at WEBN. We tried hard, but the ratings never were very good. One day, the station suddenly fired everyone and changed the format to country music. The next day—literally, the very next day—I was back on WEBN. Here is the lesson: Never burn bridges. And never forget where you’re from.

Facebook Comments