The recent Suez Canal stuck boat saga reminded me of when another big vessel dominated the news.
In March, 1989, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez struck a reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska, causing nearly eleven million gallons of oil to leak into the water. The impact on the coastline and its inhabitants (both human and non-human) was devastating — environmentally speaking, the worst oil spill in history.
At the time I was doing the morning show on WCXR/Washington, and discussed the story quite a bit as new details came to light over the course of several days. It was clear that Exxon was dragging its feet in assisting in the cleanup while offering “not our fault” claims, so I went on the air and announced that my frustration with the company had caused me to cut up my Exxon credit card and vow to never fill my tank with its gasoline again. I also urged my listeners to do the same.
To my surprise, the radio station’s General Manager called me into his office when I got off the air that morning. This was a very rare occurrence and almost never had to do with the content of my show, but it was clear he wasn’t happy with me. He started right off with, “You can’t do that!” When I asked what he was talking about, he replied that my comments about Exxon could be seen by our advertisers as a sign that I could use my microphone to boycott a business, which would hurt the station’s bottom line.
I’d been there for several years by this point and couldn’t remember ever playing an Exxon commercial on my show or hearing one in any of the other dayparts. When I brought this up to the GM, he confirmed that Exxon wasn’t an advertiser at the moment, but you never knew when they could be. This seemed like a ludicrous point. I replied that, based on that criterion, I couldn’t talk about anything — including TV shows, movies, the local sports teams — because any subject I brought up could be linked to a potential sponsor.
Considering that satirizing pretty much everything in the world was the essence of what I did on the air, I asked how he expected me to do my job under such a rule. Besides, I told him, I had gotten nothing but positive response to my remarks about Exxon from my very active listeners. I even turned to the Program Director, who was also in the room, and asked if he’d been besieged by complaints about my show that day. He sheepishly admitted he hadn’t gotten a single one.
The general manager — who, by the way, I had a great working relationship with before and after this incident — had by now calmed down as he sputtered something like, “Well, okay. But don’t make this into a whole anti-Exxon campaign, okay?” I told him I was going to continue to talk about the Valdez story for as long as it was in the headlines, but had no intention of doing something like calling upon listeners to join me in picketing local Exxon stations. He nodded his head, saying, “Well, all right,” and the meeting broke up with me wondering (to myself) if perhaps my boss had invested in a gas station franchise recently.
When I got to my office, the receptionist had dropped off a package from the guy who did song parodies for me and, of course, his new one was “The Wreck Of The Exxon Valdez,” to the tune of the Gordon Lightfoot song. I played it two or three times a day for the rest of that week and even the GM — who must have realized that I wasn’t running the radio station aground — admitted it was pretty funny.