A BEDTIME STORY
By Jeff Fleischer
Some people fall asleep to their television, to the sounds of nature, or to dead silence at the end of a hectic day. Miranda Garvey always fell asleep to the radio. The music itself actually delayed her full sleep, but the disc jockey's talking between the songs served as a gentle sedative. The evening deejay on WRZP, Vic Fiorini, had a voice equal parts smooth and dryly monotonous. For more than two decades on the Indianapolis airwaves, he'd perfected that overnight jockey's skill of developing a vocal style unobtrusive enough to blend into the background but still animated enough to draw in interested listeners. With the advent of MP3 players and the trend toward automated playlists, only a few radio disc jockeys survived, mostly those who had developed a steady audience over many years. Vic Fiorini fit that description rather well.
Every weeknight, Miranda Garvey went to bed around eleven. On Saturdays, she went out as much as anyone, but the need to leave the house at six for her reverse commute meant early evenings during the week. Her job as a paralegal was fulfilling enough, but it did leave her with a certain amount of stress at night and a need to wind down. Early on, she got in the habit of putting on WRZP, the oldies station, which she found strangely comforting. Probably because it reminded her of her late mother, who never owned a television or a computer but listened to the radio throughout the night, from right after supper until she went upstairs to sleep. Five nights a week, Miranda and her mother listened to Vic Fiorini drop in a tidbit about Herman's Hermits or ask the ninth caller to answer a trivia question about the Dave Clark Five. Listening to him as an adult brought Miranda back to that easier time, before her mother's cancer spread, before she had the turn-of-the-century house all to herself. That sentiment was what kept Vic Fiorini and WRZP as a whole in business. Continuity combined with nostalgia.
Most nights, Vic Fiorini's between-songs material comprised the standard stuff. Trivia, interesting facts about the track or artist, reminders of how old a given song was and of what else happened the year it was released. Miranda Garvey was born too late to remember any of those events firsthand, but the reminders did remind her of stories her mother had told about her own teenage years. Sometimes, the deejay took call-in requests, usually from a husband in need of a last-minute anniversary gesture or a widow or widower wanting to hear the song that defined their missed relationship. Vic Fiorini didn't take as many requests as he used to, since most people owned their favorite songs on tape or compact disc, and those with computers could find digital files of even the most obscure songs for only slightly more than the cost of a phone call to a radio station.
Every so often, Vic Fiorini would tell the listeners stories about his own life. Stories that usually related to music in some way. Most centered on his early radio career, when commercial-free AM was king, when bands passing through Indianapolis would come by the studio to talk about their upcoming show or the single they'd just released. He wasn't much of an interviewer, but that hardly mattered, as a few minutes between songs wasn't enough time to get much insight out of the artists anyway. Still, in the early days of his career, he'd sat across a desk from Dusty Springfield, Eric Burdon, Graham Nash, and a dozen other musicians, and had the photos to prove it. By the time he took over the post-drivetime into overnight shift at WRZP, bands no longer needed to meet with every local station to promote their gigs, and Vic Fiorini was left with his stories.
Miranda Garvey enjoyed the deejay's stories, though they usually eased her into sleep well before their conclusions. She didn't know that Vic Fiorini had first started telling them frequently while she was away at college, when the declining number of call-in requests, a sense that his fun facts had all been overused, and a need to justify keeping on-air talent in lieu of an unpaid autoplay list prompted him to start telling his listeners more about his life in music. The first was about a contact high he experienced at a Quicksilver Messenger Service show in 1966, when he had just moved up from Bean Blossom and had yet to smell the potent musk of copious marijuana. He told his listeners about the time he drove up to Chicago to see the record-exploding promotion that devolved into a riot, the night he waited for hours in vain before realizing Sly Stone had bailed on another gig, and the evening he went to the Slippery Noodle Inn to see a local bluesman, only to catch a surprise set by John Mayall. Vic Fiorini was never much of an active participant in these stories, but he'd been a passive observer to several worthy tales.
Part of what made WRZP so comforting to so many people was that the oldies never changed. The station didn't add hits from the late seventies or early eighties, even as those songs earned the title of oldie on other stations. It never let its playlist deviate into other genres or album cuts that didn't chart. It stuck with hit rock songs from one specific era. For listeners like Miranda Garvey, that entrenched a nostalgia for a specific time in their own lives. For Vic Fiorini, the continuity kept him feeling young, though he'd gone bald long ago and had the considerable belly typical of a man his age. He'd stopped paying attention to new music before his fortieth birthday. The only concerts he attended anymore were nostalgia tours in which several bands from his golden era, usually missing a fair percentage of their original members, played a few hits each. Like his station, and himself, those songs had taken the status of institution, as listening to them eventually became less about the music and more about tradition. The tradition of passing them on to the next generation, just as Miranda Garvey's mother had done. Just as the audiences at the concerts Vic Fiorini attended saw Boomers bringing along their adult children, encouraging them to sing along and, in a few cases, succeeding.
All institutions, despite their best efforts, had to come to an end, and all traditions ultimately faded through time. So it was for Vic Fiorini when the station told him it would soon be changing formats, becoming a de facto jukebox programmed by a computer in New York.
In his last week on the air, Vic Fiorini told some of his most personal stories, the ones he'd kept in reserve throughout his long career and now felt like sharing. On Monday, he talked about his one encounter with a Beatle, when Ringo Starr sent him a handwritten letter thanking him for a fan letter he'd sent after the band's breakup. The next night, he talked about his great musical regrets, the artists he had chances to see live but didn't, with Otis Redding and Gram Parsons the most regretted examples. Wednesday's story involved even more regret, as Vic Fiorini told his listeners about the woman he met during a Jethro Tull set at an outdoor festival, the woman he dated the entire summer of 1971. He knew at the time she wanted to marry him, but he still had oats in need of sowing. He'd meant to look her up many times since, but never knew quite what to say. His stories on his final two nights were more upbeat, with Thursday a recap of the best concerts he'd ever seen, and Friday a heartfelt thank-you message to his loyal listeners, the declining but still significant number who valued consistency and nostalgia, and he implored them to keep the tradition of the music he had devoted his career to alive by passing it on to their children.
As he took off his studio headphones for the final time, Vic Fiorini had no way of knowing that he'd done so himself. He'd never known that the woman he'd left that summer had given birth to his daughter, nor that she'd never told Miranda Garvey who her father was. He didn't know that his old lover listened to him night after night, thinking back on their joint missed opportunity. He had no way of knowing that for several years now, he'd inadvertently read his adult daughter a bedtime story nearly every night, his smooth but monotonous voice fading into the background as her eyes closed, the last thing she heard before drifting off to sleep.
Jeff Fleischer is a Chicago-based author, journalist and editor. His fiction is most recently published in the Chicago Tribune's Printers Row literary journal and Steam Ticket Third Coast Review. He is also the author of non-fiction books including "The Latest Craze: A Short History of Mass Hysterias" (Fall River Press, 2011), "Rockin' the Boat: 50 Iconic Revolutionaries" (Zest Books, 2015), and a civics book coming in spring 2016. He is a veteran journalist published in Mother Jones, the New Republic, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Magazine, Mental_Floss, National Geographic Traveler and dozens of other local, national and international publications.