Aerial View was WFMU’s first regularly-scheduled phone-in talk show. Hosted by Chris T. and on the air since 1989, the show features topical conversation, interviews and many trips down the rabbit hole. Until further notice, Aerial View is only available as a podcast, available every Tuesday morning. Subscribe to the newsletter “See You Next Tuesday!” and find tons of archives at aerialview.me.
November 3, 2015: Hate Your Job & Life Pts. 1 & 2, from 1991
The first installment in the "Microcassette Project": Chris T. as a self-loathing 29 year-old, complaining into a tiny recorder about his job, his life and everything in between.
Today's Aerial View Pod(iatry)cast features the first installment of the Microcassette Project. What are microcassettes, you ask? They're the smallest cassettes, after mini-cassettes and compact cassettes. Here's a microcassette (top) and a standard compact cassette (bottom) pictured together:
I've always had access to some kind of recording device, from the time my father brought home a massive dictation machine that recorded onto clear blue discs to my own Realistic brand cassette recorder to the microcassette recorders I began buying in the late 80's to minidisc machines to the flash-based recorders I own now. The last microcassette recorder I owned was an Aiwa TP-M720 similar to this one:
My Aiwa was black and silver and I loved it because it looked like a miniature cassette recorder, like the old, reliable Panasonic everyone owned. It also had all sorts of tricks up its sleeve. The controls were electrical, as opposed to the clunky mechanical switching on most similar models. It had speedy rewind and fast-forward and you could cue (hear the audio) in fast forward. It wasn't quite as fancy as some but it was better than most. At some point, it died on me and I threw it out. The Aiwa above is a new one I purchased recently on eBay, shipped all the way from Cyprus. By new, I mean new in the original box with all the accessories and paperwork. Someone bought this thing and never used it. Maybe it was obsolete by the time they got it, though my podiatrist still uses a microcassette recorder to take his notes. The reason I wanted a new Aiwa TP-M720 was to digitize these microcassettes I recently found tucked in the back of a desk drawer:
Notice the handwriting on the microcassettes not on their edge: "Hate Your Job & Life." What you'll hear on today's show is the contents of the tape in the box with the red ink. Recorded between 9/23/91 and 9/29/91. the description on the insert card gives you a clue:
Chris T.'s Troubled Sleep
What Life Becomes
You'll hear much more than that, though. Captured for posterity is me, on the cusp of thirty, working at a company called PaperDirect (think Dunder-Mifflin in The Office) as an inbound telemarketer (yes, at one time those jobs were done by actual residents of the United States). PaperDirect was a relatively new company (I was employee #53) and the concept of selling plain and fancy paper direct to the consumer for these newfangled ink jet printers had taken off and - because ordering on the internet wasn't a thing yet - we were bombarded with calls all day long. One of the first bits you'll hear is me handling some customers, then I climb into my car and bitch about the long shift I just completed. Then I go driving in New Jersey. Oh boy. You'll also hear me at home (I lived in Tenably, NJ at the time), bemoaning my utter lack of a love life. Then there's sound of my disturbed sleep... and so much more, all culminating with a song I recorded (I Can't Hold On Anymore) on a Tascam Portastudio during the same time period.
This is a deeply personal show and part of me is bracing for the negative reaction some of it might engender. But if you've stuck with me this long, you know I've never been described as warm and cuddly, even though I've certainly mellowed over the years. These tapes capture a man who felt utterly trapped, who couldn't see a way forward, who felt it might be time to take himself out of the game for good. It was hard for me to listen to and it might be hard for you to hear. But I hope it's also entertaining and I now realize that all those telemarketing jobs I did, including the one at PaperDirect (see the piece, below, about the end of my time there - it ran previously in this newsletter but it seems appropriate to update it and run it again), prepared me well for a career as a talk show host. I was so good at my job that I became one of the select few who dealt with irate customers, taking them off the ledge and getting them to come back again. Which is why I especially miss being on the air, taking calls. But there's great satisfaction in being able to bring you a show like this, which wouldn't be the same over the air.
Depending on the reaction to this installment of the Microcassette Project (please be sure to leave some playlist comments or drop me a line at my WFMU e-mail address) there may be more.
Tom and Cat.
Last Week: Waitstock
Last week's Aerial View Pod(iatry)cast took you to Waitstock. Waitstock was a 24-hour party in celebration of Tom Waits. Some of the many people who attended over the years have commented in the Facebook Group See You Next Tuesday! and the news from the Ferguson camp is that Waitstock may rise again soon, if a suitable location can be found. If anyone out there has an abandoned summer camp that ISN'T home to a homicidal maniac, please get in touch with me.
If you missed out and you want in, you can still pledge to Aerial View by clicking on the pledge box, below, and don't forget to enter your pet in the WFMU Mascot Contest when you make a pledge!
This piece ran previously here but I've updated it and it's apropos.
Beach Chris T. Boys
Wouldn't It Be Aerial View Nice?
The company you'll hear me refer to on today's show is PaperDirect. When I went to work for them back in the early 90's they were a little family-run business. One of the two brothers who started the company had come up with a brilliant idea: he saw how the home office market was growing, how people were buying ink jet and laser printers and getting into desktop publishing. He realized no one had paper to run through these new machines. The only paper available was white “Xerox” paper, lightweight stuff which would often jam in the new machines.
He got everyone he knew, including his Dad, to lend him money and he started an offshoot business from his brother's office-paper business. He printed up a catalog, rented some mailing lists and was off and running. The company turned a profit its first year.
The entepreneur's dream so far, right?
I came along as employee number 53. I started as an inbound telemarketer someone who took orders from people calling the 800 number. I'd been out of work for seven months at the time and would've taken anything. The company grew incredibly, adding ten employees a month soon after I started. Hiring was based solely on competence: color or age or sexual preference were no barrier to being given a chance to prove yourself. And the brothers were there every day, even their dad, who was in his mid-fifties.
The dad and I would step outside for our cigarette breaks and converse a bit. We talked about Franklin Roosevelt, how he pulled the country out of a depression, how the current job market stank, about the fucking Republicans and so on. The father was a very smart man, had always been self-employed, taught his sons how to make their own way in the world. He’d never been rich but he'd never been hurting either. He helped his sons when they needed help. He staked them to their seed money.
The sons were good businessmen. They hired one of their best friends to build the company up. All of them liked their employees - or gave that impression. They talked to us like we were friends, called us by our first names and loaned us money when we were between paychecks. They gave nice raises and generous bonuses. They threw parties often. The Christmas parties alone were legendary, lavish affairs in huge catering halls. They grew more elaborate every year, with nice gifts and dancing troupes and a full sit-down meal. One Christmas. the father stood out in the front room, entreating us to fill up bags from the huge appetizer and dessert spreads on our way out the door.
This policy of generosity extended to the customers. Early on we borrowed Nordstrom's philosophy: “If the customer is unsatisfied - for whatever reason - do what it takes to make him or her happy”. It was the first lesson taught to new employees. We went out of our way to communicate to customers that we wanted their business, that they could trust us to take care of them. Some customers abused the policy, weaseling free stuff out of the company, but the owners understood it as the price of doing business. The majority of our customers came back time and time again because they knew they’d end up satisfied with the goods and the service.
Over four booming years I took on greater responsibility and was given more autonomy as I demonstrated I was competent and could be trusted. The company did so well we moved to nice new digs fifteen minutes from my apartment. We had a cafeteria - a good one - in the building and shops and a movie theatre (discount tickets available through the personnel office) right next door. We had a great health plan - ten dollar co-pay, five dollar prescriptions - and a generous 401K plan. We even had life insurance.
My salary went up seven thousand dollars in four years. I became an assistant to a Vice-President, had a large desk and was left alone most of the day to work on “projects”. The projects mostly had to do with keeping the employees happy, making them feel appreciated and important to the success of the company. And we did. Customers routinely talked in tones of awe about how happy everyone on the other end of the phone seemed. We had trust and respect, we were well cared for and well-paid: why not be happy?
Then one fine day in July I joined the now four hundred employees in the parking lot to hear how we were to become a division of a Fortune 250 company from the Midwest. The owners had decided to accept an offer of $90 million, cash. They gave us fat bonus checks based on our length of service I remember remarking to any co-workers within earshot “It's over.”
The Midwesterners moved in, slowly but surely. The owners stayed on for another year and then were gone. The new owners installed new front-office management, people willing to do whatever necessary to make the place “meaner and leaner”. Our healthy company was to become healthier still by “cutting the fat” and “boosting the bottom line”. We were no longer accountable to our customers: the shareholders were to be our new focus.
Like bloodhounds after an escaped convict, efficiency experts sniffed out every area of perceived “corporate waste”. They started by gutting the customer service policy: no more of that “100%-guarantee-of-satisfaction” crap. Now customers were made to fill out forms and explain (and the reason better be good) why they were returning items or looking to make an exchange. We weren't about to foot the bill for their mistakes.
The efficiency experts also sought out cheaper suppliers for all the finished goods, often ruining the product in the process by changing its specifications. One department after another saw their budget cut: no more would money be spent on creating new product lines or finding better ways to service the customers. The little things which made the job bearable, which kept moral high, also disappeared. No more parties, no more buying lunch for people who worked through their lunch hour, no more free coffee.
Next attacked was the benefits package. The health plan was decimated, the burden of expense passed on to the employees. The 401K plan followed. The commission structure for sales-people was downgraded severely. Overtime was eliminated. A policy of replacing departing full-time employees with part-timers was instituted.
Our new CEO, while never actually stopping by, sent videotapes for us to watch in darkened rooms. On the tapes he stood at a podium and spoke in euphemisms about “Looking across the divisions to find synergy…” and “Delivering more value to the shareholders…”. At no time were we mentioned, the people who had built the company up, made it healthy enough to be attractive to the Midwesterners in the first place. We were seen as those who had it too good for too long.
Eventually, the word “downsizing” was whispered in the elevator and behind closed doors. People stopped feeling sure about the future and began to look around, worried. The friends I'd made on the job complained to me about how “the place isn't the same anymore - they're ruining it.” but felt impotent to do anything.
I earned a reputation as soothsayer simply by predicting every move management would make based on the most basic concepts about capitalism: to raise profits either a) raise prices or b) drive down wages. The Midwesterners were advancing on both fronts.
My co-workers couldn't believe we were being sacrificed to make the shareholders happy, especially considering most of us could't afford significant stock in our own company. A few of them asked me about unions, how we could join one, what it would take. I called a nearby local of a national communication workers union and was told:
Any organizing would have to be done from within
Someone would have to be elected as a representative.
It was against the law for the company to fire anyone involved in organizing.
I needed to inform the owners of the company in writing about what I was doing (so they couldn’t fire me and claim ignorance about my activities).
I should have a meeting of interested parties and see if there was enough support among my co-workers to sustain a long battle, etc., etc., etc.
The representative with whom I spoke - a kind, empathetic and supportive woman - told me her union couldn’t get involved until “the ball is rolling from within.” I thought about what it would take to get my co-workers on board (after the Norma Rae fantasies had subsided) and kept coming up against two basic problems:
1) My co-workers were scared to death of losing their jobs. They’d accept anything to remain employed: lower wages, triple workloads, less benefits, part-time positions. They grumbled and complained and damned the new bosses to hell but knew ultimately how sharply local unemployment had risen and that losing this job meant having to take one even worse.
2) Virtually none of my co-workers could imagine anything positive coming out of unionizing. The majority of them had been sold the message that unionizing was somehow “Un-American”, that it was akin to “stealing”. Unions, to them, were worse than the bosses. From my co-workers I heard second-hand stories of relatives shut out of jobs because they wouldn’t join the local. Of unions that exacted dues and then sold their members down the river at negotiation time. Of all those guys on the road crew, leaning on shovels sipping coffee while you crawled past on your morning commute. Or those guys at the convention center who wouldn't allow you to plug in your boombox because they had “jurisdiction”. Or those guys with middle names like “The Lunatic” or “Boom-Boom”, being arraigned in federal court in expensive suits .
The anecdotal evidence combined with the overwhelmingly-negative (or, worse still, completely non-existent) mainstream-media portrayal of unions and their activities convinced me that trying to install a union at our workplace would be like trying to staple jello to a tree.
I stopped making the calls and stopped trying to sell them on the idea.
Things on the job went into rapid decline. Resentment continued to build. So many people were caught stealing that security guards were hired and photo ID cards were instituted. The layoffs came in a torrent, whole departments were let go, the gutting continued apace.
My immediate boss was let go and I came under the auspices of an odious little frog of a man imported from the Minneapolis office to whip our department into shape. My autonomy disappeared as he took me into his confidence and relayed to me his plan to keep everyone in a constant state of fear for their jobs. He explained how fear was the one true motivator. He attempted to enlist my aid, placing me in the training department with two other men. We were to write a new manual. I faked it for four months while looking for another job. When I left, virtually none of my work had been completed.
I found out later that the company was closing down all local operations and consolidating all jobs in Colorado and Minnesota, where folks earned an average of $6.00 an hour. I heard nothing from former co-workers for quite a while until one called me and told me that the Midwesterners were looking for a buyer for the division. It was losing money.
I’ve never been a businessman so I can’t say I understand a management style that antagonizes a workforce by making it clear to them that they’re expendable. Isn’t it shortsighted and self-destructive not to invest in your employees? But what most CEOs love - and what they consistently try to move us toward - is free labor. They resent every dollar in wages and would do anything to move us back to a state of indentured servitude. Witness the rise of the “Intern” job. They’re everywhere.
There’s now a Facebook group where my former co-workers of post their nostalgic memories, put up old photos and reminiscence about how great it was. I don’t have the heart to remind them of how it all went so horribly wrong. And there's a still a company called PaperDirect but I don't doubt it exists somewhere in cyberspace, with prison labor taking your phone calls.
L - R: Diana; Nana (RIP); Joanie (RIP); Mario (RIP); Marc & Me, circa 1966.
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