It appears to be one of the great all but forgotten TV shows, untroubled by an endless cycle of syndicated repeats on high numbered satellite channels and undisturbed by opportunistic DVD box sets which end their life piled high near the checkouts in HMV at Christmas with stickers advertising a 70% discount on their originally listed price. Yet for some of us the late 1980s American TV show Midnight Caller retains a resonance which to this day has echoes in everything we do. OK then, to me it does.
First aired by NBC in America at the tail end of 1988 and picked up by the BBC who flung it out on Saturday evenings starting in spring 1989, the show told the tale of Jack Killian, a San Francisco policeman who had quit after the accidental death of his partner and reinvented himself as a late-night radio talk show host, taking calls from the public from midnight to 3am on radio station KJCM and in the process becoming embroiled in the very social issues his listeners were bringing to his attention.
The show lasted for three series before finally being cancelled as plot lines span out of control in an increasing spiral of silliness, but in its early years the show attracted huge praise for the depth of its approach and its willingness to portray issues such as stalking or even AIDS in such an uncompromising manner.
For a teenager whose mind had already generated the spark of an idea that what he really wanted to do above all else in life was to work on the radio it was naturally even more than that. Here was a TV hero who was living your own dreams, paid to do everything you yourself had dreamed of and living a lifestyle that seemed so impossibly glamorous and yet tantalisingly within reach.
Precious little of Midnight Caller exists on YouTube, unless you count a seemingly random selection of episode highlights dubbed into Japanese, but really the (admittedly rather cheaply made) opening titles are all that is required to bring the memories flooding back. They last 70 seconds, but the images they contain helped to define just why I wanted this kind of life for myself, even if the reality is sometimes slightly less gleaming.
First there was the theme tune, written and performed by Jazz trumpeter Rick Braun. A none more 80s smooth jazz piece led by the muted tones of the man himself underscored by a saxophone and steel guitar backing. Think Dire Strait’s ‘Your Latest Trick’ with added east coast authenticity Intended to conjure up the late night mood of the protagonist’s shows, to me it was always the soundtrack to my dream lifestyle. When I grew up I was going to live in a sleek modern apartment, furnished in black and with giant plate glass windows that looked out onto a gleaming cityscape below. My hifi would glow with precision LED and neon lights and every evening I’d be the King of all I surveyed.
Then there was Jack himself, played with career-defining aplomb by Gary Cole (years before all this Brady Bunch or Office Space nonsense). No cluttered desk for him, his working environment was defined by a man illuminated by a spotlight with few tools except for a handful of computer screens and his wits. The producers could never quite decide exactly how it was he communicated with the San Francisco audience and so he would alternate between staring down the barrel of a condenser microphone or wander around the room staring wistfully out of the window whilst addressing the headset device he is also depicted wearing here.
Years later I sat in the same kind of seat as he and contemplated the reality of the situation. Radio studios get as cluttered as everywhere else. Old scripts, yesterday’s newspapers and the coffee mugs left by the breakfast show. Microphones don’t float tantalisingly in mid-air but wobble on creaking anglepoises or heaven forbid goosenecks and the closest you get to a flashy headset is the frayed pair of DT100s which the engineers has screwed into place to prevent them going walkies.
Naturally being the product of a TV producer’s imagination, Jack Killian’s studio was the embodiment of how everyone imagined a radio studio should look. Walls were adorned with thrilling looking equipment, each with buttons which illuminated the gloom. Lights would wink on and off and giant tape spools would whir around for what to the casual viewer might appear to be no apparent reason. The message however was clear, a radio station was a busy, active place to be with a fragile existence which could only be sustained by a bank of gadgetry.
Whilst a real life radio studio might indeed have its fair share of equipment, it generally attracts dust in the manner which electrical items generally do. Banks of equipment with exciting looking switches do exist, but they are tucked away in a plant room elsewhere in the building (although sometimes placed in a glass fronted cabinet and made the focal point of reception). Jack just didn’t know how lucky he was.
As a talk show host (curiously on a radio station which played music the rest of the time – rigid formatting clearly having not reached San Francisco in 1988) Jack had the privilege of his own producer Billy. His work was possibly even more exciting than that of his boss. He sat in his own room, surrounded by a giant console of equipment along with TV monitors and tape players. He had his own line in extravagant hand gestures as illustrated above.
As producer, Billy was special. He actually got to press some of the magical buttons, tap at the dials and generally know what it all did. Frequently namechecked by the host, he was there as part of a double act and always made sure Jack knew it.
Years later I was to become Billy. I was the producer to the late night talk show host. I don’t get to make hand gestures and live in constant fear of having to tinker with any of the other studio gadgets. My life generally consists of grumpily telling presenters in full flow that it is time to break, that finishing your speech any later than the time I’ve put in front of you means the news starts late and sometimes taking the flack for when the highly trained individual in front of the microphone has said something stupid. There is however one job I’ve done which is at the core of Billy’s existence: the call screening.
Thanks to Midnight Caller this is how I imagined it would be. A sophisticated looking console into which the details of all the volunteering participants to tonight’s broadcast would be entered, giving the host a delectable menu from which to select. Even the screenshot used in the opening titles is tantalising… who knows what the “Law Stuff” Mike in Concord wants to discuss is. Don in Novato is discussing “murder”, is he reporting one or about to commit one (both were perfectly plausible MC plotlines incidentally). Better yet Frank in Marin may be a “serial killer”, or again wants to just talk about one. Most intriguingly of all Josh in South San Francisco has an open topic whilst Nick in Oakland is either in the process of being screened or even Billy cannot work out what he is on about.
Strangely enough one of the first jobs I ever did in professional radio (in the being paid to do it sense) was as producer/call screener on a local radio phone in. I was kind of gutted that the level of sophistication illustrated above simply didn’t exist at that level. Instead I’d scribble the names and numbers of callers down on pre-printed grid before promising to call them back. Once done I’d whisper on the talkback to the presenter “Terry, Halifax, line 5” and she would write the detail down accordingly. Calls were lined up in pairs – one to air, one on hold in an endless stream until the small hours.
This is actually one aspect of the job where things have moved on in a manner far beyond that which any TV producer could have imagined. This was my view on Saturday night when due to staff incompetence I was filling the phone operators chair at work.
No text based system this. Now I have an exciting graphical display showing not only the callers details but which even looks up where they are for me based on their telephone number. I can see how long they have been online for, who has been there the longest and at a single click can even refer back to their previous contributions to the radio station and to check the points they have made in the past. That I think is progress.
I’ve been privileged over the years to work on many late night radio shows of the kind Jack Killian used to host. On the inside it doesn’t feel quite as glamorous as the TV made it, there are no windows looking out onto neon soaked city skylines, no new adventures lurking behind each new voice taken to air and as we step outside our nondescript brick building onto the South Bank backstreet which houses the offices it can sometimes seem like just a job rather than the rather evocative fantasy which TV helped to create.
Even so, every time I turn on a microphone and make an exciting red light come alive, every time I gaze at a screen with the name of some person I will never meet and never know but whose innermost thoughts I am about to be subjected to for the next five minutes, every time I hear the highly paid host through the glass in front of me say something which may resonate deeply with someone clinging to the radio for some kind of life comfort I am still living the dream, still drinking in the Midnight Caller lifestyle. Those 70 seconds still define my life, and I am incredibly glad that they do.