Ambush Radio

radio mic and board
Radio. My first love.

Ah, radio.  My first love.  Sigh.

Early in my young life I really loved radio and secretly had ambitions to work in radio one day and become a popular host.

Well, I had my opportunities in radio but I never became popular or a radio host.

But I had no idea how, um, problematic radio would become for me later in my career.

Without getting into too many details, we were dealing with a crisis at work, one that would last several months and potentially affect the health of many of our residents (and visitors).

Suddenly, our use of a specific substance, one we’d been using for decades, became “controversial” (certain people didn’t want us to use it and in many cases, they were misinformed about the substance).  It didn’t help that there were numerous junk science websites with false and misleading information about it.

A Spanish-language radio station called, wanting to put someone on the air, live, to talk about our use of the substance.  Me, being the Spanish speaker in our group, did the interview.

At first, the hosts were nice.  Then the knives came out.

It’s no fun being on the receiving end of an ambush. Especially while live, on the air, and in your second language.

They threw out all kinds of issues at me–a so-called ban of the substance in other jurisdictions (never mind it was ok’d by the EPA for use in the US), a couple of scientists (in non-relevant fields) who condemned our use of the substance, etc.

Fortunately, I was prepared for most, but not all of these attacks.

As the summer wore on, they’d call for me to go on air with them several times.  Each time I was more ready and better prepared than the last time.

Once, they started to ask me where I lived, if I had children, etc.  I was ready and I cut them off before they could play the “child card” on me (and yes, by the way, I do have a child).

At the end of the day, the crisis came, and it went.  Our organization dealt with it effectively, thanks to our leadership and all of our staff.  I’ll never forget the work we did.

And I’ll never forget my time doing battle against ambush radio.

Where’s the excrement?

Almost from the beginning, this is where it felt like the interview was headed.

A big part of my day job involves media relations.  Most reporters I deal with are easy to get along with, reasonable, and fair.

But there was this one time when I worked for a government-owned water and sewer utility…

City of Portland sewage treatment plant construction sign
Yes, I worked for a water and sewer utility before. No, it wasn’t Portland’s. Photographer: David Falconer. The U.S. National Archives.

It was some years back when I had a TV reporter for a small Spanish-language cable TV outlet ask to do a story on our oldest wastewater treatment plant (that’s the PR term for “sewage treatment plant”).  The request seemed innocent enough.  The reporter told me he just wanted someone to explain the process and walk him through it.

I figured I could handle what seemed like a simple request, without tying up our operations folks.

We strolled around the plant a bit when he asked me, in what sounded to me like a thick Argentinean accent (which I’ll never forget), “¿Y dónde está el excremento? (Where is the excrement?).”

Of course, his camera was rolling and I was mic’d up.  He kept looking into the various huge tanks holding the wastewater (which is, needless to say, mostly water), repeating the question to me, expecting to see a, um–I’ll use the clinical/medical term here–piece of stool floating in a tank or something.

Insider tip: that generally doesn’t happen.  At least I never saw such a thing.

The solid stuff settles to the bottom of those tanks you see at wastewater treatment plants.  It gets separated from the liquid and treated, usually via a process known as anaerobic digestion.

Then there’s dewatering, or drying, so the stuff isn’t so heavy and can be shipped out for use as fertilizer (in which case it’s called “biosolids”) or taken to a landfill for disposal.

Dried sludge
Sludge that has dried on a drying bed and is being removed.

As it turns out, most of the sludge was taken while wet from that particular plant so there wasn’t really much “excremento” for the guy to see.

Needless to say, the guy was quite annoying with his insistence and repetition of that question.  Clearly… he was full of “excremento” himself as far as I was concerned.