I’ve been hosting Morning Edition (or working the early morning shift) for the better part of the past 35 years. It’s my time of day, I like it!
The 3 a.m. alarm isn’t my most favorite part, but being the first on the roads, the first in to work and (most of the time) the first to go home has its benefits.
But as much as I love my job — and I really do — I value my vacation time.
Everyone needs a chance to recharge, to spend time with family, run errands, read a book without the alarm pending the next day. So you can imagine my surprise when I found out at least a dozen (and probably more) Morning Edition hosts have great difficulty taking time off. They’ve earned the time; they’ve worked the holidays; but when they’d like to use that time, it becomes difficult.
“I don't have a designated fill-in,” said one longtime host who asked to remain anonymous.
“The person who can fill in for me also fills in for everyone else on two radio stations,” the host said. “If I want a day off, I have to hope no one else has already claimed that day. It's not that big a deal I guess, but after 10 years of this, I feel like I shouldn't always have to plan all my time off six months in advance. And I have never called in sick at the last minute. I don't know what they would do if I did, frankly.”
Other stations are making an effort to work it out, but it can be stressful for the host.
“Here at WVTF my previous and only sub was our Program Director, who has since retired,” said Tab O’Neal, WVTF Morning Edition host. “We went about 14 weeks with no one on the bench. I worked through the holidays. Now I have a good sub who is part time and can also do ATC and general board op coverage. However, he is looking for full-time work and, to quote my ND, ‘Go ahead and get some time off scheduled while you can.’”
For some stations, the problem seems to have gotten more complicated with the new Morning Edition clock. A few hosts have said they had a sub before the new clock was implemented in November, but those subs have not been eager to learn how to host the program with the new clock in place.
This is not true at every station. Many make a point to have regular staff available to give the Morning Edition hosts off time.
“My experience at KPCC has been good, even post-clock change,” said Steve Julian, KPCC Morning Edition host. “My regular fill-in is Susanne Whatley who brings many years of commercial and public radio experience. She's been my sub for years and also fills in on ATC. When she isn't available, we have two others capable of doing the show now that they've been trained in the new clock.
“I feel for those at stations who do not have a bench of subs available at a moment's notice or for planned vacations, Julian said. “No host should be put in that position.”
“When I came on board at this station as the new Program Director I brought with me a belief that everyone should be able to take the personal, sick or vacation time he or she needs (and is allocated),” said a program director who asked to remain anonymous. “What I encountered was a culture where nearly every host was incredibly reluctant to do so due to years of "guilt trips" over taking time off. While no one actually said the words out loud (and risk possible grievances from the union), there were several instances where hosts were told that taking time off was a nuisance and an inconvenience for others.
“Hosts were coming in sick and working to the point where they had to nearly be hospitalized in order to take a day off — then they'd come back in way too soon and perpetuate the cycle,” the program director said. “People were not taking care of their physical and mental well-being and the stress that put on them was immense. I've worked hard since discovering this cycle to try and do away with it.”
“Morning Edition hosts are an interesting bunch,” said Ariel Van Cleave, WYSO Morning Edition host. “We enjoy our work even if it exhausts us. And we tend to feel guilty if we want a day or two off to recharge the batteries. I mean, the schedule is not exactly appealing to a normal person and the clock change has only made the shift more demanding. But having a culture at any station that supports your staff to take that time off without issue is vital to the daily operations. As a host who has been at the burnout point before, the quality suffers and then the listener loses out because you're not at best.”
Hosting Morning Edition is a high stress job. Especially for hosts who don’t have a producer and run the show solo. We juggle news, traffic, weather, running the board, school closings, interviews among other tasks. With the new clocks several Morning Edition hosts have joked the only time we have to run to the restroom is during the A-1 segment.
“Vacations have the potential to break into the stress cycle,” said Susan Krauss Whitbourne Ph.D. in a post on the Psychology Today blog. “We emerge from a successful vacation feeling ready to take on the world again,” she said. “We gain perspective on our problems, get to relax with our families and friends, and get a break from our usual routines.”
“I’ve been Morning Edition host at South Dakota Public Broadcasting for nearly 13 years, and I’ve never had a problem getting time off when needed,” said Gary Ellenbolt. “I wish other NDs and PDs would realize their morning hosts are human, and as subject to burnout as any other person. Just looking forward to time off, without being made to feel guilty for even asking, can lift the spirits of a lot of hosts, and they’ll be better hosts for it.”
I urge all News Directors, Program Directors and General Managers to consider how you would feel if every time you needed/wanted to take a vacation, you had to plan months in advance, were made to feel guilty for using the time you earned, and then hear the sub acting like a martyr for filling in while you were off. What if you wake up sick, really sick, can you call and say you won’t be in? What are the options for your Morning Edition host? Most ME hosts I know do everything they can to be there. I’ve had to make that 3 a.m. call a few times over the past three decades, but it was very rare, one time it was because I was having a miscarriage!
Thanks to Jay Hanselman who’s been filling in for me for 20 some years and to Ann Thompson and Tana Weingartner who also sometimes take the early morning turn.
Please do your part to allow your Morning Edition hosts to use the time they’ve earned and be kind to those who fill in. They may be a little cranky after a week of getting up at 3 a.m.
Maryanne Zeleznik is the News Director and Morning Edition host at WVXU in Cincinnati.