At first she thought the boss was joking. When you've held a job for 20 years, the contract renewal meeting is supposed to be no more stressful than having lunch with a friend.

But "we have decided not to renew" was not a joke, and just like that, Polly Carver-Kimm's dream-come-true radio career was over.

She had just completed her usual morning drive-time stint on KIOA with co-host Maxwell Shaeffer last July 31, and when she asked the program manager, "When's my last day?" the answer was, "You just had it."

Getting fired seems to be a fairly common experience these days. If it ever happens to you, here's hoping things turn out as well as Carver-Kimm says they have for her.

She grew up in Center Point, where she listened to KCRG from Cedar Rapids, called in song requests to the disc jockeys and thought about "how cool it would be to be on the air."

She worked for KUNI radio during and after her college days at the University of Northern Iowa, then for a short while at a Waterloo station. Then came the call from KIOA.

"Being a small-town Iowan, to get a job in Des Moines was like a dream," she said. On her way to the station for the first time, she swung past the state Capitol and marveled at the idea of going to work in Iowa's version of the big city.

Des Moines has had its share of venerable broadcasters, but Carver-Kimm knows how rare it is to last 20 years in the business. Just try to remember all of the local DJs you've listened to on your way to and from work. You won't come close.

But when the end comes without warning, dropping on your head like a cartoon anvil, it's a shock, no doubt about it.

"The morning after I was fired, I listened to the show," she recalls. "People were calling in who were upset about what happened, and I sat at home and cried.

"For a long time after that, I couldn't listen. It was unexpectedly painful."

Gradually, the other side of the experience revealed itself.

She received letters from listeners she had never met, telling her they thought of her as a friend or family member, mentioning things she had said on the air that affected their lives.

Remember, being a glamorous radio personality means spending your life in a small room talking into a microphone. "You don't know if anybody ever appreciates what you're doing," Carver-Kimm said.

Also, no more getting up at 2:30 a.m. to go to work. No more being exhausted when she wanted to enjoy evenings with her husband and three children, ages 9 to 16. "When I got a physical, the doctor would always say, 'It's really not good for you to have this kind of schedule,'" she said.

And although a few former co-workers disappointed her, Shaeffer's friendship never faltered, and she learned that Dic Youngs, "the old youngster" who also found himself moved out of the KIOA fold last year, was someone she could count on. "He called me constantly and stopped by our house," Carver-Kimm said. "He's one of the best friends you could ever hope for."

On Oct. 24, she went to work as a public information officer for the Iowa Department of Public Health. She says she loves it. "This is my grown-up job," she said.

Her career as a voice isn't over, though. She has a tiny recording studio at home under the basement stairs where she does freelance work that's heard all over the country.

She records messages for companies to use on their voice-mail systems, "voice drops" for a Texas TV station, and if you call a New York City restaurant for information, you just might hear Carver-Kimm. "I'm really big in New York City," she said with a laugh.

On those rare occasions when Mike Pace takes a week off, she's the backup host for the televised Powerball drawing.

Sure, she misses radio. But in this new life, she says, "I now see possibilities I never considered before."

No hard feelings, she says. "I had a great time at KIOA. I had fun for 20 years; how many people can say that?"

And if a pink slip should ever flutter into your life, here's where you want to end up:

"I never would have quit," Carver-Kimm said, "but being fired probably was the best thing that ever happened to me."