Live Radio Days

Attending the annual Willow Springs Alumni picnic this past weekend, I spoke with several old friends about Radio Station KUKU and growing up in the days of live radio. Today, most local radio stations are automated or playing network programming exclusively without the spontaneity of live on-air radio. The years I worked in broadcast radio over fifty years ago, I suppose, now fall into the realm of history. Since I worked for this station for seven years, I’d like to share a few of my experiences there.
 
In the 1950s, a decade before television reached the Ozarks, radio was everywhere. Most homes still had a console radio in their living room for family listening. Desktop and car radios became ubiquitous, following on the heels of rural electrification. Ozarkers had been listening to radio broadcasts on battery receivers for three decades, pulling in stations in Springfield and St. Louis in the daytime and stations all over the nation at night. What was missing was local information.
 
In 1957 Robert F. Neathery, Senior, built Radio Station KUKU, west of Willow Springs on Highway 76. He had built Radio Station KWPM in West Plains in 1947. His license of Willow Springs specified the station could broadcast only during daylight hours. Like all local stations at the time, KUKU was an AM station. I suppose there are a lot of young people today who have never tuned the AM band, but in the 1950s and 1960s, FM radio was not in common use. It would be 1963 before FM car radios were available, though no FM stations could be tuned here. 
 
KUKU had a tower one-half the height of most stations. Technically, a quarter-wave antenna, half the height normally allowed, reduced the station’s coverage a little. In the winter, to extend the station’s broadcast time, they could cut to half power for an hour or so after dark and extend the broadcast day. The big difference between then and now is live radio.
 
In my freshman year, at the ripe old age of fifteen, my speech teacher, Chuck Stuart, sent me to the radio station to interview for a part-time job as an announcer. Robert Neathery, Junior, had a policy of hiring a kid in high school to do weekends and an after-school rock show. Bob Junior told me years later the reason he hired me was that I reminded him of Wally Cox in the sitcom Mr. Peepers. I wore thick glasses, was socially awkward, and Bob found me amusing.
 
I had no idea what I was getting into. I had always been terrified of speaking in public. Microphones made me cringe. My motivation for going was to see the equipment. You see, I was a geek and really hadn’t thought this thing through. To Jack Whitaker, the station manager in 1967, befell the lot of training me. His motivation was that once I was trained, he could quit having to get up at five in the morning to sign the station on the air. My father drove me to the station because I didn’t have my driver’s license yet.
 
Jack told me that “Louis Wehmer” was not a radio name. “Henceforth,” he said, “you shall be known as “Big Lou” on the air. The name stuck all through high school. I once had some guys from Mountain Grove show up to see just how big I was and maybe beat me up.
 
Jack taught me that the biggest enemy of a radio station was “dead air” or having nothing on. That creates a tension that even invaded my dreams or maybe nightmares where the record I was playing ran out and I did not have another ready to go and could not find one. 
 
After I had a couple of Sunday mornings under my belt, Jack told me, “Lou, today is your big break. You are going to adlib the introduction to the next show. Do you know what adlib is? I said yes. “Good, make something up in your head; don’t write it down, just get on there and do it!” 
 
Sunday mornings were exclusively back-to-back live or taped church services. Jack explained to me that the program, “Make Christ King,” which was taped at the Christian Church service in Pomona and brought to the station to be played was ending, and the next tape to be played were the services from Blue Buck Baptist Church and the pastor was Charles Owens.
 
I anxiously awaited the top of the hour, turned on the microphone, announced the time, gave a station identification, and said, “It’s time now for the Christian Church program, with Buck Owens.” Jack waved his hand to stop, turned off my microphone and tried to correct me. “The pastor of the Blue Buck Church is Charles, not Buck Owens, and I think that’s a Baptist church, so get on there and correct it,” Jack said. I said OK, turned on the mike and said, “Correction folks, that Charles Owens, not Buck, and he’s not a Christian.” 
 
Years later Charles Owens and I laughed about this, though the next Sunday several called him “Buck,” and inquired about him not being a Christian. 
 
With that, Jack said, “Roll the tape,” leaned back and said, “You know Lou, some people just aren’t cut out for radio, and I think you might be one of them!” With the help of Jack, Larry Spence, and Dan Booth, I graduated to the weekday after-school program, where I played what we today call “Classic Rock,” but was current at the time.
 
Dan and Larry taught me the ropes and some neat tricks, like going outside in cold weather and peeing on our outdoor thermometer sensor to make the temperature go into the eighties in the hope one of us would mindlessly read a ridiculously high temperature on the air.
 
Time and temperature were our announcing life blood. Another favorite trick was while you were reading a commercial or a newscast live, lighting your “copy” or what you were reading on fire. One reads fast under those circumstances.
 
Speaking of reading news, once while reading the farm market reports, I got to the section reporting sheep prices. I had never been around sheep and did not know the word “ewe,” which I pronounced E-weee. I still have people around town who call me E-weee! Anyway, you quickly learn you have been pronouncing a lot of words wrong your whole life, and your mistakes tell you how many listeners you have.
 
One of our residents of Mountain View liked to drive to the back window of our studio and blast the exhaust pipes on his old stock car. He would listen and try to get on the air, hoping we would say something.
 
Most of our commercials were read live, though we did have some on reel-to-reel tape. You had to flip around four switches to make them run and they were a pain. Mary Ann and Clarence Crider were in the station each week with a live or taped show. I taped an often-intoxicated country music band on Friday nights for a Saturday morning program, and we did live interviews with Sergeant Mike Weaver, our Highway Patrol Safety Officer.
We did a lot of good in the community like a fundraiser for a Children’s Home in Vietnam brought to our attention by a former KUKU announcer, Fred Clift. Fred returned to the station after serving two hitches in the Marine Corps. We did the initial drive on the air to start the Willow Care Nursing Home. We were allowed to stay on the air after dark to report inclement weather, broadcast storm warnings, and watch all night when necessary. We had an Associated Press teletype machine in the transmitter room that pounded out the news all day. The person signing on had a big pile of paper to read through, and on many occasions, we would turn on the transmitter, grab up the printed news, drag it still attached to the machine into the studio, and start reading live.
 
Though a main tool, the microphone could be your greatest enemy when you forget to turn it off. Everyone did, and I have a couple dozen stories about things accidentally said on the air that I can’t put in and maintain my PG rating. The best open mike story I witnessed follows:
 
By the time I was twenty, I had gotten my First Class Radiotelephone license from the Federal Communications Commission allowing me to work on transmitters and studio equipment. One Sunday, I was called at home, and the announcer on duty told me a piece of equipment was malfunctioning. When I arrived, he was reading the morning newscast, which ran around ten minutes, concluding with the full obituaries of everyone that had died that week, including next of kin, etc. A funeral home sponsored the newscast. While I was working at his side, he tore into the “obits” with a vengeance and was to the point of gasping for air by the time he finished. He took a deep breath, turned to me, and said, “Lou, they are dying like flies.” I glanced at him and saw he had forgotten to turn off the microphone. I pointed at the big red light glaring on the console, and he gently turned off the mike and asked, “What do we do now?” “Turn off the phone,” I said, and we never heard another word about it. 
 
From getting into trouble with our salesman for introducing his Dr. Pepper commercials with, “Now a word from our favorite quack,” to Dan Booth teaching me how to spin our three-foot record player platters to point you could put your finger through a 45 RPM record hole, set it on its edge on the player and watch the record go round and round until it settled on the spindle ready to play, I found my time as a broadcaster one of the best experiences of my life. I would love to see a return to those live radio days. 
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