Thousand-watt lifers

An old friend dropped by the Learfield office the other day.  He’s grayer than he was the last time I saw him but the booming voice is still there along with the friendly laugh and the enthusiasm about things in general.  He’s been out of radio for several years, leaving the business to care for his ailing mother, who has since died.  Now he’s caring for his ailing sister and living in St. Charles.

Folks in several Missouri towns will remember R. J. McAlester.  In one of the towns they’ll remember him by his real name of Ed Moreland.   I wrote about R. J. and people like him a decade ago in my Chairman’s column for THE COMMUNICATOR, the monthly magazine of the Radio-Television News Directors Association (now the Radio-Television Digital News Association—reflecting the changes in the industry).  I’m going to borrow some things from that article because the R. J.’s and people like him are fading away, victims–if you will–of some of the less positive changes in the broadcasting industry.  Here’s part of that piece from 2004:

“Here’s a toast to the thousand-watt lifers.  They might be the ones who are purest in heart in our industry today.

We all know them, or have run into them, or have worked with them.  Some of you reading this column ARE them.

They are the people who have spent their lives reporting the news at thousand-watt radio stations, or in smaller markets in our land.   Their television equivalents are those who have spent decades in smaller-market television stations.

“I’m on teevee here localeeeee.  No, thanks, Omaha, thanks a lot,” as Roger Miller used to sing.

They are the ones who have not outgrown the understanding that the school lunch menu can be news; that obits are people; and that the city council, the school board, and the county commission are always important.

They understand that listeners are neighbors more than they are numbers; that a chalk outline on a sidewalk is a tragedy more than it is a gripping visual image.  They have a tendency to understand how the price a farmer is paid for a bushel of corn is linked to whether a local grocery store stays open.

They are likely to have more of an innate sense of community than many who work in large markets with more powerful transmitters.

Some of them are gypsies like R. J. McAllister.  Some grow deep roots like John Anthony or Dick Preston…

R.J. has been in the business for 29 years in such places as DeSoto, Fredericktown, Jackson, Osage Beach, Kennett, Columbia, and Springfield, Missouri.  He’s also been to Northwood Iowa and Hoopston, Illinois and Jackson., Michigan.  He’s working in the 144th market now, the biggest market he’s worked in since getting out of college.

There’s John Anthony, who’s been in Trenton, Missouri for thirty years.  Trenton’s a town in north Missouri, in farming country, where traffic reports are nonexistent but where a story about army worms is critical.

Dick Preston has been at a television station in Jefferson City since he got out of college in the 1960s, anchoring and reporting, a familiar  and comfortable face and voice to his viewers.

You undoubtedly know others like them, rooted or rootless, but committed to making their communities better informed.”

John and Dick remain at their stations today.

I could have, probably should have, mentioned Bill Peterson at KWIX in Moberly, whom I met when he was working at KWOS in Jefferson City, a station competing with the local station where I worked then.  Or Marion “Woody” Woods, who has been the morning voice and a community leader in Warrensburg for almost half a century.

R. J.’s visit coupled with a discovery I made while messing around on Google the other day led to this entry.  The discovery I made noted that Gary Knehans had been honored by the Waynesville City Council last September for fifty years of service to the community.  Gary had been hired at KJPW shortly after the station went on the air, a decade or so before the Missourinet was born with KJPW as an affiliate and he started feeding us stories from the Fort Leonard Wood area.

I asked in that 2004 COMMUNICATOR column:

“Could it be that the people in our industry who are the most connected to the audience are the thousand-watt lifers, people who most clearly understand the things that are  important to their audiences?  Why?   Because they or others in their stations go to the Rotary or Lions or Kiwanis Club meetings and they hear the talk.  They are at the city council meetings and school board meetings when the public speaks up about parks, sidewalks, parking spaces, dangerous intersections, class sizes, band uniforms, or the perils of Wal-Mart coming in and sucking the life out of downtown.

But they are becoming endangered.  Salaries are often not good enough to get or keep the committed local reporter who used to be able to devote his life to these community stations.  In radio, some group owners are piping in the “local” news from bigger stations somewhere else. In some places, they’re the only ones left in the newsroom and they’re trying to do news for five or six stations.  R. J. told me the other day, “I haven’t burned out yet.  I’ve come close a couple of times, though.”  But R. J. is a believer in the importance of what he does.

People like him might be one-man bands (or one-woman bands), but they know their listeners rely on them for information about the things that are important in their lives, real news about fireworks ordinances and whether the county road district will get a new grader to help the school bus get down a smoother road, or about the high school band trying to raise enough money to march in some bowl game parade.

When somebody puts together a candidates forum, they’re asked to moderate, not because they’re a star but because they’re a respected member of the community.

They don’t spend time on budgets because they don’t have budgets.  Sometimes, if they’re lucky, the boss asks them if they need a new recorder this year.

They are there in the dark to tell you how much snow fell while you were asleep. And they’re there until the city council goes home that night.

The thousand-watt lifers are a vanishing breed.  They often don’t earn enough to stay in the business, but many do anyway. And when they do leave, it’s increasingly difficult to find someone who wants the job for that salary and will do that job for that salary.  Young people coming into the business, often with college debts, don’t even look at those markets as starting points for their professional careers much less consider the possibility that they might find something there that makes staying worthwhile.

Let’s hope, however, that we always have a quantity of thousand-watt lifers.  Let’s hope there are always those we can appreciate for making their lives and their living far from the big-time.  Those of us who judge contests know some really good work is being done by those folks.  Sometimes listening to their entries can teach supposedly more sophisticated newsrooms some important lessons.

So here’s to the thousand-watt lifers, to their love for our business; their commitment to reporting for their people; their recognition of service to community and to the medium that addicts them.  They often are the unsung examples for others in larger markets with stronger voices who can only be, at best, their equals.”

So much has changed in the broadcasting industry since I wrote that piece.   If you live in a town that still has a vital local radio news operation, you are blessed.  Big corporations have swallowed hundreds of local radio stations and have decided any significant public service to the communities where they are licensed is dispensable; the only thing that matters is sucking as much money as possible out of a community to satisfy corporate stockholders.

R. J. doesn’t think there would be a place for him anymore in our industry, should he ever be in a position to re-enter it.   That’s a tragedy, not just for him but for the communities where opportunities for people like him no longer exist.

Cherish your thousand-watt lifers, folks.  And the stations and station owners who are committed to your service.  If you live in a city or a town where some of these people live and work alongside you, you are most fortunate.

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4 thoughts on “Thousand-watt lifers

  1. Amen – to all you said as a former reporter at a Springfield radio station who left the biz back in the 70’s. It was one of the best jobs I’ve ever had, and one where I got a lot of emotional ‘pay’ every week – it was just that my kids were getting reduced price lunches at school because we were so poor – and I was working a second job!. My hat’s off to those who stuck it out and I both appreciate and honor their dedication

  2. Written written and well said. I hope there’s a thousand watter for me when I retire. That’s how I’d like to spend my last days. On a thousand watter, making the lives of the people that listen (and not just hear) a better place. These small, grass roots stations will be the ones that keep radio viable and valuable. The major chains have pretty much stunk up the big cities but stations in Farmington, Warrensburg, Trenton, Chillicothe, Rolla, etc. are providing great local content and service to their cities of license. A tip of my cap to those will continue to fight the good fight.

  3. Great article about radio’s unsung heroes. Those of us (in radio) who have lived with the challenges of consolidation in medium or large markets often forget the battles being fought at the small market level at the school board meetings or city council. And the fight to keep these jobs which are lifelines to their communities.

    Some things are the same in all size markets…you have great, dedicated radio people doing the best they can with the resources they are given.

  4. Thanks for taking me back to the magical days of the late 1960’s and early 70’s when I got hooked on radio riding my bicycle around Indianola IA with the transistor tuned to the old 1490 KBAB along with the Des Moines AM stations of the late 60’s and early 70’s.

    Thanks to high school radio and four historical years at Northwest Missouri State, I’ve had a great professional career learning in El Dorado, Arkansas City/WInfield, McPherson, and Hutchinson KS, Commerce TX, and Nebraska City NE.

    Add to that listening over the years to Woody and many others on smartphone apps and in the car radio driving through TX, OK, KS, MO, NE, and IA visiting friends and family.

    Those combined experiences continue to help me hone my craft at the only locally-owned media company in Bryan/College Station TX, where we practice public service driven community radio each day.

    Thanks Bob for your many years writing this blog and your leadership that goes far beyond Missourinet and RTDNA.

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