‘Round the Rough and Rugged Rock

Broadcasting, Life, Reflections
A scrimshaw depiction of my radio show by the artist Joe Toe.

A scrimshaw depiction of my radio show by the artist Joe Toe.

One of my fellow announcers used to go around the station repeating the line, “round the rough and rugged rock the ragged rascal ran,” in as deep a voice as possible before going on the air. He thought that it made his voice deeper. He said that if he ever wrote a book about his experiences in broadcasting, he would make that his title. So, I used to repeat it too, along with other poems with silly alliteration. I also stuck a cork between my teeth while I practiced reading copy – another common practice. I don’t think it helped. However, I would discover that radio was, indeed, a rough and rugged rock.

My desire to work in radio began because my dad loved country music and he took me to concerts when I was a child. I saw and heard people like Marty Robbins, Roy Acuff, Kitty Wells, Ray Price, George Jones and many others – They performed under colored lights, wearing rhinestone costumes that changed color under the lights every time the singer moved. And I said, “That’s what I want to do. I want to be a country singer and stand up there in a rhinestone suit!”  There was one problem: I can’t sing a note.

So, I decided the next best way to impress my dad was to become a country music disc jockey. I bugged one of the most popular country deejays in town until he agreed to let me shadow him. I followed him like a poodle while he worked and I learned. Several months later, I had my own show on that station – WWAB Radio in Lakeland, FL.

I was terrible, but I was on the radio and, I thought, on my way to a great career in broadcasting.  I had a learning disability and had never done well in school. So, I quit school.  I was functionally illiterate, but who needs school when you’re going to be a great radio personality, right? However, this was still in the day when the deejay running the board was expected to do it all – read news, sports and commercials.

Thus, I gained the incentive for teaching myself to read and write. Along the way, I attended night school, achieved a GED and attended a community college (Eventually, I would become a graduate of the University of Tampa). As I continued to work at small and medium marked stations, I did everything from car sale remotes to taking out the garbage while always thinking that I was just paying my dues for big market.

Big market never happened and its pursuit began to take a toll on my self-esteem. Along the way, however, I had developed a love for writing. I wrote news, sports, weather forecasts, public service announcements and commercials. When I realized the station program director was using my creative talent but not properly compensating me for it, I decided to become a freelance writer in 1984.

During my years in radio, I learned to understand and appreciate the pioneers of the industry. I came to comprehend what I could learn from them and use in my work.

From hearing about, reading about and listening to tapes of the greats from the early years, I gleaned what they had learned through a combination of trial and error.

Here were these great performers, challenged to transfer their talents from other venues to this new way of reaching an audience; a new way of reaching out to an entire nation.  Greats such as Ed Wynn, with one of radio’s earliest comedy shows; the show featured his outrageous puns that he brought to radio from his work in the Ziegfeld Follies. There was Will Rogers, who used his wit and political humor to endear himself to listeners; Ed Sullivan, who became well known in radio for his ability to conduct interviews; Groucho Marx, who brought his comedy to a national audience via radio; as did Bob Hope, Milton Berle and many others.

President Franklin Roosevelt became so good at using radio for what was called his “fireside chats” that he was known as the “radio President.” Bing Crosby, Kate Smith and many other singers became famous on the radio in its early days. Many of these talents went on to greatness in television and movies, but it was radio that propelled their careers.

It was, however, studying the career of Arthur Godfrey more than any other single individual that taught me what all of these successful broadcasters had in common. It was Godfrey who once put it into words that proved invaluable to me as a young person aspiring to a career in broadcasting.  He once observed that the way to reach people in radio is to pretend that you are talking to one person. Listening to tapes of his radio days and the other great pioneers, I realized how well they practiced that idea. Even the singers when they talked, had that ability to take advantage of radio’s potential intimacy with an audience.

Had I not studied the technique of talking to one person and put it in practice in my work, my radio career would have been even less successful.  Applying that advice to actual on-air work is, of course, not as easy as it may seem. It takes practice and dedication. My efforts to emulate the pioneers paid off with my ability to do “color” commentary on high school football games and conduct interviews with even the most famous of guests.

In my career, I had the honor of interviewing Larry Gatlin, Tammy Wynette, George Jones, Ralph Emery, John Anderson, Red Grange, Joe Garagiola, Charley Pride, Florida Governor Rubin Askew and many others. Many times those that I interviewed would tell me how impressed they were that I had obviously researched prior to the interview. They also often commented on what they called my easygoing or happy-go-lucky style. These were the things that I had learned from studying the great pioneers.

I’ve often told people who want to do interviews that if they just do some research, they’ll not only do a good interview but they’ll probably make a friend for life. Years after I worked in radio, I was able to secure interviews for newspaper articles that I wrote because of connections established during my radio interview days.

In addition, I’ve had occasions to teach individuals how to prepare to be interviewed; for example, as a member of the Board of Directors of Paint Your Heart Out Lakeland, I was in charge of public relations and chaired the PR Committee. I wrote a preparation for the other members of the PYHOL Board to help prepare them for radio interviews. We were planning interviews to promote the organization’s non-profit activities.

My years in radio did not lead me to the big market broadcasting career I hoped for. However, those years drastically improved my ability as a public speaker, as well as my ability as a writer and as a reader.  I developed a love for news, history, many different music genres and the arts in general.  And, of course, my admiration for those pioneers in broadcasting increased through all my experiences ‘round the rough and rugged rock.