Pilot of the Airwaves

Posted: February 26, 2012 in deejay, humor, Life, Radio, Relationships, storytelling
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

“Mr. Fred” would stride down the aisles of the annual KCCR Farm, Home and Sports Show like an A-lister on Oscar night. He’d call greetings to old friends, shake hands with strangers, wave to his fans, and entertain the audience with his wit. We just held the 40th annual show (my 19th) this weekend and his presence was missed, as it has been every year since he left us.

“Mr. Fred” Smith gave me my first full-time radio job in 1988 as the news director for then KCCR/KNEY. He hired me that first time a month before I graduated from college. During the course of our long relationship, he hired me back twice more, once as a full-time announcer and production director, and finally as a part-time announcer after I left the station for other full-time adventures. He was the operations manager, program director and morning show personality at KCCR, and by the time I started there, he was a radio icon.

Community radio is no easy gig. Our market is big enough that announcers have an impact beyond our coverage area but small enough that people recognize your voice if you’re talking in line behind them at the grocery store. Everyone knew “Mr. Fred“; people still refer to him by that name. He generally said what he thought, played what he wanted, and picked on who he felt like picking on, no matter who it was. He riled people up, calmed them down, made them laugh, curse, cry and sometimes, think. He didn’t care if he wasn’t politically correct and when he was wrong, he’d admit it. But only after he was absolutely, positively, without a shadow of a doubt convinced that he was wrong.

When I first started at the station, “Mr. Fred” scared the hell out of me. On occasion, my mouth runs faster than my brain. Which is why my parents told me repeatedly the weekend before I started my new job to be RESPECTFUL of my boss. I lived in fear of blurting out the wrong thing.

As the news director, each weekday morning at 7:10, I did news headlines on the air with “Mr. Fred“. We’d banter a bit, exchange pleasantries, comment on hot topics, and then I’d spend about a minute previewing the stories I had coming up on local news at the bottom of the hour. The first few weeks were fairly pleasant: no zings, barbs, slams, retorts, or digs. I’d heard “Mr. Fred” hack on other people in my short time there and I considered myself lucky that he apparently liked me too much to do that. Then came the red and black-checked suspender pants.

For those of you who don’t remember the fashion trend from the late 1980’s, for God’s sake, don’t Google them to see what they look like. You’ll only embarrass those of us who actually owned a pair. I think the look is best described as “jaunty”.

That morning, I took my seat across the control board from “Mr. Fred“, and waited for my intro. But instead of talking, he just stood there and looked at me. Finally, he adjusted his stethoscope headphones, flipped on the mics and said, “People, you should see this. What are you wearing? Volkswagen seat covers?”

In my surprise, I said the first thing that popped into my head. “Well, I know they’re not as pretty as that flowered skirt you’re wearing, but I like ‘em.”

The honeymoon was over.

I learned so much from that guy, you can’t imagine. Things like in a “come to Jesus” meeting, if you can’t make them see the light, go for the crucifixion. Deliver bad news calmly, good news enthusiastically, and weather accurately. If the community is willing to listen to you, be willing to listen to them and when they ask you to help, do it. If being respected is the paycheck, being liked is an added bonus. And when someone throws a live turkey into the control room while you’re on the air, try not to scare it; most vacuums don’t pick up turkey shit.

The night Mr. Fred died, I was on the air running the board for Monday Night Football. When I got the phone call, someone covered for me so I could go see his wife, Sandee. When I returned later that night to finish my shift, I played Nat King Cole’s “The Party’s Over” in memory of Mr. Fred.

Good mentors do more than impart knowledge. They ignite passion. Inspire greatness. And teach us humility. I never wore those damn suspender pants to work again.

Did you have a mentor who made a difference in your life, personally or professionally? And if you’re mentoring someone else, what are you teaching them?

  1. Mr. Fred is evidence that God sends people into your life for a reason. It sounds like he made a powerful impression.

    I remember those pants! Jaunty and just a bit on the punk side of dapper. I so admire your quick wit for the comeback, even if you do occasionally flirt with disaster.

    Why does nineteen consecutive appearances at the Farm, Home and Sports Show make nineteen years seem even longer?

    • I have so many good stories about him. He kept me in radio and I will forever be thankful for that. And those were friggin’ awesome pants, were they not?!? I could peg the bottoms at the ankles and wear them with a couple pairs of colored socks and my black ankle boots. Fashion was just not Mr. Fred’s strong suit. I was feeling extremely old with the 19 years thing until the girl at the liquor store told me 45 is the new 35. That made me feel a little better. Well, that and the bottle of wine she sold me before she said it.

  2. Kay Vallery Young says:

    Great post! I wish I could have heard some of your exchanges with Mr. Fred–on or off the air–I’d have been rolling on the floor (and hoping no turkeys had been thrown in lately!)

    • Thanks, Kay! Some of the off-air stuff I couldn’t repeat in polite company. We had the best on-air family in those days. There’s just two of us left from that original group now.

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