Archive for the ‘Radio’ Category

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What I am is what I am…

Minutes after meeting legendary CBS newsman Bill Plante, I was throwing up in the opulent bathroom of the Michigan Avenue Hilton.

It likely had more to do with the several whiskey waters I had tossed back that evening (a little rugged for a 20-year-old Coors Light drinker) than the excitement of meeting Mr. Plante but still, I’d just shaken hands and exchanged pleasantries with a reporter I’d watched on the national news for years.

It was the 1980’s and I was in Chicago for the Society of Professional Journalists (then Sigma Delta Chi) convention. Three of us officers of our university’s chapter made the trip to learn about journalism ethics, meet leaders in the industry and find out if we had what it took to be journalists. We did and all went on to have careers in the field.

The Society of Professional Journalists is our country’s oldest journalism organization, promoting ethics and freedom in journalism for 108 years. It was an honor to belong to it because its members represented the reporters people trusted to tell them the truth.

I grew up during a time of great journalists. Walter Cronkite, Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, Ed Bradley, David Brinkley, Helen Thomas, Ted Koppel, Peter Jennings, Charles Kuralt, Dan Rather, Anna Quindlen, Barbara Walters. We tuned into their broadcasts and read their articles to find out what was happening in our world. They had access to people and places we didn’t so they could go in and ask the questions we wanted to but couldn’t. That was their job – to be our eyes and ears and voices and we trusted them to do that.

I’m proud of the years I spent as a reporter and news director and hope during that time, people regarded me as an ethical journalist who reported the facts.  

Once trusted news outlets and reporters are taking a big hit in credibility these days and President Trump decries “fake news” on a daily basis. In the old days, you could back up your facts with film footage or audio clips or photographs. There was always the chance those materials could be tampered with but the technology wasn’t as readily available to do that as it is today. Now anyone with Photoshop or a video editing app can turn out altered imagery and post it online in minutes for the world to see.

So when it comes to news, if you can’t trust what you see, hear or read, what can you trust? 

Your common sense.

Fake news reels you in because it usually contains just enough truth to make you think it MIGHT be plausible and that little bit of doubt makes you overlook the misinformation and inaccuracies. We’re in such a rush to know, know, KNOW everything that we don’t take the time to step back and use our common sense. 

It’s your right to believe what you want to believe. But wouldn’t you rather believe something that was TRUE?

There are still good, ethical journalists out there who are doing their damnedest to tell us the truth. We just have to be open to hearing it.

Where do you get your news? What media outlets do YOU trust?

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As the last strains of Steppenwolf’s “Magic Carpet Ride” (released a hundred years ago and now considered classical music) echo through the control room speakers, the paramedics draw the sheet over my faded “Your face was made for radio” t-shirt. They gently remove the headphones from my greyed head before covering my face and wheeling me out the front door I’ve held keys to longer than to any other place in my life. As they slide the gurney into the ambulance, one medic says, “I grew up listening to her.” The other replies, “So did my parents. And grandparents.”

That’s how I imagined my radio career would end. It ends this Sat., July 18, 2015 for reasons I wouldn’t have imagined. 

Running the board at KJJQ, circa 1987

Running the board at KJJQ, circa 1987

Radio is all I ever wanted to do. Growing up, I recorded my own radio shows on a suitcase-sized tape recorder. At 19, I went on the air as an intern at KIMM/Hit 100 in Rapid City, SD and from there to a real announcer’s job with KJJQ/Q102 in Brookings, SD. I ended up at what’s now KCCR/KLXS in Pierre, SD where, with a few short lapses, I’ve spent nearly 25 years, moving from news director to sales rep to promotions director to PSA director and announcer.

For many years now, the radio station hasn’t felt like a job but more like a second home. A place I go to talk to my friends about anything and everything, to play good music, to inform and entertain. When I started in radio, we played the National Anthem before every sign-on, wrote copy on a typewriter, and used reel-to-reels, carts and turntables. That gave way to cassettes then CD’s then computers and satellite feeds. I feel old yet privileged to have been there for all those changes in my industry.

Deciding to leave was hard. Life made the decision for me. Many of my listeners might not know that for the last 16 years, I’ve had two jobs: a full-time job with the State of South Dakota, and my radio station gig. One feeds my family, the other feeds my soul. When I was diagnosed with cancer last year, I didn’t consider quitting either one, although if forced to, which one to leave was obvious. But I’m stubborn and I didn’t want to go. Through testing, treatment, bone marrow biopsies, crappy chemo days and finally stem cell harvesting, I went on the air as many days as I could. Some days they weren’t my best shows ever but they were the best show I could give that day. Thanks for listening, either way.

I have a stem cell transplant coming up next month and I know it’ll kick that cancer to the curb. But when the transplant and recovery period are over, there can be only one. Job, that is. And practicality, which is not always my strong suit, has dictated which one it has to be.

I’ll miss the people, the spontaneity, the pace, the thrill of not knowing what’ll happen during my show and how to tell you about it when it does. And I’ll miss having a place to go to just be myself. I’ve never used an on-air name that wasn’t my real name because I always wanted radio to just be me on the air with an open mic and something to say.

Maybe my departure from radio isn’t for forever but for just right now. I’ve left and been hired back several times over the years. But if it doesn’t happen again, that’s O.K. Life really is about time – how much you have and what you do with it. I’ve spent a lot of my time working. When you catch your second wind in life, maybe you should use it to climb new mountains and conquer new peaks. Some people go their whole lives without ever getting to do what they really want to do. I got to live my dream for well over half my life and it’s been the BEST TIME EVER.

My last “Kelly Thompson Show” this Saturday will be all requests, as many as I can find the music for and fit into two hours and 52 minutes. Those last 8 minutes are all mine for the final “Three Stories Hot off the Wire” and my good-bye song which will remain a secret until it’s played. If there’s something you want to hear between 6:00 a.m. and 9:00 a.m. CT July 18, please post it in the comments below or email it to kelly@todayskccr.com by noon on July 16.

If you’re within 150 miles in any direction of Pierre, SD this Saturday morning, tune me in on your radio at 1240 AM. And if you’re not, I’ll be streaming live at todayskccr.com. It’ll just be me on the air with an open mic and something to say.

Kel on the air

Talking the talk in my control room

All right, all right, they're MINE!

All right, all right, they’re MINE!

I have an autographed picture of Steppenwolf, a guitar pick caught at a Tesla concert, a t-shirt from the Lilithfair music festival. These are not the trappings of a country music fan. Because country music is not my thing. Except that I get paid to play it.

For the past nine months, I’ve hosted a morning radio show on a hot country station. Some people still can’t believe I’m doing it. Some days I’m one of them. It’s not totally inconceivable; my first deejay job 25 years ago was at a country station. For three years, I clocked in and played Johnny Cash, George Jones, and Tanya Tucker. Then I clocked out and listened to INXS, Motley Crue and the Violent Femmes. Work music didn’t come home, home music didn’t go to work. It was all very nice and tidy that way.

The first seven months of my latest radio gig was just like that. Then I noticed several country songs mysteriously appeared on my iPod. WTH? I don’t listen to country music at home. A quick flip through my playlists revealed to my horror that apparently now I do. And if my Top 25 Most Played list is to be believed, I listen to it A LOT.

Before you run out and buy me a cowboy hat and a shiny silver belt buckle, let me clarify – I don’t like ALL country music. Some of the lyrics still make me cringe and my twang tolerance level varies but there are a growing number of country artists whose inspiration is decidedly un-country.

If you’re a music purist, get ready to call for my head on a turntable because I’ve got news for you: there’s no such thing as pure music. The first drummers got their inspiration from raindrops falling on hollow logs. Rap draws from rock, rock pulls from gospel, alternative channels jazz, and Justin Bieber? Well, I don’t know where the hell he’s getting his stuff from but the point is that musicians find inspiration everywhere, regardless of genre. And so do music lovers.

So today I might be tapping my cowboy boots to Brad Paisley (yes, I now own a pair. O.K., two pair. Don’t judge me, they’re comfortable). But tomorrow I could be crooning to Etta James. And the day after that, banging my head to Metallica. Because when you’re deejaying your life’s soundtrack, you need a big album collection.

If you want to dive into country music, here are my top 5 picks (in no particular order) with which to test the waters: Miranda Lambert, “Mama’s Broken Heart“; Brad Paisley, “Southern Comfort Zone“; Zac Brown Band, “The Wind“; Dierks Bentley, “Home“; and Kacey Musgraves, “Merry Go ‘Round“.

What are you listening to these days that you never thought you would be?

On June 9, 2011, the Missouri River was steadily creeping over its banks into Pierre, South Dakota , where I live. On June 9, 1972, Rapid Creek was careening through Rapid City, South Dakota, where I briefly lived.

The floods in these two communities are separated by so much more than 40 years and 180 miles. Last year’s flood drove people from their homes, shuttered businesses, and caused millions of dollars in property damage. But we saw it coming. In fact, many watched helplessly as the Missouri River rose and rose, flowing unheeded over a span of weeks and months. There was some time to evacuate (as I related in “What Do You Take?”), fill sandbags, and construct levees.

In 1972, the residents of Rapid City didn’t know what hit them. A storm dumped 10 inches of rain over a 60-mile area, flash-flooding Rapid Creek which winds through the city. Water roared over the creek banks, sweeping buildings, vehicles, trees, and people, ahead of it. Throughout the night, residents clung to whatever they could to survive – fences, trees, light poles, the roofs of houses. They heard the screams of others being swept away, the crack of beams splintering, the groan of metal as cars collided. And above it all, the deafening rush of the water.

When the floodwaters receded on June 10, 1972, 238 people were dead. More than 1,300 homes were completely destroyed with 2,800 more damaged. Thirty-six businesses were lost with another 236 sustaining heavy damage. Five thousand vehicles became scrap metal. The recovery took years.

In the summer of 1985, I was an intern at a radio station in Rapid City and even thirteen years after the horrific events of that day, a heavy rain could still instill fear and dread among the city’s residents.

On the 40th anniversary of the Rapid Creek flood, Rapid City is a community resurrected, risen from the floodwaters that still flow in the memory of so many. And while the devastation caused by last year’s flood in my own community should not be minimized, I can’t help but think of just how lucky we are; it could have been so much worse.

In 1972, the Rapid City Journal gave the country a firsthand account of the Rapid Creek flood. Forty years later, they’re doing the same with an impressive series of interviews and images. It’s well worth a look, especially the collection “The People of the 1972 Flood”.

“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?

The first dead body I saw not in a hospital or a casket was lying in an alley. There were two of them. They were a couple, and that’s why they were dead because the woman’s ex-husband wasn’t happy about it.

My first homicide as a reporter was the first murder in 10 years in the town where I live. It happened on a weeknight, two blocks from City Hall where I was covering a meeting. The radio station sent someone to get me. These were the days before cell phones and text messages when news tips came from police scanners and the lips of people you trusted. I grabbed my notebook and tape recorder and ran the few blocks to the crime scene, heart pounding not from the exertion but from the adrenalin of a big story and the fear of screwing it up in the telling.

I’d covered crime before in a city bigger than this one. One of my first news stories there was about a carload of people who’d been shot in the parking lot of a strip club. No one died in that incident and I didn’t see the carnage firsthand although the news director I worked for did. I just covered the police briefings and trial. But the hometown murder in the alley that night was mine to report.

The crime scene was easy enough to find. I just followed the flashing lights and the uniforms. Onlookers were kept at bay which was no easy task since a lot of them were drunk. The murder had taken place behind a popular bar and everyone there had witnessed the confrontation that led to the final act. I skirted the crowd and went down the alley. I didn’t ask anybody where I could go; I was with the press so I just went. I came around a police cruiser and saw the dead man’s legs first. I kept moving until I could see the rest of him. And her. They’d been shot.

Dead people look normal in caskets. Not “alive” (no mortician is that good) but they don’t look out of place. Bodies in alleys do. It doesn’t matter if they’re laid out sleeping or flung across the asphalt bleeding, they don’t belong there. I saw the crime scene for about 30 seconds before an officer barked, “Get back! What are you doing?”

“Press,” my 22-year-old voice squeaked. I was hustled back behind the line.

A press briefing was hastily thrown together back at City Hall. It was crowded and crazy. Muffled sobbing. Squawk of police radios. Chatter of the press corps. The police chief’s statement was short and to the point: two victims shot and killed, one suspect in custody, no names released until the families could be notified. Questions were shouted but few were answered. It was too early to know much of anything.

I rushed back to the station, typed up a quick story with a sound bite from the chief, and broke in to regular programming with a “This just in…” news announcement. The story broke fast – confessions, charges, funerals, trial, sentencing. I followed it the whole way and for the first time since becoming a radio news director, I felt like a real reporter with an important story to tell. A few months later, when the next murder came along (this one a stabbing at a local motel), I was ready.

I eventually left the radio station for a state bureau chief job with United Press International and I would have happily worked there until the reporter’s notebook was plucked from my cold dead fingers but a corporate bankruptcy followed by massive lay-offs put an end to that. Other reporting opportunities in other places slipped from my grasp because my home situation didn’t allow for a move. One of the toughest professional decisions I ever made was to stay where I am for the good of my family. Some days I still regret it.

The people we want to be don’t always end up being the people we become. The roads we travel, either professionally or personally, have exit ramps and intersections and sometimes even a good GPS can’t save you from getting lost. My road led me to start writing fiction and not surprisingly, a good chunk of it is more dark alley than sunny meadow. The reporter’s instincts may be rusty but they’re still getting used and I’m grateful for that.

What unexpected place did YOUR road take YOU and how has it shaped the person you are now?

And if you’re interested in hearing the story of one woman’s journey from the dark into the light, HOT OFF THE WIRE is pleased to be hosting author Margaret Norton Mon., Feb. 20, 2012 for her blog tour to promote the re-release of her book “When Ties Break” as an e-book. Swing by for my review and some Q&A with Margaret herself. I might even break out the dessert plates and serve some refreshments. Feel free to bring a friend.

What's Christmas without elves?

I hadn’t intended to post again before Christmas. Then Meg stopped at the radio station while I was on the air this morning and here we are. Meg is my friend Jody’s mother. I met her years before I really knew Jody but now my association with her is mostly through him…and the radio station. Meg is a loyal listener to my show and on random Saturday mornings, she surprises me with breakfast. Today the donuts and juice came with an unexpected Christmas gift. Because that’s how Meg is.  Which is how MY mother was.

Mine is a family of motherless children. My Dad, husband, brother-in-law, sister and I have all lost our mothers. The period of absence ranges from about five years to nearly 30 years. But that’s neither here nor there; mothers are missed no matter how long they’ve been gone. Christmas is when I miss mine the most because this was HER holiday. She was a reindeer antler-wearing, Christmas-cookie-baking, every-room-in-the-house-decorating, year-long-Christmas-shopping kind of mom. Martha Stewart on her best day, at the top of her game, with a staff of hundreds, couldn’t have topped her.

A good friend of mine lost her mother earlier this year and is celebrating her first Christmas tomorrow without her. Last week she asked me if I had any advice on how to get through it.  The experience is different for everyone but I tried to give her some ideas I thought would help, and I’ll check back with her after the holiday to see how she’s doing.  Her situation and Meg’s visit this morning got me thinking about what a big role my Mom still plays in my Christmas.

My Mom is the Christmas stockings I hang for every member of the family (four-legged included), the Christmas carols I play on the piano, the Christmas brunch I’ll fix tomorrow, the after-Christmas bargains I’ll shop for next week to get a jump on next year. And if you’re lucky enough to catch a glimpse of Santa and his sleigh tonight, look for the elf with angel’s wings flying alongside. That’ll be my Mom, giving him directions, so he doesn’t miss anybody. Because that’s how she was.