Posts Tagged ‘radio’

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 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 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?

“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.

I had a job interview this week, my first one in years. I should have been more nervous, I suppose, but interviewing is like second nature to me. In my current full-time job, I get interviewed all the time although it’s about what I know not who I am. And for many years, I’ve been an interviewer – on the air, for a story, doing sales, hiring people.

Questions and answers. That’s all an interview is. What makes it so tricky is which one you’re doing and how much it matters to you. Few interviews are a matter of life and death – unless you’re asked to donate a kidney, you’re trying to adopt, or someone is holding a gun to your head demanding that you give up classified information. The rest of the time, it’s just plain old Q&A.

I’ve had job interviews when I was unemployed and desperate, when I was employed and restless, and a couple of times, when I wasn’t even looking.  A few from the highlight reel…

Most embarrassing interview moment: Breaking my ankle leaving an interview with an advocacy program for the handicapped (ah, the irony). It was already sprained but I’d worn heels anyway because they went with the power suit I had on. (I know, ME in a power suit? It was the 90’s and all chicks in charge were wearing them. I had the required shoulder pads and big hair, too.) I stood up at the end of the interview and SNAP! The ankle went and I hit the floor, powerfully (must have been the suit). I should mention most of the board members interviewing me had wheelchairs or arm crutches. One of them loaned me his crutches so I could hobble to the parking lot. I didn’t get the job.

Most truthful interview response: While interviewing for a job I wasn’t sure I wanted or could even do, I was asked why they should hire me.  I replied, “Some of these things I can do, some of them I can’t. If you’ve got instructions for the things I can’t do, I’ll figure it out. If I have questions, I’ll ask. If I have problems with someone, I’ll tell them. If you have problems with me, tell me. If you yell at me, I won’t listen.  Don’t look over my shoulder while I’m working and don’t feel like you have to pat me on the back if I’m doing a good job. Keep the paycheck coming and I’ll keep showing up.” I got the job…at twice what I had been making.

Dumbest interview question I’ve ever been asked: “If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?” Here are my suggested answers, in case you’re ever hit with this one. When you want the job: “I’d be an evergreen because they’re hardy, work well in any environment, and always portray a positive image.” When you don’t want the job: “I’d be a stump because they maintain a low profile, don’t do anything but sit there, and can’t be easily removed.” The response I gave: “That is the dumbest question I’ve ever been asked.” Yeah, that response can also fall under the “When you don’t want the job” category.

Best interview advice I’ve ever been given: from a hippie DJ I worked with at a radio station over 20 years ago. He said, “Just be who you are, man. Don’t waste your energy pretending to be something you’re not. They always find out the truth.” Straight-up solid advice.

This week’s interview was O.K. as far as interviews go, and I think my chances at the job are about as good as anybody’s.  I’ve settled in for the Big Wait and after the holidays, it comes down to one more question and answer – will they be asking and what will I say if they do?

Me on the job, late 1980's

A Holiday Tale

They huddle together in the darkness, flush with anticipation, muscles taut and ready to spring. The weak among them eye the strong nervously; they know they don’t have the speed or agility to lead the pack but they’ll try nevertheless (gotta love ’em for that). The air is filled with the scent of sweat, perfume, Bengay, and cappuccino. Something moves up ahead and they jostle for position, eager for the hunt.

The gatekeepers, a middle-aged woman with a too-bright smile, and a teenage boy who until this moment has never known true fear, release the lock and pull back the metal accordion gates. It’s Black Friday.

The crowd surges forward and Bright Smile yells to the boy: “For the love of God, get out of the way!” But it’s too late. A grandmother with a handbag the size of a 1978 Buick is shaking him by the front of his red vest, screaming, “Where are the $9.99 comforters? Tell me!” He points a shaky finger and manages to gasp “Aisle 7” before she tosses him aside and disappears. He crawls behind the “Check Your Blood Pressure” machine; he’ll be found there hours later, curled in the fetal position, shivering.

They fan out across the store, those burdened by shopping carts and dollies with 42” flatscreen T.V.’s sticking to the main aisles while the nimble wheel-less zig and zag through the side rows. Suddenly, in the toy department, just to the right of the Lego buckets (only $2.99, limit of 5), they see him. He’s about 5 or 6, with a blond buzz cut, wearing cargo pants and a Spiderman pajama top. And he’s dancing.

His moves are nothing of the usual kid variety, not the “I Have to Pee” polka, “Mommy, I Want This” mambo, or “Can We Go Now” galopede (author’s note: that’s a real dance, trust me). He’s dancing for the sheer joy of moving to the music, a Ray Conniff Singers’ holiday medley blaring from the store speakers overhead. And he’s doing something that no one else around him seems to be…he’s smiling.

Many of the shoppers stop to watch and soon they’re grinning at this child so filled with the spirit of the season. Gone are thoughts of beating the crowd to the $9.99 blu-ray discs, wresting a $5.00 sweater from the grip of the woman who’s grabbed the last red one, or tripping the guy on the right just as he reaches for the only $49.99 bicycle left on the rack. Because this, this is what the holidays are all about…sharing joy with others.

Behind him, his mother smiles…as she scoops the last Transformers toys on special into her cart. She hugs him gently, and a tear sparkles in her eye as she whispers, “Let’s go, Dancin’ Machine! Momma needs some things in electronics.”

The one on the right will tell you she's a lollipop (I still say SUCKER) and the one on the left is just one cute chick

Each year, there’s one thing that puts me in the holiday spirit and it’s not Black Friday or Christmas decorations or eggnog (I prefer spiked cider, actually)…it’s Darlene Love’s “Christmas, Baby, Please Come Home”. In the 20+ years I’ve been on the air in radio, it’s the first holiday song I play every year. And I’m sharing it with you, because when it comes to Christmas, I’m all about the giving…

So, tell me, what puts YOU in the holiday mood?!?

He lit into town in the summer of ’86, a stranger from back East. The shopkeepers and townsfolk watched him drive up the dusty Main Street, past the faded facades of stone and brick. Even the miners left their barstools and stood in open doorways as he passed. The Homestake Mine was still open then, would be for another 15 years, the last one still operating from the Gold Rush of ’76. But the stranger wasn’t there for gold. He’d come to Deadwood, South Dakota for one reason only: he aimed to find himself a dead hooker and he wasn’t leaving without one.

His name was Norman Gauthier and he was an investigator with the New Hampshire Institute for Paranormal Research. Yep, Norman was a ghost hunter. And the ghost he was hunting was a prostitute who’d lived and died at the Green Door.

The Green Door was one of four whorehouses that had occupied the second floors of connecting buildings on Main Street in Deadwood since the business district had been rebuilt after the fire of 1879. The courts knew the brothels as the Pine, Shasta, Cozy and Frontier Rooms; everybody else knew them by the colors of their street-level entrances: the Green Door, White Door, Purple Door and Beige Door. All were closed for business by the time Norman came to town, the result of a raid by law enforcement in 1980.

But Norman had a personal invitation to the Green Door and he was bringing us along as his special guests. “Us” being the local media which included myself as a news intern and Steve, the assistant news director at the Rapid City radio station where I worked. Newspaper reporters and a television crew rounded out the group.

That evening, we went through the infamous Green Door, up the steps to the men’s parlor where clients for decades had waited their turn. There, the owner of the building gave us the 50-cent tour, past the bathrooms and the kitchen, storage areas and finally the “cribs”, the business end of the operation. The one where we would spend the night was on the front of the building, with an alcove that overlooked Main Street.

We waited as Norman set up his recording equipment, each finding places to hunker down for the next several hours. When everything and everyone was in place, the owner told this story:

“In this room in the 1930’s, a hooker was strangled by a man of questionable reputation. They’d fought about the evening’s business, a matter of price, it was thought, and the hooker had come out on the wrong end of the argument. Thing was, she was nearly dead yet wasn’t and without finishing the job, the john had thrown her in the closet. Where she finally died.”

Except that she didn’t know she was dead. She was still walking and talking around the Green Door and that’s why Norman had been called in, to prove it. Back 25 years ago, a paranormal investigation was nothing like you see now on “Ghosthunters” (which incidentally, is one of my favorite shows). There were no infrared cameras or EMF detectors or laser grids. It was all audio recording equipment and cameras, 35mm and Polaroid. Recordings were taken for 10 minutes at a time and for those 10 minutes, nobody could breathe or move for fear of contaminating the evidence.

If you’ve ever been cloistered in a room with a group of reporters, you know how nearly impossible it is for them to do absolutely nothing for 10 minutes. Silence is not normally a reporter’s friend. But during those recording times, the only sounds in the darkened room were the hum of the equipment, the beating of our hearts and for me, kneeling alone in the alcove, the drunken crowds on the street below. You see, it was the “Days of ‘76” in Deadwood, an annual celebration of the community’s gold mining heritage, and it was not an event that was celebrated quietly.

By daybreak, we were all ready to talk and eager to listen to the tapes to see if the dead hooker had been among us that night. The media took a short break outside, stretching legs and smoking cigarettes, while Norman quickly perused the recordings for evidence. Then the call came down the stairs: he’d found something. We rushed back up to the parlor, notebooks, tape recorders and cameras in hand. Norman Gauthier had found his dead hooker and we were there to witness it.

“She was here all right,” Norman exclaimed in the authoritative tone of a man who knew his business. He played a snippet of tape and in the white noise was a faint…something. A laugh? A cry? Was it female? He said it was, and that there were words, too. We strained to hear. A man’s name, perhaps? The name of her killer?

He followed that up with some other random recordings – footsteps brushing the carpeted floor, the tinkling of piano keys. Had there been a piano here in the brothel back then? he inquired of the building owner. She nodded in the affirmative. They’d had music to entertain the men while they waited to be, ahem, entertained.

There was the evidence, plain as could be, and while the reporters surged on Norman Gauthier to do their interviews, I sat in my chair in the parlor and wondered just what HAD I heard? The laughter and the talking could have just been faint catches from the crowd outside, couldn’t it? I mean, I had heard them myself, right through the window. The footsteps? The normal sounds of an old building settling as the warmth of the day cooled into night. I had to admit, the piano keys had me a bit stumped; I couldn’t come up with a reasonable explanation for that. But all in all, I wasn’t quite convinced.

It didn’t matter whether I thought the Green Door was haunted or not; my job was to write a news story that would invite readers to consider the possibility that it was. Which I did. That story became one of my first wire credits with United Press International and the circumstances that led to my writing it still remain one of my most enjoyable experiences as a reporter and a writer. It gave me a healthy respect for things that can’t be readily explained and the curiosity to look deeper to try and find the words to explain them. And that’s all a writer really needs, isn’t it?

Want to hear the dead hooker from Deadwood, SD yourself? Check out the Black Hills Paranormal Investigations website at