Means to an End

It was a foot in the door.

As a 21-year old overnight deejay at KAKE 1240 AM in Wichita, I was ready to move on. Gene Rump, Cap'n Bill McLean and Hooter Myers were the stars. These guys were Wichita broadcasting legends.

Among my overnight duties was to serve as Rump's alarm clock.

"Gene... good morning, it's 5:30!"

"Hrgmphlz."

"Great! See you soon!"

At the time, KAKE Radio and TV were the same outfit, in the same building. My TV work was limited to reading wire copy between all-night movies. On screen, viewers saw a decidedly low-tech fading film slide image of the Wichita skyline at night. They heard my voice. Radio on TV.

I remember getting a letter from a viewer complimenting my diction and pronunciation of words and names like Iran (ear-RAWN), Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, Sadegh Ghotbzadeh and Wojciech Jaruzelski.

(I always thought Ghotbzadeh looked kinda like Fred Flintstone).

I wanted into radio news. Any moron can push buttons and read wire copy. I had Official Broadcast Journalist stars in my eyes. Screwing up the courage and marching myself down the hall to the hallowed KAKE newsroom, I shared my aspirations with the news director.

Ya got no experience, kid. Yeah? But I can pronounce a mean Ghotbzadeh. Not enough. I was gonna hafta go to the sticks.

Turns out a colleagues' father managed a radio station (also attached to a TV station) in Hays and had just fired the entire newsroom. They needed some warm bodies. Yesterday. Experience was not a priority.

In October 1980, I became an Official Broadcast Journalist, KAYS Radio 1410 AM. My second night on the job, I covered the Hays school board. I didn't know a mill levy from an academic performance index.

"You the new guy?" It was Thursday. My fourth day as an Official Broadcast Journalist. The questioner was the TV station manager.

Ignoring the obvious and eager to please, I jumped up and stuck out my hand.

"Hi, I'm Mike Mats--" "Get a haircut," he interrupted. "You're anchoring the TV news on Saturday." Then he turned around and walked away. I learned later that before managing a TV station, the guy was a barber. No damn wonder he thought I needed a trim.

In retrospect, I'd like to be able to say this was simply a tactic in a well thought out, carefully constructed human resource strategy designed to inspire entry level self-starters.

Not so much.

These guys were raking it in. Television, radio and a cable franchise. The only game in that corner of Kansas.

I've since learned those who manage in such circumstances need not necessarily be creative geniuses, or even friendly. If the number on the bottom line is larger than it was last month, everything else is just logistics. A means to an end.

Back then, the current voice of the Jayhawks/Royals, Bob Davis, was the voice of the Fort Hays State Tigers. Bob would rush into the newsroom, seconds before he was to go on the air, grab some AP sports copy off a nail, exclaiming en route that he was "carefully editing and compiling at the High Plains Sports Desk..." sit down at the mic and without missing a beat, deliver a sportscast with perfect aplomb.

Bob was all radio. He'd been through the wars. He had what we wanted -- experience. Bob'd often express his disdain for the visual side of our operation by grabbing a newspaper on his way to the facilities, offering up to us youngsters, "I'm gonna go take a television."

We were a half-dozen or so in number, just out of school, all seeking experience. There's the newsroom, kids. Knock yourselves out. What's in the big gray case? Oh, that's our ENG gear. Electronic News Gathering. A video camera and tape deck.

You mean there's more to television news than standing behind a massive podium with a fresh haircut reading wire copy? Visual images? So we hauled it out and learned by doing about locking the camera down, jump cuts, irising up, cutaways, wallpaper video. (I remember shooting and editing a helluva sequence of an oil well using Blondie's "Rapture" as the music bed. I should dig that up and post it here.)

We learned about mill levies, we learned you don't put the arrest of the local furniture store owner on the air (big TV/radio advertiser), we learned that Ellis County, Kansas is the only place on Earth where Pfeifer is pronounced PIE-fur, we learned that milo is sold by the hundred-weight, not the bushel. We learned that standing on an I-70 overpass shooting a tornado is not a good idea.

We learned a business. We began to learn what motivates people. We got what we came for. Real world, real time, real life experience.

Our eyes were opening to the ways of the world, the heartbreak and the joy.