Timing is Everything

This column was published Sunday, October 6, 2019, in The Manhattan Mercury.


The dream takes one of two forms. I’m either sitting in front of a live microphone with no news copy or I’m late.

No doubt, this brings to the surface some deep-seated repressed expression revealing my collective unconscious that compensates for the underdeveloped components of my waking psyche. Or maybe the spaghetti sauce I pounded down my throat last night was too spicy.

I lean toward the marinara.

The dreams stem from actual early career experiences. As an anchor/reporter/writer for a statewide radio news network, my life was governed by the sweeping second hand of the clock.

The experience instilled a modus operandi within very strict and rigid time deadlines.

The newscasts were delivered and received via satellite and hit at exactly the bottom of every hour.

07:30:00. Not 07:30:01 or 07:30:04. Not 07:29:57.

07:30:00. Straight up. Exactly. To the second.

At its peak, the network boasted some 70-odd amplitude modulated radio stations across Kansas (some more odd than others). The individual manning or womanning (personning?) the control board at the affiliate radio station in Iola or Garden City or Emporia would backtime local programming so when they flipped the network switch at 07:30:00, they’d hear a network newsy sounding jingle, followed by…

“Good morning/afternoon/evening Kansas, this is Mike Matson… on the Kansas Information Network.” If I was late, Iola or Garden City or Emporia would flip that switch and hear...

...nothing.

Dead air.

What today we would call an epic fail. “You have one job…” The news that followed could be skillfully written, artfully edited and compiled to Pulitzer standards, but if you were not exactly on time, the damage was done. What good were you?

Timing trumped content. You had 5 minutes, exactly. No more, no less. Within the 5 minutes, a 60-second network commercial (which paid my salary) and a 30-second “local avail,” short for “availability,” for the affiliated stations to insert their own local “spot.” On the network, we’d play Kansas-themed public service announcements, so there would be something on the air, just in case the local stations had not sold that time.

In addition to the noble mission of informing the AM radio listening masses of the Kansas goings-on relevant to their lives, dozens of local white-belted Herb Tarleks all across the Sunflower State were counting on us to feed their kids.

Repetition brought a knack to eyeball copy plus “sound” and know how much it would take to round out the 3-and-a-half minutes. I became proficient at editing, backtiming and ad libbing on the fly to stretch and fill time.

Uttering the words, “Bryan Thompson reports...” takes two seconds.

“Bryan Thompson has more on the story.” Three seconds.

“Bryan Thompson has more on the story from Salina.” Four seconds.

“Bryan Thompson has more on the story and its impact on the community of Salina.” Five seconds.

“In Salina, Bryan Thompson has been following this story from the start and this morning filed this report.” Six seconds, seven, if you enunciated with passion and carefully placed dramatic pauses.

Started this gig in Wichita where the on-air studios were adjacent to the newsroom. You could move from something called a “typewriter” to the studio in five to eight seconds. About a year later, Stauffer Communications, then the biggest family-owned radio-TV-newspaper outfit in Kansas, swooped in, bought the hardware, a couple of soft-tissued assets (me and a colleague) and moved us to Topeka, where our “network newsroom” was a re-purposed closet, one flight of stairs and two hard lefts away from the on-air studio. Co-workers in the hallways learned to move to one side at the bottom of the hour.

“COMIN’ THROUGH..!”

Funny how an early career experience impacts your life. To this day, the notion of managing time endures as a priority. I pride myself on promptness and punctuality.

My appreciation for my home state of Kansas didn’t start there, but the very nature of the work, no doubt, infused some value. I remain grateful the success spectrum became a bit more nuanced as the career progressed. But then again, that probably has more to do with my perceptions of success.

Or maybe just my dreams.