Back in the days when people listened to the radio on an actual radio, I had a short flirtation with being an announcer. Because I trace the experience all the way back to the late 1960s, I think I can safely claim to have been one of Minnesota’s first female on-air hosts.
Sitting surrounded by a collage of lights, dials, and levers that required an ounce of knowledge about electronics was a hurdle for a young woman who’d only been exposed to plugging things in and flipping light switches. But I studied for a Third Class Radio Engineers license, passed the test, and promptly forgot everything I’d learned.
I never questioned why I’d been hired – clearly not due to work experience. In retrospect, I believe it was because I wore mini-skirts, and the general manager had the look of a badger in heat. But my small town of Winona, Minn., offered little in the way of experiencing a wider world, and I was thrilled to tune my dials to Paul Harvey on the American Broadcast Network and share his wildly popular show “The Rest of the Story.” I felt somehow liberated from the low bluffs and the wide Mississippi that confined me when I plugged into his 24 million listeners across America. That, and Ernie Reck and His Country Playboys, whose Saturday Polka show made me hate the accordion.
Other than the notoriety I earned by being a radio announcer, it was a boring job. Sitting on an old swiveling office chair and watching lights blink and meters swipe back and forth. It was during one of these idle moments that I focused on a sign painted on the side of a brick building facing the radio station. It was home to the exclusively male Elks Club. And since feminism was in its early days, I found the display emblazoned across the entire swath personally offensive. Additionally so when the hourly national news broadcast reported that the Elks did not permit Black men to join.
Boredom may have played a role, along with my awakening social consciousness, but late one night, when the streets of Winona rolled up like a rug runner, I recruited a friend (who I will not name), and we added a tag line to the 4-foot tall statement “It’s Great to be an Elk.” With the care of someone who fancied herself pretty good at art, I carefully used a 6-inch paintbrush and added beneath that message, “If you’re white!”
At work the following morning, I took my place behind the control board and swiveled on the chair. Our handiwork popped brilliantly in the sunshine. I then turned on the classic broadcasters' mic and delivered the local news. After reading off a car accident and a couple of break-ins from the police blotter, I added breaking news – that someone had vandalized the Elks Building and left the following message, which I read straight off the brick face. The perpetrators of that act remain, until this day, unknown.
Though I feared I might lose my job, it was not that incident that cut short my days on Minnesota radio. It was a technical glitch that was bound to happen, given my lack of talent for anything more complicated than plugging in a lamp. I patched in news from the Associated Press, immediately transporting me to New York, the source of the live broadcast. I leaned back on the creaking chair and kept an eye on the sets of blinking lights and dials with bouncing needles, imagining myself there in the Big Apple and working for the AP. News about the Vietnam War was first up, and the newscaster announced, as they did then, the body count. Thousands more Viet Cong had been killed in the prior few days than had American soldiers whose numbers were in the double digits. I shot upright in my chair and shouted at the control board, “Bullshit!.” Simultaneously I watched the VU meter, one of few meters I recognized, bounce wildly from left to right, indicating my mic was live. This is a moment I can still feel in the pit of my stomach.
Naturally, I correctly assumed my job was over because, although I was alone on the weekend shift, there was no way the manager would not be informed. Indeed, the phones started ringing immediately. I did not answer. He showed up at the studio within minutes. Humbled, embarrassed, I quit before he could fire me.
Amazingly, that was not the end of my intermittent career in radio, one that had occasional high points. It did, however, teach me a lesson that guided my professional life as a news reporter: Stay away from anything with the word ‘engineer’ in it.
· The Elks amended its bylaws to allow membership of Black men in the 1970s though it took decades to integrate clubs. In 1995 they opened up to women members.
· The Statute of Limitations for the prosecution of vandalism in Minnesota is 3 years.
It’s such a privilege to get comments and input from readers – and know that my own thoughts spark memories. That’s what it’s all about – what I do - to connect with you. Ruth M. wrote me about my Jamboree blog last week and recalled her uncle had been in the business 73 years ago. “Your blog made me want to visit your little town during the logging event. Your blog gives me something to look forward to.” And input like this does the same for me! Thank you all …
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