Nobody Said He Couldn’t

This is a rough draft of one of the chapters in the book I’m writing. It hasn’t been seen by an editer…editor…yet.

Even a blind hog will run up on an acorn once-in-a-while.   I can remember two times when that statement rang true in the newsroom, and one time when a dedicated broadcast engineer was responsible for getting critical information to a hurting community.

WSB had a large newsroom.  Today, the size of that newsroom would be unheard of.   Typically, there would be a couple of early morning anchor/reporters, a mid-day anchor, and two, or three street/reporters who could work later hours, and a night-time anchor who would host “Thousandaire News” brought to by one of Georgia’s great financial institutions. We also had two or three newsroom assistants, who helped produce the newscasts. It was a 24/7 operation, every day of the week, including holidays. 

It was the Friday before Memorial Day, 1979…. About the middle of the day.   WSB Radio had several teletype machines, AP and UPI wire services with regular news updates, the “B” wires from both agencies… services that brought feature stories we used a jumping off stories for our own coverage and expanded news stories.   There was a teletype machine for the National Weather Service, and a teletype machine that handled dispatches for a syndicated newsroom, where clients could get their personal dispatches out to the public. 

That Friday afternoon, an American Airlines DC-10 started its takeoff roll from O’Hare National Airport.   It flew for about 13 seconds.    One of the engines on the DC-10 fell off.   It had been improperly slid back into the rack that held an engine on one of the wings. The plane got airborne…one wing tipped toward the sky…. and the big plane smacked the ground like a lawn dart.  

Newsman Richard Warner and I had seen the bulletin, and gone on-the-air with the first few details of the crash.   I also made sure the on-the-air show host knew about the crash.  In Atlanta’s busy aviation community there were standing orders at WSB, that in the event of an air crash making headlines, advertisements for some of the airlines would cease.  We kept a record of the number of the missed commercials, so “make good” spots could be scheduled.  

Somehow, I heard that the plane crashed into a mobile home park…namely, the Sunset Mobile Home Park.  This was long before internet information and digital research.   Instead, we kept telephone directories from the major cities in America, and kept large Rolodexes of contacts.  

After a few minutes, I got the number of the office at the mobile home park.   It was a long shot, but I dialed the number.  And one of the park’s managers came to the phone.  The man was obviously shaken from what he had just witnessed, but after I cleared some confusion about just who I was, and what I was asking, he agreed to record a brief interview.   The mobile home park manager kept his composure, and he described a hellish scene where there were bodies and pieces of airplane, all in flames.  He told us that he saw no survivors, and did not believe anyone could have survived the fireball.  After all, the plane had just taken off and was fueled-up. 

After the interview, I snatched the reel-to-reel tape off of the machine, and dashed into the edit booth.   One quick soundbite, then another, and another went on-the-air as we pulled pieces of the tape.  WSB was a national network affiliate, and we would often file stories we had enterprised.  From President Carter and his family to the Centers For Disease Control, to stories about major national politicians, we would send the stories to the network.  In return, reporters got a small talent fee.   So, we dutifully called the network in New York…. You’ll have to imagine the puzzlement at the network desk- Here was s station in Atlanta, bringing eyewitness interview information from Atlanta.  We understood their reluctance to accept our offer of sound…after all, it did sound a little off…an Atlanta station covering a Chicago story.    We had our fish to fry, so we went on with our business of providing news to Atlanta.   Later that day, the network called…editors had remembered our phone call, and now realized it was legit. 

Sometimes, we worked under instructions from radio geniuses who forgot more about the radio business than remembered it.   Their ideas propelled us into performance that could be described as doing excellence.  The bar was set very high, but not so high to make completing our assignment.   I always think of the word “excellence”

In 1977, I was working the un-enviable anchor schedule that had hourly newscasts from early Sunday morning into the afternoon.   Outside of crime stories and breaking news of fires and such, it was a very calm shift.   I’d often wrack my brain trying to think of someone to call and interview, or some story I could develop. 

Burt Lance was President Carter’s head of The Office Of Management And Budget.   But the director had resigned when a money scandal erupted.   Director Lance was a native of Gainesville, and he and his family lived in Atlanta.  I was reading the newspaper and teletype, scanning for ideas, and I found the OMB story had taken a new twist.   Nobody told me that you couldn’t call a member of The President’s staff on a Sunday morning.  I called the church the Lance family attended, to see what time the church usually let out…not the start, but the finish time.  Somehow the radio station had saved the Lance phone number in our Rolidex. For those of you who are too young to know what a Rolidex is, it’s a crank that turns small cards, in alphabetical order.   In our newsroom, we often put notes about the person’s address, or how to ask for them.   Eventually, Mr. Lance answered the phone.  He had just arrived home from church, and yes..he would answer questions about the new developments.   He was a very gracious gentleman, and I can’t help but think our station’s reputation for fairness helped him make the decision to be recorded without fear of some “gotcha” piece being done on him.   I didn’t tell Bert Lance, but I had circled pieces of the teletype copy and newspaper, to give me ideas of what I should ask.   
If I had been assigned that story, I would have been too intimidate to try it. 
It should be noted that later, Bert Lance was cleared of all allegations.  he would be cleared of all allegations. 

Most talk radio programs operate with a telephone screener or producer, and a host.   You can throw in three or four more people if you want to conjure up a big production team.   But two people can handle a talk show easily.   But one?   How could you screen your calls, and also take them on the air.   You couldn’t do that… it was impossible.  The mechanics alone were daunting.   But nobody told David Paul. 

David Paul had worked at a small radio station.   He wanted his own talk show on WSB Radio.   And it would be a serious new kind of format.   David Paul was a kind of shock-jock.   And he had some looney topics that brought out the bizarre in people.  I remember once, Paul was asking for anybody listening while taking a bath to call the station.   And folks did call… and splash their water and describe their bath tubs and soap.  The station hired him, but there was no budget for a control board operator/producer.   David did it all by himself.   I don’t think I ever told him that once I was walking down the corridor of the station, and I came across the program director at the same corner.   I, frankly, had my reservations that the show would be on very long.   But we stood and talked, and turned up the volume knob on the hallway speaker that brought the on-air signal to the hallway.  After watching for a minute, I marveled at how the young guy was screening his own calls during the commercial breaks.  I asked the boss how in the world could this guy manage all of that?  His reply was simple, and stuck with me. “Nobody told him he can’t.”

Maybe we do better, accomplish more, and see new ways of accomplishing things, when nobody says you can’t.   If I had to pick one broadcaster as the best example of that, it would not be someone on-the-air, it would be the former WIVK chief engineer Tim Berry.   

Here’s an example of Tim’s resourcefulness in helping us get the news out of a remote area…even after we were told several times that our goal was impossible.   A tornado had ripped through Morgan County.   It tore up the small community of Mossy Grove…then skipped over to Petros, home of the old and infamous Tennesseee State Prison.    The radio station that provided the area’s local news had been hit, and was off-the-air.   We found out people were listening to our WIVK signal, and our WOKI.  We were their source of information.  In the several early hours, I relied on sketchy cell phone service to file my reports, often simply holding the telephone up to the speaker of the Marantz tape recorder to bring voices from the scene of the deadly calamity. 

There was to be a news briefing in Petros the next morning.  And we expected a lot of information from state and local officials.   They were to talk about everything from Federal emergency money, to what the county planned to do with mountains of debris.   It was important details the community needed.   But the site of the tornado, and the briefing… was down in deep valleys and hollers.   Since our VHF radio transmitters worked on a straight line principle, there was no way we could ‘hit’ any of our receiving towers.  

Nobody told Tim that it was impossible.   We had a little bit of lead time in which to get the live equipment set.   And he had a plan.    From the site of the briefing, we would send the signal to Roosevelt Mountain nearby, and in Morgan County.  Roosevelt  mountain had a radio link that was line-of-sight with a receiver all the way in Sevier County on Bluff Mountain.   From there, the signal was bounced to one of our local towers in the Papermill Road area of Knoxville, and from there…to the radio station.  Patches had to be made ….where operators at the station had to physically place jumper cables into phone jacks to send the live signal to both stations simultaneously.   I received a Society of Professional Journalists Green Eyeshade Award for my work over three days. And I will always say my friend, Tim earned a large piece of those honors. To this day, it was one of the most incredible organizational feats I’ve seen in radio.  – Because nobody told him he couldn’t do it. 

I like to pass along stories where people have done crazy things to get their jobs done, from downed transmission towers, to working under horrible winter weather.  I was once the last news reporter on Georgia’s Tybee Island before it was closed because of an imminent hurricane landfall.   It wasn’t a glory “stand in the wind and report” assignment, it was a job to see what was happening, and describe as clear as I could see, what was happening.  

When I speak to young people, I like to relate stories like these.  I think they have a little more currency to change their mindset, rather than to just say “You can do anything you put your mind to.”
Fact of the matter is, you can do anything you put your mind to, and even think up a few things that nobody mentioned you coud not accomplish. 


2 thoughts on “Nobody Said He Couldn’t

  1. Sir,
    You probably don’t/won’t remember my name, your son-in-law may. I left several/many tips and leads for you over the years of my service. The reason I left them for you was I had spent many years listening to you and developed a trust for your investigative skills and fairness in your reporting. I worked in a profession that was distrustful of all reporters. I just wanted to take a bit of your time to thank you for always being truly fair and balanced and professional. I can’t say many displayed the same professional as you, really very few did or do. So thank you very much, I appreciate you and your convictions. I feel I owe you and your family a nice dinner. At the very least I owe you a nice meal somewhere where neither of us has to jump and run when the radio squawks. So thank you, you have been and are appreciated by many. If you want to collect on the meal just let me know. Finally, please let me, we the mostly silent folks, know when your book is on the market.


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