The last day of May has some very special meaning for me. I purposefully waited until the sun went down on our Memorial Day to mention it, because I would never want to do anything to take away from our day of memory for our war dead. May 30th, 1977… my professional life took a very important turn. That was my start date for employment at WSB Radio in Atlanta. Forty-four years ago, this date was exhilarating, terrifying, mind-numbing, and the biggest mental challenge since Constitutional Law, or worse….third quarter Geology at UT.
My first medical exam for Cox Communications was delayed a couple of days.. and I hit the ground running. Bob Ketchersid, one of the nicest, most principled broadcasters I’ve ever known, was a news bulldog beneath that still water. He kept track of a large staff, and made sure we were never short on assignments, or ideas.. even on someone’s first day on the job.
Governor George Busbee was scheduled to return to Atlanta after a business relations trip to Asia. I was assigned to cover his arrival at Hartsfield Airport, and get his comments. This was before the current concourses were built.
There were no computer boards or cute people movers to haul folks where they needed to be. I had never driven to the airport, much less figured out where news vehicles were to be parked. But more concerning than finding my way, was finding the governor, and recognizing him when I did. I was afraid I might approach a girdle salesman and ask him just how tight he thought things might be over there.
One thing I knew for sure: No matter how hapless you might be, never act like anything is your first time out. Fortunately, the radio station kept a stack of old newspapers. They were used for reference on news stories, specifically, a way to glean dates for meetings, hearings, and future events.
I took a short pile of newspapers, furiously turning pages and scanning… and then I found what I was looking for. There he was in all of his Governorship… a picture of Gov. Busbee. And it was just the right size. I took a pair of scissors, excised the photo, and taped it inside my reporter’s notebook, that ubiquitous brown wide-lined and ringed notebook that WSB bought in large boxes…along with teletype paper, and six-carbon news script paper.
It worked… I tracked down the Governor, introduced myself, and asked my questions. If I was a doofus, the governor was gracious and never acted like it. It wasn’t the last of my “firsts” at WSB. But it did prompt many, many Sunday drives were I would haul the family into the nether regions of metro Atlanta. I took a cue from fire departments, and made sure I took “familiarization” drives.
There were a lot of other things I had to learn, and un-learn. Listening to a police scanner was one thing, but the newsroom where I worked, and even the cars we drove had two scanners. Indoors, the Fire Department even had a speaker of its own, mounted high on the wall.
Instead of two teletype machines, there was a half dozen, and they were kept behind sliding glass doors so we could hear our selves think, edit audio, and write. You had to pay attention to the bells… three was an “urgent”, five was a “bulletin”, and anything more than that could make the hair on your arm stand at attention.
The Ford Crown Victoria newscars were “police specials” with two batteries and an alternator that was much more powerful than stock. The cars had their own radios, and matching walkie-talkies. The hand held radios could be used straight to the station, or if reception was poor, we could flip a few switches and turn the car radios into powerful repeaters. Those gizmos were so new, their last three serial numbers ended in “001, 002, and 003.” Learning to use that feature was essential in the days before cell phones.
The Legedary Mike Kavanagh was a great tutor, advisor, and teacher of “the ropes” early on. And that brings me to both the hardest, and easiest part of indoctrination of how to do things right. The people, like Bob K., and Aubrey Morris were generous in taking time to edit and advise. General Manager and Cox Vice President Elmo Ellis was a strong leader, and I swear he had a brain implant so he could listen to the station every hour of every day. He did not cut corners in listener and community service. He made sure the standards did not droop, the benchmarks didn’t slip, and the goal was excellence. We didn’t need a mission statement in a wall frame. We were all supposed to -be- the mission statement.
Crime stories by the stack, including serial killings, huge fires, airline hijackings, and stories for Christmas Day that told what special meal the jail would feed its prisoners. A ride in The Goodyear Blimp, another beneath an enormous Sikorsky Sky Crane, and three thousand hours in a Hughes Helicopter monitoring traffic and breaking news.
A White House luncheon with President Reagan, where Colin Powell sat at my right, and a hot cup of Salvation Army coffee outside Atlanta Federal Prison where a days-long riot was underway.
From racist J.B.Stoner, to Civil Rights icons like Andrew Young and Hosea Williams…and from a very hateful Madlyn Murray O’Hare, to Evangelist Dr. Billy Graham, I talked to just about everybody who was anybody on this side of the grass. And I even covered the grass, from five tons of the illegal kind inside a truck, to trucked-in feed during a brutal drought.
I’m trying to recall as many of the people and the inside stories as I can these days. Maybe someday, they will be noted in some sepia-weathered book of memories and photos. I wish I still had that notebook with Governor Busbee’s newspaper photo taped inside. That was the day it started.