Letter From Katie: Accidental Deejay

Will success spoil WNKU’s enchanting bluegrass hostess? Not to worry.

Illustration by Peter Ryan

I started my radio career at WNKU-FM, the public radio station at Northern Kentucky University, on the first Sunday of November, 1989. It was a fairly new station, founded only four years before I arrived. At the time, my bluegrass band was dying a slow, painful death, and frankly, I needed a gig.

Sheila Rue, who was managing the station’s programming in those days, asked me to host a weekly bluegrass show on Sundays at noon. At first I said no. I didn’t fancy commitment: Take a regular job like this, I thought, and I could see myself yodeling with a diaper and a baby over my shoulder. I wanted to live for art, drown myself in art. Then I remembered the phone bill. That’s when I snapped out of it, grabbed Sheila’s skirt, and said, “Yes, yes, yes.”

And so Sheila and I talked turkey. “Now, I’ll have to have $100 a show,” I explained loftily, “and I think noon is a little early. Do you have anything in a later time slot?”

Sheila grinned, wrinkling her freckled Irish nose, and told me she could get me $30 a show. And the time was non-negotiable.

This was a problem. I was still operating on Musician Standard Time, which meant that in spring I fell forward and in fall I fell forward, too. Noon on Sunday morning might as well have been the crack of dawn. Still, I’d be working with Buddy Griffin, the fiddle player and general genius behind the Katie Laur Band, who would serve as my engineer. That’d be a treat. So I launched my broadcast career—Buddy changing records, me on the microphone.

There was a period of adjustment. Some might call it bumbling around.

“You’ve just heard J.D. Crowe doing ‘The Old Home Place,’ ” I announced during our first show.

“Ah,” Buddy said, “What have they done to the old home place?”

“I already said that,” I hissed like a goose. Of course I didn’t realize Buddy was playing for time, looking for the next record while I fumbled with the cue cards that told me what to say and when to say it. Remind the listener frequently that they are listening to 89.7 WNKU, the first card said.

I was pretty sure I could do that. I’d seen that Clint Eastwood movie—the one where he is a jazz DJ, and a listener comes after him with a butcher knife. I had heard Clint make those same kinds of statements as ones on the card. “You’re listening to 89.7,” I said in my sultriest voice. “WNKU.”

“Have you got laryngitis, Kate?” Buddy blurted right into the microphone. “Anybody got a thermometer?”

“Buddy,” I said, “I don’t have a fever. I was trying to sound like Clint Eastwood.” I could see that Buddy was still looking for the missing tune. “Let’s play something by the Delmore Brothers,” I said helpfully. “I’ve got one of their LPs right here. Alton and Rabon Delmore, from down in north Alabama. I know you like them.”

Buddy put on a track that lasted three minutes, tops. “Well, that was a big Delmore Brothers tune,” I said when it was over, and checked my watch: only 175 minutes left to go. Where did I get the idea that radio was easy?

Earlier this year, WNKU made a $6.75 million deal to buy two family-owned radio stations—105.9 FM/910 AM (WPFB in Middletown), and 104.1 FM (WPAY, Portsmouth). Now WNKU’s signal reaches from north of Dayton to southeast of Charleston, West Virginia. Local listeners who struggled for years to get WNKU on their kitchen radios are amazed the little station can now be heard so far and wide.

Me, I’m still just amazed to be on the air.

In those early days, we were so dreadful people thought we were doing it on purpose—which, I can assure you, we were not.

Still, Buddy made me laugh because there was absolutely no way to predict what he might do next. He especially liked doing his imitation of the imaginary WNKU News Chopper. He’d climb up on the studio console and thump his chest into the microphone like a gorilla, imitating the sound of the helicopter engine. “Anybody see that little Chevy Nova? Looks like it’s stalled on the off-ramp of the Norwood Lateral…”

We still worked with vinyl then, but a trickle of CDs came in from some of the more progressive record labels. Buddy saw the writing on the wall; his digital prowess went about as far as mashing the buttons on an eight-track tape. He didn’t wait for CDs to take his job; he got a great fiddle gig in West Virginia, borrowed $20 (from me), hocked his watch (again, to me), and left town.

I don’t remember the names of all the engineers who passed through the show between Buddy and Wayne Clyburn. But one Sunday morning, I slid into my seat at the last minute with a handful of LPs and Wayne was there, and it just seemed like Wayne had always been there, talking about banjo players and whatever else came to mind. The very airwaves seemed to settle down, and the show—Music From the Hills of Home—found its groove.

There was still a learning curve. Every Sunday, I’d invariably sign on at noon by saying “Good morning.” And every Monday, without fail, Dave Arnold, the station’s general manager, would call me and say, “When the big hand and the little hand are straight up, what time is it, Katie?”

“Twelve o’clock,” I’d say.

Dave’s soft voice would come back over the phone. “And would you call that morning or afternoon?”

“I don’t know,” I’d say. “It can’t be afternoon, strictly speaking, because it’s not really after noon. Do you see where I’m coming from?”

According to media experts, people do not want to hear talking when they tune in to a music program; they want to hear music. But Wayne is quite simply one of the best conversationalists I’ve ever spun a yarn with, and from the first we enjoyed talking about the music we played—and whatever else came up. Whenever we got particularly off-track, the next day the phone would ring.

“Katie,” Dave would say, “what is a Louis Vuitton handbag? And more importantly, what’s it doing on the bluegrass show?”

Through the years, it has fascinated me what subjects our listeners were conversant with. One Sunday afternoon we spent a solid two hours discussing the origin of flea markets. Until a caller reached me from a phone booth north of town.

“Hey,” he said. “I just wanted you to know that I have driven  from Wallace Avenue in Covington, and I timed this. I got all the way to Fairfield, and I STILL HAVE NOT HEARD A NOTE OF MUSIC!”

So I started sailing records through the air at Wayne, we put on something from Ralph Stanley and a couple of songs from women, and after about 15 minutes of playing some really great music, a listener called and said, “We don’t really like bluegrass all that much. When are you going to talk some more?”

You can’t please everybody. And I guess you shouldn’t try. As a matter of fact, not long ago our new general manager, Chuck Miller, said, “Don’t let anybody sabotage your show or try to take it in another direction. You’re behind the mic; it’s your responsibility.”

Chuck has been my favorite GM so far. Not just because he sticks up for me and Wayne, and whatever musical or conversational side road we go down, but also because he rode out Hurricane Katrina in a bunker in New Orleans eating peanut butter crackers. That gives him street cred in my book.

Early on, Wayne and I picked up two listeners named Effie Bishop and Esther Abrams. They were senior citizens, they were friends, and they loved bluegrass. Effie was blind; she liked “Rocking Alone in an Old Rockin’ Chair” because she figured it made her children feel guilty in case they were listening. Esther preferred her country music with a side of lust. Loretta Lynn’s “You Ain’t Woman Enough” was a favorite.

They’d call in every week with news of Norwood—their neighborhood—and to request songs for each other and for themselves. Like most Appalachians, they enjoyed talking about home. I remember playing “The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore” for Esther because the Greyhound Bus had stopped going to Crab Orchard, Kentucky, her hometown. That was the most profoundly depressing thing: a town that wasn’t even a bus stop anymore.

One week when I didn’t hear from them I called Esther, and she said Effie’s children were trying to get her in “oh, one of them places where they assist you.”

“Assisted Living?” I said.

“That’s what I just said,” she countered.

I could understand her children’s concern. Effie was legally blind, crippled, and diabetic. But there’s a saying in the country: Don’t move an old hen off its nest. That was Effie in assisted living. When I went with Esther to see her, she’d “gone down,” as the old folks used to say. Her chart made that clear: “Patient is despondent,” it read.

Then one day she called WNKU sounding chipper again. “We had activities night last night,” she told me cheerily.

“What did you do for your activity?” I asked.

“Why, I took my harmonica out of my skirt pocket and played ‘Shortnin’ Bread,’” she announced. It wasn’t long after that Effie died, her children by her side.

With her friend gone, Esther got out and about and found her way to WLW-TV for the premiere of the Jerry Springer Show. This was in the early 1990s: Springer was taped locally then, and it wasn’t the slug-fest that it is now. Before I knew what was happening, Esther had become such a regular part of the studio audience that Springer fixed her up with a new wardrobe and flew her to Chicago for his first national broadcast.

“Jerry thinks I’m his good-luck charm,” Esther told me after the trip, with just a touch of world-weariness. Whatever Jerry Springer has done in his life, I have always secretly loved him for that act of kindness. He even sent a limo.

Effie and Esther were not the audience demographic that most radio stations hope for: They were old and they were poor. But Wayne and I didn’t have the kind of show where you worried about audience demographics, just like we didn’t have producers or planning meetings. We were happy to have any listeners at all. And Effie and Esther were a gift.

Looking back, it seems miraculous that Music from the Hills of Home lasted the first year, much less the past 22. For the longest time we barely knew what we were doing; we had dead-air time and we got in actual fights in the studio.

Aaron Sharpe, the station’s development director, was producing our fund-raising drive one Sunday when Wayne and I were not in a good mood. Somebody had gotten there ahead of us and eaten all the donuts. Aaron stepped in smoothly and said, “That number to call is 859-572-7897.” Then he sent a volunteer out for more donuts. “I’ve always enjoyed listening to Music from the Hills of Home,” he said, “especially from the safety of my own home.”

My father would have liked Aaron. I can remember him saying, when my sister and I went to war in the back seat of the car, “God a’mighty, Suzie”—that was my mother—“pull over and let’s feed ’em.” All my life, that has turned out to be one of the wisest things anybody’s father ever said.

Aside from the occasional on-air brawl, Wayne and I have mostly kept our heads down and tried to stay out of trouble. One notable exception was the time when I joked that it was good that all the dulcimer players would be in one tent at the Appalachian Festival, so we could paint a bulls-eye on the tent and . . . well, I said something stupid. And on live radio, you can’t escape the consequences of a lapse in judgment. A busload of dulcimer players was listening, and the riot that ensued was dreadful, with mailbags of letters demanding the station fire us. Later, when station management decided to move the program to 6 p.m., listeners exploded again. We’ve been in the Sunday evening time slot for years now and the angry letters about the change have long since subsided. But I still wouldn’t want to get caught in a dark alley with a dulcimer player.

For every action there’s a reaction, and for a while things calmed down so much that I was lulled into thinking our audience had become thoroughly mainstream. Then along came a listener who set a new standard in “colorful.” His name was Pester Flatt, and he wrote asking me to announce on-air that his band had changed their name from Pester Flatt and the Lefties, to Pester Flatt and the Rarely Paid. Pester was worried the old name was hurting their bookings at VFWs and such-like organizations.

“What is this?” Wayne and I thought as we read the first letter. But on they came, an envelope every week, each one funnier than the last. Pester would send me his band’s itinerary—they played a lot of high schools and senior centers—and so we were able to  follow Pester and the Rarely Paid as they played gigs from Lint Trap, West Virginia, to the Flotsam County Fairgrounds, to his hometown of Tepid Spring, Kentucky.

According to his letters, Pester lived at the E-Z Sleep Motor Court. Once he even enclosed a post card of the E-Z Sleep complete with the animated neon sign depicting a saw moving back and forth across a log. Invariably, on the bottom right corner of his letters, there was dark ring accompanied by the post script: “P.S. Sorry ’bout the coffee stain.”

When the station’s broadcast tower went out during a fund-raiser, Pester wrote to take responsibility. (His bus driver, Little Max, had inadvertently backed into it. Pester wanted to “accept accountability,” as he put it.) And he wrote about finding the handkerchief bearing the ghostly image of Bill Monroe’s shattered mandolin—“The Shroud of Rosine.” For years Wayne and I were wild to figure out who Pester really was, but in the end it didn’t really matter. We just went along for the ride.

When I was a little girl during WWII, the radio was the beating heart of the house, and the red glow from its dial signaled precious news about the movement of troops and the number of deaths in the faraway places where my father and all my uncles were stationed. And the odd thing is, now I’m on a radio that brings those faraway places to me. Music from the Hills of Home has a listener in New Zealand—someone following the show online—who e-mails us regularly. And then there are the folks who can tune in thanks to WNKU’s new listening area—potentially more than 2 million of them, they tell me. That’s a whole lot of VFW Halls and nursing homes for Pester Flatt to play.

It was E.B. White who told the story of the pig, Wilbur, and his great friend and very good writer, Charlotte, the spider who spun herself to death detailing Wilbur’s attributes in her web. All of the people who have participated in Music from the Hills of Home over the past 22 years have made the program what it is. They’ve given something of themselves and by doing so entertained us and each other. I hope we’ve entertained them, too.

But for those times when we’ve failed, I’ll just use a friend’s apology: Oops! Sorry ’bout the coffee stains.

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