Letter from Katie: Radio Days

Is a button really mashed if nobody is there to hear it?

Illustration by Kailey Whitman

The third floor of Landrum Academic Center, where radio station WNKU is located, is dark at 8 o’clock on an early spring night. Just a few minutes ago, there were still traces of daylight, but the night is falling, and by the time my shift starts it will be full on. I like to work in the dark. There are no distractions. There are few students around on Sunday night anyway, but tonight there are none at all. Just the ducks crossing the street the same place they always cross, one parent leading the parade, the baby ducks waddling single-file behind, and the other parent bringing up the rear. They have crossed the busy thoroughfare by the parking lot here for at least 20 years, and as far as I know they have never been hurt. If you approach them from the sidewalk the parents will fight with absolutely no fear. The ducks, like most humans, are possessive about their little patch of land.

We are able to park about 500 yards from Landrum Academic Center, and we pass redbud trees and tiny yellow buttercups on our way. Our student IDs open the door like magic, and we walk quickly to the elevator that will take us to the third floor. At the end of the hallway the production studio is awash with a soft light, illuminating the disc jockey whose shift is almost over. I go in the double doors of the library and begin to take CDs off the shelves to fill up the three hours of my show, Music from the Hills of Home. Because my records are mostly bluegrass, the cuts are shorter than the rock records the other DJs play. Bluegrass cuts are about a minute and a half and go by so fast they’re over before you really get started playing them.

The music I pick should be varied: different tempos, different moods, different instrumentation, music that will connect to my listener in an almost magic way. I picture the listener thinking, “I used to hear that years ago,” or “That reminds me of my mother,” and I can feel the connection myself when it happens, as strange as that may sound.

I’ve always been a little bit addicted to radio. It started when I was a baby in rural Tennessee. My mother said I cried with a high, thin wail that everyone assumed was caused by the colic—until they noticed that the music from the tiny radio in the kitchen miraculously quieted me. I picture three people in rocking chairs taking turns holding me and patting my tiny bottom as they moved me back and forth through the currents until my crying stopped.

Radio became my solace and salvation. As a toddler I stood by the kitchen table and kept time with my hand on the wooden cabinet. I had my favorites: Ernest Tubb and the Texas Troubadours, Eddy Arnold and the Tennessee Plowboys (Eddy was an accomplished yodeler), and of course Red Foley. I loved the girls who sang with the bands, too. All of their names were prefaced with “Pretty Little Miss…” Norma Jean or Loretta Lynn, or best of all, Dolly Parton, who was my favorite. She sang with Porter Wagoner.

I had a hard time reconciling the voices of my radio heroes with the reality of their earthly appearances. I was surprised to find Ernest Tubb was not at all handsome. Indeed, he was as skinny as a comma. He wore flashy cowboy suits made by designers like Nudie and Manuel, the same tailors who dressed Roy Rogers and Dale Evans in fringed Western outfits. Porter Wagoner, especially, succumbed to lavish displays of gaudy, colored sequins sewed on his suits in the shape of wagon wheels and giant cactus plants. They wore Stetson hats cocked rakishly over one eye and cowboy boots with sharp pointed toes and metal caps guarding the supple leather tips. I once went to the Grand Ole Opry to meet fiddler Buddy Griffin, who snuck me in the back door. I watched as Bobby Osborne, the high singer on the song “Rocky Top,” got out of a van and changed the gray Hush Puppies he was wearing for the white pointy-toed boots of stardom, and as soon as his act was done, I saw him make a bee-line for the car to get to his comfortable Hush Puppies. He swapped those painful boots for the Hush Puppies faster than greased lightning.

When I had my own band, the Katie Laur Band, we got booked on a public radio station in St. Paul, Minnesota, in the late ’70s. Off we went in the green Econoline van we had acquired from the Hutchison Brothers, a bluegrass band from up in northern Ohio, stopping in Milwaukee to make an appearance and limping into Minneapolis at about 4:30 on a Friday morning. The star of the show was a man named Garrison Keillor, someone we’d never heard of. When he called to book us, he graciously offered us the use of his two spare bedrooms. But we couldn’t sleep yet. Instead, we unloaded and got ready to do Keillor’s 8 a.m. radio show to advertise our appearance on his Saturday Night show, which was called A Prairie Home Companion.

I’ll never forget my first sight of Keillor. He was a very tall man with thick dark hair and dark-rimmed glasses, and he stood on the back porch in a plaid bathrobe with a cat curled indolently around his neck, both of them watching the proceedings from a distance. Keillor gave directions now and then for suitcase placement and room assignments. He had a deep chest radio voice, which was a little bit scary. “First bedroom on the left,” he rumbled, and knocked me off my feet.

Keillor’s early morning radio show was a wonderful mix of music: jazz, country, swing, classical. I had never heard anything quite like it, and though I didn’t know it then, it would act as a template for what my own radio show would later be, a tapestry of music, woven with care and craft.

A Prairie Home Companion was a radio show with an in-studio audience. A band or entertainer had the good fortune to hear the applause for his performance right then and there. The idea of it, the production values, the sound system, the venue itself were just about perfect. We went through a rehearsal on Friday night, then off to a coffee shop to do another performance (so much for sleep), and we explored Minneapolis a bit on Saturday while Keillor was writing his “sermon” for the night, the message he’d deliver to his audience always including some of the themes he touched on every week: small town values, Minnesota bachelors, and Powder Milk Biscuits, which were so good they’d make “children above average.”

On Saturday afternoon, he’d cook large dinners, elaborate feasts of roast beef or seafood. The boys in the Katie Laur Band were not interested in that sort of thing, though, and for the five or six times we traveled to Minnesota to do the show, they’d always run out to McDonald’s to eat dinner. I ran across a letter from Keillor a few months ago in which he asked me to pay his respects to the “Fast Food Boys,” as he took to calling them. Keillor, who seemed to own only one suit, and that one light khaki, rode over to the theater in St. Paul with us in the van. He took the shotgun seat and invariably got rain water or grease all over his suit coat.

I thought of Keillor when I started doing my own radio show in November 1989 at WNKU. The previous bluegrass DJ, Ed McDonald, had taken another job—in West Virginia, I think. Ed was blind and had gone back over all his album liner notes with a braille typewriter, which left the letters raised as if they’d been sworn to in an affidavit in front of a notary public. Those first few months of shows were cohosted with Buddy Griffin, who was by then the fiddler in my band and who did everything but swing from the chandeliers. He didn’t stay long, and I got my old friend Wayne Clyburn to sit in, and he did just that for about 25 years.

Like Keillor did on his early morning show, we used vinyl records. There were only a few CDs in the record library back then. The last night I did the show, in March 2017, the bluegrass section of the library alone contained over a thousand CDs in plastic cases with colorful jackets full of information about the music. All of us complained about them when they began to be popular—they didn’t have the “warmth of vinyl” as The New York Times accused. Vinyl albums in their cardboard jackets were roomy enough to contain lots of information about the players, pictures, and the music itself. You needed a magnifying glass to retrieve that same information from a CD, but there was no doubt they were easier to play. With albums you had to use headphones and put the needle on the record just so—a few seconds behind the groove before you started to play. It made for dead-air and static and mistakes. After a certain amount of grieving for the old turntables, DJs welcomed CDs. Wayne thumbed his nose at The New York Times: “If I had an engineer working for me who still used a slide rule when a computer was available,” he said, “I’d fire him.”

With the advent of a new affection for public radio (“Radio is the theater of the mind,” I heard someone once pronounce), for a brief moment, television took a back seat. Of course it didn’t last. Television had attractive stars in well-cut $2,000 suits and radio had strange DJs with outsized egos who existed in parallel universes. They dressed differently: dirty Hawaiian shirts were popular. Personal grooming and niceties like haircuts were scarce, the use of language was different, and they believed their music the best to be heard anywhere. On WNKU, Mr. Rhythm Man’s Saturday night show was the hippest of all the programs. Mr. Rhythm Man typically signed on saying he had a “stack of shellacs” which would put some “glide in your stride and some pep in your step.”

WNKU was not my first radio station. When the Katie Laur Band was young and full of energy, we played music and did interviews on a lot of important bluegrass radio stations. I remember playing in a used-car lot once where Ray Davis did a popular radio show in Baltimore. Davis was a well-known broadcaster in the ’60s and ’70s, and his studio was set up in his office above the car lot. He could look outside the glass-enclosed booth and keep up with what was going on in the lot while he did a radio show every day. We appeared several times on Mountain Stage from Charleston, West Virginia. I never appeared on the Wheeling Jamboree in West Virginia, or the Louisiana Hayride, but we visited radio shows that broadcast from somebody’s kitchen or a makeshift studio in someone’s basement. It was not as glamorous as it had sounded when I listened on the radio.

At the end of March, I did the final broadcast of Music from the Hills of Home on WNKU. My cohost, Oakley Scot, put most of it together from titles I listed on the back of my Duke Energy bill. He threw in segments from old recordings he had made and saved from past years. Oakley is what you might call a broadcast hoarder. It was Oakley’s nimble technical abilities that enabled me to finish out the radio show at the 27-and-a-half year mark.

No doubt we’d still be on the air if the radio station hadn’t been sold by Northern Kentucky University to a Christian broadcaster. The night of the final show, we received about 200 e-mail messages and phone calls. Thanks to the magic of streaming, we could be heard anywhere. We had listeners in far-flung places throughout the United States and in even farther-flung spots like New Zealand.

All of the weekend disc jockeys at WNKU—Mr. Rhythm Man, Oakley Scot, the Real Mary Peale, Pam Temple, Ken Hanes—lost their cherished jobs, and thousands of listeners lost their favorite programs for no good reason that anyone could ascertain. The university and station management had made some bad decisions in past years, but they could have been righted had there been strong leadership, a firm hand. I try not to dwell on old wounds, though. I was lucky to have done that job as long as I did. I found the feeling of connection when my red “On Air” light was lit to be hard but satisfying work, and I am still sure that the radio frequency is a sort of invisible piece of magic. If you’re too far away from the source of the signal when you’re trying to tune in your station, you’ll only get static. The relationship cannot be forced. You must have the wisdom and the patience to wait for a clear channel. It’s like that with humans, too. There is no way to rush reception.

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