Last year, I celebrated my 30th anniversary in the TV business, which is a total surprise to me. If you had asked the teenage me, “What will you be doing in the year 2014?” I would have said, “Hopefully I’ll be running a business and finding some time to be on the radio too.”
Radio was my first love. I often get laughs when I tell people that I became a part-time disc jockey when I was a teen, “because I figured out that I could play rock ‘n roll songs and talk to girls on the phone, and get paid to do it.” Except I’m not kidding. It seemed like a really sweet deal. Yet my dad, and my brain told me that it was at best, a hobby. Dad ran a successful business, and I was sort of getting the hang of it. I liked people, and I was good with numbers. So in my perfect world, I’d do a “real job” during the week, and play the hits on weekends.
Of course, it didn’t work out that way. The more time I spent at the microphone, the more I loved it. Slowly but surely, I began to make a living at it. After a few years, I even met my wife, also a fellow radio kid, right there in the KZ-106 studio. Certainly I had made the right career choice. My radio buds and I would go to lunch occasionally and notice the guys at the next table, all wearing ties. “Man we’re lucky,” we would say. “We don’t have to wear ties!”
Then this happened:
Yes, my career and life took an unexpected turn in the spring of 1983. Someone from Channel 9 called, I can’t remember who, and asked if I’d be interested in doing a series of car giveaway commercials for McDonald’s, to be taped on six consecutive Saturdays in their studio in the Golden Gateway. They didn’t allow their newscasters to do commercials, and their only salesperson with on-air experience, Jerry Lingerfelt was already obligated to Capital Toyota (“we’re open around the clock, until Saturday midnight!” he would exclaim, waving his arms clockwise). So they reached out to the radio world, recruiting a shaggy-haired, bearded morning DJ. I’d be giving away a classic car each week to one of six people who had registered at area McDonald’s. They set me up with a snazzy red McDonald’s jacket and paid me a much-appreciated fifty bucks a week. Six Saturdays in March and April went by, the commercials ran, and I had a new jacket, $300, and six minutes of television experience under my belt. That was the end of that.
A few weeks later, I got another call out of the blue, this time from Channel 12. The program director, Doris Ellis asked me to go to lunch. I didn’t ask what it was about, I mean why rock the boat when you’re offered a free lunch at the Mount Vernon restaurant? I showed up with visions of peanut butter pie dancing in my head, and was greeted by Doris and her boss Gary Bolton, the station manager. Hmmm, I thought, what is this about?
“We’d like you to host the Morning Show,” Doris said. “We saw you on those McDonald’s commercials, and we think you could do a good job.” “Sure,” I said, “I’ll try anything once. What day would you like me to do it?” It was a daily, 90-minute, totally unscripted live show, and I figured I had enough material (jokes, comments and the like) to fill in for a day.
“No, you don’t understand,” Gary said. “We mean, we’d like you to host it, every day, from now on.” The show had been founded by Harry Thornton, who had hosted it for 13 years. He had been tough to replace. The two guys after him lasted a combined nine months, and the Channel 12 people were kind of desperate.
By this time Cindy and I were engaged to be married later that year, and my job at KZ-106 was seemingly secure. What to do? Stay with the tried and true, or take a chance on TV: I’d always loved watching it, but never once considered being on it. And yes, I’d have to wear a stinkin’ tie each day. In fact I’d have to learn to tie one.
I did what any sane person would have done. I took an afternoon to go to my favorite spot, the waterfall trail at Cloudland Canyon State Park in Dade County, Georgia. Halfway down, there’s a huge rock. There wasn’t another soul in sight. I planted there on that rock, and thought it over. I took my time, weighing the pros and cons. Ultimately I decided: I’m going to give this TV thing a try. If it doesn’t work out, I thought, I could always go back to radio.
Thirty years later, I’m still here. The Channel 12 gig lasted about four years, and lucky for me Channel 3 soon came calling. I made my last appearance on Channel 12 one day at noon, and began anchoring at Channel 3 the same day at 5:30 p.m.
Thanks to all of you who have watched my newscasts, and to my employers for keeping me on the payroll. And as you may have noticed, I’m still wearing a tie each day. Never mind how long it took me to learn how to tie one.