Adventures of a Young Man: Lost in America

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“DJ wanted, first class license required, morning drive, top-notch entertainer, produce commercials, local news gathering/reporting, sports announce, public appearances/promotions, light sales – $131.50/week and no beginners please.”

Broadcasting Magazine Help Wanted Ad
Circa 1974

“You know this road pretty much follows the old Oregon Trail, don’t you?” The man with his hands on the big wheel of the tractor-trailer did not take his eyes off of the interstate. He was easing into the outside lane to pass a Japanese model pickup.

“Yes sir, I do.”

He had picked me up just west of Des Moines and was going over the Rockies to San Francisco with a load of washing machines. I thought he looked like a trucker with his thick middle and soft chin and uncertain, weary eyes. He was hard to imagine anywhere other than behind his wheel.

“Yep, them old wagon trains never got too far from that river out there.” He nodded toward the open plain north of the highway. “It ain’t much more than a sandbar but it kept them alive, I reckon.”

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I looked out the window toward the Platte River and the scattered cottonwoods dipping roots into the muddy flow. The Nebraska land, though green, did not seem to offer many prospects. Sand hills rose in the distance and a large herd of cattle trailed up the soft inclines and out of sight beyond the river course. Wagon trains had hung close to the Platte as they made their way westward toward the Rockies and it was impossible not to think about the people who had fallen to disease and conflict on that ground rolling by outside the glass. In front of us, the divided roadway crossing the High Plains was rising imperceptibly toward the Intermountain West.

“Hey mister, you mind letting me off at the next exit ramp?” I had not asked his name and he had never offered.

“At North Platte? Sure will, son. Ain’t much of a town, though.”

“Yeah, I know, but they’ve got a few radio stations and I thought I’d apply for a job,” I explained.

“Well, sure.” He looked over at me bouncing in the high seat on the passenger’s side of his cab, making an obvious appraisal. “Like I said, you sure don’t look like no newscaster to me.”

“Yeah, I know. I don’t look like one to me, either.”

After clicking on his signals, the trucker engine braked to the side of the interstate and I opened the door, jumped down, and pulled my pack to the pavement. I thanked him for the ride and wished him luck with delivering his cargo. There was a fence between the local road and me and I had to cross a wet field of center pivot irrigation rigs spinning watery rainbows in every direction.

Before the 18 wheeler had stopped to give me a lift, I had struggled to get across Illinois and Iowa. Rain had not stopped falling for three days and I curled up trying to sleep beneath bridges over Interstate 80. My jeans were smeared with grease and the black color of my tee shirt did not hide its filth. The glamour of a broadcasting career was proving to be evasive.

The strategy I was employing for finding my first broadcast job was moderately unconventional, perhaps even stupid. After rejection by every radio station I had applied to with resumes’, cover letters, and unprofessional audition tapes produced at the university’s radio station, I had decided to go out on the road. As I hitchhiked across the country, I intended to look for radio broadcast towers and stop at each one to apply for a job. This seemed simple and direct and honest.

About three dozen reel-to-reel audition tapes were in my backpack in sealed plastic bags. I dropped one off with my brief resume’ at every broadcast studio I was able to find and then I went back to get a ride on the highway out of town. I hoped that a station manager or news director might like what they heard on the tape and call my mother’s phone number on the resume’ and leave a message for me to come running to a job. My optimism had not yet intersected with reality.

In North Platte, I found the bus station, threw my pack into a rented locker, changed my jeans and put on the only shirt I had with a collar, washed my face, combed my hair, and brushed the dirt off of my Hush Puppy desert boots. The plastic tape reel and envelope with my resume’ were sticky in my hand as I walked down the street to the facilities of KAHL radio, whose call letters had been visible on the station’s tower. The town was clean and pleasant looking with brightly-painted storefronts and wide avenues. Main Street climbed a small hill to the north and then opened up toward the farms and ranches in the Sand Hills of Western Nebraska. I had no trouble imagining myself starting a broadcast career in North Platte, renting an apartment, doing Saturday morning remote broadcasts from hardware stores and grain elevators, and taking long weekends to race to the Rockies for hiking and camping. What else might I need?

KAHL’s lobby was air-conditioned cool and a friendly receptionist smiled at the strange young man as he approached her desk.

“Yes, mam, I’m a reporter and I’m looking for a job. This is my tape and resume’ and I was just wondering if you had any openings.”

“Well, I think you may have stopped by on just the right day,” she smiled; a middle-aged lady that I assumed had lived her entire life on the remote edge of the plains. I wondered if she’d ever seen Chicago.

“If you’ll have a seat over there, I’ll get someone to see you.” She picked up the phone and spoke softly as I sat on an old sofa. “Mr. Dahl will be with you in just a moment,” she said, cheerily.

The lobby was austere with yellowish paper and wood paneling and had the feel of a mobile home. I had seen a few stations in larger cities and they had suggested importance and significance that I did not sense out here in the country. The control room, which was visible through a window in the lobby, was gray and indistinct. The back of the head of the announcer playing records was bald and in the low light his shoulders curled around the turntable where he was cueing up an album.

Ed Dahl came through the door from his back office wearing a plaid sport jacket and displaying the energy of an endlessly optimistic farm implement salesman. His hand was soft but thick and it collapsed my knuckles as we shook and he opened a door into the studio and his office.

“I gotta tell ya, son, what did you say your name was, you sure do have good timing. Come on in, please. Sit down. Get comfortable.”

“Thank you. I guess you need a reporter then?”

“You aren’t gonna believe this, son, but my newsman, who has worked here for seven years, decided to leave me yesterday. He’s a good man and we are gonna miss him but that’s a part of this business.” Ed Dahl took off his coat and hung it on the back of a swivel chair.

“Well, this is my tape and resume’.” I handed him the materials across the glass top of his walnut desk.

“What kind of experience do you have? Where have you worked? You live here in North Platte? Somebody tell you my guy was leaving?”

“Um, I don’t have much experience, Mr. Dahl,” I explained. “I’ve only worked at my college radio station. I’m just traveling around the country applying for jobs. I thought I’d stop in here and leave my tape; see if there is anything going on.”

“Well, there’s something going on, all right. I need me a newsman and I need one now. Local news is a big part of our public service to this community. But I don’t want to listen to no produced tape. I like to see what a fella’s got, how good he is on his feet. Let’s go tear some wire copy, have you do a rewrite, and then record me a newscast and we’ll go from there. What do you say to that?”

“That would be great.”

An old Underwood typewriter and a green swivel chair on wheels were in a corner next to the control room. An Associated Press wire machine was clacking out copy. The newsroom was little more than a low shelf above the swivel chair. A microphone sat on a stand next to a window separating the work space from the master board where the disc jockey was doing his on air shift. Ed Dahl ripped off the AP copy, scanned a stretch of the yellow paper, tore it loose from the rest, and handed it to me.

“Why don’t you rewrite this?” he asked. “I’ll go put a tape in the machine and all you’ve got to do is hit that red record button when you are ready. When you get done, just tell my secretary and I’ll come get the tape and give it a listen.”

“Okay, sure. Thanks.”

A number of stories on the wire were about Vietnam. Richard Nixon had resigned after the Watergate scandal and President Gerald Ford was trying to find a way to expedite the peace process. American ground troops had been removed from the battlefield but were still flying air support for the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. The anticipated completion of U.S. withdrawal meant that there was no longer a need for a draft.

After rewriting and then recording the AP copy, I went back to Mr. Dahl’s secretary and told her I was finished with his assignment. She went to collect my tape and take it to her employer’s office so he could hear my work. In a few minutes, much less than it would have taken him to listen to the entire newscast I had recorded, Mr. Dahl came out and motioned me back into his expansive space. Photos of his family were on a bookshelf behind him and I stared at them as he began to talk with a tone of voice that might have easily been used by a doctor telling a patient their disease was terminal.

“Son, I hope you don’t think I’m an SOB for telling you this,” he said. “But if you do, at least you’ll think I’m an honest SOB.’

“I’m not sure I understand.”

But I did and I was already wondering where I was going to sleep that night and what the next nearest town might be that had a radio station.

“Well, here’s how it is and I’m not gonna sugarcoat this for you. But you need to think about doing something else with your college degree. You see, everybody can’t be a broadcaster. Some people just aren’t cut out for it. They either don’t have the voice or the writing skills, or just whatever it takes. It’s like somebody wanting to be a major league ballplayer but they can’t hit a curveball. You have to make adjustments in life, you know what I mean?”

“I guess so.”

“Look, I need somebody and if I thought I could work with you, smooth out the rough spots, I’d give you a shot, son. But you just don’t have a voice that is ever gonna work in broadcasting. And I know I asked you to write that copy fast because that’s the way things work in radio but the writing just doesn’t communicate, either.”

“I didn’t think I was that bad.”

“What you ought to do, if you are determined to work in broadcasting; you ought to think about sales or management or something of that nature that keeps you off the air and out of the creative side of things.”

“I want to be a reporter. I got my degree in journalism. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do really; except be a writer. But I’ve got to make a living and I can’t wait to make it as a writer.”

“Well, I’m sorry, son, that I can’t be of any help. I wish I could tell you something more positive. Best way I can help you is to be honest with you and I just don’t think you have much of a future as an on-air broadcaster in radio and certainly not television. Why don’t you give something else some thought?”

Mr. Dahl stood up and came around the desk, indicating our conversation was over.

“There’s nothing for me to think about, really,” I explained as I rose from my chair. “It’s what I want to do and I’m going to keep trying.”

“Well, good luck then, son.” He placed his left hand on my shoulder as I passed.

“Thanks for your time,” I said.

“Sure. Sure.”

Ed Dahl stood in his open door and watched as I moved toward the lobby of his radio station, a business he had built and had placed his family name into the KAHL call letters. I did not think he was mean. But I hoped he was wrong.

“Wait a minute, son,” he called out. “Just a minute. As long as you are just out running around the country looking for a job, why don’t you run down to McCook? I own another station down there and I just got a call from my general manager yesterday and they need a newsman, too. McCook’s not as big a community as North Platte but maybe he can use you and give you your start. How about I call him and tell him you’re coming?”

“Sure. Yeah, thanks. That would be great. I’ll head down that way now.”

“Good. Good. I’ll give him a call and tell him you are on your way.”

Being rejected by a radio station manager in North Platte, Nebraska, did not leave me optimistic about a career in broadcast journalism. I did not know, however, what else there was that I might do. Dejected, I went back to the bus station locker, got my pack, and walked to the state highway. McCook was only sixty miles to the south and I caught a ride with a rancher. In the back of the pickup as the summer wind and sun were blasting my face, I wondered if Ed Dahl had offered up his prejudices concerning my raw talents when he spoke to his general manager in McCook.

There was no bus station with lockers in McCook and the rancher stopped his pickup in front of the radio station on the edge of town. I jumped out of the back with my pack and assumed I looked a bit more like a cowboy looking for ranch work than I did a nascent journalist. After leaning my pack against the steps, I tried to straighten out my wind-twisted hair and look semi-professional before opening the door.

The general manager was friendly and quite young but no more impressed with my degree and skill level than was Ed Dahl. Rather than making me record in his studio, he listened to an audition tape I had taken out of my pack and he let me sit in the room as he tried to remain expressionless. I knew his response before he touched the stop button on the tape deck.

“You’re not really what I’m looking for,” he explained. “And I don’t even know exactly what I am looking for. But I’m pretty sure you’re not it.”

I stood and offered my hand. “Well, thanks for your time.”

I never thought that any radio station operators might be looking for a hitchhiker to come in off of the highway and become a local expert on news but I did not know any other way to get started in the business. My journalistic dreams had certainly never been significantly grandiose. I thought I might one day be reading the hourly newscasts on a big city radio station and writing novels in the evenings. Starting out in a small town was a part of the process for polishing skills and becoming professional. Instead, I had been rejected as unsuitable by two tiny broadcasting outlets in the American outback. What kind of future does a guy have when he isn’t even good enough for North Platte or McCook?

A little discouraged, I was standing on the shoulder of old Highway 6, the transcontinental route everyone used before the restricted access superhighways, and hanging my thumb into intermittent traffic. The Rocky Mountains were only a few hours west and I thought snow-capped peaks and natural majesty might distract me from my own inadequacies as a broadcast journalist. Either my face looked grim or my long hair was too tangled but passing motorists were clearly not interested in risking assisting a stranger. I slept in a field that night and listened to the wind shuffling cornstalks beneath the big, black curve of Nebraska night sky.

My employment prospects did not improve that summer. I ran out of tapes and resumes’ and gave up stopping beneath radio towers to try to find work. There was hiking and camping and climbing to be done in the mountains and the deserts of Utah and California. When I had finally run out of money and almost out of energy and optimism, a 1000 watt day time radio station in Arizona offered me a job as a news director and disk jockey for what amounted to $176.43 take home pay every two weeks.

I felt like the luckiest man in the world.