Remember When We Listened to the Radio?

Burlington, CO, 1890, Pre-Radio

“Remember when we listened to the radio
and I said that’s the place to be?
And how about the job as an FM jock
the day you married me?” – Harry Chapin

The town had two exits off of the Interstate and I thought it was the perfect location to launch a career as an international broadcast journalist. Rows of beets grew in every direction and during harvest the big container trucks carried the produce to sugar mills in Denver after migrant workers up from Texas had brought in the crops. Out on the Colorado and Kansas line the land of the High Plains was eternally flat and on the very clear days after a storm you might convince yourself the Rockies were visible 150 miles distant.

Less than four thousand people lived in the town but there was a local radio station that sat in one of the beet fields not far from the frontage road of the super highway. A tower steadied against the wind by strong wires stood out back with a red aircraft warning light that blinked at night. I had seen the structure from a distance when I hitchhiked over from Goodland, Kansas and I asked the trucker to drop me at the first exit so that I could leave a tape of my college radio broadcasts and apply for work. By the time I had walked a mile down the dirt road to the station’s parking lot I am certain I looked more like a drifter seeking food or other handouts than I did a prospective employee but the receptionist accepted my tape and resume’ and I went back out to the highway.

Colorado High Plains
Colorado High Plains

My home phone number was on the documents I had left and a few weeks later the general manager had called my Ma to offer me a job while I was camping down in Southern Utah. When I got in touch with him he offered me $550 a month plus an extra $25 a week when I did a half hour roundup of local sports each Saturday. I thought my wandering was coming to an abrupt end but it was really just getting started.

A diminutive man with an outsized voice was the program director of the AM station and he was my boss. His name was Tom Toomey and during his on-air shift he referred to himself as Tom “”Sock-it” Toomey and he was always talking about going out to the country club after he got off the air to eat a greasy plate of Rocky Mountain Oysters. Tom was from upstate New York and had become inordinately fascinated by the fact that he could consume fried bull’s testicles every night of the week. I did not begrudge him this intrigue but I thought it slightly an odd thing to speak about every day as he was wrapping up his four hour broadcast.

Tom did not want to work mornings so I was tasked with signing on the radio station at 5 a.m. and hosting the first broadcast for the next five hours. My initial morning Tom met me in the lobby holding a large Styrofoam cup of coffee and a burning cigarette with a dangling ash. His expression as he looked at me was one of skepticism and I sensed he had not been fond of the decision to offer a job to a hitchhiker with a backpack. Tom’s attitude grew out of his personal belief that not just anyone was able to operate a radio station and entertain and inform the public and the airwaves ought not be turned over to itinerant drifters.

Burlington, CO, 1890, Pre-Radio
Burlington, CO, 1890, Pre-Radio

“Morning, Tommy,” I said, which was apparently a bit too collegial.

“No Tommy, please. It’s just Tom.”

“Okay. Sure. Just trying to be friendly.”

“There are other ways. Follow me. Let’s get to the control room.”

As we walked through the hallways of the portable building that comprised the studio he looked back at me to see if there was wonder on my face at the fact I was being given access to the broadcast booth. There were only three switches on the transmitter to flip and Tommy showed me the readings to take and how to log them and then he led me to the control board.

“Okay,” he said, “those dials are called pots. You roll them up to control volume to your microphones, the turntables, tape machines, and the network feed.”

“Yeah, I know. I’ve had a couple of radio jobs before I got here.”

“College radio hardly counts.”

“Okay, but I worked at a station up in the mountains in Eastern Arizona, too. That was kind of a real job. Just didn’t last long.”

“How nice. Well, we are a professional operation here and you’ll find things a bit more challenging.”

“I certainly hope I can live up to those standards.”

I was struggling not to be sarcastic but I wondered what kind of excellence was demanded by a listening audience of farmers and ranchers and gas station operators and a few restaurants, nursing home residents, and a couple of doctors’ offices. Tommy was almost imperious in his determination to protect the multiple hundreds of daily listeners from my looming inadequacies. By the afternoon he would be flawlessly playing songs by “The 1910 Fruit Gum Company,” “The Archies,” and “The Ohio Express.” He doubted I was qualified for a similar endeavor.

“Okay, this pot is the network news feed,” he said. “Click it all the way to the left so you can hear a tone cue over the monitor and as soon as you do roll it up and ABC Radio News will be on the air here from New York.”


“And while that’s on, pull some wire copy with Colorado regional news and weather. The local forecast is on there, too. You read that over the air at the end of the national news and then play a record. Pick out some songs for your first hour.”


I ran to the Associated Press wire machine and tore off news copy and then quickly sorted through a tall stack of 45-rpm records and sat two of them on the turntables, dropped the needles into the grooves, and cued them for play. When the network newscast concluded I threw the toggle switch on the microphone pot and began my first morning newscast on the eastern plains of Colorado.

“Good morning, it’s 28 degrees with flurries at 5:15. In Colorado and local news…..”

Nervous energy made the newscast seem brisk and short. I signed off with my name and started the turntable spinning with music as Tom’s hand touched me on the shoulder. I pulled off my headphones.

“We’re a bit more straightforward here,” he said. “Less earnestness is what works for our broadcasts.”

“Okay, well, I’ll tone it down. Guess I was just over-caffeinated or over-enthused.”

“Very well, then,” Tom “Sock it” Toomey said. He took a step back and folded his arms across his chest and waited for what I might say next when I opened the microphone.

I said, “Music radio. This is Michael Martin Murphy and ‘Wildfire,’” and I turned off the microphone switch.

He again tapped my shoulder. “Please, no ‘music radio.’ That’s big city stuff. We just give it to them without flash. I spent a lot of time developing this format. And it works. Please stick to it.”

“I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to say certain things,” I said. “Is there a list?”

“Don’t try to be funny your first day on the job. And especially not your first day on the air.”

“You’re right, I suppose. Humor never works anywhere. I’m sure there’s no place for it on the radio out here.”

“That’s correct. We are a time, temperature, and news format.”

“That’s a format?”

“Yes, it’s our format and it works quite well for our listeners. We don’t use personality.”

“And you developed that?”

“Yes, I did.”

“I guess I have a lot to learn.”

“I believe you do. But that’s what I’m here for.”

“Well, I wondered.”

There was not much time for me to interject any personality into a broadcast even if I had one to share. The entire morning news block was consumed with network and local news, a farm and ranch report, weather, announcement of the school lunch menus, obituaries, swap shop, a few songs, and the daily hospital report.

Community radio was always exploring new concepts for making money and the business managers that had made the strategic decision to employ me had also decided that there was an audience for a daily reading of the admissions and dismissals from the county hospital. Sponsors fought over the availability of buying commercial time on the “Hospital Report.” I was a bit stunned that such private information was broadcast but the list of names was in front of me and I read it without any trace of earnestness, much less irony. The health reason for their admission to the hospital was also a part of the information we broadcast and just to keep listeners tuned in we broke up the announcements of names and ailments with the sponsor’s commercial.

“I’ll be right back with a list of today’s dismissals from the county hospital right after these words from….”

After I had informed everyone in the bi-county area about who had been admitted and released from the local hospital, I got back to music. As the musical intro was playing to a Gordon Lightfoot song, I related a quick anecdote about seeing him in concert and the fact that he had been so drunk he forgot the lyrics to a couple of his songs. When the recording ended, I added a few more bits of information about that concert. Sock-It Toomey was standing behind me wagging his finger.

“Really, what am I supposed to do? Just throw switches and share the time and temperature? Who in the hell goes into this business to do that?”

“It’s what you were hired to do. Nobody needs your little stories.”

“Jesus, I wish I’d known. Maybe I should quit before the day is over. But why don’t you just get the fuck out of here and let me do my job?”

Tommy Toomey’s eyes went wide with an expression that was an indication he had not ever heard such a vile word. He was also pointing behind me. I did not care.

“I asked you to get the fuck outta here. Now please go.”

His pointing turned into jumping up and down histrionics. I turned around and discovered that the microphone light was still on and the morning audience had heard our entire conversation. The “Great Voice of the Great Plains” was swearing at people as they rolled out of bed.

“Oh fuck,” I said one last time before I turned off the microphone.

Fifteen minutes later, in the pre-dawn dark, the pastor of the Lutheran Church was in the lobby waiting to talk to the new announcer. I made profuse apologies and denied I was routinely profane. Tommy Toomey kept giving the pastor skeptical looks and I knew I would have to work hard to gain acceptance into the community. But I was too much of a smart ass to try very hard. I suppose I was also arrogant and viewed the little town on the Interstate as a rest stop on my road to broadcast glory. I grew up to hate guys like me.

I settled into an adobe, played softball and watched the wind blow dirt across the plains in broad clouds of brown darkness. Because I did not have a radio, at night I often sat on the ground next to my old Opel station wagon and listened to the A.M. radio signal of KOMA in Oklahoma City. The sound of the announcers’ voices and the music made the cheap speakers rattle and sent silly dreams through my head that I might one day work in such a fantastical operation. The night sky was alive with music.

The most exciting part of every broadcast hour on KOMA was always the station identification at the top of the hour. A 50,000 watt clear channel license, the signal bounced off the ionosphere at night and sent radio to remote locales that were known in legal language as “dark areas,” un-served by the publicly-owned airwaves. The station ID began with a loud explosion and then a bass voiced announcer who said, “Serving 22 states and three countries, (another explosion), this is KOMA (dramatic pause), Oklahoma City.”

Which gave me an idea. A very, very bad idea.

There's a Storm Across the Prairie
There’s a Storm Across the Prairie

I went to the radio station that night after the transmitter was shut down and recorded my own local version for our little beet field town. My voice was squeaky from yelling at that night’s fast pitch game and a couple of beers had pumped up my puny courage and I struggled hard not to laugh as I produced the station identification. Instead of an explosion, I began with the tinkling of cowbells, and then said, “Serving 22 homes, three gas stations, four donut shops, and ten thousand pickup trucks, this is KNAB Burlington, Colorado.”

My sensibilities, if I had any, were not yet to be found the next morning and I played the station ID over the air just as the general manager was parking her car out front. She let me keep my job but I was pretty certain I was never going to be asked to speak at the Chamber of Commerce monthly luncheon. I moved on in a few months and 38 years slipped past without me really taking notice. The general manager became the owner and she still runs the station out near the Kansas line. I sent her an email recently just to say hello and apologize for my youthful indiscretions. She never answered.

She might still be embarrassed I was ever hired.