On The Air With Swap Shops and Obituaries

I took a trip to my past a few days ago, and it’s worth telling about.  I was interviewed at the studios of a radio station in Cherryville, North Carolina about the upcoming premier of my new play, “Liberty Mountain,” and it was like going home.

I began my long journey as a communicator in junior high school at the weekly newspaper in my Alabama hometown – first working in the print shop, then learning to report and write.  But when a fellow started a radio station in Elba, I was intrigued.  There was a minister who, as a part-time job, did local news for the station, and he invited me to contribute stories – not just write them, but deliver them on the air.  So a couple of mornings a week, before school, I would go to his pastor’s study where he had a microphone set up, and I would present my stuff.  Wow!  My family and friends could hear me on the radio.  Instant celebrity.  I acquired a new girlfriend.

Then the station manager offered me a job as a disk jockey – working after school, weekends, and summer vacation.  From pastor’s study to studio, operating the control board, reading the news and commercials, and playing records, an inordinate number of which I dedicated to my new girlfriend.  We played “Top 4O” music – Ray Charles, the Platters, Johnny Cash, cool stuff.  My air name was “The Boogie Man.”

I parlayed that experience at WELB (“the mighty 1350) into a college education, disc jockeying my way through the University of Alabama at stations in Tuscaloosa while I got a communications degree.  And from there I went on to a thirty-year career in television news at stations in Montgomery and Charlotte.

But I never lost my affection and admiration for hometown radio, and as I sat in that studio in Cherryville, it all came back.  Just before we went on the air for the interview, they were doing the “Swap Shop,” a staple of hometown radio.  Want to buy or sell an item?  Send in a post card or call on the phone and get on the air.  Connect with your friends and neighbors, one of whom may be on the lookout for that “Sly and the Family Stone” vinyl LP you have for sale or may have that two-gallon crockpot you’ve been pining for.  It’s an electronic community flea market, free for users.

And then there’s the “Obituary Column of the Air,” another time-honored hometown radio tradition.  Obits provided by the local funeral home, read somberly by an announcer, a brief chronicle of the lives of those among us recently departed, along with information on services, memorial gifts, and the like.  In a small town, you’re likely to know the folks they’re talking about.  Family, friends and neighbors.

Radio has changed a good deal since my days as a teenage deejay.  Stations – especially in sizeable markets – are owned by big conglomerates with cookie-cutter ideas about what folks ought to be listening to.  In many cases, programming is automated and the live announcer personality has been swallowed up by a computer.  But search around the AM dial, and you’ll still find echoes of that very local, very intimate radio of the past.  The best of it remains, and for a small-town kid like me, it’s the best radio there is.  It’s my roots, and I’m grateful.

Robert Inman’s novels – Home Fires Burning, Old Dogs and Children, Dairy Queen Days, Captain Saturday, and The Governor Lady – are available on Amazon Kindle, priced at $3.99.

The Man Who Took A Chance

My first boss passed away recently.

Paul Cunningham was the editor of The Elba Clipper, the weekly newspaper in my south Alabama hometown when I was a boy.  I was intrigued by the paper – not just the stories about what was going on in Elba, but the way the stories got there.  The process of journalism.

I decided to do something about it.  When I was in the fifth grade, I marched into the Clipper office and asked Mr. Cunningham for a job.  He looked me up and down and said, “Not yet.”  Two years later, I marched back in, and this time he looked me up and down and said, “All right.”  He put me to work in the back room, the print shop, learning how those stories became a physical thing, the newspaper.  I learned to set type by hand, make proofs and read them, operate the clanking, clattering machinery, get ink under my fingernails and in my blood.  It was newspapering from the ground up.  It was the best job I ever had.


Later on, Mr. Cunningham set me to writing a weekly column, “Twenty-five Years Ago in Elba.”  Each week, I would search the back issues of the paper and pick out items to put in my column.  I think it entertained and informed our readers, and it taught me a lot about my hometown’s history and the people who had put out the newspaper a quarter-century before.  It gave me a sense of the legacy of a newspaper, its place in the community through time.

Paul Cunningham was a fine editor.  He showed by example that journalism is an honorable profession, and that a newspaper is as crucial a part of a town as schools and churches and government.  If people don’t know what’s going on, they move blindly through life.  He was an excellent writer who appreciated the power of words to inform, educate, entertain, and – perhaps most importantly in a newspaper – disturb.

As I look back on that time, I realize that the most important thing for me personally was that Mr. Cunningham took a chance on me.  He looked me up and down and saw something worth cultivating.  He gave me an opportunity that led to a passion.  He taught me by example that one of the most important things we do in this life is invest time and interest in a person younger than we are.  I’ve tried to pay it forward.

Paul Cunningham was 94 when he passed away – a World War Two veteran, a veteran of a lifetime in the journalism business.  In me, a part of him lives on.