We were a big deal. Or so they thought at WDTV in Clarksburg, West Virginia. My friend David Drew, which was his on-air name and me, known on-air as Jesse Douglas landed in our rented single engine plane at the Clarksburg airport. The T.V. stations main office was at the airport and the station manager named Dusty greeted us as we came in the door.
Dusty had placed an ad for on-air talent in Broadcasting Magazine. It’s a trade mag for the industry that everyone follows to see what other gigs are out there. David was working on-air part time at WPRW in Manassas, Virginia just outside Washington, D.C. I was working on-air full time at WINX in Rockville, Maryland. Both of these were radio gigs. Neither one of us had any T.V. experience. No matter. David saw the ads and said let’s go outside the D.C. market and get some television experience. So we put on our 1970’s wide lapel three-piece pin stripped suits and flew to West by God Virginia.
David had just completed his pilot’s license and had never flown this distance before or into the mountains of West Virginia. We were both in our early twenties. Sometimes youth just prevails. We got hired on the spot. It turned out Dusty the manager had no television experience either. He was married to the station owners’ daughter. Dusty had been the sales manager for a car dealership the station manager owned. When the owner bought the station he needed someone to sell advertising and run the station. So Dusty pretty much turned running the station over to us that day. We looked like big deals from D.C.
We set up shop at the station a month later. We had no idea what we had bitten off. The actual station was located 15 miles away from Clarksburg high on top of Fisher Mountain. Most days it required the stations four wheel drive Blazer to climb the rock strung trail to the top. The building itself was a huge World War II surplus corrugated metal structure that had been hauled up there piece by piece. The studio, the mixing board, and camera equipment were vintage late 1950’s with a smattering of newer video tape machines wired into the mix.
David took over the production side of things. He edited the station promos and paid advertising. I was the 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. World News Anchor. Not that there was very much news to report. I quickly found out this was a pretty sleepy place. We were given the green light to hire some on-air talent. Again from Broadcasting Magazine came a guy name Roger fresh from the University of Pittsburg. He had a little college radio experience. He was a sports fan so we asked him if he could do sports. We didn’t have enough money to hire a weather person so we had Roger double as the weather guy. He was a big outgoing husky guy and was game for anything.
We wanted a female news anchor to toss story lines with me on the 6 and 11 p.m. news program. We hired Linda, a petite recent college grad from Uniontown, Pennsylvania. So that was our WDTV “Big 5” News Team. No television experience at all. But we had all seen it done on T.V!
In the mornings we would spread out with a couple of locals hired as camera men. Roger would scrape up footage from a high school football game. I would cover a coal miners’ strike. Or a glass workers strike or a brick makers union strike. It seemed there was always a strike somewhere. Linda would do a story from the science lab at the University of West Virginia.
We spent the afternoons editing the videos and then went on the air at 6 p.m. The 6 p.m. newscast was like dress rehearsal for the 11 p.m. newscast where we pretty much did the same show all over again. My friend David became disillusioned pretty quickly. He spent his days editing bad car dealer ads and then our less than thrilling stories from the field. So he quit and left me in West Virginia.
I stayed but I was not happy. I found I hated being on T.V. Radio was way more fun. I wanted to go behind the scenes and produce. Maybe we could make this more interesting. So, I placed an ad in Broadcasting Magazine for an anchor to replace me. We got a demo tape from a guy in his 50’s that had a Mr. Broadcasting air about him. His name was Lyle Richards. He had been a news reporter in Pittsburg years earlier but hadn’t worked in T.V. for a few years. He worked selling home insurance at his wife’s insurance agency. He was going through a mid-life crisis and wanted back in the game. If you remember Ted Baxter from The Mary Tyler Moore Show, that was Lyle. Perfect hair puffed up and vain as hell.
We hired him. During the news I sat in my producer’s chair, headset on calling the shots to the camera guys on the set and to the guy running the mixing board. Each night became routine. We would end each newscast with Lyle and Linda doing 30 seconds of what I call happy talk. Then roll music and credits. The pompous ego of Lyle Richards was driving me crazy. Everything was beneath his standards. That included young me. I was bored, restless and not making much money.
The station owner also owned an easy listening radio station. It was an automated station meaning no one was there on the air. It was just a studio with tape machines called carts playing easy listening music and commercials. The owner needed someone to program the station so in addition to my producer duties at “Big 5” I made a few extra dollars as the voice of “Feeling Good” radio. Every couple of days I would run over there and shuffle the machine music mix of Barry Manilow and The Carpenters’ among other bland background noise. Every 15 minutes my voice would boom out “Feeling Good!” on 93.7 F.M.
Anarchy was breeding in me. Was anyone watching my T.V. station? Was anyone listening to “Feeling Good?” I never really knew but wanted to find out. The next day was Halloween. It seemed like a good time to mix it up. I used the stations 4 wheel drive truck to pick up some bales of hay at a farm stand. I also picked up some tall dried cornstalks some gourds and a very large pumpkin. I drove all this over Linda’s apartment. “What’s all this? She asked as I carved a Jack O Lantern on her kitchen table. “Does this look like Lyle?” I grinned. We need to add some corn silk for hair” she giggled. “I’ll get some glue.”
On Halloween I parked the 4x 4 at the bottom of the mountain for someone else to drive up to the station. I loaded the pumpkin and hay bales in the hatchback of my Volkswagen Rabbit. By now I had outfitted the front wheel drive car with oversized studded tires. That car could climb a tree. I figured I might need my VW to get away. This may be my last night at the station.
In the corner of the news set I constructed a fall cornucopia scene. Hay bales first, then a scattering of gourds and dried cornstalks. The centerpiece was the large Lyle Richards look alike Jack O Lantern. The camera guy and I set the lighting and a camera on it. On the mixing board we superimposed the WDTV Big 5 logo over it. All day long we used this scene as our station I.D. I recorded a new audio track using funeral dirge organ music and my best Dracula voice. “You’re watching WDTV, channel 5, Clarksburg, West Virginia. BIG FIVE.” And then let out a Dracula maniacal laugh! No one called the station. Not even Dusty the manager.
The 6 p.m. newscast went fine. No glitches. Lyle looked at the cornucopia scene but not too closely. The 11 p.m. newscast preceded the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. So I figure our audience was highest then. It had to be. The only bar and restaurant in Clarksburg closed at 8:30 p.m. There was hardly a soul on the streets past 9 p.m. They had to be doing something.
As the 11p.m. news cast was about to end I moved from my producers chair and tapped the guy running the mixing board on the shoulder. I told him I wanted to run the board. Happy Talk was coming up. Each camera on the set was displayed on a bank of monitors in front of the mixing board. The guy on the mixing board decides which shot goes out over the air. Right now that guy was me.
Over the headset I asked one of cameramen to give me a very tight shot of the Jack O Lantern. I saw the Jack O Lantern appear big on one of the monitors. We had two other cameras. One was for a big wide shot of the whole set. The other was to focus on the two news anchors. Happy Talk time. As Lyle turned to Linda I used the mixing board to superimpose the Jack O Lantern head in place of Lyle’s head. Out of the corner of Linda’s eye she caught sight of the on-air monitor we have on the set. She belted out a laugh. Lyle caught on. He was incensed! He got up and I shouted into the headset. “Camera one, follow him. Even if he goes off set!” “I always hated this guy” the camera guy replied and followed Lyle off set. I had locked the production room door and Lyle was now shouting at the door as I ran the news team theme music and rolled credits. We rolled into the Tonight Show with Lyle pounding on the door.
The production room hotline rang. It was Dusty. “That was the funniest freak’n thing I’ve ever seen! I hated that guy since you hired him!” My heart sank a bit. He must be drinking. I’ve got to go back to D.C. I can’t even get fired from this place. I’m wasting my time. I told Dusty I’m done. He told me we would talk tomorrow. In the mean time I needed to escape down the mountain.
We got no phone calls. Not one. No one was watching WDTV. I wrote Dusty a note and dropped it at the airport office. I packed up my apartment into my VW. I had one last task at “Feeling Good” radio. I re-recorded the station I.D. and shuffled some more mediocrity. Anarchy was still in my blood. It was way past midnight. A snow storm was blowing in from the Great Lakes. I was the only vehicle making tracks down the mountains. The landscape lit up in my hi-beams. I was happy. I turned on the radio. 93.7 F.M. I had shuffled in Kenny Rodgers “The Gambler” in the stations playlist and it was playing now.
You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em.
Know when to fold ‘em.
Know when to walk away.
Know when to run.
When the song was over my station I.D. came on, “Feeling good! Right down to my gonads! On 93.7 FM.
It’s okay. Nobody was listening.