In high school I decided that I would like to do some work in radio. During the summer before my senior year of high school I applied for a part time announcer's opening at a local radio station - WWNR. I filled out the application (putting my dramatic experience and speaking abilities as "experience") and did an audition tape. I waited about a week before I called back to see if they had made a decision. The position had been filled, I was told. A few days later I heard one of my classmates on the air. This new announcer later became a U.S. Congressman. His name is Nick Rahall - the "NR" of the WWNR station (well, actually, his father owned the station), so I went back to work with my father, as a plumber's helper, a job I didn't enjoy all that much, though it was a paying job and gave me some "run around" money for the summer.
I didn't think about radio as a part time career until I went to Marshall University in the fall of 1967. I learned about the college radio station, WMUL, and decided to get involved during the early part of my freshman year. I worked a shift several evenings a week. The job was mostly "babysitting" the LP records that were played since the station was a classical music station, and we had a music director who selected the concertos, operas, symphonies, and whatever else was of a classical nature, and the announcer pretty much put on the music (LPs or tapes) and did station IDs whenever (supposedly on the half hour - "This is WMUL-FM, 88.1 on the FM dial, in Huntington, West Virginia"). The most difficult part was just staying awake during the beautiful music.
As I said, we were told to do a station ID on the half hour, and the first evening I worked, I followed what I had been told. The music was playing (over 45 minute piece of music) and 30 minutes into the music I "potted down" the music and "voiced over": "This is WMUL-FM, 88.1 on the FM dial, in Huntington, West Virginia." I potted the music up - within seconds the telephone rang. I picked it up and said, "This is WMUL radio." It was the music director on the other end who yelled into the phone, "What the %&*#@ are you doing? Who the %$#*&^ told you to interrupt a symphony to give a station ID?" I said, "I had been instructed to do so." He said, "Well, don't ever do it again! You do not interrupt a long, continuous piece of music to give a station ID." I said, "Yes, sir." He hung up, and I was told later that the music director was correct. I had learned something that evening besides learning how to stay awake during a long, quiet piece of music. I wanted to play the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, and the Byrds, but I could only play Bach, Schubert, and Beethoven. BTW that music director later became one of my fraternity brothers.
That December, a bus load of the staff at WMUL headed to Charleston to take the FCC license test. This would allow us to break away from WMUL and secure a career in the real radio world. I had studied the review guide and knew everything except the technical part, which was required for an endorsement. I lucked through that part and got my 3rd class license WITH endorsement, so the next semester I was ready to go somewhere where I could play the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel and the Byrds.
In January of 1968 I applied for a Sunday morning job at WCMI AM and WCMI FM in Ashland, Kentucky. Ashland was about 15 miles from Huntington, and without a car, I had to find alternative transportation - more on that later. WCMI was a "rockin'" station, so the dream of playing the Beatles, etc., seemed to be a reality, if I could secure the job. One afternoon, while hanging out in the dorm, I got a phone call from the general manager. He asked if I could come in on Sunday for training and then take over the Sunday morning shift the next week. I told him that I could and took a train to the radio station from Huntington (WCMI was about a block from the train station) and got there at 4:15 a.m. I hung out at the train station until closer to 6:00 when I walked over to the radio station and started my training.
I had enjoyed the music of WCMI during the week as they played the top hits. However, I had never listened to them on Sunday mornings, and soon discovered why. Sunday morning is religious programming with an occasional public service program (like the military program, "Army Time," with band music and singers). That programming lasted until 12:00 (noon) when the rock music started again. My shift would be from 6:00 a.m. until noon - SIGH.
I got my training. I learned how to run the AM station and the FM station all at once. The AM station was where the major programming was; the FM station was completely computerized with three large reel-to-reel tape players having two hours of music on each, and the commercials and station IDs were all on cassettes. There was nothing to do there except get the station on the air (sign-off was at midnight the night before), and put on new large reels of tape every 2-3 hours to make sure the machines didn't run out of music. I was taught how to get the stations on the air and then told what the schedule of programming was. It seemed quite simple, and I was actually getting paid to do this ($1.35 an hour).
The next Sunday I showed up, unlocked the station at 4:15 a.m., ran through my notes, and at 6:00, I turned on the switches to get the station on the air. The FM tapes were running, and some religious show was on at 6:00. I sat back and adjusted to my new environment. At 6:30 the phone rang. It was the general manager. He asked, in a not so calm way, "Where is the AM station?" I said, and this is the truth, "It's right here." He said, "Well, it's not being broadcast." I said, "Well, I'm listening to it right now." He said, "You, obviously, didn't get the AM station on the air. The FM station is on, but there is nothing coming from the AM station." He walked me through the process of getting the AM station on the air, and within minutes we were up and running. After that, almost everything was uneventful and the next 3-4 months I worked there gave me experience to look for a radio job in Huntington.
As for the transportation issue . . . I had to catch the train at 3:45 every Sunday morning during the 3-4 winter months I worked in Ashland. I was about a half mile from the station, and I would be walking there in the cold, biting West Virginia wind. I would usually take a towel with me and wrap it around my face to keep warm. In the afternoon when I left the station, I took a city bus that took me back to Huntington.
Most Sundays I would take the bus back to campus and eat lunch at the cafeteria. However, one Sunday I decided to treat myself to a movie in downtown Ashland. The Paramount Theater was playing "Wait Until Dark," starring Audrey Hepburn. I had heard that it was a very scary movie full of suspense and about a blind woman who is being stalked be three men who had hidden drugs in a doll in her house. I bought my ticket, sat down, the movie started, and I woke up when the credits had just finished rolling. Missed the entire movie, but got a great sleep. I boarded the bus and headed back to campus. For nearly a year after I quit working at the station, I had trouble getting to sleep on Saturday nights, and if I did, I always work up at 3:15.
That summer I worked for Honey in the Rock, the outdoor drama near Beckley. In late July I got a call from WWHY radio in Huntington. They asked me to start the next week, if I could. I'd be working weekends and filling in for vacations. I gave a week's notice at the theater and headed back to Huntington.
The radio station was located in the penthouse of the Frederick Hotel. The hotel had been elegant in its day and was still a popular place for visitors to Huntington. The radio station was on the 4th floor (penthouse)and required a key to get to the floor during times other than when the station was open (9-5 weekdays).
I continued to work at WWHY from July, 1968 until May, 1971 when I left to come to Danville. During those years, I had some very interesting experiences and met some very interesting people (some called themselves "radio personalities"). My work there didn't permit me to play the Beatles, etc., but I had a Saturday and Sunday afternoon show called "Penthouse Serenade" where I got to play the "soft" hits of the time, including some Simon and Garfunkel (my closing song was "Homeward Bound," by S and G).
Four events stand out in my mind as I think back on those years behind the microphone. There was the earthquake that rocked the station, there was the rolling chair that dumped me on the floor, there was the congressman and the weather lady, and there was the Marshall plane crash.
One afternoon I was playing the soft music for my show when all of a sudden the chair I was in started rolling back and forth and the large boom microphones in the production room started swaying. This lasted about 20 seconds, and I had no idea what was happening and no one to ask since I was at the studio alone. Within 30 seconds our weather machine (a teletype type of machine that gave updates on the weather) started clicking and banging and spitting out data. I looked at what it was printing and discovered that an earthquake had centered on St. Louis, Mo, and we were getting tremors. On the next news cast, which I gave (I was a one-man show on weekends), I mentioned this since I was getting phone calls immediately after the tremor from listeners wanting to know if the world was ending.
Next, it didn't take a tremor to dump me out of my rolling chair, but the "choreographed" motions of getting in the groove while working in radio. I had to give the weather every 15 minutes, and the format was to give the forecast, go to a commercial, and then give the latest readings. I had set up a U.S. Army public service announcement (PSA) on the tape player the greatest distance from my reach. After giving the forecast, instead of just hitting the button in front of me, which played the tape, I leaned back on the chair, reached for the button on the machine, pushed it, and my chair fell right out from under me. I was lying on my back, looking straight at the ceiling (the microphone, by the way, was still on). I got up during the 30 second PSA, straddled the chair, and went right into the latest numbers without a pause. I guess the people listening may have heard a "THUMP," but I uttered not a word until the PSA was over.
The third thing I remember is the Sunday afternoons with the congressman and the weather lady. The state congressman would come in on Saturday afternoons, take calls and also answer questions from the local weather lady from WSAZ-TV. It was a 30 minute program, and I handled the microphone controls and answered the phone. One day I remember most was an afternoon, after the program, the lady (her name was D.J. Schroeder - see picture) asked me if she could borrow my pen; she wanted to write something down for the congressman. I handed her my pen, and she said, "Just put it on the table." I did; she went to her purse and got out a can of Lysol, and drenched my pen in liquid. I got my pen back and smelled very antiseptic for the rest of the week.
And, finally. In November, 1970, I heard on Saturday night that a plane had crashed at Tri-State Airport in Huntington, and later learned that the plane had carried the Marshall football team back from a game against East Carolina University. When I opened the station on Sunday morning, the phones were ringing off the hooks. There were CBS affiliates from all over the country wanting a news feed from WWHY, the CBS radio affiliate in Huntington. All I had was the morning paper which I rewrote and read; we didn't have a news department, and that was the best I could do. That was a sad time in Huntington.
Some interesting individuals I met while working at the station included a country western DJ, a boss who was a lothario, an announcer who lied on the air, and a preacher who just about made me go deaf.
Odie Crabtree, his real name, was the "celebrity" announcer at the station. He knew everything there was to know about C & W and played the music that the local community enjoyed. He had the largest listening audience, and he breezed in and out at times on weekends, so I didn't get to know him very well. However, one afternoon while working at the station, I got a phone call. The voice, which was very country, asked, "Is this David Hoffman?" I said, "Yes." The voice said, "I'm Harvey Kushner from CBS in New York. We've been listening to you, and we wanted to see if you were interested in moving to New York and work on our local station?" I knew Odie's voice, but went along. I said, "Ohhhhh....I'd love to do that. How much will I be paid?" The voice said, "That's negotiable, but we'll make it worth your time." I said, "I appreciate the offer, but the only way I will leave here is if you hire Odie Crabtree as well. He is so talented for someone who has just fallen off the truck. He is a man of many voices, and none of them very good." There was silence on the other end of the line. "Uh. David. This is really Odie." I said, "I know. There is no one in New York with a name like Harvey Kushner who would talk with such a southern twang. "I didn't fool you, huh," the voice said. I said, "No, but if you hear of anything in New York, let me know." "I will," he said. And then we hung up.
One of my bosses, I think, was going through a mid-life crisis because on weekends I would get phone calls from his daughter asking to speak to her father. I said, "He's not here." She said, "Well, he left several hours ago and said that he was working at the station." I told her I'd check, but I hadn't seen him. This happened several weekends for several months.
In the afternoons when I went to work, I would get there at about 3:00 and would sign on at 3:15. While waiting in the lobby, I'd hear the program, "Talk Back," a call-in show where the community would call in and discuss the issues of the day (everything from Marshall University basketball to the war in Vietnam). Some afternoons the calls were very slow coming, and the announcer had to just talk. When the program was over at 3:15, the announcer would say, "Well, it's like this every time we get close to the end of the program. The phone lines are all lit up, but we have to go and call it another day . . ." The phone lines, which I could see in the lobby, were unlit. The program was controversial and, at that time, there was no delay on the phone system so often there would be someone calling who would string forth a plethora of profanity before the announcer could hang up; I often feared that the station would lose its license, but no one seemed to be concerned.
And, finally, there was the preacher who came down from the mountains with his small congregation to have a service, on the air, in our production room. I would control the audio while the preacher preached and members of the group sang. The preacher was "Mr. 5 by 5," about five feet tall and five feet wide. He could preach a "fire and brimstone" sermon, and he did. One of the members of his congregation was "Brother Junior," a man about 6' 4" who always wore bib overalls. He was kind of a Jethro-type of the Beverly Hillbillies, a very big man. I would often just tune out the sermon as I sat on the other side of the glass in the control room. I would read and glance up at the volume monitor. One Sunday afternoon, the preacher was preaching, and he was fired up. I was reading when all of a sudden the volume monitor's needle went all the way to the right, and I almost went deaf. The preacher banged on the lectern and yelled to the top of his voice about salvation or hell or something. It took me a few minutes to get my hearing back.
I enjoyed my days in radio. It beat real work. The solitude of the station was both pleasurable and, perhaps, not too healthy. From the top of the hotel I could see the Ohio River with barges and tugs going up and down the river. However, there were some Sundays when I went in at 6:00 a.m. and didn't leave the station until 5:30 p.m., never having seen a soul except for the mountain preacher and his small congregation. It was at times a surrealistic existence, but one that I truly enjoyed.