Commentary
7:00 am
Thu October 17, 2013

Lifelong Listening to Louisville Public Media

Keith Runyon
Credit Submitted photo

For most of my life, I’ve been at the other end of the radio experience—tuning in wherever I go and keeping abreast with news, features, sports and music through broadcasting. But for most of my professional life, I was a print guy, a writer and editor for newspapers since I was 16, and at The Courier-Journal since I was 18. Until early this year, I never regularly sat at behind the microphone. Now, thanks to the folks at Louisville Public Media, I am enjoying the power of the airwaves, and it is gratifying indeed.

That’s only one reason why I do my part for public radio, as a sustaining member and as a regular contributor, now, to WFPL both on the air and here on the station’s website, which is a constant source of local news and commentary, as well as the best of national and international information. Just yesterday morning I helped participate in the semi-annual fund drive, which was a terrific experience. So many people share my love and admiration for our three public radio stations and their websites. And they showed that respect by calling in pledges or submitting them on the web. 

My own relationship with the radio began long before I can remember. My parents had one turned on all the time—at home (especially in the kitchen) and in the car. And even though we had a television set by the time I was 2 and I have no memories of days before it arrived, I can still recall afternoons and Saturday mornings listening to what is kindly called Old-Time Radio,  including “The Lone Ranger,” “Let’s Pretend” and Art Linkletter’s “House Party.” All of these shows wound up on television, but they definitely had their origins in radio.

As for FM radio, it was pretty rare in my early life through most of the 1950s and 1960s. In Greathouse Elementary School (the old one, now St. Matthews City Hall and the Eline Branch of the Louisville Free Public Library), we listened to radio via the public address system. The P.A. was used for all sorts of things, including a morning announcement period by Mr. Shaver, the principal, a school-wide recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, and occasional musical numbers. I have a vague memory of joining a small group of second graders to sing the National Anthem one morning. Then, on occasion, the call went out that provoked plenty of snickering: “James, would you please bring your mop and bucket to Room 205?” James was the custodian, and the plea was issued after one of the children got sick before making it to the restroom. 

WFPL went on the air the year I was born, and a few years later it would be joined by WFPK. These stations focused on high-minded topics. Classical music ruled one station, and the choices for programming were often heavy and arcane, especially to the ear of a 6- or 7-year-old boy.

On the other hand, the public affairs programs including some intended just for school kids. My favorite was a weekly current affairs program that lasted 15 minutes, hosted by a genial local educator named Conrad Ott. No kidding, that was his name. And his theme music was Percy Grainger’s perky “Country Gardens.” Mr. Ott went on to become a superintendent of schools in both Lexington, Ky., and Akron, Ohio, where he died in 2010 at the age of 83. Each weekly program focused on the topics in the news—President Eisenhower’s health was a frequently subject. Early developments in the space program also came up for discussion. And for some reason I remember a lot of talk about the Brussels World’s Fair of 1958. 

In the '60s, AM radio continued to hold center stage in broadcasting. It was a golden age for the networks, dominated on weekends by NBC’s wonderful “Monitor,” a potpourri of news, sports, entertainment, music and features with some of the top voices in broadcast of that era including Dave Garroway, Bob and Ray, Joe Garagiola, Arlene Francis, Henry Morgan, Gene Rayburn and many others. Then rock 'n' roll swept across the land and local affiliates like WAKY and WKLO drew my generation to the dials. But I very distinctly remember beginning to change to FM in the late 1960s, when the only FM radio to which I had access was one in my grandparents’ living room. It was an old floor model with a 78-rpm record player built in. The push buttons allowed both for AM and FM, something our radios at home didn’t have. And on Sunday afternoons, we would tune in Arthur Fiedler conducting the Boston Pops. The signal wasn’t very good, but it was impressive. This music was coming all the way from Symphony Hall in Boston!

Then, in the spring of 1970, I bought my first portable FM radio, on sale at a discount store named Almart (across Shelbyville Road from The Mall in St. Matthews). My best friend’s grandmother dismissed the place as a “junk store,” but they had marked that radio down to a price I could afford. Probably the reason it was so cheap was because  there was a short in the antenna so from time to time you had to jerk it around to regain the signal.

Nonetheless, I was able to absorb a full range of classical music, both on the library station and WHAS-FM, a commercial classical station that my friend Barry Bingham Jr. had put on the air in 1966.  Armed with two semesters of music appreciation taught by University of Louisville professor Gerhard Herz (1911-2000), who had fled Nazi Germany and was nationally known as a Bach scholar, I was a ready listener.

Lucky I lived in Louisville. For my entire life, there has always been a radio station devoted solely to classical music. For many years, there were two—WFPK and WHAS. And after commercial classical music went off the air in the mid 1970s, the Bingham family donated the transmitter and the entire collection of recordings to the University of Louisville, which put WUOL-FM on the air in 1976. 

Probably the other big development in my life with public radio came in 1973, when WFPL began gavel-to-gavel radio coverage of the Senate Watergate hearings. At that same time, “All Things Considered” went on the air every afternoon. It was a revolution in the way Americans got their news. Interestingly, it came at a time when establishment news organizations were much bigger and more dominant. ABC, CBS and NBC television news towered over the landscape, along with The New York Times, the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and regional newspapers like The Courier-Journal and the Des Moines Register. It was inconceivable that things would change so dramatically in the next 40 years. 

Then in 1979, at the time that Iranian militants stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, a morning program began on NPR hosted by the very young broadcaster from Louisville, Bob Edwards. “Morning Edition” became my early morning wakeup call, and has remained so for 34 years. I never had a radio in the bathroom until I began tuning in those daily reports from the Middle East, and all the other world trouble spots, over both WFPL and WUOL. Now I can’t imagine my bathroom without it. Or making my first cup of coffee without “Morning Edition” giving me the early headlines.

Over the decades, the offerings on all of the public radio stations in Louisville have improved and expanded. Today the news-gathering organization has expanded with lots of young talents, and a few of my former colleagues from The Courier-Journal. A new investigative unit is cracking stories like the sex scandals in Frankfort. I believe in public media, and I hope you do too. Now is the time to show your support. Call (502) 814-6565 or go here now and make your commitment to outstanding broadcasting in Louisville.

Keith Runyon is a longtime Louisville journalist and former editorial page editor for The Courier-Journal.