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The day my radio career ended before it started

March 2, 2012

Lately, I have loved listening to an old Harry Chapin song, “W.O.L.D.”

 

I am the morning DJ on W*O*L*D,

Playing all the hits for you, wherever you may be,

The bright good-morning voice who’s heard but never seen,

Feeling all of 45– going on 15.

When I heard it again this morning, I thought of Ken King. Of course, that was likely not his real name.

I guess I must have been about 12 years old, the same age my son turned this week. It was the ‘70s, and for me the best part of each day was listening to AM pop radio stations from the nearby big city of Wichita Falls. Disc jockeys such as King and Mad Martin ruled the local airwaves on stations like KTRN (The Mighty 1290!) and KNIN.

As far as I was concerned, King was The Man at KTRN. He played my favorite songs from Chicago and the Eagles. He made me feel good about life. He was funny. And there was always the chance that if I kept listening, I could be the 13th caller and win a new album or a T-shirt or even (deep breath) concert tickets.

I made a decision in those days. I would spend the rest of my life spinning the hits like my hero Ken King. I couldn’t wait to get started. Since the smooth voice on the radio seemed like such a close friend, I called him up one day to tell him what I had decided to do. I told him he was my favorite DJ, and that when I grew up, I wanted to be just like him. In retrospect, I think it was the words just like him that triggered his response, which shocked me. He said: “That’s great kid. Come down to the studio Sunday during my show, and you can hang out with me and I’ll show you what I do.”

I was walking 10 feet off the ground. This was a big deal. My Dad even gave me permission to miss church, and he drove me to the station. Of course, I imagined it being located in a glittery skyscraper. OK, so Wichita Falls, Texas, didn’t have any glittery skyscrapers, so, maybe the broadcast studio was in the big blue bank building downtown? As my Dad’s Buick turned onto an isolated country road that led to the station, my romantic view began to diminish. I can still recall my first sight of that tiny brick building in the pasture on a dusty morning. This was only the start of my reality check.

I remember King with graying, frizzy hair and an agitated manner. I would guess that he was in his mid-40s. He welcomed me into the radio booth. I didn’t know then what a courageous thing it was for him to do, inviting me onto his stage, the place where he lived or died publicly every single day.  I recall being fascinated by the Teletype machine. King was friendly but constantly on edge. He would sometimes say something on the air and then ask me off-air what I thought about it. I was hesitant to say anything that wasn’t praise in its most glowing form.

He was bound by no such reservations.

He explained that being a DJ was a pressure-packed life, and that he had experienced the ups and now knew the downs. He pointed to a black-and-white photo, one of several framed portraits on the wall. “See that?,” he said. “That’s me with Elton John. I was the top DJ in Los Angeles then. Look at me now, in this God-forsaken place.”

Occasionally, a man would emerge from a corner office, walk into the studio and yell at him.

“Did you see that?” King would say after the man walked out. “That’s my boss. He comes in here and yells at me every day.”

It continued this way, all day. At the end, as I waited in the lobby for my Dad to pick me up, Ken King told me that if I still wanted to be a DJ, maybe it was the right career path for me, after all. And then he headed back into the tiny broadcast booth.

I got the message and quickly lost my taste for life as a radio DJ.

I don’t know what happened to Ken King, but I hope things got better for him. I am sure he soon forgot our day together. I never have. I think it was the first time that I clearly understood that things were not always what they seem.

If I could talk to Ken King today, I would tell him that I am far more impressed that he was concerned about the future career path of an annoying 12-year-old than I am that he had his picture made with Elton John.

Despite all that was going on in his world, he took time to share some things he felt I must know. I was a child then, but he spoke to me as an adult. Not many people do that. He was authentic. He made a difference.

I have always been thankful to Ken King for that. This one goes out to him.

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