This Is It

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(Pictured: American soldiers at the Kuwaiti border, January 1991.)

I have told the story before about being on the air the day the Persian Gulf War began in 1991. Recently, I was poking through the archives of my first blog, The Daily Aneurysm, and found what I wrote about it on January 16, 2006. It has a couple of details I don’t think I’ve ever shared here. 

On January 16, 1991, I was working at a radio station in Clinton, Iowa. In those days, Clinton wasn’t exactly Paris in the 1920s—it was a hanging-by-a-thread industrial town where the top employers were an animal carcass rendering plant and a grain processor, both of which blanketed the city with an indescribable stench, and a chemical plant that produced god-knew-what. It was a shot-and-a-beer town, albeit more in the what’s-the-use, who-gives-a-shit sense than in the salt-of-the-earth sense. (That’s partly why The Mrs. and I never lived there—I commuted from 30 miles away for three-plus years.) Despite all that, however, the station was run by the best owner I ever worked for, and it became a place where you could plant little seeds of good radio and be given the time necessary for them to grow.

We tried buying a house in Clinton—a couple of them, as a matter of fact. One was a magnificent old pile from the 1920s that had quite literally everything we’d ever wanted in a house, at a price that made it an absolute steal. But we were warned off by every single local person we talked to: “You do not want to live in that neighborhood no matter how beautiful the house is.” The second was in the more desirable part of town, but we bailed after the home inspector determined that the whole thing had been framed with two-by-fours. Standing in the attic, he told me, “The fact that this place is 40 years old and hasn’t fallen down yet says something, but I still wouldn’t store anything heavy up here.” 

So on that day, I am on the air in the afternoon, my regular timeslot. Around the office, war talk has been secondary to the fact that Jane Pauley of NBC News is in town shooting a feature for one of her shows. At the end of the 3:30 local newscast, my reporter, Christy, mentions this to me on the air. We happen to know that the owner of the local limousine service usually plays our station in his limo, so I make a little speech: “Jane, if you’re listening and you have a few minutes, stop by the radio station. Your driver knows how to find it. We promise it will be the easiest interview you ever had. Nothing but softball questions. You can plug your new show all you want.” I repeat the invitation a few more times over the next couple of hours.

About 5:45, Christy suddenly bursts into the studio yelling, “This is it! This is it!” She is talking about the first bulletins of bombers over Baghdad. For a few seconds, I think she is telling me Jane Pauley has showed up.

I wasn’t in favor of that war. All the talk about liberating the poor Kuwaitis, and all the talk about Saddam being worse than Hitler, all of it sounded to me like PR nonsense. It was a war to control the flow of oil, nothing more. The fact that an international coalition was working together on the effort made it only a little easier to swallow. Yet when the war actually began—in the first ten minutes after Christy barreled into the studio—I remember feeling a rush of excitement, and a euphoria so powerful my knees almost buckled when I stood up. Visions of B-52s flying wing-to-wing, tanks and trucks roaring over the border, endless lines of soldiers marching into the distance, flags snapping in the breeze, my country, of thee I sing. This is it. This is it.

We carried ABC News war coverage all that night. The next day, we decided to return to regular programming at noon but with regular updates on the war news. ABC fed a two-minute update every 10 minutes, so all afternoon, I did a regular music show while hitting a network feed six times an hour. It occurs to me now that we probably should have just kept carrying the live network feed. Still, any old radio veteran who ever had to backtime to the top of the hour can appreciate the challenge of doing it 36 times in a single day. 

5 thoughts on “This Is It

  1. Gary Omaha

    My mantra for radio has always been, “No matter what, backtime to hit the network,” so the ending of your story warmed the cockles of my heart. Thanks!

  2. mackdaddyg

    “It occurs to me now that we probably should have just kept carrying the live network feed.”

    Actually, if I may be a bit contrary, I think your station did the right thing.

    Granted, it was a major news story, but you describe the area as “It was a shot-and-a-beer town, albeit more in the what’s-the-use, who-gives-a-shit sense than in the salt-of-the-earth sense.” Based on my experiences (limited but still experiences), areas like this want to know what’s going on with a major story like that, but pretty quickly go back to dealing with their own problems and probably prefer hearing the music they want to hear rather than 24 hours of news updates.

    Plus, honestly, if there’s a “breaking” story on one of the 24 hour news stations today, you only need to watch maybe ten or fifteen minutes to get all the info you need at the time. The rest is repeating what little is known or constant jibber jabber about what it all means, and I’m assuming it was like that thirty years ago as well. A listening area full of people dealing with the drudge of everyday life probably needs and wants no more than the bare minimum.

    But, I could be wrong!

    1. Our thinking, to the extent that I can recall it, is that the war was on every TV channel and lots of radio stations so it didn’t necessarily need to be on ours continuously. But at the same time, it was top-of-the-mind with everyone and we didn’t want to seem like we were downplaying or ignoring it. It would have been easier to stay with the continuous network feed. Hitting the update every 10 minutes was way more fun.

      1. mackdaddyg

        That makes sense as well. Again, for those who didn’t want to hear wall to wall coverage of the war (which was probably a decent number of listeners), your station provided an alternative.

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