Thursday, September 03, 2009

A Pro's Pro

-As a mass-comm senior at SIU-E, I was fortunate to land KMOX for my broadcasting internship. Others chose music stations or television. My request was the Mighty MOX. And with the perseverance of faculty coordinator Jack Shaheen, I got it. I didn't much care what sort of work my internship would bring with it because I would be inside the hallowed halls of Robert Hyland's radio behemoth and frequently be in the same room as my hero Jack Buck. And that's all I really cared about at the time.

In January of 1972 I reported for duty for the first time. It would be 3 months of "gofering" and whatever some staff member wanted me to do. That's all I knew going in. It turned out that I was assigned to Jim White as his Friday. Jim...who passed away yesterday at 73...(read obit here)...was already established as a radio superstar on KMOX's clear channel signal. His man or woman Friday was referred to often on the show when he needed some task performed behind the scenes. Being assigned to The Big Bumper...his on-air nickname for himself...was a bit intimidating at first. Jim's crusty, on-air personality bled into his real one enough that I tip-toed around him a lot at first. I came to learn it was because he didn't suffer fools, laziness, or unprofessionalism very well. Once I made it clear that I wouldn't fit into any of those categories, we worked well together and I had a comfortable friend and mentor.

My job usually was to arrange "call-outs" for that night's show. Jim would scour the news and decide what topics, or people, were worthy of pursuing as interviews. He would give me his ideas and I would set about tracking down call-outs...usually one per hour of that night's 4-hour show. So my people skills...especially on the phone...grew exponentially during that 3 months. It always helps to line up interviews when you can drag out the phrase..."This is Tom Calhoun calling from CBS News in St. Louis". We pursued interviews with everyone from winners of the hog-calling contest to the highest officials in government. It all depended on what sort of mood The Bumper was in...and what day of the week it was. Friday night shows were always lighter than the others. I'd say we had about an 85% success rate in lining up who we wanted.

One night's efforts stand out in my mind. The details are a bit fuzzy, but 1972 was a Presidential election year. Early that year, the battle for party nominations was beginning to take shape and primary elections were looming. As part of that, Jimmy Hoffa, the long-time head of the Teamsters, was flying into St. Louis for a "union gathering". He had been in prison for several years for bribery and jury-tampering. He was pardoned by President Nixon in December of '71 and told not to engage in union activities as a condition of his release. He was basically thumbing his nose at Nixon by appearing at a highly political, and highly Democratic, event that night. His appearance in St. Louis was something of a surprize and Jim told me to "get Hoffa on the phone". It was not..."try to". It was "get him". After a number of calls to people who might be able to help...and leaving our hotline phone number with all of them, I received an amazing call during that evening's show.

"Hello...this is Jimmy Hoffa", said the voice on the other end. "I'm at the airport and I have about 5 minutes for an interview."

"Yes sir Mr. Hoffa", I said. "We'll get you right on with Jim White".

The Bumper was pleased. I can't remember ever seeing him quite so satisfied. He knew, and he made it clear to me, that it was a huge "get" for him and KMOX that night. Of course, Hoffa disappeared, never to be heard from again, a few years later.

It was that sort of "we can do anything" attitude that made Jim White, and KMOX in that era, so special. The nighttime signal brought information and entertainment to hundreds of thousands of people all over the continent before the advent of the internet and cable television. Jim was the king of the genre in mid-America. The ratings were off the charts.

I'm proud to have known, worked with and for, Jim White. A very, very Big Bumper in our profession. Rest well my friend...and thanks from this Friday.

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