March 13, 2012

ancient radio history

I found out the other day that 2012 is the 50th birthday of KALX, the radio station at UC Berkeley.

Why does this matter to me?

For eight glorious months in 1988-1989, I worked the news room at KALX. One or two mornings and two evenings a week, I learned to report, write, engineer, and produce news broadcasts.

I will never forget my first story. I was assigned to write the kicker--the final story of the broadcast, after the sports guy tossed it back to the anchors. Often meant to be a humorous or lighthearted finish. The story was of a man who had been found in his apartment several weeks after dying there alone. Ha, ha! How lighthearted can you get! I wrote something that was probably 200 words, and the producer (I forget who it was, but she was awesome) took my paper, grabbed a red pen, and obliterated half the words.

At first I stood dumbfounded. Although I was an engineering major, I was a pretty good writer. I thought. Then I read the result, and it was so much better. I learned about omitting needless words that day. (You'll have noticed, no doubt, I don't edit blog posts with the same vigor.)

We got in the habit of bringing blank cassettes to the studio to tape our broadcasts. I held on to my dozen or so tapes for 20 years. Finally, last spring, I digitized them.

My crowning achievement was on May 25, 1989, shortly before graduation. I went into the news room (the station used to be on Bowditch) and found that I was the only one to show up. I pulled lots of wire copy, found a couple of carts from the previous night's show, and steeled myself to do it all myself. Then I heard there was an action going on in People's Park, just a few blocks from the studio. I grabbed a tape deck and ran down there, found someone to interview, asked a couple of questions, ran back to the studio, wrote a quick piece, and settled in to do the newscast.

It's quite a thing to produce, write, engineer, and anchor your own newscast. I think it turned out pretty good, all things considered. Especially given that I had only six months experience, two days a week.

Those were some awesome times. I forget most of the people I worked with but do remember the ones I worked most often and most closely with. Some went on to media careers, but most I think did not.

I learned as much about the craft of writing in those six months as I did from any creative writing class. And I took some creative writing classes from some famous authors, including one US Poet Laureate. There's nothing like a deadline and a 90-second time limit to teach you to get your message across succinctly.


Terri Bruce said...

Great post! Brought back a lot of memories from my own college days. There's nothing like trial by fire! Aren't you so glad you held onto those tapes? Even if now, years later, if you look at them and think, "these are utter crap" because of how far you've come, there still remains a deep sense of accomplishment. We had an annual writing contest when I was in grade school and my mother kept all those stories. I look back on my childish writing and laugh hysterically at how bad they are and yet, I also look on them with a deep sense of pride and nostalgia. They were the best I could do at the time and the fact that I can see now how terrible they are means my skills are grown. I'm grateful for both of those truths.

PJD said...

Thanks, Terri! Actually I go back and forth between "this is awesome for a bunch of newbies" and "oh my god did I just make that error" :-)

And the childhood writing, too... I have a few handmade books from 5th grade that I'm trying to scan and blog. Fun (for me anyway) to look back on, and fun for my kids to see, too!