[I have a zillion balls in the air this week, so I’m reposting an old blog. WIth the media in overdrive the last few weeks, what with the Impeachment Trial and the Iowa Caucuses, I thought it a good time to remember how important the realest of Real News–local papers and AM radio stations–used to be not so many years ago. You can also read more stories from Skeeterville HERE.]
Let me get this out of the way. I’m from Flyover Country. Maybe more precisely, I’m from a place so uninteresting that people from Flyover Country fly over it. My hometown—let’s call it Skeeterville so I won’t be cut out of Mom’s will—is an archetype dying Midwestern town that used to have lots of manufacturing jobs but lost them years ago. Skeeterville can’t even claim status as a victim of globalization and Chinese currency manipulation. The biggest factory packed up and moved… to Ohio. Now that’s sad when you can’t even compete with Ohio.
There were two constants in my childhood and adolescence. In the morning, beginning from when my mother woke up in an inexplicable and annoyingly chipper mood at 5:30 in the AM, our house was filled with the sound of WIZZ, our local AM radio station. (N.B.: that is not a fictitious station ID. That’s what it was called, pronounced just as it’s spelled.) In the afternoon, the Skeeterville Daily Times Press (only the first word is fictitious) was delivered by an actual paper boy to our actual front porch.
That a town of 16,000 had its own radio station and daily paper wasn’t all that special then. It most certainly is now. In the last 35 years, the US has lost 400 daily newspapers. My hometown rag was one of them. And broadcast radio has consolidated to the point that 90% of all stations in the US are now controlled by a very small handful of media conglomerates.
WIZZ and the Times Press were a tag team. For example, at 7:30 every morning, WIZZ read the obituaries. It being radio, these were by necessity very short: “Betty Lou Clapsaddle, age 92, passed quietly in her sleep last night after a short illness. Visitation will be at the Graves Funeral Home on Wednesday evening. Funeral services will be held at Saint John Bosco, with burial to follow immediately after in the church cemetery.” This would elicit a sigh and/or a tsk-tsk with an accompanying head shake from Mom, who as a fourth generation Skeeterite, knows or is related to everybody. Then we’d go about our breakfast. By the afternoon, however, the Times Press, always hot on the sickness-and-dying beat, would have a full life-death-and-miracles obituary which, given Betty Lou Clapsaddle’s advanced age, could run to many, many column inches. It was to the Obituaries page my Mom always turned first.
Any world or national news was limited to two AP or UPI stories on Page One, above the fold. These were only intended to impart gravitas and justify the AP and UPI subscriptions. No use cluttering people’s minds with Cold War nuclear standoffs if there’s a shortage of canning jar lids at the Kroger when it’s time to put up tomatoes. Besides, you could get the Chicago papers delivered. We got all three: the Trib, the Daily News, and the Sun-Times. I have no idea why, since Mike Royko’s column was only in the Daily News. And there was Huntley-Brinkley or Walter Cronkite at 5:30 for all that other stuff, like Vietnam or Watergate.
These were strictly local media and everyone listened to and read them every day. Mom used to read the paper each afternoon with a dish towel across her lap to keep the ink off her slacks. I went off to school not only knowing who expired overnight, but also the previous day’s closing quote on October pork bellies. WIZZ was on every weekday at our house until after “Swap Shop” at 10:30. “I have a 1946 Packard left front fender. $5 or best offer. Call 672-1234 after 4:00 PM.” “Swap Shop” was awesome.
Because it was strictly local, the Times Press was the place most of us first experienced our picture in the paper. If you were a sports star, unlike me, you got rather blasé about the whole thing, since you’d appear in the special weekend sports section (TWO pages on Saturday) with regularity. We lesser lights had to find other ways, like chairing the committee that produced the first-place toilet-paper stuffed homecoming float or growing a gourd that resembled Pope Paul VI.
When I got to high school, I joined WIZZ Jr., which was the radio club that produced a one-hour show every Sunday afternoon. It wasn’t much—the station was like 12 watts, I think—but it was required listening for all Skeeterville high school students. I became a favorite on-air personality because I produced a monthly one-band retrospective show. I was also susceptible to bribes, like “we won’t beat you up if you do The Guess Who next week.” I was never successful in trading a band selection for a sexual favor, only for non-ass-kickings.
I wonder what’s been lost with the demise of most true hometown media? Maybe nothing, since now we can just Google anything, including obits and soybean futures. But that approach is both atomized and self-selected. There was something different about single sources of local news that kind of glued us together, an early and very locally specific kind of must-see TV, if you will.
My wife, who was from the burbs of a good-sized city, used to find my little hometown suffocating. “How can you stand everyone knowing all your business?” That was until my dad died and, after his obituary on WIZZ, the long line of casseroles started arriving. We kind of looked after each other that way. Maybe because we all knew each other’s business.
Thoughts on the hometown radio or newspaper of YOUR youth?
[You can read more stories from Skeeterville HERE.]