Sunday, January 31, 2016

RADIO SUMMER -- MY LIFE IN STORIES (Frances Jackson Freeman)

I’m not a neurolinguist, but as the expression goes, “some of my best friends are.”  They like to remind us that the human brain is an organizer.  As marvelous as the brain is, it cannot manage random, disassociated data; therefore, our brains are crafted to sort, classify, categorize, and relate.  “STORIES” exist in all human cultures because human brains use this format to organize the events of our existence, and give structure and meaning to our lives.  For each of us, our lives become stories linking and defining who and why we are.  With no particular organizational structure, I share a collection of my stories:

             Between my freshman and senior years of high school, television came to Logansport.  There were a limited number of shows, all in black and white, of course.  The news was suddenly a visual experience with live reporters.  I still wanted to write, but radio and television seemed more exciting than the newspaper.  Although I had never had a single speech or journalism course, I bravely declared my college major as speech with a minor in journalism. 
My parents didn’t object because my Daddy had already informed me I could study anything I wanted, as long as I got teaching certification, “That’s your insurance policy.”  He stated, and I understood he meant that if my future husband died or deserted me, I would be able to support my children and myself.  What can I say, that was how fathers thought in the 50’s.
            I began college the second week of June, 1957, two weeks after my high school graduation.  I couldn’t wait to get away from home and out into the world.  Dr. Edna West, head of the speech and theater department at Northwestern State College (today University), was assigned as my advisor, and set my schedule for my first summer of higher education. 
Under ordinary circumstances, I should have been signed up for freshman, introductory courses.  However, Dr. West had a little problem.  She was scheduled to teach a 6-credit, upper level Radio Production Workshop, and she needed at least six students for the class to “make” (meaning generate enough tuition monies to justify paying the professor).  It was essential that the course register at least six students because the University Radio Station needed trained workers, and Dr. West needed summer salary.
Of course I didn’t know the details of academic finance, and was absolutely delighted to find myself along with 5 others (juniors, seniors, and one graduate student) in the advanced radio class.  I was off to a high flying start – WRONG. 
On the first day of class, we each read a newscast into the bi-directional ribbon microphone in the NSC Radio Studio.  Our readings were recorded on magnetic tape and then played back for critique. The grad student sounded better than Edward R Murray.  His name was Norm Fletcher, and his voice was melodious and his articulation impeccable.
The sound of my voice was the most awful thing I had ever heard.  I sat and cried.  Please understand, this was not vanity or exaggeration.  My very large adenoidal tonsils had never been removed, and in addition to causing my hearing loss, they impeded the flow of air (and sound) through my nose, creating a voice that sounded like I had a perpetual cold.  On top of my awful, denasal, high-pitched voice, I pronounced my words like the most ignorant, uneducated hick in the remnants of the Confederacy. 
The next hours and days constituted the emotional and psychological low point of my early life.  I had always accepted my family’s assurances that, “I could do anything I wanted.” (With the exception of things not permitted girls.)  Now I was faced with incontestable proof that I couldn’t do the thing I most wanted.  At some point in my funk, I remembered the rest of that famous phrase – “If you try hard enough.” 
In my far future, I would become an effective voice therapist, and I always credited my success to my empathy for my voice clients.  I was my own first voice patient.  Maybe Dr. West felt guilty, because I succeeded in persuading her to “loan” me a tape recorder in the evening hours.  It weighed at least 40 pounds, and I carried it back and forth to the basement of my dormitory (the only private place I could find).  My “therapy” approach was simple, I read and recorded and listened.  If what I did made me sound better, I tried to do it again.  It wasn’t very efficient (I didn’t know what I was doing, and had to work for endless hours) but it was effective.  I developed a “mike” voice.  I never successfully altered my habitual speaking voice, but I could “turn on” my “mike” voice when I wanted.  I got an “A” in the course (probably for effort), and in the following spring semester received a first place in the Louisiana Women’s Radio speaking contest.
I was ready for the AIR.  Before the spring semester ended, I presented myself to the general manager of the radio station nearest my hometown, located in Mansfield, LA.  I was told they didn’t use women on the air.  Our voices irritated their listeners.  I persuaded him to give me an audition, but the best he offered was to “let” me to record commercial announcements for women’s products.
Undeterred, I took my application to the next radio station, KDET in Center, TX.  The manager there was much nicer, but his reply was essentially the same.  They had a woman broadcaster already, Mrs. Rex Payne, wife of the owner of the local hardware store.  Every morning, she gave the “social and women’s news” on a 20 minute show sponsored by her husband’s store.
 I walked out of his office discouraged.  It was clear I was getting nowhere.  Then I realized that his story about Mrs. Payne suggested a connection between sponsorship and on-air talent.  I turned around, went back in, and asked, “What if I sell the advertising to sponsor my show?”  A broad smile spread across the manager’s face, and I knew I had hit the right note – The Logansport Show was born. 
I would have a two-hour afternoon show, five days a week.  I had three weeks to build up my sponsors and sell enough ads to cover my airtime.   Finally he informed me, I had to pass the FCC engineering test because the station couldn’t afford to pay a man to cover for me.  He was worried about the license. Apparently he had never known a woman to take the test.  I got the license, sold the ads, and for this effort was paid a total of $27.00 a week for 10 hours of air-time (and 40 hours of preparation).
We had two remaining points of contention.  First, I intended to do Logansport news, feature Logansport talent, and play rock and roll.  The news and talent were fine, but in 1958 rock and roll was not a part of KDET’s image or format.  Reluctantly he agreed I could try the music the kids liked, but he was adamant that I couldn’t read the news on the hourly newscast.  It seems the general consensus held that the news was serious business, and a woman’s voice just couldn’t convey the necessary gravitas. In the end, I did the news anyway.  The guy who was supposed to come in to read the news for me, proved so unreliable I wound up doing the newscast, and since there were no complaints, we just rocked along.
 It was an exciting summer.  I used The Champs’ Tequila as a theme song until there was an objection to the one-word lyric.  I switched to the Champs’ Midnighter, but I was also awfully partial to Bill Justis’ Raunchy.  Pace Hardware in Logansport provided the newest releases as part of their advertising, and I discovered that DJ’s could get freebees from most record companies.  At the end of the summer, my collection of classic 45’s was worth more than the total of my salary.
One incident that continues to haunt me, involved my then boyfriend (now husband of 57 years) who was the lifeguard at the local recreation lake.  Charles regularly listened to my show from his lifeguard stand.  I took on-air requests, and one day a girl called-in asking me to play Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me,” for Charles Freeman from Cyndi.  In a flash of 18 year-old wit, I played Sketter Davis’s  I Forgot More (Than You’ll Even Know About Him)” for Cyndi from me.  If I had known how many times I would have to listen to my husband tell that story, I would have just played Cyndi’s request.
Everyone in town called in news, and my interviews included the little league baseball teams, the mayor, the librarian, the football coach, preachers, teachers, and the managers and clerks in the stores that bought ads.  I recorded and played church choirs, local bands, vocalists, and instrumentalists, actually anyone who wanted to be on the radio.  I was still carrying a 40 pound tape recorder, but now I was a celebrity.
Without doubt, from the depths of my defeat, I had risen to the heights of my ambitions.  I was so “COOL,” I didn’t need a fan that summer.  My ego inflated beyond all reasonable bounds.  But somewhere, in the back of my mind, a flame of doubt began to flicker.  My life as a celebrity seemed a bit like cotton candy at the Fair.  It looked wonderful, smelled delightful, was wholly desirable, but just melted away, leaving no real sense of satisfaction.
The most lasting lesson from my Radio summer was totally unexpected.  After my first few days on the air, I began to receive “fan” letters.  It seemed implausible, that so many lonely people would connect with a voice coming across the airwaves, and open their hearts to a total stranger.  Some of the letters were heart breaking.  I was only 18 and had little experience with the despair, loneliness, and general misery that too often characterizes the human condition. 
One lady wrote me every day, somehow confusing or identifying me with a daughter who had vanished.  After the first few weeks, I began receiving little gifts. Sight unseen, I received two marriage proposals.  At first I was spooked, and tried to avoid opening my mail.  But gradually I came to realize that those letters represented the real world where real people suffered daily.
As much as I was enjoying my Radio Summer, I could not imagine doing that work for the rest of my life. I had become so caught up in the challenge of proving that I could do it, that I had neglected to ask whether it was worth doing.  I began to reconsider my ambitions and aspirations, and it was clear that being a radio or television personality was not necessarily the best way to spend the only life God had allotted me.  I quit in August, and went back to NSC in search of a new career.
My greatest satisfaction from that summer came when the Mansfield radio station hired a boy from Logansport to try to recapture the advertising they’d lost.  When I left KDET, the station manager hired my someday-to-be brother-in-law, Dennis Freeman, to take over my show.  The males were each paid twice as much as I was, and didn’t work half as hard.  I wasn’t surprised by the pay discrimination, but I was bitter and beginning to be angry.

No comments:

Post a Comment