The Thrill Is Not Gone

“Political elections are a good deal like marriages, there’s no accounting for anyone’s taste”.
– Will Rogers, American Humorist

Election day always makes me nostalgic; not for the things you might expect like civility, logic and actual hope that win-or-lose, my guys could work with the other guys. My wistfulness is more visceral.

I get sweaty-palms, heart-racing nostalgic for the adrenaline rush of being a reporter on election night.

I started my career in radio (first real, full-time, ‘grown up’ job) in 1978 in the town of Nevada, Missouri (spelled like the state but pronounced ‘Neh-VAY-da’) a town of some 10,000 folks ninety-eight miles south of Kansas City. I had moved there that summer from my native Minnesota after being hired to work at the local radio station, KNEM.

It was quite a cultural change after growing up in very urban Minneapolis and Denver.

Small-town/rural politics, I quickly learned, was quite different from the urban variety I had grown up with and dabbled in. In a small town there is no detachment for candidates or issues; everyone knows everyone on some level, and it is always personal; school board to county commissioner, assessor to sheriff. Win or lose, you will have to live together and encounter one another on a regular basis. The saying ‘all politics is personal’ is never more true than in a small town.

While election night 1978 was not a presidential year, it was a congressional mid-term, and there were a ton of local races, so it was shaping up to be a big night – my first as an on-air election reporter. Not that I had anchoring duties or anything; that role belonged to Ken White, the station owner, who had put KNEM on the air in 1949. He worked out of studio ‘B’ where we usually did all of our recording and newscasting from; it had a boom-mic and a big round table that allowed Ken to have all of the various accoutrements of reporting scattered all over but within easy reach, along with his cigarettes and ashtray. Ken was a diminutive, grey haired guy with oversized ears and a raspy, authoritative, smokers-voice; through the smoke-filled air of studio ‘B’ he resembled a Hobbit Edward R. Murrow.

The entire staff was involved with election coverage: Vernita the office manager handled the incoming phone calls (two lines!) from various officials while Tim and Rich, my fellow full-time announcers, were stationed at city hall and the county courthouse. As the new guy on the block I was relegated to the least desired, but right-up-my-alley, wire service duty tracking the regional and national scenes. This required me to station myself next to the UPI teletype doing a rip-n-read: tearing stories off the wire-service machine, then sitting down in front of a microphone in the control room and waiting for a cue from Mr. White to update anxious listeners on what was going with any congressional or senate races of note in Missouri and Kansas.

If you’re not familiar with a classic teletype machine, it was essentially a noisy typewriter in a large box that received news via a dedicated phone line before typing it out on 8.5 inch wide rolls of newsprint. The story came in, the machine finished typing it, you ripped it off the machine and headed for the studio – in our case, a full fifteen feet away. And woe be onto you if the typewriter ribbon in the thing either ran out or got jammed; there was no retrieving a missed story. Hence, a box of spooled typewriter ribbons next to the machine and extra rolls of paper beneath it.

KNEM was usually a pretty laid-back place – but not on election night. The excitement was palpable and with the phone constantly ringing, the teletype going non-stop and ringing like crazy itself as a series of bells indicated ‘bulletin’ status: the more bells, the bigger the bulletin. The damn thing rang constantly on election night. I can still close my eyes and here the typewriter keys clacking furiously, the return carriage banging out new lines of type, and the incessant dingdingdingding indicating big news.

I delivered no earth-shaking results that night (I actually got comparatively little airtime, and in very short bursts) but the frenetic energy and all-around excitement was intoxicating, even in a place where the biggest battle of the night was for county commissioner. It was live, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants, late-breaking-developments radio.

I was hooked.

By 1980 I was in Marshalltown, Iowa where I had been working for small, local station KDAO before being hired to work part-time at KSO/KGGO in Des Moines. Even as a part-timer, I had built a good rapport with the news director there, and he promised me a role in election coverage. Unfortunately, I never got a shot at that. As luck would have it, in October I got what I thought at the time was my ‘dream job’ working for a station in my old summer stomping grounds of Brainerd, Minnesota, and they wanted me there in early November.

The evening of election night 1980 found me in my loaded-to-the-brim 1969 Plymouth station wagon leaving Marshalltown for Minneapolis; a roughly five-hour drive and the first leg of my move to Brainerd. Missing out on being a part of election coverage was a disappointment, but that isn’t to say I missed out on the excitement. Driving through the rural Midwest on election night in that era meant A.M. radio was my only companion featuring wall-to-wall coverage on a wide array of small town radio stations, all broadcasting earnestly and breathlessly live from county courthouses, Grange halls, fire station polling places and various party headquarters.

As the Reagan electoral blowout of Carter was not at all compelling, the local stations seemed even more intent on pumping up their local races.

While I never did hear of any municipality electing a dog catcher, I remember being mesmerized for a good ten-mile stretch of I-35 cruising through southern Minnesota, as two local-yokels used every ounce of gravitas they could muster for an extensive chat about the “Too close to call, hotly contested race for library commissioner”. They, unfortunately, faded quickly away into the prairie night, and I was forced to scrounge the dial for fresh political fodder.

The only non-political respite I was able to summon from my dashboard was when, about an hour south of the Twin Cities, I scored a late-night signal of a clear channel Mexican station. After a couple of mariachi numbers, an announcer came on with a commercial (as a radio guy myself, I knew commercial inflection when I heard it) speaking rapid-fire Spanish, the only words of which I understood were ‘Pepto-Bismol’. Due to the various inflections the guy was using on the ad copy (“PEP-toe Bizzzzzmol” “Pepto. BIZ-mollllll” “PEP -TOE BEES-MOL? Si”! to mention a few) I got to laughing so hard I had to pull over for a minute before returning to regularly scheduled driving and election returns.

That night of rolling through the darkness listening to the pulse of democracy just fed my election-night-action fire.

Fast-forward to 1982, and I was working at KKCM in St.Cloud, Minnesota. We had just launched the station, and had been giving the established local stations a pretty good run for their money both in our country music programming and in our news coverage. At the time, St. Cloud was a city of about 40,000 with surrounding suburbs bringing the population up to around 60,000. It was one of the fastest growing metro areas in the state, and a hotbed for all sorts of tightly contested legislative and county races, and a slew of local ballot initiatives concerning growth, annexation and all sorts of other local issues .As election time approached, we were also actively tracking mayoral and city council races in nine communities. To top it off, the city of St. Cloud sits on the apex of three counties: Stearns, Benton and Sherburne. This geographical oddity presented some unique municipal election quirks. Some of the cities precincts covered parts of two counties, but not all three; others covered different portions of a combination of counties. This had an effect on various legislative races, as well as voting for county offices. Ballots in neighboring city precincts a block apart  could look vastly different. Tracking these races was going to be a challenge.

Enter Les Kleven, our station owner and wannabe political numbers-cruncher.

Les was a curiously odd bear of a man; nearly three-hundred pounds with a rather squeaky voice that got even more high-pitched when he got excited (and Les got excited A LOT) he was a small town rancher-turned-radio tycoon hell-bent on sticking it to the ‘big boys’ of St. Cloud’s radio establishment. To this end, he had hired a great staff of top-quality professionals, including news director Mike Sullivan, who hailed from Chicago and new politics and political coverage from every aspect imaginable.  I was an announcer/reporter/public service director for the station, and Mike and I had a great relationship. He wanted me in the studio with him on election night to serve as his right-hand-man, keeping info flowing and spelling him on air from time to time. Mike had looked at the local geographic issues and had come up with a simple but seemingly effective set of spreadsheets to help track the myriad of races.

Then Les unveiled his new baby: a brand new, roughly the size of a Fiat coupe, Tandy computer. “This” said Les with great confidence, “Will be the tool that helps us kick everybody else’s ass on election night”!

It didn’t. Not that we couldn’t get the data input fast enough (Les was a keyboard demon) or that the miniscule screen couldn’t display data fast (or big) enough but mostly because by the time the even-large-than-the-computer printer spit out its voluminous dot-matrix precinct returns on the over-sized tractor paper which I then had to try and manipulate on the desk in front of me without blocking my microphone the results were already out of date.

I realized by Les’ second and third batch of ‘results’ that his numbers didn’t add up to the raw numbers we had already been reporting via our reporters and stringers in the field, and brought it to Mike’s attention. His solution was brilliantly simple: keep taking the reams of printouts Les was producing from his office and keep them in front of me so that it actually looked like I was using them. “Whatever you do” Mike warned me, “DO NOT throw any of those in the garbage or onto the floor! Make notes or something on them to seem like they are getting USED”.

That’s why Mike got the big bucks.

After I had unfurled a set of Les’ numbers once, they got crumpled and appeared pretty well looked over – like the map you can never get folded up and back in the glove compartment neatly. Add in some legitimately made notes and some coffee cup rings, and Les was never the wiser.  One lasting impression of that night and our data-or-lack-thereof was Les periodically bellowing in exasperation from his office “What about Sonia Berg”?!

Berg was a legislative candidate in one of those districts that covered parts of two of St.Cloud’s three counties; in some precincts there were no results to be had, which puzzled Les, and which also left a hole in Les’ data, which the Tandy apparently didn’t like and wouldn’t compute until you put something in, which we couldn’t do except for ‘zero’ and Les couldn’t/wouldn’t grasp that there were no Sonia Berg results for some precincts.

We got through that election night in fine style – and I do mean ‘through the night’ as Mike and I greeted Don the morning show guy and tromped through the morning reveling and recapping all the election action, toasting each other with a couple of cold Cokes after signing off our coverage about nine a.m…a mere fifteen hours or so after we had begun.

And “What about Sonia Berg”?! Became an uproarious KKCM battle cry for all situations in the months after our first great foray into electronic political journalism

There were other election nights at other stations for me, all exhilarating in their own different ways. By the mid 1990’s I was out of the radio business, save some freelance gigs, but had moved on into the hotel business as I worked my way through my first stint in college. Election night excitement was to be found there, as well, in a more personal vein.  There is nothing quite like a big city hotel that is hosting a campaign party for a major candidate on election night….

Except for maybe a radio station studio somewhere.

Election night 2012 will have me in front of the television, remote in hand, watching history unfold in front of me. There will be moments when my heart will race, my palms will sweat a bit, and I will be thinking, at least a couple of times, “Oh man, if only for a night”.

My kingdom for a microphone.
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