“There’s a sucker born every minute.” – Unknown (although often attributed to P.T. Barnum)
Off and on for twenty years, I worked in broadcasting, most often as an announcer or news person, often writing and producing commercials, occasionally as a sports announcer, and for a short while I was a radio station manager.
At my second job, in LaSalle, Illinois my boss ‘had a talk’ with me, which is short for ‘you’re in trouble.’ In short, he said, cut out the bullshit.
This is what I’d done.
The first time I introduced the Elvis Presley song, “Suspicious Minds” with this story.
“Next up, Elvis. It’s a little-known fact that Elvis has been secretly carrying on a torrid romance with Phyllis Diller. True. True! Just last week they were spotted sneaking into a Motel 6, and a couple days ago he was seen pushing a cart in a grocery store while she was picking out artichokes and a watermelon. I’ll bet they were getting some bananas and peanut butter, too. Somebody told me likes banana and peanut butter sandwiches because it’s like an aphrodisiac for him. I also heard people became suspicious about their romance when he was seen holding a picture of Phyllis while he recorded this song.”
“The greatest fools are ofttimes more clever than the men who laugh at them.” ― George R.R. Martin, A Storm of Swords
The second was something I thought was extremely funny that I put together on the spur of the moment. I worked a Saturday morning shift. The newsperson was a guy named Randy. He didn’t show up for work, which meant I had to throw together a newscast. About ten minutes after I finished the news he called saying he was sick. He’d gotten up, dressed, and was all set for work, but didn’t feel well and vomited just as he was about to leave. He didn’t call in sick because he thought he might feel better after he’d gotten it out of his system, but now he was running a fever.
Most people think putting together a radio show, especially a music show is about the easiest thing in the world to do. The announcer just talks a little, reads the weather, and plays the music. There’s a lot more that goes into it, though. The recordings often must fit within specific time frames, so commercials can be played at certain times, so newscasts, sportscasts, weather reports, and other features can start exactly on time. There’s also the music itself. The beats and tempo of the music must be blended. Ideally, two songs played back-to-back will sound like one song. Also, there are patterns a station will often follow, such as a top of the charts song following a newscast at the top of the hour, a newer song at the bottom of the hour, oldies after weather forecasts and so on. The patterns will vary from one station to another.
That morning in addition to doing that I had to put together the ten-minute news, sports, and weather report at the top of each hour and a shorter ‘headline report’ at the bottom of the hour. Normally, I would have called the News Director and he would have come in, but he was on vacation somewhere in Wisconsin.
Usually, when someone was out we said little more than that we were working in their place. That morning I decided to do something a little different.
First, I committed what is considered a sin in radio. I let a record run out. That means when the record ended there was silence, nothing more than the tick-tick, tick-tick sound a record makes when the music’s over, but the record is still spinning on the turntable.
After about 30 seconds of that, I turned on the microphone and took a big, noticeable breath, as if I was out of breath. “Sorry about that, but I heard someone pounding on the door. We keep this place locked up on the weekends. Anyway, it sounded pretty urgent, so I decided to check. There was nobody there when I opened the door. A black car was speeding away and there was this box on the step. It’s addressed to the station, care of the news director and me. Since Joe’s on vacation, I’m going to open it.”
I played a couple commercials, read the weather, introduced the next song and played a couple records and some more commercials. About 20 minutes passed before I did what I thought was a rather breathless sounding headline newscast followed by a station promo. Then I turned on the mic again and tried to sound a bit afraid and confused. I said, “Oh God, oh God. You won’t believe this. I don’t believe it. Oh, God. There are two things in this box, a letter and a plastic bag with what looks like a bloody ear in it! Hold on, I think I’m going to be sick” Then I played a record did a weather forecast and played another record.
Next time I turned on the mic I said, “The question is, should I call the police about this. This is what the letter says, “We are holding Randy Orton hostage. Here’s his ear to prove it. We want two things before we let him go. First, a million dollars in small bills. Second, the station’s promise that you won’t play any more Beatles songs. We will contact you again later today. You must not call the police, or we will kill him.”
“Oops,” I said, “Guess that, not calling the police stuff also means not blabbing this to everybody in LaSalle-Peru. Hope he’s still alive.” Then I played the Beatles, ‘Let It Be’ followed by “A Day in the Life.”
After a couple commercials, I turned on the mic and said, “Good news. Good news. Randy escaped. He just called from the police station. Apparently, the kidnappers were listening to the radio and were about to kill Randy, but when I played that first Beatles song they shot the radio. That’s when Randy made a dash for it. He’d managed to work himself free of the ropes, got out of the door and right into the arms of a policeman who’d heard the gunshots. The kidnappers are in custody. Randy said he’s too shook up to make it into work today, but he’ll be here Monday, so give him a call then to let him know how happy you are he’s safe and alive.”
There was a tiny bit of truth to that whole story. Randy did call me. Essentially he said, “What the hell’s wrong with you telling people I was kidnapped and got my ear chopped off. Our phone’s been ringing off the hook with people wanting to know about it.”
What surprised me with both of those stories was that people believed them.
“Hain’t we got all the fools in town on our side? And hain’t that a big enough majority in any town?” ― Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
After telling the Elvis story a grocery store cashier who knew me said, “Phillis Diller, really?” I started to tell her I’d made that up, but before I could she said, “I’ve always liked her, but there’s something really wrong with her if she’s leaving her husband for that Elvis Presley.”
One of the salesmen at the station told me a couple of his customers told him they couldn’t believe Elvis would cheat on somebody like Priscilla to go after Phillis Diller.
When my boss talked to me he said they’d taken at least two dozen phone calls from people wanting to know if the Elvis – Phillis Diller thing was true.
I thought it was obvious the thing was a joke after all Phillis Diller was happily married and was close to 20 years older than Elvis.
As for the Randy Orton story, that almost got me fired. I thought it was funny and obviously not true. I was wrong about the obvious part, maybe the funny part, too. It might have been obvious for me, but for the people who listened to the radio station, it was a bit like Orson Welles War of the Worlds, Halloween broadcast.
Now, when I listen to the President spout obvious lies and when he makes up facts and when he stretches the truth, I know why an incredible number of people believe him. First, he is, after all, the President and would the President lie? Second, he mixes just enough fact (Elvis did like peanut butter and banana sandwiches and Randy was not at work that day) to lend a touch of credibility to whatever he says. Third, people are gullible, they will believe anything that sounds reasonable to them.
“There are two ways to be fooled. One is to believe what isn’t true; the other is to refuse to believe what is true.” ― Søren Kierkegaard