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December 2, 2010

A Radio Romance: Ken Harmon on Garrison Keillor’s WLT

Posted by Anonymous
KenHarmon.jpgKen Harmon --- first-time novelist and author of the hilariously funny THE FAT MAN: A Tale of North Pole Noir --- fantasizes about his former days a commercial writer for the radio and reflects on his own “Radio Romance” with NPR-host-turned-author Garrison Keillor.
For my friends and family, buying Christmas gifts for me is a tiresome bore. I want books, books and more books, gifts that do not offer up the thrill of the hunt in the holiday jungle. As years have passed, I have sometimes hinted at bookshelves, but that notion interests them even less. So most holidays I am loaded up, my wish list granted. But one holiday book in particular has become associated with special memories: WLT: A RADIO ROMANCE, Garrison Keillor’s valentine to the radio of yesteryear. The behind-the-mike antics of the Minnesota radio station are funny, even wicked, but Keillor’s ache for a world that should have been gives it plenty of heart --- it’s one of the reasons I love the book.
Earlier that fall, I had taken a job as a copywriter for 1110 WBT. When you’re young, radio is fun --- it has a manic, “let’s fix up the barn and put on a show” quality to it, and there’s always free food around, so at first you don’t notice that you aren’t getting paid squat. And like the fictional WLT, WBT had a rich history in the community. Many broadcasting legends were associated with the “Blowtorch of the South,” so it was not uncommon to hear stories about the good old days when the likes of a young Charles Kuralt signed on. The local broadcasters were equally famous --- at least to me --- and in those first few months, I found myself awestruck when “Hello” Henry Boggan passed me in the hall. (He did say “Hello,” of course, but I only managed a weak “Hi” in return.) I was as green as they come, so there were many days when I didn’t know if I belonged in such hallowed halls.
WLT: A RADIO ROMANCE changed that for the better. From the very first page, Keillor takes the starch out of radio’s mystic, but without tossing the true magic of what radio is to me: great storytelling. Like the main character Frances, my wide eyes were able to squint a little and see the radio legends for what they were and what they weren’t --- and to enjoy what was in between. I discovered that the good old days weren’t always so good, and that made for great characters, epic failures, daring heroics and tall tales --- the stuff good stories are made of.
That Christmas, WLT lit the fire in me, making me want to write something longer than a 60-second radio commercial. As I tried to figure out the puzzle of a novel, my real radio comrades and Keillor’s fictional ones taught me that every word counts. Radio’s “theater of the mind” is not limited to the airwaves; the voices in my head should be tuned in, and technical difficulties are what make things interesting. A few Christmas Eves later, I was invited by one of the hosts to tell my stories on the air. It was a dream come true, especially when folks called and wrote in and said that some of my stories were worth telling. They said I should write them down.
I return to WLT: A RADIO ROMANCE every now and again for inspiration, or simply to be cheered up. It makes me laugh out loud and --- like a song on the radio --- the stories take me back to my good times in the industry and help me tune out the bad ones. A mere decade later, I’ve discovered that my friends from radio and I speak of those poor, busy, endless days with the fondness of a high-school crush…a radio romance, indeed.
Tomorrow, Donna VanLiere explains why books are the best gifts you can give this holiday season…and shares the heartwarming story of a young girl named Autumn.