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Radio Lonesome Dove

by George Lester
George Lester
At the television station in El Dorado, Arkansas we had a studio full of people every night. It was usually like a bee hive with announcers, control room personnel, camera operators, floor crew members and guests buzzing around the place.. Sometimes I longed for a little peace and solitude.

Be careful what you wish for.

At the radio station in Monroe, Louisiana I sat alone each night in the middle of a cotton patch. I worked from early evening until midnight. The first several hours were filled with network programs. By this time almost every household in the county had a television set. Hardly anyone listened to network radio anymore. The droll sound of the programs reminded me of the sight a poor soul sitting on the curb waiving a flag long after the parade had passed by. In the brief breaks between programs I gave a station identification, read a commercial or two and that was it until eleven o'clock. Then I played recorded music for an hour and signed the station off for the night. After a few weeks of this I felt as if the walls were closing in on me. Peering out the window became my favorite pastime.

There was a dirt road with a fork in it leading to the station. When I saw car lights approaching I held my breath while waiting to see which branch it would take. Almost every time the car veered away. I watched sadly as the taillights faded into the darkness.. On the rare occasion when they took a turn my way it was a reason for celebration. "Hooray, a human being is coming!" Sometimes it was the engineer who came to perform routine maintenance but more often it was someone who took the wrong fork in the road. I would try to prolong the inadvertent visit as long as possible. I didn't care who it was as long as I got to see another human being for awhile.

When I shut down the station for the night I headed for my lonely apartment. Actually, it wasn't really an apartment. I had only a bedroom in a big old house and I was the only tenant. Many times I lay on my bed and stared at the walls. It felt as if all the air had been sucked out of the room. The ones who meant the most in the world to me had been stolen away like a thief in the night. Sometime the gloom was so consuming I could not stand to remain there another minute. I would dress, go to my car and just drive around aimlessly. This seemed to help somewhat but sooner or later I had to return to my dismal dwelling.

Before I decided to rent the room I asked my landlady if I could have use of her kitchen so I could prepare my own meals. With all my financial obligations and child support payments eating in restaurants was out of the question. She agreed. but I sensed a bit of reluctance. When I came back from the store she took one look at my sacks of groceries and bristled. She threatened to renege on our agreement I told her I would have to find another place to stay. I didn't mean to be disrespectful to a woman old enough to be my mother but that was the way it had to be. She backed off. From then on there was an air of tension between us. Shortly after that I found she had a drinking problem and often forgot what was discussed previously.

My social life was virtually at a standstill. I had been single for some time now and I figured I should be thinking about moving on with my life and to pull myself out of the darkness. I learned much too late that people seem to sense desperation and gloom in a person. I must have reeked of it. Try as I might, nothing went right with any of my attempts at sustaining an affiliation with anyone. I had forgotten how to act single. I still felt married and I'm sure that shined like a beacon to everyone around me. At the time I couldn't figure it out though. With one failed try after another I soon cultivated a profound inferiority complex. I decided to concentrate all my energy in the direction of my work instead.

I started to look for a way to breath life into my mundane job at the radio station. As I lay awake one night searching my mind I thought of something I had long forgotten. Years before I entered the radio business my father listened to baseball games on the radio. He sat there completely engrossed in the exciting action. I knew it was actually done with nothing more than sound effects and the announcer ad libbing an account of the game from a news ticker. My dad would not believe it when I told him. I could understand why. A complete description of everything going on was related in vivid details; the pennants blowing in the breeze, the pitcher shaking off signs from the catcher, the outfielder squinting into the sun as he catches a pop fly. It seemed all too real to be anything else. I had that one hour before midnight to fill and It dawned on me that I could apply the same technique to create what would sound like a live radio show with the great singers of that era.

I sat through the boring network shows each night with excitement building toward that final hour that was all mine. At first I used only applause and cheering but I noticed when that faded out there was an awkward silence. I had to create the constant noise level in the lull between songs just like I had heard many times on the Louisiana Hayride broadcast. When that was worked out I also found a way to get the reverberation needed to make it sound as if it were coming from a big auditorium. Each night at eleven the show would open with lively theme music and my announcing the line up of stars for the evening. With hardly a pause I introduced the first performer to the sound of a wild cheering crowd over the opening notes of the song. I must admit that the finished product was full of excitement and energy and I got caught up in the spirit of the whole thing.

In the beginning I was practically doing the show for myself but it wasn't long before people started talking about it and then the word spread. The other radio station in town had a much larger audience than ours because of their Top 40, all music, all the time format. That all changed at eleven o'clock each night. I was told you could hear radios all over town switching over to our station. Even at this late hour people were staying up to listen. It seemed to be contagious.

For the first time since I came there the phone starting ringing constantly. People wanted to know where the show was so they could come and see it. They wondered how I got such much great talent all on one concert. I was honest with them and revealed how it was all done. Some refused to accept that explanation. It was the greatest compliment I could have received. As far as I know it was the first presentation of its kind anywhere in the country. My roller coaster ride was once again at its peak.

My confidence and my social life began to improve somewhat.
George Lester
Spunky Flat and Beyond - A Memoir

May 14, 2007 column

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