Friday, March 16, 2007

A Storyteller's Tale

The call came at 4 a.m....on September 5, 1985.

I was hungover, in a full blown haze from boozing it up for far too long. I was unemployed and my marriage, which never had a foundation, was on the rocks.

"CAN YOU COME IN...NOW?," the cavernous voice on the phone barked.

He was screaming.

My head was pounding...

It was 4 a.m. for pity sake, I had probably only been asleep for a couple of hours. I can't imagine I was even sober.

"mthphfphth...who is this again?


I was sobering up fast..."I can be there in 20 minutes," I pledged, not even sure what day it was, but fairly certain that this was a test I had to pass.

I raced to the station, I don't think I stopped to brush my teeth.


I was 28 years old, a functional alcoholic, with no affiliation with God as far as I knew then, although I'm sure I mentioned God in less than flattering terms a few times under my breath as I sat down at a typewriter and banged out copy while trying to realize what was going on.

I ran into a studio and cut a tape of what I'd written only to be told minutes later, "THAT SOUNDS LIKE *&!!@#! YOU CAN DO BETTER! READ IT LIKE YOU WROTE IT! NOT LIKE SOME DISC JOCKEY!!"

The source of that booming voice, and believe me it resonated due to more than my condition at the time, emanated from the then News Director of WOAI, who was running back and forth, anchoring the news, yelling at me, spilling coffee on himself, belching cigar smoke everywhere, being part of a morning show, yelling at me some more, and goodness knows what else.

I was beyond intimidated.

I had worked "big city" radio. Heck, I'd worked in Dallas and Austin and at another station in San Antonio until only a few weeks prior, but those jobs came to me, and I didn't have to really "impress" anyone to get them, at least not anyone who had a towering - slightly manic - presence, and certainly no one at 4:30 in the morning, with my sobriety in substantial doubt.

I tried to keep my composure, or find it, rolled back the reel to reel (yes, this was in a different age) and did what the man said, I delivered a newscast as I wrote it.

I'm not sure which I detected next, the cigar stench or his thundering footsteps, but I knew my "last chance" was about to burst through the door of the studio any second.

Several weeks earlier, I had turned down a job as the afternoon anchor at a competing news talk station because the money was insulting and the hours were 4 p.m. to midnight. The "beta" wife wasn't real pleased I was turning down jobs, as I recall. However I didn't want to work for a station trying to unseat WOAI, a 50,000 watt heritage powerhouse with a legendary news reputation. I wanted to work for WOAI. I wanted stability. I wanted to work for the best.

So once or twice every week I called and spoke with the News Director to remind him that I was still available...never considering he would test my "availability" at 4 a.m..

The door to the studio burst open and he said, "PLAY IT! WE NEED TO GET THIS *&&%#$ DONE!"

I fumbled a bit with the equipment, but somehow managed to cue up the tape and play the newscast I had recorded moments earlier.

"GOOD! GIVE ME THE #$%^;!@#! TAPE, " he bellowed. I complied and he marched out of the studio leaving me there in a fog...and in a panic.

And there I sat. It was not even 6 a.m.

Where the heck was he going with the tape? What was I supposed to do in the meantime?

I eventually figured out the answer to the second question: Nothing.

I was apparently supposed to sit still and wait.

So I did.

For about an hour.

I didn't know where else to go. Quite frankly I was a little frightened and not completely convinced this entire episode wasn't the result of chemical experimentation dating back to my college years.

Eventually George Jennings, News Director of WOAI came back into the room and said, "FOLLOW ME! YOU'RE GOING TO INTERVIEW WITH THE GENERAL MANAGER!"

I stumbled behind George down the extremely narrow hallways of this hallowed radio station and into the office of the G.M. He, although smaller in stature, was equally intimidating - peppering me with questions about my news philosophy, and asking absolutely nothing about "me" the person. Nothing about my background, nothing about my family or education, nothing personal at all. Everything had to do with news...that was all that mattered.

Then, just as abruptly, George and I were dismissed.

I didn't see George and the G.M. exchange any signal or even say anything to each other as we marched out.


That was the day I began my career at WOAI radio, bleary-eyed, and confused but too frightened by this booming-voiced character with a gruff demeanor to ask any questions...not even sure what the job paid or what hours I was going to work. Still I felt a sense of relief. I felt like I had been through nine weeks of boot camp in about two hours.

I imagine George Jennings as a baby nursing at a radio tube. His dad was a radio engineer, and George had broadcasting in his blood, in his very genes. He was a newsman from the "old school," disheveled, cigar chomping, boisterous and seemingly fearful of nothing.

I eventually was told I was starting work that night and would be trained by a guy who was quitting...the next day.

I signed a few papers and went home still unsure what I had been hired to do.

Obviously I figured it out, thanks in large part to George. Although, a loud, oftentimes obnoxious -and borderline crazed- individual, throughout his career, George Jennings was a newsman through and through. He didn't care about appearances, or political correctness, or the time of day. He lived and breathed radio news.

I was hired as a "writer/reporter" initially, re-writing copy from reporters to make it sound "fresh" for morning drive, while still being responsible for covering the overnight streets of San Antonio.

It wasn't long before George was shifting me around a lot, and I got to know the lay of the land.

George and I spent many good years together, and some tumultuous difficult years too.

He left WOAI in 1999.

In the years prior, he had been reassigned to various positions from the anchor desk, to Chief Legislative reporter. He's still the only man I've ever known personally who had Karl Rove's home phone number, and had no fear of calling him at 6 a.m. on a Sunday.

I never had to ask George why he called me at 4 a.m. the day I was hired, because I soon learned more about his news philosophy.

I'd be at the station in the early morning hours and mention a story idea, or someone I thought we should interview, and he'd command, "CALL 'EM! IF THEY'RE NOT AWAKE BY NOW IT'S OUR JOB TO WAKE THEM UP!"

George Jennings had a long and storied career, not only at WOAI radio. He was, for many years, part of a legendary morning show duo at KAAY radio in Little Rock. At that time, another 50,000 watt blowtorch...the only size radio station where a personality the size of George's could fit.

George Jennings covered everything from the Kennedy assassination to the Texas tale of "Old Rip," a toad stuck inside the cornerstone of the courthouse in Eastland County in 1897 only to - according to legend - emerge alive when when the courthouse was torn down 31 years later. And he covered them with equal passion, making certain that listeners were engaged and on edge.

George Jennings could tell any story in a way that would grab you, using every nuance of radio to do it...and he didn't stand on pretense.

I remember George once storming into the newsroom at a fevered pace with some tabloid under his arm and screaming at me, "MAIN? MAIN! YOU SEE THIS STORY OF THESE DOG FACED BOYS IN BRAZIL? I WANT THEM ON THE AIR! NOW!!"

George wasn't one to let journalism lessons, or someone else's standards get in his way. He clawed his way through bureaucrats and blowhards to find stories that were actually "interesting."

The George Jennings I remember could barnstorm his way into any meeting, get any interview he wanted, and often make people say what they didn't want to in the process.

A larger than life individual.

George had some problems in his later years. I had some problems with George too. Yet, we still worked well together until his retirement.

He went on to follow his passion of old time radio, ferreting out old forgotten recordings of shows from radio's infancy, and marketing them both to folks who still remembered those days, and people who never realized they existed.

He also volunteered to record various informational programs for the blind, and seemingly always had his hand, and voice imprinted on the thing he loved most in life, story telling.

Last night, George Jennings died. He was 67...renal failure.

The news came as a shock to me, and I'm saddened that I didn't stay closer to George in the past few years...relationships and the passage of time, I'm guilty of undervaluing both.

Still, when I got the call letting me know about George, part of me went into another gear, trying to find information about him for the stories that will be written, trying to locate some of the many people he mentored, made smile, or simply touched in life. Passing on information to news organizations with whom he was affiliated...and knowing that George, above all things, would want it, "DONE NOW!"

I think in a true storyteller's life...there really never is an ending...

George Jennings 1940-2007