Speak Your Piece: Men's Achievement Hour, Adieu
Stephanie Whetstone demonstrates hair farming on Dee Davis, host of The Men's Achievement Hour/Human Potential Show ~ WMMT, Whitesburg, Kentucky
Photo: Courtesy of Mimi Pickering
The thing about surprises is that you don't expect them. Through a series of emails this week I was informed that WMMT (Whitesburg, Kentucky) has planned a new morning line-up and that in the plan there is no place for The Men's Achievement Hour/Human Potential Show, and no place for me.
I've never been fired before, except if you count the time when I was just married with a little baby and making $75 a week. My buddy put me on his bridge construction crew for a month just to get an industrial wage into my household. I wasn't great shakes as a bridge builder. And when the month ended and he had to look at me and say, "I'm going to have to lay you off," it hurt him more than it did me.
It was before the invention of email. Before you could dump your girlfriend in a text message. Maybe human contact has gotten a little underrated.
Truth is this dismissal stings. Not that twenty years in a volunteer radio job isn't enough. Sometimes I get tired of hearing myself myself. You got to pity the poor listeners.
And you got to pity the poor license holder trying to figure out how to attract more listeners and pay the bills. They say they have to get a younger audience. The new plan calls for daily drive-time strands of bluegrass and morning devotionals. If more of Mama's-not-dead-she's-only-sleeping music gets you the younger demographic, who am I to get in their way? You know kids these days.
Years ago I lived in Pittsburgh. I listened to a community station like this one. They had a show on Sunday nights I loved. That DJ got fired, and he used his show to press his case for staying. The station manager came in the studio and what ensued was a lengthy discussion over the merits of the show. The DJ kept talking about the popularity of the program, and the manager would only concede that the guy had an exceptional record collection. I loved listening to them fight. It made great radio, like watching trains collide. But in the end when you switched it off there was nothing uplifting that remained. Who needs that?
I just have to come to terms with their choice and move on. The hardest part is dealing with the station's decision to go in the absolute opposite direction from what we tried to do with this show. It is very unflattering when you think about it. And I have.
It is kind of like a longshoreman or an autoworker showing up for work on Monday and hearing the walking boss say, "we won't be needing you today. We just found a box of rocks that can operate your machine." And there is no union shop steward here to appeal to. Why is it that unpaid volunteers are always the last to put Norma Rae in their Netflix cues?
Well, we did have our moments: Gurney Norman reading from his new novel, the historian of the United States Senate, the editor of National Geographic. We had hall of fame quarterback Y.A. Tittle recounting his being traded to the opposing team during halftime. And the actor Ned Beatty recalling his first trip to Whitesburg in the traveling production of Rumpelstiltskin and of the little fellow who missed the play because he peed his pants.
Photo: Courtesy of Mimi Pickering
Interviews with Jesse Jackson, Jimmy and Roslyn Carter, John Prine, Arlo Guthrie, and the actor Bob Wisdom retelling his time as the only Black man in Whitesburg. There was the woman who farmed hair. And Willard "Farmer" Morris who ran for Commissioner of Agriculture with the slogan "Let's get the bull manure out of Frankfort and back into the fields where it belongs."
There was the guy who called in regularly to tell us that 33 space ships would land in Southern California in 2001 and begin a period of galactic enlightenment. I remember pressing him on what girls were like in outer space, and finally he just said girls are girls all over which had the ring of truth. We have not heard from him since the landing. Here's hoping that he found a safe planet and a big hearted space girl with a lot of junk in her trunk.
There were the calls from Sheldon in Paris, and from Sandro in Rome. Our Kenyan friend Peter Karanja gave us an extended treatise on the psychology of elephants. There was also the chronicles of the Paw-Paw Festival and the Realistic Uniform Company.
And how about the time I had to give a live on-air apology to Katie Winter, the communications director at Our Lady of Belfonte Hospital in Ashland, Kentucky? With the station manager hovering over me and her lawyers at the ready I had to say that the detailed narration I had just given of a congressional candidate's urine test was not at all a closed circuit viewing of a Republican peeing into a beaker. Rather, it was my own whimsy, totally made up, and that the station and I would be forever truly sorry that we had taken such liberties.
No, no, they can't take that away from me.
I will stop the remembering here. There is too much more, and you can only go so long in between songs. I'm way past that now. What I want to say is that the Men's Achievement Hour/Human Potential Show has been a perfectly good way to waste twenty years.
Third generation beautician Ms. Whetstone applies scalp 'fertilizer' to 'Mr. Human Po''~ WMMT, Whitesburg, KY
Photo: Courtesy of Mimi Pickering
I learned early on that people needed an excuse not to have read Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain. You would be surprised how having a radio show to prepare for can give you such broad excuse-making authority. It is also why I have not written the great American novel, painted my masterpiece, or mowed the lawn. And boy, am I going to miss all that?
The untidy truth is that I have taken great pride in this show. I know pride is a sin like sloth and gluttony and using "impact" as a verb. Still on the days when the shows were good, I walked out of here paid in full, enriched in ways that the lucre of a daily wage can not touch. Kind of wanted to say, hey mister, that was me on the juke box.
I am going to try to remember that feeling if in some not too distant future, I find myself forlornly cramped in an ill-lit corner pouring over the prose of Thomas Mann and wondering about the condition of all mankind.
So I end it here. Maybe it is the last show. Maybe like a lingering patient I stick around a few more weeks to make the most of the morphine drip. But I leave this advice for the next guy. Or the next. I heard Tom Gish say it. He is the publisher of The Mountain Eagle, the revered weekly newspaper in town. And I thought of this a lot when I was trying to make radio. He said his newspaper philosophy is that people here are smart. They invent things, they innovate, they get by with less. They read. They understand. He said he never wanted to talk down to people or dumb down his paper.
I pass this on, for whatever it's worth.
And as for me I look forward to spending more time with my family. Having more time to email them, leave funny voice messages, and text them passages from The Magic Mountain.
Note: Dee Davis has been fired from WMMT, but he's still president of the Center for Rural Strategies, which publishes the Daily Yonder. This essay aired on "The Men's Achievement Hour/Human Potential Show," Thursday, May 8th.