Category Archives: Media

Of Farm Shows, Gorillas and Life

deluxe-mountain-gorilla-costume.jpgIt’s January in South Dakota, which means its time for The Sioux Empire Farm Show, where for decades the makers and sellers of all things Ag put winter on the back burner and get together indoors to put on a show for those who farm and ranch for a living. For an afternoon you can leave winter and enter a world of machinery makers, seed dealers, tire merchants, makers of the latest hardware and software. Even if you’re not involved in production agriculture it’s a potent environment for learning.

The Farm Show has special meaning for me. It was 1984. The unemployment rate was somewhere between 8 and 10%. I had graduated college with honors the previous summer with no idea of what I wanted to do or where I wanted to be. Both of my brothers had coincidently found their way back to South Dakota that January, so I said “what the heck” and headed there myself with no job and no clue of where to start.

When I was 17 I worked weekends at a tiny radio station in Wabasha, MN. I hadn’t given radio another thought for several years, but while in college a string of circumstances found me as both a full-time student and a full-time commercial DJ. The radio job was open only because guy named Reid Holsen had left it. Reid ended up a few years later in Sioux Falls as Program Director at KIOV-FM 104.7. Reid knew a little bit about me from those Mankato days, and for whatever reason he saw something in me and gave me a shot on weekends. However, before I stepped foot in the studio I learned sister station KXRB had another opening of sorts at the Sioux Empire Farm Show. The gig was five days of wandering the Farm Show in…a gorilla suit. I don’t remember why the station had a gorilla suit, or how the gorilla fit into the promotional strategy of a pair of country radio stations, but there it was. It probably wasn’t much of a suit when it was new, and in January 1984 it was anything but new. The “hair” was matted, the rubber mask smelled something awful and the whole getup was HOT. My job was to walk around the show floor with my best primate amble, mess with people, hand out yardsticks with the station logos, and do it all without making a sound. For five straight days.

Here I was, a college grad with degrees in labor relations and economics, two successful years of full-time experience as an on-air radio personality on a #1 FM hit music station…in a gorilla suit for 5 days. I sweated off 5-10 pounds a day. I smelled. People verbally abused me. Someone actually taped a “Kick me” sign on my back. I was paid around $3 an hour. And I worked my butt off trying to be the best Farm Show gorilla I could be. I could have said no, been insulted, flat-out refused or quit… but I didn’t. I had agreed to do the gig for five days, and I did it in as professional manner as I could muster. If I was going to be a Farm Show gorilla, I was going to be the greatest Farm Show gorilla in costumed primate history.

The next week I started doing weekends on-air. In a few months I was hired full time, eventually took over the station’s morning show, and before leaving helped take that station to #1 in the market. At 25 I turned myself into a successful talk show host and program director in Rochester, MN, then moved to the Twin Cities and programmed one of the most celebrated talk radio stations in the US.  I left the glitz and money behind to return to South Dakota and a job in public service. I loved the work, and I know I made a lasting impact, but learned too late that challenging the status quo is not the path to longevity in public employment. At age 55 I found myself looking to start over.

Despite laws to the contrary, many people facing the job market in their 50’s or 60’s can tell you the soul-crushing frustration of being covertly considered too old, too expensive, over-qualified, under-qualified, etc. When I was doing the hiring I cared much less about age in favor of finding out whether or not a candidate had a little “Farm Show Gorilla” in them. If they did, it told me they’ll do whatever needed to be done, and do it with creativity and good cheer. Now I’m the one looking for an opportunity. If you have bananas that need peeling, I know my “Farm Show Gorilla” is still alive and kicking.

 

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Of News, Owls and Inspiration

 

News From Pierre

Last Friday at IPSO Gallery at Fresh Produce, downtown FSD, a packed room celebrated a lovably quirky fellow and his lifetime of experiences, observations and reactions to people, places and events in his home state of South Dakota. His chronicling of it all is in a new and innovative book, although calling this work simply a book is akin to saying Annie Oakley could shoot a gun.

The show celebrated the new book by Thomas McGill, “The Owl is Great at Being Silent” and featured art inspired by the book and author. McGill is better know to many as “News From Pierre”, a character from the original and unpredictable radio/TV/Information County Highway program “The Rock Garden Tour”. Suffice it to say RGT is not a “version” of some other radio program, and News From Pierre is not a “version” of a type of typical news reporter. The people involved with and attending the event Friday were not ordinary either. Heck, even the food and refreshments were not ordinary. You could tell you were among people who are special, unafraid to take chances on something or someone they believe in. These are not bandwagon jumpers. They are flex fuel hybrid bluetooth enabled bandwagon builders. They choose  to not let others define or limit them.   They choose not to conform. For me they’re an inspiration.

10 months ago my body and brain were in a dense fog born of anesthesia and the trauma three surgeries in four months removing cancer from my vocal cords. I could barely function, shouldn’t have been driving and was facing the possibility of losing the voice around which I’d built a successful 35 year career. I loved my work and had been told it was “transformational.”   I was told to not worry about work while dealing with the cancer.  And a month after the third surgery I was told my services were no longer required. When you’ve lived life on the rollercoaster I have, and seen what I’ve seen behind the curtain during 35 years in media, news and politics it’s a wonder I’m not at this minute zonked, naked, perched on Steve Bormes’ “Tatanka Ska” sculpture downtown singing the Broadway hits of the incomparable Ethel Merman.

Its 10 months later, and a friend asked me, “If you could do any job, what would you do?” I couldn’t come up with an answer. I kept thinking about it, though, and the answer finally came to me driving home Friday night: What I end up doing isn’t nearly as important as doing it in a place that’s INSPIRING. No workplace is perfect, but too many are full of cynical and negative people, rife with office politics and uninspired leadership. Live with that for any length of time and you can feel your soul being sucked out of your body.  Then your dropped into an inspiring culture full of teamwork, fresh ideas and support for creativity.  You listen and read things like News From Pierre’s uncommonly honest observations on life, and see the art inspired by this unique wisdom, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone when you want to be a part of it and not have it end.

The longer you spend time on this planet the more often you are reminded that life is short and not to be wasted. If you know people and places which INSPIRE you, please share that inspiration by leaving a comment. If you know people or workplaces which value inspiration, please share this post with them and encourage them to add their 2 cents. And if you could use a bit of inspiration, some good laughs or some sage wisdom, check out News From Pierre and he book “The Owl Is Great At Being Silent”.

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The Common Good

(Warning: The following contains my observations on current events, which I promised myself I wouldn’t do any more.  I used to do this for a living, and with some level of success. It also left me a miserable, broken mess. I promise not to make it a habit.  It’s also a bit long, another habit I’m trying to break.  Hate the sin, love the sinner y’all.)

Its easy to get romantic about the past, especially when the subject is the state of Life in America. When reminiscing, we have a tendency to remember the good better than the bad. We long for “The Good Old Days when America was strong and free,” etc. However, politics, corruption and persecution have always fit together much like Larry, Moe and Curley. Every war has its profiteers. Every era has its staggering public corruption. Every generation has a new group of immigrants to look down on and blame for our ills. The goodness of the “Good Old Days” was certainly relative to which end of the rope you were holding. Or hanging from.

However, I know there was a time when there were leaders with genuine respect for The Common Good. It was the constitutionally ideal notion that even though people disagreed and were corrupt or disgusting, when the going got tough every faction could come together to make decisions with The Common Good in mind (“Promote the general welfare”). During WWII, even the Boss of Bosses of the New York Mob Lucky Luciano volunteered to keep the mob-controlled waterfront in New York open for shipping and closed to Nazi sabotage because while he may have been a criminal, he was a loyal AMERICAN criminal.

I believe there are still individuals who are genuine in their support of The Common Good , but some days you have to look pretty hard to find them. For the first time in my 56 years an election looms and I feel genuine fear for the future of the country. I mean really…which of our leading people and institutions can be counted on to at least try to pull our collective fannies out of the fire today?

Donald Trump? America’s Favorite Bully Con Man? In Mr Trump’s world, all that matters is Mr. Trump. Every sentence starts with “I”.  He’s used his amazing deftness with self-promotion and people’s short memories countless times to run away from his failures if it served his purposes. He’s left countless innocent people holding the bag, and before he’s done we might end up a nation of grocery packers. Trump supporters need to know that if he wins, and it serves his purposes, he won’t hesitate a second to throw you all under the Trump Bus (which burns Trump Gas and has Trump-o-matic transmission). And now the real possibility exists that he’s in cahoots with Putin, or wishes he was in cahoots, or wishes he had the dictatorial power of Putin so he could be in cahoots with somebody powerful. Cahooting with a foreign power, let alone the Ruskies, just to win an election? I wonder how that’s going down with Republican conservatives both living and dead?

Hillary Clinton? To my great surprise and begrudging admiration she put politics aside and made a remarkable turnaround as Secretary of State. She took the job seriously, worked her butt off in a time of worldwide chaos and terrorism and did not grandstand when she succeeded. She looked authentic and (god help me) Presidential. Now she speaks with all the authenticity of those Air Jordans you bought for $10 from the guy selling Chiclets on the street in Tijuana.   Writing thousands of emails on non-secure email accounts was careless and dumb.  Being evasive about any number of other scenarios rather than coming clean, admitting mistakes and moving on is dumber (see R. Nixon, 1972).  Anyone running against Mr. Trump should be mopping the floor with him.  Hill’s campaign seems determined to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Note:  Championing “The Common Good” is hard if you don’t first win the election.

Media? When I started in radio I looked at it as a sort of calling (and a way to meet girls). It was the best way I could to use my talents and skills to make my contribution to the community. Today? Before he was a lecherous sexual predator, the now resigned mastermind behind Fox News Roger Ailes demonstrated how you could totally abdicate public responsibility and the principles of fairness and balance, label propaganda as“The Truth”, yell at and demonize anyone who thinks differently, CALL it “fair and balanced” and make A LOT OF MONEY. Soon many followed suit. The liberals abdicated responsibility and TRIED playing the game from the other side, but mistakenly thought it was about changing minds rather than making money. They, of course, failed, and in the end sacrificed journalism for, well, nothing. Now we have entire generations of politicians, “journalists” and audiences for whom “The News” is nothing more than a  loud mosh pit in search of ratings.

Don’t get me wrong. I want a change from “business and usual” just as much as anyone. I’m just fearful that in a time when we all need to hang together more than ever ,we’ll all hang separately.  But those hangings will be televised, and the ratings will be GREAT!!!