Radio Readers BookByte: Knit Together by Radio

Jan 29, 2020

Recording a radio play
Credit Wikimedia

This is Leslie VonHolten of Strong City, Kansas, with another HPPR Radio Readers Book Byte.

The characters of Paulette Jiles’s Stormy Weather are knit together by radio—that medium that brought solace to an anxious nation during the Great Depression, and of course is dear to our hearts here at HPPR.

In the book, it is Bea, t

he youngest sister, who is especially in love with radio shows. As Jiles writes, “Bea’s heart was engaged with the world like a gear.”

I recently spent a snowy weekend at home reading about old, beloved radio shows and listening to clips I could find. Thank you radio geeks of the world for keeping the medium alive on the internet. What a portal rich in colorful language, dramatic organ intros, and earnest words of comfort to people listening near and far.

In the book, the Stoddard sisters especially loved Karl the Kowhand—spelled with Ks—that in real life was broadcast by KTSM Radio in El Paso beginning in 1929. KTSM stood for Tri-State Music, a nod to their broadcast area in Texas, New Mexico, and Chihuahua across the border in Mexico.

Karl was actually Karl Wyler, not a cowhand but a former insurance salesman turned radio announcer. He sang songs that made light of the troubles of the times, such as the old ditty “Eleven Cent Cotton and Forty Cent Meat.” Karl Wyler later became the station manager of the local El Paso television station, where he continued Karl the Kowhand as the region’s answer to the more well-known Bozo the Clown.

Also in Texas, and mentioned in Stormy Weather, was The Early Birds, a morning variety show from WBAP and WFAA-AM from Dallas. The online radio nerds—and I say nerd in the most endearing way—are quick to point out the The Early Birds was a precursor to today’s obnoxious morning zoo shock jocks only in time slot. This was good fun brought to you by ingenuity and grit. For example, WBAP and WFAA were able to stay on the air for so many hours a day by navigating changing frequencies, which they would signal by ringing a cowbell on air.

Better known nationally was the longest-running radio soap opera, One Man’s Family. That man was stockbroker Henry Barbour, who was married to pleasant, easy Fanny, and father to their five children in San Francisco. It’s a little sticky sweet for my tastes, so I understand why the middle sister in Stormy Weather, Jeanine, compares her father snidely to the show. The Stoddards, as we know by now, are rowdy, messy, and strong. They are their own, different kind of soap opera.

Most famous of all, of course, were President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats. He addressed the cares and worries of the electorate, providing a balm to the anxieties of the day, explaining new policies, and in retrospect brilliantly utilizing a new media technology.

This is Leslie VonHolten for the HPPR Radio Readers Book Club, working to continue to engage the gears of readers’ hearts today. I encourage you to read Stormy Weather by Paulette Jiles along with us. Find more at HPPR.org, or Like us on Facebook.