Kent Bernhardt: So long for now …
By Kent Bernhardt
Special to the Post
I can tell you when my fascination with radio began.
Growing up in the early ’60s, my family had an old Zenith tabletop radio in the kitchen that took forever to warm up. My mom used to turn it on in the mornings to catch Paul Harvey’s daily broadcast. I can still hear the distinct way he’d end every broadcast.
I was drawn to broadcasting like a Methodist to a covered dish dinner. And on January 1, 1977, at 12 noon, I sat down behind a microphone for the first time. As a network news broadcast ended, I was about to utter my first words as a broadcaster. I wondered what great pearls of wisdom I would share.
The “pearls,” as it turned out, would be these: “It’s time now for the Obituary Column of the Air, brought to you by…”
My broadcast career was off and running.
Fast forward a few decades, and most recently I have been partnered with Howard Platt on WSTP’s morning show doing the type of radio I have enjoyed the most — simply talking about what’s going on around us.
Platt and I have worked together for years, but when I returned to mornings at WSTP part-time in 2008, I told GM Mike Mangan that I didn’t want to do a standard morning show. I wanted to do a morning show that sounded more like a late-night show, full of deep, even strange discussions peppered with off-the-wall opinions from listeners.
He handed me the reins, and that’s exactly what we’ve done.
Platt and I are as different as two people can be. Twenty years ago when the station was transitioning into a talk format, consultant Doug Silver overheard us in a hallway having a disagreement on some issue during a news break.
“You guys never agree on anything,” he observed. “Why don’t you take this same discussion into the studio, turn on the mics, and disagree on the air?”
We did, and never looked back. I’ve been paid every morning to come to the studio and argue with Howard Platt. It’s the easiest money I’ve ever made.
Though we are friends, Howard and I haven’t always gotten along very well. Once, a couple of years ago after a particularly harsh disagreement, I phoned Mangan and told him I would be taking a week off without pay.
“Why?” he asked.
“Because if I stay, I’ll murder him and have to go to jail,” I told him. I took the week off, and when I returned, we put the gloves back on and went to work.
I never worried about our lack of harmony. Film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert never got along very well, either. That’s part of why they worked so well together. We didn’t tune in to watch the film reviews. We tuned in because we might see a good fight between two strong personalities with diverse points of view. The film review was just the setting.
Now, with ownership changes in the air, Platt and I will have to find something else to do with our mornings. We haven’t been retained by the new guys.
I’m proud of the work we did at WSTP. Despite our many flaws — commercials with mispronounced words and almost regular technical snafus — we were the station where things got talked about. We never pretended to be experts in any field, we just opened a dialogue and let Rowan County join in.
If our elected officials misbehaved, we slapped their hands. Sometimes they’d phone in and slap ours. But somehow through the disagreement, we’d all get a little closer to the truth.
We also tried to be careful about taking ourselves too seriously. I would forever poke fun at our station’s pretentiousness, calling itself “Your Official Weather Station.”
“How did we get that title?” I would often ask. “Did we send in an application and two Cheerios box-tops?”
Think about that the next time you hear any radio or TV station call themselves the “official” anything. They’re not. They just like to say so.
My proudest moment on the air may have occurred just recently. A listener phoned the station to say they were having trouble with their Fibrant phone service. We talked with him on the air about the problem and his frustration, and we made an on-air plea for help.
Within the hour, the listener was contacted by Mayor Paul Woodson personally, and thanks to the staff at Fibrant, his problem was solved. He sang the praises of Fibrant, the city of Salisbury and WSTP.
I beamed like a new father. That’s exactly how local radio is supposed to work.
I can’t tell you what the new owners will do with the station. I can only say I hope they’ll inject new life into a vehicle that is still a strong force in this community. I hope they’ll give us more than just another stale satellite format, that they’ll fill the airwaves with fresh thoughts and ideas. And I hope they’ll keep the dialogue going.
It’s always been my belief that any station can play music. It’s what you do between the songs that is your identity and makes a lasting imprint on the community you serve.
It’s also my belief that you never say goodbye in radio. You just say “So long for now.”
Someone may yet again want two guys who can’t get along in real life to disagree on the radio. If not, for the right amount of money, Platt and I are perfectly willing to come to your home and disagree in your bedroom or kitchen.