BUFFALO, NY (staffannouncer.com) - Sometimes the way life lines a series of seemingly unrelated events like lights
on an airport runway can make a guy pause and question his sanity, because the
answer is almost too clear.
For the past three days, I've been filling in for John Zach on Buffalo's Early
News on WBEN. The four-hour news show starts at 5am, and John does most of the
writing when he's here. For me, that meant getting up at 2:45am, in order to
give myself about 90 minutes to put the local news together. John gets here
earlier than that, and has been doing it just about every day for most of the 50
years he's worked in radio.
I question myself often, would I be able to do this; get up like this. I did
early morning weekends for a few years, but in 19 years of broadcasting, never a
regular Monday-Friday, in-to-get-the morning show ready gig. John, who has
worked the morning shift in parts of 7 different decades has said, "You never
get used to it."
I've filled in on the shift before, even for just a week or two, and always
walked around feeling like a two-hour old grilled cheese; still crusty and
gooey, but crusty and gooey in the wrong places. I just didn't feel right, and
never felt like I sounded as good as I could or should. And it always bothers me
that when I set my alarm for 2:45am, my wife is rattled awake, too.
But this week, in the midst of working this early morning shift, one of the guys
at work was cleaning out some files and handed me an old envelope he thought I
might be interested in labeled MASTER TAPES-- JOHN OTTO HALL OF FAME. Aside from
being a master of the English language, the father of talk radio in Buffalo, and
one of the top 5 broadcasters to ever grace the airwaves in Buffalo, John is
somewhat of a personal hero to me.
Needless to say, I snatched the envelope, and delved inside not only to find
hours of reels, cassettes, and DATs (an early digital tape format), but I also
found a paper-filled folder labelled "John Otto."
On top were a couple dozen e-mails and cards sent to WGR in the days following
John's death. Touching memories from fans and friends far and wide. Beautiful
and filled with raw emotion. Then came John's handwritten professional
biography, tracing his radio career from the early 50s to the late 90s, only a
year or so before his passing. (The recordings are to the right... And the more to come sign is up on the rest.)
But what I found most gratifying were the notes that had been sent back and
forth over the years to a succession of 5 or 6 supervisors at WGR. And while
even a John Otto note complaining about a co-worker's tardiness or an equipment
problem flows across the paper the way a ballerina glides across the stage,
that's still not the point.
It started to strike me when I saw the note he wrote in 1995 asking to work
Christmas Eve, Christmas, New Years Eve, and New Years Day. He was begging to
work those days. Days most of us would curse the boss who forced us to work, but
here, 43 years into his broadcasting career, and John's tone was nearly
inconsolate, worried that some other program might pre-empt his conference call
of all interested parties.
In case the point be lost, John writes it quite plainly in one note. "The very
principle on which I've always conducted myself, to wit, if one is in radio, you
want to be on radio at every opportunity."
After an illness took him off the air for a spell, he wrote in another missive
that he's ready to come back "if you'll have me," adding, " My appetite is
restored, miracle of all, my taste buds are a-bloom once more. You've got no
idea what life is like without the ability to taste... 'til you've not got it."
John Otto, almost 50 years into his career had such a fire in his belly for it.
Not a soul better, universally lauded; but still fearful that it could be taken
away. Would that we all felt that way about anything in our lives, let alone our
It made me think of my friend Ed Little, who was that way, too. He worked a
tremendous 62 years in radio, starting as a child actor. I was with him in 2000
when he delivered his last newscast on WBEN, also the last program to originate
from the studios on Elmwood Avenue.
Septuagenarian Ed couldn't get a handle on the new computers, despite going
through extra training on his own. Within a few months, he passed away. His
heart was bad, but I know it was a broken heart, too.
Twenty years ago, my fire was inexhaustible. I can remember going to work as an
18 year old within hours of my grandma's cancer death.
Thinking back on it, it makes me sad that I went in to board op Buffalo's
Evening News that night, and didn't spend the time with my family. But that's
what I was and what I did. I think I've learned a little about life and about
work since then.
Family's much more important. I write books. I have a website. I'm on Boards of
Directors, and I give talks about Buffalo History. I also work a pretty much 9-5
job these days. It's not often I'm challenged to see how hot that fire burns.
I know it there, because it has to be there to be working in radio, or in any
number of jobs similar in that there really isn't much money. And its not the
fame or the notoriety,either. Its having the blessing of doing a job that
thousands would line up behind you to do for free. And just having that job, and
being blessed with the gift of it, and being able to live a dream. And not
wanting to give it up for the world.
So I've been thinking about whether or not I could work the morning shift, and
the answer is of course. And though I sometimes play the curmudgeon, and
complain about getting up early on those days when the job calls for it, the
fact of the matter is, I'd do just about whatever they told me to do to keep it
going. And this week, I even loved the early mornings. Loved every minute of
hosting that show with Susan Rose. Loved it with that John Otto fire.
Just today, I read a Forbes Magazine article, which talks about the only three
questions employers need to ask perspective employees. I say, you only need to
ask one of those three. Will you love this job?
If the answer is no, go find something else. When I say love, I mean LOVE. Not
'like the hours,' or the pay, or the doors it might open. Love the job. Put your
heart into it. Life is just too short.
"You know me," John Otto closes one note with, "I just want to be on the radio."