The Gem of Idaho
KGEM gave Norman his first radio job. It paid a dollar an hour. It lasted three months. And it took three more months for him to get paid. The job had come about through a radio broadcasting class at Boise Junior College (now Boise State U).
Norman signed up eagerly for the class and as the school did not have a broadcast facility, he requested an assignment from the instructor to try to find a local radio station that would donate an hour of time for a college show. One of the stations Norman and his friend Ernie Taylor contacted was KGEM, the most powerful station in the state with 10,000 watts.
The Program Director, Jim Kelly, was open to the idea and agreed to give the two budding broadcasters an hour on Saturday afternoon. They learned later that he had ulterior motives, but the BJC Hour was on the air. Thankfully, no tapes of this program seem to have survived. Norman and Ernie read campus news, told bad jokes and played their favorite records. Idaho Statesman, March 10, 1955
It turned out that the Saturday afternoon shift was Jim Kelly's and right away he taught Norman how to run the board, so that he wasn't stuck with the job. Not long after that, he suggested that if Norman really wanted to get into radio (he did) that he could gain some experience by taking over Kelly's Saturday afternoon shift. Eager to please, Norman found himself playing records and reading commercials for five hours on the weekends. He did not get paid for this but Kelly hinted that if Norman put in the time, he might pick up a paying job someday.
Norman remembers his first live commercial. "It was my first day of taking over the program director's shift and both he and the station manager, a suave-looking dude named Afton Mendenhall, were in the studio with me, doing some repairs to the ceiling."
"After I managed my first segue, they handed me a sheet of paper on which was typed a commercial. It was sixty seconds long and the copy covered the whole page. The record ended and I took a deep breath, keyed on the microphone and bravely started reading. A few sentences into the spot, I noticed my breath coming in shorter and shorter gulps. By the time I was halfway through, I felt like I'd been holding my breath for ten minutes. I also noticed that the pitch of my voice seemed to be rising as I desperately clambered my way through the commercial. Gasping for breath every four or five words, I finally finished the spot and turned on another record. Afton and Jim were kind and encouraging. They told me to try to relax more."
There was fairly high staff turnover at KGEM (like most radio stations) and within a few weeks, the program director told Norman he would pay him to do a Sunday board shift. The terms were one dollar per hour. The shift was ten hours straight with no breaks. It was a 'total-immersion' introduction to the radio biz.
The station played 45 rpm records most of the time, except for five-minutes of news from ABC on the hour. They were loaded with spots and as they did not have a transcription recorder, the commercials were produced on five-inch reels of tape. On the wall behind the announcer were two Magnecord tape decks. The routine went like this; the news played on the hour, then came two commercials, one from each machine. Then a record, while the DJ hurriedly rewound the commercial tapes and cued up two more. This took up most of the three minutes or so of the record. After each record came two more commercials. This went on until the top of the next hour, when another news from the network gave a 5-minute break.
It was a backbreaker of a shift but Norman was learning radio and he was glad to do it. After the first month of Sundays, Norman asked when he was getting paid and the manager told him that they hadn't gotten all the paperwork done at company headquarters in Salt Lake City, but it would be coming soon.
KGEM was a highly directional station. It's 10,000-watt signal was controlled by four large towers. The station was required to have a 1st class FCC licensed person on the premises at all times. So the station hired only announcers who had passed their 1st class FCC test. This way, they could cover two jobs with one person. Norman, who had only a 3rd class "restricted" license, could not legally be the "Engineer on Duty" but the PD and Manager had an idea.
They told Norman about a school run by Bill Ogden in California that guaranteed to teach you to pass the FCC test in six weeks. They weren't offering to pay expenses or anything, in fact they told Norman he wouldn't even have to go. They knew a guy who knew the answers to the test and he would go and take it using his name. All Norman had to do was give them $150 to pay this guy to go take the test.
Fortunately, Norman was unable to convince his folks they should loan him the money and did not go through with the plan. Later he learned that doing so would have been a felony that could have resulted in him being banned from radio for life.
Norman went on working Sundays at KGEM until he had put in three months and was owed a big $120. Then, suddenly, he and the rest of the staff learned that the manager, who had been putting on various other promotions around town, had absconded in the middle of the night, owing lots of people lots of money. The company sent a man to see what was going on. Eventually he got around to Norman and told him that there was no record at the company office of him working for KGEM. Nonetheless, after hearing his story, he promised to pay him the amount due, but he said unfortunately he could not keep Norman on at the station.
So ended Norman's first radio job. A wiser man might have decided on another career. Norman had been invited to do summer stock theater and he was also thinking about becoming a professional jazz pianist. But the magic box had him hooked and he never seriously considered another profession.
Norman's first demo tape, recorded at KGEM in1954