By Eddie Whitlock
Little southern radio stations, particularly AM stations, used to thrive on being the voice of the community. Newspapers, always careful with spelling and punctuation, were high-brow media. Radio, on the other hand, had a drawl and a folksiness that the newspaper couldn’t touch.
The newspaper printed reports from law enforcement agencies, but the radio station called the agencies and broadcast someone from there reading an official statement. The newspaper could print classified ads for a fee, but at no charge, people could call in daily to announce their sale of a used car, their need for part-time work, or their missing pet.
The newspaper was the printer – for a fee – of the details of a loved one’s life on their obituary page. The radio station had – for free – daily reports from area funeral homes called “News Call.”
Admittedly, those sarcastic folks who worked at the radio stations sometimes referred to News Call as “Dialing for Death” and dreaded having to do it. It was the ultimate solemn moment of local broadcasting.
The morning dee-jay could crack jokes (generally stolen from Jerry Clower) and make pointed jabs at local politics, but News Call was a time to put away the things of a child and act like a grown-up for fifteen minutes.
The program opened with the announcer reading an introduction then playing a commercial by the sponsoring funeral home. When the commercial ended, the announcer would – on the air – call each funeral home.
It was a very solemn thing. The announcer did not dare get a case of the giggles. The funeral homes likewise took News Call seriously. They would be sure to have their most velvet-voiced employee read the obituaries.
What follows is a true story. I’m going to change a few names, but the incident happened around 1980 in Griffin, Georgia.
On a Saturday afternoon in October, Henry Oliver was on the air at WHIE. It was a complicated day because the station was airing the University of Georgia football game while also needing to broadcast its other contractually obligated programs.
Henry had done this many times before. He had to weave News Call into the Bulldogs game. The only way to do it was to utilize the half-time show. As soon as Larry Munson gave the cue for the half-time portion to begin, Henry cut away and began News Call.
Radio announcers typically had to listen to three different things at once: the national network feed, the state network feed, and what was going out over the air. On that day, the Bulldog Football Network was also in competition for Henry’s attention.
Henry was having a complicated day. So, while he was doing News Call during half-time portion of an important Bulldogs football game, he remembered almost everything. He remembered to turn off the mouthpiece of the telephone. He remembered to put the game into “cue,” so he could follow and join the game as soon as the third quarter commenced.
The only thing he forgot to do was turn off his microphone. Since he was not wearing headphones, he couldn’t know that his voice was also going out over the air. This was not much of a problem as Henry called the McDillon Funeral Home or the Spalding Mortuary or the Milton Funeral Home.
Finally, Henry called Hartmann Brothers Funeral Home. By now, halftime was drawing to a close. The velvet-voiced Walter Hartmann began his slow, precise reading of the obituaries.
“Mister Jerome Mitchell Carlton, aged 68, of 118 Tattnall Road, Griffin, passed away on Friday after a brief illness. Mr. Carlton was a lifelong resident of –“
Henry – not realizing his voice was being broadcast at 5000 watts across Central Georgia – began to encourage Walter Hartmann to speed up with comments such as, “Hurry your fat (expletive) up, Walter, the game is about to start.”
Walter Hartmann, oblivious to Henry’s admonitions since the mouthpiece to the phone was turned off, continued, “He is survived by his wife, Clara, two sons, Jerome Mitchell Carlton, Junior, of Zebulon, and Harry Carlton of Griffin –“
“Come on, come on, you slow sack of (expletive),” Henry urged. “It’s a (expletive) tie game.”
"Mister Carlton was a member of First Baptist Church where he served as an usher. He was employed by Dundee Mills Number Five for 43 years until his retirement –“
“(Expletive),” Henry said. “Hurry up, Walter, we’ve got a (expletive) football game to finish!”
“Visitation is this evening – “
By the second full minute of the obituary, Fred – who owned the station – was getting calls at home. “Fred! Fred! Henry Oliver is cussing out Walter Hartmann on the air! On the air!”
Fred drove as fast as he could, although the incident was over by the time he got to the station.
Henry had not realized what was happening. When the obituaries were done, he had joined the football game in progress.
Public backlash forced Fred to suspend Henry for a week, but he quietly suspended him with pay because the whole episode had been an accident, albeit a very embarrassing one.
When the newspaper made a mistake – like the time a slug line wasn’t corrected, and a group of commissioners were referred to as “goons” – it would become a rare chance to laugh at the high-brow print media.
When the drawling fellows at the local radio station screwed up big-time, well.
It didn't even make the paper.
Eddie Whitlock is a Georgia native, a graduate of UGA, and wannabe writer. He retired in 2021 from the Athens-Clarke County Library, where he worked as coordinator of volunteers, community service supervisor, and vending machine scapegoat.