Tales of WUT

by Shedd Kenwick      Part 1

At age 104, Shedd Kenwick is not only the oldest staffer at WUT, the radio and television station on the Georgia/Indiana border, but also the oldest person working in American broadcasting. He joined the WUT family over 80 years ago. Mr. Kenwick’s memories are a fascinating glimpse into a media world gone by.

WUT was a small, struggling radio station when I started there in 1935. I was 23 years old and times were real bad. Remember, it was what they called “El Depresso,” and most people were out of work. Some people don’t like the way things are now, I guess, but it’s nothing compared to 1935. Over half of the folks in North Carolina were eaten by the folks in South Carolina. Against their will, I might add. Folks were neighborly, but not that neighborly, most of ’em.

I was damn lucky to get the job at WUT. I had to exaggerate my radio experience, that’s for sure. My family was so poor we didn’t even have a radio. We had an empty wooden box that we glued some knobs on, and we all sat around it in the evening and just pretended we heard voices and music coming out of it. Sometimes one of us would get inspired and talk up a story in a funny voice or hum a tune or bang on a pot with a soup bone, and we’d all agree that it was “on the radio.” When I got to the city and applied for the job, it was the first time I’d ever heard an actual radio. I was surprised that there was practically no soup bone bangin’ in the WUT lineup, but in the city they had plenty of other items to bang pots with.

My first day, they put me right on the air. The regular afternoon host had just been eaten by a roving band of hungry South Carolinians, and they were short-handed. Lucky for me, the afternoon show on WUT was called “Microphone Test,” and that was something I took to right away. Three hours of “Test, one, two, test, test.” Of course, you could go up past the number two if you wanted, and by hour three you were oftentimes throwin’ in “hello, hello” and “check” and numbers all the way up to seven or eight. Folks loved it. Simpler time, you understand. I’ve heard that even people without radios would sit around their wooden boxes and say the “test, test, one, two, hello” just as if they were listening to WUT.

After just a few weeks, I was getting to feel confident, and I went to the management with an idea for another show. In those days, the president was FDR (the letters stood for “FDR Delano Roosevelt”), and he had a radio show he called his “Fireside Chat.” If you had a real radio and not just a box, you could hear him talking about how we were going to turn the corner on El Depresso, how to protect yourself against folks who wanted to eat you, simple tricks you could do at bars to win bets, and so on. I said, “Let’s do our own Fireside Chat, with a twist.” So that night, I went on the air and talked like FDR for a few minutes, jabberin’ about how you can’t trust foreigners or some such, with a nice crackling fire in the fireplace next to me. Then I start to screaming, “Ahh! I’m on fire! I’m on fire!” The listeners got the idea that poor ol’ FDR had sat a little too close to the fire during his Fireside Chat! Then we made like the Vice President ran in and rolled me up in a rug and put out the fire, so it seemed like I wasn’t bad hurt, but I just moaned for twenty minutes. Then I banged on a pot with a spoon for the rest of the hour and that was it. It was a sensation. We did it again every night for the next four months.

Some folks in WUT country didn’t vote for FDR in ’36, sayin’ he was a fool for sittin’ too close to the fire night after night. But most voters said it showed strength of character to not give up no matter how many times he caught on fire. I guess both sides had a point, though also they were both wrong because none of it really happened. As far as I been able to learn, the real FDR never caught on fire, least not while he was talkin’ on the radio.

That was the beginning of my 80-plus year career at WUT. I got no end of stories and I’ll tell ’em all to you if you care to hear ’em.