BRATTLEBORO >> Tim Johnson, news director at WTSA in Brattleboro, will be going off the air in late January.
On Sunday afternoon, sitting at the console in radio station's newsroom, he reflected on his long career in radio and talked about his plans for the next phase of his life.
"I've been News Director here for nearly 19 years," he said. "I was news director at WKVT between 1985 and 1997, and I had been news director at the old WCFR at Springfield between 1983 and 1985, my one foray out of Brattleboro. It was good change of pace and a good refocusing."
In addition to his on-the-job training, six months of training in the Vermont National Guard included graduating with honors from the Defense Informatiion School.
"They gave you training for being a public information officer, some radio training and some TV training," he recalled.
Johnson started his radio career while he was still a senior at Brattleboro Union High School.
"My parents both came from family farms in Vernon," he said. "My mother was one of the three sisters from the Tyler Farm, and my dad's aunts and uncles were the Streeter Farm. My parents were both children of the Depression who believed that if you weren't in school you were working, so I got used to working nights, weekends, and vacations.
"I think when I was about 12 I got a transistor radio as a Christmas present and instantly fell in love," he recalled. "I certainly enjoyed the music and how it was all put together. I met a couple of people who worked at WKVT at the time, and had the opportunity to apply for a part-time opening. So I stayed until a full-time job came up, and I was hired for that. Persistence is a hallmark of who I am as a person."
He remembered meeting Jimmy Carter, who came through Brattleboro as a presidential candidate in 1976.
"I was working a weekend air shift and our news director at the time, Owen May, did an interview with him," Johnson said. "I was given a camera to take a picture of the two of them, so I had a chance to shake his hand and say hello. He seemed like a nice young man, probably too nice for politics."
Another memorable moment came in 1986.
"I was on the air at WKVT doing the news the morning of the space shuttle Challenger explosion," he recalled. "I have to admit it took me a while to go from shocked observer to reporter mode.
"A recurrent theme is that we're all part of the stories we cover at this level," Johnson commented. "I would take you ahead to a really awful day in ... I believe it was 1991, when my then co-worker, Bob Sawyer, stabbed then Reformer reporter Judith Hart Fournier. Not only did I report the story, but I filled in for Bob the next morning. That took a lot out of me."
Another defining moment was Tropical Storm Irene.
"I came in here and spent an 18-hour day, and about 14 hours of that was on the air, spinning tunes and doing live interviews, as the storm went through," he said.
A source of enduring pride for Johnson is his long-time affiliation with Project Feed the Thousands. He said that he was "struck in a positive way by the community's big heart. The sense of giving is one of the defining things about the Brattleboro area.
"For instance," he continued, "I was at Price Chopper, loading the radio station vehicle with goods for the food shelf, when an obviously pregnant woman, with two children in and about her cart, stopped and saw that I was obviously struggling and said, 'I don't have any money for you but I'd like to help you load your cart.' And so she did, and it was a nice, touching experience."
He cited, as another example of that giving spirit, "The day that they called us from the Brattleboro Drop-in Center and said, 'It's nearly Christmas and we're out of turkeys — can you put out an appeal?' And within a half-hour of my mentioning something on the radio, 30 turkeys had been delivered to the Drop-In Center, and a woman I never met before or since came in to the radio station, wrote a check for $100, and left.
"It's been very important for me to see the good side of people," he commented. "As part of the job I see the horrible side of people."
He noted that the part of the day he likes the best is the hour before he goes on the air.
"My favorite part of the job is sitting at my desk at 4 a.m. when it's nice and quiet, and trying to figure out what are the most important things people need to know that day," he said. "There are almost no distractions, and my adrenaline is almost totally focused on readying the stories I'm going to lead with before I go on the air at five. It's always something different."
Johnson said he won't miss the paperwork associated with the job. WTSA, which has both an AM and an FM station, is required to file reports with the Federal Communications Commission.
"I know it's a way of showing people who don't know you that you're doing a good job. I'm responsible for filling out what's called the Quarterly Issues and Program Report," he explained. "We're federally licensed radio stations licensed to serve the public. This isn't just an excuse to print money by selling advertising; we have to show that we're serving the local needs."
In 2014, Johnson was inducted into the Vermont Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame. He commented that at the start of his career he never expected that it would prove to be so long and successful. For one thing, in high school he struggled with a stutter, which followed him into young adulthood. He worked hard to conquer it.
"It only shows up when I'm exhausted," he said.
The media industry has changed radically since he first went on the air.
"The industry has gone from people using 45 rpm records and ripping their state and national news copy off a teleptype machine and trying to bang out local stories on a manual typewriter to the point where the music library is in a computer hard drive, and you are able to write in a Microsoft Word program and do everything in about a fifth of the time," Johnson said. "The downside of that is that there aren't as many people at an average radio station as there used to be. You have a more talented, specialized group of people who are working there, but there aren't as many people working, so you are more subject to call-ins at odd hours. If there were a major emergency in Brattleboro right now, I'd be on the air reporting it, even though it's an off day."
He accepts the demands of the job.
"We should expect certain things of ourselves, to make sure that the information we take in is the result of somebody's diligent work," he said. "I've always considered myself to be a working person, and if that means that I need to work a little bit harder to make sure I feel comfortable with it, that's fine."
When Johnson leaves the air in late January, he plans to stay on to mentor his replacement. He said he feels confident about the transition.
"I want to assure people that the radio station is moving forward with plans to hire a replacement," he said. "We've always had a very active news presence, whether it was Larry Smith before me, or whoever is going to replace me. I think the community can count on that kind of commitment."
He hopes to bring the same kind of commitment to the next phase of his life: he's planning to run for Town Clerk in Vernon, where he's already served in a variety of public offices.
"I'm hesitant to say a lot about it until I've filed and am an official candidate," he said. "I've been Town Moderator for 17 years and will be moderating my 18th Town Meeting in March.
"I've also been a Justice of the Peace for 12 years, and chair of the Board of Civil Authority for the last seven," he continued. "I've been BUHS District Moderator for 15 years. I just think that I have something to offer to help my town get to where it needs to be, moving forward after our latest transition, after the close of Vermont Yankee."
The phone rang, and Johnson answered. The caller was evidently requesting a playlist, and Johnson said there was none. However, he cheerfully identified both the group who was singing and the lead singer.
"I've been spinning tunes here in one capacity or another for 42 years, and I also do private parties on occasion, and I expect to continue with that," he said after he ended the call. "No one ever really retires."