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by Mike McVay

The year was 1974. I had just been elevated from afternoon drive air talent to morning person/program director at WNEU/Wheeling, West Virginia. The owner of the radio station was a former armed forces officer, a one time Country music concert promoter, a long time radio broadcaster, and an excellent showman in his own right.

Gene Johnson gave me an opportunity to program a radio station that he and his wife Melba both owned. They allowed me to enter their small "family" and steer the product side of their property. I received many lessons from Gene during the nearly three years I worked at the station. One of the most valuable is what I like to refer to as The Carnival Experience.

Gene Johnson understood showbiz. He understood "keeping a little bit back, so the audience would come back." The man was probably the first "consultant" I ever worked with in that he would from time to time critique my morning show. The man would tell me stories about how he produced and promoted Country shows, and how it applied to my morning show.

For instance, Gene told me that he once asked a Country singer how much they wanted for a show. They told him $275. He asked how long the show would last and was told that it was a good 45-minute show.

He then asked, "How much of the music in the 45-minute show is really good?"

The response that came was "about 30 minutes."

Gene requested the talent give him 30 minutes and save the rest for another day.

The lesson I learned is that it is always better to do less and make it good than to do a lot and make it so-so. Air talent are not paid by the word. They shouldn't feel that they have to talk in order to save their job. The very best talents in the world are those who are efficient, entertaining and yet informative. Get to the point as quickly as possible, but continue to entertain the listener with only your very best material.

Lesson Number Two from Mr. Johnson centered on how to create great showbiz around a promotion. The Wheeling Fair was on and the radio station had a booth at it.

Gene and I were walking down the midway of the carnival when a young woman knocked over the milk bottles and won a huge stuffed teddy bear. The man in the booth rang the bell, grabbed the teddy bear and ran around in circles in the booth screaming, "We've got a winner . . . this little woman was a winner . . . we've got a winner!"

As she took the teddy bear and walked down the midway herself, the carnival worker screamed out, "There goes a winner . . . Who's going to be next . . . How about you?"

People gathered around his stand and dug into their pockets for their $1 bills. Gene looked at me and said, "That's great promotion."

The man was known to wear a huge gold diamond pinkie ring. I was sitting in the car with him one day as he was staring at the sunlight glinting off the diamond and making reflections across the dashboard of the car. I commented to Gene on how beautiful I thought the ring was.

He said to me, "Do you know how many times I've had to sell this ring in my life?"

I had no idea. Mr. Johnson proceeded to tell me that this diamond ring had bailed him out of trouble many times. It was his nest egg for a rainy day.

Gene would use the ring when he was short on cash, needed to close a concert, book a show, make a big deal, or just get through another business transaction. He commented to me that none of us should love our possessions, but we should love our families. Despite having said that, I couldn't help but notice his admiration for that ring.

The lesson I learned from Gene was that if you truly believe in something, and if in your heart of hearts you know you're capable of accomplishing what it is you set out to do, then gambling your "pinkie ring" is a small chance to take. It was that advice that led me to stick my neck out more times than once over the years of my career.

Whether it was the military background the man had or his natural instinct for leadership, I don't know. I do know that Gene Johnson was the type of individual who you knew was in charge when he walked into a room. The leader had arrived.

An Easter egg hunt at Wheeling Park one cold and dreary Easter Sunday found Gene at the head of the line with a clipboard organizing 5 and under, 10 and under, and teenagers into three separate lines. The kids weren't paying much attention to Gene as he tried to get them into these groups.

I looked at the sales manager and said, "Why is he driving himself crazy trying to line these kids up?"

The sales manager explained, "He's a military officer. Officers lead."

It never dawned on Gene that the kids wouldn't heed his direction. He always assumed control. The lesson I learned from that is that if you assume control, then you are in control. Never hesitate to assume control of a situation that you know you can improve upon, or by your mere presence aid others.

The best lesson of all I learned from my mentor was that he lived life and observed life around him as he enjoyed it. Johnson was up early in the morning and up late at night. He went hard all day and then he went home. His attitude was that when he was gone, then he would rest. He never hesitated to share with others around him. The observations he had on life were the lessons that he had learned. In that way, we all should learn a lesson of helping others and giving to the next generation behind us.

I am sad to say we lost Gene nearly 10 years ago.

His memory lives on.

I hope he would be proud of me.

Mike McVay is founder and President of McVay Media, a full-service consultancy, serving Adult Contemporary, Country, CHR, Oldies, Rock, Sports, and News/Talk radio stations. McVay's 31 years of broadcast experience include stints as a General Manager, Program Director, and Air Personality.

© 2001 by McVay Media

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