Recollections: The news never stops, but it does slow down for Christmas
By Thom Gerretsen
Believe it or not, there was a time when the Marshfield News-Herald did not put out a newspaper on major holidays. But broadcasting stations don’t have that luxury. When people drive to church or cook breakfast on Christmas morning, they expect to hear something when they turn the radio on.
That means an announcer must be on duty — if nothing else, to staff the control room to broadcast area school choir Christmas concerts, syndicated holiday programs, etc. And yes, local newscasts and sportscasts.
I cannot remember how many Christmas mornings I spent at Marshfield’s WDLB Radio during my tenure there from 1978-99. But it was more than a few. The first time, our late News Director Don Meyers told me to check the police blotter because Christmas Eve often brought out the worst in some families, and more domestic disturbances take place then. I am happy to report that I saw very little evidence of that — certainly nothing out of the ordinary that would rise to the level of “man bites dog” newsworthiness.
Larger tragedies can strike at any time, though, and I covered a couple on Christmas mornings. I remember going to a fire at Marshfield’s recently-closed City Hall Plaza where a ventilating unit on the roof above the seventh floor was emitting smoke. Also, the Fire & Rescue Department’s website reminded me of a 1990 Christmas Day house fire in which damage was minimized by a new “positive-pressure” ventilating fan unit.
But for the most part, our listeners were too busy with their families and religion to make much news on the actual holiday. So at WDLB, we relied more on our news wires and audio “sound bite” services to provide the latest in Wisconsin news and sports. And we prepared local stories in advance to use on our Christmas Day newscasts.
Most often, they were the “staples” of local Christmas news. What it’s like to be among the relative few working in local law enforcement and medical services which have no choice but to stay open. A summary of the local shopping season. A religious leader or person discussing the meaning of Christmas. Societal stories such as current gas price trends, road construction for those going “home for the holidays,” etc.
The late former U.S. Sen. William Proxmire, D-Wis., used to work for a constituent who otherwise had to be on the job Christmas Day. I forget the actual jobs he did, but some were quite physical.
The rooftop starlight at one of Wisconsin’s largest hospitals can easily be seen at night from WDLB’s back door. So we once did a detailed story on how St. Joseph’s Hospital (now Marshfield Medical Center) gave patients and their families the most homelike and Christmas-type atmospheres possible. They did a lot. And our story won a statewide award from the Wisconsin Associated Press Broadcasters.
This was when our two-three person news staff competed with a daily paper with a much larger reporting team. So when the News-Herald didn’t put out a product on the holidays and WDLB did, I pounced on that. On our 15-minute 7:05 a.m. newscast the day before, I reminded our listeners that we would be there with the latest news — and I mentioned a couple of the feature stories awaiting them. Sometimes I would add, “We’re proud to serve you on the holidays.”
Only now do I realize how bad that was.
In hindsight, I was telling thousands of people that I put work first and my family second on some of the most family-oriented holidays of the year. I admit that mindset. But in reality, it wasn’t that bad: My ELCA church, Faith Lutheran, has its major services on Christmas Eve and is often not open on Christmas morning unless it’s a Sunday. And when I did work on Christmas, it was generally from about 4:30 until 10 a.m. which allowed me to attend our family celebrations in the afternoon.
Even in today’s faster-paced society, Christmas is the one holiday in which the vast majority of our institutions pause for an entire day to celebrate in a variety of personal ways. When you turn on that radio — or visit a hospital patient — please at least think of the worker who makes our modern-day necessities possible.
And if you see one, don’t forget to say “Merry Christmas!”