Words by Terrell Manasco | Images courtesy of Don Keith
“From the album Walls and Bridges, with Walls on lead vocals and Bridges on drums, John Lennon, that’s Number Nine Dream on K-99, on Avondale Park, where in addition to Lennon we’ve heard from the Doobie Brothers, Marshall Tucker, Pure Prairie League, Wet Willie, and a lot of others. And of course, we’ll have the Park again tomorrow morning, Sunday morning too, between nine and ten o’clock, on K-99.”
The voice is still as distinctive today as when Don Keith uttered those words in the summer of 1978 on cutting edge radio station WVOK-FM/K-99 in Birmingham (“where your FM rocks”). Only a few years before his K-99 days, Don was a major player on Birmingham radio in the late ’60s and early ’70s. His familiar, youthful voice was heard daily, along with other announcers like Johnny Davis, Joe Rumore, and “Dan the Music Man” Brennan, on what was then THE Birmingham powerhouse, WVOK, “The Mighty 690,”Alabama’s first 50,000 watt station.
Aside from over two decades as a radio personality in Birmingham and Nashville, Don also owned his own consultancy, co-owned Mobile radio station WZEW-FM, and hosted and produced several nationally syndicated radio shows.
“So you are the one who was listening?” Don jokes, speaking by phone from his home, in response to this writer’s mention of fond memories listening to him on the air many moons ago. “Well, they are for me too. That’s some of the most fun I’ve had in radio. I guess I’ve devoted about forty-five years of my life to that.”
During that time Don won numerous AP and UPI awards for news writing and reporting. He was also the first winner of Troy State’s Hector Award for innovation in broadcast journalism, and twice he was chosen the Billboard Magazine Radio Personality of the Year.
Born in 1947, Don’s love of radio began when he was three-and-a-half years old. “My dad was a television and radio repairman in the fifties,” he says, “and I would sit in his shop and listen to the radios and watch the TVs that he was working on,” Don says. “I just thought it was the coolest thing in the world that this far-away guy was sitting there talking on the radio and I could hear him. I’d hear the signals from Dallas, and Chicago, Cleveland, Atlanta, and Nashville. That was just magical.”
As a young man growing up in rural St. Clair County in the 1950s and 60s, Don’s early influences in radio were guys like Larry Lujack and John “Records” Landecker on the larger Chicago stations. “We couldn’t hear the Birmingham stations at night, so when we were on dates or hanging out, we would listen to WLS in Chicago or WCFL in Chicago or some of the other stations that would ride in on the skywave,” he says. “And by that point they were playing records and they were interacting with the records, like they were doing a show. And they were, they were doing a show. They weren’t just streaming music, they were doing things that actually added to the experience of hearing the music and I thought that was magical.”
Don first got his feet wet in the radio business during his days at the University of Alabama, working at college station WABP-AM, “570 on your dial, if you were within thirty-five feet of a power line.” That led to a job at an AM station in Oneonta. “The summer after my freshman year at Alabama, I worked at WCRL, 1570 on your radio dial, right next to the glove box.”
Then a college classmate mentioned to Don that he would be leaving his weekend job at WVOK after graduation for a programming job at a new Huntsville station. “He told me I should go apply and I did, and doggone, they hired me!” Don says. “I would do from two o’clock until sign-off on Saturday afternoons. Then I would sleep in a little room in the back where the engineer sometimes crashed, and get up the next morning and sign on at 6:30 and be there until 2 on Sunday. That was back when we were required by regulations to sign off the air when the sun went down. We did it to the sound of Dixie.”
Although it’s been a few years since Don Keith sat behind a microphone, his career still relies heavily on the use of words, albeit in a different form. Now an award-winning writer of over thirty books, Don says he has always dreamed of writing the great American novel. “I did a lot of writing in high school but just never thought I could get published,” he admits. “After leaving broadcasting, I went to work for a software company. I was on the road with an early laptop computer. You had to have a pretty big lap for it to fit. At night when I would be in Indianapolis, Houston, or Savannah, in some hotel room, I could either watch bad television or finally get started writing that novel I always wanted to write, so I started writing novels.”
His first published novel, The Forever Season, won the Alabama Library Association’s Fiction of the Year Award for 1997. The idea for his second novel, Wizard of the Wind, came from his years of working in radio broadcasting. “It occurred to me even back then that they [announcers] could say or do something on the air that would affect thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people one way or the other,” Don says. “Just having that power with just a couple of turntables and a microphone…that’s why I wrote a book called Wizard of the Wind.”
Don has written books on a variety of topics, including amateur radio (he’s an active amateur radio operator), and legendary Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant. He co-wrote the three “Ride” series novellas with Edie Hand, and was a contributing writer on radio personalities Rick and Bubba’s book, We Be Big.
He has also co-written two nationally best-selling novels with former Commander George Wallace, USN (Ret.). The first, Final Bearing, released in 2003, was praised for its riveting plot and compelling characters. Its 2013 sequel, Firing Point, is now on its way to the big screen. “It is in the process of being made. They’re going to retitle it Hunter Killer, and it will be out next Fall,” Don says. “We finished writing a sequel novel, and we’re just waiting for a production company to pick it up, in case they wanna do a sequel, and then we’re gonna pitch it to publishers.” Hunter Killer will star Gerard Butler, (300) Gary Oldman, and Common.
Some may argue the difference in radio broadcasting and writing books, but Don says the two are actually very similar. “With radio, as in writing, you’re sitting in a small little room, isolated, usually all by yourself, and you’re trying to create something that will affect your audience in some way, positively you hope, but creating some kind of an emotion,” Don says. “And once you put it out there, you can’t take it back. And that’s exactly what writing is.”
Don, who is a frequent guest speaker at various events, says aspiring writers often ask him for writing advice. “Writing today is no more difficult, and no easier than it was when Shakespeare wrote,” he says. “Computers and software make it a lot easier, for me. I tried to write my first novel on a legal pad and that’s a mess. The main thing is just to go ahead and do it. If you want to write…I forget what great author said it, but ‘I can’t not write,’ then you’re a writer if you just cannot walk away from it. I’m a storyteller, I just tell stories. Even the non-fiction books, I’m talking about average people who get thrown into unusual situations who do remarkable things. That fascinates me, and I hope it fascinates enough of folks that they’ll go out and buy my books, and publishers will keep letting me share all these stories I happen across.”
As our interview concludes and our Storyteller returns to pen his latest tale, one can almost hear the faint hiss of static seeping through the dusty speaker of an old transistor radio, as the opening bars of Dixie begin to play and that familiar youthful voice signs off. 78
Don Keith’s website is: http://www.donkeith.com
Order Don’s books at Amazon.com.