Recalling On-Air Careers
“She taught me everything I know,” and that’s a direct quote from me, Mary Dolan, who learned the radio trade from the very best. Her name is Ruth Berg and she is something of a radio legend in this community of Fergus Falls and well beyond our city limits.
Ruth Berg began this storied career in a most unusual way. “Well, it all started when my neighbor called,” explained Ruth, “and he just came out and asked me if I’d be interested in being on the radio.”
Her neighbor was Bill Sampson, another recognized name in the Fergus Falls community when it came to radio. “Bill told me I’d be doing a show called Community Viewpoint,” said Ruth. “I showed up one day after Bill’s call and just jumped right in! There was no training, just directions to sit in front of the mic and talk.” That day began an amazing career that Ruth looks back on with a smile.
“I loved every day,” she said, “as no two days were ever the same. You never had a chance to be bored, because you never knew what the day would bring.” There were interviews with names you’d certainly recognize and others I didn’t know, but who quickly became friends.”
Ruth was a pioneer in radio in those days, with very few women having the chance to host a live show. “I look back and realize how lucky I was, she remembered, “as I only had to work a few days each week. I told Bill from the beginning that I needed to put my family first. They were so accommodating, which was something I always appreciated.”
Ruth quickly became the motherly figure around the station. “I kind of seem to collect young people…and there were so many young announcers who I just took under my wing,” said Ruth, “and Jerry Ring started calling me Mother Berg, which sort of stuck with me around there. They used to laugh at me when I told them to wear their boots and dress warmly for winter!” While she gave advice to wear your boots, she was the first one to remove her shoes while on the air. “And those crazy kids would always take my shoes while I was doing the show,” she laughed. “It happened all the time. It still makes me chuckle.”
Ruth’s daughter, Debi, remembers her mom as a bit of celebrity. “I think we always thought she was kind of a local celebrity,” said Debi, “but I also remember her being exactly the same whether she was on the air, interviewing someone important, or just eating dinner with us at home.” Debi also warmly recalls the many Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners their family would deliver to the radio stations. “Mom always wanted to make sure her radio station family was not forgotten on those special days,” remembered Debi, “and I always got my dedications on the air, because we got to know all the announcers so well!” Those Berg care packages are likely remembered to this day by each of those then young announcers as well.
Ruth got the opportunity to interview many recognizable, even famous people. “As I look back, there were some memorable moments,” remembered Ruth, “and some people I’ll never forget. Garrison Keillor was relatively early in his career when I visited with him. He was difficult. He made it hard to do the interview and I don’t remember him being warm or engaged at all. On the opposite end of the spectrum was Myron Floren. What a wonderful man. He was very sweet and truly concerned about other people.”
When I asked Ruth to recall her favorite guest, she didn’t hesitate for a second. “Hubert Humphrey,” she said with a smile, “he was my all time favorite. He was simply delightful. When he was on the air with me, he made it easy. He carried the ball and there was no dead air with Hubert as my guest.”
Then in May of 1982 came my big break, when I began working in the radio business. I actually got my start by answering an ad on the radio and they were looking for a copywriter – someone to write the ads for the announcers to record. When I got the job, I was lucky enough to have an office space right next to Ruth. We shared a lot of conversation and drank lots of coffee!
From time to time there was a need for a female voice on an ad. I think that’s where it all started. Then Ruth and her husband, Ken, began to take winters to warmer Arizona weather. “So how would you like to fill in for Ruth on the air while she’s gone for the winter?” Well, those were big and very professional shoes to fill, but I thought it would be fun and I was honored to stand in for Ruth.
Those first days on the air were as nervous as I’d ever been. I remember being able to inhale, but not to exhale. By the time I got to the end of a story, I thought I’d explode! Ruth was very supportive of me and my shaky beginning, always telling me I could do it. In those days, it was impossible for Ruth to listen from Arizona, so at least I knew she wouldn’t hear some of those first blunders when I was on my own.
One day, while at my typewriter, writing commercials, one of the managers said he had a new spot for me. He took me into the studio and had me switch places with Craig Olson, who was our midday announcer. My only instruction from management was this: “start pushing buttons ‘til it works.” And so, with Craig’s help, that’s what I did. When you hear the term “trial by fire,” that was exactly the way it happened.
Also like Ruth, I eventually got the opportunity to host my own talk show. I was fortunate to have interviewed many interesting people over the years. Two names you may remember are Gretchen Carlson, who was Miss America at the time and Alan Page, famous for his play with the Minnesota Vikings and known as one of the “Purple People Eaters.” At the time Mr. Page sat at my interview table, he had been elected to the Minnesota Supreme Court. He was soft spoken and very kind. I remember a huge smile and huge hands that completely enveloped mine when he went to shake my hand.
Over time, I interviewed many politicians making their swings through town, but one of those days stands out among the rest. There were four men in navy blue suits who sat around the interview table. What they didn’t know is that we had just finished a segment where we made lefse live on the air. When the men in the navy suits got up to leave – each of the sleeves of all four suits were covered in traces of flour from our lefse event. I’m not sure when they discovered it, but it caused lots of laughs around the studio!
Ruth and I were both lucky enough over our careers to be the emcee or to speak at a variety of events. Ruth recalled when Fergus Falls had been nominated as an All-American City. “I went with a delegation of 22 to Houston, Texas,” said Ruth, “and I had to give a ten-minute presentation which I was asked to memorize. We ended up winning the distinction of All-American City and I think we celebrated for a whole year!”
We both saw many changes over the years as various types of technology began to make their way into our trade. I remember having to use a razor blade on reel-to-reel audio tape to edit something out. We played commercials on carts that looked like 8-track tapes, and we actually put the needle on the records and played them one at a time. I remember when they got a “newfangled” typewriter for me, and you could see the words on a screen before they hit the paper. I remember thinking we had moved to the next generation of cool things! If we had to send an ad to someone, we really had to send it…. through the US mail. Those were the days. Now everything gets delivered immediately via email.
I’ve said it a million times, and I’m sure Ruth has too, that we should have written a book. It was a delight for me to visit Ruth about all the fun we had over the years, how we loved each day and the surprises we would encounter. No two days were ever the same. We’ve worked alongside so many people that became a part of our radio family and there isn’t a memory we’d trade!
The years pass quickly when you love what you do. They say once you get radio in your blood, you can never shake it. It’s part of who you are, who you’ve become. Ruth retired to warmer weather for 31 years, but Fergus Falls and family called her back. She now calls Pioneer Pointe her home and continues to be the feisty, full of life woman I’d come to know and love.
People keep asking me when I’m going to retire and to that I reply, “Why would I retire when I get paid to drink coffee and visit with people?” Few jobs offer those perks, so I guess I’ll stay for now. 41 years have flown by in a blink and I’m hopeful I’ll be able to sit behind the mic for a long time. The best part is when you do your own talk show, you get to schedule any guest you want. I think I’ll call Ruth Berg. Now there’s my favorite guest!
Written by Mary Dolan for PioneerCare