Rest in Peace, Wendy King

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin - Without a Doubt

Unless you’re a native Pittsburgher, and a senior one at that, the name Wendy King probably doesn’t mean much for you. But since I’m a native Pittsburgher, and a senior one at that, I was surprised and sorry to learn that Wendy King passed away recently, at the age of 92. Surprised because I presumed she had passed a long time ago; and sorry because Wendy King was part of the popular scene in Pittsburgh for many years, including the time I was growing up in the Burgh.

News of her passing has led me down memory lane.

Wendy and her husband, Ed King, hosted “Party Line,” one of first radio talks shows in the country. It aired in the evenings on Pittsburgh’s premier radio station, KDKA, for twenty years, 1951-1971. “It could be said that they invented the marriage of the telephone and the radio,” said one longtime friend in her obituary.

The very interesting thing about Party Line, at least by today’s standards, was that the callers couldn’t be heard on the air. Ed and Wendy would take the phone calls, paraphrase the questions, and then comment. Other listeners would then chime in for the discussion, also without being heard.

This was gentle talk radio. Political debates, controversial topics and personal attacks were strictly avoided. The questions would be something like: “Well, Wendy, Frank from Castle Shannon wants to know exactly how the Duquesne Incline works.” Or, “Ed we have a call from Tony in Oakland who remembers seeing Babe Ruth play at Forbes Field.” Or, “If anyone actually saw the B-25 Bomber crash into the Mon River, please give us a call.” And so it went . . .

Even as a young lad, I listened to Party Line religiously. Sometimes, it was displaced by the broadcast of a Pittsburgh Pirates night game. But listening to the “Gunner,” Bob Prince and his sidekick the “Possum” Jim Woods call the game was a treat too. Without a doubt, though, my affinity for talk radio can be traced back to Party Line.

Talk radio has certainly come a long way from the Party Line model hasn’t it? Today, of course, the callers can be heard. And as for the topics – at least in some quarters – the more controversial, the better. Talk radio is as much entertainment as information and the corporate goal is to attract listeners, drive-up the ratings, and increase the revenue. Nothing wrong with that, by the way.

I admire the guys and gals who are the radio talk show hosts. It’s not easy to be informed about a wide range of contemporary topics, local and national, to present them in an engaging way, and then keep the conversation going.

Sometimes, though, the conversation you hear on today’s talk radio can be pretty rough, occasionally generated by the hosts, but more often by the callers, some of whom appear to be really angry, paranoid and dysfunctional souls. There are some limits on what can be said, of course, and those who control the buttons always have to be ready to dump anything really out of bounds.

It seems to me, though, that the coarse language we sometimes hear on the radio is but a reflection of the general degradation of language in our culture. How many TV programs, movies, and pop songs have language that’s really offensive! The Internet has spawned a whole new arena for vulgarity. Just check out the “comments” sections of various web sites and newspapers. The obscenity and name-calling can be stunning! And a lack of knowledge doesn’t prevent some folks from spouting off, anonymously of course, about everything from history, philosophy and theology, to finance, science and medicine.

The Church is not immune to the improper, uncharitable use of language. How often has Pope Francis railed against the “terrorism of gossip,” that infects parishes, schools, organizations and even priests and religious! Someone who gossips about another is like a bomb-thrower who can “kill the reputation of another,” the Pope has observed.

Although the means of communication are new, the problem of destructive, harmful language certainly isn’t. St. James described it this way: “The tongue is also a fire. It exists among our members as a world of malice, defiling the whole body and setting the entire course of our lives on fire . . . No human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” (Jas 3: 6, 8)

Wow . . . that sounds like a description of the current political campaigns, doesn’t it?

On the flip side, we know that conversational language, public and private, has the potential of being a source of enormous good. We can use it to share information, build community, and inspire and encourage one another. How just a few words of praise can reward and affirm a colleague who has done well; how a few words of understanding can console a friend who is down and depressed; how a few words of apology can heal a divided family.

This would be a great New Year’s resolution for all of us – to eliminate vulgar, insulting, divisive, and gossipy language, and, instead, use our words to encourage, inspire, comfort and forgive one another. Wouldn’t that result in a better and more pleasant world? And Church?

So, rest in peace, Wendy King. Thanks to you and Ed for your years of information and entertainment on Party Line. And thanks for reminding us that conversation can actually be pleasant and positive.