Monday morning, we lost Luther Masingill, at the age of 92. He will no longer speak into the WDEF microphone, attempting to find some lost dogs. He was on the same time, same station since 1940. When you see a list of records that will never be broken (like Cal Ripken’s consecutive game streak and Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak), Luther’s longevity should rank at the very top. That’s why Sirius XM’s Phlash Phelps devoted a portion of his show earlier this year to Luther, just before his 92nd birthday. This interview, which you can hear below, was heard by a big chunk of satellite radio’s 26 million listeners nationwide:
Take it from me, or anyone else who’s ever worked on radio or television. An announcing career, to put it kindly, is not one where many folks get a gold watch for 25 years of continuous service. Deejays come and go, and frequently come again. Chattanooga, being a mid-sized city, has long been considered a stepping stone to Nashville, Atlanta, or even network fame. You rarely start in Chattanooga (you hone your skills in smaller towns like South Pittsburg, Dalton, or Fort Payne), and you sure don’t finish here. Generally, if you haven’t hit the big time by the time you’re middle-aged, you start selling real estate, you get a job at the post office, or start your own business. You can’t be a Chattanooga radio announcer forever. Unless….you’re Luther.
Let’s put this in perspective. When Luther uttered his first words on WDEF, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was in his second term. Some veterans of the Civil War were still alive. There was no such thing as cake mix, an electric blanket or an atomic bomb. Hitler ruled Germany, and Churchill was Britain’s Prime Minister. Gasoline was 18 cents a gallon, and it cost three pennies to mail a letter.
Each year, I attend a reunion of local radio deejays, past and present. Sometimes we ask them to name the stations for which they’ve worked, which can be a lengthy chore for some. Last year, when it was Luther’s turn, I fed him a straight line. “Luther,” I said, “you’ve done radio for more than seventy years. How many stations have you worked for?” With impeccable timing, he paused, started looking at his fingers as if to begin counting, looked up and said simply, “One,” to great laughter of course.
A few years ago, I asked him the question people often ask me. When I’ve touted Luther to out-of-towners, or to newcomers to Chattanooga, they’ll ask, “If he’s so good, why didn’t he ever make it to the big time?” You see, Chattanooga may seem like a big deal to those of us who live here, but the big-city folk are not impressed. We don’t have big-league sports, we don’t have 16-lane highways and we’re not swarming with celebrities. So, if you haven’t worked your way out of our scenic little town, you can’t be very good, so they say.
After a little prodding, Luther admitted that during his heyday in the 1950s and 60s, he could have gone just about anywhere. As television gradually connected our nation from coast to coast, Easterners became infatuated with Southern-style entertainers. Suddenly, New York-type stars like Milton Berle, Sid Caesar and Groucho Marx were giving way to comics and singers with a Southern flavor: Dinah Shore, Andy Griffith, Jimmy Dean, Tennessee Ernie Ford and Pat Boone were all near the top of the TV ratings and record charts. Big market radio stations took notice. “Hmmm,” they said. “These Southerners are taking the nation by storm. Maybe we should hire a down-home deejay to do our morning show.” When they saw Luther’s eye-popping ratings, they tracked him down.
I mean, this is the guy who made an entire city pull over to the side of the road one morning. As heavy snow began to fall, Luther helpfully advised his listeners to let some air out of their tires to gain more traction. As witnesses would later describe, main arteries like McCallie Avenue came to a standstill as everyone stopped, got out of their car and began deflating their tires. Can you imagine anyone, in any broadcast medium, having that sort of influence today?
Yet despite the offers from New York, Philadelphia and Milwaukee, Luther chose to stay put. His family was here, and he always appreciated WDEF for giving an unproven high school senior a job on the radio, which was beyond his wildest dreams. When he applied, all he wanted to do was answer the phone and take requests for the older guys. Owner Joe Engel asked him to try out for an announcer’s job, and gave him a commercial script to read. Young Luther mispronounced one word (“salon” became “saloon”) but those golden pipes landed him the station’s prime position. By the way, if the 73-year radio gig isn’t impressive enough, consider this: he was also on WDEF Channel 12 every day since it signed on, sixty years last April. No one else did that, either.
In recent years, this humble man got some extra attention. There’s a stretch of highway named in his honor, he was among the first inductees into the Tennessee Radio Hall of Fame, and was finally inducted last year into the National Radio Hall of Fame in Chicago. All over the web, there are stories and videos, celebrating our hometown hero. Every day, everywhere he went, someone thanked him for waking them up each day, for reuniting them with their pet, or for finding their car keys. Luther knew he was loved, and nothing made him happier than rising bright and early, driving to the studio so he could help someone have a better day.
Every time I saw or heard Luther, I cherished the moment. This much is certain: there will never be another one like him, anywhere in the world. If you’re lucky enough to be a Chattanoogan, you can say with hometown pride, “He belonged to us.”
Here are the tribute stories from WRCB on October 20:
(Visitation will be Wed. October 22, from 1 until 6 pm at Chattanooga Funeral Home East Chapel on Moore Road. A public memorial service will be held Thursday, October 23 at 2:00 pm at Engel Stadium in Chattanooga)