Pleas note the term radio announcer, because Harley Flathers does not deserve to be lumped in with some of the people known as DJs; Harley was a class act from beginning to end and much, much more than a DJ.
Born into a family that farmed the rich earth of Stewartville, MN, Flathers intended to follow his father into farming, but polio changed his plans. With an amazing sense of optimism he made the best of his situation by attending the American Institute of the Air in Minneapolis, MN. and becoming a broadcaster. He started in a small town radio station, KAAA in Red Wing, MN. but took advantage of an opportunity to move to KROC AM in Rochester, MN. a few years later.
My first recollection of Harley was an evening show when he played the song, El Paso, by Marty Robbins. I was hooked on the guitar from that moment on, hearing Grady Martin’s lovely guitar work on that piece. Somewhere along the line, not much later, he became the morning radio host and most weekdays of my childhood started when my mother turned on the radio and Harley’s show laid the foundation for the upcoming day. When the sun was only a faint glow on the eastern horizon, Harley Flathers already knew what was going on and we could trust him. If we needed to know about something . . . anything, he’d let us know.
Rochester, MN. was an unusual town. In the sixties, its population was roughly 50,000, and by rights it should have been just another small city serving area farms and perhaps with a bit of light agricultural manufacturing. But Rochester had the Mayo Clinic and an IBM plant. The Clinic, as we all called it, attracted patients from every point on the globe and most of them brought their checkbooks along. Celebrity sightings were not uncommon in Rochester back in the day. There was a brisk, even booming hotel business which served the Clinic’s clientele so downtown Rochester was not a place where they rolled up the sidewalks at sundown. Its downtown was as vibrant as one would expect for a much larger city.
The IBM plant gave northwestern Rochester a huge influx of well-educated, well-paid workers in a high tech industry. There were nice neighborhoods, excellent schools and a sense of hope. IBM, in and of itself, could make the economy of a small city, but adding into the mix along with Mayo Clinic made Rochester an economic juggernaut, not to mention the fact that the agricultural component of the economy was a steady source of commerce. Rochester, at least in the sixties, was an amazing place to live.
The All-Weather Announcer
And the steady, honest voice of Harley Flathers comprised the clock, the compass and the soundtrack of Rochester, Minnesota. When there were severe cold snaps down 30 below zero, Harley was there every morning, reassuring us that the world hadn’t quite ended. During a later ’70s flood, he broadcast non-stop from the transmitter site and helped to keep things orderly. He worked long and hard, round the clock to serve his audience, and keep in mind that he walked only with great difficulty and the assistance of crutches. Simply stated, he risked his own safety to stay on the air.
Rochester sits exposed on the northern Great Plains and has winter storms that can be quite harsh. Nobody in Rochester is likely to be critical of someone for being late to work, or even stuck at home because of a snowstorm. Rochester residents had to be part time alchemists, in possession of a large bag of tricks with which they coaxed their cars to life in sub-zero mornings. But Harley managed to start his car, break out of the snow and hobbled into work, as reliable as the sunrise. He drove himself to work in his ’63 Impala convertible, not exactly a car optimized for winter. There was one exception; on a particularly harsh winter’s morning he couldn’t get the car out of the snow, so he called the police and they drove him to work. That may sound outrageous by today’s standards, but in Rochester, I doubt that anyone would have objected.
If the station engineer had come on the radio first thing in the morning and announced that Harley needed a ride into work there would have been people fighting over the privilege of scraping their windshield, shoveling their car out of the snow, spraying starting fluid into the carb and all of the other tasks required in order to have picked him up to drive him to the station on a frigid morning. Harley was genuinely loved by his community.
What he gave to the community was of incalculable worth. In the harsh climate of the northern plains it was essential to have a reliable source of information about weather, power outages, school closings and especially things that may have been especially relevant to the farmers in the area. Harley kept it light and entertaining but he never forsook his credibility and there was never any question as to whether he was joking or not. He was known as “the Voice of Rochester” and deserved the title.
He also was active in civic organizations apart from his radio program and worked on behalf of the handicapped community with such organizations as March of Dimes and the National Paraplegia Foundation. He emceed Rochester Symphony Orchestra concerts and other musical events along with beauty pageants and all sorts of other community events. Had I been putting on an event in Rochester, MN, Harley Flathers would have been my first choice for emcee and undoubtedly would have brought along a following all his own.
Radio is a one-way proposition, the listener hears the announcer but the announcer doesn’t know much about the listeners. Harley Flathers addressed this head-on. He did remote broadcasts from stores, new housing developments, you name it and met his public that way. He also sold kitchen knives and china from house to house, so he could meet listeners face to face, and he did so on crutches. He came to my parent’s home when I was a small boy; a visit that I remember fondly well over fifty years later.
I moved away from Rochester when I was 14 and heard Harley Flathers rarely, if ever from then on. He moved from NBC affiliate, KROC, to KWEB, an independent station that was slightly more Rock oriented than KROC, but hardly into head-banger territory.
My memories are of the KROC years and of his wonderful, eclectic taste in music. He played music my parents liked and music I liked. I’m fairly certain that my first exposure to Chet Atkins was the result of Harley dropping the needle on a Chet track. He snuck in the occasional jazz track and sparked in me a major musical interest. He also played music by The Ventures, an instrumental band of guitars, bass and drums. And therein lie the genius of Harley’s tastes. He managed to play interesting music while keeping up a broad appeal.
The Ventures were probably a perfect example of this. My older sister had the Venture’s albums, yet my 1916 born father liked their music. I guess that KROC, in that era, could have been considered a prototype of the Adult Contemporary format. Harley Flathers introduced me to the music of the great Wes Montgomery, and he informed me of his tragic death. He played Beatles songs and he played the Mills Brothers. He played good, solid music. To this day, I believe that my interest and tastes in music were greatly broadened by virtue of having listened to Harley Flathers.
I was born about the time Elvis began his career in earnest. It’s not to much of a stretch to say that I am the same age is Rock n’ Roll. While my tastes are much, much broader than the one genre, I have always loved the early rock. However, the manic rock DJs I remember from my childhood never suited my tastes. If Gene Vincent wanted to cut loose in a song, that was one matter, but I have always felt that the announcer’s job was to keep things on the straight and level, a touchstone to reality. When my parents left the house and my sister would tune in WDGY, in Minneapolis, I loved the music, but hated the DJs. It was always comforting when my parents returned home and I could hear Harley, keeping it on an even keel.
Going The Distance
He worked, at least to some degree, to the end of his life and worked harder than most able bodied men including taking on extra shifts because he wanted to be a good provider. His showed changed over the years, including broadcasts made from his home. The program was called Harley’s House and I think that he saw it as a way to welcome his listeners into his life. He was married for 56 years and raised a family. He was active in community service and in his Methodist faith. At the age of 84 he passed away having remained active and productive to the very end. Even after his death he remains active; active in the hearts and memories of his many faithful listeners. If we are fortunate, we may touch a relative handful of lives in a meaningful way. Harley Flathers was known as “the Voice of Rochester” and he touched an entire community.