What Dick Layman Taught Me
Brian Gongol

Radio newsman Dick Layman was laid to rest today. His sudden death at age 59 was untimely and leaves the community worse-off.

Dick came to the WHO Radio newsroom in 1998, slated for a role as the news anchor during the morning drive-time program. At the time, I was a young reporter -- still in college, with just a year's experience at the station under my belt. Dick may have been the new guy, but he was a veteran of many years in the business, both in Des Moines and in other markets.

It quickly became a game within the newsroom to wager just how much Dick could abbreviate a story while reading it on the air. You have to understand that, at the time, a good radio news story done from the newsroom took about an hour to hammer out: Ten or fifteen minutes for an interview, another ten or so for fact-checking and editing, five or ten minutes' worth of writing (at the time, we generally scripted two or three versions of a story to be read by other anchors, plus one mainly narrated by the reporter.

People may not recognize the kind of skill it takes to compress a story full of the classic "Who, what, when, where, why, and how" into radio length -- 30 or 40 seconds, at most. (Why so short? Well, if someone can convince you to buy a car in 30 seconds, we should probably be able to tell a story in that time as well.) It's hard to do well, and a good reporter takes pride in making an art of it.

That's why it was easy to take it the wrong way when that tightly-written, lovingly-crafted 30-second piece that couldn't possibly have gotten any shorter...got squeezed into a 5- or 10-word sentence fragment as Dick rapped his fingers across the keyboard. Frustrating though those abbreviations might have been (and the ego of a cub reporter is most easily shaken), what was too easy to have missed was that Dick was doing what good could be done, even if it was little, rather than doing no good at all.

Morning radio moves at a frantic pace, and looking back upon it, I realize that Dick was getting as much good as he could squeeze into the razor-thin wedges of time he sometimes had. Better that the work of many of us could be heard -- even in stacatto, half-dozen-word bursts -- than that our stories not be told at all. This, really, was classic news-professional thinking. Dick knew that he had the audience for only a moment, and that it often was best just to grab them for just long enough to wedge an idea or a question into their heads so that they'd stick around for the full story later.

He carried this choice to doing what good can be done, even when it's only a little through to his weekend morning show, "Saturday Morning Live". Dick had the personality (and personability) to have carried his own morning show five days a week, but that wasn't his particular calling. But he did the good that was there to be done by showing up on Saturday mornings for his chance to host. Most people don't choose to go to the workplace six mornings a week -- much less six very early mornings every week. But Dick was there, always in good cheer and good humor, doing good for his audience of listeners.

It's neither right nor fair that Dick Layman is no longer with us to do that kind of good he did. But it is much to his credit that he did while he was among us. A little good, done over and over again, can amount to a lot of greatness.