Everyone in radio in this town either knew or knew of Sherri Sawyer. And those of us who knew her also knew that this day was probably close at hand.
She died Thursday morning after a battle with cancer that began in 1992.
For the eight years that I worked at WREC radio in the 1990s, she was my general manager.
By then, there weren’t a whole lot of radio news departments in the Memphis market. There were even fewer doing original reporting which is what I did a lot of. It was, for me, the entire point of being in radio.
To be brutally honest, the on air part – the craft of being an announcer — was something I probably wasn’t nearly as good at. But I could make it work as long as I was in the moment of conveying a story I had put together.
The only reason I’m getting into that is because I also wasn’t too good at explaining how and why I did what I did in radio. As a result, there were some missed opportunities which was probably the way things should have worked out. The upside is I usually worked with people who trusted me despite that.
Sherri was one of those people. She had my back even when she was under considerable pressure by the corporate home office to get the newscasts down to a minute or two of headlines and make the news product match what was happening at the several hundred other radio stations the company owned.
I had an hour of local news in afternoon drive time that packed as much detail and sound as I could get the other hours of the day that I was out and about.
I experimented. The stories were all whimsy at times. Unrelenting reality at other times. I did stories that didn’t match the demographics. I left in 1997 with nothing left that I wanted to try but hadn’t been allowed to try.
And none of it would have been possible without her support.
My first day there, I got handed the keys to a beat up mid to late 80s Chevy Cavalier with the call letters on the side and told to go where I wanted to go. I succeeded in putting a lot of miles on it and getting one of the doors caved in, which made it hard for anyone with a sense of humor and a camera to avoid taking pictures of a crumpled up door with the first four letters of wreck across it. Newscars tend to be like that. Radio stations have them painted up like something from NASCAR – these days shrink wrapped.
Somehow, Sherri worked a trade and one day told me my new newscar would be ready soon. I was expecting anything but a black Cadillac that became the next newscar. No call letters on the side. But I certainly didn’t have to worry about attracting attention. When that one’s time was up, I got another Caddy that was white and attracted even more attention.
She got a big kick out of it.
Radio is like that.
Leading a creative endeavor like a radio station or a newspaper is not easy. Sherri Sawyer made it look easy even when life made it more difficult than few of us can imagine to just get to work much less accomplish something.