Update (Oct. 21, 2014): Luther Masingill, the world-renowned radio DJ in Chattanooga, Tennessee, who held the same job at the same station for 74 years, died early Monday morning after battling a short illness. He was 92.
The man simply known as Luther, who was on the air to tell listeners about both the Pearl Harbor bombing and the 9/11 terrorist attacks, was known for helping people find their lost pets. He also lived by a simple life philosophy that affected many. "Love…there’s the love for Jesus Christ, the love for your family, the love for your children, the love that you display to other people," he said, according to his obituary. "Yes, love, in one word, to describe life. If you’ve got it, if you receive it, you’ve got it made."
In November 2013, America Tonight profiled Luther and his amazing life. In remembrance of Luther, watch Adam May's report on the radio legend Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET/6 PT.
It is 4:30 in the morning and most of the world outside the WDEF radio studios in Chattanooga, Tenn., is sound asleep.
That’s the sound coming out of a room slightly larger than a cubicle connected to one of the main WDEF studios.
That’s the sound of Luther typing scripts on a Royal typewriter, while wearing a stylish black bowler hat and a matching blazer. Hardly anyone in town knows his last name. On his birth certificate, he’s Luther Masingill. But to the residents of Chattanooga, he’s just Luther.
He is the oldest broadcaster in the country and very likely, the world. There’s longevity and then there’s Luther, who has held the same morning time slot at the same station since 1941, a span of more than seven decades.
“He has set the standard for TV and radio in Chattanooga,” said Chattanooga resident Greg Archey, whose grandfather grew up listening to Luther. “He’s developed it. He’s the God.”
Forty-five minutes later, Luther makes the short walk to the main WDEF studio. He gets in position, putting his mouth close to a condenser microphone that was invented decades after Luther did this for the first time. He waits for the cue from James Howard, his co-host of 20 years.
Howard counts down. Luther straightens up – as much as his body will let him nowadays – and begins.
“Good morning, everybody...” Luther’s voice booms. Chattanooga is awake. “Lost…” Luther lets out a chuckle, “a Maltese poodle. Yeah, lost last Tuesday….white dog by the way. There’s a reward.”
He is 91 years old – or young – depending on whom you ask.
"I think Luther will probably die behind the microphone,” said Doris Ellis, a long time co-worker and friend at WDEF-TV. “I don't think he'll go quietly. It's something he loves. It's just something in his fiber. I think he'll do this to the very last breath he takes.”
An unexpected beginning
When WDEF was about to launch in the late 1930s, a fresh-faced 17-year-old Luther was working at a service station. The owner of the service station advised him to look into the radio station. As luck would have it, Joe Engel, the owner of the radio station, came into get gas. While Luther was wiping his windshield, he inquired about a job. Engel was intrigued after hearing Luther on the intercom at the station.
“[Engel] said, ‘You’ve got a pretty good voice. Are you interested in radio?’” Luther said. “And I said, ‘Well, I hadn’t thought much about it but yeah, I guess so.’”
When Luther got to the station for his audition, Engel and a station manager handed him a script for the audition. Luther initially refused because he wasn't interested in being on air. He wanted a job answering the phones.
Luther auditioned and Engel offered him an apprentice on-air job on the spot.
“I said, ‘I’ll take it,’” Luther said. “And that’s where I started.”
Luther didn’t even want to get into radio. He wanted to work on railroads. He describes radio as something he “fell into.”
“I didn’t get in it thinking I want to make a lifetime of this.” Luther said. “It was pleasant work, good pay, not too much at the beginning.”
WDEF first went on the air on New Year’s Eve of 1940. Luther’s first read was a 30-second Kay’s Jewelry commercial. He was making $15 a week. His career was quickly interrupted by World War II, where he was drafted into the Signal Corps, the branch responsible for disseminating information to troops. He typed messages on a Royal typewriter – the same model he still uses today to type scripts. By the time he headed off to war, a 1942 article in the Chattanooga Times Free Press described Luther as one of the top announcers in the South.
“He was with WDEF radio for two years,” Howard exclaimed, “and he was already known as one of the top announcers of the South.”
He returned from World War II and was given the morning time slot at WDEF. Luther’s influence in Chattanooga grew in the decades to follow. At times, it seemed that Luther was a conductor and Chattanooga his symphony.
Legendary Chattanooga radio DJ
In 1951, he “ran” for mayor during a particularly bland race, with an unconventional platform of “I’ll find your dog if you vote for me,” and price reductions for haircuts for balding men. He withdrew before the election, but not before making mayoral candidates uncomfortable that he was actually going to take their votes. In the 1970s, Luther’s advice to listeners to take some air out of their tires for better traction on snowy roads just about stopped traffic along McCallie Avenue, said David Carroll, one of Luther’s longtime friends. During the Carter Administration, he implied that there might be a gas shortage approaching, causing everyone to go get gas.
“They said, ‘Luther, don't do that again! That's aggravating!’” Luther recalled. “I said, ‘I'll try not to.’”
'Luther' means husband
But Luther is best known for lost pet announcements. Every day, his drawling voice will announce who is looking for their misplaced or runaway dog, cat, or, as in one case, llama. But the most interesting animal he found was the alligator.
“I found an alligator that had escaped from somebody, had brought it up here from Florida and it had escaped - just scared the daylights out of the neighbors, you know?” Luther said with a laugh. ”They did find it and corral it and send it back to Florida.”
He might be called the voice of Chattanooga, but there is one resident who hardly ever listens to Luther’s show – Mary Masingill, his wife. Ask Luther how long they have been married and he’ll take off his ring and show the inscription that reads, “4-27-1957.”
“We met in Church. I knew his mother way before I knew him,” Mary recalled. Luther jokes that his mother gave him good references.
Mary didn't know who Luther was at the time. She didn't know he was on the radio, and she didn't care. For Chattanooga lifers, “Luther” means radio. To Mary, “Luther” means husband. Two kids later and two grand kids, Mary and Luther are still in love.
“I wouldn't trade him for anything,” Mary said. Luther answered with a playful punch, “I wouldn't trade you for anything either, honey.”
The security of a voice
Inevitably, the questions of mortality dog Luther as he navigates his early 90s. This is something he has rarely struggled with until recently.
From 1947 to 2001, Carroll said Luther never called in sick.
“You put that up right there with Cal Ripken and people who are rewarded for their consistency and their reliability,” Carroll said. “Luther loves to work and he doesn’t like to call in sick, and he doesn’t like to take vacation. He loves to work.”
But eventually, Luther will not be a part of WDEF, where he’s been on the air in various roles since the 1950s. Luther said he doesn’t think about it much.
“We all got to face that sometime,” he said.
Recent health problems are forcing his co-workers to face the reality that he will not be around for too much longer. Luther suffered a stroke, among other illnesses, in the last couple years. James Howard, author of “My Life With Luther,” which looks at their relationship and Luther’s impact on Chattanooga tears up when thinking about the possibility of WDEF and Chattanooga without Luther.
“I don't like to think about life without Luther because the book's called ‘My Life with Luther,’” Howard said. “But I know that that day will come. And it will be a sad day.”
Doris Ellis, who has worked with Luther for 50 years, knows better than most what an institution Luther is to Chattanooga.
“You asked me to give you one word that would describe Luther,” Ellis wrote in an email. “After giving it some thought, the one word for Luther is ‘security.’ As long as we can turn on the radio or television in the morning and hear or see Luther, we feel secure. We know somehow everything is going to be alright that day. He provides us with that secure feeling we all need.”
For now, Luther looks healthy and feels healthy. He has four daily radio hits before 8:30 a.m., as well as a TV spot before 6 a.m. He then goes home to take a nap before a noon public address announcement segment on camera for WDEF television’s noon newscast. He is usually home by 1:30 p.m. and then naps till 4 or 5 in the afternoon.
This has been Luther’s life for decades. He is a creature of habit and Chattanooga has come to love him for that. Every Tuesday, he goes to lunch with the same group of friends going back decades. Whenever he is out, he is always getting cries from gawking bystanders, such as: “Luther! Luther! You don’t remember me, but you found my dog in the 80s!”
Luther's co-worker for 50 years
“Some of the people love you, Luther,” a friend remarked. Luther shrugged. “I guess so, I don’t know,” Luther said.
But he must. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have turned down lucrative offers he said he received elsewhere for a bigger market and a bigger salary. He could’ve been rich. He knows it, too. He fake clenches his fists, saying, “I could’ve been rich!” But for the oldest DJ in the U.S., things have turned out pretty well in Chattanooga.
“Just kidding, no, I’m OK,” he said.