A Strange Radio Adventure
Xmas On The Radio

A few years ago, when Joe McGinnis was making the rounds for Fatal Vision, I caught him on a late-nite TV interview. His book was about an Army Doctor, Jeffrey McDonald, who had been convicted of murdering his pregnant wife and their two young daughters. I learned enough from the interview to know that I didn't want to know any more about the story. I had two kids, including a daughter, and I just didn't want to read that book. The case was too terrible for me, though I read plenty of crime stories including non-fiction. The elements of Fatal Vision repelled rather than attracted me. I also avoided the TV movie of Fatal Vision.

I went to work at the radio station, KUT, on Christmas Eve 1985 at 7 pm. The guy I relieved, Jay Trachtenberg, said that a woman had phoned for me several times and would likely call back. Before I had signed the log or read the transmitter, she called. The woman told me that her boyfriend was in the Bastrop Federal Correctional Institution, near Austin. She said he always tuned in my program on his headphone radio about 11 or 11:30 pm when the guards made the prisoners go to bed. She said he had just found out that he would have to spend the rest of his life in prison. She wanted me to let him know over the radio that she was thinking about him on Christmas Eve. She also wanted me to play something especially for him, though she had no specific request. I asked her what kind of music he liked, and she mentioned Stevie Ray Vaughan. Then I asked her friend's name. She answered, "Dr. Jeffrey McDonald."

After talking with the woman, I regretted having avoided Fatal Vision, because I didn't have any opinion about McDonald's guilt or innocence. My programs come totally from my knowledge and research, and I select each piece of music carefully to fit into a thematic flow. I knew that I could lend some small measure of comfort to McDonald with a selection for him. However, if he were guilty of stabbing his wife and little girls to death, I didn't really want to comfort him. I had been on KUT for several years and had established a relationship with my listeners, so I didn't take the woman's request lightly. I agonized over what to play for him for the next four hours. Finally, I elected to play something instrumental so the lyric content would not be construed as a comment by me on whether or not he had committed the crime.

A little after 11:30 I played "Christmas In Prison" by John Prine to get his attention. Then I said, on the air, that a friend of Dr. Jeffrey McDonald had called and wanted him to know that she was thinking of him that evening. Then I played Stevie Ray Vaughan's "Lenny," which he had written for his wife. After "Lenny" I played "Christo Redemptor" by the Charlie Musselwhite Blues Band. After the show, the events of the evening swirled in my mind. I drove around for a while, and ended up going to an all-night supermarket to look for the book, Fatal Vision. I had to know the story about Jeffrey McDonald if he was one of my listeners. If he were innocent, I might be able to play some music that would help him feel better while he was listening to my show. If he were guilty, I wouldn't bother.

I found the book, bought it, and began to read it in the early morning hours of Christmas Day. My X and the kids were away for the holidays, so I had no family obligations. I read 'til past dawn. A fluke knocked the station off the air on Christmas Day, so I didn't have to do a show for a few days 'til some parts arrived and were installed. I read Fatal Vision most of my waking hours so I could finish it before I had to do another show. I concluded that McDonald was guilty, and I was quite repulsed by two things he did. First, the cold-blooded stabbing of the second child to cover his actions. Second, blaming the murders on a Manson-type group instilled a general fear that there might be more of these abberant-behavior groups on the loose. Innocent hippies in the area were hassled by the police as a result of his trying to shift the blame to random crazies. McDonald has never confessed and maintains his innocence.

After the station had been back on the air for a few days I decided to try to let McDonald know that I thought he was guilty. At about 11:30 pm I played "Christmas In Prison," hoping that the song would make him listen a little closer. Then I played "Lenny." If he were listening, I figured he was listening closely. Then I played "Mack The Knife." I ended the set with "Christo Redemptor." If he had been listening to my shows for any length of time, he had to know that I had played "Mack The Knife" specifically for him.

I never heard from McDonald, and a couple of months later I read in the paper that he had been transferred away from Bastrop to a California prison.

A lot of people think being on the radio is the high life, but incidents like this one do happen. Although I have had many radio related adventures, that Christmas week when I had to deal with the fact that a convicted mass murderer listened to my shows regularly ranks very high in my memory. I was relieved when he moved on, because I always felt a little weird between 11 and midnight when I thought he might be listening in.


Larry Monroe has been on the radio since he was 13.

This piece was written for the Austin Weekly, which no longer exists.

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