Air Santa

Santa had died. That’s what the guy told me. “Ken, our Santa died last year. Would you come take his place?” The fellow at radio station WNNS was referring to a well-known older actor from the Springfield area who had become the voice of Santa Claus on the station’s annual Christmas call-in show. “You’ve got that Santa thing about you,” he said. Santa thing? “I’ll take the calls and you sit at the opposite microphone and talk to the kids when they call in to chat with Santa.” Sounded easy. Radio acting has a certain anonymity that I like. If you screw up no one will know it was you so I traveled to Springfield to play Santa of the airwaves a few years ago and have been doing so for the past several seasons.

There are actually four radio stations operating out of the same building and on a Saturday afternoon most of their programs are operated by digital robots, so it’s pretty much Chris and I in the station. Chris is one of those guys who’s been in radio his entire life and I swear he wakes up smiling and giggling. If he didn’t look so much like an elf then he should be playing Santa. The host of a morning show in the highly competitive Springfield market, the guy has caffeine in his veins.

So we sit down, adjust our microphones, he announces that Santa has just landed in Sherman and the phones begin to light up. Quite honestly, the real excitement is watching Chris push buttons summoning up commercials, cueing Christmas songs, nudging dials, putting callers on hold, and laughing his way through the whole thing. He should have been an air traffic controller.

The only really tough part of the Air Santa gig is trying to understand what a five-year-old is saying with his television playing in the background, a dog barking, and his mother whispering, “Speak up! Speak up!” Add to this the fact that most inhabitants of the planet now use cell phones, further garbling the words and making “Sky Viper v2400 Streaming Drone with FPV Headset” sound a whole lot like, “Skiper Vetwo Steaming Gnome with Efpy Headache.” It’s then Santa’s job to say, “Well, we’ll see what we can do about that.” I’ve learned not to promise what mom and day may not care to or be able to provide on Christmas morning.

But sometimes amid all the chitchat about Santa’s favorite type of cookie and whether or not little Jenny’s house has a chimney, things can get very real. Last week a little fellow name Anthony said, “Could you bring a new kidney for my daddy? He’s really sick.” I look at Chris. Chris looks at me and shrugs. There’s no bigger no-no in radio than dead air time, but I take a moment to gulp and tell Anthony that I really hope his daddy gets a kidney.

It’s both heartening and a bit sad that about every fifth young caller will ask for peace in the world. This is another request that causes Santa to pause and simply hope along with my young friend that such will someday be the case. It doesn’t escape my notice that these kids will be living in this world much longer than this Santa.

WNNS bills itself as “Springfield’s Christmas Station,” and they play nothing but Christmas music for weeks, so many in our area use it as background music in restaurants, stores, and taverns. Fortunately, it’s an afternoon show and the drinkers haven’t revved their engines too loudly yet, but occasionally Chris will field a call from a person who’s neither a child nor sober. We don’t have a time delay on our system so Chris has to be quick on the button lest Barroom Barney becomes Obscene Oscar. So far my broadcasting buddy has saved us from any embarrassment.

One especially poignant call comes to mind. Last year a young man called in. He was perhaps in his twenties judging by his voice. I know a bit about acting and I don’t think the guy was putting me on when he sighed and said, “I’m just feelin’ pretty down. I think I need some help.” I motioned to Chris to take the call offline after we’d chatted a bit, and Chris started to frantically search for counseling help in the Springfield area.

I took the gig because I’d be a Santa incognito, but yesterday I was speaking to the students of North Mac School in Greene County and when I finished I asked if there were any questions. A little rascal piped up immediately and said, “Hey! You’re Santa, aren’t you!” Curses. Tin-foiled again.

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