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The last of the line

WTSA’s Tim Johnson earns recognition from the Legislature for more than 40 years on the radio

BRATTLEBORO—The last full-time news director on a commercial radio station in Vermont, Tim Johnson Arsenault — known on the air as Tim Johnson — has served the Brattleboro area for 40 years.

“Pardon me, I might get a bit misty here,” said Johnson during an interview at the WTSA radio station on Putney Road.

Johnson rarely speaks about himself as, he said, it makes him uncomfortable. He also describes himself as “thin-skinned.”

Colleagues, meanwhile, describe him as generous, compassionate, and sensitive to the needs of his community long after the microphone is turned off.

Johnson, a longtime music lover and newshound, started his career at WKVT, also based in Brattleboro, in 1973.

Stopping briefly in Springfield at WCFR during the 1980s, Johnson in 1997 took over the news director chair at WTSA from Larry Smith, and there listeners heard his upbeat voice serving up information on selectboard meetings, floods, fires, and interviews with community members.

The Vermont House honored Johnson with a resolution to mark his four decades on the radio. Brattleboro’s House delegation — Mollie Burke, Valerie Stuart, and Tristan Toleno — offered the resolution that Burke read during the Annual Brattleboro Representative Town Meeting on March 22.

What audiences expect

Johnson said that in his tenure the news audience has changed how it gathers information. Attention spans have shortened, we all consume far more media than we ever used to, and people have multiple places to find news — whether it’s through broadcast, print, or the Internet, he said.

Journalism, he said, is “a lot more of [an] around-the-clock job, if you let it be.” He added that he puts in the time because he wants to feel proud of the news he broadcasts. A short workday means arriving at the radio station at 4 a.m. and leaving 10 or 11 hours later.

WTSA Station Manager Steve Cormier said Johnson doesn’t “rip and read” news from a wire service, but rather “puts his feet to the street” in covering events and conducting interviews.

Cormier said that once, virtually every radio station had someone like Tim Johnson. Now he’s the only full-time news director left in commercial radio in Vermont.

Uniquely Brattleboro

In October 1973, Johnson, then a Brattleboro Union High School senior, landed a part-time job at WKVT, and since then he’s found that radio earned its reputation as a primary avenue for communicating local news in the Brattleboro area.

He explained that the area is unique in the world of news media. We lack a local commercial television station and, because of how media markets are divided in the United States, southern Vermont is considered part of the Boston market.

That leaves Windham County with few sources for true local broadcast news.

Johnson left the Brattleboro area in 1981 to take a job at WCFR in Springfield. During a disk jockey shift one Halloween, Johnson got wind of a candy tampering incident in town. He quickly wrote the incident up and broadcast the news item. This quick reaction marked his transition from music to news director, he said.

In the mid-1980s Dave Underhill of WKVT offered Johnson a job in Brattleboro.

During his career, Johnson has covered topics across the local news spectrum, from interviewing political candidates to reporting on court cases, Fourth of July parades, and natural disasters.

In his own modest way, Johnson said, “You do what is put in front of you.”

Johnson has jumped in and reported on events regardless of his scheduled working hours. The Brooks House fire in 2011 happened on his day off, but he was there.

Also on a day off, one day last August, he covered the press conference at Entergy headquarters on Old Ferry Road, sharing live with listeners the company’s announcement that it is planning to close its Vermont Yankee nuclear reactor this year.

“There are some things that are bigger than one person,” he said.

Johnson grew up in Vernon, where he still lives with his wife and family. His mother’s parents ran the Tyler Dairy Farm. Johnson grew up helping on the family farm and was a member of Future Farmers of America.

He recalls that his mother and her sisters joined the military during World War II; that his father was a member of the Streeter family, also from Vernon; and that his grandfather John Arsenault worked at the Vernon Dam.

Music was a big part of Johnson’s life from an early age. He particularly enjoyed playing Tony Bennett records and listening to his mother sing. His father favored country music.

Indeed, speaking in time to music, and working through a Dale Carnegie course, Johnson overcame what he called a pronounced stutter.

When it came time to decide what to do with his life, Johnson said he realized that “farming is boring as hell.”

The teenaged Johnson’s break into radio came when he and his father helped a friend, Gary Ferguson, move to a new house. Through conversations with Ferguson, then an account representative at WKVT, Johnson talked himself into a part-time job.

Straight information only, please

Johnson said he has modeled himself on the type of news director he would want to hear on the radio. People want straight information, he said, not pre-canned stories or rewrites.

Of journalists: “This is what we do; it’s about people,” Johnson said. And local news is very personal. A journalist will see the people he or she writes about at the post office and grocery store.

Johnson said he has witnessed many changes in the state he grew up in: the region is more of a melting pot. He traces the first changes to the late 1960s, carried by people in the counterculture who established communes in the area. Those folks, he said, now serve as community leaders and are at the heart of the arts community.

The region has also become more multicultural, he said. Here, “it’s about opening your mind and asking questions.”

He allowed that the region still has things to learn. He cited an interview with Shela Linton and Shanta L.E. Crowley over a recent event at the Root Social Justice Center called “From Ghetto to Granola: Shades of Reality Among Black Women in Vermont.”

The powerful interview reminded him of the necessity of putting himself in another’s shoes.

Paraphrasing the longtime journalist and radio and television host Larry King, Johnson said, “You never learn anything with your mouth open.”

Johnson says he himself has come a long way since his youth, when the community was rooted in farming — before the days of the nuclear plant:

“It’s a big world out there driving past your house.”

‘People rely on him...’

Cormier remarked that Johnson possesses “an unbelievable passion for what he does,” and that he has the respect of the community — from town officials to the person on the street. People rely on him and they have very high expectations of his work.

“He’s the Walter Cronkite of this area,“ said Cormier. “He knows the history of this area, and he’s got a memory that is unbelievable.”

“He’s so deserving,” said Larry Smith of Johnson’s honor.

Speaking by phone from his home in Florida on a recent 81-degree afternoon, Smith recalled the days before he became a spokesperson for Vermont Yankee (and later Entergy), when Smith worked at WTSA from 1967 until 1997.

Smith had hired Johnson to replace him as news director, saying, “I knew he’d be the perfect person” for the job.

The two met when Smith interviewed him during an agricultural class at Brattleboro Union High School. Smith recalls that despite Johnson’s stutter the young man was articulate, and that he told him that if radio was his passion than he could overcome the stutter.

And, Smith said, he and Johnson share the same philosophy — that local news centers on building relationships: “There’s no time limit on the job. He just put everything into it.”

When Smith started working at Vermont Yankee, he had a unique perspective of being interviewed by his former peer.

“We got along fine,” said Smith, adding that Johnson was tough but polite — and never invasive — during interviews.

Smith said he felt the community should know Johnson is a compassionate person who has helped a great many people.

The two friends worked together on Smith’s “Project Feed the Thousands,” the largest annual food drive in southeastern Vermont and southwestern New Hampshire, which helps thousands of local people in need.

In turn, Johnson said he knows Smith set the standard for quality news coverage on the radio, and that he experienced growing pains in trying to fill Smith’s shoes.

As journalists for WTSA and WKVT, Smith and Johnson were competitors in the small world of southern Vermont news, but the two built a friendship over the years covering thousands of events.

Johnson said he felt he had a choice: he and Smith could sit in uneasy silence while broadcasting the same event, or they could build a rapport.

Smith was an all-star in the news world, said Cormier, who said that Johnson feels that he still stands in Smith’s shadow.

But “I don’t agree with that at all,” Cormier said.

Memories of land mines and telling people’s stories

One of Johnson’s favorite memories is of interviewing musician Emmylou Harris when she received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from Marlboro College in 2001. The two spent much of the interview discussing land mines.

The hardest news topics for Johnson to cover are those involving harm to children. “It’s the inhumanity” and hurting those who can’t defend themselves that upsets him.

“It rips my heart out,” he said.

The zaniest event on Johnson’s calendar is covering the annual Strolling of the Heifers parade.

He reminds himself, however, that the parade is not just about floats, but also farmers — and how a community puts food on the table.

To young people entering the workforce, Johnson advises they not fear following their passion: “Realize it’ll take a lot of hard work for the doors to open, but also realize it means you’re ready when they do. Nothing is handed to us.”

When asked how he maintained his curiosity, patience, and compassion over four decades covering the same area of southern Vermont, Johnson answered that everybody has a story to tell; it’s up to journalists to tell them.

“Sometimes sea changes come two or three steps at a time over the course of years,” he explained.

The House resolution also recognized Johnson for his marathon broadcast when Tropical Storm Irene barreled through Vermont on Aug. 28, 2011 — “a crazy day,” said Johnson.

He’d attended meetings leading up to the event and decided on his own that he would stay on the air to provide information throughout the worst parts of the storm.

For many families left without power or telephone service, Johnson’s voice over their battery-powered radios was their only connection to the outside world that day.

Johnson remained on the air from the early hours of the morning to 8:30 that night. People stopped by the station with meals, he recalls.

He said he isn’t sure his parents understood what he did for a living, or what he put into it.

When his father died, Johnson realized that if he didn’t tell his father’s story then no one ever would. He sat down at his typewriter with a six pack of beer and wrote his father’s eulogy.

There’s a reason people have the skills and gifts they’re given, Johnson said. For him, that’s telling people’s stories.

Johnson said that his parents, like so many others, were good, kind people who would be left by history’s wayside were nobody to collect and share their experiences. And that means listening for truths beyond the historical record.

Community members need to understand that we share more common ground than most realize, he said.

And he’s concerned about the state of the world. In his view, society has grown more polarized, and humankind is destroying its own planet with environmental stressors that have led to global warming.

And with the first two factors on the rocks, he wondered, how can we feed ourselves or leave a peaceful planet for our children?

So he works to highlight the people and events that remind society it can be more.

A case in point: Brattleboro Fire Department Capt. Billy Johnson, who recently retired after more than 20 years on the job. The captain comes from a long line of Brattleboro firefighters, and Johnson felt people needed to know that.

News about people serving their community, or making the world a better place, honors “who we are as the human race,” said Johnson.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #248 (Wednesday, April 2, 2014). This story appeared on page A1.

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