Local radio icon is turning off his microphone
Ken Sawyer – his name is synonymous with local radio.
And it may even transcend that.
For more than a generation, his voice has filled the local airwaves, calling play-by-play of sporting events, gabbing with people who ring him up on the phone to talk about politics or other news of the day, pitching public service announcements, and updating listeners on the weather.
This Friday, Sawyer will do his last broadcast for WRAK, the station he has called home for the past 25 years.
“He really is a community treasure,” said Tom Speicher, writer/video editor at Pennsylvania College of Technology.
“I think the absence of him from the airwaves will be tremendous.”
Working with Sawyer over the years on Little League Baseball broadcasts, Speicher has seen close up what the longtime radio icon is like. Speicher called him the smartest man he knows. He marveled at Sawyer’s ability to solve problems and perform multiple tasks.
“His stamina is tremendous,” he said.
Sawyer said he learned how to multi-task early on in his radio career.
How it began
It all started for the North Carolina native at a little station in Warrington, Va., he said, where he did everything – news, disc jockey work, even sales.
His initial foray into radio stayed with him.
But unfortunately, it didn’t last long.
“Uncle Sam was ready to draft me,” he said.
Sawyer ended up in the Army, serving in Vietnam.
When it was time to get out, he knew what he wanted to do – go back into radio.
At the end of his military service, he was in Fort Hood, Texas.
Just days after getting his release from the Army in 1970, he was working for WWPA radio in Williamsport.
He got to do a lot – including serving as a disc jockey and as talk show host.
He would stay at “The Twin” for 18 years until moving across town to WRAK.
But the foundation was set for a long, multi-faceted career on the local airwaves.
How does he define himself with respect to his long career?
“I consider myself a guy on the radio and what is appropriate at that time,” he said.
His talk show is heard locally each morning with listeners calling in to share their thoughts about anything from current events to happenings in their personal lives. Sawyer is always there to lend an ear and interact with the callers.
Over the years, he’s done sporting events from high school football to Little League World Series baseball broadcasts.
“People ask me my favorite sport,” he said. “I tell them whatever is in season.”
He has fond memories of the Little League World Series.
And he’s good with dates and key Series moments.
He can tell you about Lloyd McClendon’s five home-runs in 1971 for Gary, Ind., and Kirkland, Wash., pitcher Cody Webster’s stellar play in 1982 that ended a 31-game winning streak by Taiwanese teams, including five straight Series titles.
He’s seen how Series play changed from single-elimination to pool play.
“That’s good for the kids and the fans,” he said.
Over the years, he was teamed up for broadcasts with personalities that included Larry Straka, Gary Crisman, Mike Fogerty, Scott Lowery, Bill “Lefty” Byham.
The Little League memories have been tremendous, but Sawyer also noted some of the other highlights of his sports broadcasting days.
Voice of Millionaire sports
He recalled doing play by play for Lycoming College football for many years, including 1990 and 1997 when the Warriors made it to the Division III national championship game.
For a time he was teamed up with Byham to broadcast Eastern League games for Williamsport’s minor league baseball club.
Local sports have perhaps been his bread and butter.
For many years, Sawyer has been the voice of Williamsport Millionaire High School football and basketball.
Sawyer has done play by play for countless Millionaire basketball road games.
Often arriving in Williamsport late in the evening or later after an away game several hours away, he was always up for his early morning broadcast the following day.
Most days he’s out of bed at 4 a.m.
He likes to arrive at the station 45 minutes later in plenty of time for his 6 a.m. air shift.
Sawyer admitted he probably won’t miss the early mornings, the often long days.
As WRAK operations manager, he’s on call 24 hours.
“It gets tough, but I’ve been blessed with good health,” he said. “I’ve just been able to handle that.”
He’s looking forward to retirement, although he’s unsure how he’ll fill the days.
“I don’t have any hobbies,” he said. “(But) at this point in my life, I’m 65. I’ll soon be 66. I just need some time off.”
His wife, Merlyn, is also retiring from her job this year, so the timing is just right.
Over the years, he’s taken no extended vacations.
Somehow, he’s fit into his life his share of community service and charity work, and he may continue with some of that.
“We do know we are staying in the area,” he said. His three children and all his grandchildren are here.
Looking back, Sawyer said it’s been a great career, one that’s afforded him the chance to meet plenty of people and to use broadcasting to help serve the community. He’s rubbed shoulder with celebrities; he’s been to the White House a couple of times.
He feels blessed.
“I have been surrounded by talented people,” he said.
It’s those people who challenged him to become better. And he’s strived to improve.
He’s spent his share of time playing back his broadcasts and looking for on-air mistakes.
“People who do their job well will analyze themselves,” he explained.
He called himself “his own worst critic.”
“I would say that every community should have a Ken Sawyer,” said Barry Rake, a friend who has been involved with Sawyer in different community functions.
“He’s just a true gentleman,” Rake said. “He has not only done a tremendous job for the radio station but for the community. Everyone should be proud of what he has done.”
Williamsport Sun-Gazette Publisher Bernard A. Oravec stated: “I have had the pleasure of knowing and occasionally working with Ken for nearly five years. In that time he has proven to be a class act, a true broadcasting professional. You can hear his passion for our region every time he is on the air.
“I have always enjoyed my appearances as a guest on his morning talk show. His interactions with his listeners were always lively and entertaining.
“He truly understands the importance of listening to what his audience has to say, as opposed to talking over them.
“Every morning I listen to the The Ken Sawyer Show, both on the road and in the office. His on-air presence will be missed.”
Long a community volunteer
Sawyer has served as a Red Cross volunteer for more than 25 years and served as Lycoming County chairman from 1991 to 1993.
He has also served on the board of directors of North Central Sight Services, Lycoming County Brotherhood County USA, West Branch Sports Hall of Fame, and Junior Achievement.
He received the Douglas Dickey Award as Humanitarian of the Year in 2002.
His broadcasting talents also have been noted.
In 2004, Sawyer received the Pennsylvania Associated Press Broadcasters Association Roy Morgan Award for broadcast excellence.
More than once, the Pennsylvania Association of Broadcasters named his broadcasts the Best Sports Play by Play of the Year.
He was inducted into the West Branch Valley Chapter Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame and received the Ray Keyes Brotherhood Sports Award.
Sawyer, for his part, said he will surely miss the people.
“I’m not going to miss the alarm going off at 4 o’clock,” he laughed.
And for Ken Sawyer fans, he’s not really going away.
This year, he plans to broadcast yet another Little League World Series.