Lesson learned from Indy 500 promotion: Bug off

The month of May triggered a memory. It is one of those things that is funny today but seemed a disaster when it happened.

Way back in the mid- through late-1970s, I worked at a radio station, WSMJ 99.5 FM, right here in Greenfield.

Back then my “air name” was Jay W. Riley. One or two of you might remember those days. Our studios were out there on U.S. 40 just a little east of Covance. It’s an oil change and lube shop now. Our studios were in the first lube bay on the left.

Over in the big city, WIBC owned Central Indiana during the month of May.

Everything they did on the air was tied to the Indianapolis 500. They ran an excellent promotion called “The Thirty Days of May.” Every day, their broadcast was tied to the race. They had interviews, contests and trivia. They did it up right and very professional.

That might have been Sid Collins’ last year of calling the race or Paul Page’s first. Whatever it was, I was caught up in their hype and very successful promotion.

I was the morning personality on WSMJ at the time. One day, I received a call from the promotions department of Kings Island, and they offered a fistful of tickets for us to give away on the air.

It was rare that we ever had anything to give away. We weren’t very well-funded, and all of the trade-outs with advertisers were used to keep the station on the air.

I was excited with the whole giveaway idea, so I dreamed up a spoof of WIBC’s race promotion.

I called it “The Thirty Days of June.” Original, huh?

As a kid, I had read Mark Twain’s short story, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” which was certainly part of my inspiration.

My idea was to hold this race late in June and split the tickets up among the first-, second- and third-place winners.

I got two 10-foot lengths of aluminum gutter and fashioned them into a two-lane June bug race track. The concept was to place June bugs in the lanes, and the contestants could do anything short of touching their bug to get it to the other end of the lane and thus win the heat.

I had envisioned a large turnout on race day.

I was disappointed.

Just one family showed up, with just one June bug, a sickly looking thing at that!

If it weren’t for the fact he/she tried to fly away, I might have thought it was dead.

With little else to do, I named the bug the winner and handed the stack of tickets over to the head of the family that showed up and suggested they take the whole neighborhood to Kings Island.

As they pulled out of the driveway, I kicked the gutters over to the side of the building and out of sight. Then I went in the studios and produced a short promo naming and congratulating the winners. We only ran the promo on Saturday and Sunday. I really wanted to put that behind me — way behind.

I left future promotions up to the sales department. It just wasn’t my thing.

A couple of weeks later I learned from a friend of mine with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources that it had been a particularly bad year for June bugs! The ones that did show up waited until August.

I learned three things from that event.

Never try to steal another station’s promotion, no matter how much you try to disguise it.

Don’t try to steal an idea from Mark Twain, either.

Never mind me. I’m just grumpy.

Tim Renshaw formerly taught broadcasting at Greenfield-Central High School. He lives in New Palestine and can be reached at this email address: tim_renshaw@msn.com.