The Big Story: An Interview with Bill Gagnon

Screen capture of James Dean and Wendy Drew in The Big Story TV series episode Rex Newman
James Dean and Wendy Drew on The Big Story TV series in 1953

Some of the old radio shows were great, and some were only fair. Time plays funny tricks on our minds, however, and any show I actually recall listening to seems to come out in my mind as having been great. One such show was The Big Story.

The Big Story was likely one of those "fair" shows, and its Pall Mall cigarette commercials were probably more memorable than the show, but it is one of the shows that I remember and it is one of my favorites.

A popular radio personality, Ray Durkee of KHOW radio in Denver, currently has a show on Sunday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. called Sunday at the Memories. In his shows, Ray covers everything nostalgic, including records of the '40s and '50s, various old TV excerpts, bits from old movies and also sports-related items. Ray also includes a 30-minute old radio program, usually.

On Feb. 23, 1975, Ray ran "The Bill Gagnon Story," which was featured on The Big Story. At that time, he did a short telephone interview with Gardon. That interview follows verbatim:

Ray Durkee: During the golden days, the early days of radio when dramatizations in comedy and variety and that kind of thing were what we grew up with, there was a series called The Big Story. In The Big Story the whole idea of the show was to take various newspaper stories from people involved in the newspaper business around this country -- some of their stories -- and then dramatize them on radio. The fellow I'm going to talk with on the telephone, his name is Bill Gagnon, and Bill Gagnon has been involved in newspaper work I guess most of your life, haven't you, Bill?

Bill Gagnon: A good part of my adult life, Ray. I started back in about 1949 in Wichita, Kansas.

Durkee: And you've been a part of the Denver newspaper scene, working in the local newspapers. Right now Bill is associated with newspapers out of Pueblo, and in charge of the Denver office, right?

Gagnon: That's right. I work out of the State House, Ray, covering state government and federal government, and so forth. Matters of interest in Colorado.

Durkee: So when we talk about The Big Story, or your big story that was dramatized on radio, when did it happen?

Gagnon: Well, as best I can recall, it was about 1952, I believe, '51 or '52, somewhere in there.

Durkee: In Wichita?

Gagnon: Right.

Durkee: Okay, so that was really your first job as a newspaperman, wasn't it?

Gagnon: That's right. I was working for the old Wichita Beachon, which has since gone defunct and merged with the Wichita Eagle.

Durkee: That's pretty exciting considering it's your first job in the profession and you end up with a big story. Now briefly, can you tell us how the story went?

Gagnon: Well, it concerned a case in which a young woman's body was found in a duffel bag under the porch of her home, in East Wichita. What role I did have, I was quite disappointed in the way it did come out on The Big Story. In fact, in those days they would take the outline of a story and from what I could determine, apparently they threw it in the wastepaper basket and would write their own story.

Durkee: To make it palatable on the radio according to them.

Gagnon: Right. I was quite hot after I did hear it on the air and I wrote to them about it. Not to the advertisers themselves, but to an advertising agency that handled the account. And of course, they responded, and said that their job and the purpose of it was to glorify the reporter, so they took a little literary license there -- beefed it up the way they wanted it to sound.

Durkee: How did they change it?

Gagnon: Well, actually Ray, it's almost not recognizable -- the facts and the story. It's hard to separate fact from fiction there. It's mainly fiction. Later on, this radio series was bought by a television production company, and they put a series on the air in the early 1960s. Much to my amazement, I found out that I had a private secretary, a new car and the whole bit. This was back in the days when we made $50 a week.

Durkee: And you did a lot of hoofing, and you were lucky probably to even have a car.

Gagnon: Yes, as I recall I had an old Ford convertible with wooden doors, and the termites got to it. One door was half eaten away.

Durkee: Now in regard to the story as you covered it, how did they change it? The way the story comes out on the show is that it leaves the impression that he was a youngster who was involved in this, who kept bugging you and wanted to really find out what was going on, as far as the case. Is that what really happened?

Gagnon: No, that's not what happened.

Durkee: All right, what happened?

Gagnon: At the drugstore nearby the paper where we drank coffee frequently, I got some information from the girls working there who were related to the woman who was murdered. I did relay this information to the police. But actually as it came out on the air, gave very little credit to the police, and that was unfortunate because they did a tremendous job on this case. There was a detective by the name of Joe Kleppeth who broke the case, and I gave them this information. At the time Joe didn't think much of it, but the whole thing did gel together later on and did result in this young man being arrested. He was charged and later convicted, went to the penitentiary, and I understand he is a free man today.

Durkee: How long did he spend in the penitentiary? Do you know?

Gagnon: Something under, maybe about 10 years I would imagine.

Durkee: All right, did you have any contact at all with this fellow in question?

Gagnon: No.

Durkee: You never did?

Gagnon: I had no personal contact whatsoever, other than report and cover the story.

Durkee: That's amazing because the show makes it sound like he was bugging you. Well, I'm going to play the show, because that's amazing. In the show they leave the impression that here was a youngster that was really interested in newspaper work, and wanted to find out what was going on with this story, and he was constantly bugging you. But yet, you had no contact whatsoever with this fellow at all.

Gagnon: That's right.

Durkee: That's amazing. OK, I'm now going to play the show. Now people have heard from you how it really went, and your own true life, and we're going to see what radio did to it when they dramatized it, OK?

Gagnon: I'm sure they won't recognize a thing.

Ray Windix in Collector's Corner, October 1978

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