For decades, Fred Sauceman has worked to tell the stories of our region and our city.
In the past, Sauceman served as head of ETSU University Relations, from 1985 to 2012 — the longest tenure held in that position — years after he started his career in radio journalism at the age of 15.
Sauceman now works as associate professor of East Tennessee State University Appalachian Studies, news director for WETS-FM and a food and culture writer for Blue Ridge Magazine, Smoky Mountain Living, Johnson City Press and various other publications.
Though he describes himself as “partially retired,” Sauceman also stays busy as executive editor of ETSU Today, an alumni magazine for which he is a senior writer, and reads the names of every graduate at ETSU’s commencement ceremonies. He’s even published a number of books including, “The Proffitts of Ridgewood: An Appalachian Family's Life in Barbecue.”
Sauceman — a shy piano player and “foodie” — recently spoke with the Press to tell us more about himself, his years in press and experiences within the ETSU campus community.
Tell us about your beginnings in radio. What have been some of the most interesting changes you've witnessed over the years?
“I had listened to radio station WGRV in my hometown of Greeneville, Tennessee, all my life and had an interest in radio, and my mother, through a lady she worked with at what was then United Fund — now United Way — got me an audition. This was back during the Vietnam War era, and I read stories out of the newspaper as a part of that audition. There were Vietnamese words in there and names, and I pronounced them correctly, so I apparently got somebody’s attention at the radio station and got a job when I was 15 years old. I couldn’t even drive a car. My mother had to take me back and forth to work. My first permanent slots on that radio station were 6 to midnight on Saturday night and Sunday night. I had rock ’n roll shows, but the first thing I had to do before those rock ’n roll shows started was a local newscast, so I would come in in the middle of the afternoon — and this was before fax machines — I had to call all three of the funeral homes in Greeneville and have them read me the obituaries over the phone. I’d take those down in longhand and then type them up for the news.
“One of the great things about working in radio back then was the fact that you were so connected to your community. I couldn’t think of a better job for a teenager back then than working in small-town AM radio. We were so connected to Greeneville and Greene County. On Saturday mornings, we read every real estate transfer on the air. Long before the age of HIPPA, every day, we read every hospital admission and every hospital discharge. We read every new birth on the air. So it was radio that was intimately connected to the people around you.
“And as far as the business goes, how that’s changed, when I first started working in radio at the age of 15, editing audio meant, first of all, the use of reel-to-reel recorders and a razorblade. Now, of course, we do that all digitally.
What started you writing about food, and what do you think of today’s local food movement?
“I grew up in Greene County around people who talked about food all the time — farmers, gardeners, dairy farmers, people who ran beef cattle operations. My grandparents and parents talked constantly about what they were going to plant. It was always that never-ending cycle, so I grew up with an appreciation for people who were close to the land, who enjoyed the bounty of the land…
“In terms of the local food movement, the language you hear nowadays like ‘farm-to-table’ and ‘sustainability’ — those were things we’ve been doing in Appalachia for a long, long time, and it’s interesting to see those practices now become sort of trendy when they’ve existed in this part of the country for a long, long time.
What's it been like working on both sides of the media for so long?
“One of the reasons I could perform the public relations work well here at ETSU was the fact that I had worked in the media, I had worked in radio, I had worked in television, I understood how reporters think. I enjoy working with reporters. I love the newsroom environment, and I love the pressure of a newsroom, so I’m very proud of the relationships we were able to develop in that office with reporters in this market, and those relationships continue to this day. We understood each other and, even when we had to work on very difficult stories, they knew my boundaries, I knew their goals and it was a situation of mutual respect. I thrived on it.”
What have you learned through your work?
“I am very fortunate having been in this community for so long and having been affiliated with ETSU since 1976. That was the year I stepped onto this campus as a student. And I’ve come to gain a richer and deeper respect for this region and the people of this region as time has gone by. I have an unending curiosity about people. When I meet someone, I want to hear that person’s story.
“Every student who crosses that stage at ETSU has a story. It’s been interesting over the years to learn those stories and help promote those stories, which speak of the region. On commencement day, Dr. Noland always asks people who are the first in their families to graduate from college to stand up, and you would be amazed at the number of first-generation college students that we graduate here at ETSU. That’s one of the ways that our impact on this region and this community is so clear on those Saturday mornings and afternoons when those students stand up and everybody in the dome applauds. That shows the impact this place has had on the region, and I am so lucky to have been a part of it for so long. In partial retirement, it has continued to make a place for me. It’s just been a really special place, and I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else or working anywhere else.
“Some people my age have aspirations of moving to Florida. I would never move to Florida! I always want to be here. I always want to be in a place where I can enjoy all four seasons of the year, and in East Tennessee, sometimes they all occur in one day.”
How do you think local historians will view your career?
“I hope that people will remember the stories that I’ve been able to tell here on campus and in the regional media about people. In terms of food, people who have worked long and hard all their lives with very little recognition — running barbecue joints like the Ridgewood, for example — that’s hard work. Any restaurant job is hard work. It’s challenging work; it’s risky work. So many people around here do it and do it successfully, but they do it without calling a lot of attention to themselves. I’ve been fortunate enough, through the outlets I have access to, to be able to tell their stories and to honor them and the work they do.”