Grisamore: The darling Starling of Middle Georgia

June 21, 2014 

There are plenty of things you should know about Laura Starling.

She once rode an elephant from Central City Park to the Macon Coliseum. She rode shotgun for a few laps with NASCAR drivers Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart at 195 mph around Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Once upon a time, she sat in the WDEN van for eight hours, hoisted 80 feet above the ground during a promotion for a car dealership in Warner Robins. She was not only on the air, she was in the air. And she sang on stage with Billy Ray Cyrus at the grand reopening of the Macon Mall in 1997.

You also should know she is an avid reader. Long before she got into broadcasting, she wanted to be a writer. (She was a charter member of the Telegraph’s Teen Board.) She loves cats and gardening, and has gone to church most of her life at Pitts Chapel United Methodist in Jones County. She can almost stick her entire fist in her mouth. (She has never tried it with her foot, but that has never been encouraged in the radio business.)

She has a sweet mama, too, who lives in the house next door. And she misses her daddy. She can’t listen to Conway Twitty sing “That’s My Job,” without crying, because it reminds her of the late Ed Starling.

Laura’s smooth voice has covered Middle Georgia like the dew for 31 years at WDEN, more than half of it in the 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. time slot. Folks wake up to the country music sounds of her early morning show with Vance Shepherd, and the two can make most of their audience smile before their first cup of coffee.

Most mornings are a sunrise service from the seventh floor of the American Federal Building on Mulberry Street in downtown Macon. She doesn’t have to shout to be heard, with WDEN’s giant 100,000-watt engine behind her, serving twang from Juliette to Dry Branch. On a clear day and an even clearer night, you can pick up the station’s signal from Atlanta to Tifton and as far west as Alabama.

Her job is her joy, her life’s calling. She can’t imagine doing anything else anywhere else.

“I have people come up to me all the time that I’ve never met, but they’ve been listening for years,” she said. “Sometimes they tell me I don’t look like I sound. I don’t know what they think I’m supposed to look like.”

Finding her life’s calling

Laura was born in Athens and lived in Greenville, South Carolina, before her family moved to Macon. She was told it never snowed in Macon. That first year was the Big Snow of February 1973, when a record 16.5 inches fell in two days. She attended Springdale Elementary in Macon before the Starlings moved to Jones County.

Her mother, Dee Starling, is a retired nurse. She described her daughter as “quiet and creative” as a child. Laura rarely listened to country music when she was young. The first concert she attended was The Carpenters. She had all their records. She would call WNEX disc jockey Terry Taylor every day and ask him to play “Rock the Boat” by the Hues Corporation.

“He obviously got sick of me calling,” Laura said. “One day he said, ‘Little girl, if you come down here, I will give you that dang record.’” She did, and she got a T-shirt, too. Years later, Taylor ended up working for her at WDEN.

In 1979, Laura graduated from Jones County High School, where she was voted “most likely to succeed.” She attended Andrew College in Cuthbert, then transferred to the University of Georgia to major in journalism. She left after only two quarters.

“Georgia was just so big,” she said. “There were 400 students at Andrew. I had that many in one journalism class at Georgia.”

Her short time in Athens changed her life, though. While working in the university’s public relations department, she was told about a part-time job at Athens radio station WRFC.

She was hired at WRFC by Gerry Marshall, who worked at the station, and later became one of her closest friends and colleagues. They were on the air together at WDEN from September 1990 to March 2004. She worked the graveyard shift at WRFC from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. She cut her radio teeth trying to emulate the wispy voice of “a chick out of Atlanta who worked at 96 Rock.”

Laura came back to Macon and earned her degree in English from Wesleyan. She was hired by WDEN in 1983 for the 7 p.m. to midnight shift. She also felt obliged to buy her first country record, “War Is Hell (On the Homefront, Too)” by T.G. Sheppard.

After Wesleyan, she took some education classes at Mercer University, thinking she might want to be teacher. She did some substitute teaching in Jones County until WDEN’s management moved her to the day shift. She then devoted herself full time to a career in broadcasting.

Her radio personality made her a local celebrity. Listeners loved her. They would call the request line just to talk to her.

A guy named David Hill used to bring her cheeseburgers when the station was located on First Street. Another time, while working on a sleepy Christmas Eve, she dozed off at the switch and woke up to find two Macon police officers at the front door to check on her. Her wee-hour listeners were concerned when all they could hear was 10 minutes of “sha-shh, sha-shh, sha-shh” at the end of the record.

‘Daddy was so proud of me’

I asked why she continued to go by her real name, since female broadcasters often use different on-air names to protect their identity. She said it was in honor of Ed Starling, who died in 1992.

“I kept my real name because my daddy was so proud of me,” she said. “He loved hearing me on the radio, and he loved telling people about his daughter at the radio station.”

Laura has brushed elbows with some of the biggest stars in country music. She forged a friendship with Kenny Chesney early in the popular singer’s career that has remained strong to this day.

She was there in the salad days of two of Middle Georgia’s biggest names, too. She laughs when she remembers a lady from nearby Monticello stopping by the station in 1991. She fussed at Laura and Gerry for not playing her daughter’s new record, “She’s in Love with the Boy.” The woman was the late Gwen Yearwood, and her daughter, Trisha, has now sold 12.5 million records, won three Grammy Awards and is married to Garth Brooks.

Laura knew Macon’s Jason Aldean when he was Jason Williams and played at the annual WDEN Chili Cook-Off & Music Festival at the Al Sihah Shrine Park. She followed his career to Nashville and laughs about the time she did a remote with him at a discount cigarette store on Shurling Drive in Macon. She invited listeners to come out and meet Jason.

“Nobody showed up,” she said. “It was just the two of us. Six months later, everybody wanted to meet Jason.” (Aldean is now one of the top acts in country music.)

Laura is 52 years old and counts her blessings every day. She is in her 10th year with the handsome Vance Shepherd. “Nobody would complain about having to go in every morning and be with somebody who looks like Luke Bryan,” she said, laughing.

Still, her favorite part of the job is client remotes and community events. She is asked to emcee charity events and has co-hosted benefits for the Alzheimer’s Association and The Children’s Hospital. Twenty years ago this summer, she helped organize a Flood Relief ‘94 concert at the Georgia National Fair, headlined by Yearwood and Chesney.

There also is the daily mission of letting folks know about what is going on in their communities. What may sound trite to some people is plenty important to others.

“They’re going to want to know about all the Independence Day celebrations coming up,” she said. “They will want to know if it’s free ... and if they can take their dog.”

Contact Gris at 744-4275 or egrisamore@macon.com.

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