Larry Barnes speaks as if he is writing.
As the 96-year-old recounts memories of his life, his voice is steady and his sentences deliberate, each carefully crafted as though he is putting pen to paper rather than voice to thought.
It’s no wonder, then, that the Long Island native, who lives at American House in Keene, was a radio personality for more than 25 years. But for the bulk of that time, you wouldn’t have heard him on American airwaves — more likely in places like Kuwait or the United Arab Emirates, as he was a news announcer based in Saudi Arabia.
Barnes had his first foray into radio as a student at Syracuse University in upstate New York, where he did control operating and announcing for the campus station.
“Radio hooked me right from the beginning,” Barnes said last week, a few days before National Radio Day today. “It was just fun to do.”
Going on the air in Saudi Arabia, however, was pure happenstance. He recalls attending a party one night where he met a man who worked for the Arabian-American Oil Co., or Aramco for short. The conversation piqued Barnes’ interest, so he took down the company’s name and address.
He got in touch and was called in for an interview with the company’s chief engineer — and six weeks later, he was on the Arabian Peninsula.
He started working there in 1947 as an electrical engineer, a job that was set to last for two years but ultimately became a career of 30 with various posts to fill out his résumé. A few years after he settled in Dhahran, the company’s vice president began looking for someone to do an English-language news broadcast for Aramco radio. Barnes’ name came up because of his experience at Syracuse, so he made a demo tape.
And that’s how Barnes says he became the first regularly scheduled English-language voice on the radio in the Middle East.
His son, Gary, who is executive director of Keene-based MAPS Counseling Services, recalls hearing his father on the radio as a normal part of everyday life at that time.
“The music would stop, and then my dad’s voice would come on — ‘Here’s the news from the wires of the United Press International.’ And he’d start, and invariably, I’d get a little ribbing from my friends,” the younger Barnes said. “... But mostly, it was just something I was just very used to.”
Gary Barnes said his father worked hard to perfect his “radio voice,” paying special attention to the pronunciation of Middle Eastern names and terms. His dad frequently covered tense situations such as the Vietnam War, Gary Barnes noted, and it was important to him to maintain integrity in the face of censorship.
“I told them I would do the news, but the first time you put propaganda in this news show, you gotta get yourself a new boy. And I made that stick,” the elder Barnes said. “They never tried to propagandize it.”
A few years after returning to the United States in 1977, Barnes self-published a book, “Looking Back Over My Shoulder,” a collection of anecdotes and humorous observations about his time in Saudi Arabia. In its introduction, Barnes described the book as an “inside joke” for Aramco employees — but he says the Saudi Arabian government did not appear to be amused.
“This book incidentally was banned in Saudi Arabia,” Barnes quipped. “They take it at customs.”
Still, his mark on the country remains — the younger Barnes has heard his father called “the Walter Cronkite of Saudi Arabia,” and said he had strangers ask about him on a trip back to the area in 2009.
“As I grew older, it began to dawn on me just how much of an impact he had on that culture, and I felt more proud of him at that point because I realized what a difference he’d made,” Gary Barnes said.
After retiring to New Hampshire, Larry Barnes continued doing radio at local stations in Peterborough. When the two stations merged and relocated to Milford as WNHQ, he said, he began doing a talk show five days a week in which he interviewed prominent local people, including several former governors.
“I got to know, oh, everybody of any importance in the neighborhood — and a lot of people of no importance,” Barnes said.
Though that post ended after the station was taken over by another, Barnes still enjoys reminiscing about his days on the air and especially his days in Saudi Arabia.
He’s not overly nostalgic for the country, though — he prefers to live in the present.
“I had a good life [there], but it’s over. I had 30 years. And that was then — this is now,” he said. “I’m enjoying this here.”