Bernie Styles had been calling once in a while to ask if I was available as an extra. One week in 1967, having no radio assignments, I took him up on his offer and spent a couple of days portraying one of about 20 people in the audience catching a few acts on stage for The Night They Raided Minsky’s, a period movie about the early days of burlesque on the Lower East Side. The Phoenix Theatre on lower Second Avenue became Minsky’s stand-in.
We were assigned to sit in the theater for what was a montage of acts on stage. We brought changes of clothes so as we moved around in the seats we looked like different people at different shows while watching Elliott Gould, or Norman Wisdom and Britt Ekland up there on the stage. Two days work.
I also got a call in spring 1967 from Kathleen Ambrose who had several bookings in real theaters instead of hospitals like Bellevue. She was putting together a tour of nearby summer theaters in a staged reading of Paul Shyre’s adaptation of Sean O’Casey’s I Knock at the Door. She asked me to be the narrator as well as double and triple with Irish accents, at which I was very adept. I learned that, since last I’d seen her, her son Bobby had gotten married and had a child, so Bobby was not part of the cast. I did the tour and had a great time. But it meant turning down a couple of assignments at WQXR. Thus, the next time I went in, after quite some time, my name on the list had dropped from number six to eight.
Through Lester Bergman I learned of a production company called Titra which serviced foreign movie makers. They also provided dubbed sound tracks. I auditioned. They ran a short loop so as to have me watch how the mouths of two men moved in dialogue, telling me to match both with different voices while reading from a script in English. I certainly could do the voices but it didn’t feel like acting. More like booth announcing. Moreover, I wasn’t good at matching the words to the mouth movements on the screen. I wasn’t hired.
And I took a test to be a music monitor for ASCAP, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, the performance rights organization that protects musical copyrights by monitoring public performances, making sure that royalties are paid. The job entailed listening to tapes of broadcasts by background music services and radio stations where songs were not announced, such as WPAT, Paterson. The test was based on the assumption that I could recognize many songs and identify them by title and, doing so for eight hours a day, log the songs on sheets of paper while sitting in a small, confined room and wearing a headset. Most of what I heard first during the test was the kind of pop music I knew best, the kind I’d just been hearing on WHLI and that I’d programmed myself at WOND. But later that day, there were other kinds of music, rock, Country & Western, about which I knew nothing. I wasn’t hired.
Five Stations in Five Years
So, post-ABC, I was looking for whatever announcing I could find, enjoyable or not, again trying to land something substantial. It wasn’t long before I was filling in all over the local broadcast map: WQXR and WNCN again, WRVR, WPAT, and (the new) WBAI, sometimes going from one to the other on the same days. But nothing full-time.
As for WPAT, that meant driving under the Hudson once more, but to studios near a park in Clifton, NJ, rather than in the heart of Newark.
Having recently taken the ASCAP test I was already familiar with PAT’s format, having listened to it as part of the job requirement. Gaslight Revue was the major feature and a big success—a montage of mellow, instrumental pop music. Since the songs were never announced, the announcers’ duties consisted of putting together, reading, and recording newscasts using Associated Press wire copy. Sometimes we incorporated short reports by the three-person news staff, covering New Jersey and New York.
The newscasts were never broadcast live. We recorded them on cartridges used in an automated system. Each newscast had to be precisely four-minutes-and-thirty seconds per cartridge, sometimes meaning three or four re-takes. But with only one newscast per hour and few other duties, such as recording 60-second or 30-second commercials, the newscast re-takes were no problem.
The cartridges were in a series of giant racks in the control room, where an engineer was always on duty, monitoring the system. Periodically he’d play the time-check cartridges to make sure they were OK. “The time now is 2:47.” “It’s 2:48.” “2:49 is the time,” etc. A staff announcer job. The cartridges sliding in and out sequentially looked like a scene from Kubrick’s 2001 where the computer Hal is being deprogrammed. The movie, by the way, had just come out.
A few times I also was an on-the-street news reporter for PAT, calling in 45-second stories on pay phones from New York, reading my scribbled notes or even ad-libbing stories with ease. I was good at it.
As for QXR, Grobe gave me a few assignments as a night manager. The first night the posted relief list showed that my name was up to number seven. Well, maybe something might open up at the start of the New Year. WQXR would split some programming into AM and FM broadcasts; before they’d all been simulcast.
The FCC had ruled that, by January 1967, any owner of an AM station in a city with a population of more than 100,000 people could duplicate only half of its content on the FM side. The rationale: greater program diversity.
To meet that requirement, QXR had decided to feature less “serious” classical music on the AM side from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays with similar hours on weekends. FM devoted that time to longer and potentially more “serious” works. Simulcasts were in the evenings. That made a lot of sense; sponsored program features had always been in the evenings.
As it turned out, one of the guys who’d joined the relief list in my time away at ABC, Matt Thomas, was hired full-time to take up the extra load, and the rest of the assignments were worked out with changes in the staff contract.
WNCN’s staff was minuscule compared to QXR’s. Weekdays, Bernie Alan was there hosting the morning show, Bob Adams the afternoons, Lucien Ricard the evenings, and Bill Watson overnights. Weekends? I was there intermittently. That’s where I met WRVR Chief Announcer Max Cole, also filling in; he added me to his WRVR on-call list.
WRVR was fostered by and housed in The Riverside Church, on the upper West Side in Morningside Heights. There were some programs of its own, as well as newscasts and information from newly formed, non-profit Educational Radio Network, the forerunner of National Public Radio.
But most popular was the daily jazz show hosted by Ed Beach. Like my WOND show back in 1957 and ’58, his was also “Just Jazz.” I was never asked to fill in for him. Max Cole had a weekend jazz show and covered when necessary.
But whenever I saw Ed, he’d always say something like “Hey Man! How’s it going?” He seemed pretty hip with a jolly sort of laid-back presence on the air. In his broadcasts, though, he didn’t seem to say much about the musicians’ backgrounds, more often talking about who soloed in a “medium fast blues” or an “up-tempo swinger,” as he’d describe the tracks.
Out of interest and curiosity, I occasionally looked at the jazz library. A great collection, one I yearned to broadcast and never did. There I’d see Ed’s annotations on the LP jackets for every cut, e.g., “MFB” (medium fast blues) with the initials of the soloists in the order of appearance.
WRVR’s studios always felt luxurious, as if no expense had been spared. There was a large kitchen, too, with a big stove, a modern refrigerator, dishes, glasses, real utensils.
One on-air studio was enormous, magnificently carpeted, with a couple of large wooden desks and comfortable chairs. That’s where Max sometimes had me cover Sunday broadcasts, the biggest aspect of which was to read scripts for live broadcasts of the noon Service of Worship, usually led by Senior Minister, Reverend Dr. Robert James McCracken. Seated at a desk facing the engineer in the control room to run all the equipment, I had to watch the clock to make sure that my reading led cleanly to the 11 a.m. service, meanwhile reading the script, appropriately sedate but not somber, respectful but not dour.
Once a big crowd had gathered outside the Church, because anti-Vietnam War activist Father Daniel Berrigan conducted a service. I announced that, proudly, but without comment. By then I was becoming a minor part of the peace movement, especially due to my connections with WBAI.