Sometimes I listened to WQXR, which reminded me how much I’d been missing hearing classical music. But becoming part of that staff didn’t seem like reality, especially since my last connection to classical music radio seemed so far away in time and place. Plus, having been fired by WFLN hardly seemed like admirable experience or a source of a good reference.
Yes, that was only three years before, but time must have had different dimensions. Perhaps it was the intensity of so much happening in such a short period. And perhaps time was also measured by not having lived that many years.
Late one night, though, I tuned into another classical station I’d never heard or heard of. WNCN. Some guy with a nasal, squeaky voice was making minimal announcements about the music. No commentary. Surely I could do better than that.
The next day I called WNCN and asked to speak to the program director. There was none, I was told. Anyway, I let the receptionist know why I called. So she passed me along to the Chief Engineer Dave Passell. Right away I knew that voice. It was the same I’d heard on the air the night before. What? The chief engineer announcing? Quite a low-budget operation, it seemed.
After I told him that I’d hosted programs in Philadelphia, Atlantic City, and New Rochelle and that I knew something about classical music, he asked if I had an FCC Third Class Radio Operator’s license. Of course I did; it was required at every station where I’d worked. Like most announcers, the FCC required us to take tests to prove that we knew how to run broadcast equipment.
Satisfied that I met that first fundamental requirement, Dave invited me to come to the WNCN offices off Fifth Avenue on West 44th Street and take an audition, saying he might be able to use me.
Wow! What a break. I knew he’d be impressed with my sound and my talent. Once I arrived and told Dave again about my experience, somehow avoiding being too specific about WFLN, Dave handed me a WBCN program guide asking me to read some listings. No microphone. That was my audition. I did better than just read the listings; I ad-libbed introductions to the music. There was no indication that he was impressed. But he did say, in his dry way, that he thought I’d be OK.
And that there was an opening. But he also explained that there wouldn’t be much announcing, since WNCN was an affiliate of Boston-based Concert Network’s WBCN and that 12 hours every day of New York’s programs originated there, re-broadcast, delayed, on tapes. The other 12 were on different tapes. That is, I’d be more like an operator than announcer.
While most people think of radio networks as being based in New York, this one wasn’t. WNCN, WXCN Providence, and WHCN Hartford, were part of WBCN’s “bicycle network,” a term, I later learned, meaning the tapes came in the mail. It was applied to a few other similar operations. Dave didn’t call it that, of course; the term suggests something cheap. Which it was.
Basically Dave needed someone to run the tapes but who’d know enough about classical music to be able to handle emergencies, such as broken tapes, when it might be necessary to actually speak on the station. The Boston tapes aired from 12 noon to 12 midnight. The other 12 hours consisted of tapes that WNCN or WBCN had prepared. So Dave had produced a few tapes on his own. My job was to run those non-BCN tapes and take transmitter readings, standing by, midnight to 6 a.m., Tuesday through Saturday mornings, i.e., Monday through Friday night, since the hours of the day start in darkness.
The acting career was hardly flourishing. Getting paid for five six-hour nights meant an actual income, meaning that, if daytime acting work turned up I could do it, so long as the show didn’t run past 11:30 p.m.
Dave and I made an appointment to meet where he could show me the operation. It was not on West 44th Street. The tapes and WNCN-created announcements came from the same space as the one housing the transmitter. That was at a high-class location: Fifth Avenue near 61st Street on The Pierre hotel’s 40th floor. Sounds glamorous, doesn’t it?
A perfectly groomed, superbly uniformed elevator operator whooshed us as high up in the hotel as we could go where a grimy concrete stairway led to a massive, anonymous, thoroughly locked metal door.
Dave opened it.
This was not a Sesame cave filled with luxurious goods. A large concrete-floored, high-ceilinged room with one small open window perched above it, had all kinds of partially open, sometimes torn cardboard boxes, in which mysterious pieces of equipment and giant tubes stuck out in every direction. Massive metal shelves held more such arcane pieces. In the middle of the space, a worn-out, big, stuffed leather armchair sat next to an old desk covered with scattered papers.
Meanwhile I could hear Brahms’s Hungarian Dances coming from speakers behind a less imposing door. There Dave ushered me into a smaller space where a guy who looked about my age sat on a wheeled office chair next to a desk on which there was a small console, a turntable, a radio board with dials for pots, plus a small reel-to-reel player. No microphone.
Dave introduced me to Jeff Kuklin, the noon to six “announcer” who oversaw the broadcasting of half a day’s worth of Boston programs.
Behind Jeff, against one wall, sat four giant reel-to-reel tape machines, whose tapes were larger than any I’d seen before. A tape was running on #1. Against another wall stood racks and racks of blinking lights, dials, knobs, and buttons, similar to WFLN’s transmitter equipment.
“Uh,” Dave said, characteristically clearing his throat, “you have to take transmitter readings every hour. The logs are in there.” He pointed to the desk next to Jeff and reached over to open a drawer, Jeff pulling away. Another drawer held program logs plus a sheaf of papers, listing Tapes 101 to 150 with various amounts of check marks next to them.
Suddenly a sound like an enormous raspberry reverberated throughout the room. “What’s that?” I asked, astonished.
“That’s the air compressor. It keeps the transmitter from overheating,” Dave explained.
“How often does it go off?”
“Whenever it needs to.”
“But wouldn’t that interfere with the announcing?”
“Yes. But you’ll announce only when you have to.”
“And where’s the microphone?”
Dave pulled open another drawer and withdrew what looked like something out of airport scenes in 1940s movies, a flat microphone on a handle, a lollypop. “You just plug it in here,” he said, putting the jack into an opening above one of the pots. “You use it during an emergency and say, ‘One moment please.’”
Was he telling me even what to say? “But what if the compressor goes off while I’m talking?” I asked.
“Oh, this mike is not very sensitive. That’s why we use this model.”
“I see a turntable,” I said, “but where do you keep your LPs?”
He pointed to the wall next to the table. There were four LPs. André Kostelanetz: Strauss Waltzes was one. “But you’d only play them in a major emergency,” he said. “They’re pretty scratched.”
“Your commercials are there,” he went on, gesturing to the small tape-reel player on the desk. “They’re all recorded.” There must not have been many.
“Who records them?” I asked, hoping for a chance to actually speak on that station.
“Usually Roger does. He’s our sales manager, but sometimes Bob Ricci, one of our announcers, does a few.”
So, high up in a classy hotel overlooking Fifth Avenue and Central Park South, my job was to run tapes and take transmitter readings surrounded by all kinds of equipment in two concrete-floored rooms, one window high above each room to let in the night air. Or rain. Or snow.
Why were any of us operators called “announcers”? I didn’t ask. Anyway, I’d try it for a while.
My first night on the job, I learned that not all of those 150 non-WBCN tapes were playable. I’d open a box, curious to know what music was on the tape, hoping to select something I’d enjoy hearing, since I could play any one I chose, and discover a hand-written note saying “Defective.” Or I’d see a typed page or just a handwritten one naming the music, sometimes even the performers, but without any timings. Each tape could run three hours, and, somewhere between the music and the announcements, my job was to stop the tape, play a recorded station break on the small reel-to-reel player. “This is the Concert Network…This is WNCN, New York.” Maybe a commercial, but probably not.
I also soon learned that my predecessor had fallen asleep too often in the big leather armchair in the front room. Maybe he should have brought an alarm clock. I brought one and often selected the longest in-tact tapes, so I could sometimes nap for at least an hour. More than once a night. I never overslept.
As I mentioned above, I had joined AFTRA, the union for broadcast performers. This had no bearing on working for WNCN, where I was actually the first union member there. AFTRA members have never been required to work only for broadcast stations with AFTRA contracts. True, it’s always hoped that, when enough AFTRA members start working for a station, they can collectively unionize that station. But it’s up to them to vote in the union and thereby get the best salaries, working conditions, health care, and pensions.
Meanwhile, day-times, I kept going to auditions. After a while I also discovered that I was seeing the same would-be actors over and over again. We’d make fun of other actors and casting directors, just as Anton Spaeth and the actors at Players West had done. Except now I was on the inside of the acting scene, even without work.
Soon, some of us decided we ought to try to get acting lessons, just to keep in practice, even though we all believed we had talent and experience. We didn’t think we could afford to pay for courses at any of the acting schools, so, one of the guys, Arnie Weiner, was friendly with a director who’d had a few minor shows, Zeke Berlin. We asked Zeke whether, if we each paid him $10 per class, he would conduct a two-hour session once a week? He agreed, so long as he didn’t get a real job.
Arnie was the first of us to get a role on Broadway. Seven years later, he (as Arn Weiner) had a small part in a play starring Alfred Drake, Michael Stewart’s Those That Play the Clowns.
It was a backstage look at the acting company hired by Hamlet to stage the murder of his father. At that point Americans hadn’t seen and had barely heard of another backstage Hamlet story, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard. Americans had barely heard of Stoppard, actually.
Naturally, like other friends of Arnie’s, I went to the opening. While waiting outside after the curtain came down, as Arnie emerged from backstage, an older woman we didn’t know went up to him holding a book. It was The Talent Guide, in which all professional actors could pay for an insertion with names, photos, a list of our credits, and phone numbers.
The woman cornered Arnie.
“Hello, Mr. Weiner,” she said, “Congratulations! It’s your first Broadway, show, isn’t it?”
Arnie looked shocked. And delighted that she knew.
“Would you sign my copy of the book for me?” she asked.
Arnie signed it. And we learned that she always did this to actors making their Broadway debuts.
While that was unusual, the history of the production was not rare; it closed quickly. Bad reviews. Four performances only.
As far as I can tell from online research Arnie was in only one other Broadway show, The World of Sholom Aleichem, 16 years later. Wow! He hung in there. Evidently he also had off-Broadway roles in 1967 and 1976. One ran for five performances, the other for 12.
Once or twice Dave Passell asked me to cover daytime shifts when Jeff or someone else couldn’t make it. Then Dave would go up to the Hotel at night to work on the transmitter or do some other kind of tech thing.
That’s how I started hearing the Boston tapes. One of the program hosts was a guy with a deep, rich voice, Joe Marzano, who sounded like he knew what he was talking about. There was also nasal-voiced John Adams, the program director. And there was a woman! Women didn’t host radio programs in the 1950s, although the NBC network feature Monitor did have “Miss Monitor” give breathy (i.e., sexy) weather forecasts. This WBCN program host wasn’t doing sexy shtick. She had some sort of English accent and when she said her name it sounded as if she was mumbling: “Nrml Dnyr.” Later, when I met Marzano, he said that she was East Indian and named Nirmal Daniere.
When a long piece of music was airing on those days, the timing being clear on a cue-sheet, I sometimes strolled down one flight of stairs to a radio station that looked like a radio station, not a storage room and hobby shop for engineers. That was WBAI. With an attractive receptionist who spoke with an English accent…such accents for women receptionists were thought cool then…and well-lit offices, double-glass-windowed studios, air conditioning. A pot of fresh coffee on a hot plate. Sometimes I’d hear them featuring jazz. Or modern concert music. Or comedy records. Or plays. Well-dressed Les Davis and Sid Shepherd hosted such shows. I wished I could be there instead of upstairs running tapes.
Eventually, if fact, I would be on the air on WBAI, a few years after owner Louis Schweitzer donated it to Pacifica Radio. Les and Sid? Gone, of course. The old ownership/format change thing.