During that time, after I’d transferred to Temple University in Phildelphia, I learned that WFLN was looking for announcers and decided to audition. Yes, the WFLN, which I had often heard as a student at Swarthmore. After all, I knew something about classical music, knew fairly well how to pronounce a few languages or to sound as if I did. Moreover, I had a pleasant, resonant microphone-ready, normally required speaking voice.
At the studios in an up-scale suburb, I was given a script to look at and rehearse. I may have been a little nervous. After all, this could have meant being salaried by a professional radio station while actually still in college. Bigger and more significant than several months of Saturdays following Cousin Larry for a few hours at WNAR while still at Swarthmore. This wasn’t Norristown. It was Philadelphia. It would also mean earning much more than at previous summer jobs in restaurants and delis.
The script contained all sorts of foreign words and phrases, many of which I knew. Moreover, my training as an actor helped me understand how to read the whole thing as if it were not just a collection of verbal hurdles.
Clearly I had left an impression, because that same day I was asked if I knew anything about jazz. Of course I did. I didn’t explain why; I’d listened to Morrison Crowley hosting the WFLN jazz show when I was at Swarthmore. I answered “yes.”
Not long thereafter I got the call. A shift, Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., plus the one-hour Saturday Concert of American Jazz. Where had Crowley gone? Why? No idea. But I didn’t ask.
I was told, however, that two previously regular staff announcers would get their jobs back if they wanted them after serving in the Korean War. One was Mitchell Krauss, later of CBS News.
For $50 a week (about $460 in 2017) my responsibilities included doing my own programming, that is, choosing the recordings I wanted to broadcast, standard at most stations then. Program Director Mike O’Donnell, of course, had to approve the choices, although selecting the jazz records was entirely up to me.
In the filing system everything was easy to find. All the recordings were filed by label and by the label’s catalog number. To find them we only had to look in The Schwann Catalog, a monthly listing of all the records known to be available in the U.S. It was invaluable for record stores. And for WFLN, too.
I also had to do what announcers did at most stations during broadcasts: keep a log of every element, noting when each record started and ended, plus when each commercial was read and its length; run the turntables; operate the console (called a “board”) that controlled the volume of the signals from the turntables, tape machines, and microphone while on the air; watch the VU (volume unit) meter on the console to make sure that there was no over-modulation causing distortion; read commercials live; gather news from an Associated Press news printer in another room; edit and read the news on the air; and, every hour, write down on a transmitter log the readings of the dials displaying the power of various components to make sure that they were within the correct ranges, plus, of course, talk to listeners on the phone if they had questions about something we broadcast.
And, at WFLN, there was an added duty for anyone on the air at 12 noon, that is, to have finished the music and the talking at precisely noon so as to connect via the board with WQXR in New York for a New York Times 15-minute newscast. Eventually, by the way, I’d be the one of those newscasters.
Actually, hardly any of these procedures were new for me; I’d learned about most of them in my radio course at Temple.
I hosted Morning Concert from 10 a.m. to noon and Afternoon Concert from 12:15 p.m. (after The New York Times news) until 3 p.m. Then, an older guy who looked to be in his 50s, Gil Morris (a.k.a. Morris Goldberg, as mentioned above), would take over Afternoon Concert, and Evening Concert until sign-off, when the transmitter tubes were turned off to cool overnight. Dig those clever program names.
The early morning show, 6 a.m. to 10 a.m., was hosted by Mike Nichols, who, as I mentioned above, was actually born Michael Igorevitch Peschkowsky. I learned that many years later. Yes, the famous Mike Nichols, just a few years prior to national fame. His show was titled Morning Potpourri. And his music selections seemed very interesting. Songs from the Broadway production of Kurt Weill and Langston Hughes’s Street Scene, theatre monologues by Ruth Draper, music by Alec Wilder conducted by Frank Sinatra. Plus lots of Baroque music.
Mike, only a couple of years older than I, always acted as if he didn’t like me. Why would he? I probably seemed like a know-it-all college kid. He also knew that, waiting to take over the console, I was staring at his ca. 1950 toupée. Me, feeling superior because I had real hair. Me, feeling superior because I thought I knew better than to play all that repetitive baroque music. And all that theatre stuff. That wasn’t classical.
In time, though, I’d learn to love Street Scene and Ruth Draper. By then, no commercial classical music radio station wanting to keep listeners would dream of broadcasting singing or talking that extensively in the early morning.
Mike was fired not long after I arrived, even though his program was very popular. It had been his duty to warm up and get the transmitter tubes humming one half-hour before he could broadcast. But he came in late once too often.
I became the host of Morning Potpourri. Most radio programs began and ended with theme music, the same music every day. Sort of a signature. I chose a dance from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. Lively contemporary music, the kind of music people should notice rather than that Baroque stuff. I was more interested in the kinds of music that I rarely heard in concerts than in the usual Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, or Chopin. Nothing too modern, though. It took me years to get around to loving earlier music.
Meanwhile, I reveled in how many jazz LPs had already accumulated in the library. The mid-’50s, as it turned out, were great years for jazz recordings. By the early ’50s long-playing records, LPs, made it possible to re-issue and improve what previously had often sounded like scratchy 78s. An LP turned at 33 and 1/3revolutions per minute. 78s were at 78 rpms. 78s could at the most contain about five minutes per side. LPs could hold around 20. This meant that jazz musicians could stretch out their ideas to whatever length they wanted, as they had always done live when not compelled to think about doing their best under 78-rpm constraints. The mid-’50s saw the birth of jam session recordings, of audio visits to live concerts, as far back as Carnegie Hall concerts of the 1930s. And the brilliant informative liner notes were a godsend to someone like me, who, actually, had to learn about the artists to be able to share the information with listeners.
I began listening to jazz while the classical music was on the air, by listening on my headphones to a separate channel on the board. I had so much catching up to do. And it was such fun, listening to Bessie Smith’s urgent, sturdy blues, Jimmy Lunceford’s bouncy band, Benny Goodman at Carnegie Hall, Eddie Condon’s catchy groups, Buck Clayton’s jam sessions, Herbie Mann’s not-yet-folky flute, the incredible, fleeting fingers of pianist Mel Powell, jolly Erroll Garner, Charlie Parker’s pungencies, as well as performances by two much-admired artists I would later meet, interview, and hang out with, clarinetist Tony Scott and extraordinary cornetist Ruby Braff.
I pored over the information in Barry Ulanov’s History of Jazz in America so much so that the weekly, two-hour program, Concert of American Jazz, became as much a focus of my time and energy as all the rest of the hours combined, even though I didn’t like the title I’d inherited. There were many great recordings by artists from other countries, such as Django Reinhardt and a French pianist newly arrived in the U.S. to settle in Philadelphia, Bernard Peiffer, whom I interviewed. There were Swedish musicians, English musicians, Australian musicians, Cuban musicians.
Meanwhile, was my morning show programming as creative as Mike’s? Probably not. Did I do everything right? Probably. Was I ever late getting the station on the air? No.
One day Program Director Mike O’Donnell told me that a jazz guitarist, Johnny Smith, was in town to play at the Blue Note and asked if I’d like to interview him. Smith would come to the station. I quickly read about him to prepare for my first-ever interview. Perfect. He had the right background for talking on a classical music station. He had played Schoenberg and Gershwin with the New York Philharmonic.
WFLN had been getting letters and phone calls complaining about the jazz program even before I inherited it. The complainers hated the idea that their station, the only one in Philadelphia to present classical music, would not have classical music every minute of the broadcast day. I never found out if they had also resented Mike Nichols’ choices on his morning show; they probably did. Moreover, to some of them, jazz was like that noisy, intrusive pop music you could hear on other stations. FM to them meant Fine Music. And how could a growling trombone, bouncing boogie-woogie piano, a wailing trumpet, or Louis Armstrong’s gravelly voice possibly be considered fine?
But I was going to show them how wrong they were. An interview with Johnny Smith would do it. This gentle, well-spoken man, of course, explained how he loved classical music and went on to point out that the guitar was an instrument of choice as far back as the Renaissance.
Did that stop the complaints? Of course not. It never occurred to me that listeners who were against jazz wouldn’t be listening.
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.
Lacking the confidence to take a shot at New York City radio, given a none-too-prestigious removal from WNCN, and the eyelid blink of two weeks at WNRC, I started reading trade papers looking for openings near enough to not have to commute upstate or across the Hudson…although soon enough I was under that river.
WHLI, Hempstead, NY, needed someone to fill in during summer vacation time. It was a pop music station close in content to WOND, and that experience plus my style and voice got me the job.
Daytimes meant announcing, in a friendly way, the music that music director Roger Ferguson selected. He followed a standard format, a male vocalist, followed by a woman singer, followed by an instrumental, with some room allowed for vocal groups. Boring. Our comments were supposed to be just slightly more inventive than “This is….,” “That was…,” “We just heard…,” but nothing too personal. Friendly but bland. It was not one of my favorite roles.
WHLI’s major value to the community was its full-time news staff. There were newscasts every hour where the news guys wrote and read their stuff, taking material from AP and United Press for national and international stories while also adding some local stories. Re-writes from local newspapers or their own actual reporting. Stan Bernard, who went on to a more significant job at WINS (“You give us 22 minutes, we’ll give you the world.”), was on the news staff. Bearded like me, some people asked if we were brothers. Beards were still a subject of interest.
Much of the time the news guys and the d.j.s would hang out together telling jokes or making fun of the management. It seemed as if no one thought he was doing anything special but was just a cog in a machine.
I started looking for something better.
Within a few weeks I had started relief-announcing at WJRZ, Newark, and WQXR, New York, plus, astonishingly, WNCN again.
By the time I started on this aural merry-go-round my résumé mirrored the new activity, crammed with other credits: seven stations in 12 years: WNAR, WFLN, WHAT, WOND, WNRC, WNCN, WHLI. It certainly looks rootless, doesn’t it? You’d think it would look as if I couldn’t keep a job—an accurate perception for people outside broadcasting. Not without some truth, either. I’d been fired at three stations and quit four others. But people inside the business tend to believe that announcers who keep moving have something to offer. Otherwise, how would they keep getting work? And, when starting the 1965 search for something more interesting and better-paying than WHLI, not having left was a position of strength. I had a job already. You might think that managements would have inquired how and why I was no longer at those previous stations but they didn’t. Maybe because, except for WHLI, at least five years had passed and, as always, staff longevity being so rare, my moving on may have seemed normal.
The New WNCN
WNCN had new owners. In mid 1964 the station had been acquired by the National Science Network owned by L.W. Frohlich Advertising Agency, which dealt mostly in pharmaceuticals.
According to Bernie Alan, whom I knew from our college days at Temple and who was on the announcing staff at NCN before I re-joined, the Network also bought and operated WDHF in Chicago, KPPC in Pasadena, and KMPX in San Francisco.
The “Science,” no doubt, was so named due to Frohlich’s agency accounts. There was also something else. In addition to WNCN, the transmitter signal was used on a sub-channel* to broadcast pop background music to subscribers, who were, evidently, all doctors who used the service in their offices. I never heard how the service sounded. In addition, according to Bernie, there were weekly five-minute broadcasts of news scripts about medicine and developments in the medical world; he wrote and broadcast some himself. Once, he said, WNCN even covered a medical convention in Chicago, the broadcast sponsored by drug companies whose commercials were included.
*A sub-channel uses the same signal as the regular station does, but the programs are transmitted separately by a complex process I don’t fully understand. TV and radio stations still use the concept today, sending out more than one signal available with special equipment and/or by subscription.
WNCN’s new studios were on West 45th Street just off Fifth Avenue above a wonderful-smelling Chinese restaurant. Compared to the Concert Network’s East 47th Street station, this company knew something about how a good radio station should look. There were beautiful modern studios and state-of-the-art equipment. No weak particle board walls there. You could see through the gleaming glass windows that the new owners were taking classical music seriously; concert harpsichordist Albert Fuller was the music director. Maurice Essam was his assistant.
Jolly WNCN Program Director Ed Shaughnessy took a liking to my sound and my knowledge and immediately put me on call after we’d met. When he asked about why I’d left the old NCN, I’d explained that I’d wanted to try an acting career. And re: FLN, I could tell the truth: Mitchell Krauss took his job back.
No further questions were asked.
Bill Watson must have known the actual reason why I left the previous NCN. But I guess he and Ed didn’t discuss it. Or maybe Bill didn’t care about the why and how of my departure. He may have even admired my forcefulness in breaking down a studio wall; he was a rebel in his own way. Or maybe he was grateful that he’d gone on to fame, due to me.
Yes. Fame. He had become the star of the night, propelling the station forward into public consciousness. Compared to him, everyone else on WNCN was a daytime shadow. Oh sure, the daily NCN programming was a major contrast to the more conservative content of WQXR, but QXR was the big classical blast in town. NCN was still underrated and not taken seriously.
Watson had always been allowed free rein in his programming. And his personal choices were astonishing, appealing to a hell of a lot of people, at a time when there was no competition either; QXR was off the air overnight. As far as I ever learned, Bill cherished a rather narrow period of classical music; but it was a great period, starting around 1700 and going not much further than 1830. But look at which composers flourished then: J.S. Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, to name the most famous.
Once in a while, as an on-call announcer, I filled in for Bill. Odd, isn’t it? He’d filled in for me back in 1960. But sitting in in his stead, I did not have the chance to program music of my choice; not that I would have reverted to what I’d been featuring during my 20 months at NCN overnight. I didn’t see that as an opportunity to do my own thing (to use a then-current hippie phrase). Instead, Albert or his assistant Maurice Essam gave me stacks of LPs from which to chose music evidently similar to what Bill featured.
That was when I first came to admire the music of the composers I named above; I’d always gravitated to something more modern or romantic and paid scant attention to what others had long taken as masterworks. String quartets, especially. I hadn’t realized how beautiful they were. This time I was actually listening rather than having them for soothing background, such as when I was a babysat little kid while my father joined friends to play such music at, say, Wilfred Skeets’s elegant house on a quiet street in Lansdowne, PA.
I never actually heard more than a few minutes of Bill’s program, Listening with Watson; most of the time I was in bed in one of three different apartments I sequentially inhabited during those years, mid-1965 to early 1971, during which my contact with him and the station ebbed and flowed. And, whenever I arrived at the station to host a morning show, I barely listened because I was preparing newscasts. I heard, but didn’t listen.
In a rich, sonorous voice, a voice Bill knew he had and in which he reveled, he always began his program by quoting a phrase from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice: “Here will we sit and let the sounds of music/Creep in our ears: soft stillness and the night/Become the touches of sweet harmony.”
His on-air persona flourished, captivating many people. He loved the music and was never shy about expressing his opinions, referring to the beauty, the magnificence, and the glory of the works he presented—a rarity at the time when most announcers offered no opinions.
He further cemented his reputation by airing long works, really long works, in their entirety, never interrupting them with talk. Moreover, he’d sometimes repeat the same music immediately after it ended, saying something like, “Wasn’t that great? Let’s listen to it again.” And present it once more, complete.
He could do that because he was not required to read newscasts in his seven-hour broadcasts, and, despite his ever-growing celebrity, the sales department had not been able to cash in and load his schedule with commercials.
In fact, Bill was known for making fun of the commercials he did have, commenting on their poor grammar, or bad punctuation. However, so far as I know, he never insulted the clients nor denigrated their products. He also did something Jean Shepherd had been doing, bunching several commercials together back to back, just to have the onerous task finished. This was nothing like some of today’s broadcasting with deliberate clusters.
Bill wasn’t likely to have more than five commercials a night, consistent with how little advertising was on WNCN at any time in those years. The station was always in the red, as if it were a Frohlich vanity operation. 1981 was the first profitable year, under a different owner.
Once Bill actually created a major traffic jam during the day around the corner on West 44th Street. A new sponsor bought time on WNCN. (An odd phrase, come to think of it. How can you buy time?) Livingston’s Leaf and Bean was a small shop selling a vast variety of freshly roasted coffee beans, stored in barrels, along with smaller barrels of fresh pipe tobacco of many blends. Livingston’s also sold pipes, pipe paraphernalia, and various kinds of coffee pots. To introduce the store they got Bill to tell his listeners that anyone who heard him was invited to stop by the shop the next morning to get a free ½ pound of coffee just by mentioning his name. When the shop unlocked its doors at 9 a.m. a mob stretched in every direction all the way from Sixth Avenue to Fifth. This event confirmed Bill’s power.
Bill also had powerful opinions which were not limited to what he thought about the music. In his broadcasts he freely shared his ideas about politics and social issues. Listeners who agreed with him called and wrote to him praising his perception.
But there was the other kind of response—people who developed serious hatred for what he said and stood for. They hated him, as if whoever he was on the radio was him, rather than some part of him, the performing part. There’s that Steve Allison kind of thing I mentioned above when writing about my Philadelphia broadcasting days.
Bill had a ready temper, lashing out at those of the public who couldn’t deal with his seeming self-admiration and his comments. They seethed with anger, telephoning him, as if he were some kind of dictator ruling the night with an iron baton instead of just a guy who hosted a radio program.
You could ask why he would even pick up the phone, since, during long stretches of music, you’d think Watson would be Listening With Watson, but being all alone in the studio overnight must have generated a feeling of isolation and a need for contact with living humans instead of only admiring the creations of people long dead and gone. Not that I had that feeling myself in my 20 months preceding him. But by the time I started to work for the new NCN, he’d been hosting programs for five years at those hours. The long-term effects could be different.
While he spoke to listeners, Bill could never look into anyone’s eyes during those 35 hours a week. His own had to be focused on the constant bounce of VU meters. And there were the glaring lights overhead, so glaring, in fact, that he’d turn off as many as he could sitting there with only enough illumination to read by, glowing in semi-darkness, as if a halo sat above his head.
He must have reveled in the stimulation of getting back at those angry people out there in the vast darkness, reaching out even into all those little, less important suburbs and towns clinging to New York. He’d excoriate his unseen enemies, those who failed to admire his impressive musical knowledge and the magnificent music he chose for people with the right degree of discernment. On the air he’d speak to the gadflies by name, defeating their arguments by making statements that brooked no discussion; he controlled the microphone and no one else’s voice could be heard.
During the time Bill and I both worked at NCN, he’d sometimes talk to me while his music was playing, or after I had started the next program, when he’d rave about lapsang souchong tea and how well it went with honey. He’d also tell me about some of the “beautiful” women who admired him and whom he had met, women no doubt overwhelmed by being close to such magnificence, not that married Bill ever claimed he was a great lover, nor did he discuss what went down (so to speak) with any of the women. Evidently such admirers sometimes visited him at the studios. I met one one morning. I didn’t find her beautiful. But then, there’s that eye of the beholder thing. And maybe the lady found in-person-Bill attractive. He certainly was decent looking, with a sturdy Roman nose and distinguished grey temples, despite being nearly bald. He also looked solidly muscular, as if his past life in the U.S. Navy had taught him how to stay fit.
In time he would call me “a friend” because we got along well together whenever we saw each other. But we never socialized outside the station.
I liked him.
In those early days of my return to NCN, looking for whatever work I could find, Bernie told me about a side job he had in our mutual home town of Philadelphia. As “Bob Weston” he was providing pre-recorded voice tracks for WDVR, whose format was “beautiful music.” That’s a concept a bit like WOND’s “Wonderful Music,” being a total avoidance of rock, Country & Western, jazz, etc. In the New York market WPAT, Paterson, NJ, was doing very well with that idea then. Fundamentally the content was attractive but unobtrusive instrumental versions of pop music standards with few vocals, ideal for background music. Often the selections were not announced. So Bernie’s tracks mostly consisted of station breaks and a few commercials.
He put me in touch with the management at WDVR, telling me that this would be no major source of income; in fact, he was getting $1 per spot (equal to $7.25 in 2012), which meant mostly for commercials; the other tracks had long-lasting lives of their own.
WDVR liked my demo tape, recorded, of course, at WNCN late at night when no one else was there but Bill. I got a slot. As “Gordon Todd” (i.e., sounding a bit like “Gordon Kahn”) my voice tracks hosted Saturday and Sunday morning shows, which didn’t require the usual stuff of weekday mornings, like weather forecasts and time checks. Vene’s Philadelphia family was thrilled (“We listen to you all the time!”).
I stayed on the air there for about 10 months until I no longer was able to record the tracks or use the WNCN studios. I was working for ABC. That big opportunity followed some good times at WQXR and a bad time at WJRZ, Newark, NJ.
Crossing In The Dark Under the Hudson.
My WHLI and WOND experiences got me some work at WJRZ. By then Les Davis was one of their stars, the third time we’d cross paths, although we barely saw each other and rarely said more than “Hello.”
Eventually Les would show up on WRVR, too, hosting jazz. And he always had name recognition and fame while I was a fringe-faced guy on the fringe.
I had only few stints on WJRZ, a place where the receptionist always answered calls by saying “WJRZ, good radio!” I always replied “And good radio to you, too.”
I wasn’t there long. In July 1965, after what turned out to be my last overnight shift, I went out to the street to get my car to drive back home. The car was gone. I couldn’t believe someone had stolen it. An old Chevy with a multi-colored body. Who would bother?
Walking around the corner to the police headquarters right off Green Street, I reported the crime. Right. My car had been stolen a few doors away from police headquarters.
The police were used to having to deal with car theft. A couple of officers said that somebody had probably taken for it for “a joy ride” and that they’d look into it and get back to me. Then they gave me a lift to a PATH train from which I could get a subway connection home.
A couple of days later they called. They’d found the car. They told me I could pick it up at the Newark storage lot.
Subway to train to taxi to the storage lot. It was in a rundown neighborhood of cracked streets and scruffy buildings. A few intact cars in the front didn’t belie what lay beyond—a grimy, disordered jumble of dented, broken vehicles, strewn around as if dropped wherever there was space.
While I waited for the boss—call him Mike—I noticed the front office had a hand-written sign on which was scrawled, “Anyone showing up late doesn’t work here anymore.”
Grubby-looking, stomach-spilling, shave-needing, sloppily dressed Mike led me to my car. It looked intact. I was relieved. I half-expected to see a dented ruin. There was no key in it, but I had a spare. I put it into the ignition, saying to my beloved car, “Come on. I’ll take you home.”
No motor turned over. Silence. Except for cawing crows flying around the lot. I opened the hood. The battery was gone. So was the radiator. So were other parts. I turned to Mike. “What happened to all the parts?”
“How the fuck would I know?” he snarled.
I felt miserable. His unsympathetic response made it worse. “Can you help me get this towed back to Brooklyn?” I asked. Then he gave me a price which took my breath away, especially when added to what he said I owed for two days of storage.
“But it was stolen,” I said in painful disbelief. “Why do I have to pay for storage? I didn’t authorize you to store it. The police brought it here. I didn’t.”
“That’s not my problem, pal. You want it back? Pay me what you owe for storage, and I’ll see what I can do about giving you a break on a tow. I mean it’s a hell of a long way to Brooklyn.”
I stood there in continuing shock. Did it even make sense to tow home what was left of that beloved car with half the motor gone, its value plummeting into near-junk? I stammered, “But that’s…that’s not fair. Somebody stole it and…”
“You said that already, buddy.”
“Yes. And said that I didn’t ask you to store it. And why is it missing so many parts?”
Mike was getting angry. “Look, pal. I didn’t steal it. It’s not my fault.”
“But why is it missing so many parts?”
“Hold on. Are you saying I took the parts?”
“No. No. I’m just having trouble understanding this whole thing.”
“Yeah. Well, I’m getting tired of this bullshit. What do you want to do with this piece of junk? I haven’t got all day.”
“I need to call my insurance company and have them come over here and take a look at it.”
“And what am I supposed to do in the meantime? Wait until that fucking agent arrives? Look, pay me for a week’s worth of storage now.”
“But it hasn’t been here a week.”
“God damn it! Now I’m getting pissed off. You don’t want to pay me? Then get the hell off my lot before I beat the shit out of you.”
I walked away, leaving behind the ruins of my beloved car, feeling almost as broken as it was.
The next time WJRZ called, I had to turn down the work. No car. But also I wasn’t sure I’d even want to be in that part of Newark again.
By 1967, though, I was able to afford a new Volkswagen Beetle, which is how eventually I got to WPAT. More about that later.
That same summer I worked up my courage to audition for WQXR. From the magnificent, world-renowned, steel-encrusted tower on West 43rd Street known as The New York Times, that beacon of classical music radio radiated throughout New York and hundreds of other nearby towns and cities. How could I presume?
I had been too timid before to audition, only dreaming of such glory while at WFLN and WNCN, never believing that anyone there would take me seriously, especially while sitting at a make-shift control board in a dim and dreary hallway atop the hotel Pierre.
But my easy acceptance back into the fold of the new WNCN and getting on the air at WJRZ convinced me I could walk into such storied halls and look and sound as if I knew what I was doing.
QXR was owned and operated by The New York Times, a sturdy, profitable underpinning. The station’s program sponsorships and spot announcements also earned good money. Being on QXR was about as prestigious as you could get in classical music radio. Many of the nine full-time announcers had become enduring New York legends, most having been there for years and years. There was perky George Edwards (born George Steinhardt), the host of the morning show Bright and Early, 25 years older than I when I was added to the standby announcers list.
Then there was elegant and distinguished Peter Allen (born Harold Levey), 13 years my senior.
I thought that maybe I could get occasional fill-in work, just as at WNCN and WJRZ, except with such a large staff of WQXR announcers, it looked as if there’d be plenty of chances. After all, across the country there weren’t that many of us specialists in knowledgeably announcing classical music, given the need for us to sound as if we knew what we were talking about and could breeze through foreign names and pronunciations with fluency and expertise.
The audition script looked like the same copy from 11 years before at WFLN. It probably was the same. A snap.
Chief Announcer Al Grobe (30 years older than I) told me that I sounded just right and he would put me on the standby list. That felt good! The list was posted on a wall in the announcers’ lounge, a small, comfortable, lamp-lit room with an easy chair and sofa, across the hall from two of the four on-air studios. Grobe also introduced me to one of the announcers on duty, soft-spoken, elderly-looking Chester Santon (age 50.) Another was on the air.
Two announcers on duty at the same time! Grobe was a third. This was one of many things that made it clear that WQXR was a major operation. In fact, its operation was bigger and more complex and thoroughly organized than any radio station I had ever seen or would ever see in the future.
It was also immediately clear that there would be plenty of chances to fill in with so many men* needed every day.
The standby list had eight names. I became number nine. It didn’t look all that hopeful, especially once I learned that Bob Lewis, whose name was at the top, unshakably was always called first.
But I did get called. And, after a few successful stints on the air, my name rapidly moved up the list and hovered near the top through March 1966. Later, my name went up and down the list for another five years. And, after returning from living in Europe, that same variable pattern repeated during 1976.
*There were no women announcers there or anywhere else until the next year, 1966, when WNEW-FM featured four of them as a novelty in a pop music format.
When I started at WQXR, genial Mel Elliott, another announcer, said that Grobe must have liked my work but that the list always kept changing. Substitute announcers who were readily available when Grobe called them got higher placement than those who turned down work or weren’t available. In one way that made sense; Grobe wanted to use those people on whom he could rely at the last minute; he had other important things to do, like reading many hourly WQXR newscasts on weekdays.
There was a special booth for the newscasts—a very small studio, along an H-shaped corridor within sight of the main control room where engineers ran every piece of equipment. They operated all the microphones, all the turntables and tape machines, and controlled the volume as it went out on the air. A strict division of labor. WQXR was seriously unionized.
The news booth had one window facing the hall. Its walls were covered by the same kind of particle board I’d destroyed at the 47th Street WNCN, except that the board was thicker and punctured with tiny holes. Soundproofing.
A large clock loomed over the only desk. On the desk: a sturdy ribbon microphone, a headset, and a simple, curved table lamp. A solitary, cushioned, armless metal chair sat under the only drawer in the desk with a small metal box attached to a leg. The box had a button, resembling one for an elevator. When the booth button was pushed, it activated a small gong. Whoever was reading the news started the newscast precisely on the hour sounding the gong over the open microphone.
A long tube came up from the floor. It was the end of the line in a pneumatic tube system. A small, sealed glass cylinder whooshed and popped into a small opening in the tube. In it were as many sheets of onion skin paper as it took for each story to be on a separate page to become a newscast. Times staff on another floor wrote the stories.
That was a cramped little room. Anyone looking over and rehearsing a newscast usually left the door open so as to get some air. Grobe and some other announcers even loosened their belts to breathe better. Especially during the noon and 6 p.m. 15-minute broadcasts.
Eventually I broadcast from there and would find Grobe’s scripts in the wastebasket. He’d underlined almost every word, with one line, or two, or three, clearly to indicate degrees of emphasis for himself.
As for the closeness in that booth, in the middle of a newscast one evening, I struggled to speak while on the air, my voice cracking, devoid of its usual resonance. I could barely breathe. Twenty-five minutes earlier an elderly engineer had had a heart attack while on duty and died in the control room. Police had wheeled out his grey-faced stiff body, laid out on a canvas stretcher. I hadn’t seen much death yet, and that might have affected me. That’s what Peter thought.
The loss of voice worried me, knowing the fluidity of the on-call list. There were also constant rumors that Executive VP/General Manager Elliott Sanger was somewhere listening, ready to air his criticisms about even the smallest deviations from on-air perfection.
But I survived to breathe again; my status as a relief announcer didn’t change after that evening. Perhaps death in the hallway got all the attention.
Another time, though, 23-years-older staff announcer Bill Strauss warned me that my name was probably going to drop on the list. Tall, thin, dark-haired Strauss seemed quite severe, especially due to a permanent frown. Not that he had any influence on the list. He was trying to be helpful. I had deviated from the norm one afternoon on the air. Reading a jolly, humorously-written commercial, the copy suggested a friendly laugh. So I laughed. Afterwards, back in the announcers’ lounge, when that part of my shift was over, Bill said, “Boy! Did you step over the line!”
“Huh? What do you mean?” I asked.
“You laughed on the air. We don’t do that. Mr. Sanger doesn’t like it.”
“Yeah,” I replied, “but the copy seemed to call for it.”
“Gee. I hope he didn’t hear it,” Bill added. “I’d hate to see you not among us as often. You usually do such a good job.”
I survived that, too.
If he or one of the regular announcers had laughed, they might have been reprimanded, but they wouldn’t have been fired for such a minor infraction. They had a strong AFTRA contract. A number of those announcers were rare examples of longevity in our business. They knew how to protect their jobs. Moreover, The Times had a very strong labor structure.
The contractual shift was eight hours, longer than those at most other stations. There was an hour for lunch. And some mighty good food was available on the 11th floor in The Times cafeteria. Moreover, since we knew we’d have, say, half an hour during a concerto on the air with no other duties except to announce, we could also zip upstairs and grab a sandwich and coffee and bring them down to eat in the lounge. But not in the studios.
Also contractually required were 15 minutes of “preparation time” when the shift started, so that the announcer could get his records or look over the first commercials he’d have to read. George Edwards had a special contract; he got an hour preparation time, because, among other things, he had to wait until the station went on the air with his sign-on. His on-air duties ran from 5 a.m. to 12 noon. Daily, after Bright and Early, he’d just be another staff announcer, reading spot announcements or hosting other programs. And at the end of his final announcement of his day, he reached over to a lamp on his desk and audibly clicked it off. His talisman.
Among our spelled-out duties, we had to go down a hall to the music department and pick up the records whose music we’d announce. Music was programmed by Martin Bookspan or someone on his staff. People in the department pulled the individual LPs from the shelves; announcers didn’t do that. The LPs were placed in slots for announcers to pick up and take to engineers in master control. Each program came with typed sheets on which were written the names of the selections and the performers, as well as the timing for each piece. Usually there was no written script; we were expected to announce the pieces simply, unembellished by commentary.
But, after I’d been around for a while, feeling comfortable and assured, I looked over the LPs and their liner notes and decided to say a few words about the backgrounds of the pieces, based on what I’d read. Nothing complicated, but something like I had been doing at WFLN and WNCN, ad-libbing a few concise, presumably interesting things about the music.
Another announcer, Bill Gordon, heard me talking on-air about the music. “Don’t do that,” he cautioned. “It’s not in our contract. If the management hears you, they’ll start expecting all of us to do that.”
The rules of how to communicate with the engineers in the control room were very precise. There were hand signals, the simplest way to communicate, given that the on-air studios were all separated by glass windows and hallways in a u-shape surrounding the control room.
The signals: pointing to the microphone for announcing, signaling to cut off the microphones with the famed simulation of cutting the throat, pointing directly at the engineer for him to play a record or a recorded commercial or to turn the broadcast over to another announcer in a different studio. The only equipment we were allowed to touch was the “cough button,” called that because, if announcers needed to cough or sneeze while on the air, we could push a button next to the microphone and it would cut off the signal as long as it was held down.
Grobe scheduled which announcers would host standard broadcasts and newscasts. There were some that were not considered standard, of course, such as Bright and Early with George or Cocktail Time, hosted by Duncan Pirnie, 10 years older than I.
In a rolling baritone he playfully said just a few sly words during the only QXR program resembling pop music. Duncan, by the way, was physically the largest on the staff at a time when obesity was less common than it is now. And, coincidentally, his father Donald had been a successful concert baritone, whom my Aunt Marion had sometimes accompanied on the piano. Later he became part of the faculty at Sanford Prep when I had been a student there. (See above material about my boyhood.)
We had one unusual assignment; technically it was voluntary. Of course, I participated. Each day one of us would record a few personally-chosen articles from The Times for The Lighthouse Association for The Blind. The tapes would be played back at double speed for Lighthouse-served blind people, given their heightened acuity.
The recordings we made on our own time, whenever we were not assigned regular announcing duties. We did that on a small tape recorder in the studio just outside the announcers’ lounge. Given union rules, this process could not involve staff engineers. The tapes went directly to The Lighthouse.
The pay was really good, especially if I got talent fees, standard in some of the best contracts at the biggest stations. The fees were extra money when assigned to sponsored programs. We had to fill out daily forms for the fees and submit them with our record of how many hours we had been on the air each week.
I got a substantial fee for one evening’s hosting of a live performance by the WQXR piano duo of Jascha Zayde and Leonid Hambro. Marty had written the script; I was not required to ad-lib anything. But there was a live audience in the WQXR auditorium, and I became incredibly nervous with the responsibility. This was THE NEW YORK TIMES. Live musicians depending on my cues and my words which had to be delivered in the exact time allotted. No reading the script too fast. No reading it too slow. Certainly I’d appeared as an actor many times before in front of live audiences, but in this case I wasn’t playing a character. I was appearing as Gordon Spencer. Alone with a microphone in a studio, no one looking at me, that was easy. This was different.
I survived that, too.
Of course, to be in front of a live audience, I wore a suit, a good shirt, tie, etc. But that was not much different from how most QXR announcers dressed when on duty in the studios. Peter Allen often had on a suit. Grobe wore dress shirts and ties. Mel wore sport shirts and good pants and shoes. Duncan seemed the least well-dressed in a casual shirt and comfortable rather than well-creased trousers.
Normally one announcer would host the music program and another would be on hand to read live spot commercials during the broadcast.
One late afternoon in early November 1965, I was in the middle of reading a commercial on the air just prior to Chester Santon’s 5:30 newscast when the light went out in the studio. I stopped reading. In Master Control the lights went out. And in all the studios. And in the halls.
We were curious what was happening and whether other parts of the floor and those of The Times were also dark. Chester and the engineer asked me if I could go outside the studio and look, while they waited in case we went back on the air soon.
I took an engineer’s flashlight and found the outside halls totally dark. The elevators were not running. And, looking out the windows, the QXR studio having none to outside, I could see that all the nearby buildings also were totally dark.
I went back to the studios and told everyone. Then we turned on a small portable radio to check to see if other stations were likewise affected, first tuning to WINS (“All News All the Time”). By that time it already had a report about a major blackout all along the eastern seaboard, although no one knew yet why it happened. Several of us couldn’t help thinking of some kind of science fiction scenario. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Northeast_blackout_of_1965
My shift ended at 6 p.m. So, with the station still off the air, I went home. Taking a jammed bus all the way down to City Hall, the subways not running. Then I walked across the Brooklyn Bridge to likewise-unlit Brooklyn Heights.
Sometimes I also worked late evenings before the station signed off for the night. Since Grobe was not present to supervise and make sure everything ran properly, someone had that responsibility, being called a “night manager” or a “weekend manager.” Most often it was one of us standbys from the list. We were not considered management, of course, since, if necessary, we could fill in on the air during an emergency. We had to do such things as set up recording news features for later broadcast. We didn’t run the equipment. But we acted as producers making sure that the reporter was comfortable, had everything he needed (right, “he”). We signaled the engineer. We checked to make sure no re-take was needed. And we filed the script for future reference.
That’s how I got to talk to Clive Barnes who was then The Times’s major theatre critic.
We would chat briefly after he’d finished recording. I told him about my theatre background. He listened politely—as I’m sure he’d done many times with many other people—neither bored nor fascinated. He had a rather squeaky voice and stuttered a lot and, given that, and a gap in his front teeth, he reminded me of a Peter Sellers character. Not that I ever told him. The on-duty engineer edited out the stutters.
Certainly I was pleased to get so much work at QXR, and my experience there confirmed my thorough professionalism. I was proud of being on WQXR, the top of my profession, but being there was not a source of enjoyment. It didn’t compare with what I was doing at WNCN whenever I was called; there I got to choose some of the music and to talk about it; everything was more relaxed. Yes, the pay was less; it wasn’t even an AFTRA station yet. I’ve always gravitated to broadcasting that I could thoroughly enjoy, where I could contribute something personal, but that was never very practical in terms of income.
I would return to QXR from time to time thereafter but not be there as often as during those first nine months. I was dropped down, way down, on the list after I turned down work too often. I was busier elsewhere. At first, that meant joining the staff of ABC.
In The Heights
Vene and I were seeing less of each other with my hopping around at both stations, often in the evenings, but we were delighted by my increased earnings. Meanwhile she’d been getting more interested in performing again. When we’d first met, she’d been acting in plays at Temple, appearing in a couple with me, as well as at Atlantic City’s Center Little Theatre in Out of the Frying Pan.
In late 1965, she started getting a few roles in The Heights Players, a community theatre whose productions were staged a few blocks from where we lived. That also expanded our social life; we became friends with regular performers there, including an openly gay couple Randy Kim and Chuck Bright. Randy later went on to a major career in movies and on Broadway as Randall Duk Kim.
He, Chuck, and Anne Occhiogrosso founded one of the U.S.’s great summer theatres, American Players Theatre in Spring Green, WI, where I often went while living in Milwaukee.
Tiny Randy had an amazingly deep voice and was a master of make-up. He, Chuck, and Vene all starred in Victor Herbert’s Babes in Toyland at The Heights Players.
And I performed in fund-raising variety shows there as The World’s Oldest Living Beat Poet, reading simple-minded comic verse I’d written. Plus some of my comedy sketches were acted by Heights Players regulars.
One was about a guy turned on by a woman in a bar because she had a copy of Masters and Johnson’s just-published Human Sexual Response. He figured she’d be an easy conquest given that book; he brings that up with a sly grin. She responds by quoting him some of the book’s gross, analytical descriptions of bodily functions. So much so that he has to leave for the men’s room to throw up.
Speaking of bodily functions, through The Heights Players, I connected with Lester Bergman who published medical books. And he hired me to narrate a couple of films about procedures during operations.
By early 1966, Vene wanted to quit her job as assistant to Cosmopolitan Magazine Fiction Editor Bill Guy. She really liked him and also admired new Editor-in-Chief Helen Gurley Brown, but wanted to try an actual acting career. Considering how much money I’d been making from announcing on two stations, it seem only fair that I should support her shot at fame; she had been the major source of income when I was an infrequently employed actor.
Why not? She might succeed where I hadn’t. She bubbled with personality, was cute, and, being quite short, still seemed girlish, although she was my age.
She joined a children’s theatre group whose regular cast included Bill Finn and Danny Goldman.
Tall, rangy Bill went on to write musicals as William Finn with his first success about 10 years later: In Trousers. Later he’d become lauded and awarded for his Falsetto trilogy, A New Brain, and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Danny became a film actor, specializing in voices, including that of Brainy Smurf and also became a Hollywood casting director of television commercials. Vene also got roles in summer stock in Rochester, NH.
I join ABC
Early in 1966, WNCN Program Director Ed Shaughnessy told me that he was moving on to become program director at WABC-FM; they were broadcasting some classical music. I asked if there might be a way I could join him.
He said that he had no authority to hire me but that, in March, ABC would audition people as relief announcers, and certainly I could apply. It would mean a chance to be heard on all of ABC’s New York operations—the TV and radio networks, plus the local stations. The minimal six-month gig was to cover regular staff vacations. And, if anything full-time opened, Ed believed the relief guys (right, men only) would most likely be considered.
Six months of big money sounded like a great idea. And how much higher could an announcer go than being on the ABC staff?
There was a massive line-up of superbly-dressed, deep-voiced candidates at the audition. Suits. Ties. Polished shoes. They’d come from Cleveland, Detroit, Indianapolis for this major opportunity. I felt overshadowed, as if I was still a kid and they were the big time, even though I was 33.
The audition material included a newscast, commercials, and a classical music script. Exactly what I’d been doing at WQXR.
While waiting to record my shot at fortune, a six-foot-two, supremely well-dressed, perfectly groomed guy next to me said to one of his peers, “Shit!” waving a page of the audition, “What the hell is this?”
The other resonated back, “Some kind of classical music stuff. How the fuck are we supposed to know that?”
They warmed the cockles of my soul.
I got in.
April 1966 I joined the staff.
Oddly, though, I rarely announced on WABC-FM. Within a couple of months its format changed and classical music was minimized. Instead, I did what all the staff announcers did, live booth station breaks and five-second on-air promos on the two TV networks and WABC-TV, and live newscasts and commercials on the radio network and on WABC-AM.
Relief announcers’ assignments seemed random; we filled in slots normally covered by regular staff who’d been re-assigned wherever there were talent fees. Their contract required minimum fees every week, and ABC had to guarantee the minimum. So, if the announcer didn’t get enough fees from regular assignments, ABC had to make up the difference, hence the re-alignments to minimize what ABC had to make up. Audiences wouldn’t know the difference anyway, most of us sounded like each other, anonymous, mellifluous, resonant, manly voices.
So where did I most turn up? The classical music expert? Usually overnights at one of the highest-rated pop music radio stations in town, even in the U.S. WABC-NEW YORK! as I often punched up the call letters. An acting assignment. Moreover, once an hour, I had to read live, 60-second commercials for a new sponsor, Dennison Clothes on Route 22, Union, NJ. The copy always began with “The president of Dennison Clothes says…” and included the phrase “Where money talks, nobody walks.”
The copy was fundamental selling, so I decided to punch it up, have fun, almost a parody, the way Jerry Carroll would do some years later on the ubiquitous Crazy Eddie spots. I started each commercial with a serious intonation, sounding as if I was going to announce something portentous and newsworthy, Cronkite-like: “Ladies and Gentlemen, The President of … (but then not ‘The United States’) and spin off into absurdity without altering the copy. The first time I did it, Charlie Greer and the other guys on duty howled with laughter. Eventually Charlie would introduce me as “The voice of Dennison Clothes.”
Primarily my major job was to read newscasts written by Webb Kelley. When we first met, he told me that, at one time, he’d been writing for the TV network but that they wanted someone who could also look good on camera and that he was too old. I often felt that he was frustrated and unhappy, diminished to five-minute scripts overnight. Sometimes he even sounded as if he’d been drinking. And sometimes he just took AP wire copy and stapled it to my scripts. He called me “Beatley,” a reference, no doubt, to my beard, still uncommon, and the resemblance to the by-then-outdated and bypassed beatniks, superseded by hippies. Old news.
Most often I was the news and commercials reader when Charlie Greer was the d.j. in a powerful signal radiating across more than 38 states. He was in his sixth year at the station and kept telling me, off the air, and everyone else within earshot—engineers, visitors, anyone who’d listen—that he’d been there longer than any of the other guys and it made him nervous as hell; he expected to be fired any day. He, like every other d.j. at WABC-NEW YORK, had six-month contracts and fabulous money but under conditions designed to make sure they delivered the goods. Longevity depended on the ratings.
As for the music, everyone had a playlist; they could only choose something from it. All of the week’s selections were on cartridges played by the engineers, sitting across from the d.j.s, separated by a console. The d.j.s announced the songs with non-stop enthusiasm, as if they loved hearing the same things over and over, and they came up with a little chatter and read a few commercials that required their personalities, talent-fee compensated.
Program Director Rick Sklar decided which music to broadcast and each week held a meeting with the d.j.s where they could give him input. Evidently the weekly playlist was very short. According to Sklar in his book Rocking America, the records on the list were determined by studying sales at about 550 record stores. Then, at each meeting, the list was revised. Songs which hadn’t moved up in sales were dropped. Songs at the top of the list were broadcast more regularly than the others, about once at 70- or 80-minute intervals. Some of this info and more can be found at Allan M. Sniffen’s Musicradio WABC website http://www.musicradio77.com.
Among the hits I heard repeatedly: Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman,” “Wild Things” by The Troggs, The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Summer in the City,” “Sunshine Superman” by Donovan, Simon and Garfunkel in “I Am a Rock,” and “Monday, Monday” by The Mamas and the Papas.
Sometimes, too, I’d be assigned to read news while Dan Ingram, Ron Lundy, or Chuck Leonard were on the air. Chuck always looked nervous and had a habit of vigorously yanking off his headphones once the music was playing.
Dan sounded intelligent and clever. While reading a commercial for a furniture store selling ottomans he ad-libbed, “Hey! Remember their empire?” Or once, the copy being for a steak house whose meals “stick to your ribs…” he added “…bypassing your stomach.”
TV booth announcing was new to me. Sometimes I’d be on the networks, sometimes on WABC-TV. Those studios were on West 66th Street just east of Broadway, while WABC-AM was a block-and-a-half south of there in an office building at 1926 Broadway.
The booths were small rooms, each with a TV monitor, headphones, a microphone, a table with a lamp, a program log, whatever copy was to be read, and a plain chair. Utilitarian. Many booths were below street level, seeming dark and truly subterranean. Perhaps they were there so ABC could keep on broadcasting during an atomic attack.
Once, when going on duty, I encountered Milton Cross in one of the booths.
I had come to relieve him. When he spoke to me, I was shocked, recognizing that Metropolitan Opera broadcast voice, sadly, in that dreary, underground cell. It seemed like such a diminishment for him. I hadn’t known that he was on the staff. He told me that he had left a few magazines in case I wanted to read them. It was the only time we saw each other. In fact, we relief announcers also rarely crossed paths. We didn’t team up the way QXR announcers did.
TV production directors were somewhere else in the building; I never learned where and never saw them. They directed booth announcers, communicating through headsets. Arriving to announce, we had to call on a house phone and check in with our directors, not being visible, confirming that we were in the right place at the right time and that our names matched those on the logs.
Then the director made sure he could be heard through the headphones and have his engineer, wherever that man was, check our microphone, having us read the copy to be heard on the air, e.g., “Stay tuned for F Troop coming up next on ABC.”
That’s a characteristic five-second promo. It had to be delivered within five seconds because a computer somewhere would then switch to the network or to the station and the next event. Announcers could get into serious trouble if the computer cut them off. Consequently, even some of the regular staff read the copy as fast as possible, a kind of urgency. None of those announcements were pre-recorded, nor the station breaks either. Everything was live. I subsequently learned, a few years later, that ABC finally got smart and recorded a lot of the breaks, meaning, no doubt, less work for announcers whose ranks, I believe, were diminished by buy-outs.
“Standby for the station break, Gordon. Coming up in five seconds. Four. Three. Two. One. ANNOUNCE!” Yes, that order often sounded as if our lives depended on it. You can imagine how an announcer would intensely, anxiously, do his five-second thing.
WABC-TV signed off overnight then, following a late movie. Once, on the late-night shift, I looked at my few pages of copy and found that the last thing before reading the sign-off announcement was a prayer by Reverend David Burns of Calvary Protestant Church in Baldwin, Long Island. Having watched late-night TV in the past, I’d seen film clips of ministers reading short prayers. I assumed that all I had to do was introduce Father Burns, although I had a copy of the prayer.
My mike open, I read the introduction and waited for the film. “ANNOUNCE!” the director yelled. I paused. Was I supposed to read the prayer myself? I couldn’t ask. My mike was live. “ANNOUNCE!” he yelled again. It was a wonder that his voice didn’t leak through my microphone.
I hadn’t read over the prayer, of course, so I read it cold, nervous a hell. Heaven knows what it said. But, by God, I never stumbled, never lost my way.
I followed it immediately with the sign-off script, which I had rehearsed.
Once we were off the air, the director called me on the phone. Uh-oh. He was going to chew me out for one-and-a-half seconds of dead air. Nope. Instead he said “Wow! That was a great reading of the prayer. You sounded like you believed every word. Hey, have a good night, huh?” He hung up.
And I walked out into the night’s cool and shiny streets, gleaming from the lights on Broadway.
Soon I’d be pounding the pavements again, looking for work. When the vacation season was over I was not one of the two relief guys ABC hired full-time. I was disappointed, sure. But I couldn’t help wondering how long it would take me to be thoroughly bored in such a nearly anonymous job.
Yet, in those six months, I felt proud that I’d made it at ABC. Yeah, ABC: six months; WQXR, nine months. Intense, colorful blips.
My two-year stint at WOND still held the record for the longest job. And that, as well as my 20 months at the first version of NCN, were the only jobs I had really enjoyed. As far as ABC went, I was proud of my skill and felt significant, even though my name and presumed personality usually were only public at night.