Memories of the first days of WGBH
Introduction from Larry Creshkoff
The piece that follows is taken from an unpublished article by Ray Wilding-White and is presented here with permission of the author. Ray was a utility producer/director at WGBH from 1951 to 1956. His range was extensive, including musical performances on both FM and TV, “Children’s Circle” on FM, and “Images” on TV, which brought together in highly innovative ways the visual resources of the Museum of Fine Arts with music and narration, in an ongoing live series five days a week. He also composed and conducted the theme music for two series produced under the aegis of the National Educational Television and Radio Center: “Of Science and Scientists,” and “Action at Law.”
After leaving WGBH, he took a doctorate in music at Boston University. He subsequently taught music in the humanities department of Case Institute of Technology in Cleveland, and then at De Paul University in Chicago, attaining the rank of full professor. He is the composer of some 180 works, a number of which have been performed by the American String Quartet, the Chicago String Ensemble, and the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra.
Among his “extra-curricular” activities while in Chicago was “Our American Music” on WFMT — a daily series (366 programs!) produced in commemoration of the U.S. Bicentennial. Now retired, Ray and his wife, Glennie, live in Kewaunee, Wisconsin.
Having lived through or been privy to many of the events described below, I can bear witness to the essential accuracy of Ray’s reportage. As “Rashomon” demonstrated, however, interpretations can vary widely. Here is a very personal memoir. It describes what happened, from the perspective of a highly perceptive participant and observer of the scene.
One way to run a railroad
As it approaches its half-century mark, WGBH, Boston’s PBS station, has built up a reputation as the flagship of the Public Broadcasting System, a reputation derived from the production of such high-quality programs as NOVA. It is, at present, a relatively large and professional operation, and people must think it was always thus — when the topic of how it all began comes up, which it not infrequently does, I always hear a variant of the scenario where a group of civic leaders and educators, realizing the need for such a station, raised the funds and hired a small group of professionals to get it going.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The station was the brainchild of a disorganized, fuzzy-headed idealist and was made a reality with hairpins and bailing-wire by the heroic efforts of a bunch of dedicated, overworked and underpaid young maniacs who hardly knew a microphone from a zebra when they started on radio and positively did not know a camera from a Greyhound bus when they went into TV. I know. I was there.
The station was made reality by … a bunch of dedicated, overworked and underpaid young maniacs who hardly knew a microphone from a zebra when they started on radio… I know. I was there.
At the time, I was newly out of the New England Conservatory and Tanglewood, with some respectable credits as a composer to my name, but much in need of some way to pay the rent. “Tod” Perry, who managed the Berkshire Music Center and would soon manage the Boston Symphony, mentioned that there was a new radio station about to open in town and suggested that I give it a whirl.
I took his advice and took myself up to the top floor of a building on the south side of the first block of Newbury Street where I found the cluttered office of the Lowell Institute Cooperative Broadcasting Council (LICBC for short).
Here a man whose eyes were as baggy as his pants sat me down at a large, round green table and conducted a somewhat rambling job interview that was more psychoanalysis than interview, a sort of open-ended free-association session. It ended by his setting up what I thought was a dead mike (I was wrong), handing me that day’s Boston Herald, and telling me to pretend I was on the air and to give the news paraphrased from the paper — which I did in my best imitation Edward R. Murrow style. The man with the Fred Allen eyes, it turned out, was the boss and founder, Parker Wheatley. He hired me, against the advice of most of the existing staff, largely because I came cheap … $40 a week. Nearly five years later I would leave at the staggering pay of $85 a week with no pay for overtime and no rights to unemployment compensation due to a quirk in the Massachusetts laws that exempted “charitable” institutions.
Education on Commercial Stations
The LICBC was a co-operative of seven educational institutions in the area started in 1946. At that time, commercial radio stations were required by the FCC to provide a certain number of hours of public service programming; it was the mission of the LICBC to provide such programs on tape. The commercial stations were only too willing to tout their great public service deeds in their promotional material, particularly at license renewal time. Privately they saw the requirement as a pain in the butt. Since, then as now, they saw the only conceivable program as being a commercial program, the nature and possible sources for a non-commercial program were as remote to them as Outer Siberia. Understandably they were quite happy to have the LICBC assume their responsibilities.
Productionwise, the programs could not hold a candle to such present-day shows as All Things Considered, but the content was often excellent, and their very rarity gave them a special appeal. I may be one of the few left who remember the weekly radiocasts by Boston University’s Willis Wager. Wager was a truly Renaissance man who wandered, as the spirit moved him, through wondrous then unknown worlds, opening vistas into the music of the American Indians, Monteverdi’s operas, Elizabethan Folk Music of the Appalachians, or Balinese Gamelans. The 78-rpm recordings were often grittily recorded in the field and just as often scratchy, and Wager was alternately recorded in a tunnel and in a woolen blanket, but there came through a passion for knowledge and its dissemination not to be found in any of the polished present-day broadcasts. …
The Lowell institute had been established by the Boston Lowells — in the days when lectures were a major form of both instruction and entertainment.
The LICBC was not the first time Parker had tried to put together a co-operative of this kind; he had tried the idea in Chicago and the very successful Northwestern University Reviewing Stand and the University of Chicago Round Table came out of it, this latter run by one George Probst who was later to join the WGBH executive staff with dubious results. However the members of the Chicago cooperative got at each other’s throats, and the organization did not last. He had better luck in Boston, where he managed to get the Lowell Institute as the principal backer.
The Lowell institute had been established by the Boston Lowells — in the days when lectures were a major form of both instruction and entertainment. This era was long gone, but the Institute was alive and prestigious, and important names were still invited to lecture. Since these lectures were held at the Public Library, and often during the day, the lectures became the lunch and siesta hangout for the bum and panhandler contingent that used the Library as a shelter from the elements; the great opera director Boris Goldovsky remembered givin
g a six-lecture series on opera to an obbligato of crumpling paper, chomping jaws, and snores.
Getting WGBH-FM on the Air
It was [to become] obvious that producing taped programs for commercial stations was a stop-gap and that the next logical step would be an LICBC non-commercial station. The decision to go that route was triggered by the appearance of FM and its chief promoter, Major Armstrong of the Zenith Corporation. …
As the prime producer of FM sets, Zenith and, until his suicide, Major Armstrong decided to promote Zenith by promoting high-fidelity and with it “good music” broadcasting. Of course, WGBH with its proposed live Boston Symphony broadcasts was a natural. Zenith’s support, technical and otherwise, was a key factor in the birth of Educational Broadcasting.
The FM project also got a major boost from another source, one which many would have considered unlikely.
James Caesar Petrillo was one of the great labor leaders of a generation that produced such men as John L. Lewis and Sidney Hillman, men vastly different in style and temperament but united in their dedication to a better deal for their members. Petrillo was tough, arrogant, not above gangster tactics and often tactless and unaware of the need for good PR — as when he quite correctly went after the cute kiddies at the Interlochen Music Camp and got the worst press in the history of labor for his pains.
Petrillo belonged to a generation, now past, that held the classics in awe and as a result he gave the station virtual carte blanche to broadcast any concert it wanted to. If the performer or performers agreed and put it on paper, the event was then cleared with a local union representative appointed by the National office who operated pretty much on his own. The rep turned out to be Rosario Mazzeo, the personnel manager and union steward for the Boston Symphony. Luckily, like Petrillo, he totally agreed with the idea of Educational Broadcasting and so clearances were strictly pro-forma.
The crew of the good ship that sailed off into uncharted waters was armed with ideals, imagination, and ignorance, and not much else… With less imagination they could not have done it, with less ignorance they would not have tried.
Thus, when it went on the air, WGBH would broadcast, free of charge, the Boston Symphony every Friday afternoon and Saturday evening, a weekly concert from the New England Conservatory, and a wide variety of events, taped for later broadcast, from Sanders Theatre in Harvard, the Museum of Fine Arts, MIT, and other locations. [Ralph] Lowell may claim the fame but Zenith and Petrillo really put the station on the air.
The crew of the good ship that sailed off into uncharted waters was armed with ideals, imagination, and ignorance, and not much else. They all believed that they could change broadcasting for the better and if, sadly, we now know that most of broadcasting has changed for the worse, some changes did happen and much of it can be traced back to that gallant little crew. With less imagination they could not have done it, with less ignorance they would not have tried.
The Original Staff
There was Larry: slender, nervous and intense and an inveterate tinkerer; the engineers hid things when he came into sight. There was Hartford: the perfect Harvard MBA business school preppie who, for all his neat attire, got nowhere with the ladies and resented the more flamboyant social life of the others. Larry and Hartford were recruited from the Harvard student radio station and this and Larry’s four years at Newbury Street qualified them to be Program and Business Manager respectively.
Jordan was unique. Tall, long faced, slightly balding, he kept himself in perfect shape and dressed with meticulously studied carelessness — tight fitting slacks, spotless tennis shoes, a shirt with its sleeves rolled back with mathematical precision. His most salient characteristic was a voice like a cross between a fog horn and a bull in heat. He was one of the few who never did announcing duty. Jordan was also a Harvard man and was recruited into the music staff on the basis of a huge record collection.
Nancy M (not to be confused with Nancy H) was the station beauty; she may not have been hired because her father was a Harvard professor, but it didn’t hurt. Midwestern Wheatley was in total awe of Harvard and this tended to reflect on the station’s psyche. In one way or another the little red schoolhouse, as Harvard was affectionately known, had a pervasive influence. The station’s transmitter was on the Great Blue Hill (hence the call letters, though wits said they stood for God Bless Harvard) partly because the hill was the highest piece of land in the Boston area and partly because it was on the grounds of the Harvard Meteorological Observatory.
I, of course, was not Harvard; nor was Production Manager Ralph, a phlegmatic counterpart of the wiry Larry; or Jan, who was just looking for an office job and found herself editing tape; or Jack or Andy who very shortly left for greener pastures, one to eventually head a religious station, and the other for the Ford Foundation’s new Omnibus project.
The engineers were a group apart; they were the working stiffs of the station; unionized, higher paid, and as totally bemused by the whole circus as an Allman Brothers roadie setting up the Joffrey Ballet. The two exceptions were Gabe, a free spirit far ahead of his time, and Bill, the nicest guy at the station and the only really well-read radio engineer I have ever met.
We opened on Saturday, October 6, 1951, with an evening broadcast of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s season opener, after which we shut down. Regular, if you could call it that, broadcasting started on Sunday, and Larry remembers it well because the evening feature was the BBC World Theatre Hamlet, which came to us on the big transcription discs and in this case they were defective. Larry got through by phone to Basil Thornton, the BBC Honcho in New York, who took a fresh set personally down to Grand Central Station and persuaded a conductor on the Boston train to take the package with him. Larry met him at South Station, further decorated his palm, took the transcriptions back to the station, auditioned them and put Hamlet on the air. However, “To Be or Not To Be” was not to be since the transmitter chose this time to break down.
When the microwave link went down … we shipped a producer, announcer, sandwiches, etc., and the day’s programming on reel-to-reel tape out to the transmitter to spend a day of monastic peace and tranquility far from the madding crowd at the Hall.
The transmitter, I might add, had a mind of its own and, if it didn’t go down, the microwave link — did. In the first case we were out of luck, in the second we shipped a producer, announcer, sandwiches, etc., and the day’s programming on reel-to-reel tape out to the transmitter to spend a day of monastic peace and tranquility far from the madding crowd at the Hall.
The station’s new quarters were in the northwest corner of Symphony Hall. Two utility rooms in the basement under the musicians’ room were Parker’s office and the business office, where my first assignment in the field of radio broadcasting was to nail together a large work table from some old Boston Pops tables and some sheets of plywood (what! and quit show business?). Hartford’s executive desk was a door and two iron-rod saw-horses (The same two horses with a new door are today the retouching table in my photo-workshop). Two floors up, over the musicians’ room, the orchestra’s museum was vacated and turned over to the station. …
In one corner of the old museum space, a sm
all studio big enough for the old round Newbury Strippable, a seldom used spinet, a couple of chairs, and a mike boom, together with a cramped control room and a minuscule announcer’s booth, had been built.
Knowing that the Symphony would be blasting away at all hours right next door, expert consultants were brought in and great pains were taken to soundproof the walls of the studio. The job was very well done; even at Mahler’s best, not a peep from the hall could be heard in the studio. The designers and consultants, however, forgot that the musicians’ room was directly below and they didn’t do a thing about the floor; only too late did we find out that downstairs was the favorite place for the tuba player to practice. Though many a red-faced producer/director asked him to move, many an interview wound up with an oom-pah obbligato.
The rest of the upstairs space was filled by the production staff and their desks or, in some cases, doors and saw-horses (the engineers had their own small den), the tape library (there was no record library) and a bank of rack mounted Magnecord tape machines used for editing tape.
Ah yes! the Magnecorders, or Maggies for short. The station had a fleet of them and they were the backbone of the operation and every backbone in the station knew it. Built like Mack trucks and weighing almost as much, they came in two solid 8″ by 18″ by 12″ boxes, one for the tape drive and one for the amplifier, that you could drop down a flight of stairs without damage. They were built to last, which is more than you could say for the poor operator. If you went on a remote (and the station practically lived on them) you had a Maggie box and probably a mike stand in each hand and a large rucksack full of cables, connectors, mikes, tapes, tools and what-have-you on your back. To get the full impact of this we must look at one aspect of the station’s programming.
The Lectures of Academe
Parker took the “Educational” in Educational Broadcasting very seriously. Thus a number of college professors were talked into putting their courses on the air. We are not talking radio adaptations or in-studio recordings here, but straight, in-the-classroom, as-it-happened, taped courses all the way through from “Welcome, the required text is…” to “The final exam will be….” Thus a crew of one loaded down like a marine on discipline detail would, rain or shine, tear out to Harvard or BU or wherever and huff and puff down corridors and up flights of stairs (elevators, like the police, had a knack of not being available when you needed them) in order to set up and record an exhilarating hour of geology, then tear down and huff and puff to the next exciting event.
If the professors were not always balls of fire, they were, to be fair to them, a co-operative and long-suffering bunch. This was years before those dinky little tie-clip things you see Gumbel put on, and the cordless mike belonged with Dick Tracy’s wrist radio, still science fiction. The workhorse microphone was the “saltshaker” or “bullet” mike that was about the size and weight of a slightly ovoid billiard ball.
The first try was to put it on a stand on the professor’s desk, but professors don’t stay put. Thus the professor’s voice would drift in from China and drift off to Europe as he paced the floor. Then someone thought of putting the mike in a reflector — looking something like a three-foot-wide satellite dish — and chasing him around like a follow-spot from the back of the class; this tactic got us fairly consistently on-mike if you consider the sound of the Carlsbad Caverns on-mike.
The halter microphone … was an ungainly piece of pipe that hung around the neck and curved out and back from the chest with the mike on the end which gave the impression that the professor was trying to charm a fairly large and rather bad-tempered snake.
Then someone came up with the halter. This was an ungainly piece of pipe that hung around the neck and curved out and back from the chest with the mike on the end which gave the impression that the professor was trying to charm a fairly large and rather bad-tempered snake. The halter was, understandably, unpopular. The whole problem was never really solved until Altec came out with a small mike (the “lipstick” or “pencil” mike) that could be hung from the neck.
As time went by the system was automated. A microphone, cable, and an amplifier were permanently left in the classroom in a locked box, to which the professor had a key. Through a dial system taken from a rotary phone, and using the same system of stepping-switches, the control room could turn the amplifier on or off. With patience and perseverance, a sufficient number of professors were trained to jump through these electronic hoops, and trips with the Maggies became mercifully rarer.
Many a Splice
Though co-operative, the professors were by no means up on microphone technique — it’s not one of those things that gets pushed very hard in graduate studies. They snorted and coughed and hemmed and hawed and occasionally knocked their pipes out on the mike stand and all of this acoustical garbage had to be edited out.
This was done with a grease pencil, a pair of scissors, and splicing tape at one of the editing setups. This was a Maggie PT6 mounted at seat level with a shelf in front, the amplifier mounted below it, and an additional feed and take-up mechanism to handle large reels mounted above it. Since the heads were exposed and stuck out horizontally and there was no brake to stop the tape when you cut it, the setup was ideal. When we found out that there were such things as splicing blocks, we had all become so good without them that they were never bought. And we were good, damned good, at editing anything — even, when necessary, reconstituting fouled up passages and doing some acoustical cosmetic surgery.
There was one catch with the editing machines; when rewinding the tape, the speed kept increasing as it does for all reel-to-reel machines. The large reels, in particular, could work up a hell of a head of steam; the metal flanges could literally take a finger off. Tension being slightly uneven on those early machines, slowing down by turning the tape off and on was asking for a tangle of tape that would be beyond salvage, so we had to let it run out, splattering a small shower of tape fragments as it did so (long leaders were a must). Then we turned it off and deftly used our bunched fingers on the hub to slow it down, a feat of derring-do we all got good at with only minor flesh wounds.
As time passed, WGBH went after, and got, grants to originate specific programs or series such as a docudrama on Soviet factories or “They Bent Our Ear,” dramatizations taken from writings about America by early European visitors to the Republic — Dickens, Trollope, and others.
One program involved a fairly complicated procedure. Questions would be put to Americans and the taped answers would be sent to a variety of European stations who would play them to locals, record their answers, and send them to us. All of this, and some commentary, would be edited into a cohesive whole by Ralph, the program’s producer.
There was a hitch. Standards and quality control were variable throughout the world and the tapes that came back had slight but obnoxious variations in speed. Ever the gadgeteer, Larry found a way to alter the speed on a Maggie, a very laborious procedure that also wrecked the poor Maggie. After hours of work, Ralph and Larry got what they needed and, after more hours of editing, Ralph got his program completely assembled on a large reel on one of the editing machines. With a sigh of relief, he clicked the switch to rewind. The tape cranked up to high speed
and then suddenly jammed — and feet upon feet of tape were sprayed out in tiny fragments throughout the room; the rest of the tape was spaghetti. Ralph did not openly burst into tears, in my opinion an extraordinary feat of self-control.
Feet upon feet of tape were sprayed out in tiny fragments throughout the room; the rest of the tape was spaghetti. Ralph did not openly burst into tears, in my opinion an extraordinary feat of self-control.
The station went on the air for a limited number of late afternoon and evening hours each day. Nearly all the programming was produced in-house, and this put a severe strain on the small staff and limited resources. The source material, be it remote or in-studio, was all from the Boston area, which made it a truly local station; however, all programs had to be affiliated with one or another of the members which, of course, ruled out some interesting possibilities.
This could be gotten around the Spanish have the saying “Hecha la ley, hecha la trampa” (Made the law, made the trick). Nat Hentoff was, at the time, an announcer on a local commercial station which let him do a late night jazz show on his own hook (good jazz broadcasts were even rarer then than now). We had been using Nat as a part-time announcer and we wanted him to do a series called The Evolution of Jazz, but the commercial station was certainly not an LICBC member. Nat, however, was a graduate of Northeastern University, a smaller and hungry member which had, so far, had little to offer. They promptly appointed him an honorary faculty member and put their blessing on the program. A wonderful series was the result and one, by the way, that gave jazz historians the term “mainstream” without which Gunther Schuller’s term “Third Stream” could not have been invented.
Later, at the time we were on TV, George Wein, the owner/operator of the two major jazz clubs in town, Storyville and Mahogany Hall, finagled an appointment to teach a course at Boston University on the history of jazz. A sometime pianist and an expert booker and operator — he would later be the prime mover of the Newport Jazz Festival — he was, however, no scholar. So he struck up an arrangement with me and borrowed Hentoff’s tapes, two at a time, from the station through me and used them as the basis of his course. The students were happy, George was happy, the station was none the wiser, and I got carte-blanche at both jazz clubs, which made me happy.
Music for the Millions
The broadcasts of the Boston Symphony were the jewels in the crown followed by all the other live and taped concerts in town. Of the in-house non-music programs, the two that rose to the top were Louis Lyons and Children’s Circle, followed by a melange of talk, talk plus records, round tables, remotes of conferences, lectures, poetry, theatre, and so on; it got so hardly anybody could open his mouth or his instrument case in Boston without a mike and a Maggie popping up in front of it.
The exceptions to the in-house programs were transcriptions from France and from the BBC, but the latter had yet to admit Educational and later Public Broadcasting into the British Empire. Following the Hamlet problem, all transcriptions were being auditioned; one of my very first assignments was to audition a BBC transcription of Ibsen’s The Doll’s House with an all-star cast; if this was what I was being paid for, I figured I was robbing the station. No such luck. Within a week I had joined the ranks of the overworked, and time pressures brought an end to all such auditioning.
One thing we did get from the BBC was the coronation of HM Elizabeth II, a day-long, wall-to-wall coverage of the event which, for some reason I now forget, Parker saw fit to re-broadcast not once but, like a royal I Love Lucy, six times. One spot stuck in everybody’s mind; this was not the moment of coronation, not the magnificent Walton music, not the new queen’s words, but a fatuous Arthur Treacher of a BBC announcer saying, as the parade passed by, “Ah! There is nothing quite like the splendor of horses!” Somehow it seemed to sum up the collapse of the British Empire in a nutshell.
And finally, to round out the programming picture, there were, of course, the courses. All told an ambitious schedule; it leaned heavily on the word “educational” and may have been a bit dry on that account but, certainly, it saw its audience as intelligent and mature. It was a far cry from the present plague of too many cooks, English comedians good and bad, and fix-its of every stripe; concessions to the middlebrow, let alone commercial bottom-of-the-barrel, were not in Parker’s vocabulary.
Each day at six our listeners got to drop onions in their Gibsons to the sounds of the Australian Didjeridoo, Tibetan monks or Chippewa love songs.
Parker’s idea of concession can be seen in our dinner, or better, cocktail hour, music program. This was not your usual breeze from Windham Hill which in those days would have been David Rose or Percy Faith. These were the years when Moses Asch was turning out his wonderful Ethnic Folkways recordings as if there were no tomorrow and Parker thought that, in keeping with our mission of being educational, one could mix drink and erudition at the same time and get smashed and sophisticated in one blow. So each day at six our listeners got to drop onions in their Gibsons to the sounds of the Australian Didjeridoo, Tibetan monks or Chippewa love songs.
Star Attraction: The BSO
The Boston Symphony, as I have said, was the jewel in the crown. Because of its drawing power and prestige, it was crucial to our success in those early weeks. NBC had organized its prestigious symphony under the baton of Arturo Toscanini, and CBS had imitated it (with less eclat) with Bernard Hermann; but nobody had done regular, live broadcasts of a major orchestra. Not only the administration but also every member of the orchestra had to agree, and getting all of that was no easy task, musicians being the most crassly materialistic of all artists.
Also this was the dawning of the age of high fidelity, when the dream of hearing a concert as it actually sounded in the hall (whatever that is) was really coming true; the day was yet to come when the term Hi-Fi meant any piece of Japanese junk. New technologies for pickup (condenser mikes), for recording (tape and LP), and for playback (bass reflex speakers), were emerging daily, and with them came a new language and a fanatic sub-culture of hi-fi nuts who monitored and calibrated every wiggle of the wave-shape the Symphony broadcast, from its highest highs to its lowest lows. The Symphony broadcasts were essays in culture, aesthetic experiences, and audio laboratories all in one.
To make the broth even richer, across the river the MIT Acoustics Lab was at its peak and more than ready to contribute a few more cooks. Everything about the Symphony broadcasts was touchy and had to be handled with kid gloves. When the opening broadcasts went off without a hitch, the collective sigh of relief blew off toupees in Providence, R. I.
Maureen, tall, slender, and up-tight, was the first producer of the Symphony broadcasts. She was dedicated but she lacked the musical wherewithal. Eventually Maureen was replaced by Gene, a smart-alecky New Yorker and a gin rummy shark. He lasted one season and his demise was not entirely his fault, but he was powerless to do anything about it. The single-mike pickup philosophy, which said that one microphone exactly placed gave the best results, was the recording credo of the day; to be sure to get the correct placement, the Symphony’s rehearsals were all carefully monitored.
The broadcast of the Bolero became a drum solo
with a slowly vanishing orchestral obbligato and the whole hi-fi subculture was up in arms.
The conductor at the time was Charles Munch who was notoriously unpredictable. One Friday Ravel’s Bolero was on the program and at the last minute Munch had a brainstorm. The snare drummer, he said to himself, is the real star of the piece, so he moved him down to the soloist’s position next to the podium and directly under the single microphone. The first the aghast Gene got to know of this was when the drummer, Harold Farberman, took his position. The broadcast of the Bolero became a drum solo with a slowly vanishing orchestral obbligato and the whole hi-fi subculture was up in arms. Though it was entirely Munch’s fault, there was no way anybody was going to come out and say so.
The third man to get the job was Jordan. He was the right man for the job, and he had the advantage of having learned from watching two years’ worth of other people’s mistakes. He stayed in charge of the Symphony broadcasts for many years.
The Talk-free Intermission
With the Symphony broadcasts, Parker came up with his most inspired and controversial idea. The problem was what to do with the intermissions. The standard solution was, and usually still is, to fill it with all kinds of inane gabble, and this was quite unacceptable to Parker. His solution was simplicity itself; long before Tom Lehrer’s dictum “If a man has nothing to say, the least he can do is shut up,” Parker said we will do nothing. The mike was turned up and one listened to crowd noise just as the people in the hall did. He had to fight for this idea, even with his own staff, but in the end he was right.
The idea was integral to Parker’s philosophy of “Do it the way it is.” The concept applied to concerts where, unlike commercial practice, nothing was cut, not even the encores. Thus, when recording a concert for later broadcast, we always got the names of the encores from the performer after the concert. After her Jordan Hall concert, pianist Nicole Henriot slipped through our fingers and was halfway back to France before we noticed she was leaving us with four unidentified encores.
With a little thought we nailed the first three, but the fourth drew a blank. We shanghaied a whole parade of Symphony members and had them listen to it with no results; then we went across the hall and recruited management: Manager Perry, Personnel Manager Mazzeo, Program Annotator Burke, et al., still with no results, until finally Leonard Burkat said: “Why not just say that it’s the Impromptu in A flat Major, opus 53, Number 5 by Caesar Cui?” Why not indeed, and not a peep was heard from our listeners who were famous for not letting anything get by. So, to this day, as far as I (or anybody else) is concerned, that fool piece is the Impromptu in A flat Major, opus 53 Number 5 by Caesar Cui, which Cui never wrote.
Remotes: The Technical Challenges
Since the Orchestra recorded there, Symphony Hall was properly equipped for the purpose. Not so the rest of our musical venues.
The New England Conservatory had agreed to do a weekly Wednesday night broadcast by students and faculty members. Being a graduate of the school, I was given the assignment which, like all assignments, carried the thundering title Producer/Director. The Conservatory end of the broadcasts was handled by Jean Demos, a wonderful lady, beloved by all and one of the very few deans I have met with a ticket to heaven and not to hell. The programs were well planned and prepared, and students and faculty gave their all — sometimes a bit too much.
Felix Wolfes was a German musician of the old school and looked much like “Cuddles” Zakal; an old bachelor living only for music of which he had an encyclopaedic knowledge, and neglectful of anything but his one love. His concerts from the vocal repertoire were Wagnerian in length and filled with such arcana as a whole act from an opera by Pfitzner. Three hours was minimum and at intermission, oblivious of the broadcast, he would retire to his room for a nap; when after a half-hour the already meager “crowd noise” had dwindled to silence, I finally had to go and wake him in the face of Parker’s dogma that all faculty and what they did were sacred.
Only once did we cancel a concert. Ten minutes before air time, Arnold Moss, scheduled to narrate L’Histoire du Soldat, declared that he had not been properly cleared and refused to go on. It was a blessing since I was running a fever of 104. I told the engineer to pack up, let the station fill as it could, went home, called the doctor and found that I had viral pneumonia; I was out four weeks. Arnold, I love you!
Once Jean Demos had set up the program, I had to obtain the clearances, write the script, tote and help set up and tear down, run the broadcast and, on occasion, also announce myself — sometimes literally; I once announced a concert with a work of my own on it.
Back then, performers were only just coming to terms with, and were understandably leery of, the creeping technological invasion of their sacred playing space.
The Conservatory’s Jordan Hall concerts were live so we only took over, and later permanently installed, an amplifier, mikes, and other gear. To set up we had to drop stage lines, climb over catwalks, play catch from the balcony and generally improvise until, slowly, permanent solutions were developed — all of this to get a good sound while staying as invisible as possible. Modern rock performance has not only inured us to the forest of sound equipment, it has made it part of the event. Back then, performers were only just coming to terms with, and were understandably leery of, the creeping technological invasion of their sacred playing space.
Problems were similar at another favored venue, Sanders Theatre, a peculiar structure inside an even more peculiar High Victorian structure built to have a romantic silhouette by moonlight which is Harvard’s Civil War memorial. By happenstance it had the best acoustics in town; it also had a booth of sorts but no telephone line and no way to hang anything. Larry came up with a laundry line of the pulley type you run between apartment balconies and ran it from the balcony to the useless (since there were never any minstrels) Minstrel’s Gallery over the stage. It looked like Saturday at Mrs. O’Leary’s, but it worked. …
For all the concerts in lecture halls, student lounges, museum galleries and whatever, the old tote-the-Maggie procedure went on for a long time; the machines were unwieldy, and their fidelity could be questioned, but they were reliable, and with them WGBH stockpiled a massive file of local performances. By comparison, in the recent past I spent 20 years in Chicago and noted that WTTW, a well-heeled PBS-TV station that gets 75% or more of its money from local fund-raising, broadcast NO Chicago theatre, concerts, blues or jazz, and almost no dance or opera. Different times, different values.
Louis Lyons and the News
Feisty and crusty and something of an earlier-day Studs Terkel, Louis Lyons was a journalist of an older vintage … he talked about what was really happening and he told it like it was with the voice and delivery of a tug-boat captain.
Parker wanted a newscast but he did not want it read off the news ticker and he lucked out in finding an experienced newsman on the Harvard faculty. Feisty and crusty and something of an earlier-day Studs Terkel, Louis Lyons was a journalist of an older vintage; he had no patience with “featurettes,” “human interest,” “breaking stories” and all that window dressing; he talked about what was really happening and he told it like it was with the voice and delivery of a tug-boat captain.
He was an instant success and when he predicted the outcome of a presidential election ahead of the (then uncomputerized) networks, he not only made the network news himself, he became something of a legend.
Lyons had left the city room to take charge of the Harvard Nieman Fellowships in journalism, and ensconced as he now was in the roll-top-desk atmosphere of his cozy office, getting him to do the news was almost impossible. Larry did all the stroking that was needed and clinched the matter when he fixed it so that the news could be piped directly from Lyons’ hideaway. After the Symphony, Lyons’ idiosyncratic newscasts became the second mainstay of the station’s programming.
Programming for Children
Parker also wanted a children’s program that would be based on some educational theory and that would depart from the hysterical mayhem personified by Howdy-Doody, at that time the king of the kiddie mountain and generally regarded as the perfect small-fry fare by the commercial stations.
By our rules, there had to be a member source and, in this case, the only potential one was a Nursery Training School run by Tufts College; the biddies who ran it, however, were about as exciting as two hours of static. Once again the station lucked out. Working in public relations and placement for the school was an attractive woman in her thirties with a low, sexy voice that would have made a great torch singer had she had any idea of music, which she didn’t. On the air, however, it had an infectious warmth and from her standard opening “Hi!” she had the kids, and a lot of adults as well, eating out of her hand.
Jack, the original producer, left within a few weeks. There being no one else available, I acquired the show, and a partnership, that I look back on fondly, ensued which lasted some four award-winning years. Nancy H. (not to be confused with Nancy M.) wrote all the scripts herself, a mix of stories, playtime, and instruction, whose tone, long before Captain Kangaroo (Bob Keeshan was still on Howdy Doody), was laid-back and relaxed, talking on an even footing with the kids rather than down or at them. The often-complicated sound effects and the music were in my domain.
The powers at the Nursery Training School had a dictum that children’s music must be simple; I soon discovered that this meant music you can play with one finger.
The powers at the Nursery Training School had a dictum that children’s music must be simple; I soon discovered that this meant music you can play with one finger which reflected more on the NTS staff’s inept piano technique than on the children’s ears. So I went for the peppier passages by Stravinsky and Beethoven and Bartok with an occasional march or stomp — our opening theme was by Ibert, and our closer by Villa-Lobos (played by Rubinstein yet). The NTS was upset and Parker called me on the mat.
“As I see it,” he explained, “Nancy is a mother who has her child on her lap and is telling her a story; now in this setting she wouldn’t have a hundred-piece symphony behind her.” I was forced to point out that, outside of the fact that most of the music was not orchestral, the child would not have the foggiest idea if it took one or a thousand people to make the sound it was hearing. Besides, in this audio age, given the unlikely possibility that some mother actually acted out his scenario, there was a very good possibility that an orchestra would be playing in the background. Our music policy remained in place; my criterion for selecting the music was a broad extension of one-armed jazz trumpet player Wingy Manone’s saying “If you cain’t march to it, it ain’t music!” I figured this would get the kids up and hopping, and it did. …
The Perils of Production
Of all the incidents connected with producing the hundreds of Children’s Circle shows, one is engraved in my mind. At five o’clock there was a regular routine. Louis Lyons’ news would be recorded by telephone line from his Harvard office as the Children’s Circle tape for the day (recorded earlier that week) was on the air; the engineer had a tape specially for this purpose. Just before five he would erase the Lyons tape, put it on one machine, put Children’s Circle on another and, as soon as this latter was on the air, dial in Lyons and record him. One day, at 10 minutes to 5, I was sitting at my desk when dependable-as-a-rock Bill came up to me and said:
“I just wiped the Children’s Circle.”
“How much of it, Bill?”
“All of it.”
“All of it?”
“All of it.”
“ALL OF IT !!!!?”
Panic! Everybody stopped what they were doing; I called Nancy H. and had her grab a taxi; assembled what we could in music, sound effects, etc., jury- rigged what would have been “post-production” and we winged it live. We were a bit rough, but only five minutes late.
Children’s Circle was radio; three days a week Nancy H. sat cross-legged on the floor of the studio with her materials in an arc around her — a mannerism that her occasional guests adapted to — while the engineer and I operated from the control room. With this, and extended editing sessions, we cranked out five shows a week until TV came along. …
It would seem that I have concentrated on my role — but then this is a personal memoir. I carried a weekly live Jordan Hall concert, five Children’s Circles and at least two or three other concert pickups a week plus minutiae. All the staff carried equally heavy loads and we all averaged 70 to 90 hours a week for the first few years without, I might add, the benefit of either overtime or unemployment compensation when we left. Jordan carried the Symphony and our only DJ, G. Wallace Woodworth, the conductor of the Harvard and Radcliffe Chorus, who did a weekly pre-symphony program.
We built him a mobile pair of turntables where he played a game of Drop-the-Needle, while Briggs and Briggs (the Harvard Square store that loaned us records) gritted their teeth, exclaiming the while “Oh that’s not it!… yes, here we have it….now isn’t that superb? Tum-tah-dee-tum-tah (He “sang” with the records)..then there is this mighty chord!..Bum-da,” and so on. He never said much, but he gave you the impression you had learned a lot. …
Imagination Plus Elbow Grease
I could list the work of the others, including the miles and miles of tape edited from courses by Nancy M. and Jan, or the long list of poets reading their own works — including Dylan Thomas’ last such recording — or Jacob Bronowski’s brilliant MIT lectures years before his TV series. Real contributions, however, are just as often found, and more often ignored, in the mundane.
Much too much emphasis is placed nowadays on “qualifications.” Colleges, for example, demand that before teaching you have a doctorate, which only means that you have spent four more years and a lot more money in college and damn little else.
Neither Larry nor Ralph had “qualifications” that would get them anywhere near jobs as Program and Production Managers in a radio station in this day and age; yet they met the host of little problems that cropped up, like roaches in a tenement, armed only with native ingenuity and dedication, and they solved them as no broadcast executive I have since met could have. …
Announcers were a particular problem. Parker had co-opted the Symphony; his laid-back approach came across like Will Rogers without the jokes, but it got by. For the day-to-day announcing we
went through an array of full- time and part-time people and the occasional production staff member without ever getting really on track. Two major issues were avoiding the rapid fire, high pressure delivery of the commercial announcers, and getting people to pronounce the names of composers and performers accurately.
Of all our failures, Hugh was the worst. Hugh had no intention of staying in Educational Broadcasting and was using his stay at WGBH as a place to practice his fast-paced delivery, to the point where he could make a car salesman sound tongue-tied, and he paid no attention whatsoever to Ralph’s admonitions.
And as for names, he could not have cared less. Moussorgsky was unfailingly Moussgorsky. He introduced the orchestral version of Pictures at an Exhibition as being by “Moussgorsky Ravel.” Ralph took him aside and explained that the piece was by Moussorgsky and was arranged by Ravel. When we later broadcast Scheherezade, Hugh told our audience that it was by Rimsky, arranged by Korsakov. That did it.
Bill Pierce to the Rescue
When Parker at last relinquished his hold on the Symphony, we finally got a full-time man who understood our needs, William Pierce. Besides a fine voice, his delivery was relaxed without being somnolent, informal without being folksy; add to this an ability to stay clear of the internecine strife that bedeviled the station in its TV days, and as a result Bill Pierce remained the voice of the Boston Symphony for many, many years.
In spite of the overwork, the staff was a partying crowd. The parties ran late, and usually somebody there was next day’s announcer, since this was generally a weekend and on weekends everybody pitched in.
At the end of the first week of broadcasting, the Boston Symphony threw us a party and a grand celebration it was. The job of tending bar was given to the Symphony Hall maintenance men, good Irishmen all, whose idea of a drink was a shot of soda in a water glass, fill with bourbon and light on the ice; they had the station and Symphony staffs and a lot of the orchestra hammered beyond recall in no time at all.
For an anniversary party, a couple of the producers put together a half-hour “program” which was a parody of the then very popular Dragnet. It had send-ups of the various WGBH programs all run together by a search by Friday and his sidekick Bill Gannon for the murderers of Educational Broadcasting. The climax of the show was the exchange:
Friday: “I’ve solved the case, it wasn’t murder”
Gannon: “Not murder?!”
Gannon: “Then what was it?”
… and the Dragnet theme crashed in fortissimo.
The words were somewhat prophetic, not for Educational Broadcasting as it grew into Public Broadcasting as we know it now, but for that special kind of naive enthusiasm that marked the early days.
Gearing up for TV
TV was still new and it was still glamorous. We were barely out of the Milton Berle era and coast-to-coast hookups had just come in. In many ways it was the golden age of television with such programs as Playhouse90 and Studio One presenting serious new plays by talented new people like Paddy Chayevsky. Videotape had not come in and everything was live.
The Ford Foundation funded Omnibus and we all went forward into the new medium feeling that we were to be the saviors of the wasteland. As it has turned out, we were not; all that Omnibus left behind was Alistair Cooke, and Educational Broadcasting fathered the middlebrow magazine formats of many modern Public TV stations. But we are getting ahead of the story.
WGBH moved out of its Symphony Hall quarters, which went back to being a museum, and moved into a disused roller-skating rink on top of a strip of stores facing MIT on Massachusetts Avenue.
WGBH moved out of its Symphony Hall quarters, which went back to being a museum, and moved into a disused roller-skating rink on top of a strip of stores facing MIT on Massachusetts Avenue. The radio production crew, all hooked on the tube and dreaming God knows what dreams of glory, were retreaded into a combination of producer, director, and technical director. All three functions — preparing the program, ordering the cameras around and pushing the buttons and the fade bar — were handled by the same man.
Hartford went on being business manager and more, as we shall see. On the grounds that TV, being more complex, needed experienced people, Larry and Ralph did not move into administrative spots. Judging from what happened, they would have done as well as the men that took over.
George Probst had been brought in by Parker before the move and now became “Number One” (in navy parlance). Tactless remarks to faculty members got him fired and he was replaced by Ted, a pleasant man, who said of one of the old timers, “The trouble with him is that he is too talented. …”
The new Director of Production was Colby Lewis, who was experienced, able, and sympathetic. Parker’s deals and many ideas were in the right place, but his administrative style was lamentable. Colby couldn’t take it and quit just as the production staff was shifting into gear for the opening. With air time only a few weeks away, a hurry-up decision was made, and Paul, who had been hired to be in charge of film, was promoted to Director of Production and proved to be both incompetent and vindictive. The “experience” the new men brought proved illusory and, more important, they lacked both the conviction and with it the ability to improvise that the old crew had had; no 90 hour weeks for them, thank you very much!
Programming also changed. Remotes were now impossible. Concerts had to be set up so that they could be brought into the studio, which was both more limiting and more complicated. Louis Lyons had to abandon the safety of his office, and professors retired to the safety of their classrooms. The talking heads proliferated like Brussels sprouts. Children’s Circle vanished; however, a nature show for older students was superbly put together by an indefatigable and iron-willed lady called Mary Lela Grimes, who had an awe-inspiring ability to walk rough-shod over any obstacle in the program’s path. She had an volunteer assistant [Charles Walcott] who, with the aid of special lenses and things, could set up the most amazing shots; by dint of careful planning and timing, the two of them had a bat born on the air in close-up — both the bat and the program were live.
The Museum of Fine Arts & Images
One interesting program came my way and took the place of Children’s Circle, for me at least. Parker had found that the Museum of Fine Arts had a large file of slides and pictures mounted on cards. He thought that here was an inexpensive way of filling a daily half-hour and conceived of a program called Images, which would show a dozen or so pictures to the accompaniment of music; again there was nobody else available so I got the call.
It became obvious right away that Parker’s original format was not going to work. Asking someone to stare at an unmoving picture for two to three minutes might be OK in a lecture, but it would have TV viewers reaching for the dial in no time at all and with good reason. The Museum, however, had a competent educational department and my counterpart there was a very able lady called Narcissa Williamson; under her guidance, they turned to with a will and did their best to turn out the necessary number of scripts. At the station we designed a setup of rear screen
projectors and easels so that two cameras could pick off details, pan across or dolly in and out (electronic zoom was not yet available) for anything up to 120 slides and/or pictures a program. Recorded music would be played with the visuals and a reader — as often as not a guest — would read a synchronized script.
Images often wandered off into old clocks, bugs, old ships, sports cars, and even dramatizations of such stories as Wilde’s The Happy Prince or Poe’s The Telltale Heart.
All of this was done live five times a week. As anyone who has seen The Civil War knows, this kind of technique is now commonly used (though never live) but back then it was an innovation. The Museum could not keep up with the daily pace, so I filled in with programs using slides from other museums and from private collections; thus Images often wandered off into old clocks, bugs, old ships, sports cars, and even dramatizations of such stories as Wilde’s The Happy Prince or Poe’s The Telltale Heart. It is a pity that, since tape had not yet arrived, none of these programs was preserved.
WGBH-FM went on the air explosively with the Boston Symphony Orchestra; WGBH-TV was born with much less fanfare. We started late in the afternoon and shut down fairly early. To a new children’s program, Come and See, went the honor of putting the station on the air (unless you count Bill Pierce’s sign on). I then followed with Images, then Louis Lyons and a film about Shakespeare that cleared the studio in preparation for my evening feature which was a mixed bag from the New England Conservatory — a brass ensemble, a couple of solos, and two opera scenes, closing with the first act duet from La Boheme. Not an overwhelming presentation but what do you want, Cecil B. De Mille? There was no big party and if there had been it would not have been the same, since the Symphony Hall maintenance men would not have been thereto hammer us into oblivion.
Next to the TV studio there was a radio studio about the size of the old one, with its own control room, and here a much reduced radio schedule was continued. The radio studio had a window into the main TV studio; Lord knows why it was put there but it turned out to be a fortunate idea since the Louis Lyons news was done by shooting him through that window and simulcasting him through the radio control room. Outside of that, everything not on film (or better, kinescope) had to be set up, rehearsed, and broadcast in the one main studio, which sported a total of one boom mike and three cameras — two dolly and one tripod (no crane of any kind). The traffic problems were immense and frayed tempers a matter of course.
Radio had had its frictions, flare-ups, and conflicts, but it was surprisingly low on internecine politics. Atone point the crew threatened a strike, primarily because of the hours, but it is characteristic that, in good faith, they offered a list of suggestions for improving the station’s efficiency. However, the engineers, without whose support it wouldn’t fly, had far better deals than the production staff and were therefore lukewarm; thus the strike faded away but nobody got fired.
TV was different. Paul had earned no respect from the old timers; he knew this and resented it, and he wanted them out. At the same time Hartford had been exasperated by Parker’s inefficiency for a long time and he had his own agenda. Hartford — wanted to introduce “proper business procedures” and stamp out the old free-and-easy ways. Boardman (Boardie) O’Connor and Rocky Coe were our set designers; they were brilliant, hard working and drinking, and pure theatre to their very eyeballs. When a prestigious MIT professor, who also happened to be its “Radio and Television Co-ordinator,” knocked the large camera tripod clean through the cyclorama, tearing it to shreds, Boardie was understandably furious and cursed the professor out in language that would have made a Mississippi river boat pilot proud. Boardie was fired and the professor was apologized to.
There had never been any personnel files at the station; someone would say “You’re hired” and you went to work. Hartford felt that this was poor business procedure, that there should be complete files and that they should be retroactive. So he designed, and told us all to fill in, ludicrously detailed forms. The attitude of the old hands was “Are you serious!?” and we filled them out in as jocular a manner as we could dream up; so help me they went into the files just that way. Sometime later, after I had left the station, I applied to the Voice of America for a job and the FBI checked me out. They found that form in the station files and, since they had even less humor than Elliot Ness, they ran around town asking all kinds of embarrassing questions. Dear Larry didn’t help when, being asked if I was homosexual, blurted out “Hell no, quite the opposite!” and the FBI now went about its inquiry with me pegged as several degrees riper than Dorian Gray.
The Blow-up of ’57
Then came the Spring Of The Long Knives. Parker had made the mistake of letting Hartford handle all the business dealings with Ralph Lowell and, since this made up the major part of these dealings and since these two men could talk businessman to businessman, which Lowell and Parker could not, Hartford had a very big foot in the door. Rule number one: Never give the Grand Vizier the keys to the gun closet.
The Byzantine details need not concern us here. Ralph, sensing the direction the wind was blowing in, had left on a project of his own. I went next and then came Parker, no less, fired by Lowell? Finally the very next day, with the way clear, Hartford unloaded Ted and Larry, and the slate was almost clean.
Hartford was stuffy but not stupid; he could not possibly have wanted to share power with the likes of Paul over the long haul, so he must have known that Paul would self-destruct; that, given time, he would hoist himself on his own petard, and he did.
This was the time of a grand piece of international co-operation called The International Geophysical Year. WGBH got the job of making a series of documentaries covering the IGY; Paul was the producer, and a grand job of posturing he did too, including trips to Antarctica. However, when the time came to show some finished product, there was blessed little of it to show. Paul left under a cloud and Hartford was king of the mountain until he moved up to take over the helm of the national PBS, where he remained until near his death.
The Great Fire — and Beyond
The station had acquired some young men with ambitions in the TV field, young men not unlike the youngsters who started radio, who were willing to work very hard for very little and who were primarily used as grips. One of them was Bob Moscone.
One night he was passing the closed-down station when he detected suspicious signs; letting himself in he found the station aflame. He called in the alarm and then made heroic attempts to save the film library. The station, and the whole block of stores, and with it all the audio tapes that recorded the FM station’s achievement, were reduced to ashes.
There would be support from the public, from commercial broadcasting, from foundations, from everywhere, and WGBH would rise from the ashes with its own building [designed under Hartford’s supervision] up near the Harvard stadium, but now it was just a television station. The fire brought to an end the era where that group of badly overworked, grossly underpaid, imaginative young maniacs who did not know a microphone from a zebra when they began made, for better or for worse, what is now a Public Broadcasting reality.
Excerpts from One Way to Run a Railroad: Memories of the First Days of WGBH by Ray Wilding-White © 1993