In a World All Its Own (1955)

When we did simulcasts on radio and TV, my station break announcement sounded like this: “This is the Lowell Institute Cooperative Broadcasting Council…WGBH-FM at 89.7 megacycles and WGBH-TV, channel 2, in Boston.”

I joined the staff of WGBH-FM-TV in 1955. The two stations identified themselves as “noncommercial and educational” because those were the days when the dream of educating the public through radio and television was still alive. Yes, there was “alternative” programming, such as string quartet broadcasts, opera telecasts, and the like, but the emphasis was on instruction and education, ranging from “The Crust of the Earth,” a geology course on radio, to “The Romagnolis’ Table,” a cooking show on television.

Those were the days when the dream of educating the public through radio and television was still alive.

Because film for kinescope recordings was expensive and videotape was just coming into use —and because neither National Public Radio nor the corporation for Public Broadcasting had formed as yet to provide network programming — both WGBH-FM and its sister station WGBH-TV had to manufacture almost all their own shows, which went on the air “live” from studios converted from a roller skating rink at 84 Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge.

The facility was right across the street from MIT. The radio station signed on at 3:30 in the afternoon, the television station two hours later. Both stations were off the air by 11 in the evening. Years later, the TV operation evolved into a powerhouse PBS production center, but even in its horse-and-buggy days it commanded a great deal of respect. Jack Gould, an influential critic with the New York Times, spent several days at both stations, then wrote a glowing review for his newspaper.

My assignment was to serve as staff announcer for about fifteen to twenty hours a week while I was working toward degrees at Emerson College and then at Harvard. That meant working every weekend and one or two evenings a week for the radio station during the academic year, then filling in for a month or so on both radio and television during the summer while full-time staff members were on vacation. Compared to what I had done to keep a small station in my hometown on the air, the workload at WGBH was light. Technicians handled all the control room procedures. A staff of producers developed all the programs. The announcer was supposed to concentrate on what he was saying, which was fine by me.

Besides handling all the station breaks, the openings and closings of programs, and continuity for the live and taped classical music broadcasts, I had a newscast to prepare and deliver each Saturday. At that point I came under the jurisdiction of one Louis M. Lyons, a veteran of Boston newspapers before becoming curator of the Nieman Fellowships, the journalism fellowships, at Harvard.

On television Lyons looked like a slightly buffed-up Will Rogers, an individual who wouldn’t spend much money on clothing because, after all, there are far more important concerns in life. His newscasts aired on every weekday evening at 6:30. He always signed on with, “Well, here’s the news.”  Approximately 15 minutes later, he would sign off with, “Well, that’s the news.”

He won numerous Peabody Awards, broadcasting’s most prestigious honor, for local newscasts. Part of his appeal, I think, was that he was the antithesis of the smooth, polished television anchor. One time, on camera he told the young intern who was the floor director, “Young man, don’t give me that warning sign. Unless station policy has changed, I can expand this newscast if I want to. Now, you check that out.” When he finished his report, he again looked up at the floor manager, who was thoroughly embarrassed, and said,  “Did you check that out, young man?” and followed with his, “Well, that’s the news.”

The depth and intelligence of commentaries far exceeded those of Huntley and Brinkley or Walter Cronkite, the network news stars of the time.

He was the stereotype of the crusty, taciturn Yankee, never greeting anyone, never engaging in small talk, never smiling or revealing a trace of warmth. He was the unfriendliest person I had ever met. But, oh my, he was a journalist’s journalist. He would report and analyze news events concisely and incisively. A skilled interviewer, he had some great guests, including Z. K. Brezinski, then at the Russian Research Center at Harvard, who went on to advise President Carter on Soviet matters. When national political conventions came around, Lyons was something to behold. The depth and intelligence of his commentaries far exceeded those of Huntley and Brinkley or Walter Cronkite, the network news stars of the time.

So Louis M. Lyons was my boss whenever I did national or international news on radio. He didn’t make the task easy. Refusing to subscribe to the Associated Press or United Press radio and TV wire services, which offered scripts prepared in the broadcast manner, Lyons insisted on the newspaper wires, necessitating a complete rewrite on every story because newspaper-style sentences were too long and ungainly for the air. A salutary result was that the WGBH newscasts sounded like no other Boston station’s.

“Why did you start with that story?’ or  “You buried the lead three paragraphs into the story!” or  “Watch your spelling! Don’t you have a dictionary?”  Yes, he corrected my spelling even though the audience could not detect a spelling mistake. Lyons would listen to the newscast, then give me my report card —   usually by way of a quickly typed memo. When I stopped getting these nasty notes from him, I assumed my skills were improving. His only problem was that, as a newspaper veteran,  he never caught on to the fact that stories intended for the ear, not the eye, often had to be structured differently. I wasn’t about to educate him.

Lyons wasn’t the only eccentric on board. The station manager at the time, for both radio and television, was James Parker Wheatley. In the late 40s, Wheatley helped spearhead the Lowell Institute Cooperative Broadcasting Council, a consortium of about a dozen institutions that included Harvard, MIT, Boston University, the Boston Symphony, and the Museum of Fine Arts, among others. However, the major force was Ralph Lowell, scion of one of Boston’s most distinguished families, chairman of the State Street Bank and Trust, and head of the Lowell Institute, one of the city’s oldest educational philanthropies.

Wheatley started producing programs with topics like “Great Books of Our Century” and begging commercial radio stations to give him airtime. A station like WEEI, then the CBS affiliate, would typically give him 5:30 Sunday morning or some other time it couldn’t sell.

After a few years, he followed Ralph Lowell’s lead in launching an FM station with members of the education consortium chipping in to produce and air programs. At the outset, studios were in Symphony Hall, home of the Boston Symphony, which might sound impressive, but the first time I auditioned I had to dodge rats scurrying in the alley that led to the station entrance.

One Boston newspaper critic said to his readers, “Be sure to get an FM radio and tune into WGBH. It’s in a world all its own.”

Much of the early programming was esoteric, to say the least. One Sunday evening, the station broadcast a BBC production of a tragedy by Sophocles in the original classical Greek — with flute interludes. Probably, in the entire listening area there were three professors of Greek listening to that one. Anthony LaCamera, a Boston newspaper critic, said to his readers, “Be sure to get an FM radio and tune into WGBH. It’s in a world all its own.”

About five years later, in the early’50s, Wheatley went on to run WGBH-TV, which shared facilities with the FM station, relocated to the converted roller skating rink. That arrangement may sound makeshift and, by today’s standards, it certainly was primitive. However, both stations had good studios for the time and some of the best equipment in Boston. The production staff was talented, hard working, and resourceful.

Staff producer Lou Barlow had a weekly program, “Performance,” on every Monday night at eight o’clock. He would produce a recital one week, an opera the next, and a drama the week after that. Everything was live and in black and white. There was no videotape to enable repeat telecasts. How he maintained such a schedule week after week I do not know.

Wheatley was able to recruit a capable staff, drawn largely from other Boston stations, who were fed up with the idiocy of commercial television, even though WGBH paid just the average Boston salaries — or so we were told. Although no one discussed this topic, I think almost everyone was dedicated to providing better programming that you could find in television’s “vast wasteland,” to use a phrase of an FCC commissioner at that time. However, it wasn’t the Garden of Eden. Wheatley was abusive of his staff and rarely kept a secretary more than six months.

Old Parker was one of a kind, though. During the winter he walked around Boston  wearing a football helmet. (Well, he wasn’t going to slip on the ice, fall, and hurt his head was he?) He had a phobia about germs. At a banquet, before using his silverware, he would dip it into the water glass and wipe the knife, fork, and spoon on his napkin. He had a couple of dogs, bloodhounds I think, that would sometimes accompany him to work. One time, when he was conducting a live interview on the radio station, the dogs wrapped themselves around the microphone cable and pulled the mic off the table. Wheatley simply picked up the mic and continued the interview with no explanation to the listeners.

During the Boston Symphony’s regular season, he announced the Saturday evening concerts from Symphony Hall. At the end of one broadcast, Wheatley announced, “The time is now seven minutes past ten. Good night.” Dead air and then Parker’s voice came back on. “This is Parker Wheatley once again. Mr. William Busiek, our superb Symphony engineer …” (and then he launched into a five-minute biography of Bill Busiek) “…Mr. William Busiek has just informed me that the time is not seven minutes past ten, it is twelve minutes past ten. Once again, good night.”  Jordan Whitelaw, another Peabody Award winner, produced the Symphony broadcasts. He told Wheatley that, if he weren’t the station manager, he would have been fired as the announcer long ago.

I did some of the Boston Symphony’s broadcasts myself, the highlight of my announcing career. For three summers, I announced all the concerts from Tanglewood, the orchestra’s summer home in the Berkshires, in the western part of Massachusetts. Only I wasn’t at Tanglewood. WGBH-FM sent Whitelaw, the chief music producer, and a technician to Tanglewood, where they recorded the weekend concerts all summer long and sent the edited tapes with accompanying continuity via Greyhound bus back to Boston. Fred Gardner, the office boy, would pick up the tapes at the Greyhound terminal, and that evening the station would broadcast “another concert from the Berkshire Music Festival.” The announcer’s voice, my voice, was superimposed live.

Though the programs were scripted, I had to learn something about classical music to sound as if I knew what I was talking about. I took college courses and read voraciously. To deal with titles plus the names of composers and artists, I had to learn to pronounce various foreign languages: French, German, Italian, Russian, and Spanish through classroom instruction and phonograph records, Church Latin through the kindness of a neighborhood priest.

Sometimes, I would be looking through the records on sale at the Krey Music Company on Tremont Street when I would come across a performer’s name I did not know how to pronounce. Typically, it would be some obscure Eastern European conductor or soloist whose last name had eight consonants and one vowel. (The first name would invariably be “Eggy.”) I would panic, because I knew for sure that this name would appear in continuity within a week.

Later on, the Boston Symphony concerts were recorded and syndicated for greater distribution. Radio stations throughout this country and the world carried the orchestra’s broadcasts. For decades Bill Pierce, WGBH’s chief announcer, was the host.

During the regular concert season, I moved to weeknight performances at the New England Conservatory of Music, where I announced concerts and recitals by advanced students and faculty members. At times, these programs were heavy going, featuring whole evenings of Schoenberg lieder, for example, that presumably showcased the young singers’ talent. Sometimes, on a snowy evening in February, there would be only a handful of audience members in an auditorium that seated about 400.

For each broadcast the technician, producer, and I set up a remote “studio” in a cage that was off stage right. I had to use a strongly directional microphone because the artists, after their performances, would call to their friends in the wings, “Hey, I’ll meet you at the Lobster Claw!” a favorite watering hole just down the street. I enjoyed these performances by so many talented young people. It is hard not to think about what may have happened to them in a cultural marketplace that rewards only “greatness,” not mere competence.

Wheatley put together a unique broadcasting organization, which he told me twenty years later, he had wanted to be a “model for the world.”

So James Parker Wheatley put together a unique broadcasting organization, which he told me twenty years later, he had wanted to be a “model for the world.”

In 1957 Ralph Lowell fired him, and no one was quite sure why. He may have run into philosophical problems when the board of directors decided to transform WGBH into a production center. Or Wheatley’s haphazard administrative style may have done him in. Or perhaps his nonconformist behavior finally proved too much for Ralph Lowell, the staid Boston banker, who was ultimately in charge. Or who knows?

Whatever the reason, Wheatley did not seem bitter about events when a mutual acquaintance brought us together in St. Louis in the mid ‘70s. Of course, by then he had plenty of time to recover. He was something of a celebrity in St. Louis and worked past the usual retirement age at KMOX-TV until new owners acquired the station. He was well into his nineties when he died in a nursing home in St. Louis. Years ago, he had been married and then divorced, but I noticed in the obituary there were no survivors.

He was one-of-a-kind and so was his brainchild. Yes, he did attract an eclectic group of eccentrics, and these people could be hard to know and harder to like, but they were all bright, talented, and dedicated. They all made their contribution to one of the most stimulating environments in which I’ve worked.

The intelligence and the creativity that pervaded the operation, and its outstanding reputation as a broadcasting pioneer, made me proud to be part of it. My nearly three years at WGBH stand as a meaningful chapter early in my career, and I am grateful for that.

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