WGBH Pioneers: Michael Ambrosino – Part 2 (1998)

This entry is part 4 of 11 in the series The Michael Ambrosino Collection

Michael Ambrosino — the creator of NOVA — describes his early years at WGBH, an era of live and live-on-tape TV productions at the 84 Massachusetts Avenue studio in Cambridge.

Watch Video — Part 2 (57 minutes)

Transcript — Part 2

INTERVIEWER: June 18, 1998, the second hour of a conversion with Michael Ambrosino.

Michael we were talking about the fire at WGBH in 1961.

Do you remember any great stories about the fire?

MICHAEL AMBROSINO: Well, we were very lucky because several days before the fire, two cameras had been moved into a million mile Greyhound Bus that was sitting out back.

It was going to be the big mobile unit for ‘GBH.

And the day before the fire I think two black and white videotape recorders were moved in and that equipment plus loaned equipment from the Catholic TV Center allowed us to go back on the air the next Monday.

But after the insurance money came in and we bought new equipment and that was put to use,

we still had those two ancient black and white videotape recorders and Hartford had, or I guess the chief engineer had, contacted a company that specialized in the repair of damaged videotape.

And of course, you forget that when you have a fire, there’s water everywhere.

And there was soot, and there was muck, and there were pieces of charred paper and wood and pieces of the roof…

and this was all sitting in sodden masses on all the very delicate electronic gear.

And the company proposed something like $15,000 to repair each recorder and there was no way the station could pay that as well as, but we had the other two recorders and that would be fine.

And they said, oh, you’re the Boston station that burned down, the educational station?

Oh well, that’s different.

We’ll tell you what we do and you do that and you see if it works.

You take all the stuff out of the videotape recorders and you mix one part Vel and one part water, and you paint everything with it.

And then you hose it down and then you plug it in.

If it blows up, you replace it.

And this is what they were going to do for $15,000.

And that’s what the engineers did and most of the stuff had dried out sufficiently in the week with fans and with heaters.

And stuff they plugged in, blew up, and they replaced that.

And so we had four black and white tape recorders.

But if you’ve ever wondered how some commercial companies make their money that’s one of them.

It was no fun for three years operating out of seven or eight different locations.

The inner cohesiveness of the station really fell apart for awhile: management in one place and studios in another.

It meant very long days and great difficulty of moving things back and forth.

It was hard.

INT: So, you had mentioned the Eastern Educational Television Network.

Can you explain it a little bit more?

You had moved from the in-school programming now to the EEN?

MA: I was at home with the flu one day and Hartford Gunn called me at home and said,

I want you to help start a regional network of public educational TV stations in the Northeast.

There were two at the time, New Hampshire and Boston.

And we got together at Mittersill, and we actually planned with what were Boston and a bunch of committee Heads — Vermont ETV Commission, university presidents, League of Women voters — groups that had been for years testifying to committees trying to raise money to do this.

And, step by step, we actually put together a network which transmitted programs off the air to other people’s transmitters and kept relaying these signals from station to station and instituted videotape exchange.

We’d get together every three or four months and figure out what else we could exchange.

We had a huge staff, a secretary and me.

And the first job was to help get stations on the air and to exchange programs with them,

to start to build what eventually became the country’s first interconnected educational TV network …

which ranged from Boston up through Maine and up through Vermont through New Hampshire out to Western Mass, down to New York and Washington.

INT: When was that Michael?

MA: These were in the ’60s.

I joined in ’60 and left in ’64.

In that time, we had not only become an interconnected entity, but had invited places like San Francisco and other stations around the country to join us in the tape network in an informal way.

And that was good because it was the beginning of what has become the American Program Service which is a sort of public television secondary network and is now doing a lot of origination and commissioning rather than just distributing programs.

INT: Just to rehash, when you first came it was a local station broadcasting live for a very few hours a day and then eventually went to kinescope and tape and from then it went to a rotation of tapes and broadcasting on a small regional network.

MA: Remember this was not all the day.

We were signing on at about 5:00 and going off the air at 10:00 everyday, every weekday, and then Saturday was added and then School Broadcasting was added in the morning and then we go dark from 12:00 to 2:00 and School Broadcasting would come back on for an hour or so and then we’d go dark.

It was a lot of what was called test pattern.

You kept your test pattern up because when the man came to your house with the TV set, and he put it in your living room, and he plugged it in and connected to the antenna, he wanted to see a test pattern because that’s what he used to make sure that the tube gave you a real circle.

And the test pattern and music filled much of the air in those days.

And then we expanded to Sunday and then the hours groped up to 11:00 and at 11:00 we all went to bed.

INT: Did we have an audience in those early days?

MA: Yes we had an audience in those days.

It was always more than the little old gray- haired ladies in Cambridge, which we were always accused of broadcasting to.

And even in those days, I remember discovering that people loved to learn — they hate to be taught, but they love to learn — and the proverbial cab driver would, if they knew you were from ‘GBH, would start telling you of programs that they had seen.

It wasn’t a big audience, but it was a very devoted one.

It’s not a big audience now, if you measure it up against the top 20 commercial shows, but I invite everybody to do a little experiment once a year.

If the newspapers ever print not just the top 20 shows, but the next 70 shows so all those programs that get cancelled over a season, that pulls 2’s and 3’s and 4’s, you realize that the programs on public broadcasting outdraw many of the programs that are 30 ranked and 40 ranked and 50 ranked on commercial television.

It’s just that we always hold ourselves up to those shows that are the blockbusters.

The audience is a genuinely connected one.

INT: So up to ’64 you were kind of deeply involved in the setup of the Eastern Educational Network?

MA: I was a suit, yeah.

INT: What happened in’64?

MA: Well, let me tell you one story about what happened before that because it was fun.

Those were the druggie days and Tim Leary was coming to MIT to give a lecture.

It was going to be difficult to film because it was going to be a lecture by candlelight.

A very enterprising Austin Hoyt grabbed Bloyd Estes and they went and shot this lecture and came home and started to edit it and it was going to be a wonderful local program.

The network heard about it and wanted it ready for the network and it was made for the network.

It consisted of Tim Leary with one candle glowing on the stage, sitting cross- legged at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium basically telling the kids they were fools.

They should not go to MIT.

They should dropout.

They should drop acid and they should really learn about themselves.

And for 20 minutes he held the kids spellbound.

And then Jerry Letvin stood up.

Jerry Letvin, Professor Letvin, is a physicist and a psychologist, M.D. doctor.

Not only was he very learned and had done a lot of research, some of it with Tim Leary, but he was the MIT guru.

When you were in trouble you went to Jerry, and Jerry, between smoking all his cigarettes, would tell you how he could help you.

And so he stood up and said to, directly to Tim Leary, who was still seated cross-legged by his feet, “Tim, we’re friends, we’ve done work together.

“Tell me as a clinician, what is it when a person hears smells and sees sounds, two weeks after dropping acid.”

And Tim looked up at him and said, “Oh I’d called him a visionary mystic!”

Oh, and the crowd went wild.

That was a nice put down.

And Letvin said, “Bullshit.

“It’s a … hematoma and you know God damn well it is”.

And for the next 20 minutes he sabotaged Tim Leary and told the kids what happens when they dropped acid to the chemicals in their brain.

This was a wonderful program, it was offered to the network.

In those days, you made 40 tapes, sent it to the top 40 stations, they played them a week, dropped them to the next 40 stations, they played them and on it ran.

And the stations complained.

Not that Tim Leary for 20 minutes was given an audience to tell the kids to drop acid, burn their brains, not that Jerry Letvin had savaged another human being without being chastised for 20 minutes, in the cruelest possible fashion.

But that Jerry Letvin had said, “bullshit.”

And they asked the program to be edited.

‘GBH refused.

So they edited themselves, sent out 40 new tapes to 40 stations.

The stations complained.

Why did they complain? Because Jerry Letvin now said “bullsh…”. because in those days, you edited by taking the tape on the two inch reels and moving it over the sound head.

So, WGBH finally decided it would edit it.

A third set of 40 tapes was sent out to the network.

But as Director of the Eastern Educational Network, I informed my stations that they would have, if they wished, the unexpurgated feed from WGBH.

And of course, they all said yes.

First amendment!We will stand by our rights! We will say the dirty word! And then the telephone calls started coming in.

Well, we’ve had a meeting of our Advisory Committee and we….

so in the end, as with most stupid or brave things, only San Francisco and ‘GBH were going to run the offending word.

That is why my son Jonathan is named for John Rice who was then Program Manager, KQED San Francisco.

And that evening, only those two stations were to broadcast the offense … except the microwave linked north failed about one minute before 9:00.

A very astute transmitter engineer at WENH decided, I know what I’ll do I’ll save the day, I will pick up the off air feed from ‘GBH.

So in the end New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine with their managers knowing full well the offending word would not be there.

It says something about broadcasting then and now that the offense was a word rather than a thought.

It says something about public broadcasting, something about commercial television and I always remember it as sort of a pivotal idea that certain things really bring offense that big ideas don’t and it’s a big shame

INT: Terrific story, terrific story.

MA: It was true.

INT: So at the end of’64 where were you at that particular moment?

MA: Tired of being a suit.

I realized that my future in public broadcasting was probably going to take over the National Association of Educational Broadcasters.

You know that just seemed like more administration, I didn’t want to run a station.

And I told Bob Larson that he was overworked.

What he really needed was an assistant program manager and I knew somebody who could fill the job.

I then left the network and became Assistant Program Manager to Bob Larsen and suggested Don Quayle, who had radio experience and television experience and had been radio manager here at WGBH and he took over as my replacement at EEN and built it into the empire that it is today.

He ran it for four years and then John Porter took over and ran it for 20 years.

INT: Well, what did you do when you were Assistant Program Manager?

What are your great accomplishments?

MA: Oh yes, I scheduled the station.

I decided what programs went where, you know, obviously with Bob’s concurrence and changes.

I helped oversee local programming and national programming and continued doing that up until 1969.

INT: What was in your early years of Assistant Program Manager, what was a day like?

How would a ‘GBH programming day run?

What would you see on the air?

MA: Where’s my list?

INT: Well sort of, I mean, you don’t have to have it exact.

MA: Well it was interesting.

We were then really expanding what we were doing.

There were a lot of arts programs.

It was usually high arts.

I mean if it was music, it was classical music.

Too, there was a jazz program.

But it would be…

instead of the one or two camera with one piano, it would be the symphony broadcast or it would be music in rehearsal, it would be opera.

There would be dance.

There was dance early, even in 84 Mass Avenue, we made the national program “A Time to Dance” that Greg Harney directed, Jac Venza produced, and it had all of the great names of dance.

I mean, it is a treasure trove for the dance historian.

Julia Child had started by then because we had the mobile unit in the post fire days.

Those programs were recorded in Cambridge.

You forget that it was very hard.

Dave Stuart, just did a recent piece in “Current” about Julia and he left out an essential point, I thought.

Hartford could not sell Julia to public broadcasting.

It wasn’t serious enough, it wasn’t high art enough.

There was a meeting of the television stations of the nation in Denver.

We all met in a bar in one of the ghost towns out in the woods in Denver, and Hill Bermont, the program manager of Georgia, Atlanta, Georgia, made a very impassioned speech that it was all too high art and he ended by screaming at Curt Davis, “When, when will we stoop to Swan Lake?”

And the answer was never!

It was only after Curt Davis left as being head of “Culture” did we “stoop” to something that was as prominent a ballet as Swan Lake.

The stations were now starting to do what were real political programs, documentaries about the way the nation worked and about the way the nation didn’t work.

So that “NET Journal” and you know we would try to feed programs into that.

I had seen a fellow called George Page who had done a documentary in Georgia called “Blockbusting Atlanta Style” — a wonderful program about how white real estate operators would try to introduce a black family into certain neighborhoods, the rest of the families would flee, the real estate operators would buy the houses up very cheap, sell them dear to black families.

And Hartford was looking for a documentary producer and I suggested he look at George.

George was working here several weeks later and he and Don Fauser and Austin Hoyt started making many of those early series and programs that tried to analyze the way this country was working at the time.

INT: And George Page then went on to WNET?

MA: WNET did more documentaries and then became the person in charge of “Nature” and ran that series into the great series that it is today.

INT: And George Page’s voice is well associated I think with public television.

What are some of the other important things that you were doing?

MA: “The Reporters”.

I was fascinated with the uproar at this station some years ago when the “Nightly News” went off the air because I had lived through several uproars like that in the past.

An educational station just doesn’t have enough resources to have a real news presence in the community.

The first news programs were basically talk with Louie Lyons and they never really progressed much further than that: a 15-minute reading of AP wire copy.

There were a variety of strikes that went on in the newspaper industry, and KQED, probably the most resourceful of the educational stations at the time, created something called “Newsroom” in which they brought all the reporters in and basically looked as if they were having an editorial meeting and they would say, Fred, what’s the story on your page today?

And Fred would say what the important news happened in his area and then he would be questioned by the other people as they would in an editorial meeting.

WGBH did one of those as well and out of that grew the idea that well maybe we could have a nightly news presence and I forget what the first one was called.

I’ve got it written down here as the “Reporters.”

INT: I think you’re right.

It started from a Globe newspaper strike and then it led to the “Reporters.” Wasn’t Allan Lupo one of the first….

MA: Alan Lupo was on it, Sharon Rivo, Joe Klein who’s now known as the Mr. Anonymous from “Primary Colors.”

These were ‘GBH reporters going out and finding stories.

Howard Spurgle was a member.

Howard was the most professional of the group and he had the education beat and the problem was, was at the editorial meetings, Howard would present five, six, seven, ten stories on education and the executive producer had to be very careful that you know education didn’t carry the whole night, but Howard was right there with his stuff and the rest of the people were running around, trying to found out what was going on.

We also did the conventions, and I remember the convention when Chub Peabody was nominated in the Hines Auditorium.

Sharon Rivo was directing and all the reporters were covering the floor and at 2:30 in the morning Chub Peabody, who had just been nominated by the convention, turned to the reporter who was interviewing him and said, do you think anybody’s really up and listening to us?

And the reporter sort of looked out into this vast empty scene and no, I guess we’d better call it a night.

And that’s how we went off the air.

‘GBH was doing an auction then, of course, and in those days they were a bit less hectic than they are now.

We would stop and dance for a half hour.

I remember Olivia doing jitter bugs on the stage.

We would raise, I guess, a $100,000 a year and think that was great.

I don’t know if auctions are cost efficient these days, but in those days they certainly did bring the community together.

Thousands of men and women, mostly women, went out into the community and scoured things and really found out that people did really feel that they belonged to the station.

INT: Do you think that the fire and the auction were the two major catalysts of really bringing WGBH into predominance in this awesome community or do you think it was the other programming like Julia Child and “The Reporters?”

MA: I think it was the other programs.

I think the fire and the auction just reminded people that we were here.

INT: We were a local station, weren’t we? I mean, when did we become national? When did it really start happening?

MA: From the earliest days it sought national.

I think “Discovery” was distributed nationally.

“Science Reporter” was distributed nationally.

We had one of the first kinescope machines and we would record programs.

In those days, national programming meant local programs that were recorded and sent out. And then you’d get maybe a $100 to do better visuals and then the program facilitators at the Educational Television and Radio Center would make some suggestions and then they would make some suggestions as to the kind of series that they could use looking for a balance in their schedule and then they made the programs themselves.

Stations like WGBH and the rest had to sort of fight to get their nose in.

And they assembled producer staffs in New York to do “NET Journal” and, you know, Fauser and Austin and George Page would have to fight their way into those series.

It’s the natural progression.

INT: The emergence of WNET or NET as it was a division, became kind of an important part of the structure of the network in those days where ‘GBH was a supplier, but it was really a network operation called NET that was really functioning as the kind of major distributor of programming, am I right?

MA: Well there was a station called WNDT, New Dimensions in Television, that went on the air, of course, it was struck by the union and I hate to say this guys, but I and a bunch of people from ‘GBH scabbed, went down, put them on the air, they went off the air right after that opening program, it was with Ed Morrow, and then for two weeks negotiated and it went back on the air with a union contract.

It thought itself the most important station in the world.

It had as its manager, Dick Heffner, a very self-important man.

That station sort of made us all feel as if we were just hicks, but I don’t think they ever came up to the job in terms of doing the really great things.

The Ford Foundation demanded that NET in New York and WNDT merge because they were tired of funding the two groups.

And then of course they became the national producer and it even became harder for other stations, including WGBH, to get in to the documentary area or the cultural series because they had the facilities, they had the staff, they had the commissioners, they had the producers and they became a real necessary and vibrant part of public broadcasting and probably that’s where the more daring programs were made.

INT: Such as’?

MA: “The NET Journals.”

INT: The series the “Dream Machine.”

MA: What was the name of that program?

INT: “Great American Dream Machine.” Did you have anything to do with it?

MA: Minuscule.

Some of the real fun things came too.

A sense of humor was to be brought…

INT: “The American Family”

MA: “The American Family” by Gilbert?

INT: I forget.

MA: “The American Family” was a program about the Loud’s … cameramen living and a husband and wife living with them for months …

Over the objections of the head of documentaries at the time.

Jim Day merely took $80- or $100,000 out of the budget and gave it to these independent producers.

“The Great American Dream Machine” was segmented pieces that allowed a lot of creative people, including somebody who’s sitting on the dias, to make segments for that program.

Mickey Lenley…

INT: Mickey Lenley, oh my.

MA: You …

INT: … and the animator, Fouser’s dear friend…

MA: Yeah.

MA: He did all the openings for the Boston Pops, all the animated openings.

I can’t remember…

INT: It sounded as if the culture in the high arts was now moving into a news program, into documentaries, into coverage of local conventions.

It sounded like the very quality of the kind of programs and the very subject matter of the programs of WGBH was changing radically in the early days of the ’60’s?

MA: Yes, we were moving from the educational TV station to the public television station.

We were moving from seeing ourselves as the extension of the Harvard University extension classes to a station that actually look into how the nation worked.

I was doing a lot of stuff that dealt with the coverage of the UN.

In ’67 the Arab-Israeli war broke out.

We were covering the United Nations when there was no morning programming right up until 5:00 when we would go into our regular stuff.

And in those days you just bumped the schedule.

I mean we never thought that the schedule was filled with such wonderful programs that we couldn’t wipe it out for a moment’s notice for coverage of important events.

There were war and anti-war protests and the station was involved in those.

KQED was doing a lot of stuff out on the streets.

I remember at one point when the students at Harvard took over buildings and President Pusey would not speak to them.

And Studio A was emptied and a huge table built and the students and some of the board of overseers or the Board of Directors of Harvard sat in that room and basically talked to Nathan Pusey via WGBH’s transmitter.

I remember being in this studio, myself on camera, after the bombing of Cambodia and for two or three nights in a row broadcasting what people in the City of Boston could do to protest the bombing in Cambodia.

I remember, in the death of Robert Kennedy, commissioning programs on poetry and music that influenced Robert Kennedy and calling Fred Rogers saying …

“I’ve commissioned two or three half hours.

“If you could do a half hour we’d then have two hours of programming for children … because all they’re going to see is dead bodies going past Capitol steps.”

And Fred said, “Oh, we’re already making that one.”

And so, you know, we used the Eastern Educational Network and the stations had something for children during that time.

PBL was created by the Ford Foundation to be an experiment on Sundays, two and a-half hours of interconnection, you know, a rental of big telephone lines and the whole country was pulled together, a new staff was pulled together.

And again, the fight as to whether WGBH would get into that kind of program.

I remember going to a little play with Greg Harney, in a little theater directed by David Wheeler, watching a very tall guy and a very short guy in a play called “The Dwarfs” by Pinter.

The tall guy turned out to be John Voight, the short guy was Dustin Hoffman and the decision was should we televise that as part of PBL.

Greg directed it.

INT: The acronym was Public Broadcasting Laboratory.

MA: Public Broadcasting Laboratory.

It was to show what we could do if somebody would give us enough money and in those days, of course, the funder was the Ford Foundation, they did everything.

INT: Was Dave Davis at the Ford Foundation at that time?

MA: After ’67 he was.

There was the “James Brown Show.”

Martin Luther King was murdered and the cities burned.

Boston did not burn.

James Brown was doing a concert the day after King died, and the Mayor suddenly realized that 12- or 13,000 black youngsters would be let out of the Boston Garden at about midnight and probably would walk through town on their way to Roxbury because there were no buses or the T wasn’t operating and decided that was not to be done.

He got in touch with WGBH.

I was called into Hartford’s office at 5:30 and asked if we could go on the air from Boston Garden by 8:30 because the Mayor was going to buy the house and every TV station in town was going to tell kids not to come.

An argument ensued among the executives at WGBH whether this was a good idea.

At which point I said, “You continue talking. If you want me on the air by 8:30 I’m now leaving.”

I got in touch with three men, the four men that I knew could get us on the air by 8:30 — Greg Harney, Russ Morash, David Atwood and Al Potter — and we screamed down to the Boston Garden.

We laid out the cameras, and about two hours later I met Mr. Brown and his bodyguards and with an alpaca coat on his shoulders.

I thanked him very much for allowing us to televise the concert and he said, “What television?”

At which point, he and Tom Atkins, the Mayor’s black assistant, got together and talked about it and an hour later they came out and agreed, yes we could televise.

And we broadcast that program once and twice and I think three times that night.

About 1,000 people had come and were allowed in to the concert.

Brown brought Mayor White onto the stage.

The two of them basically said to the City of Boston,

“This city is different from other cities and this city should not burn.”

And the major conflagrations that were happening all over the country did not happen here.

Interesting use of media at the time and interesting that WGBH was asked to do it.

INT: I remember Louis Lyons crying on the air when Martin Luther King died.

MA: No, when Bobby Kennedy.

INT: Was it Bobby?

MA: Yes.

Bobby Kennedy was shot after Martin Luther King.

Louis Lyons arrived.

I arrived at the station, Louis arrived at the station, Fauser arrived at the stage.

Louis demanded to go on the air immediately.

He was in an absolute rage.

I was the only executive at the station.

I cancelled the program at the time.

Louis went into the studio, Fouser directed, and he basically said, “This nation is rotten,” and gave a four or five minute editorial, a statement, about his thoughts of the depths that we had descended to.

We faded to black, came up with reports of the death and then went back into regular program.

All of broadcasting was sort of held in abeyance over the next couple of days except for the funeral.

INT: Quite a moment.

MA: Yes.

MA: Louis Lyons was quite a man.

INT: Well Louis was, by nature, a very, how should we say, conservative journalist.

He was a reader of copy, he did not express in any emotional way of how he felt, his words were always very carefully selected, and in this one he really just was in an outrage.

MA: Not exactly.

Louis was a man of great passion.

He may have read his copy in a mild way, but his idea of the news was to tell you what the news was, and then with his 40, 50 years of knowledge, was to tell you what it meant and it was his own perspective and it was quite strong at times.

He was the news presence of the station for many years.

He and Bob Barram did Regional New England News.

He was head of the Nieman Fellowships and ran that with great distinction for a number of years.

And everyday he would come and the smallest of the trees in front of WGBH — the one that is dying because it gets the least water — would be picked over by him as he walked in.

He never forgot that he started life as a agricultural reporter and would always tell you what was happening in the agricultural fields.

INT: I don’t want to make too short of a period of time up, you know, when you were Assistant Program Manager, but when did you go on camera Michael?

I mean you had your own show there for awhile?

MA: I had been on camera before.

I did a lot of stuff on the auction.

I was the only person I think at WGBH who still had a working actors equity card, I mean, I was professional theater background.

I had interviewed all of the candidates….

I had done a lot of stuff in the ’50s … on-camera interviews.

I had interviewed, in the ’60s, all the people running for Congress.

And in 1969 we were going to do a program that dealt with the high arts and it was to be a critical evaluation of opera, music, dance, theater in Boston.

And I said, gee, we do that all the time.

Why don’t we do something that’s really on the streets.

Let’s get out and do something.

There had been only one series that had ever done that in our lives and what was the name of that program?

It was called “What’s Happening Mr. Silver” produced by you.

I thought we should really be doing that.

That’s where we are, that’s where the studio, but this piece should be out there.

And Michael Rice, who was then Program Manager, said, “Well, what would it be like?” And I said, “I’ll tell you Monday.”

Monday I came in with a proposal, he said, “Oh that’s interesting, who will do it?”

I said, “I’ll do it.”

He said, “But you’re assistant, associate then, director of programs.”

I said, “I’ll do both jobs.”

He said, “Who will appear as host?” because in those days every show had to have a host.

I said, “I will be the host.”

The only person with professional theater training.

We started out to make a series and I forget who the first director was…

The first director was Fred Barzyk and the first couple of shows were shot out the side of the mobile unit because that was as mobile as we could be.

You then designed a rig for the back of the bus and we could shoot 270 degrees off that.

And I remember Greg McDonald, god bless him, driving the truck, no it was on camera, Greg was driving, somebody was on camera …

We were on the Mystic River Bridge at about 8:00 in the morning at the head of rush hour and you were talking in the headsets to the truck driver, to the cameraman, and I was listening in and you said, “Slower, slower, stop”.

And you were then directing, we were doing a program about the environment of the city, you were shooting smoke stacks.

And Greg said, “Fred we’re parked on the Mystic River Bridge in the middle of rush hour”.

And your response was, quote, “We’ve paid our toll.”

INT: That’s true.

We got the shot and moved on.

MA: We paid a Boston policeman with a motorcycle $27.00 and we could go anywhere.

Lee Polk and Jerry Slater from WNET came up to see us do ” Michael Ambrosino’s Show” and they couldn’t believe what we were doing because the City of New York and its regulations and the unions…

There’s no way you could run a cable on the sidewalk.

No way you could stop, as we did, in the middle of Harvard Square and put me on the top of a chair for a half an hour, stopping direct traffic in all directions to do a lead-in.

We quickly discovered in that series that we could either do a studio show with studio segments or we could do exterior segments, but we didn’t have enough money to do both and you, god bless you, said, we’ll do it all outside.

And so we did credits, and everything.

And we did in those days 18 programs in 28 weeks.

About half were videotaped and half were film.

Boy, that’s with just reversal film.

There would be a day for shooting, a morning for videotape editing or a day or a day and a half of film editing.

Dick Bartlett cut most of those.

And it was my attempt to remind myself … a primer of what could be done outside.

Some were interviews, some were little documentaries.

There was a program about Inman Square, there were programs about pollution, there were programs about dawn.

We showed little rock concerts, we showed what autumn was like, we showed what flying was like.

We did a program about Boston Harbor.

And I remember we finally were getting it right, I think Dave Atwood was directing at that time, and we had … you were directing, Inman Square?

INT: Inman Square.

MA: You directed that one, and I remember we came in, the show went out on Tuesday nights so we came in probably on a Monday morning and Ralph Schuetz walked up to us, with tears streaming down his face and holding two, two-inch cans of tape and said …

“I have tapes two and three of ‘Michael Ambrosino’s Show’,” and we said, “Where’s tape number one?”

And he said, “We recorded Governor Furcoloon over it last night.”

So, we made a show of tapes two and three.

Luckily, you had said that the six to eight minute intro that we had shot on tape one was no good and we should do it over and that was on tape three and that was the Inman Square program.

INT: An important factor, at least the Boston history, was that was the first time that a little seafood place had been showcased on camera has gone on to become probably Boston’s number one seafood restaurant, Legal Seafoods.

MA: Legal Seafoods.

George Burkowitz gave me a lesson on how to buy fish.

He stuck a fish in my face and said, “Smell that, smell anything?”

I said, “No I don’t smell anything.”

He said, “Ah, it’s fresh fish.”

INT: We have to get to this point …

You and WGBH went separate ways there for awhile….

MA: Yep.

There had been a putsch in 1967, there was a change in management, and having been told I would be program manager, I wasn’t.

I resigned.

I ran around the country for three months.

San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington flew me out.

I came back to the station and said, you know I don’t want to go anywhere.

I’m going, the terrible, you know, all the macho stuff is I should quit now, you choose Michael Rice instead of me.

No station around the country for the next five or ten years is going to make the kind of programs that this place can make.

So, I stayed.

In the middle of making that series “Michael Ambrosino’s Show,” I guess I said to myself, you are the programmer you thought you were.

Probably the best thing that ever happened to me was that I was not made the program manager.

I think Michael made a better program manager than me.

I think he gave more freedom to people like you than I would have given you in “What’s Happening Mr. Silver.”

And he gave me that freedom in “Michael Ambrosino’s Show.”

In the middle of that, I told the station to fill my job.

That if I came back, I would come back to do something else and Mark Stevens was made Associate Director of Programs.

It was also a sort of a personal thing.

I was going to be 40 in June and I had literally been working since the age of five, when my mother made my first apron in the store and I felt the 40th year was mine, nobody else could have it.

I quickly discovered that Fulbright gave a pittance and you had to teach somewhere.

Guggenheim gave less and the Ford Foundation was not interested in giving me a grant to sit on my duff in Northern Italy and contemplate what I do next.

And the Corporation for Public Broadcasting had a fellowship, but the previous year it had been at Nippon Hoso Kyoki , NHK in Japan, and although I still spoke some Japanese from 18 months in the service there, I knew that I would go to a foreign network in a fellowship and be an observer and that wasn’t for me.

And about two months later it was announced that the 1970, ’71 fellowship would be in London at the BBC and I said, that’s mine.

And I applied for it and went after it and four days before I was 40, in which I would be ineligible to receive it, I got the grant and that really changed my life and changed my ideas about programming forever.

INT: So, how did it change and what were those ideas?

MA: Well, the BBC said, we have a wonderful plan for you.

We’re going to set you up in nine different divisions, you know, one month at a time.

The first month you’re going to eat with everybody and I said, you know if I were 21 that would be great, but I’m 40.

I didn’t come here to look at all of your different divisions.

I came here to work.

You’ve got a very pugnacious program that goes out 45 minutes every night, BBC One, called “24 Hours” it was news and current affairs, had three production teams that worked in rotation.

If I’m any good and I get assigned to that, I’m going to actually work there and get the kind of experience that I want.

And the BBC being the BBC said, “Oh, you’ve got your own ideas, that’s fine.”

So for the first month, I did eat with everybody from Hugh Whelden to David Attenborough, to the heads of radio, to the heads of all the major divisions, the drama, music, opera, etc.

In radio in overseas and then in television.

And then I went to work.

Monday, I observed.

Tuesday, I was given an assignment.

I was given an assignment which I later learned had been given to two other people and it had been rejected.

A young associate producer on the program had proposed an interview by a well-known British rock star and the executive producer of the program was so entranced in getting to meet him that he directed it himself.

A filmed interview, 45 minutes long, without one cut away, no pictures of the apartment, no pictures of his bedroom, the socks, the books in the bookcase.

And so the other people had cut it and it you know had butchered it.

Coming out of “Michael Ambrosino’s Show,” we had done video editing, snap editing.

We’d done a lot of it and I was not an expert, but certainly was more expert than they were.

I had found a piece of music that this fellow had done, in a recent film, and edited the interview to the beat of the music he had been performing.

So that everything had a cadence and Thursday night of that week, an 18 minute piece on a little known rock star called Mick Jagger went out on BBC One and I was no longer an observer, I was then a member of the staff.

It’s interesting that I owe my whole future in programming to him.

I worked on that program, a dear man left his position as an associate director of the program and allowed me to take over because the American elections were on and so I was directing teams of film makers in America to cover Rockefeller, to cover Bob Drinan’s run for Congressman, the first Jesuit to go to Congress.

We had satellite feeds and that was a rather glorious four or five months.

And I wrote that up hoping that public broadcasting would do something like that instead of the sort of newsroom approach that we were following.

I then spent about four months watching something strange called “Features Group” make documentaries out of programs that we normally would have thought of as educational television or further instruction.

Programs about music, about dance, about the arts, about science and technology and religion and these were very popular documentaries on BBC Two.

At that time in England commercial television had come in and BBC One was reorganized to give them a real fight for their money because BBC One had been losing its ratings and all the educative kinds of shows went to BBC Two.

And about a month before I was to come back to America, Bob Larsen came over and we took a seven hour walk talking about if I came back, what would I come back to do?

And he asked me what I would like to do?

And I said, I want to take over Channel 2.

I think we should separate local and national programming.

Local programming is going to be screwed by the impetuous for national and he said, “No ‘GBH will never separate the two.”

“What else would you like to do?”

I said, “Well I think I would like to start a science series.”

And May the first, 1971, I wrote a five page letter to Michael Rice outlining basically what a science program for public broadcasting would be like.

INT: And of course we all know that’s “NOVA” that came out of that five-page letter.

MA: Yes, I came back to WGBH on a Rockefeller Grant for a couple of months to develop a science project.

Actually Michael’s letter welcoming me back, welcomed me back to do “Michael Ambrosino’s Show” and maybe to create a science series.

I also was developing a project called “Dying” because one of the Michael Ambrosino programs was going to be about leukemia kids at Childrens Hospital.

And another project which failed.

Development took a year, raising the money took another year and a half and we actually went on the air in 1974 in March with the first 13 programs in the “NOVA” series.

INT: And the BBC and all that connection at BBC and WGBH were co-producers, am I right in saying that?

MA: Not co-producers as much as, it would not have happened had we not taken on the strand technique that BBC had created.

INT: The strand technique?

MA: Well there was no way in hell anybody was going to give me the millions necessary to do 13 new science programs and we were not equipped to make 13 new science programs in a series.

If we would make three or four ourselves with BBC producers that I brought over, with American associate producers and PAs who could then be trained to do this, and we co-produced one or two with BBC, and we bought some of their best award winners that they made in the last 10 years.

We could spread that money out and get more programs for a few dollars and actually create a TV series that meant that the programs we made had to come up in quality to the award winners that we were buying because I had 150 programs to choose from for the first series.

So, we were off and running.

INT: In that first year or two of “NOVA,” which of the shows are you most pleased with?

What are the ones that really stand out in your mind?

MA: “Why Do Birds Sing”.

Typical I think of “NOVA” is that it would take a subject that you’ve never even thought you’d be interested in, and show you something that was just so stunning and so beautiful that it made you look at the world a little differently.

Recently, the National Science Foundation gave an award to “NOVA” in its 25th year and I told a little story that I thought the perfect “NOVA” was a film about a lot, a vacant lot, done by a “NOVA” producer in such a way that you would never think of a lot as ever being vacant again.

And I think that is the charm of a series like that.

That, yes, it could deal with things like the “Plutonium Connection” by John Angier, in which we showed that stolen or lost plutonium could be made into a terrorist weapon and had it checked with scientists in Scandinavia.

We dealt with the issues of bombing and whether bombing was effective for the First World War up through Vietnam and showed that indeed it wasn’t effective and did not destroy the morale of any population, it only galvanized it.

Along with the public policy questions of whether there was enough water in the country to feed Los Angeles.

There were these films that took place, you know, infinite delight of beauty, that just looked at a desert and shows what happens in a desert in a course of a year …

That dealt with bird migrations and how they can travel thousands of miles and come back to the same place.

The inner beauty of finding out how the world worked.

It was never meant to be a science series.

I think it is not a science series, it uses science to show how the world works.

Excellent tool, as film-making is an excellent tool.

INT: Well from a viewer whose benefitted much from “NOVA,” thank you for writing that five page memo.

I’m glad you came back.

The end of our second hour.

June 18, 1998 with Michael Ambrosino.

Thank you.

Building a Network: EEN (1961-64)

This entry is part 7 of 11 in the series The Michael Ambrosino Collection

WGBH: The Early Years

Ed: This is the second of three excerpts from Michael Ambrosino’s autobiography. In the first part, Skating Around the Rink, he described the early years at WGBH, an era of live and live-on-tape TV productions at the 84 Massachusetts Avenue studio in Cambridge.

Glimpses of interconnection

We were all local in those days. Few people thought that any school series made for one city could be useful in another. On the other hand, many of us were duplicating the same topics and few of us had the cash to make really exciting programs with sophisticated experiments and expensive location filming. Perhaps it was time for change.

In the fall of 1959, Hartford set up a regional meeting of organizations in the Northeast to discuss the future. Held at the idyllic and pastoral Mittersill Inn in New Hampshire, the meeting was to discuss station building, program exchange, and the future interconnection of our stations into a network.

In those days, exchange was done by mail. Master copies were sent to the Educational Television and Radio Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Copies were struck, mailed to the top stations that ran the shows, who then mailed them to smaller stations who used them and then mailed them to still smaller stations

In those days, exchange was done by mail. Master copies were sent to the Educational Television and Radio Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Copies were struck, mailed to the top stations that ran the shows, who then mailed them to smaller stations who used them and then mailed them to still smaller stations. No national advertising was possible because no program was run the same week, the same day or the same hour. Few if any school programs were distributed. Organized chaos was our chosen lot.

Graham Winslow and his wife were at the conference. He ran the Massachusetts Council for the Humanities and was a sweet elder Boston Brahmin. On the last day, he invited Lillian and me to join him and his wife for dinner even though nine-month old Julie was with us. As we sat down, he was shocked to learn that it was our second anniversary. He immediately ordered two bottles of chilled Pouilly Fuisse.

Two bottles for four meant that fairly soon I was telling his wife my entire life story. We had a very merry time of it.

The meeting went well. It wasn’t just that cooperation meant an easier life for all of us. In those days, raising the money to start a public station and keep it on the air was daunting. The thought that we all might fail was never far from us. Daring to conceive of plans to help stations survive was a start. But it was going to be a hard job.

Once again, it was a phone call from Hartford that changed my life.

I was at home with the flu.

“It’s time to push hard for a regional network and we need a full time staff.”

“You’re right,” I groggily agreed.

“Interested in the job?”

“You bet!

Building a network

There are many Polaroid photos of me with my desk covered with sheets of yellow paper with major parts covered in correction tape. I’m dressed casually, looking up at the camera and smiling.

I’m writing a proposal!

The plan called for Ford funds covering our needs for the first year, the stations picking up one-third in year two, two-thirds in year three and, if all went well, we’d be self supporting in year four!

He said yes. This time it was $14,950!

I’ve written proposals all my life. To start the Eastern Educational Network, we needed money and that meant going back to the Ford Foundation. We went to Jim Armsey for a development grant to develop the regional network and I had to come up with a way to make it self supporting. The plan called for Ford funds covering our needs for the first year, the stations picking up one-third in year two, two-thirds in year three and, if all went well, we’d be self supporting in year four!

He said yes. This time it was $14,950! (Remember, the dollar went a lot further then.)

We had stations in Boston, New Hampshire, Albany, Rochester, Buffalo, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh. We were helping stations start in Maine, Vermont, Connecticut and Rhode Island.

In some cities, the commercial stations “helped” by buying out their competitor and giving that license to the local university. In that way, some stations ensured their own market dominance and greedy future and the local ETV group got a turnkey operation for a start. In areas like Burlington, however, any competition in the market was fought fiercely by the Burlington TV owner who, sadly, also had the lease to the best mountaintop.

Groups fighting valiantly for years with little help and less hope were not always the best equipped. For every technically trained, legally sophisticated group there was someone like Mrs. Campbell, the wonderful benefactress of the Washington group who had drawn up the budget for the construction and operation of WETA. Since I was the cheapest expert nearby, it was one of my jobs to “shape it up for her Board” before it was presented.

The following chat really happened…

“Mrs. Campbell, there’s no line item for electricity.”

“Oh, that will come out of ‘Miscellaneous’, my dear.”

“Mrs. Campbell, there’s no item for network fees.”

“Oh, that will come out of ‘Miscellaneous’, too.”

So, I drew up a new budget for WETA and it increased about 30% to take into account all the things obvious to someone close to station operation, but not so clear to the leader of a citizen’s group. That was the kind of thing I did almost daily for states in the area trying to get their stations on the air.

While planning for future interconnection, we began to distribute shows by having New Hampshire pick up WGBH’s off-air signal and rebroadcast it. We also set up our own videotape distribution to exchange local shows. “MIT Science Reporter” was the first series and we used it to teach us how.

It is hard to realize now that, of course, we were “bicycling” master videotapes, shipping them from station to station. Constant replaying wore down the oxide coating. We were destroying our precious masters.

More heat than we cared for

Things were moving along rather well. The 21” Classroom was growing in size and quality. WGBH programs were getting more sophisticated and reaching greater numbers. The infant regional network was becoming the center of our attention and the whole region was cooperating.

On October 14, 1961 I was in Chicago giving a speech before a Ford Foundation Workshop of school television folks. I was pointing out how cooperative programming was possible and something they should encourage. Ted Conant introduced me and I got a heartwarming response. It was rewarding and I felt wonderful.

When I sat down, Ted congratulated me and then leaned close to say that he had not wanted to upset me before my speech, but he had learned that WGBH had been consumed in a fire that morning!

I was now upset.

My immediate plan was to return as soon as possible, but this was the time of the Cold War. Once, every year, for 24 hours, all air travel was suspended while SAC played war games with its B52 bombers flying multiple sorties in the United States. I was grounded in Chicago until noon on Saturday! When I reached Dave Davis by phone, he told me that many tapes, including those of the 21” Classroom, had been thrown out the window as the fire progressed. The station, including my EEN office, was in ruins. There was nothing I could do. We went out for Chinese.

WGBH was a brick shell. Walking up a rubble-strewn stairway I could keep my balance only by holding tight to the sooty handrail.

I returned on October 16th. WGBH was a brick shell. Walking up a rubble-strewn stairway I could keep my balance only by holding tight to the sooty handrail. Turning right I walked into Studio A, blackened and flooded. The former skating rink oak flooring was twisted in rivulets as each board swelled in the pools of standing water. Glass had shattered from the heat, and in the projection room, tape machines and projection equipment were covered with soot and debris and dripping with water. It made you want to get a big broom and push it all into the dumpster.

Turning left I walked into my own office. The four walls were there. My desk was there. Everything seemed unusually low. Suddenly I realized my desk was not low, I was high. I was walking on several feet of rubble since the entire roof had collapsed. My office was open to the sky! A black blob sat where my phone had been. Lifting it, I discovered two-thirds of a charred check due EEN from a member station. My desk drawers were filled with char and water.

Bolted to my back wall was a heavy pine table that was a useful place for my TV and other technical gear. Fire had raged under it and the ensuing water had warped it over like a huge blunt, black claw. I pulled up on it to view what remained of years of school TV research that I had carefully collected. With a roar, I realized that the table was not giving way, but that the entire back wall of my office had come loose and was now crashing into Studio B below.

“I’d better get out of here,” was my first thought.

“I’d better think of what to do next,” was my second.

Can you imagine losing everything you need for professional life: all the letters you received, all the copies of letters you sent, minutes of Board meetings, decisions, the accounting of dues paid and bills due?

Can you imagine losing everything you need for professional life: all the letters you received, all the copies of letters you sent, minutes of Board meetings, decisions, the accounting of dues paid and bills due? Typewriters and phones could be easily replaced but the documented early history of the EEN was gone.

I went to the Harvard Coop and bought an address book and tried to rebuild my list of contacts from memory. I also made up a list of those to call and tell them that the EEN was still alive and that our plans for development would continue. That meant a trip on October 17th to the Maine Legislature to testify that WGBH would still give programming free of charge as soon as Maine ETV went on the air, and on October 25th to Washington, DC, where a large grant was pending.

Meanwhile, Dave Davis and the Junior League of Boston worked out a complex plan of delivering school program videotapes to available tape recorders at the commercial stations. School programs were sent by microwave directly to our undamaged transmitter on Great Blue Hill. WGBH radio was on the air by Sunday. The 21” Classroom was back on Monday morning. WGBH television took a week.

Soon WGBH was operating out of seven different locations. At the Museum of Science, they set up a tiny studio with a glass wall and a walkway for museum goers to peek in. They became just one more museum exhibit. The programming staff worked in “the red frame building,” formerly used for storage at the museum. WGBH management, PR, fundraising and EEN were in rented space in Kendall Square. Scenery was built and stored at Northeastern University, and the Archdiocese of Boston TV studio was put at our disposal during the week. (If you dollied back too far you got to see the crystal chandelier in every shot!) This diaspora lasted for three whole years while money was raised for a new building, land found, plans drawn, and construction completed.

WGBH’s first mobile unit, a million-mile Greyhound bus converted into a control room on wheels, had been parked outside the station during the fire with its new tape recorder and three new cameras. It escaped without a scratch. By using a Boston Gas demonstration kitchen in a Cambridge warehouse, the station could begin taping Julia Child’s soon-to-be famous series, “The French Chef”.

On the very first taping [of “The French Chef,”] the bell for the freight elevator rang insistently and Julia, right in step, merely said, “Well, the phone is ringing but I’m just too busy to answer it now!” Julia Child was never an amateur.

Julia was a bright spot during these difficult times. Often told, the story is true, that on the very first taping, the bell for the freight elevator rang insistently and Julia, right in step, merely said, “Well, the phone is ringing but I’m just too busy to answer it now!” Julia Child was never an amateur.

As we designed the new WGBH production center and ordered equipment, we faced the problem of what to do with two video tape recorders that had come through the fire and now sat soot-encrusted and water logged in temporary storage. A company specializing in fire-damaged electronic equipment estimated $15,000 to restore each of them. We’d received two new recorders with the insurance money, and shelling out $30,000 we did not have was just too much to bear.

Suddenly, one of the technicians remembered that we were “that educational station that burned in Boston.” Swearing us to secrecy, he told us to remove all the components from the recorders, mix one part Vel and one part water, paint all surfaces with the solution, hose everything down, and dry it completely with heat and fans. We were then told to plug in each component in sequence and see if they shorted out. If so, we were to replace them, reassemble the old and new components and turn it on.

For that they usually charged $15,000!

WGBH did as it was told and soon had four videotape recorders!

The EEN grows and prospers

My days continued with meetings, helping stations get on the air, interconnect, and develop shows to exchange with others.

No day was typical, but August 28, 1963, stands out as memorable.

I rose at 5:30 to catch an 8:00 flight to Chicago for a 10:00 meeting with the Central and Pacific Regional Network executives at O’Hare Airport. A 2:00pm flight got me back to Logan in time for my secretary to meet me and drive to New Hampshire in time to dress and chair the evening dinner meeting of the Eastern Educational Network annual conference in Concord and introduce the evening’s speaker, CBS’s national correspondent, Sander Vanocur.

We did a fair amount of talking to commercial networks in those days. They did interesting programs on Sundays, few of which were broadcast in Boston. We received permission to run them on WGBH and distributed many through EEN. I also combed local commercial stations for good programs and found a small, but compelling documentary, “Block-Busting, Atlanta Style,” about unscrupulous real estate brokers who went door to door warning whites that blacks had just moved in nearby, offering to buy their houses before their value dropped!

The soft-spoken, talented reporter was George Page, whom I later recommended to Hartford as a documentary maker for WGBH. George spent several years in Boston and went on to WNET in New York where, he created the wonderful weekly PBS series, “Nature.”

The power of words

The Sixties were also the time for “enlightenment” and that often took the form of ingesting large amounts of exotic stimulants to aid in this search for self-awareness. That leads me to the story of “Lettvin Vs. Leary.”

Timothy Leary, a former Harvard professor, experimented with a wide variety of drugs in the 60s and specialized in LSD. Preaching often about its virtues, he was invited to speak at MIT. Illuminated by the light of one candle, a bedraggled, rather hairy Tim Leary sat in the lotus position on the stage of Kresge Auditorium before hundreds of adoring MIT students. Hearing of the event, astute WGBH producer Austin Hoyt grabbed Boyd Estus and set out to film it.

“Turn on, tune in and drop out,” intoned Tim in a chant-like singsong. Condemning normal schooling, he told the MIT students to begin using drugs to tune into their inner selves and drop out of the regimented student life. Drugs were good, and LSD was prime, went the message.

This went on for about 20 minutes and the wildly cheering audience loved it, as much for its audacity and theatricality as for its wayward message.

Timothy Leary beamed!

Then Jerry Lettvin was introduced.

Jerry, a medical doctor, psychiatrist, researcher in brain and mind, was an all around guru to the student body. Sixty pounds overweight, chain smoker, rough in appearance and manner, it was Jerry to whom you went if you were an MIT student in trouble. Even those who knew nothing of his academic life knew him to be a straight shooter.

Lettvin stared down from the lectern at the still seated Leary and began to speak softly.

“Tim, we’ve known each other for a long time. We’ve worked together, done research together.”

“Tim, you are the devil!”

“Tell me Tim … as a clinician … what would you call it when, two weeks after taking LSD, someone sees sounds and hears sights?”

Leary shifted slightly, looked up and beamed.

“I’d call him a visionary mystic,” Tim crowed.

The crowd roared with delight.

As quiet returned, Lettvin leveled a fierce glare, leaned toward the microphone, and in a coarse, guttural growl, spoke.

“BULLSHIT!”

“Its a sub-dural hematoma and you know God-damn well it is!”.

For the next 20 minutes, Jerry Lettvin gave a meticulous and damning lecture on the effects of LSD on brain function and the losses that occurred with repeated use. It was cold and brutal and the previously joyful and boisterous audience fell silent.

Tim Leary physically withered under the assault.

Austin and Boyd could hardly wait to have the film developed and begin editing. A one-hour slot was cleared for local air and NET was alerted to see if they wanted to buy the show for their stations.

NET agreed and all was made ready.

As I’ve already explained, many copies were made from the master tape and sent to the stations. After the network distributed its first batch of tapes to the major stations, NET contacted WGBH.

“We have a problem.”

“Many stations object to the word, ‘Bullshit’. We’d like you to edit out that word and we will send out new tapes.”

“Never,” said the proud WGBH. “The word “Bullshit” is integral to the content.”

“Okay,” said NET, “we will do it ourselves.”

Several days went by and another call came from the network.

“Help,” said NET, “The stations object to the new tapes. The show now says, “Bullsh…”

“Okay,” said WGBH, we will edit a master for you, But using our new and exciting regional network, EEN, we will offer the original, uncut show to every station and let them decide which to air.”

At EEN, I received lots of staunch messages about “first amendment rights” and “program integrity” and how they all would certainly choose to run the original and uncut version.

And then, slowly, I began to receive messages about how the previous commitments had been overruled by amorphous “program committees” or “management decisions.”

In the end, only two stations planned to run the uncut version, KQED in San Francisco and WGBH in Boston.

Astonishingly, no station complained that we broadcast a twenty-minute speech encouraging students to fry their brains.

Astonishingly, no station complained that we allowed Lettvin to savage Leary for twenty minutes with no rebuttal.

Astonishingly, the complaints all referred to the use of the word, “Bullshit”.

Such is the power of words over ideas!

Can you scare the phone company?

The EEN was still a network in name only. New Hampshire and Maine picked up WGBH programs off the air and microwaved them to their transmitter sites. The region was organized, but we were exchanging most of our shows by tape. The fact that we existed, however, inspired action for a New York State network and a Pennsylvania State network. It was time to interconnect it all.

I hired an MIT geology student to study the region’s geodetic charts and scribe the high elevations that might be in line of sight to each other.

Thus, a signal could go from station, to mountaintop, to mountaintop, to station, all the way from Montreal to Washington and from Boston to Pittsburgh.

To that end, I hired an MIT geology student to study the region’s geodetic charts and scribe the high elevations that might be in line of sight to each other. Thus, a signal could go from station, to mountaintop, to mountaintop, to station, all the way from Montreal to Washington and from Boston to Pittsburgh. With the student’s data, I could determine if the high elevations had roads and power and whether there was a real chance of buying or leasing space for a relay tower.

All went well except for the congested area just north of New York City. The survey maps were new but the data was dated 1954. Since it couldn’t be trusted, I set out in my trusty Volkswagen to scout the sites myself armed with maps and the specifications for several hilltops in the Pound Ridge, New York area. The first few hills flunked out. The last and best hilltop had a road that wound up through the trees. At last I came to the top and found a well-built stone wall and an elaborate fence and gate. A large circular gravel drive introduced a lordly manor house, and although I am a scant esthete, I did recognize the sculpture in the front garden as Smith, Moore and Calder. Obviously, a relay tower would clash!

What to do?

I drove to Danbury Airport, a few miles north of Pound Ridge, ready to pay any price to rent a plane and pilot to finish the survey before dark.

Twenty dollars later, I was crammed into a Cessna 150 two-seater with a youngish pilot flying south to begin our aerial survey. It took only a half hour to find several possible hills, with roads and farmhouses that looked far more accessible and convenient.

“OK, you fly it back!,” shouted my pilot over the din of the engine.

“OK, I got it!,” I said in my normal manner of thinking that I can do anything. That was my first flight in a small plane and it set in motion thirty years of flying!

We made sure the phone company “found out” about our design of a private microwave system for EEN. It was only later that the interconnection became a reality and it was the monopoly of Ma Bell that did it, by offering lower rates for ETV. Maybe our ploy of designing a system we had little hope of building really worked.

EEN, which had started with one station, now had thirty-five members. Some of those were in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Dallas, Chicago, and Miami. I created a special “out of region” membership to forestall Hartford’s plan to pull together just the big eight stations and forget about the rest. We were becoming a real clan and cooperation was working.

An unexpected opportunity to make music

About that time, an unusual opportunity appeared. Ed Gilday, a dear friend from 21” Classroom days, was the conductor of the Handel and Haydn Society, and, with 100 voices and a full orchestra, he was planning to present the entire uncut version of Handel’s Messiah in Symphony Hall just before Christmas. We prepared it as an EEN special with me producing and Dave Davis directing. The program, over three hours long, with 405 shots from 5 cameras, was recorded simultaneously on 7 video tape recorders; 3 in Boston and 4 in New York fed by an AT&T long line.

Can you imagine the difficulty of planning over 400 shots for a musical experience? So many open mouths! Dave did a masterful job of visually exploring the construction of the music itself. Surprisingly, the longish uncut version of Messiah made much more sense than the often-produced truncated presentation. This Messiah had a flow and rhythm to it. Of course, when you listen to any piece thirty or forty times, as I had to do for preparation, it comes alive to you in a wholly new way.

One shot was kept in reserve for the really dramatic musical moments. It came from a camera in the back of the hall and it showed the entire chorus and orchestra. It was used when the music and singing swelled to a climax.

Another was the close up of Ed Gilday conducting. A choral conductor uses his entire body, but it’s the face that communicates most. Often, in this piece, Ed’s face was radiant! A glow suffused his whole being and he willed beautiful music out of his singers by the majesty of his smile.

The camera taking that shot was tucked into the massive organ behind the back wall of the Boston Symphony Hall stage and peeked out of a small opening built into the wall itself. … The camera actually vibrated!

The camera taking that shot was tucked into the massive organ behind the back wall of the Boston Symphony Hall stage and peeked out of a small opening built into the wall itself. Several times, the organ swelled up in a resounding crescendo from the huge 32 foot pipes directly above the camera. The camera actually vibrated! I remember Dave Davis shouting to Greg MacDonald, the camera operator, “Greg, how do you like them apples?”

That Christmas season, Messiah played long and often and was a grand success.

It was good to be producing again.

It was good to be involved in content and presentation, rather than equipment and organization; working with ideas and musicians, rather than balky program managers; writing narration scripts rather than proposals and reports.

I called Bob Larsen, then Program Manager of WGBH, and told him he was overworked and needed an assistant.

I told him he needed me.

I had learned that clearly outlining a problem and then helpfully providing the solution usually worked.

Bob checked with Hartford and called me with an offer.

Don Quayle went on to lead EEN to true interconection and a major force in the east and the nation.

In the end, returning to WGBH was one of my better decisions and began a trend of taking more control of my own life plans and taking the direct personal risks that I had previously avoided.

Risk never became my friend. I have too much of my mother’s personality in me to really enjoy it, but I discovered that only through risk could I achieve real happiness.

Skating Around the Rink (1956-60)

This entry is part 6 of 11 in the series The Michael Ambrosino Collection

Michael Ambrosino Ed: In 2006, WGBH pioneer Michael Ambrosino completed an autobiography for his family. Last month, he made a gracious offer for us to publish some of his early-WGBH stories on this Web site.

In this, the first of three excerpts, Michael describes the early years at WGBH, an era of live and live-on-tape TV productions at the 84 Massachusetts Avenue studio in Cambridge.

Stay tuned for future installments covering the creation of the Eastern Educational Network from 1960-64 and the transformation of WGBH from educational to public television from 1964-70.

The photo, right, is from Michael’s collection. He wrote, “September 1956. The obligatory photo made of new employees in those days. It was run by the Westhampton Beach Chronicle, circulation 3000. My mother loved it.

WGBH in 1956

WGBH: The Early Years

WGBH was then at 84 Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge, directly across from the main entrance of MIT in a small, unassuming brick building with shops and a drug store at the street level. The building housed a surprise when you walked upstairs: an ancient roller skating rink, complete with a bumpy wooden floor and a balcony running around three sides. WGBH occupied one half, and a start-up electronics firm the other half.

Fifty years ago, we thought of this make-do facility as state-of-the-art. Studio A, 30×50 feet, occupied the entire floor of the skating rink rented by the station. Three second-hand cameras, with hand-me-down image-orthicon tubes, sat in the studio, along with a microphone boom, a lighting grid, and what few scenery flats were at hand. Under the balcony had been tucked the radio studio and control room for WGBH-FM, Studio A TV control, and the engineering facilities. Also tucked in were simple dressing rooms and a “green room” for talent waiting to go on the air.

84 Mass. Ave.

Above (via Don Hallock): This is one of the few existing photos of the 84 Massachusetts Avenue building. It was taken in 1958 by Brooks Leffler with his trusty Leica, from just across the street on the sidewalk in front of the steps of MIT. (More photos.)

On the balcony above were three small offices for the top executives, one big open office for the rest of the staff, a radio editing room, and storage.

The scale of operations and the financial picture of WGBH in the ’50s can be illustrated by what happened when the start-up electronics firm next door moved to greener pastures. In the middle of their now empty floor, they left three garbage cans full of partially built circuit boards. This electronic “trash” was taken into the WGBH shop where each resistor and transistor was carefully unsoldered, ends straightened, and placed into storage bins for reuse.

We had little to spend and nothing to spare.

The early days of “educational television”

To think in terms of the “early days of television”, you have to forget about today’s several hundred color channels beaming twenty-four hours a day showing golf from Scotland, war from Afghanistan, typhoon damage from Japan.

Think small. Think live. Think black and white and no money.

WGBH’s transmitter was … almost 40 degrees in another direction . The joke in Cambridge was that, “WGBH is my favorite station, it’s a shame I can’t pick it up.”

WGBH went on the air only a few hours each evening. A test pattern was broadcast in the morning and afternoon so that television installers could adjust sets and aim rooftop antennas. WBZ and WNAC broadcast from towers on the Needham hills and sadly, WGBH’s transmitter was on Great Blue Hill, almost 40 degrees in another direction. The joke in Cambridge was that, “WGBH is my favorite station, it’s a shame I can’t pick it up.”

The day started with a children’s program featuring Tony Saletan. The brief four or five hour schedule usually alternated live programs and films, so a few times each evening we could have a half hour to move things around in the single studio. Producer/directors (we all directed our own shows in those days) rehearsed in the afternoon and our shows went out live that evening. Each show’s scenery occupied various corners of Studio A, and often one cast would sidle out in the one minute break between programs so that another group could sidle in, get into position, and “hit it” on the clock

My first lesson as a new director was how to set one fanny cheek on the director’s chair, as the director of the previous live show slid over to the right. He would finish his show, punch up the WGBH ID, and cue the live announcer in the booth. The silky-voiced Bill Pierce would read the station ID and tell about upcoming programs. I would slide over to take control of the chair and the switcher (we also switched our own shows), settle my coffee on the director’s desk, light up my cigarette, adjust my headset and microphone, give final directions to my floor manager, and, on the clock, switch on the necessary slides or film to introduce my program.

We had one switcher for the entire station. … One night, a director spilled a coke into the switcher and the sugary liquid put us off the air until the engineers could clean all the contacts.

We had one TK5 switcher for the entire station. It had five inputs for cameras, slides and film, a fader for dissolves, and fades to black. One night, a director spilled a coke into the switcher and the sugary liquid put us off the air until the engineers could clean all the contacts.

Our second lesson was to direct “Around the Town.” Every day, Quindara Dodge would type up 3X5 cards describing events around Boston. These were stapled in two rows around a large, cloth-covered, vertical drum. Coordinating the music background, the slow and precise rotation of the drum, and the single camera panning left and right to view the two rows in sequence constituted a 15-minute program.

Not quite a NOVA!

Our third lesson was to plan our show so that our camera movements moved in line with the boards in the wooden floor. To do otherwise meant a camera bumping and jiggling about. We could reposition a camera across the wooden grain, but only when it was not “on line”, or on the air.

One Saturday, the entire male staff came in with hammers to nail down the floor every four inches in an attempt to even out the bumps. We must have been quite a sight; hammer-wielding yuppies, shoulder to shoulder, fannies high, inching our way backwards and pounding specially hardened screw/nails into the hard oak skating rink boards. Don Hallock reminds me that if not hit just right, these nails would shoot out to the side like a bullet, stabbing a yuppie/nailer nearby.

Local programs in the ’50s

Producers rarely got money to spend. We got “services” instead. A show would be assigned so much rehearsal time, and so many crew hours. The art department and the scenery shop would do all we asked until they complained.

Tony Saletan did a daily studio show for pre-school kiddies; mostly Tony, his guitar, and some visuals.

Mary Lela Grimes tried her best to spark interest in “Discovery,” a live nature program that featured stuffed animals and photos from the Audubon Society. A young Harvard grad student, Charlie Walcott, complained that it was a pale substitute for a real outdoor experience and got a sharp reply of, “Oh, yeah. Well, why don’t you do something about it?” Charlie, a nephew of Ralph Lowell, the famous Boston banker, philanthropist, and WGBH Board Chairman, bought an $18,000 Aeriflex camera and built special close-up lenses to shoot outdoor nature footage for the second season. He did something.

Later, I hired Charlie to produce a nature series for the 21” Classroom and he was great. He is the former Chairman of the Department of Ornithology at Cornell and lives in Ithaca on Sapsucker Lane. Really!

I remember Russ … carefully taking apart every one of the kids’ crude attempts to make a birdhouse and hammering them back together correctly. Russ, the son of a contractor, was just too much of a perfectionist to let them be.

Russ Morash, (of Julia Child and “This Old House” fame) produced and directed a children’s program called, “Ruth Ann’s Camp.” On one occasion, I remember Russ and his floor manager carefully taking apart every one of the kids’ crude attempts to make a birdhouse and hammering them back together correctly. Russ, the son of a contractor, was just too much of a perfectionist to let them be.

“Images” appeared every week, produced by The Museum of Fine Arts. Drawing on their vast collection of slides, an art historian from the museum, Thalia Kennedy, would create stories about artists, periods, or styles. She combined music, narration, and pictures to tell an interesting story. The slides were projected on a large screen and our studio cameras would move about on them to increase visual interest. These were the years before zoom lenses. You had four fixed lenses that you could change by rotating a large drum in the center of the camera. If you wanted the effect of a “zoom in”, you had to choose the appropriate lens and move the heavy camera forward. You did this slowly with your left hand while constantly changing focus with your right. If some of these shows looked a bit static, it was because just about everything we did was so damn hard!

Every Friday night, however, we had the joint jumpin’. Father Norman J. O’Connor, a Jesuit priest and jazz enthusiast, would invite the featured band that had come to play that week at “Storyville.” We would have a half hour of jazz mixed with interviews of the key stars and players. Everybody came to “Storyville” and America’s best singers and musicians appeared. The local union let us do this free since it built up publicity for the artists’ weekend gig.

Each producer/director tried to outdo all others in creative camerawork on the show. When Don Hallock was directing, he hit his high point one evening when two of his three cameras died suddenly in the opening minute of the show. Flinging off his headset, Don flew into Studio A, took control of the remaining camera and directed the rest of the show from the floor, covering all the action expertly.

“Louis Lyons and the News” was unique. The news was whatever Louis Lyons thought should be the news. Louis was an old newsman who tended the flock of Nieman Fellows at Harvard. His job was to choose a dozen Fellows each year from the best journalists in the world and help them spend that year at Harvard. He also planned a Wednesday gathering with a thoughtful and often controversial guest and enough beer to keep the conversation flowing.

Scanning the AP “A” wire, Louis would present news stories with the added perspective of forty years of following world events. Guests came in after the “News” for in-depth interviews on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for “Backgrounds.” They included visiting dignitaries, professors, political figures, and even me on one occasion. David McCord, the genial Cambridge poet who wrote “Every Time I Climb a Tree,” would come every Christmas and read his new poems. Each year Robert Frost would visit as well. Louis’ first question to Frost was always, “Well, what are you working on now?”

Once when given a “speed up” cue, he looked up, stared at the floor manager and said — right on the air —“Young man, I’m sure I have five minutes left.” He did.

Louis licked his lips, rarely looked at the camera, never seemed quite pressed or combed and was very much a law unto himself. Once when given a “speed up” cue, he looked up, stared at the floor manager and said — right on the air — “Young man, I’m sure I have five minutes left.” He did.

“Museum Open House” appeared each week. A gallery at the Museum of Fine Arts would be hung with several dozen specially chosen masterpieces and an MFA TV curator would walk us through this special exhibition of subjects such as, “Van Gogh at Arles” or “Landscapes of the Flemish School” or “Religious paintings of Michaelangelo.” Three cameras would move about the paintings in the gallery while the host or hostess gave the lecture.

Working with genuine masterpieces was a considerable responsibility. All cameras in those days needed lots of light and that meant lots of heat. Months before, WGBH and the MFA had tested just how much heat would cause a fourteenth century oil painting to “run.” I assume a “lesser work” was used as the test painting. It ran. We now knew what temperature to avoid.

One evening a small fourth century BC Egyptian sandstone statue was sitting on a pedestal, just where a quick swinging camera lens would smack it and return it to particles of fine Egyptian sand. In one music program I was producing at the MFA, I heard a large “crack” to see a musician mooning over the back of a Medieval lute she’d just snapped while tightening the strings. Most days, we got by with less excitement.

Of course, taking three cameras to the Museum on Tuesdays meant no cameras for anything else. Few other live shows were planned for Tuesdays, but all of them, including “Louis Lyons and the News” had to originate from the museum!

Each winter, the World Affairs Council and WGBH would produce six discussion programs on the big subjects of world peace and justice. “Decisions” would have a host/moderator and at least four pundits drawn from government and academia. In the days of The Cold War, conflict seemed quite possible and these matters really concerned us.

A little known Harvard professor was a regular. He spoke cogently, if too long, and with a thick European accent. One year we decided that he should be the moderator and he was a disaster, never allowing anyone else to finish sentences and hogging the center of every discussion. We called that hogging syndrome, “The Kissinger Syndrome,” and never invited Henry to moderate again.

“MIT Science Reporter” was a weekly studio show, with Volta Torrey as host. Studio demonstrations were mixed in with interviews about the latest big science happenings. This was the first time I saw a flexible glass rope transmit light even if the rope was tied into a knot. No one on the program proposed any uses for the rope; it was just a clever new invention. Of course, miles of fibre optic cable are being laid each day as you read this.

Another e

arly series was “The Facts of Medicine” with Dr. David Rutstein. I remember little about this series except that in one program, Rutstein directly tied smoking to cancer. This was 1956! No one in the media was talking about that. Of course the tobacco companies continued to prosper by saying ”nothing had been proved,” and that “more research was necessary”. Sound familiar?

Professor Boring was best known for explaining the phenomenon that the moon looks larger when close to the horizon. He disproved the notion by bending over and looking at the moon backwards through his arched legs.

Many of our programs were courses such as “Poetry” with Professor A. I. Richards; a thin, pale, intense, squeaky-voiced English import to Harvard. Another was “Psychology One,” by a delightful bustling bundle of flesh with the unfortunate name of Professor Edwin G. Boring. Professor Boring was best known for explaining the phenomenon that the moon looks larger when close to the horizon. He disproved the notion by bending over and looking at the moon backwards through his arched legs. The sight of the distinguished Professor Boring doing this on camera was a delight to us all.

Many of these courses were made and recorded for the United States Navy for submarine sailors who submerged for six months at a time and got quickly bored with magazines and comic books.

And so?

We all thought of ourselves as being on a mission to educate and inform our city. Perhaps a bit holier than thou, we earnestly thought that folks enjoyed, or would enjoy, learning neat things if we presented them with style and excitement. A major problem was that we were mostly using the academic model rather the journalistic model for program planning and production. Mostly this was due to our lack of money, and because we were tied to the studio. None of us had seen a clear model to emulate or the money to put it into practice. For me, that would come later when I spent the year at BBC.

We also had a healthy case of inferiority. Daily, we saw program models that were new and vital on the commercial networks. Often the research and the content were shoddy but the forms were impressive. Commercial TV was real TV and it took a few decades and many millions of dollars for that to change. At the time of this writing (2004), nothing on the commercial networks equals NOVA, NATURE, FRONTLINE, GREAT PERFORMANCES and THE AMERICAN EXPERIENCE.

But back to the past.

My job

I was hired as Assistant to the Assistant General Manager and Director of Operations and my first task was to redesign the main office to include four new employees; David Davis, Bill Cavness, Lillian Akel, and me. I moved things around on a paper scale model, and after Hartford’s approval, moved the desks themselves. It’s true that Lillian’s desk was placed next to mine, separated only by a portable partition, but in my truest memory, it was not a plan to get to know her. (She was cute, though)

I often accompanied Hartford in testifying before Legislative committees in New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine, providing them with helpful information as they were in the act of voting on bills to build ETV stations and networks.

Once, testing some neoprene covered electrical wire, stretched it out on the ice to determine what several months of Antarctic weather would do to it. When he went to find it just before returning home, he discovered … hungry Skua gulls had feasted on it.

In my “spare time,” I produced and directed thirteen programs on Antarctic Exploration with Father Daniel Linehan of the Weston Observatory. Father Dan was a Jesuit geologist with an explorer’s itch. He’d go to various US companies needing things tested in extremely cold climates, take their gear to Antarctica, spend a few hours testing them, and then spend the rest of the summer doing his own research. Once, testing some neoprene covered electrical wire, he stretched it out on the ice to determine what several months of Antarctic weather would do to it. When he went to find it just before returning home, he discovered it wound into a round copper mess with all the neoprene insulation missing. Hungry Skua gulls had feasted on it.

His report said the wire fared well but that the insulation made the product unsuitable for cold climates!

I also produced and hosted a weekly chat show, “Youth Speaks its Mind” dealing with many subjects … except sex and things that really mattered to kids. A group of teachers and I would pick the topics and each week a different school would supply the kids. As host, I would start the ball rolling and ask questions to keep it moving. The show also ran on radio and the radio producer was Lillian Akel.

The Boston Children’s Theater performed four or five plays each year with Adele Thane as Playwright/Director. Whenever they did a good show, Adele would produce a thirty-minute adaptation and I would direct it for TV. We did “Tom Sawyer” quite well, and I still have a mental image of a petite young lady attending all the rehearsals and watching it go out live on the air from the control room. Her name was Lillian Akel.

The 21-inch Classroom

Hartford did not hire me to be his assistant. He hired me to start in-school television for the State of Massachusetts. Parker Wheately, the Manager, however, was not too enthused and so for several months I did other things. In 1957, an eruption in the WGBH staff occurred and Hartford became General Manager.

The eruption consisted of Hartford’s going to Mr. Lowell, the Chairman of the Board, and saying that the top half dozen executives of the station would leave if Parker was not fired. Mr. Lowell gave Parker Wheately a year’s salary and he was gone.

The city of Newton figured largely in the creation of in-school TV. Grace Whitamore, the head of the Newton School Committee, and Bernard Everett, the Director of Curriculum, came to WGBH asking for help to get it started. Hartford and I met with them and he said, “Michael is just the person for you”. Over the next year the three of us spent many hours together as we planned the organization of a voluntary group of school systems in the WGBH coverage area. That meant meetings. And meetings meant speeches. I must have met with, and spoken to, over a hundred PTAs and school committees. I became an expert in the cookies and punch often served at these sessions. Lillian even came to some.

This was also my introduction to Jim Armsey and the world of fund raising. In those days, The Ford Foundation allowed senior program officers to give grants of less than $15,000 on their own signature. In 1957, that was real money. I created a plan for a regional program service to schools run by WGBH and financed by voluntary contributions. We told Jim we intended to use his $15,000 for start-up and showed him how the project would soon be self-supporting. Jim always needed to hear that. He called in his secretary, asked her how much was in a certain account, turned to us and said, “OK, send me a proposal for $14,500 and its yours!”

Future fundraising was rarely that easy.

Just as we were ready to proceed, we discovered a problem that threatened to scuttle the whole venture. A well-meaning fifth grade Cambridge teacher had set in motion a bill in the Massachusetts Legislature to allow cities and towns to voluntarily give money for just such a collective school television project. We thought this was unnecessary. More importantly, if the bill failed, it would be considered that cities and towns did not have the right to do so! I spent most of the summer on Beacon Hill persuading legislators to

back the bill. Cambridge Representative Mary Newman, was a big help, but all the while we kept getting the feeling of the presence of invisible obstacles.

One turned out to be the State Department of Education, jealous that they were not to be involved. Thought to be a lumbering elephant, none of us wanted their bureaucracy to weigh us down. We persuaded them to hold off and they agreed. But still, a resisting fog kept many legislators undecided.

Finally the elephant stuck his trunk out. It turned out that the Boston Archdiocese was opposing the bill unless Catholic schools got the programs FREE! In those days in Boston, the Church got what it wanted. They were written into the bill.

The bill finally passed and we could proceed.

We prepared a short science series in the spring of 1958 to show teachers what our shows might be like. I chose Gene Gray, who had been a star pupil in the class I‘d taught the previous year. The Science Museum’s chief science demonstrator, Norman Harris, was added over my objection. The Museum of Science was a member of WGBH and they insisted. On the first show, Harris spilled acid on his hand, cried out in pain and shouted for the help of his assistant, all live on the air! I insisted that Gene do the rest of the shows solo, and Harris never appeared again!

That week, it so happened that Lillian’s cousin, Tony Khair, was visiting Boston. On the subway to Logan to pick him up, I noticed a headline and familiar picture on the Boston Evening Globe front page being read by a man across the aisle. Our test show had hit the press with a glowing front page review! A nice way to start.

The 21" Classroom

“The 21” Classroom: Hartford Gunn; the author; Bill Kiernan, the Massachusetts Commissioner of Education; Gene Gray, everybody’s favorite science teacher on TV; and Norman Harris, Science Director, Boston Museum of Science.

On the air

The 21” Classroom hit the air in earnest in the fall of 1958 with five series broadcast to about 35 school systems.

Two stories from those first series tell a lot about Boston in the 50s. Tony Saletan had been a musician and children’s performer in the Boston area for years. I had him do a supplemental series teaching songs and dances. We used Paul and Marianne Taylor as the folk dancers and it soon became clear that the slight bulge in Marianne’s figure was an impending new family member. HORRORS!

Teachers from Boston complained that I was showing a pregnant woman on television. What would the kiddies think? It was clear that no one bothered to worry about all these kiddies in large families with mommies walking around the house with expanding bellies.

Teachers from Boston complained that I was showing a pregnant woman on television. What would the kiddies think? It was clear that no one bothered to worry about all these kiddies in large families with mommies walking around the house with expanding bellies.

Boston teachers were women. They were Irish women. They were mostly unmarried Irish women. Boston even had its own teacher’s college, so that they perpetuated the clan of local, Irish, unmarried teachers in the school system. A more conservative group of biddies you have never seen.

They were also angry. Working hard in their crowded classrooms, day after day, they answered to a cadre of younger, less experienced, higher-paid men! In meeting after meeting, I could feel the resentment and since it had nowhere to go, resentment often was manifested upon the easier targets: ergo, my lovely folk dancer, Marianne Taylor.

I kept her on the series into her ninth month!

Eager to get kids reading, we did a storytelling series using new books so we could incorporate living authors. (Yes, I really did get to meet Robert McCloskey, the author of “Make Way for Ducklings”, and yes, he really looked just like that little kid in the book on the tricycle running down the ducklings.)

Interviewing many storytelling-teachers, I finally chose Beryl Robinson, who turned out to be a Newton Corner neighbor. Beryl was short, warm, and wonderfully cuddly. Her rapport was instantaneous with kids and adults alike. An employee of the Boston Public Library, I was surprised that, with her acknowledged excellence, she was not working at the Main Library but at the Egleston Square branch.

In conversations with other librarians, I always sensed a uncertain hesitancy about their support for Beryl. Was there a controversy or a hidden body somewhere? Beryl was an excellent and cooperative talent. Her set was minimal; a comfortable chair, a small bookcase, and a spread of eager kiddies to sit at her feet to hear and respond to her stories. On the small bookcase at her side, I insisted we have a five-dollar bouquet of fresh flowers every week.

There are times when you do something just for the effect on the talent. Silk flowers would have done as well, but Beryl knew that they were fresh! After each taping, the bouquet was given to Beryl and her astonishment that we would buy fresh flowers and then lavish them on her personally, alerted me to the fact that life had not always been easy for her.

Later, when I met her husband, Judge Bruce Robinson, all became clear. Bruce was tall, thin, Republican, and very black! Beryl was light skinned. I guess I expected that she was Italian or Greek.

So, I had a pregnant folk dancer and “Negro” storyteller in my first set of series. I can take credit for keeping on the pregnant dancer, but I chose Beryl simply because she was the best of the bunch. Isn’t that the way America is supposed to work?

Other series included history, French with Madame Anne Slack, and science with Gene Gray.

Dear Gene Gray. That bright spark plug of a man with that quick mind and all the energy of an enthusiast. We became fast friends, spent many weekends with Gene and Ruth at the farm, made pottery, helped build a foundation underneath the house, ate freshly picked corn, and planted hundreds of pine trees.

One weekend we faced a particularly difficult problem. A large elm with three main trunks sat at the corner of their house. One of the trunks arched dangerously over the house itself. With a chain saw, Gene expertly felled two trunks away from the structure. Then tying a stout rope high on the trunk of the third, we ran it out into the field to a pulley system attached to another tree in his little forest. Back and forth the rope ran through the pulleys to give me the leverage that a pulley system is noted for. I pulled four feet, the tree top leaned over one foot. Steadily, I moved the remaining trunk out of danger of falling on the house as Gene, standing precariously on the two stumps, worked on cutting a wedge out of the third so the tree would fall free of the house corner.

Suddenly a scream. “Damn!”

The chain saw went one way, Gene went the other.

I let go of the rope, the tree sprung back into shape, and I rushed up to find out just where he’d injured himself.

“Damn,” he said again. “We should be filming this! Look. Here we are creating advantage of power with pulleys, using angles to help the tree fall properly. It would have made a fine TV lesson!”

That was Gene Gray.

Several more seasons of “The 21” Classroom” went well. Our teachers were happy, and I was learning how to be a boss of a large project and manage the work of other producer-directors. The number of member schools grew steadily from 35 to 150 and I was beginning to travel to regional and national meetings to share our knowledge about school programming and to learn what other

cities were doing.

Going Public (1964-1970)

This entry is part 8 of 11 in the series The Michael Ambrosino Collection

WGBH: The Early Years

Programming for the public

I’ve never considered myself an intellectual; my memory and thought processes are just not good enough for true intellectual work. I do, however, have an insatiable curiosity and enjoy the world of ideas. A public TV station, even in the ’60s, was certainly interested in ideas.

One of my jobs was to manage the on-air schedule; to help determine the time slots for each program. Remember, there were only three commercial networks at that time; no cable, no satellite TV, and very few remote controls! Programmers around the world worked on the assumption that if we could get a viewer to tune into our station early, they’d be prone to stay with us at the end of one program to see what else was on. In that way, we all programmed to attract and to keep the audience for the evening.

Some public TV scheduling theories said we should offer an interesting variety of shows each night; others suggested “drama night”, and “science night” and so on, in a seven-day range of specific topics. Some programmers took account of certain smash commercial shows while others realized that all other shows were the competition since over 90% of the audience was watching commercial TV rather than public television.

Some program managers created huge wall schedulers with a 3×5 card for each half-hour. After a few months of watching them fall out of date very quickly, most opted for good old pen and paper. I used colored pen and paper. Jonathan Rice of KQED gave me some Japanese coloring pens with bamboo nibs. On a long sheet that displayed spaces from 6am to midnight, I’d put in live shows in red, film in blue and tape in green. Each individual program had a number and from each week’s sheet, the traffic staff could make up the daily broadcast log and pull the necessary films and tapes from storage shelves and bring them to the control room.

In an emergency, we would just dump the schedule, as we did for United Nations feeds when the 1967 war broke out in Israel.

I worked a few months ahead but, in an emergency, we would just dump the schedule, as we did for United Nations feeds when the 1967 war broke out in Israel. I sat in Control Room C for days, working the incoming network feed I’d arranged from CBS, while producing short analysis segments using international specialists to give helpful insight during the translations.

Bob Larsen and I divided up the supervision of local news, public affairs, TV courses, and special telecourse production for the US Navy. We were doing relatively little national production in those days and Dave Davis or Greg Harney usually looked after them.

A lot of time was spent looking at tapes and films of new series or specials to decide what we wanted to air. At this time, WGBH was commissioned to make some of the earliest anti-smoking commercials and since I was supervising their production, I quit smoking thinking my hypocrisy could only go so far.

Many shows from abroad were made to fit a 50-minute standard length and we always had a need for short programs. A local Newton poet, Anne Sexton, was nationally known, and after seeing a reading, we asked her to make a number of fills reading her poetry. Sexton had a problem with depression and her openness in her poetry was startling. Her most striking poem was a long apology to her daughter for her “madness.” After several attempts, she succeeded in suicide and a fascinating lyric voice was lost.

One of our weekly local programs, “Performance,” presented the vocal or instrumental recitals of music majors from Boston University and The New England Conservatory of Music. There was only so much you could do with an hour-long piano recital. After many attempts to shoot keys, fingers on keys, faces looking at fingers on keys, faces under the sound board, strings, hammers hitting strings, faces superimposed on strings, and dollying slowly around the studio to show the piano from every angle imaginable, a change was needed. David Sloss, then the series’ producer, suggested we turn our ideas around and show the rehearsal of the recital, instead of its finished performance.

“Rehearsal” was born and we showed students being coached to perfect their material. The series was more successful because watching people working on material was often far more interesting than the finished product. This was not yet the birth of the “process approach” in my mind, that came later with NOVA, but it was a good example of how ideas evolve and how a good mind, in this case, David Sloss’s, could adapt an idea to serve this new medium of television.

No matter how hard we tried, we couldn’t sell [“The French Chef”] to NET for national distribution. A “cooking show” was just too “low brow” for them.

Meanwhile, Julia Child and “The French Chef” were becoming local sensations. Broadcast on Sundays at 8pm, Julia was well known in town and the ratings were high. But, no matter how hard we tried, we couldn’t sell the idea to NET for national distribution. A “cooking show” was just too “low brow” for them. Hartford Gunn went so far as to invite the wives of the top four NET executives to Boston for a taping and a special dinner with Julia, without success. Frustrated, WGBH started to sell the “The French Chef” to other local public stations for $50 a show; first Dallas and then San Francisco. Word picked up, the press was good, and after long years of rejection, it finally became a proud staple of the NET distribution schedule. The rest is history.

NET cultural programming in those days was very, very, very, highbrow. At a NET national meeting, Hill Bermont, the program manager from Athens, Georgia, ended a long litany of complaints to Curtis Davis, then Director of Cultural Programming, about the precious nature of NET offerings by shouting, “Curtis. When? When? When, will you stoop to Swan Lake?”

The answer was never. Ballets as popular as Swan Lake came to NET only after Curtis left.

And it wasn’t only ballet. The avant-garde opera “Intoleranza” was set to open in Boston. In it, singers roamed about the stage amongst scenery made mostly of empty cardboard boxes. They sang to off-stage characters who were projected onto a giant projection screen set up on stage left. Greg Harney proposed taping it for NET distribution and it was accepted. After two acts of singing, screaming and screeching among the boxes and the TV screens, the opera ended to unenthusiastic applause.

We hung around the auditorium to say goodnight to Greg. Singers wandered about on stage wiping off makeup and yelling to their waiting friends about plans for dinner and drinks. Kenny Anderson, the TV floor manager, a man with a keen sense of humor, sidled up to Lillian and me. He surveyed the scene, pointed to the singers on stage and whispered immortal words, “Only those in the know realize that this is the third act!”

It could have been so!

A collegial interlude

When a producer suddenly had to leave WGBH, Dave Davis asked me to step in and take over the producing of two video documentaries to be made at Yale. Russ Morash would be directing, and working with him would be a delight. The new School of Art and Architecture had attempted to bring a different type of student to Yale and these two documentaries were to explore what it was like learning to be an artist in a university setting. The specific question was, “Did Yale change the artists and did the artists change Yale?”

It was soon clear that neither affected the other. The students all felt that having a gallery in New Haven meant failure. Only New York mattered. Yale, having built a grand new building to house artists, made its own statement by where they chose to house them. The print makers and their noxious acid baths were placed one floor below ground level without air conditioning. The sculptors were quartered two floors below ground level, requiring the removal of large plate glass windows to a pit-like courtyard to bring in large blocks of wood and stone, and again to remove their completed sculptures.

On the other hand, the building’s architect, Paul Rudolph, in charge of teaching architecture at Yale, housed the student architects in the bright and airy high-ceilinged upper floors.

It’s little wonder that several years after the taping, students set fire to the building and only fast work saved it.

Several things stand out in my memory from making those programs.

I was amazed to watch these artist/teachers handle their materials. Gabor Peterdi, a print maker, touched paper with hands that seemed to understand paper itself. He did so with a grace that I found mystical. He knew paper and just to see him slide new paper or completed prints from one pile to another gave me a totally new appreciation of the way artists handled their tools.

So too with sculptor James Rosati, and the way his hands grasped his chisels and his hammer. When he passed a palm over a slab of un-worked marble, it was as if he were stroking a living thing; a living thing that he loved!

With his eyes blazing, Rosati exhorted his students to live the full and good life. To their unbelieving smirks he intoned, “To be an artist, you have to be a whole man!”

Jim Rosati was a gem. He was sculpting abstract forms in stone. Mostly self taught, he delighted in coming up from New York two days a week to teach at Yale. Short, strong, and tough, he spoke roughly to his students who were unwilling to try. On the last night of the shoot, we bought several cases of beer for an informal taping session, and with his eyes blazing, he exhorted his students to live the full and good life. To their unbelieving smirks he intoned, “To be an artist, you have to be a whole man!”

Tears came to his eyes as he told me of his first Italian trip to Cararra to buy marble. As you approach Cararra by the mountain road, you can see the white scar of the quarry up ahead. White dust covers everything as workmen wrench the crystalline blocks from the mountain wall. James Rosati was on his way to select the same pure white stone as the great Michaelangelo had done centuries before. James Rosati and Michaelangelo; brother sculptors! It was a high point in his life and he spoke of it with almost religious reverence.

A more down-to-earth Rosati discovered that his sculptures, although all abstract forms, sold better when they had names. He would have preferred to call them “Work #1, Work #2” and so on, but the market prevailed, and after so many years in the steel mills, Jim enjoyed his new celebrity, the high prices his work commanded, and the better quality of his table wines.

What to do? He was not a man of words.

Well, his neighbor was!

Each time he accumulated a body of work, Jim would invite his neighbor and friend, poet Stanley Kunitz, to his New York studio. Opening a bottle of well-aged single malt scotch, he would wait a sociable period, and point to one of his new works. Glass in hand, Kunitz would think a moment or two and, with a warm smile, would say something like, “Nature coalesced!” or some such poetic incomprehension. Jim would scribble down “Nature coalesced”, and proceed to the next. Thus, Jim Rosati’s master abstractions would become word-christened for the waiting art market.

I was impressed with Rosati and enjoyed his success in his later years as he reverted to his native steel, creating large, finely burnished stainless abstracts in major commissions around the world. He loved his work and felt privileged to have been lifted from poverty by his artistry. Giving back to the students was his way of thanking all the artists who went before him.

No. Yale did not much affect the art students, but Jim Rosati did.

Back to the hustings

When it came to the news, WGBH had a continuing problem. There was never enough money to compete openly with the three local commercial stations. What should we do? The decision seemed to be “waver.” For several years we did no news. Then we experimented with a fifteen-minute show at sign-off that mostly gave John Henning the on-air experience he needed so he could go to WBZ and do it for real.

Then the thinking would shift to harnessing all our resources behind one big documentary per week. After a bit of that, the decision would be made that, once again, WGBH had to have an every night presence, and shows like ”The Reporters” would be born.

“The Reporters” included young newspapermen and women and some TV wannabees who went out into the neighborhoods with the new mini-cams to do stand-ups and short documentary stories. Alan Lupo, a large, cigar-smoking Globe reporter, covered the city and the big stories. We also had Sharon Rivo, Joe Klein, and Howard Spergel. (Joe Klein became famous a few years back with his blockbuster novel and film, “Primary Colors,” about a fictional sleazy US President with a loose zipper.)

Howard Spergel was such a good reporter that he was soon an embarrassment. Howard’s beat was education. He was so efficient that he often had two or three stories to any other reporter’s one. Some nights, the show was mostly Howard. Sadly, he died of a brain tumor well before his time. I told his story a few years ago at a speech to students at Emerson College and was approached at the end by a pretty coed in tears. She was Howard’s daughter, and told me that she had not known that about her dad and thanked me.

The Democratic State Convention that year was at the Hynes Convention Center and we covered it completely. Reporters on the floor gave insightful reports and, unlike the other stations, we stuck it out until the bitter end, broadcasting the final vote for Endicott Peabody’s nomination for Governor well after midnight. It was 2:30am when “Chubb” Peabody made the long climb to our booth for his victory interview. After a bit of sharing the glory, Chubb looked sheepishly at the interviewer and asked, “Do you really think anyone is still up watching us”? “No”, the interviewer admitted.

We said goodnight and shut down our coverage!

WGBH at this time was trying hard to break into national production. NET, which had been formed to choose national productions, had started to produce most of the big series themselves and there was not enough money to go around. We did get them to buy “Science Reporter,” and each year got money for a documentary or two. For that reason, on a regular basis, the program staff and producers would meet to discuss the problems of the nation and the world and to propose documentaries that would examine these serious issues.

At one such meeting we were going at it full bore. The table was littered with spent passion and virtue when Hartford walked in to introduce the program manager of the Globe’s new UHF station, Channel 56. Polite handshakes went all around the table and one of us asked him what he was going to put on his new station. He laid out a litany of old and tired re-runs, tawdry talk shows and cheap old movies. Don Fouser, a tough, moralistic, and fearless producer, whose mouth had gotten h
im in trouble more than once, piped up in horror, “That’s God-damned air pollution!”

A crimson-faced Hartford, newly elected to the Globe station’s Board of Directors, rushed the Channel 56 program manager out of the room. We did not see either for the rest of the day.

About the same time, the national meeting of stations was held in New York City. WNET, Channel 13, the host station, had a grand hotel suite full of food and booze, and we naturally gravitated there in the late evenings. The meeting coincided with WNET’s annual fundraising pledge night and they wanted to have us all see how grandly they could do things. On went the huge TV set and, to pay for our free booze, we were supposed to sit there and watch “Thirteen Stars for Thirteen!” Big stars they were too. Well-known Broadway and Hollywood singers and dancers did their thing and in between, WNET staff made pitches for money. Every so often, a WNET executive would place a call, ask how things were going, and announce in a whisper we could all hear, how much money they had made in that last “Star” pitch.

“Star” Tom Lehrer came up next. Everybody who went to college in the 50s knew him. Lehrer, a Harvard math instructor, made up hilarious songs whose lyrics usually scorched some sacred cow. Everybody enjoyed his records and his pointed roasting of the military, the government, big business, and the church. For whatever reason, Tom decided that night to sing his caustic “Vatican Rag”, poking fun at the Roman Catholic Church, which had as its refrain:

“First you get down on your knees.
Fiddle with your rosaries.
Bow your head with great respect, and …
genuflect … genuflect … genuflect!”

New York is heavily Roman Catholic.

After a moment, the phone rang in the suite and the NET executive answering it went ashen. Slowly, he hung up. No whispered money totals this time. In a rush, he gathered up all the other WNET executives and they stormed into a bedroom and closed the door.

The flood of complaints about “The Vatican Rag” was so great that no money pledges could get through!

Now, the fundraising gimmick for the evening was that the “Thirteen Stars” would do their thing, and the taped “Star bits” would be repeated over and over. While we all ate and drank and sniggered at their problem, the WNET executives remained locked in debate.

WNET was well known for its boasting and ostentation, but rarely for its speed, so that when the door finally opened, and the executives had reached a decision, an hour had gone by

WNET was well known for its boasting and ostentation, but rarely for its speed, so that when the door finally opened, and the executives had reached a decision, an hour had gone by.

What do you think happened?

Yup. Before they could react, Tom Lehrer’s taped bit was on the air again and the phones were jammed even worse this time.

“Thirteen Stars for Thirteen” continued for the rest of the evening, but except for the mathematically challenged, only twelve stars could be noted performing thereafter.

Begging in low style for high stakes

WGBH continued to edge from “educational television” to “public television”, exactly paralleling the change of its financial dependence from Lowell Institute Cooperative Broadcasting Council dues to general public donations. That meant we had to use our own airtime for begging and that led to the WGBH auction!

Hundreds, and later thousands, of volunteers formed an army of “go-getters” that begged free stuff from willing businessmen. Clothes, food, art work, china, tires, week-end retreats, homemade quilts (from Mr. Harrington’s mother), all funneled into studio B, which, each day, looked more like a department store warehouse. In those days, when most of the staff worked on in-studio local programming, the auction became an eight-day holiday from work. Both studios were totally occupied, and there was nothing we could do but work on the auction. We rotated through directing, running tables, greeting celebrity auctioneers, confirming sales, handling paperwork and money, and on-air selling. My specialty was “sign-on” and “cross-over;” starting the auction, explaining how it worked and moving the action from table to table for several hours at a time. As the auction moved to color, I did too, buying a Madras plaid sport jacket from the preppy Harvard Square store, J. Press, which gave me a rainbow glow.

Early auctions were loose and informal affairs. When we auctioned off a band, they played several numbers and we all danced.

Early auctions were loose and informal affairs. When we auctioned off a band, they played several numbers and we all danced. The auction was held early in June before the wealthy lady volunteers headed to Maine or the Cape for summer holidays. In the first few years, a contingent of Chestnut Hill neighbors settled into the function of “confirmation,” calling the high bidders to tell them that they should come in to “pick-up-and-pay.” Guzzling from large thermos containers of martinis, this group often confirmed more than one high bidder, causing more than one irate “winner” to show up expecting their prized item.

Very soon, confirmation became a WGBH staff function.

Auction time also meant extreme heat in Studio A and lots of free Coca Cola. I didn’t recognize the effects of addiction until Monday morning after auction, when I found myself drifting down to the cafeteria early for a coke. I was in need of a caffeine fix! Now I use Coke only to keep awake on long driving trips.

The history of the auction takes us back to KQED. Founded by Jim Day and Jonathan Rice, the San Francisco station went on the air with very little money and in very Spartan quarters. I remember the “soundproofing” in their main studio consisted of egg crate partitions that had been nailed to the walls!

In less than a year, their Board of Directors discovered they were out of money and decided to close down. “Horrors,” cried Jim and Jon. “If we close, we may never reopen! Say, if we raise $20,000 in the next two weeks, can we stay on the air ‘til we figure out how to raise more?”

With a Board OK, Jim called a bunch of his friends and raised $10,000.

Jon Rice called his mother!

With the $20,000 in hand, Jon Rice set about to create a money raising scheme that promised a continuing return. He concocted a plan to sell donated stuff on KQED air and the auction movement was born. One of the items donated to that first auction was a set of purple bed sheets from a leading San Francisco hotel that had just been slept in by the sultry Hollywood actress, Kim Novak. A clever clothing manufacturer bought the sheets, made them into several dozen purple ties, and donated them to the KQED auction to be sold for even more money.

A monster was born!

Many stations hated the idea of doing something that crass and commercial, until it became clear that hundreds of thousands of dollars could be raised. The auction continues at WGBH and at many stations, although in the greater scheme of things, it’s no longer a significant portion of fundraising. The mere fact that thousands of volunteers are still interested, and the auction brings them into an intimate contact with, and loyalty to, the station, makes it worthwhile.

WGBH 1967 to 1970

In 1967, Public Television was changing.

For a decade, our major financial backer ha
d been the Ford Foundation. Ford had invested two hundred and fifty million dollars in helping to equip and program the stations. The “network,” a video distribution system by mail, was supported by them. NET, the commissioning (and later the producing) arm of the system, was their creation. Their hand was not very heavy but it was definite. Many waggish stories included, “Does anyone love the Ford Foundation?” The answer depended upon whether they had funded you. For every grant they made, many were denied.

Folks came and testified and the staff listened and then wrote a report which would, hopefully, figure a way to fund PTV on a long term basis and include a method for dispensing the funds.

With a push from WGBH’s Hartford Gunn and Ralph Lowell and funding from the Carnegie Foundation, the Carnegie Commission was formed, made up of leaders in American communications and intellectual thought. Folks came and testified and the staff listened and then wrote a report which would, hopefully, figure a way to fund PTV on a long term basis and include a method for dispensing the funds.

Out of it all came annual federal funding and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting as the disbursing agent. The Commission called for a board made up of distinguished Americans. When President Johnson appointed the manager of his own Texas TV station, we all understood the Washington interpretation of “distinguished.”

Back at home, the station and our lives were more and more concerned with war. International politics caused almost every action to be examined on the premise, “Are you with us or are you with Russia?” Even the Middle East war found the US on one side and Russia on the other. In Asia, Vietnam was in the headlines daily. Instead of seeing that as a struggle to evict a foreign power — Vietnam had been under the French and the Chinese for over 700 years — many in The United States saw another fight between “Democracy” and “Communism.”

Taking advantage of the close connection between Washington and Cambridge, we made many programs on these subjects, using the same academics that were advising various government agencies. One thing they did was to play “War Games.”

Former military and political officials, with a goodly mix of academic wannabees, would role-play various American and Russian officials. A crisis would be dumped in their laps and the viewer would watch as action by one nation would be met with reaction by the other. We would televise these deliberations and show charts and graphs of the results in each side’s “war rooms.” How dispiriting it was to see how many times the dispute ended in war! No one wanted to give in or mediate.

It’s interesting that in real life the big war between the Soviet Union and the United States never happened. So much for the difference between a game and real life. In real life, the consequences of childish posturing includes results too horrible to contemplate.

Election coverage

When it came time for the ‘68 elections, we invited the major candidates for the House of Representatives to come in and be interviewed live by me and answer questions from callers. It went well until the night I interviewed “Tip” O’Neill, later to be the powerful Speaker of the House. I felt I’d handled everything with care and efficiency until a live caller asked, “Tip, how about that woman you’re having an affair with in Fall River?”

Too poor, too inexperienced, and too stupid, we had assumed that a producer screening calls would obviate the need for a seven-second delay on the phone line. Well, the caller outfoxed us, Tip was furious, tearing off his headset after we left the air. It seems that this fellow had been dogging Tip at every speech. Tip was a devoted husband and well known in Washington as a man who went home to “Millie” for dinner each and every night.

A fierce election fight for Attorney General was in the works between Frank Bellotti, a tough Italian lawyer and pol from Quincy, and Elliot Richardson a Brahmin lawyer from the best of Boston law firms. Richardson, went on to fame as the principled Republican Attorney General in the Nixon administration who refused to fire Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox, the man who was investigating Watergate and demanding the Nixon tapes. Here, Richardson had made a less principled accusation in the local campaign.

Richardson had suggested that “Providence money” was behind the Bellotti organization. To any Bostonian over twelve, he was accusing Bellotti of receiving money from the Mafia. Bellotti was rightly furious and announced that he would not appear with Richardson on any stage in the future. That was fine, except that he was scheduled to debate Richardson on WGBH in a few nights and I was the producer!

I sat down, figured out all the possibilities, and created a number of different scripts for the evening:

1. Bellotti fails to appear. We announce the fact, show Richardson being present, say the debate has been cancelled and run a substitute program. (We could not give Richardson airtime because Bellotti could then demand a free show under the “equal time” provision.

2. Bellotti appears. We start the debate. Bellotti denounces Richardson and stalks off. We announce the off-stalking, give Richardson five minutes to reply, say the debate has been cancelled and run a substitute program.

3. Bellotti appears, all is OK, we use the long script and run the debate.

I know I prepared five scripts in all, but for the life of me can’t remember the circumstances of the other two. I think one had the debate start and have a blow up in the middle and Bellotti or Richardson stalk off. This is just a small indication of how you prepare for the unforeseeable when your airtime is at stake

The Vietnam War and WGBH

I also remember how we wiped out our evening schedule for several days during the Vietnam era when the protesting students took over Harvard. The first day of the takeover, Middlesex County Sheriff John Buckley, a good family friend, was being installed in a formal ceremony. Resplendent in top hat and tails, he was handed an Army helmet, led to an armored vehicle and told, “Students have just taken over Harvard Square and it’s your job to get them out!” John used to joke that it was the quickest on-the-job training he ever had.

WGBH set up a large table in Studio A where dissident members of the Board of Overseers sat down with a large group of student activists for a live broadcast that went on for hours.

Harvard President Pusey refused to talk to the students while they occupied Harvard buildings, so WGBH set up a large table in Studio A where dissident members of the Board of Overseers sat down with a large group of student activists for a live broadcast that went on for hours.

During the bombing of Cambodia, Studio B was set up as a newsroom and several of us went on camera to read lists of protest sites for the next day, thus clearly encouraging civilian dissent to the war effort. It’s hard to remember just how strong the anti-war sentiment was in Massachusetts, and these actions remind me how deeply it reached into our program decisions.

Meanwhile, the Ford Foundation was trying one last big push to get Public Television noticed more. To do that, they underwrote a major production unit in New York City. It was also to be our first live national network feed for an experiment called “The Public Broadcasting Laboratory”, or “PBL.” Shows ran on Sunday nights and featured a mix of public affairs and culture, an update on the old “Omnibus&
rdquo; ideas of the 50s.

Controversy began with the very first broadcast. Short documentary segments examining race in America preceded a play, “Day of Absence.” The play’s premise was fascinating: everyone in America wakes up one day to find all the negroes have gone. The performance was made more powerful because the cast was made up of black actors in “white face”.

Many stations complained. But many stations complained about everything. Managers resented any trouble brewed up by their viewers in response to programming over which they had no control. The national NET meetings were filled with griping sessions and now PBL comes along with ”CONTROVERSY!” “Gracious,” you could almost hear them thinking. “If only those New York liberal types would stop stirring up the pot!”

Greg directed … Pinter’s “The Dwarfs,” a powerful drama about control and possession … for TV

Two relatively unknown actors were in it; Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman.

Later in the year, Lewis Freedman, in charge of Culture for PBL, asked Greg Harney to check out the production of a new Pinter play and Greg asked me to join him at the performance. David Wheeler, an old friend, was directing Pinter’s “The Dwarfs,” a powerful drama about control and possession. Greg and I both thought it was great. PBL bought the idea and Greg directed it for TV.

Two relatively unknown actors were in it; Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman.

PBL lasted three seasons and was replaced by a Boston production, “The Advocates;” court room style debates about major issues with leading figures arguing each side. Mike Dukakis was moderator for awhile. It stopped the criticism from conservatives because it was so clearly “fair and balanced!”

Also at that time, EEN had some production money and I proposed to make a one-hour Christmas program that dealt with humanist truths not based on religion. Pete Seeger agreed to come and we invited Tony Saletan, Bernice Reagon, and a dozen other musicians to a party in an old barn for “A Circle of Light.” Pete would not accept any fee larger than any other singer and to try to make up for it, I added his wife, Toshi, to the talent list. Pete thought about the smallest details and even brought some extra-dry firewood from his home on the Hudson, so that there were no crackles and sputters when it burned in the fireplace.

My introduction to Rock and Roll

With the assassination of John Kennedy, America lost its innocence. The death of Martin Luther King was a body blow that rocked the nation. City after city erupted in anger with blacks marching through the streets, burning businesses and buildings, and engaging in general looting.

The day after King’s death in 1968, the famous entertainer, James Brown, was to play a concert in the old Boston Garden. Thirteen thousand young fans, mostly black, were to be there. Since the concert would end after mass transit stopped for the night, the audience would walk back to Roxbury through the center of Boston. Boston had avoided violence following King’s death, and the city government was terrified that would end that night.

Mayor Kevin White’s first answer was to cancel the concert.

His counselors argued that mayhem would result. Mayor White changed his mind and he and his staff concocted a plan to have WGBH broadcast the concert live! All the media were asked to tell folks to stay home and watch it. In that way, Boston might be spared the terror experienced by other American cities.

I was called into Hartford’s office at 5:30 pm, and told of the circumstances. He asked me if I could set up a live, multi-camera broadcast from the Boston Garden by 8:30 pm! At that point, the room erupted in an argument as to the wisdom of getting involved at all. I stood up, said they could continue arguing if they wanted, but I had only three hours to do my job and if I was to meet the deadline, I had to get to work.

I called together the three most experienced staffers with remote broadcasts; Greg Harney, Russ Morash, and David Atwood. If anybody could do it, they could. We assembled a staff, drove the mobile unit to the Garden and went to work.

I had Greg come with me to meet James Brown when he arrived. And arrive he did. Short, compact, buoyant, wearing dark shades, hair high in a black glistening pompadour, white cashmere overcoat lying carelessly over his shoulders, burly bodyguards on both sides, James Brown entered the stage door of the Boston Garden.

“Mr. Brown, I want to thank you for allowing us to televise the concert this evening.”

“What television?” he barked.

Oops

Walking up, hand extended, I introduced myself and said, “Mr. Brown, I want to thank you for allowing us to televise the concert this evening.”

“What television?” he barked.

Oops!

Mayor White’s idea had not yet reached the most important player, James Brown. A closeted meeting quickly followed with Tom Atkins, the Mayor’s black assistant. Brown agreed to TV only when the City of Boston said it would “buy the house” and pay him what he would have made from a sold-out Boston Garden.

We returned to the task of getting on the air and did so by 9:30pm.

What a concert!

I’d never attended a rock concert before and certainly never roamed about back stage at one. The sound was ear-splitting. A big stage band, with two drummers and four lovely back-up singers in white form-fitting evening gowns, filled the night with music and joy. The several thousand who sneaked into the auditorium all rushed close to the stage and danced and cheered and gawked.

Brown’s shtick was to sing till “exhausted” and fall to his knees on stage. Several of his bodyguards would rush out to cover him with a velvet cloak. He would “revive,” throw off the cloak and have another go. This went on endlessly with cloaks of different glowing colors. The crowd loved it.

Brown soothed the grieving audience by dedicating the show to the memory of Martin Luther King and invited Mayor White on stage for mutual hugs. Brown and White urged Boston to “be cool.” They said that Boston was a great city and destroying parts of it would not avenge the death of Martin Luther King. It worked. Those at the concert walked home without incident.

Boston was not a great city for blacks. Countless years were spent fighting bussing and it’s still one of the most segregated cities in America.

Later, I learned that James Brown never got paid! He did get the tapes and I recently saw them for sale on-line.

The killing didn’t stop. Bobby Kennedy, then running for President against Lyndon Johnson, was shot while campaigning. Once again all programming ceased and images of death and mourning swept the airways. Sensing that this was the worst thing for kids, I commissioned two programs; on one a poet read children’s poems about loss and on the other, I asked Tony Saletan to sing songs about those ideals and values Kennedy fought for.

One of the benefits of being in public television is the freedom to see needs and provide answers to fill them. More money in the future would mean more opportunities.

I called Pittsburgh and suggested to Fred Rogers that he also make a special program for kids. ”Haven’t you heard?”, he said. “I’m in the studio right now making a half hour.”

Thus, Fred’s famous program about the death of the gold fish
was made. Together with our two shows, the PBS network had at least ninety-minutes for kids that was not filled with crying and caskets.

One of the benefits of being in public television is the freedom to see needs and provide answers to fill them. More money in the future would mean more opportunities.

David Liroff on the state of WGBH

Here are David Liroff’s farewell remarks from his going away party, the “Liroff Liftoff,” on March 21, 2007. Afterward, be sure to check out Lance Ozier’s tribute ditty.

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Audio

David Liroff on the state of WGBH

Transcript

David Liroff: Jean Liroff tells me that if I begin by saying that “I couldn’t have done it without her,” I’m free to say anything else after that.

I couldn’t have done it without her.

I joined WGBH in August, 1979, 28 years ago this summer.   I believe it’s prudent to change employers at least once every quarter century or so, so I’m heading off to CPB, to another branch of our extended public media family.

I’ve been extraordinarily fortunate to have had the opportunity to wear many hats here over the years, and to have had the privilege and pleasure of working with many of you in this room.

Last Friday I got a call from a long-time colleague who has visited with us here on Western Avenue many times over the years. He empathized that it must be difficult for me to leave a facility which — along with many of you, I’ve come to know and love in all its funky glory — for all of the good fellowship we have shared with each other here, and for the extraordinary things we’ve accomplished together on behalf of the people of Boston, America, and the world.

“Yes, it’s tough to leave,” I said, “but Henry and Jon are trying to make it easier on me. As soon as I step out the door, they’ve agreed that most of these buildings will be demolished.”  I appreciate their understanding. (Don’t forget to wear your hard hats.)

When I joined WGBH in 1979, we had 181 full-time staff and gross revenues of $30 million a year.

Twenty years later, under Henry’s leadership we had grown to 1,018 full-time staff, and gross revenues of $215 million.

Some of those who have joined us only recently openly disparage the work we did before their arrival. To them I say: “Of course we could have done it better”.

But I need to disabuse them of the idea that it was the favorable climate for public media in the ’80s and ’90s which assured our success.

In the ’80s and ’90s … a number of our colleagues at the major producing stations came close to financial meltdown … Under Henry’s leadership, WGBH was a noteworthy exception to that pattern.

It doesn’t take much digging to learn that during that same period, a number of our colleagues at the major producing stations came close to financial meltdown. The partial roster of near-death experiences is sobering:  WNET/New York; KCET/Los Angeles; WTTW/Chicago; WQED/Pittsburgh; KQED/San Francisco, KCTS/Seattle. Under Henry’s leadership, WGBH was a noteworthy exception to that pattern. Someone here must have known what they were doing.

Yes, there’s plenty of room for improvement in the way we do our business — we must change in fundamental ways and that’s true of any organization of our age — but the key to our success in those years, as it continues to be today, is belief in our mission, and remaining true to our commitments:

  • to foster an informed and active citizenry
  • to make knowledge and the creative life of the arts, sciences, and humanities available to the widest possible public
  • to reflect positively the diversity of our audience, inviting a sense of inclusion and a better understanding of each other
  • to improve, for all people, access to public media
  • to be a trusted partner to parents and educators, providing programming and services that promote the healthy development of children
  • to serve the individual not just as a spectator but as a participant, able and willing to learn new skills through our programs and services

You won’t find these on any P&L spreadsheet.

When I arrived here, our first trial by fire in 1980 was our broadcast of Death of a Princess, executive produced by David Fanning (pre-Frontline) and written by David and by Antony Thomas. It was my first major league  lesson in editorial independence and editorial integrity.

It was a story that the Saudi Royal Family didn’t want told, and so it was a story that the US State Department and Mobil Oil Corporation — our largest corporate underwriter — didn’t want told. Mobil took out an op-ed ad in the New York Times condemning the broadcast, but to their great credit they continued to support us for many years after.

Just about ten years later — in the summer of 1990 — an exhibit of the work of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe opened at the ICA. Some labelled it “pornography.” As a result of a showing earlier in the year, the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center and its director had been indicted on obscenity charges. In Boston, both supporters and opponents of the exhibit complained that the media had been reluctant to describe or show the most controversial of the works.

On July 31, on the eve of the opening of the ICA exhibit, with appropriate alerts to viewers we broadcast the photos on The Ten O’Clock News. With Henry’s encouragement, we had decided to show the photographs because the best way to deal with the controversy was to let them be seen.

Again, about ten years later, in May of ’99, it came to light that — contrary to WGBH policies — some names from our donor list had been used for partisan political fundraising. The resulting scandal had national repercussions.

Locally, in the wake of the scandal, Henry had produced several radio and TV spots to explain what had happened and why it wouldn’t happen again. The Globe published an op-ed by Henry in mid-July 1999.

As part of our effort to determine if we had done serious damage to our reputation, and to help figure out what to do next, we enlisted the assistance of John Martilla, a long-time Boston-based political consultant and public opinion pollster.

For an entire day, John moderated focus groups with WGBH members.  At the end of the last session — and after a very long day — John came back into the viewing room on the other side of the glass, shaking his head in disbelief.

“In all the many years I’ve been talking with people in this town about causes and companies and political campaigns and institutions, I’ve never encountered an organization which is more trusted by its constituents than WGBH.”

“David,” he said, “In all the many years I’ve been talking with people in this town about causes and companies and political campaigns and institutions, I’ve never encountered an organization which is more trusted by its constituents than WGBH. To a person, these people are like the parents of a beloved child who’s made a mistake. They are fully prepared to forgive the mistake — in fact that’s what they’d prefer to do — but every time you try to explain how it happened, to spin the story, you remind them how disappointed and angry they were when they heard about it.  Let it go — they believe you when you say it won’t happen again.”

We pulled the spots the next day.  In the months which followed, we scrubbed down our donor list policies and procedures, making it far less likely that our actions, deliberate or inadvertent, will ever betray that trust again.

More recently, we’ve had additional opportunities to be proud of being true to the WGBH mission when we championed the broadcast of what became known as the “two mommies” episode of Postcards from Buster;  our continuing commitment to Between the Lions, despite financial uncertainties; and the many-years-long struggle to maintain the WGBH Archives in the face of calls to “back up the dumpsters and throw that stuff out” to ease the burden of that financial obligation, the true value of which is only now being glimpsed in this era of “the long tail.”  The Archives collection is the dowry we carry with us into the future.

The lesson we should all take away from this is that this organization — and the interests of our intended beneficiaries and stakeholders — has been best served when we have been true to our mission, even when doing so seemed to run counter to that quarter’s P&L.

In last Friday’s Globe, columnist Brian McGrory wrote about the recent pattern of New England-based businesses deciding to move out of the area. He was writing about Quincy-based Dunkin’ Donuts, which plans to expand nationally, and the determination expressed by the company’s chairman/CEO to remain headquartered in Quincy.   “When you make these financial decisions, sometimes you have to say, “This is where we belong, and this is where we’re going to stay … It’s like family here,” he said, “and I have to tell you, it works.”

Here at WGBH, we too are like family.  And it works.

Thank you.

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.

The Party XXII – Class of ’58

Those irrepressible and beloved BU scholars who tore through the station in 1958, like a strong dose of Intest-o-cleanse, returned for the Reunion, bringing with them their particular brand of irreverent chutzpah (and hats especially designed for the occasion by Vic Washkevich).

For the uninitiated, they are (from the left) Bill Heitz, Vic Washkevich, Don Mallinson, Jean (“The Queen”) Brady Moscone Jolly, Ed Donlon, Bob (“The King”) Moscone (uncharacteristically obscured), Paul Noble and Stew White.

With the enthusiastic assistance of Bob Moscone (appearing in the top picture dressed in robin’s-egg blue), they made good on a promise to reprise their original theme song, having specially updated it with several new lines. The melody’s that of the Kingston Trio number “Charlie on the MTA.” The words, set down by Ed Donlon, are the scholars’ own. For the curious, the whole rousing song, as performed at the 2000 Reunion, can be heard in this audio clip. Introductory remarks are by Paul Noble.

From Vic Washkevich

(At that 40th reunion in 1998: left to right, Bob Moscone, Stew White, Vic Washkevich (me), Ed Donlon, author of our anthem. As can be seen from the tabletop, we lived on beer, popcorn and anecdotes.)

Sing along now, remove caps, and place your hand over your heart. You know the tune. Hummm… Here goes.

Before we leave we would like to tell a story
‘Bout a group who’s fame’s well earned.
They’re known around here As the Lowell Scholars
The gang that never returned.

Oh, they never returned No they never returned
And their fate is still unlearned.
They just never came back to walk the streets of Boston.
The gang that never returned.

It was in the year of 1957 That they first hit old Bean Town
Nine assorted males and a Tennessee Lady
A stranger group couldn’t be found.

But they never returned No they never returned
And their fate is still unlearned.
They are banned forever from the streets of Boston
The gang that never returned.

They had communications courses And the GBH resources.
And they put on some startling shows, Like ZOOM shots of the ceiling
And the boom man always reeling And Louie Lyons blowing his nose.

That’s why they never returned No they never returned
And their fate is still unlearned.
So they’re banned forever from the streets of Boston
The gang that never returned.

They had a baby grand piano And lots of fat sopranos
That they used to push around the set.
But Whitney Thompson started screaming That the scholars are all scheming
To sabotage his chances for the Met.

So they never returned No they never returned
And their fate is still unlearned.
They are banished forever from the streets of Boston
The gang that never returned.

They did some shows about religions And a lady who raised pigeons
Plus the concerts at the BSO. But by far the most exciting
Was the Science show on lightning When it blew out ten lights or so.

So they never returned No they never returned
And their fate is still unlearned.
They are banned forever from the streets of Boston
The gang that never returned.

In the annals of that station Now known widely ‘cross the nation
Here’s a secret that no one reveals.
Of those wild and crazy scholars Who worked for zero dollars
They were pioneering ETV schlemiels.

So they never returned No they never returned
And their fate is still unlearned.
They are banned forever from the streets of Boston
The gang that never returned.

And though the years just kept on passing There were friendships everlasting
Built on memories of long ago.
Of that little TV station With it’s hot-bed of gestation
for the most creative television shows.

Still they never return No they’ll never return
But their fate has now been learned.
They have just come back to walk the streets of Boston
The gang that never returned.

But it was not the holy grail It was Internet e-mail
That brought about this gathering.
With a great “Rewired” sound page And a chance to see this sound stage
Who could pass this opportunity?

So we finally returned Yes, we finally returned
And our fate has now been learned.
We have all come home to walk the streets of Boston
The gang that finally returned.

Thanks folks.

For pure, good spirit, there’s nothing quite like you.

Hat photos: Don Hallock, Crew ’58 Photos: Courtesy of Vic Washkevich

The original dream factory — Mass Ave. Studio A (1950s)

This entry is part 3 of 12 in the series The Don Hallock Collection

How best to explain the extraordinary reverence with which studio A is remembered by so many of its former denizens?

This is a deeper and more difficult subject than it might seen at first glance.

Photo from From Brooks Leffler: Studio A, 84 Mass Ave, 1959. Visible are Don Knox, Bob Moscone, Fred Barzyk, Mel Bernstein, possibly Al Kelman, and Lew Yeager. [It was shot] by me — three exposures with my old trusty Leica III (long gone, alas), pasted together with tape and tweaked a bit in photoshop. (Upon looking at it again, I think that’s Dave Nohling coming through the door to the control room.)

Oh, you might begin by thinking of the place, perhaps, as a homely seed pod … housing an almost primal urge to produce a kind of life peculiar to its spirit. Or imagine, maybe, a dry, dim, dusty womb. Anything like that will do.

For years, from the time of it’s construction as a roller skating rink, until the fire collapsed it’s roof, studio A was literally a place where the sun never shone. But was it ever full of light! The bright scoops and fresnels that television production of the era demanded notwithstanding, the light of shared vision, creative endeavor and a remarkable group spirit illuminated the place in very special ways.

So many careers were launched, or at least nurtured, its environment. None, to the best of my knowledge, ended there.

The studio was a rather shabby place, with little character of its own, a chameleon space, created to mimic other environments than itself. (Film, television and radio studios tend to be like that: Selfless in a sense. But studio A had a ‘self’ that those who worked there knew with a loving intimacy.)

It was, for its brief time, a truly magic place.

For many, the place has been strongly emblematic of its time. And if anything, it’s magic blossomed from the power of paradigm, having had so much to do with the drive to produce programming that one could feel pride in, with the ongoing and exhilarating drive to overcome obstacles, with the almost mythic experience of being forced by necessity to achieve the impossible through sheer persistence and ingenuity. This creatively aggressive attitude seems, in a broader sense, to have characterized the entire station’s approach to its place in the world (and is probably, to a significant measure, responsible for its ultimate successes).

WGBH has always been a multifaceted entity, its activities extending to an ever widening range of enterprises and venues — and its human element possessed of a remarkable spirit and sense of mission. That spirit showed itself dramatically in the studios (FM and TV) at 84 Mass. Ave.

The FM Studio

The life of the FM operation and studio (you’d find it just through the window to the left of the photo, behind the microphone boom) was somewhat of a mystery to us, in television. There were, after all, no sets or props or costumes to dramatize the content of the radio programming.

Though we knew all the folks in FM, and that they were doing just as challenging programming as we were in TV (though probably of a higher production quality), we were somewhat in the dark about their undertakings and their output.

Beyond the low partitions, over on the radio side of the big third floor office space, were collected some of the sharpest intellects one could hope to find in the aural tradition. Throughout their work day, they could be heard periodically bursting into gales of laughter, playing word association games so clever, erudite and abstruse that we, the cretins over in TV, could barely follow them, much less participate.

And a dedicated bunch they were too: Bill Cavness and Tom Conley, particularly, could be found prowling the station at almost any hour of the day or night. They were frighteningly bright, seemed to love deeply what they did, and were both a challenge and a pleasure to work around.

Sometime in the late 1950s I attended a tiny get-together at Bill Cavness’ home. At one point Tom Conley insisted that Bill play for us a little project he (Bill) had been working on for a couple of years. It was a work in progress, on audio tape, consisting of various sized music fragments drawn from probably a hundred classical works. Bill had painstakingly assembled them so that the key signatures matched, the transitional notes and instrumentation were continuous, and the whole had a strange and beautiful non-sensical sense to it. It was a full-fledged musical work in it’s own right, alternately comic and touching, grand and intimate. Brahms was suddenly and seamlessly Hovannes; Corelli, became Barber, and just as unexpectedly, Satie and Schostakovich.

I’ve never heard anything like it since. It was a work of genius, and to call it a pastiche would have been an insult. It was a righteous collage in the finest artistic sense.

The TV studio

In television, too, the spirit was alive — or, more appropriately, ‘live.’

For years, before the advent of tape, the vast majority of the production to emerge from studio A was live. And lots of production emerged from that room. Anywhere from one to four hours of television was pumped daily through that control room and directly out onto the air waves.

Anyone who hasn’t done abundant ‘live’ television will have at least a little difficulty imagining how it would have been to do almost nothing but.

Here’s a little of what that was like. In the early days of the station, there was, as I’ve said, no video tape. The existence of such stuff was only a tantalizing rumor (though, in the long run, the station actually procured one of the very first Ampex 2″ machines).

There was ‘kinescoping’ (recording through a modified 16 millimeter film camera, live and live-style programs from a television image on a tiny, very intense, black and white monitor tube, the entirety of which machine was constantly hovered over by Frank Harvey, Arthur Richardson, and Larry Messenger during every second of it’s operation). The results of our kinescoping were, compared to the rest of the industry, of a very high quality — though by modern standards the product would be considered awful.

There was film (and its production, as you know, bears no resemblance whatever to ‘live’).

Live and back-to-back

And then there was ‘live’ itself, the closest thing to which would be classic theater performance, with, given the primitive state of the television art, dozens of times the chances for disaster. Anyone who has done much live television knows that, while the obvious goal is to produce a good piece of TV, the deeper imperative is to avoid, if at all possible, embarrassing one’s self to death. In the days of live television, potential disaster skulked within every vacuum tube, behind each tick of the clock, and sat silently perched, like Poe’s raven, on every shoulder.

As a director, for instance, you would be on the studio floor cleaning up a few (hopefully final) details with the crew. Bill Pierce would elegantly announce his way through the station break and promos. From the control room speaker the switcher would call out “1 minute to air.” And that was it. Did you forget anything — and , if so, what?

There’s now time only to run to the control room sit down, take a breath, and listen to the master control operator on the intercom intone, “You’ve got it!” From that moment the ball is irrevocably yours, the master control operator leaves for a soda, and absolutely anything you do, right or wrong, the audience at home will witness.

Now let’s up the ante. At WGBH, in those years, all programming was broadcast in the evening, and it was not uncommon for a couple of hours of productions to emanate from the studio “back-to-back.” (“The studio,” because for the first three or four years, though it was affectionately known as “A,” there was no studio B to relieve the intense usage of that space. Studio B was an afterthought — but an important one, and extremely well advised.)

Now on any given evening there might, typically, be an hour-long children’s’ program, a half hour news show, a program on famous art works, and a jazz show, one after another, with nothing but a station break separating each of them. That meant that all the rehearsals for those shows were done, also one after another, in the afternoon; and hopefully those hundreds of shots and camera moves, audio cues, lighting changes and talent directions would be correctly remembered hours later, on the air. One director would finish a show, vacate the chair, and the director of the next one would slip in and, one minute later, start theirs.

And some days in each week things got worse, yet. In the ’50s the station owned only 3 cameras and no mobile unit! If there was a field pickup (every Monday, for instance, the Museum of Fine Arts program Museum Open House), two of those cameras were out of the building — only one being left in the studio to do those three or four back-to-back shows we mentioned earlier.

Sets and lenses

The choice of lenses for a given show, for instance, became critical (because, as you may remember, there were no ZOOMs). Lenses could not be changed at any time during a one-camera program. A 50 millimeter lens enabled a cameraman to dolly reasonably smoothly, but approaching a subject for much of a close-up was impossible. A 90 millimeter lens (closer to a telephoto) enabled dollying to a close-up, but dollying smoothly, especially across its seriously flawed floor surface (more on that below), required intense concentration and unusually fine coordination. Emergency maintenance to a malfunctioning on-the-air camera (especially if it was the only one in the studio) often consisted of a swift fist to the side-panel.

Much of what was done in studio A was “stuck-together” television. Few shows had a budget that would buy more than a few phone calls. Materials were constantly and chronically in short supply. There was one roll of gaffer’s tape, for instance, which lasted a year or more, and was measured out by Bob Moscone by the inch. You almost had to sign for each piece. Cheaper tape (something like 1 inch wide plastic stuff, in red and blue and black) lived locked in the desk drawer of Bob’s mobile office. (In truth, Bob had no office; only a wooden desk on casters which was never to be found in the same place two days in a row.) Spike marking with masking tape was more freely permissible — the tape was cheaper.

Sets were mostly of the reusable type. You, as director, might have got a little initial budget for set and design, but then you were almost always stuck with that for the run of the series (frequently several years). Otherwise, you, as director, designed your own sets, and probably built them as well.

They might be made of standard (and ubiquitous) studio drapes, occasionally swagged; ugly but useful modular risers; a variety of chairs (almost all ugly also); literally anything you might find by rooting through the scene dock (like those endlessly reusable, always in fashion, 7-foot high Corinthian columns — yes, or even cannibalizations of sets from someone else’s show, turned upside down, sideways, or cleverly redecorated with books, Books, BOOKS!).

Very strange materials were pressed into service such as used audio tape strung between light poles, or stuffed baby elephants (we almost had one, and by God we would have used it!). In short, giving your show any kind of distinctive look was a chronically desperate undertaking.

But talk to anyone who worked in that space in those days and fondness is what you will hear.

A workaday atmosphere? Hardly. Starting in the morning we were up in the offices scripting (when there were scripts — mostly there were run-down sheets, if there was anything on paper at all) and preparing the programming, in the afternoon, rehearsing, and until 10:30 or 11 pm, shooting, striking and setting up for the next days shows.

On weekends, when no special projects like A Time to Dance were on the boards, Ginny Kassel, John Henning, myself, and often others would hang out in the conference/guest/dressing room (just off the studio) and do what? … watch television, of course! In those days weekend TV was rich with Omnibus, Camera Three, Wide, Wide World, and our favorite piece of trash, Whirlybirds. At Christmas the whole staff would come in after hours and all night long to tape a holiday show consisting of send-ups of the regular programming.

Frank and the crane

One night, on a live presentation of Performance,” I was running camera 1, on a pedestal, and Frank was operating camera 2 — the Fearless crane. (This contrarily named machine was a large dolly supporting an 8-foot crane upon which a 100-pound camera was mounted. Since there was no accommodation whatever for the camera operator, the possession of some simian talents became a virtual necessity.)

Now, somewhere around the middle of the show, Frank was doing a slow dolly-in with the crane extended all the way up to maximum camera height — a position which obliged him to balance precariously on a couple of the top rungs of the crane arm, and hang on for dear life.

While repositioning my camera, I heard a zip-clank-BANG-CRASH and, glancing at the studio monitor, saw the picture from Frank’s on-the-air camera which was now pointing almost straight upward. Swinging wildly from side to side, the camera was panning the light grid, the microphone boom, and virtually all of the studio except the performers.

About six feet behind the dolly, lying flat on his back on the floor was poor Frank, his face reflecting an odd combination of stark amazement and something like beatific rapture (I think the fall nearly knocked him out).

His headset was dangling from the camera, which was, at this point, exercising a completely deranged mind of its own. Apparently the crane had begun to swivel. In trying to shift his weight to regain control, Frank had lost his grip, and tumbled helplessly out into mid-air, narrowly missing the person pushing the dolly.

I fumbled up a usable shot, and the director quickly cut to it. Frank got up from the floor, brushed himself off, checked for injuries, and finding none, remounted his unruly steed to finish the program.

Not too fancy

Studio A was in no way perfect. It wasn’t really spacious (measuring only about 50 by 80 feet). And in the early days, since there was no scene dock, and the set shop was housed in a tiny office measuring about 10 by 15 feet, sets were constructed, and even stored in the studio itself.

A converted skating rink, Studio-A’s floor was made of maple boards which had been washed so many times they’d ‘cupped,’ transforming the surface into something resembling a washboard. Dollying a camera along the grain produced an even enough effect, but trucking smoothly across the grain was almost impossible (though, to be fair, the blessing was mixed; it was a wonderful floor for dancers, and the studio crew never got shin splints).

The facility was a second-story affair, its only large-scale access to the outside world being nothing like a loading dock door, but only an 8 by 8 foot freight elevator through which everything of any size at all came and went (often in a disassembled form).

The studio was definitely not sumptuously equipped. Three camera
s and one microphone boom were minimal amenities. All varieties of equipment were in short supply, and in that environment technical problems posed a continuous threat to the station’s production capability. Every resource had to be stretched for the maximum effect it could provide.

Yet, for all that, literally thousands of hours of often remarkable and impressive (for the time) television emanated from that space, and it was from here that WGBH first put itself on the national map, becoming known for quality concept, high-powered talent, and excellence in production.

In this studio, for a short span of time, a few young professionals, eager groups of college students and starry-eyed volunteers worked together to achieve a quality of broadcast output which, in time, compared favorably to that of New York.

Visitors to the dream factory

The élan, and body of skills, generated in Studio A set the philosophical tone, and established the resources of craftsmanship, for all the struggles which followed the fire. Throughout the post-inferno diaspora of production facilities borrowed from the Boston Archdiocese, WHDH-TV and the Museum of Science, that spirit has probably carried over into the station’s permanent home.

Here are only a few of society’s heavy hitters who’s talent passed steadily through Studio A.

  • Dimitri Shostakovich
  • Aaron Copeland
  • Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein
  • artist, Marc Chagall
  • Max Lerner
  • Henry Kissinger
  • Arthur Schlesinger and Herman Kahn
  • Norbert Wiener (the father of cybernetics)
  • Isaac Asimov
  • psychologist B. F. Skinner
  • photographers Ansel Adams and W. Eugene Smith
  • Buster Keaton
  • Marcel Marceau
  • playwright Harold Pinter
  • MGM production chief Dore Schary
  • Jazz greats like George Shearing, Dave Brubeck, a very young Gary Burton and Cannonball Aderly
  • Choreographers and dancers Jose Limon, Jose Greco, Alwin Nikolais, Maria Tallchief, Andre Eglevsky and Geoffrey Holder

Those who worked there were consistently exposed to some of the best that culture had to offer.

In the ’50s, the romance of WGBH was heavily influenced by what took place inside Studio A. The personality of the station became indelibly colored by the atmosphere emanating from within its television operation, and from within the walls of its only (at the time) studio facility.

As an organization, the station never paid extravagant attention to the intentional creation of team spirit and group synergy. That was never really necessary because the station community was, from the very beginning, galvanized and unified by an innate and remarkable passion for the medium, for the love of creativity, and for the “spin” of high ideals.

For some inexplicable reason, the station’s ‘family’ has in general been comprised of uniquely agreeable people who’s shared vision made working together memorable as an exhilarating, challenging and rewarding experience. And the origin of that tradition can be traced directly back to the early days of “Studio A.”

Inasmuch as the history of WGBH has been synonymous with the history of National Educational Television and its successor the Public Broadcasting Service (and the evolution of “educational television” into “public television”), Studio A and those who worked there made, in their time, a seminal contribution to the creation and nourishment of that endangered species, intelligent television.

Finally, with all due respect, if these sentiments have sounded a little overblown, don’t bother voicing your objections in earshot of those who worked at the station in the days of ‘Studio A.’ You’ll find it a hard sell. The experience had a deep personal meaning for them which seems persistent, even to this day.

Program list — to 2000

Television and radio, New Television Workshop, educational services, more

From Don Hallock – 2000

Just how far have we come? How many programs, series, co-productions and other projects have borne the WGBH logo over the past 50 years? In that time, an enormous and varied community of richly talented human beings have transformed a modest “educational” broadcasting effort into one of the major engines of modern “public” broadcasting.

Every one of the titles below has required production work, from the simplest kind to the most elaborate, complex and ingenious. Imagine the literally millions of person/hours that have gone into realizing the projects listed. Very likely, the lives of almost every person in our country has been touched, if not profoundly affected, by a WGBH production. And we can only speculate about the rest of the world. The influence of WGBH has spread across the entire media industry, and has left virtually no sector of it the same. Product has, of course, been the manifest of WGBH’s success, but the totality of that product has had its origin nowhere except in the hearts and minds of you who have produced it ? and that product is the proof of your dedication and talent.

Not only have the accomplishments of WGBH’s later workers been built upon the efforts and ingenuity of their predecessors, but the “early birds” now enjoy a vindication and an affirmation of their input by witnessing the whole effort carried forward so admirably by those who have come to take their places.

As one contributor to the Guestbook so aptly put it, “I feel a surge of pride every time I see ‘WGBH’ on a program credit.”

Here is just a partial listing of WGBH’s track record.

If you’re anything like us, you may not have counted (or even remember) all the projects you’ve been involved with. Perhaps this list will help remind you of what you’ve done, and of the massive body of accomplishment your work enriches.

Please add to this list. Send us updates.

Your contribution may remind someone else of an effort they have forgotten, and of the wonderful time they had doing it.

Broadcast television & radio

  • A Note to You
  • A Time to Dance
  • A Celtic Sojourn
  • A Science Odyssey with Charles Kuralt
  • Aaron Copland Meets The Soviet Composers
  • Africans in America
  • Amherst College Commencement
  • An American Family
  • Anatomy of a Homicide
  • An evening of Championship Skating
  • Antiques Road Show
  • Artists in the Night
  • Art of the States
  • Arthur
  • At Home
  • Backgrounds
  • Barbara Linden: Artists in America
  • Barry Morse on Acting
  • Beverlee’s Clipper Ship
  • Beyond Sand Dunes
  • Blues After Hours
  • Boston Arts festival
  • Boston Common Boston Proper
  • Boston Symphony Broadcasts
  • Boston Pops Broadcasts
  • BSO Live
  • Catch 44
  • Cavness reads Dr. Zhivago
  • Cavness reads other classics
  • Championship Ballroom Dancing
  • Changing Seasons
  • Channel 2 News
  • Channel 2’s Ten O’Clock News
  • Children’s Circle
  • Circle of Lights
  • CITY/Motion/Space/Game
  • Classic Theater
  • Classical Performances
  • Classics in the Morning
  • Club 44
  • Colgate Grand Prix Tennis
  • Columbus and the Age of Discovery
  • Come and See
  • Computer Age Math
  • Concealed Enemies
  • Contemporary Drama
  • Crescent City Sounds
  • Crockett?s Victory Garden
  • Culture Shock
  • Dancing Disco
  • Dance for Camera
  • Dance in Open Spaces
  • Deadline 11
  • Death of a Princess
  • Debbie Travis? Painted House
  • Degrassi High
  • Destinos
  • Dido and Aeneas
  • Disco Dazzler
  • Discovery
  • Discovering Women
  • Dying
  • Elliot Norton Reviews
  • Epitaph for Jim Crow
  • Enterprise
  • Erica!
  • Eric in the Evening
  • Escorial
  • ESSAYS: I.M. Pei
  • Evening at Pops
  • Evening Pro Musica
  • Exxon/Mobil Masterpiece Theater
  • Eye-to-Eye
  • Filmmakers’ Showcase
  • Films of the World
  • First-ever trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific digital broadcasts
  • Flaherty and Film
  • Folk Music, USA
  • Folk Festival USA
  • For Freedom Now
  • French through Television
  • Frontline
  • Frontier to Space
  • Gavel to Gavel
  • George’s House
  • GODSPELL Goes to Plimoth Plantation for Thanksgiving with Henry Steele Commager
  • Great Decisions
  • Greater Boston
  • Greater Boston Arts
  • Harvard Business Review
  • Harvard Business School Commencements
  • Hodge Podge Lodge
  • Holding On
  • I, Claudius
  • In Search of the Real America
  • Invitation to Art
  • Introductory Geology
  • I’ve Been Reading
  • I’ve Been Reading Paperbacks
  • Images
  • Janaki
  • Jazz with Father Norman J. O?Connor
  • Jazz from Studio Four
  • Jazz Meets the Classics
  • Jean Shepherd’s America
  • John T. Kirk on American Furniture
  • Julia Child and Company
  • Julia Child’s 80th Birthday Celebration
  • Just Published
  • La Finta Giardaniera
  • La Plaza
  • Laughter is a Funny Business
  • Let’s Learn To Type
  • Live Performance
  • Long Ago & Far Away
  • Louis Lyons News & Comment
  • MacNeill/Lehrer inserts
  • Main Street: Boston’s West End
  • Maggie and the Beautiful Machine
  • MAGGIE’S Physical Fatness Program
  • Marketplace
  • Massachusetts Senate and House of Representatives Coverage
  • Metric Moments
  • MIchael Ambrosino’s Show
  • Middle East – US Disaster?
  • Mr. Speaker – a Portrait of Tip O?Neill
  • MIT Science Reporter
  • MIT Weather
  • Morning Pro Musica
  • Mostly Musicals
  • Museum Open House
  • MusicAmerica
  • Music Grade II
  • Music of the Ballet
  • Music of the Baroque
  • My Heart’s in the Highlands
  • Mystery!
  • National Doubles from the Longwood Cricket Club
  • NET Playhouse
  • NET Journal: LSD: Lettvin vs Leary
  • New England Field Trips with Tony Saletan
  • New England Views with Robert Baram
  • New Television Workshop
  • News Hour inserts
  • Nine Heroes
  • No Soap Radio
  • NOVA
  • Of Science and Scientists
  • On Being Black
  • On the Money
  • Pantechnicon
  • Pare Lorentz on Film
  • Parlons Français
  • PBL: Ronald Reagan at Yale
  • PBL: The Dwarfs
  • PBL: Louise Day Hicks
  • PBL: Multiply and Subdue the Earth
  • PBS Millennium 2000
  • People?s Century
  • Performance
  • Peter and the Wolf
  • Phonics
  • Piccadilly Circus
  • Poetry in Massachusetts
  • Pompeii – Frozen in Fire
  • POV
  • Princess Phone Commercials
  • Prospects of Mankind
  • Psychology One
  • Reagan’s New Federalism: Shift or Shaft?
  • Rebop
  • Recreation Review
  • Religious America
  • Remy Charlip’s Dances
  • Rock & Roll
  • Roomful of Music
  • Royal Flesh
  • Ruth Ann?s Camp
  • Say Brother/Basic Black
  • Says You
  • Seen and Heard
  • Seven Meditations on Political Sado-Masochism
  • Sing Children Sing
  • Small City Garden
  • Solzhenitsyn at Harvard
  • Sound and Spirit
  • Soviet Press This Week with Colette Shulman
  • Sports Weekly
  • Ten O’clock News
  • Testimony on a Riot
  • Thalasa Cruso, Making Things Grow
  • Thalasa Cruso, Making Things Work
  • The 21 Inch Classroom
  • The Advocates
  • The Age of Overkill
  • The American Experience
  • The Ascent of Man
  • The Boston Arts Festival
  • The Captioned ABC Evening News
  • The Churchills
  • The Club
  • The College Sport of the Week
  • The Electric Company
  • The Evening Compass
  • The Evolution of Jazz
  • The Facts of Medicine
  • The Film Critic
  • The Fight to be Remembered
  • The Flower People: or How to Make Your Garden Grow with Just a Little Bit of Style & New England Charm
  • The Folk Heritage
  • The French Chef
  • The Gloucestermen
  • The infinity factory
  • The Irish in America
  • The Jazz Decades
  • The Jazz Gallery
  • The Jews of Boston
  • The Jazz Songbook
  • The Hypnotic Glass Harp
  • The Long & Short of It
  • The Makebelieve Clubhouse
  • The News at Ten
  • The New Yankee Workshop
  • The Photography Show
  • The Press and the People
  • The Queen of Spades
  • The Scarecrow
  • The Scarlet Letter
  • The Secret of Life
  • The Spider’s Web
  • The Reporters
  • The Romagnoli’s Table
  • The Trial of Dr. Kenneth Edelin
  • The Victory Garden
  • The WGBH Declaration of Independence
  • The Windsors: A Royal Family
  • The World
  • The World of Buckminster Fuller
  • This Old House
  • This Week’s Symphony
  • Thracian Gold
  • Three Views of the News
  • Treasures of Early Irish Art
  • Tree
  • Trouble in Tahiti
  • Tug of War: The Story of Taiwan
  • Two Gentlemen Folk
  • Tzaddik
  • Upstairs, Downstairs
  • U.S. Open Tennis at Longwood
  • Viewpoint
  • Vietnam: A Television History
  • Walsh’s Animals
  • War and Peace
  • Weather and Sports
  • Weather for You
  • WGBH Auctions
  • WGBH Classical Concert
  • What’s Happening Mr. Silver?
  • What’s New/Field Trip Specials
  • Where in the World and…
  • Where in Time Is Carmen Sandiego?
  • Women?s Special: Rape
  • Woof! It’s a Dog’s Life
  • World
  • Your Income Taxes
  • ZOOM

New Television Workshop

For more information on NTW, or on individual titles, visit the NTW Archive

  • 1932
  • 21
  • 37/73
  • 9 Variations on a Dance Theme
  • 9/23
  • Aeros
  • All About Eggs
  • America, Inc.
  • Anges Rebelles, Les
  • Anniversary Special
  • Art of Memory
  • Art Talker
  • Artist in the Seventies, An: Peter Campus
  • Artist’s Showcase Documentation
  • Artists Babies Bodies
  • Artists on Artists, Compilation Tapes
  • As if Memories Could Deceive Me
  • As Quiet As…
  • As Seen on TV
  • Aviary
  • Aviation Memories
  • Ballplayer
  • Banned Reels
  • Barbara Two
  • Batteries Not Included
  • Bees and Thoroughbreds
  • Belladonna
  • Berlin/Nilreb: Tourist Journal
  • Between Time and Timbuktu
  • Big Inning, The
  • Binge
  • Blues for Piggy
  • Bob’s Master
  • Body Beautiful, The
  • Borders
  • Bruce and Babe
  • Buddha’s Door
  • California Casual
  • California One
  • Capoeira of Brazil
  • Carmen
  • CAT Fund Documentation
  • Celebrate: A Time to Dance
  • Ceramic Images
  • Changing Steps
  • Chant A Capella
  • Charles Blessing Interview
  • Charlie Smith and the Fritter Tree
  • City Archives
  • City Motion Space Game
  • City of the Angels
  • Cityscape
  • Coffee Coloured Children
  • Collisions
  • Collisions (Louis Falco)
  • Color Piece for Television, A
  • Color Schemes
  • Common Mistakes
  • Confessions of a Chameleon
  • Contexts
  • Criss X Cross
  • Cross Body Ride
  • Da Capo
  • Damnation of Faust: Charming Landscape
  • Damnation of Faust: Evocation
  • Damnation of Faust: Will-O’-the-Wisp (A Deceitful Goal)
  • Dance for Camera
  • Dance for Camera
  • Dance in Open Spaces
  • Dance Journeys
  • Dance of Darkness
  • Dancers, Buildings, and People in the Street
  • Dances: Remy Charlip
  • Dancing on the Edge
  • Darkness of My Language
  • De Stijl
  • Dead Images
  • Design Archives ? Compilation Tapes
  • Desire, Inc.
  • Devices of Detachment
  • Digital Speech
  • Dinner Party: A Semi-Buffet
  • District 1
  • Dogs, The
  • Double Lunar Dogs
  • Double Take
  • Dream Moments
  • Dreamworks
  • East Ended Tape
  • Easy Living
  • Edit 1
  • Elder, The
  • Ellis Island
  • Ena’s Adventures, Part II
  • Event Horizon
  • Evol
  • Ex-Romance
  • Exultate Jubilate
  • Femme a la Cafetiere, La
  • Foto-Roman
  • Four Sided Tape
  • Four Songs
  • Frames of Reference
  • Frank: A Vietnam Veteran
  • Fred Astaire/George Balanchine Project Documentation
  • Freefall
  • From an Island Summer
  • Funeral
  • Gallery Piece, The
  • Ganapati: A Spirit in the Bush
  • General Archiving Documentation
  • George Rochberg and His Music
  • George’s House
  • Going Away Party, The
  • Gray Hairs
  • Great American Fourth of July and Other Disasters, The
  • Great Frontier, The
  • Hail the New Puritan
  • Hall’s Crossing
  • Harry Somers and His Music
  • Hart Island
  • Hazardous Hootenanny
  • Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, The: A Video Opera
  • High Hot Moons
  • Homage by Assassination
  • Honi Coles Interview
  • Hoppla!
  • Houses that Are Left, The
  • Human Tube, A
  • I Do Not Know What It Is that I Am Like
  • I Want Some Insecticide
  • I Will Not be Sad in This World
  • I Wish I Might
  • Images Diffused by Time
  • Imaginary Crossing
  • In the Blink of an Eye, Amphibian Dreams… If I Could Fly, I
  • Would Fly
  • In the Rehearsal Room
  • Inertia
  • Inhabitant of Another Place
  • Interpolation
  • Irony
  • J. S. Bach
  • Jesus: A Passion Play for Americans
  • Joseph Schwantner and His Music
  • Judy Chicago Interview
  • Karkador
  • Kissing Booth, The
  • L’Image
  • Landscape in Motion
  • Lathe of Heaven, The
  • Lauf der Dinge, Der
  • Lea Grammont
  • Lee Krasner Interview
  • Lies and Humiliations
  • Lines of Force
  • Living with the Living Theater
  • Lotte Goslar’s Pantomime Circus
  • Louis Zukofsky
  • Lown Ranjer Aind Tontow, The
  • Lulu Smith: The Chicken that Ate Columbus
  • M. F. K. Fisher: Writer with a Bite
  • Made in Maine
  • Magritte sur la Plage
  • Making of Severe Clear, The
  • Man Ray, Man Ray
  • Meaning of the Interval
  • Medium Is the Medium, The
  • Melanie Kahane Interview
  • Melting Pot
  • Modern Times
  • More TV Stories
  • Mosaic for the Kali Yuga, A
  • Mother’s Little Network
  • Motherland, The
  • Mountain View
  • Music Image Workshop Documentation
  • Music Image Workshop Experimentation
  • Music of Ivana Themmen, The
  • Music of Joan Tower, The
  • Music of Lukas Foss, The
  • Music of Michael Colgrass, The
  • Music of Ralph Shapey, The
  • My Father’s Song
  • My Puberty
  • Myth of Modern Dance, The
  • Nam June Paik on the Beatles
  • Neo Geo: An American Purchase
  • New England Fishermen
  • New Television Documentation
  • New Television, Episode 101-111
  • New Television, Episode 201-204
  • New Television, Episode 301-313
  • New Television, Episode 401-413
  • New Television, Episode 501-513
  • New Television, Episode 601-613
  • Nine Heroes
  • Northern Shore, The
  • Northlight
  • Nosferatu
  • O Panama
  • O’Neil Ford Interview
  • Observations on Photography
  • Oh Nothing
  • One Many
  • One Way
  • Pale Cool, Pale Warm
  • Past Fantasies
  • Paul Rand Interview
  • Peter Campus Compilations
  • Peter Campus on Paul Strand
  • Phantom of the Open Hearth
  • Phenomenology (Parts A, B, C)
  • Place to Dance, A
  • Plage Concrete
  • Poetry Breaks Compilation Tapes
  • Poetry Breaks Documentation
  • Poetry Breaks for Schools and Libraries: Charles Simic
  • Poetry Breaks for Schools and Libraries: D. Nurkse
  • Poetry Breaks for Schools and Libraries: Galway Kinnell
  • Poetry Breaks for Schools and Libraries: Lucille Clifton
  • Poetry Breaks for Schools and Libraries: Martin Espada
  • Poetry Breaks for Schools and Libraries: Philip Levine
  • Poetry Breaks I, Allen Ginsberg
  • Poetry Breaks I, Galway Kinnell
  • Poetry Breaks I, Martin Espada
  • Poetry Breaks I, Robert Bly
  • Poetry Breaks I, Ruth Stone
  • Poetry Breaks I, Seamus Heaney
  • Poetry Breaks I, Sharon Olds
  • Poetry Breaks II, Cyrus Cassells
  • Poetry Breaks II, Li-Young Lee
  • Poetry Breaks II, Lucille Clifton
  • Poetry Breaks II, Stanley Kunitz
  • Poetry Breaks II, Thylias Moss
  • Poetry Breaks III, Charles Simic
  • Poetry Breaks III, D. Nurkse
  • Poetry Breaks III, Philip Levine
  • Poetry Breaks Sound and Graphic Elements
  • Portrait of a Friend by Friends: Emmett Williams
  • Portraits from the Two O’Clock
  • Primordial Soup
  • Proposition, The
  • Public Nuisance, A
  • Put Blood in the Music
  • Quarks
  • Quickening
  • Quidditas
  • Radio Inside
  • Rear Bumpers
  • Reflecting Pool, The
  • Return of the Motherland
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One way to run a railroad (1946-59)

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. 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.

Starting Pains

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.

Work Environment

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.

Reaching Out

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:

“Ray?”

“Yes, Bill?”

“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?!”

Friday: “No”

Gannon: “Then what was it?”

Friday: “Suicide!”

… 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 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.

Tight Quarters

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 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