Parker Wheatley – in memory

  • Years at LICBC/WGBH: 1946-1957
  • Positions: General Manager, WGBH

From Larry Creshkoff

“Major Wheatley, if I hadn’t given you a two-year contract, I’d fire you right now.”

It was a cold day in January of 1947. Parker Wheatley (1906-1999) was sitting in the elegantly austere office of Ralph Lowell in downtown Boston.

A few months earlier, Wheatley had been hired as Director of the Lowell Institute Cooperative Broadcasting Council (LICBC), an informal grouping of colleges and universities in the Boston area brought together for the purpose of developing educational programs to be broadcast on commercial radio stations. Lowell, President of the Boston Safe Deposit and Trust Company, and Trustee Sole of the Lowell Institute — an educational foundation endowed more than a century earlier by a collateral ancestor — had been selected as the point man to get the Broadcasting Council started.

They had been discussing some details concerning the first Council broadcasts scheduled to begin in a few days, when Lowell handed Wheatley a sheet of paper on which was typed the text of the announcement that was to be aired at the beginning of all Council programs:

The LOWELL INSTITUTE

in cooperation with

BOSTON COLLEGE

BOSTON UNIVERSITY

HARVARD UNIVERSITY

MASSACHUSETTS INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY

NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY

and TUFTS COLLEGE

presents …

There was a slight pause before Parker suggested, no doubt gently, that that would be a good way to lose the audience in the first ten seconds. He proposed to begin, instead, with something meaningful from the body of the program that would catch attention and arouse curiosity — a teaser — and then give the institutional credits after the listener had at least found out what was on the menu.

Lowell’s normally ruddy complexion turned slightly purple as he let Major Wheatley know how he felt about this bit of insubordination. Nevertheless, Parker stuck to his guns, and the tease before the billboard became a trademark of LICBC programs. Thus began a complicated relationship between two men with little in common. It lasted eleven years. What came out of that relationship has lasted a half-century.

In contrast to Lowell, a sixth-generation Bostonian whose extended family tree included a distinguished astronomer, three renowned poets, and a president of Harvard, Wheatley’s origins were in Tipton County, Indiana. The first eleven years of his life were spent on the family farm there. In time, his immediate family moved to Indianapolis, where he attended a classical high school and acted in school plays. His first job in radio (1928) was as an announcer on station WFBM. He was soon hired as an announcer on KYW (then located in Chicago) and became its program director. After KYW was moved to Philadelphia, he worked briefly for the Chicago Hearst papers as an advertising salesman and then as an account executive at an advertising agency.

When three Chicago universities (DePaul, Northwestern, and the University of Chicago) formed the University Broadcasting Council (UBC), Parker was invited to join the staff as assistant director. There he helped develop Of Men and Books, which ultimately was carried by the CBS radio network. After three years, he became radio director at Northwestern, where he produced Northwestern Reviewing Stand and also taught a survey course in broadcasting and another on advertising copy.

Starting-up in Boston

Toward the end of WWII he was assigned to the Army’s Information and Education (I&E) Division in Washington, where he was involved in producing educational programs for broadcast over stations of the Armed Forces Radio Service. With the end of the war, he explored job opportunities at the University of Texas, Temple University, and Columbia University, and then was referred by Lyman Bryson, Director of Public Affairs at CBS, to Ralph Lowell in Boston, where the LICBC had just been formed. Because of his experience with the UBC in Chicago, with Northwestern, and with the Army’s I & E Division — and because he came highly recommended by well-known figures in higher education — Parker was offered the LICBC post. He reported for work in September, 1946.

The next five months were hectic: office space had to be found, a staff hired, and program plans developed with faculty members of the member institutions. Faculty participation was to be on a strictly voluntary basis and pro bono. On February 3, 1947, LICBC went on the air with the first broadcasts of three series over three different stations. On WMEX, Our Children dealt with problems of child rearing. On WCOP, We Human Beings brought to the air current findings in the behavioral sciences. And on WHDH, the distinguished linguist, critic, and inventor of Basic English I. A. Richards launched an examination of Plato’s philosophy in the series Your Ideas. By the summer of ’47, two more series had been inaugurated: Our Weather, on meteorology, over WBZ, and Crossroads of the Future, dealing with the history, politics, and economics of the Middle East, on WEEI. Together, these programs amounted to 2 hours and 45 minutes of air time weekly, on five AM radio stations, all in prime time, between 7:00 and 9:45 at night.

Grammar aficionados will notice the use of first- and second-person plural pronominal adjectives in four of those titles. “Our,” “We,” “Your,” and again “Our.” This was part of the Wheatley credo on how to build rapport with the audience. The listener was not to be treated as the recipient of gems from academic experts, but as one who was personally involved in the process of shared learning.

Parker was able to get the February programs going with the assistance of two producers, one executive secretary, and one receptionist-stenographer. In addition to negotiating with the stations, maintaining relations with Council members, and writing press releases, Parker often served as announcer and moderator on panel programs. By June, it was clear that more staff was needed. The budget gave Parker a choice of hiring one producer-director with professional experience at $100 per week, or two recent college graduates at $50. He opted for quantity. (Note: If he had chosen the pro, somebody else would have had to write this memoir. L.C.)

Over the next three years, LICBC efforts continued along essentially similar lines. Some programs were added, some replaced. By 1950, however, many broadcasters were becoming increasingly interested in expanding into television. Several of the cooperating stations began to cut back on their public service commitments as they sought to maximize revenues from commercial programs to build up their resources for the jump to TV. LICBC’s time slots were shifted erratically, and the promise of prime time was no longer a firm one. The average weekly audience dropped from a high of nearly 250,000 in 1948 to some 180,000 in 1950. It soon became clear that the only way to guarantee an outlet for the Council’s programs was to apply for a license in the part of the FM spectrum reserved for noncommercial broadcasting.

The Challenge of FM

Several years earlier, a Harvard faculty committee had recommended that Harvard itself build an FM station, a notion that was opposed by the Harvard administration. Creating the Broadcasting Council — originally on a two-year trial basis — had been a compromise. But there were those within the official Harvard community who still harbored hopes for the station idea, notably David W. Bailey, Secretary to the Corporation and Harvard’s LICBC Coordinator.

With some assiduous background work, Bailey mustered support from other Council members, especially M.I.T., which had received a gift of a transmitter (originally intended for Columbia) from Major Edwin H. Armstrong, a brilliant innovator in electronics who was widely recognized as the “father” of FM. And, at least as important, the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) showed interest in extending its reach (and the quality of its broadcast sound) through the new FM medium.

Because the LICBC was a loose consortium with no corporate identity (hence unqualified to be a station licensee), a new nonprofit corporation, WGBH Educational Foundation, Inc. was established in April 1951. Its members were the Trustee of the Lowell Institute, the presidents and treasurers of Harvard and M.I.T, and the president of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Concurrently with these moves in behalf of an FM station in Boston, Wheatley had become involved in the efforts of the National Association of Educational Broadcasters and the Joint Council on Educational Television to get political support for the allocation of TV channels for education by the FCC. Because the rush to television had become somewhat chaotic, the FCC had ordered a freeze on new stations in 1948. (During the freeze period, many questions regarding public policy with respect to television were under study, including opening up the UHF band, educational reservations, and technical standards for color.)

By the spring of 1951 it was known that the freeze would soon be lifted, and many interests — both commercial and educational — had been busy presenting their arguments to the FCC staff and to members of Congress. Parker was trying to get the Boston Establishment to weigh in as well. In response to Wheatley’s urgings, Ralph Lowell had persuaded the president of Harvard to write a supportive letter and the senior U.S. senator from Massachusetts to make a personal appearance at the FCC hearings in November, 1950. A few days later,

“…Wheatley came into Lowell’s office excited about the prospect of an educational station in Boston. Lowell wrote later [in his diary]: ‘He wants me to drop everything and get the colleges and the state and everyone else to get to work on television. What a man! He goes off on a tangent every now and then.’ His exasperation with Wheatley was all the greater because Lowell was then engaged in pinning down all the commitments needed to get the license for the FM station.” (1)

Despite his expressed annoyance with Wheatley for pushing him, Lowell did persist in his efforts to gather support from Boston’s educational, political, and religious leaders for the reservation of an educational TV channel.

Getting on the Air

Meanwhile, there was the FM station waiting to get started. The FCC did grant a construction permit, and WGBH-FM went on the air on October 6, 1951, with the Symphony’s opening Saturday night performance of its 71st season. Some 2,600 hours of programming were broadcast during the first year, most of it locally produced. The staff was expanded substantially, and operations were set up in two spaces provided by the BSO in Symphony Hall. (See Ray Wilding-White’s memoir One Way to Run a Railroad for some amusing details of the early years.)

The transmitter was erected on Great Blue Hill in Milton, near the Harvard meteorological observatory, whence the call letters GBH. Ralph Tangney, Jack Summerfield, and Larry Creshkoff from the LICBC staff were to handle programming and production duties. Hartford Gunn was hired as director of operations to manage business affairs and supervise the engineering staff. In addition to the BSO, two new members joined the Council: New England Conservatory of Music and Brandeis University.

By the end of WGBH’s first full year of operation, some 25% of the homes in its coverage area had FM receivers. There was no doubt that the increase was in response to the new station’s programming, especially the regular broadcasts of the BSO.

The bad news was that costs were running far beyond budget, and the financial future looked bleak. Ralph Lowell agreed to increase the Lowell Institute’s contribution, but nothing more was available from the other members. In near desperation, Wheatley approached the Ford Foundation’s Fund for Adult Education (FAE), where he had close ties to several key executives. FAE had supported the production of several national radio series, the business management of which had been overseen by Lowell. The Fund was grateful to Lowell for his fiduciary services, but there was no precedent for subsidizing an individual station. Nevertheless, in response to Wheatley’s pleas, the Fund agreed in May 1952 to make a three-year grant-in-aid of $100,000. This, together with the Institute’s increased contribution, was enough to turn the tide, and WGBH’s survival was assured — at least through 1954.

Wheatley as Leader

In his role as general manager of WGBH, Parker is remembered by colleagues and subordinates as a creative innovator with an almost evangelical faith in the mission of broadcasting to extend the educational opportunities of the ordinary listener. (His model was the BBC’s Third Programme, which many would say was hardly directed to the “ordinary” listener.) He was opposed to hokeyness in any form. The audience was not to be talked down to. We were constantly urged to show respect for the material we were presenting, along with respect for the audience.

On the other hand, he could be an extremely difficult person to work with. Program conferences took forever, and decisions did not come easily, especially for the young people who were convinced that they knew exactly what needed to be done. We often felt that he was overly dependent on the Council members’ coordinators, to whom he went with many of his operational problems. Perhaps it was the basic insecurity that he felt — a farm boy from Indiana in the midst of these high-powered academics (to say nothing of all that Ralph Lowell stood for). It seemed to us that he was constantly and unnecessarily looking for support from the “power elite” that surrounded him.

Preparing for Television

After the reservation of Channel 2 for education was assured in 1952 and the funds were coming in to make WGBH-TV a reality, Parker was faced with the need to assemble an even larger staff, with at least some people who were familiar with television production. In the summer of 1954, as carpenters were beginning to convert a roller-skating rink across the street from M.I.T. into a TV studio, Colby Lewis, the assistant program manager of WTMJ-TV in Milwaukee, was hired as WGBH-TV’s director of production. He had a solid background in television, having joined the Milwaukee station in 1948. He even had a Ph.D. (in dramatic production) from Cornell.

Paul Rader, who had worked as continuity editor and producer at CBS affiliate KROD-TV in El Paso and produced Frontier to Space, a film series on the history of rocketry and interplanetary research for the Educational Television and Radio Center (ETRC), was appointed coordinator of TV and film production.

George Probst, since 1944 the producer of the University of Chicago Round Table, the oldest network program on NBC radio, and a leader in the national effort to achieve the educational TV reservations, was designated director of programs and assistant general manager of WGBH-FM and TV. This made him No. 2 in the chain of command, despite his lack of experience in television or in station management. (Wheatley had been told by his prime Council Coordinator that George Probst would be a feather in his cap.)

The Dust-up of ’54

During his stay at WGBH, Probst was instrumental in getting a grant from ETRC for the production of They Bent our Ear: Travelers to America. This turned out to be a lively radio series on the host of writers, such as Dickens, Thackeray, and Mrs. Frances Trollope, who came to the U.S. during the second quarter of the Nineteenth Century and subsequently wrote of what they had found here.

Probst’s basic assignment was as Wheatley’s surrogate in long-range program planning, working with faculty members to develop new ideas for production by the station — especially if they could be turned into projects that would qualify for grants-in-aid from outside sources. Soon, however, word got back that Probst had been bad-mouthing Wheatley to some faculty people. There was concern among the senior staff as evidence of the tensions between Wheatley and Probst mounted, and in October — three months after Probst came to Boston, Lowell asked for his resignation.

But Wheatley didn’t get off scot-free, either. Over the years, Lowell had often expressed his displeasure with Parker’s shortcomings as a manager. Now he strongly disapproved of how Parker had handled the Probst affair and warned him that he was not going to put up with this kind of thing in the future. Some thought was given to easing Wheatley out of direct management of the station and moving him into a more generalized program-planning role. Colby Lewis was offered the job of station manager, but turned it down and resigned. Lewis said he had no stomach for the kind of “politics” he had encountered.

Wheatley remained as station manager, with Hartford Gunn now firmly in place in the No. 2 spot. Paul Rader was promoted to Director of Production. In January 1955, Edward G. Sherburne, Jr., an M.I.T. graduate with a background as head of TV production for the Navy Special Devices Center and as a consultant in TV programming and operations for KETC in St. Louis, was appointed director of programs.

Channel 2 Takes Off

WGBH-TV did get on the air on May 2, 1955, and for nearly two years, things seemed to be proceeding smoothly. The Museum of Fine Arts and Boston Museum of Science joined the Council. The station received production grants from three outside sources. Of Science and Scientists and Discovery were funded by ETRC. The National Science Foundation (NSF) paid for a filmed series on the International Geophysical Year (IGY). John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Company backed The Facts of Medicine, which was the first educational television series financed by a corporate underwriter to be distributed nationally. Wheatley had had a strong hand in landing this grant. That he appeared in the program as host and moderator inevitably cut into the time he could spend in management.

The IGY contract was supposed to provide a major infusion of funds for the station, permitting the purchase of much-needed film equipment. Because of his film background and his familiarity with many of the people in the U.S. space program, Paul Rader was put in charge of the IGY project. This required him to be on the road a good deal of the time, unable to supervise day-to-day station production. David M. Davis, the first production person on staff with real, hands-on ETV station experience (as Director of Television at WUNC-TV, in Greensboro, NC) took over the job of TV production manager in September, 1956.

By the spring of 1957, something of a schism had developed among the senior staff. Gunn and Rader saw the IGY contract not only as a source of current income but as an important step toward making the station a major player on the national scene. The program people (Sherburne and Creshkoff) were concerned that too much staff effort was going into servicing this one “account” and that the station’s primary responsibility — the local audience — was being shortchanged. Staff meetings became acrimonious. At first Wheatley, who had approved applying to NSF for the contract, tried to mediate the staff disagreements, but in time he began to wonder about the wisdom of having taken on the IGY project. After several months had gone by without seeing any filmed results, Wheatley surreptitiously took one of the scripts from Rader’s files and asked two scientists (at Harvard and M.I.T) to evaluate it. The reports from both faculty sources were negative.

Rader was furious that Wheatley had gone behind his back. Meanwhile, increasingly frustrated by the situation, Hartford Gunn had been interviewing for other jobs, including one at a commercial station in Washington. When Rader told him about the confrontation with Parker, and knowing something of Ralph Lowell’s 1954 ultimatum, Hartford accompanied Rader to Lowell’s office where they announced their intention to quit unless Wheatley was removed. The next day, with Hartford out of town on one of his job interviews, Lowell fired Wheatley (with a full year’s severance pay). The day after that, Hartford fired Sherburne and Creshkoff.

In a letter dated May 7, 1957, in which the details of Parker’s severance package were outlined, Ralph Lowell wrote:

“As I have often told you, you were greatly responsible not only for the work that we have been doing over the last ten years on AM and then on our own FM radio station, but on Channel 2 as well. If it had not been for your appreciation of the possibilities of educational television and your pursuing of that, Channel 2 would not now be on the air.”

Ironically, about one year later, with not a single one of the dozen half-hour films that had been contracted for completed and with some $90,000 of the NSF grant gone, Hartford fired Paul Rader.

The St. Louis Years

Parker Wheatley never really recovered from his dismissal. He spent most of the next twelve months at his home in Belmont (with his two wire-haired dachshunds), looking for a job. In 1958 he moved to St. Louis, as director of public affairs at the CBS O-and-O, KMOX-TV (now KMOV-TV), where he stayed for 13 years before retiring in 1971. He was also producer and host of “Eye on St. Louis,” a daily interview program that dealt with the wide range of topics that were always grist for his particular mill.

Ever a champion of the underdog, he was one of the first media figures in St. Louis to try to achieve some measure of public understanding on civil rights issues. Once, when the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., was to appear as a guest, Parker arranged to have a police car get him to the station safely. King later told him that it was the first time he had ever been in a police car when he wasn’t under arrest.

For 14 years following his retirement, Wheatley served as moderator and producer of The People Speak, also on KMOV-TV.

Shortly after he had gone to St. Louis, Parker received the Albert and Mary Lasker Medical Journalism Award for his work on The Facts of Medicine. Other organizations that honored him were the Ohio State Institute for Education by Radio and Television, National Education Association, Catholic Broadcasters Association, American Legion, St. Louis Council on Human Relations, Society for the Blind, and the Tuberculosis and Health Society of St. Louis. In 1989 the Elijah Lovejoy Society cited him for his contributions to civil and human rights.

In 1992, Parker suffered a fall, as a result of which he moved into Brooking Park, a nursing facility in Chesterfield, MO, where, I am told, he received good care. As recently as 1996, I saw him in St. Louis at a party celebrating his 90th birthday. He was able to move around using a cane, with a human helper or two on stairways. He was lively and attentive and seemed to be having a good time. By 1998, however, he began to slip away, spending more and more time asleep, often not recognizing his visitors. He died on October 12, 1999, at the age of ninety-three.

1 Mark I. Gelfand, Trustee for a City: Ralph Lowell of Boston. 1998: Northeastern University Press. p. 144.

Many of the observations in this memoir are drawn from Chapters 7 and 8 of Gelfand’s masterly biography, which offers the fullest account available of the early days of LICBC and WGBH.

2 Comments

  1. Fred Gardner
    Posted November 29, 2011 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

    Jack Summerfield was hired in late 1956, and thus not among the FM team in the earlier 1950s.

    This account glosses over how Parker was removed, as he learned of his “resignation” through an announcement on the morning news. I assisted Parker in packing and cleaning out his office on the Saturday of his last week at the station.

    At one point, he looked up at me and said, “Fred, I was trying to do something here. What happened?” Although I knew what had happened, it was told to me in confidence, so I demured.

  2. Nancy
    Posted October 23, 2010 at 10:00 pm | Permalink

    I lived in Chesterfield, Mo. from 1975-78 and loved to watch Parker Wheatley’s show. He was so enthusiastic when Elvis Presley died. I remember that in particular.

    I applaud this author who wrote such a thorough piece on Parker. Thank you.

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