This week marks my 40th anniversary on the air. In 1968, I was still working my way through night school at the University of Louisville. Here's how I tell the story in my so-far-unpublished memoir:
It was a perfect day for lust, a mild, sunny day in October 1968. The program director of the radio station had figured out a way to rendezvous with a female listener without his wife noticing he was not on the air. He pre-empted local programs, including his own, and carried ABC's national coverage of Apollo 7. The station had not shown such dedication to public service in the past, but his wife, listening from across the Ohio River in Louisville, Kentucky, would not question his absence from the air. After all, this was America's first manned Apollo flight.
Someone was required to sit at the microphone and fulfill the government requirement that the station be identified each hour. The program director chose me. I was a 21-year-old college senior and had been hanging around the station for weeks learning the ropes. For five years I had been knocking on the doors of stations in my hometown, begging for a chance. Station managers told me that the Louisville market was too big to hire beginners and that I should make my start in the smaller towns of Kentucky. I was just about to do that when the program director of this tiny blip of a station allowed me to sit in his studio and observe.
Now he was away succumbing to manly passion and I had my opportunity. As the ABC anchorman cued the station break flipped the switch and spoke the first words of my broadcast career: "This is WHEL, 1570, in New Albany, Indiana."
There were no fireworks in celebration and my debut escaped the notice of the local newspapers, but there's nothing bigger in a young man's life than realizing his dream. Never mind that I was working at the tackiest, most miserable little outpost in American broadcasting, I had crossed the threshold and joined the profession of Edward R. Murrow, Arthur Godfrey and Red Barber.
Entering my senior year of college, neither my academic nor my job performance was exemplary. I had to struggle for every "C" in class while inevitably getting fired from almost every job I had. After serving as a bank messenger and a trading stamp premium stock clerk (remember S&H green stamps?), I became a bookkeeper for an oil company, then an accounting clerk for a distillery (loved those discounts!), and finally a playground instructor for the county parks system. My favorite job was delivering flowers on Mother's Day. All the moms were thrilled to see me and they all gave me tips.
As the school year began I decided the "anything for a paycheck" period was over. It was going to be radio or nothing. It could be argued that WHEL barely qualified as radio, but I was happy to be there.
New Albany, Indiana is located at a bend of the Ohio River opposite the West End of Louisville, Kentucky. The southernmost part of Indiana offers the only relief from the state’s relentless flatness. Indeed, New Albany’s hills bear the colorful name of Floyd’s Knobs. Honest. The village’s principal architectural feature is a power plant on the riverbank and its biggest tourist attraction is a steamboat museum in a fine old Victorian mansion. In 1968, the hot spot for entertainment was the piano bar of the Robert E. Lee Inn. Still, it was a charming town with a quaint quirk or two. Parking violators found a small envelope on their windshields. The miscreant was expected to put a quarter into the envelope and drop it into one of the collection boxes on the corner. Most of us did.
WHEL occupied the second floor of a music store at the bustling corner of Pearl and Main streets. A dark, forbidding-looking stairwell led to a landing lit by a bare light bulb. Occasionally a wino found the stairs a convenient resting place. Women were reluctant to venture up the stairs alone, a major frustration for Mandy's Sample Shop which shared the 2nd floor with the radio station.
Walking on threadbare carpets that had never been cleaned, one entered the disaster area that comprised the studios and offices of WHEL. A visitor would not have known whether to request a song or place a bet. It looked like a fire could break out at any moment. A newspaper writer described the furniture as being from "someone's early married period," an inventive phrase, but much too generous. The walls had not been painted in my lifetime. As for the studio equipment, Marconi would have recognized every tube.
There was a heavy drape that might have once been yellow hiding the dirty window in the studio, but it couldn't muffle the sounds of the traffic outside. Listeners could hear tractor-trailer trucks on Pearl Street shifting for the turn onto Main. The Ohio River was sixty yards away, and one could hear the horns of towboats and even the steam whistle of the Belle of Louisville, an old paddle-wheeler owned by Jefferson County, Kentucky.
It did not look like the home of "The World's Most Beautiful Music," which is how the station billed its format. It was "easy listening" music, just a step or two above the kind heard in dentists' offices. Music was played in blocks of three to five songs---instrumental, vocal, instrumental, group vocal and, if there was time, a piano. So a listener might have heard Percy Faith, Nat Cole, Mantovani, the Anita Kerr Singers and then Eddie Haywood. A Sinatra tune would have been regarded as an up-tempo number. I donated some Basie, Ellington and Earl Hines to the station library to liven things up a bit.
Saturdays sometimes were devoted to "marathons" featuring a single band---Glenn Miller or one of the Dorsey brothers. A listener once called disc jockey Phil Downs to complain that big band songs such as "American Patrol" and "Don't Sit under the Apple Tree" were too supportive of war. Phil replied, "I've got one here just for you, buddy," and cued up "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition."
Commercials, if any, were clustered at each fifteen-minute interval. More often than not, the sale of our air time did not result in a payment of cash to the station's treasury. There were lots of "trade-outs," an exchange of merchandise for an on-air plug. When a disc jockey said, "Embassy Supper Club time is 10:05," someone on the staff got to have dinner at a nice restaurant. Several times that lucky diner was me. So the commercials didn't bring an upgrade in salaries and equipment, but rather new carpets and appliances at the homes of the general manager and the sales manager, both minor partners in the station's ownership. The principal owner lived far away in another city. I don't think I ever met him.
You'll recall that my first turn at the microphone allowed the program director to have a fling with a listener. That did not mean I was hired. I was still just a college student hanging out at the station. But my eventual hiring also had to do with the program director's sporting lifestyle. A few weeks after the guy's nooner with a fan, the police arrived at the station and arrested him for non-support of a previous wife or child. There was no one around to take his place except me. I went back on the air and this time onto the staff, remaining there even after the boss got back from the pokey.
I was not the youngest member of the staff. Allen Brown was a 17-year old high school senior. One day Allen saw me opening some record albums sent to us without regard for the type of music we played.
"What's that one, Bob?"
"I don't know. It's got an all-white sleeve with no lettering. Must be a demo or something."
"Let me see that."
Then Allen walked out the door with the Beatles white album. It DID have some tiny lettering. It said "The Beatles" in white-on-white, easy to miss.
A broadcaster's first radio job is a joy, even if it's with a miserable little outpost like WHEL. It didn't matter that the station had the horrible frequency of 1570 with just a thousand watts of power and a signal that couldn't carry across the river to my parents' radio unless the wind was blowing in the right direction. We had to sign off at sundown. That was fine in the summer when we could stay on the air until 9:00PM, but the 5:30 sign-off in December meant we were missing a good portion of the listeners' commute home in their cars. That, in turn, made us unattractive to advertisers.
The parsimony of the station was hilarious. The sales manager invited staff members to a Christmas party in the back room of a restaurant. We were astonished at the ole boy's willingness to spend a buck or two on us. The party started at 7:00PM. Finishing our coffee and dessert, we all looked forward to a few belts of holiday cheer. But at 9:00PM, the sales manager wished us all a Merry Christmas and headed for the door, while the waiters started stacking our chairs. The sales manager had only booked the room for two hours.
The station could not afford a full-time engineer. Transmitter readings were taken by the announcer using a remote unit in the studio. Once during a test of the Emergency Broadcast System, I did the required drill of turning off the transmitter for five seconds. But when I tried to turn the transmitter back on, the remote unit couldn't do the job. The station was off the air. I had to run down to my car, drive out to the transmitter site, pop the rusted padlock on the old shed at the base of the station's tower, go inside to throw a switch and re-trace my route back to the studio. We were technically back on the air when I flipped the switch, but with no other announcer around, there was dead air until I returned. The elapsed downtime was about forty minutes and nobody called to ask why we weren't on the air.
I did get a call one day from the manager of the other radio station in town. Yes, believe it or not, New Albany, Indiana was a two-station burg. WNAS had 250 watts. Drugstores sell light bulbs that run on 250 watts! The manager of this powerhouse had noticed the new announcer in town.
"Hey Bob, I've been listening to you. You sound great"
"Well, thank you very much. You're very kind."
"Say Bob, what are they're payin' you over there?"
"Seventy-five dollars a week."
"Ohhh, I see. Well gee, we sure can't match that. But I wish you a lot of luck young man." Click.
It was the first time that a competitor called to almost offer a job. That wouldn’t happen again until 2004.
When I first joined the station, it was an ABC affiliate. We carried ABC News on the hour and the network's broadcast of Don McNeill's "Breakfast Club," one of the last of the old-time, long-form entertainment programs still on radio. In the radio business, stations switch or drop their networks, but networks rarely drop a station. How bad was WHEL? We were so bad that ABC dropped us.
That left us without a news service, and in 1969 even the likes of WHEL felt compelled to fulfill its public interest responsibilities. So the station installed a UPI wire machine and we disc jockeys doubled as "newsmen" in the rip-and-read style, ripping it off the machine and reading it on the air, mistakes and all. Woodstock and the first moon landing were two of the big stories that summer. The noisy wire machine was kept in a storeroom and there was no one around to maintain it. Often it would run out of paper, or the paper would jam, or the ribbon would break. That meant going on the air with the last readable news copy still available, even if it was several hours old. These problems were solved the day we couldn't pay the wire service bill and the machine was removed.
Dropped by ABC. Dropped by UPI. Now where would we get our news? Well, from the local newspapers, of course. Louisville's Courier-Journal was aware that a lot of local stations were stealing the paper's stories, but at least most of the stations managed to rewrite them. Our guys couldn't be bothered. Newspaper stories sound ridiculous when read aloud. Some of them begin with quotes. Others use quotes with the attribution at the end: "'I think it will be great for the city,' the mayor said today." We were still doing the news, even if you could hear us turning the pages on the air.
The events of the late 60's helped me focus on what I wanted to do in broadcasting. Spinning records was fun, but broadcasting the news would be my way of being part of all the important developments taking place in the world. Vietnam, civil rights, moon landings and all kinds of social upheaval were commanding public attention and here I was in this rumor of a radio station playing Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orchestra for the benefit of my mother and our other listener.
With encouragement and instruction from Bob Lewis, the senior member of the staff, I did my first reporting. I covered the news conference at which Actors Theater of Louisville announced that Jon Jory was its new director. Then I interviewed New Albany's Congressman Lee Hamilton. I was starting off in good company. Jory quickly turned ATL into one of the most important regional theaters in the country and remained in charge there for decades. Rep. Hamilton served in Washington with great class and distinction for another thirty years and co-chaired the 9/11 Commission.
In August of 1969, I finished my last college semester. After all those long nights, Saturday mornings and summer semesters, I had met the government's deadline. Since there was no August commencement ceremony, I walked into the registrar's office whistling "Pomp and Circumstance," and strolled out with a B.S. degree in commerce from the University of Louisville.
Washington wasted no time in notifying me that I was drafted. In November, I said goodbye to the people who had given me my start in broadcasting. The law required that veterans returning from service be given the jobs they held when they were drafted, but I knew I would never be returning to WHEL.
There is still a radio station on the 1570 frequency in New Albany, but WHEL is no more. A later owner turned it into a gospel station, and you can't be praising the Lord with HEL in your call letters.