Back to New York
I got a teaching job. There was a last-minute opening to teach 5th grade at The Bentley School on Manhattan’s East Side. I was offered a yearly salary of $8,000 (equal to about $36,000 in 2015). Forget New York sustenance.
I was fired five months later.
My experience at The Overseas School had not prepared me for trying to control sometimes spoiled New York City kids from affluent families. Students in Genoa had nowhere else to go. They were on their best behavior. Students in New York private schools had many choices. Competition. Such private schools did everything they could to make sure that the parents got their money’s worth.
I started without any experience in establishing control. On the wrong foot. Moreover, I arrived suffused with European-influenced politeness, devoid of my former New York edge. Certainly that made me appear soft to some kids. Later, though, I was able to frequently take charge. And some students loved me.
My departing letter of reference: “…high ideals…stimulating and challenging…personal integrity.” I had been very creative, innovative, and original. But my imaginative extrapolations from the curriculum got further and further behind the school’s intended schedule.
Moreover, I struck a student. Johnny Callaghan had been one of the most disrespectful and disorderly students in the class. I’d kept him after school more than once, to the dismay of his mother and of school director Katherine Cantwell. The last time he was sequestered, he’d reached over onto my desk and tried to take a pen out of my hand. I slapped his hand. Lightly.
That did it. Gone.
We’d come back to New York so I could get my teaching degree. But during those first five months all my time outside of class was spent preparing the lessons and studying books on how to teach.
Helga’s salary wasn’t enough to sustain us. I needed another job. No time yet to study for a teaching degree.
General Development Corporation was looking for sales people. I applied. The product: land in newly developing communities in Florida. Real properties. In my training class, other candidates were convinced I’d be a success, coming across as outgoing, friendly, fluently verbal. Yeah. I could talk. Never closed a sale.
Next I joined the sales team selling XStampers, a newly emerging self-inking product developed by Shachihata, Inc. at a time when rubber stampers always needed ink pads. My training included a “sure-fire” script. Working my assigned territory, Manhattan businesses north and west of Washington Square, I always felt I could do better improvising on the script. My sales did not flourish.
I got career advice from an unexpected source. A psychic. Via Helga, who’d always given a lot of credence to non-rational experiences, intuition, forms of spirituality, the possibility of the exchange of unspoken thoughts, and so on. To some extent, I shared such beliefs, especially regarding my own intuitions.
Helga had read a New York Times article about this man who’d recently moved to Westchester. Call him Walter Siegmeth. Siegmeth had made it clear that offering psychic readings was his calling and his profession.
Out of curiosity, Helga contacted Siegmeth to make an appointment. Perhaps, if he had insights, those would help us clarify what we were doing with our lives or might do, something we felt we needed to do. Before her visit, she encouraged me to go if her own experience justified the idea. She also planned to deliberately avoid mentioning my name and to say nothing revealing about me. She stuck with her plan and, after her visit, returned impressed.
So I went.
Siegmeth told me that, when he gave readings, they were things that he could sense about people, but that he never intended to project anyone’s future.
While I sat, he paced his living room, twirling what looked like a broken strand of a wire hanger. Among other things, he correctly perceived that I had a serious circulation problem in one of my legs. He didn’t specify what it was. It was postphlebitic syndrome that I’d had for many years. Given that I had never limped or favored that leg, there was no obvious way to intuit that.
Soon he looked puzzled. “You know,” he said, “I cannot tell at all what you do professionally.”
“I’m a salesman,” I told him.
“No. No. You are not a salesman.”
“But, it’s true. That’s what I’m doing these days.”
“I understand. But, even so, you are no salesman.”
He was right there; I was not a success.
“What else have you been doing?” he asked.
“Well, I was a teacher.”
“No. You are also not a teacher.”
I replied, “But I was a teacher and I loved it. ”
“Then why are you not doing it now?”
“I was fired,” was my answer. Upon later reflection, that question made me ask myself why I didn’t keep on trying to be one, if it was so important and meaningful.
“So then, you are not a teacher now. Yes?”
He twirled his wire more. “No. I see you doing something else. Something to do with music.”
Interesting, yes? “I hosted music programs on the radio.”
“Aha!” He said. “Then, why are you not doing that now?’
I explained to him that I felt teaching was more important.
“Forgive me,” he replied, “but I perceive you as belonging with music.” Well, yes. That was my professional past since 1955 and at the core of my being, given my love of music and my family history.
Twirl. “I also see you as some kind of administrator connected with music. Have you ever done that?”
“Yes. Well, I see you writing down a lot of numbers somehow connected with the music. Does that mean anything to you?”
It didn’t. It seemed totally alien.
“You know, it is not my prerogative, nor part of what I do, to tell people how to manage their lives. Perhaps what I see is in your past, of course, but it sounds like that is what you should be doing in any case.”
I left distressed. Not that he was counseling me, or that I needed to take seriously his suggestion. But going back into radio still seemed too insignificant, valueless to society, even if something easy and fun.
A few months later, I went back to WNCN and WQXR. And every day, when I was on the air, I had to write numbers, start times and finish times of music and commercials in the logs and schedules. I used to do that in the 1960s but had forgotten.
A radio performer again.
Helga and some New York friends had more than once told me that I should return to a radio career. Given Siegmeth’s comments, she had further underscoring.
Naturally, I first contacted WNCN’s David Dubal. He was still the music director. But the word “still” conjures up fascinating events which had occurred while I was in Europe.
For about eight months, WNCN didn’t exist. A rock station took over its frequency. Starr Broadcasting had bought NCN, lock, stock, and frequency in May 1973. Trying to make profits, in 1974 Starr turned it into WQIV, “Q” for quadrophonic, “IV” Roman numeral “4” for four channels.
Loyal long-time WNCN listeners were up in arms, feeling that New York was being deprived of a major cultural treasure, that WNCN had served different classical music audiences than WQXR, which had always maintained more conservative main-stream programming. Certainly, in my previous days there, WNCN had been different (as you can see above.)
Thus were born the WNCN Listeners Guild and Classical Radio for Connecticut. They raised private funds for a lawsuit against Starr, also taking the issues to the FCC and the U.S. Supreme Court. By then Starr was having problems. The SEC levied heavy fines and censured some principals. Plus a potential buyer challenged the FCC license renewal. Starr flickered and faded and accepted a Guild-engineered offer from GAF Broadcasting.
WNCN returned in June 1975 under owner No. 3, a 20-or-so-year history.
Much of the above information comes from Matt Edwards, who was quite involved with the Listeners Guild. He also is behind the maintenance of wncn.org, where his writing is full of all kinds of interesting information about the station’s history through its final days in 1994. Another source of clarification: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/WAXQ#WNCN
In fall 1976 I was glad to come back as a part-time substitute announcer, thanks to David. It was a compromise; it meant having decently paying work, even if it was insignificant as a meaningful contribution to society.
The programming had undergone a major change. GAF’s station became much more WQXR-like despite the Listeners Guild’s intentions and wishes. Guided by management, David chose well-known, well-loved compositions. Nothing too modern. Nothing too challenging for the listeners. Accessible. Safe. Some Guild members expressed their displeasure. This was no longer like the last NCN. But there was nothing the Guild could do about it.
And, to increase ratings and keep listeners tuned in, there was an avoidance of modern or experimental music.
Plus no vocals were permitted, meaning no opera arias, no Renaissance songs, no sacred works with singing. There were always listeners who’d complain about what they perceived as annoying screeching.
Unlike at the previous NCN, none of us on-air hosts chose any music for broadcast. The management wanted total control. That had always been the pattern at QXR and such control has been standard for many years in most commercial radio stations and even in many public ones. The station also published a monthly program guide, Keynote, a classy looking magazine which was a successor to the same-named publication started in the 1960s.
However, station manager Bob Richer and program director Matt Biberfeld wanted all announcers to have a lot of freedom in how they hosted programs and for us to think of ourselves not as announcers but as disc jockeys. Personal, personable, relaxed, casual. For classical music radio that was still rather rare. That, at least, was different from QXR, where only George Edwards and Duncan Pirnie would be considered personalities, albeit, by then, rather predictable and conservative-sounding. Like someone’s uncles. FYI: In 1987 QXR fired them both for “not having enough audience appeal” according to the station. Both filed age-discrimination suits. http://www.nytimes.com/1988/06/27/arts/tv-notes.html
Also rare for a classical music station, we were expected to frequently mention the call letters, just as most pop music stations did. QXR didn’t do that. And to repeat the letters whenever or wherever possible. The reason: when telephone ratings surveys were taken, the idea was to imprint the name on the listener, or Arbitron ratings where listeners had to write in the call signs of the stations to which they listened. That’s something wide-spread in radio now, e.g., “Here’s the WNCN weather forecast.” “The time at WNCN is 6:46.” “On WNCN, that was Rossini’s Overture to La Gazza Ladra.”
Relief announcer Dick Jayson had trouble with repeating station IDs. In the ’70s he was doing the same sort of thing I’d been doing in the 1960s, filling in on many stations. When he came into the control room he exuded a palpable sense of nervousness. I asked him why. He explained that he was always anxious about giving the wrong call letters on the air, so he wrote down the kinds of things mentioned above and pasted a big handwritten sign on the board with “WNCN 104.3” in bold letters. In truth, giving the wrong call letters is no disaster. I’ve done it a few times, given my vast range of radio hosting. Nonetheless, such a mistake still regularly turns up in my nightmares.
When I first joined NCN, Matt Edwards hosted the Morning Concert, Bob Adams, the Afternoon Concert. Those SOP imaginative program names again. Former stage and movie actor Oscar Buhler was the regular staffer during 6 p.m. to midnight’s various programs. Midnight to 6 a.m. there was “Music Through the Night with Fleetwood,” a continuation of what he had been doing at WNBC for numerous years. Other part-timers and relief announcers regularly included Max Cole, Lucien Ricard, Frank Coffee, and Clayelle Dalferes. (There are multiple references to Matt, Bob, and Max in my pages above about the 1960s.)
In late 1976 Bob Richer fired Bob Adams, dissatisfied with his performance. I took over Afternoon Concert. I was back to full-time radio, despite my reservations about that meaning anything important. Well, yes, it seemed where I belonged. And soon, continually immersed in the kind of music which I loved I was once again delighting in sharing it with audiences.
Then, in the fall of 1977, Matt Edwards quit for personal reasons.
Here we go again. Staff changes in broadcasting. Almost as many turnovers as Pepperidge Farm.
Richer came up with what he thought would be a coup. To replace Matt with BAI’s much-enjoyed and quite-famed Larry Josephson, who loved and broadcasted classical music. That is, when Larry felt like it. His program had always been more personal than anything any of us announcers could do on NCN.
The publicity over Larry’s hiring certainly generated interest. And public dismay. Even before Larry arrived. But his advance reputation as a curmudgeon didn’t help. Classical music listeners tend to prefer sunshine and warmth in the morning. Moreover, being from BAI, there must have been lingering anxiety that Josephson would start advocating the overthrow of commercial broadcasting, popular culture, Jimmy Carter, and the American Way of Life, underscored by readings from Karl Marx.
Larry hosted for one week.
As you can see from what I wrote about him re: the 1960s, he was out of his element. He had to present someone else’s choice of music, provide weather forecasts and time checks (as I had suggested he do back in the 1960s…see above), stick to schedules, read commercials, the standard format for most morning radio. Even the word “format” must have been an anathema. And, apparently, he even derided commercials, on the air.
Listeners had proof of their fears. They called the station. They wrote. They telegrammed. They won.
Bob Richer has since acknowledged his mistake.
Next up on Morning Concert, Bob tried me. Public enthusiasm. Calls. Letters. Telegrams? Nah. People who complain are always more numerous than those who compliment. I became the newest morning star. Jim Pinckney was hired to host Afternoon Concert.
Morning Concert had two parts. Six a.m. to 9 a.m. was basically “morning drive,” i.e., where Josephson stumbled. Nine to noon featured longer pieces.
I decided that I would have as much fun as possible, taking Richer at his word about us as disc jockeys. Why be deadly serious in the rather formal, restrained approach of the time? Certainly QXR’s George Edwards would never dream of making jokes. But plenty of compositions up to the present day are jovial, entertaining, and light-hearted. Back in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, for example, audiences cheered and applauded cadenzas, sometimes stomped for encores between movements, and were rarely as reserved as worshippers in churches. Think of the majority of Baroque music. Or Mozart’s irrepressible sense of humor. Or Strauss polkas.
So I had fun with, e.g., Offenbach’s “Orpheus in His Underwear” Overture, or Spoonerisms, like Handel’s “I Know That My Liver Redeemeth.” Goofy background stories emerged, such as a scherzo (Right. Joke) for piano four hands, me saying that it was for four-handed German virtuoso, Hans Keinfuss. Or reporting that Johann Strauss’s “Wine, Women, and Song Waltz” was a companion piece for his brother Eduard Strauss’s “Bier, Männer, und Schreien” (“Beer, Men, and Yelling.”)
I pointed out that one of Chopin’s Nocturnes was published posthumously, because he had been dead when he wrote it.
On an April Fool’s Day I presented a “very rare” recording of “Salome’s Dance” by Richard Strauss, a.k.a. “Dance of the Seven Veils,” where audiences would be able to hear the dancer. Over an open mike (mine), while Reiner with the Chicago Symphony performed, “Australian exotic dancer Mildred Dawkins” was heard ripping fabric and becoming increasingly out of breath.
We sometimes had Japanese-imported LPs with liner notes entirely in Japanese except for the name of the writer. Calling attention to one such LP’s notes, I observed that Alan Rich wroteこれは素晴らしい記録で, which I “read” in my best John Belushi-like samurai warrior voice. A caller chastised me, saying that I should not have done so, that the Japanese were “a peace-loving people.” Huh?
Certainly, this being New York, sloppy pronunciations of foreign words were a nein-nein. But my alleged Japanese was never criticized as being wrong. Imagine.
Sometimes, incidentally, in 1982, when quoting liner notes on-air I credited them to Hannelore Rogers instead of the actual writer. We were dating at the time. Later we married. Much later, she actually wrote liner notes.
Since NCN catered to knowledgeable, sophisticated listeners, I also decided to invent a cataloguer of works by Vivaldi, Baroque compositions being a staple of non-threatening music. His concertos have been ubiquitous on accessible classical music stations. I wanted to see if I could put one over on a Vivaldi nerd. And I did.
Vivaldi was rather casual, even disorganized, about dating or otherwise identifying what he wrote. No opus numbers, which was not unusual in his day. Given more than 500 concertos, it became difficult to be precise about them, especially given that there are multiple works in the same key for the same solo instruments. Musicologists have delighted in creating their own catalogs, most prominently Marc Pincherle’s “P” number, Antonio Fanna’s “F,” and Peter Ryom’s “RV.”
I added “S” for Sondaggio, as a person’s name. Sondaggio is actually an Italian word meaning “search.” The numbers I used were record company catalog numbers.
Eventually, I landed a fish. There was a fascinated phone inquiry about Sig. Sondaggio. I replied that I had met that remarkable scholar while living in Italy and that he came up with a fool-proof system which he permitted me to use. The caller wanted a copy of the catalog but I demurred, explaining that I had only one, on very frail onion skin paper and didn’t want to let it out my sight. Disappointed, he hung up. And then he called back a few months later to say that l had given the same “S” number to two entirely different works. And to express his doubt about the whole idea. Perhaps Sondaggio had made a mistake, I suggested. “Are you sure you’re not making this up?” he asked, dismayed. I reassured him that it was genuine and he never called again. He was the only one who took the bait.
Every hour from 6 to 9 a.m., David Dubal deliberately programmed at least one extremely popular and familiar piece; I’d call attention to it by calling it a “Classical Hit” and then ding a nearby metal lamp with a pen.
During nine to noon, with my more free time between selections, I’d copy recorded promotions for upcoming syndicated national/international orchestra programs and then dub, edit, and re-use conductors’ comments, such as Carlo Maria Giulini talking about words Beethoven wrote on one of his scores, Giulini saying, “What is meaning? Is a mystery. Can we say this is great music? Yes. Is.” Transposed to “This is great music? Is a mystery.” It aired occasionally after pieces I thought trivial.
Although, inevitably, there was pleasure listening to, or at least overhearing good classical music, there were duties. For example, giving traffic and transit reports during drive time. We had no one on the streets calling in, but doing my own research was not required. Biberfeld felt that we needed to give listeners a sense of what was happening, so that they’d stay tuned and not seek truly useful information at “all-news” WINS or WCBS. All I had to do was call New York City Police’s Traffic Control Division and get some kind of report twice each hour. Not to overburden me, given that I was already announcing, running the equipment, monitoring volume, taking hourly remote transmitter readings, searching liner notes for informative supplemental comments, ripping copy from the AP news printer, assembling and editing the copy for broadcast, writing everything in the log and cleaning LPs (see below.) Thus I had friendly daily phone connections with Sergeant Tom Washington at Traffic Control.
Early on, Washington told me that he got his information from listening to WINS (“All News, All the Time. You give us 22 minutes; we’ll give you the world.”). Fine by me.
On a Tuesday ca. 7:22 a.m., Tom told me that nothing was happening. I didn’t believe it. New York on a workday morning? I didn’t say so to him; in my next on-air report, I announced that Sergeant Washington of the City’s Traffic Control Division said that there were no problems. Whoops! At my subsequent call he sounded truly nervous. “Hang on, Gordon! Hang on! I’ll get something,” he said. Clearly word had gotten back to him about my mentioning him on the air. Thereafter he always had some kind of information. Was it accurate? Up to the minute? Who cares? We’d both done our duty.
Being up to the minute also meant giving weather forecasts and time checks. One morning an angry caller said, “What the hell’s wrong with you? You said it was 6:41! It was 7:41!” To which I replied, “I don’t get your problem. You knew what time it was.” Later that morning, Richer told me that he had been the caller. Not angry. We both let it pass.
Actually, answering the phone while on the air was not required. But we did it sometimes.
Speaking of time, the station format at the new NCN much resembled that of QXR. All programs were broken up into hourly segments. Certainly that made sense during drive time when we had to prepare and read wire news copy at 6, 7, 8, and 9 a.m. But not at 10 or 11 a.m., for example. And Jim didn’t have newscasts at 12, 1, 2, or 3. At the previous NCN, we had longer works lapping over the top of the hour, say a 25-minute piece starting at 12:50. And that was a much better idea; it served the music, instead of serving the format.
This hourly format exists today in many stations and still makes no sense. It means that music directors have to squeeze everything into hourly bites. And being a commercial station means having enough breaks between pieces to fit in commercials, i.e., requiring time for non-music. Since no NCN announcer was permitted to do any programming, the way to fill a rare shortage of music was with extra talk. Easy.
But, if something were to run over that was a problem. We had found solutions for such problems. For example, we’d delete a movement from a baroque concerto. Who’d notice? Or we’d skip a section from a ballet suite, etc. But sometimes there was only one option: make the tone arm jump while playing the LP, by tapping the turntable, or banging on the counter next to it and then fade down the music and re-set the tone arm further in. (This bounces back into memories of my overnight show on an even earlier NCN in 1958 when opening a drawer under the turntable. See above.) Yes. We did that. Who came up with the idea? No idea. The practice was already on-going when I joined the staff.
Another responsibility was to “cushion” intense, recorded, ad agency commercials whose aggressive productions were deemed insufficiently civilized to be heard immediately within earshot of classical music. Sure, NCN was a commercial station, but management was sensitive to criticism. So we announcers had to make sure that we sandwiched such spots in between more restrained ones, read by us live or ad agency-generated. In fact, early in my years there, Richer had even asked such agencies if they would allow us to read the copy instead of having to broadcast their productions. After being turned down too often, he felt that he couldn’t pass up the revenue.
Richer was truly a hands-on station manager. He had to be. Commercial success depended on him. NCN had never made a true profit in all of its 20 years, regardless of management. That may have accounted for his seeming edgy much of the time. His demeanor felt different than Stan Gurell’s at the 45th Street NCN. Gurell often came across as congenial.
Of course, GAF had put a lot of money into this new version of the station, just around the corner from the last one. 1180 Avenue of the Americas. It didn’t look radically different. But daylight streamed through windows; the previous NCN had been encased by walls and hallways. Yet, although the new offices were larger, nothing seemed stylishly modern.
Clearly, a hell of a lot of money had gone into the sound quality of broadcasts. Audio engineer Dick Sequerra had been hired—and paid handsomely—to design everything in the on-air studio and all the equipment that it needed for maximum high-fidelity. Sequerra had been a designer for Marantz electronics, producers of high-end audio equipment, and had his own company as well.
The on-air studio felt like a sacred inner sanctum. One entered through a door leading to a slightly upward-inclined hallway to a second door. The studio was actually suspended above the floor underneath and supported by pads to eliminate any vibrations from the street or the subway below the building.
Once the building got a serious bomb threat, not against us specifically, but we were all warned to evacuate. I was on the air at the time. I chose to stay. Not only to be defiant, but I also felt that the way the studio was suspended and cushioned, I was entirely safe. There was no bomb, by the way.
The studio didn’t look unusual. Except for two extra turntables not next to the board. They didn’t play LPs; they cleaned them on a Keith Monks machine. We had to clean every record before it aired. This meant that the first turntable’s tone-arm circulated water-dampened, groove-sized threads into the LP at high speed, and then the second one’s threads dried the grooves. Fastidious attention.
Two massive speakers loomed against a wall facing the console. When Richer would bring in visitors he’d often point with pride at such equipment, calling attention to the cost. At times, he did so while I sat there at the console, unacknowledged. I’d identify myself, pointing out that I operated this magnificence and that, jovially, of course, there was some cost for my services.
All of us had AFTRA union contracts. Never having discussed the amount with any of the staff, it was never clear if everyone got paid the minimum required as I did. In 1977 that was $27,000 a year (in 2015 = $109,000). Although we were union members, we rarely concerned ourselves with issues or contractual digressions. This was not the same as how QXR felt back in the ’60s (see above); QXR was part of The New York Times, a thoroughly unionized operation. Moreover, QXR announcers were among that rare breed who didn’t run their own equipment while on the air. Union engineers’ duties included lowering tone arms on LPs, moderating the music volume on-air, and opening and monitoring what announcers said on microphones.
I had been an AFTRA member as far back as the early ’60s and had seen the benefits whenever I’d subbed at QXR. There was good pay and there were good ancillary benefits, such as some medical insurance. I always took pride in being a member of the union all through the years and was an active participant in national and local union meetings, mingling with celebrities far better known than I but feeling like an equal.
Come 1979, GAF’s contract with us was due for renewal. Bob Adams had been the last shop steward. No one had volunteered to replace him. But that role needed filling when the contract issue emerged. I volunteered to be steward, which was to everyone’s relief; they didn’t want the responsibility nor the risk of seeming militant.
Not that this meant that I was in charge of anything or a labor organizer. The steward linked the staff and the union, making personal decisions, but might be called upon to talk to management on behalf of the staff or the union.
I called a 1978 meeting for the announcers to collectively decide what we wanted in our new contract, which I would then convey to AFTRA. Other than more pay, we wanted little else, except maybe time-and-a-half for working holidays or getting compensatory days off. AFTRA’s Irv Lewis worked on our behalf and advised us that getting raises plus that time-and-a-half deal might not be easy. The negotiations stretched out for many months. Ultimately we got slight raises plus an agreement about the time-and-a-half, with neither Richer nor us becoming combative.
During that same year, Richer called us four full-timers together to talk about some “really bad news.” First and foremost, bad news for him and GAF. The National Labor Relations Board had ruled on the AFTRA/Bob Adams suit about his firing and ruled against GAF. “So we have to take Bob back,” Richer said, clearly dismayed. “This is a problem; we only have slots for four full-timers, so I have to let one of you go. Gordon, you were the last one hired, so, I’m sorry, but we can’t afford to keep you on full-time staff.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing; this was more astonishing than threatening. How could Bob think he’d get away with it? AFTRA would have instantly contested a dismissal without cause, especially due to my being shop steward. Maybe he thought I’d not contest what he said. But I did. “Bob,” I replied, “Jim was the last one hired.” Sitting there, Jim was clearly distressed.
Richer looked even more dismayed. “OK. Sorry, Gordon. My mistake. I’ll have to think this over. Jim, you can stay for now.”
Of course, Richer must have known that Jim was most recently hired. And he couldn’t find any other way to justify dropping me. Certainly he wouldn’t have dared to get rid of Jim. Jim was Black; it would look like racism. Who knows? Maybe Jim and AFTRA would have filed suit over that.
Pinckney remained. And two weeks later, Bob Adams returned to WNCN, but not as a program host. He was given a news shift with no connection to the music, which he loved as much as we all did. We had no regular on-air news reader; we had always assembled and read the newscasts ourselves. Bob was also given a special schedule: Wednesday through Sunday 4 a.m. to 10 a.m., i.e,. no weekends off. The dark hours of the dawn. Clearly this was meant to make him dislike the job so much that he’d give up and quit. He didn’t quit while I was at NCN. I’ve since learned that he was even hosting Music Through the Night, according to Keynote in 1984. Where was Fleetwood then? I have no idea. An on-line obituary says that Harry continued on NCN with Music Through the Night into the late ’80s. Bob died, by the way, in 2010 at the age of 92.
Some incidental moments:
I’ve since learned from Bob Richer, with whom I’ve become friendly, that Fleetwood liked to turn off all the lights in the offices and hallways and leave on only a tiny lamp next to the console. Harry had contended that the VU meters gave him all the illumination he needed. And evidently, he occasionally took timed short naps. But how long could they have been? Maximum: one side of an LP, i.e., approximately 25 minutes at most. Back in my early NCN days, we’d had as much as an hour, given those long tapes. Now that was a real nap.
There was an announcers-only utilitarian bathroom which was immediately outside the Master Control entrance. It had a toilet and a sink, so that an announcer could rush and flush quickly when needed. There was no other facility in the offices, which meant the rest of the staff had to take a long walk past all the desks to a hall in the building. Couldn’t the big budget have afforded something more convenient? Staffers, of course, would yearn to use what was more readily available, the announcer’s perk. Once, while I was in there, a couple of the women knocked on the door hoping for access, as if I’d been there too long, meowing like kittens. I opened the door, pants on the floor, and said “Be right out.” They dispersed.
Pleasures and perks
In 1980 I became friendly with Beverly Sills and a number of stars from New York City Opera. Bob Richer had developed a new close relationship with the Opera, further enhancing our reputation on the New York classical music scene. We program hosts went on the air with interviews and conversations with company members, broadcasting from the New York State Theatre, helping to pitch subscriptions in Operathons, events similar to now-current public broadcasting stations’ on-air fund drives. Thus we felt close to the people at the Opera, including Sills, who had just become the company’s new general manager. Bob had proposed the tie to Peter Sharp, president of the Opera. They worked out a deal for NCN to broadcast Opera performances and syndicate them. Subsequently, the Operathons repeated for several years.
As an outgrowth of that, we also fielded a softball team (“The Brahms Bombers”) to play against an Opera team in Central Park. The NCN staff was certainly much smaller than theirs; we might have had, maximum, 15 employees. I played, but the station turnout was small; we were able to field only eight players. So, the Opera team lent us some ringers. Of course, they had plenty of people with athletic abilities. Think of stagehands, for example. The Opera team was so eager to play that, at one point, an umpire had to stop the game; the Bombers had 13 people on the field, of whom five weren’t us. The Opera won, of course, especially due to two home runs by Sam Ramey, in both cases when the bass emptied loaded bases.
NCN was certainly doing well by then, sometimes surpassing QXR in the ratings. Sometimes they were slightly on top. Not that there were major differences. Together we had only a fraction of a market as big as New York’s. But under Richer’s guidance and Biberfeld’s, as well as with true PR savvy, we were taken seriously. This was certainly different from the days of a niche audience, albeit truly devoted, in the late ’60s and early ’70s.
We got major coverage in the classical music world when, April 21st, 1982 we had a four-hour live broadcast featuring as guests and performers, Aaron Copland, John Corigliano, Morton Gould, Ruth Laredo, Vincent Persichetti, Ned Rorem, Virgil Thomson, Eugenia Zukerman, and more. Beverly Sills was there, of course, along with NYC Opera’s Carol Vaness and Alan Titus singing selections by Bizet and Gounod. There was also a reception at the station for the broadcast connecting it to inaugurating a new studio from which we could broadcast live performances, as we did that day. Beautiful, expensive sound-proofing, of course.
By then, NCN was finally making some real money. At the end of 1981, we’d celebrated the first year ever when the station had made a genuine profit, 25 years after the station went on the air. Each of us got a commemorative marble and brass paper weight inscribed “With thanks for your help.”
Walking into that new studio, separating myself from the milling, jolly guests sipping champagne and nibbling hors d’oeuvres, having glad-handed many and received lots of compliments for my expertise, I saw an elderly, balding man sitting all by himself. No one else there. He looked forlorn, so I wanted to cheer him up. “Mr. Thomson,” I said, “I’m so glad to meet you and see you here.”
“I’m Aaron Copland,” he said gently. So much for my expertise.
It’s actually contradictory that we had those contemporary composers as our guests, since GAF’s NCN avoided broadcasting programming contemporary music for fear of turning off listeners, turning their dials elsewhere. I’m sure David had never scheduled any of Ned Rorem’s beautiful songs, for example; music emanating from singers’ lips would never be allowed to cross that audience’s ears.
In the Science Network days David and all of us had been deeply involved in airing music of our time, and he had had many connections with such composers. No wonder the Listeners Guild was stirred to get NCN back on the air, and no wonder they were distressed that the content had been so down-sized into easily accessible listening.
Sure, at the latest incarnation of the station, we often aired interviews with such major living members of the concert music world, even as we had done in the late ’60s and early ’70s. We just didn’t air their music. In one such interview with Charles Wourinen, I asked how he felt about such an absence of his compositions on NCN. He replied that meant people would be stimulated to go hear it live.
When I met Corigliano in 2015, discussing the reception 33 years ago, I hadn’t remembered that he had been at that 1982 event. He also told me that he’d been the Music Director at WBAI in the early 1960s and had likewise participated in the War and Peace reading project. When talking about the Wourinen interview, I actually had forgotten with whom it had been, telling Corigliano about the above comment. “Yeah, that had to have been Charlie Wourinen.” I was shocked. How did he figure that out? “That’s the kind of thing he would say.”
Throughout all of those years, it was great to feel so much a part of New York’s classical music life, to even feel significant in my own way, not as some kind of minor celebrity, but more part of a community, as if we were equals.
Moreover, ever since my first days at NCN, I was regularly offered free tickets to theatre and concerts or was given them when they had been requested. That was marvelous. Example: One day I was presenting music from Khachaturian’s ballet Spartacus, music which, incidentally, I admired. Saying so on the air I mentioned equal admiration for the movie, and how it had marked the return of blacklisted screen writer Dalton Trumbo, adding that equally disgraced Howard Fast deserved much credit for the great book on which the script was based. A few days thereafter a package arrived at the station from Fred Bass at Union Square’s famed Strand Bookstore. He’d sent a copy along of the book, autographed by Fast.
Another time a package containing eight bottles of Martini & Rossi vermouth was sent to me, after I’d been reading live copy for the product on the air. Who sent it? No idea. I gave away all but two bottles to other people at the station.