Swarthmore College produced a lot of plays every semester. That was one reason I applied there. But more, it had a radio station. WSRN. Did I think that Swarthmore was academically interesting? I never thought about that. I liked the fact that it was a small college and had an attractive, small-town campus. Sort of like Sanford. It didn’t turn out to be like Sanford, though, when it came to learning and studying. The College was out of my league; it took some time to learn that.
So I jumped right into campus extra-curricular life. In my first semester, I was all over the place, acting in plays, hosting radio shows, playing bridge, dating, and writing for The Phoenix, the campus newspaper, sometimes edited by the future editor of The Nation, Victor Navasky, and the future editor of Variety, Peter Bart.
I quickly became a familiar person on campus connecting with so many students outside of classrooms. In fact, that actually saved me from being asked to leave at the end of my first semester. The dean of men told me that I had made quite a good impression from all the things I was doing. But that I was not doing nearly enough when it came to getting acceptable grades, and that if I didn’t shape up there, I was on my way out.
More than anything, I wanted to be in radio. I grew up with such glamour. I yearned to broadcast on the air at WSRN. That was totally extra-curricular.
I didn’t have to audition. I just volunteered and the student managers told me I could do what I wanted, when I wanted. Thus I started hosting my own classical music programs using records from the college library and, playing them on the air, announced the names of composers and performers with considerable authority. After all, I could speak French and Spanish and had been around classical music since childhood. I knew a lot of composers’ names and had heard much of their music. Librarian David Peel helped me choose the music. He had his own morning show for a couple of years, Yawn Patrol. I never heard it so I’ve no idea what he did during it. I rarely listened to anybody’s show. I was too involved in my own.
In my mind I was also hearing myself doing the same thing in the future, professionally attired with just as much class as an orchestra member. I would do that in the future, but by then most of us announcers were dressed in casual street clothes.
That was play radio. The AM signal broadcasts were available only on campus, transmitted over phone lines. The year I arrived at Swarthmore, 1951, FM sets, most often just tuners connected to tube amplifiers, were rare and expensive, equal to around $435 in 2014. How many students could afford that? But SRN did carry FM broadcasts. They came from Philadelphia’s commercial classical music station, WFLN, converted to an AM signal for campus broadcast by some clever engineering major. That was probably illegal but I doubt that anyone at Swarthmore cared. Maybe Franklin Broadcasting, the owners of WFLN, didn’t care either, if they knew.
The FLN broadcasts via SRN were actually the station’s most popular features. Disappointingly, hardly anybody on campus was interested in listening to something original from those of us trying to do something creative. I took it kind of personally but it didn’t stop me, even though one of my roommates, Paul Baumgarten, said I was wasting my time and should have been studying. And also not regularly falling asleep, for example, when trying to grasp the alleged brilliance of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene for one of my English courses.
There were some regularly scheduled programs on WSRN, such as transcriptions, pre-recorded programs sent on 16-inch LPs. I signed up to be on duty to broadcast a couple: Masterworks from France and The U.N. Today. Masterworks came on red translucent vinyl LPs with a half-hour program on each side.
The U.N Today was more prized. It came on just one side of an acetate LP, rather than on plastic. The second blank side could be used to cut another recording and WSRN had such a record cutter.
In fact, the station library consisted primarily of in-station transcriptions made on the back of The U.N. Today. Some of them were things we could never play on the air such as “Friggin’ in the Riggin” or a Bing Crosby outtake of “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams,” where he sang to the same melody with the orchestra still playing, “They cut out eight bars, the dirty bastards/And I didn’t know which eight bars they were going to cut/Why doesn’t somebody tell me things around here?/Holy Christ, I’m goin’ off my nut.”
And someone had hidden a microphone at a sex lecture for women where one of the girls asked, “If I had an orgasm, would I know it?” followed by peals of girlish laughter.
Real in-station programming relied on students or faculty bringing in their own records, e.g., students such as Bob Gumnit hosting a folk music show or Dan Ross presenting mambos played by Perez Prado…Boo! Or me airing contemporary classical music from the library.
Buddies Ron Axe, Roger Levien, and I created a short-lived comedy series, The Men.
Gordon: “…brought to you by Wiretap Incorporated. Hear how fast we get results.”
Roger: (on phone) “Hello, this is Professor Green.”
Ron: (on phone) “Hello, Professor. How are you?”
Roger: (on phone) “I’m a communist.”
And, after a visit by the Princeton Handbell Choir, we offered a performance by the Texas A & M Handgun Choir, punctuating Teresa Brewer’s recording of “Ricochet Romance” with gun sound effects from the station’s files. We had a lot of fun. And someone actually heard us. My roommate, Paul Gottlieb. He said we were great.
In no time I found myself subbing for other students who couldn’t cover their shifts because they felt they had to spend more time studying. WSRN had two on-air studios, the small booth with two 16-inch turntables, a microphone, and a small console to control the volume of each component. The other was master control, a much larger studio with more and bigger equipment. It directly controlled what went out on the air. So the signal from the small studio passed through it. I liked the small one better than the large one and, being there alone, always preferred it.
On a quiet Tuesday evening, Ralph Rinzler, who hosted a folk music show (and would later go on to be part of the highly successful Greenbriar Boys), asked me to cover for him. Since I knew nothing about folk music and didn’t even like it, I decided to borrow some of David Dulles’ (his uncle was J. Foster) jazz recordings.
I was on the air in the small studio when Pete Jentsch, one of my buddies, walked into the station. And while I was talking on the air, Pete switched on the mike in master control and said, “Hey Gordon? Are you really on the air? Fucking around again? You shouldn’t be playing this shit!” That microphone was on the air.
On my own mike, likewise on the air, I said, “Folks. That was the voice of Peter Jentsch. Now back to our music.”
Pete turned bright red. But we never heard anything from anybody about his language.
Probably, as was often the case, hardly anyone was listening. At that point, few people took Ralph seriously, so probably he had no regular fans. Besides, the smartest students were studying.
They made the right choices. But I was hooked on being in front a microphone, hoping to share the kinds of music I enjoyed, always thinking that someone was listening. No one ever called me or spoke to me about my broadcasts. I had a long way to go.
I liked hearing myself speak in a voice which sounded good on a microphone and I liked listening to the music I broadcast. Music, other than classical? Whatever records I could borrow from guys in my dorm. Some of it was jazz, but I still didn’t know the word. Until, one day, Swarthmore hosted a concert by the Wilbur De Paris New New Orleans Jazz Band. I knew the instruments, of course, but until then, I didn’t know such music could make me want to dance and shout and clap my hands instead of sitting still in respectful silence, behaving myself between movements. And that’s how the word “jazz” finally reached me.
Shortly after that concert I noticed that WFLN had a two-hour Saturday show called Concert of American Jazz, hosted by Morrison Crowley. I started listening. He seemed sort of serious, even if the music was often fun. Little did I realize that, in a few years, I would take over the program.