Lacking the confidence to take a shot at New York City radio, given a none-too-prestigious removal from WNCN, and the eyelid blink of two weeks at WNRC, I started reading trade papers looking for openings near enough to not have to commute upstate or across the Hudson…although soon enough I was under that river.
WHLI, Hempstead, NY, needed someone to fill in during summer vacation time. It was a pop music station close in content to WOND, and that experience plus my style and voice got me the job.
Daytimes meant announcing, in a friendly way, the music that music director Roger Ferguson selected. He followed a standard format, a male vocalist, followed by a woman singer, followed by an instrumental, with some room allowed for vocal groups. Boring. Our comments were supposed to be just slightly more inventive than “This is….,” “That was…,” “We just heard…,” but nothing too personal. Friendly but bland. It was not one of my favorite roles.
WHLI’s major value to the community was its full-time news staff. There were newscasts every hour where the news guys wrote and read their stuff, taking material from AP and United Press for national and international stories while also adding some local stories. Re-writes from local newspapers or their own actual reporting. Stan Bernard, who went on to a more significant job at WINS (“You give us 22 minutes, we’ll give you the world.”), was on the news staff. Bearded like me, some people asked if we were brothers. Beards were still a subject of interest.
Much of the time the news guys and the d.j.s would hang out together telling jokes or making fun of the management. It seemed as if no one thought he was doing anything special but was just a cog in a machine.
I started looking for something better.
Within a few weeks I had started relief-announcing at WJRZ, Newark, and WQXR, New York, plus, astonishingly, WNCN again.
By the time I started on this aural merry-go-round my résumé mirrored the new activity, crammed with other credits: seven stations in 12 years: WNAR, WFLN, WHAT, WOND, WNRC, WNCN, WHLI. It certainly looks rootless, doesn’t it? You’d think it would look as if I couldn’t keep a job—an accurate perception for people outside broadcasting. Not without some truth, either. I’d been fired at three stations and quit four others. But people inside the business tend to believe that announcers who keep moving have something to offer. Otherwise, how would they keep getting work? And, when starting the 1965 search for something more interesting and better-paying than WHLI, not having left was a position of strength. I had a job already. You might think that managements would have inquired how and why I was no longer at those previous stations but they didn’t. Maybe because, except for WHLI, at least five years had passed and, as always, staff longevity being so rare, my moving on may have seemed normal.
The New WNCN
WNCN had new owners. In mid 1964 the station had been acquired by the National Science Network owned by L.W. Frohlich Advertising Agency, which dealt mostly in pharmaceuticals.
According to Bernie Alan, whom I knew from our college days at Temple and who was on the announcing staff at NCN before I re-joined, the Network also bought and operated WDHF in Chicago, KPPC in Pasadena, and KMPX in San Francisco.
The “Science,” no doubt, was so named due to Frohlich’s agency accounts. There was also something else. In addition to WNCN, the transmitter signal was used on a sub-channel* to broadcast pop background music to subscribers, who were, evidently, all doctors who used the service in their offices. I never heard how the service sounded. In addition, according to Bernie, there were weekly five-minute broadcasts of news scripts about medicine and developments in the medical world; he wrote and broadcast some himself. Once, he said, WNCN even covered a medical convention in Chicago, the broadcast sponsored by drug companies whose commercials were included.
*A sub-channel uses the same signal as the regular station does, but the programs are transmitted separately by a complex process I don’t fully understand. TV and radio stations still use the concept today, sending out more than one signal available with special equipment and/or by subscription.
WNCN’s new studios were on West 45th Street just off Fifth Avenue above a wonderful-smelling Chinese restaurant. Compared to the Concert Network’s East 47th Street station, this company knew something about how a good radio station should look. There were beautiful modern studios and state-of-the-art equipment. No weak particle board walls there. You could see through the gleaming glass windows that the new owners were taking classical music seriously; concert harpsichordist Albert Fuller was the music director. Maurice Essam was his assistant.
Jolly WNCN Program Director Ed Shaughnessy took a liking to my sound and my knowledge and immediately put me on call after we’d met. When he asked about why I’d left the old NCN, I’d explained that I’d wanted to try an acting career. And re: FLN, I could tell the truth: Mitchell Krauss took his job back.
No further questions were asked.
Bill Watson must have known the actual reason why I left the previous NCN. But I guess he and Ed didn’t discuss it. Or maybe Bill didn’t care about the why and how of my departure. He may have even admired my forcefulness in breaking down a studio wall; he was a rebel in his own way. Or maybe he was grateful that he’d gone on to fame, due to me.
Yes. Fame. He had become the star of the night, propelling the station forward into public consciousness. Compared to him, everyone else on WNCN was a daytime shadow. Oh sure, the daily NCN programming was a major contrast to the more conservative content of WQXR, but QXR was the big classical blast in town. NCN was still underrated and not taken seriously.
Watson had always been allowed free rein in his programming. And his personal choices were astonishing, appealing to a hell of a lot of people, at a time when there was no competition either; QXR was off the air overnight. As far as I ever learned, Bill cherished a rather narrow period of classical music; but it was a great period, starting around 1700 and going not much further than 1830. But look at which composers flourished then: J.S. Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, to name the most famous.
Once in a while, as an on-call announcer, I filled in for Bill. Odd, isn’t it? He’d filled in for me back in 1960. But sitting in in his stead, I did not have the chance to program music of my choice; not that I would have reverted to what I’d been featuring during my 20 months at NCN overnight. I didn’t see that as an opportunity to do my own thing (to use a then-current hippie phrase). Instead, Albert or his assistant Maurice Essam gave me stacks of LPs from which to chose music evidently similar to what Bill featured.
That was when I first came to admire the music of the composers I named above; I’d always gravitated to something more modern or romantic and paid scant attention to what others had long taken as masterworks. String quartets, especially. I hadn’t realized how beautiful they were. This time I was actually listening rather than having them for soothing background, such as when I was a babysat little kid while my father joined friends to play such music at, say, Wilfred Skeets’s elegant house on a quiet street in Lansdowne, PA.
I never actually heard more than a few minutes of Bill’s program, Listening with Watson; most of the time I was in bed in one of three different apartments I sequentially inhabited during those years, mid-1965 to early 1971, during which my contact with him and the station ebbed and flowed. And, whenever I arrived at the station to host a morning show, I barely listened because I was preparing newscasts. I heard, but didn’t listen.
In a rich, sonorous voice, a voice Bill knew he had and in which he reveled, he always began his program by quoting a phrase from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice: “Here will we sit and let the sounds of music/Creep in our ears: soft stillness and the night/Become the touches of sweet harmony.”
His on-air persona flourished, captivating many people. He loved the music and was never shy about expressing his opinions, referring to the beauty, the magnificence, and the glory of the works he presented—a rarity at the time when most announcers offered no opinions.
He further cemented his reputation by airing long works, really long works, in their entirety, never interrupting them with talk. Moreover, he’d sometimes repeat the same music immediately after it ended, saying something like, “Wasn’t that great? Let’s listen to it again.” And present it once more, complete.
He could do that because he was not required to read newscasts in his seven-hour broadcasts, and, despite his ever-growing celebrity, the sales department had not been able to cash in and load his schedule with commercials.
In fact, Bill was known for making fun of the commercials he did have, commenting on their poor grammar, or bad punctuation. However, so far as I know, he never insulted the clients nor denigrated their products. He also did something Jean Shepherd had been doing, bunching several commercials together back to back, just to have the onerous task finished. This was nothing like some of today’s broadcasting with deliberate clusters.
Bill wasn’t likely to have more than five commercials a night, consistent with how little advertising was on WNCN at any time in those years. The station was always in the red, as if it were a Frohlich vanity operation. 1981 was the first profitable year, under a different owner.
Once Bill actually created a major traffic jam during the day around the corner on West 44th Street. A new sponsor bought time on WNCN. (An odd phrase, come to think of it. How can you buy time?) Livingston’s Leaf and Bean was a small shop selling a vast variety of freshly roasted coffee beans, stored in barrels, along with smaller barrels of fresh pipe tobacco of many blends. Livingston’s also sold pipes, pipe paraphernalia, and various kinds of coffee pots. To introduce the store they got Bill to tell his listeners that anyone who heard him was invited to stop by the shop the next morning to get a free ½ pound of coffee just by mentioning his name. When the shop unlocked its doors at 9 a.m. a mob stretched in every direction all the way from Sixth Avenue to Fifth. This event confirmed Bill’s power.
Bill also had powerful opinions which were not limited to what he thought about the music. In his broadcasts he freely shared his ideas about politics and social issues. Listeners who agreed with him called and wrote to him praising his perception.
But there was the other kind of response—people who developed serious hatred for what he said and stood for. They hated him, as if whoever he was on the radio was him, rather than some part of him, the performing part. There’s that Steve Allison kind of thing I mentioned above when writing about my Philadelphia broadcasting days.
Bill had a ready temper, lashing out at those of the public who couldn’t deal with his seeming self-admiration and his comments. They seethed with anger, telephoning him, as if he were some kind of dictator ruling the night with an iron baton instead of just a guy who hosted a radio program.
You could ask why he would even pick up the phone, since, during long stretches of music, you’d think Watson would be Listening With Watson, but being all alone in the studio overnight must have generated a feeling of isolation and a need for contact with living humans instead of only admiring the creations of people long dead and gone. Not that I had that feeling myself in my 20 months preceding him. But by the time I started to work for the new NCN, he’d been hosting programs for five years at those hours. The long-term effects could be different.
While he spoke to listeners, Bill could never look into anyone’s eyes during those 35 hours a week. His own had to be focused on the constant bounce of VU meters. And there were the glaring lights overhead, so glaring, in fact, that he’d turn off as many as he could sitting there with only enough illumination to read by, glowing in semi-darkness, as if a halo sat above his head.
He must have reveled in the stimulation of getting back at those angry people out there in the vast darkness, reaching out even into all those little, less important suburbs and towns clinging to New York. He’d excoriate his unseen enemies, those who failed to admire his impressive musical knowledge and the magnificent music he chose for people with the right degree of discernment. On the air he’d speak to the gadflies by name, defeating their arguments by making statements that brooked no discussion; he controlled the microphone and no one else’s voice could be heard.
During the time Bill and I both worked at NCN, he’d sometimes talk to me while his music was playing, or after I had started the next program, when he’d rave about lapsang souchong tea and how well it went with honey. He’d also tell me about some of the “beautiful” women who admired him and whom he had met, women no doubt overwhelmed by being close to such magnificence, not that married Bill ever claimed he was a great lover, nor did he discuss what went down (so to speak) with any of the women. Evidently such admirers sometimes visited him at the studios. I met one one morning. I didn’t find her beautiful. But then, there’s that eye of the beholder thing. And maybe the lady found in-person-Bill attractive. He certainly was decent looking, with a sturdy Roman nose and distinguished grey temples, despite being nearly bald. He also looked solidly muscular, as if his past life in the U.S. Navy had taught him how to stay fit.
In time he would call me “a friend” because we got along well together whenever we saw each other. But we never socialized outside the station.
I liked him.
In those early days of my return to NCN, looking for whatever work I could find, Bernie told me about a side job he had in our mutual home town of Philadelphia. As “Bob Weston” he was providing pre-recorded voice tracks for WDVR, whose format was “beautiful music.” That’s a concept a bit like WOND’s “Wonderful Music,” being a total avoidance of rock, Country & Western, jazz, etc. In the New York market WPAT, Paterson, NJ, was doing very well with that idea then. Fundamentally the content was attractive but unobtrusive instrumental versions of pop music standards with few vocals, ideal for background music. Often the selections were not announced. So Bernie’s tracks mostly consisted of station breaks and a few commercials.
He put me in touch with the management at WDVR, telling me that this would be no major source of income; in fact, he was getting $1 per spot (equal to $7.25 in 2012), which meant mostly for commercials; the other tracks had long-lasting lives of their own.
WDVR liked my demo tape, recorded, of course, at WNCN late at night when no one else was there but Bill. I got a slot. As “Gordon Todd” (i.e., sounding a bit like “Gordon Kahn”) my voice tracks hosted Saturday and Sunday morning shows, which didn’t require the usual stuff of weekday mornings, like weather forecasts and time checks. Vene’s Philadelphia family was thrilled (“We listen to you all the time!”).
I stayed on the air there for about 10 months until I no longer was able to record the tracks or use the WNCN studios. I was working for ABC. That big opportunity followed some good times at WQXR and a bad time at WJRZ, Newark, NJ.
Crossing In The Dark Under the Hudson.
My WHLI and WOND experiences got me some work at WJRZ. By then Les Davis was one of their stars, the third time we’d cross paths, although we barely saw each other and rarely said more than “Hello.”
Eventually Les would show up on WRVR, too, hosting jazz. And he always had name recognition and fame while I was a fringe-faced guy on the fringe.
I had only few stints on WJRZ, a place where the receptionist always answered calls by saying “WJRZ, good radio!” I always replied “And good radio to you, too.”
I wasn’t there long. In July 1965, after what turned out to be my last overnight shift, I went out to the street to get my car to drive back home. The car was gone. I couldn’t believe someone had stolen it. An old Chevy with a multi-colored body. Who would bother?
Walking around the corner to the police headquarters right off Green Street, I reported the crime. Right. My car had been stolen a few doors away from police headquarters.
The police were used to having to deal with car theft. A couple of officers said that somebody had probably taken for it for “a joy ride” and that they’d look into it and get back to me. Then they gave me a lift to a PATH train from which I could get a subway connection home.
A couple of days later they called. They’d found the car. They told me I could pick it up at the Newark storage lot.
Subway to train to taxi to the storage lot. It was in a rundown neighborhood of cracked streets and scruffy buildings. A few intact cars in the front didn’t belie what lay beyond—a grimy, disordered jumble of dented, broken vehicles, strewn around as if dropped wherever there was space.
While I waited for the boss—call him Mike—I noticed the front office had a hand-written sign on which was scrawled, “Anyone showing up late doesn’t work here anymore.”
Grubby-looking, stomach-spilling, shave-needing, sloppily dressed Mike led me to my car. It looked intact. I was relieved. I half-expected to see a dented ruin. There was no key in it, but I had a spare. I put it into the ignition, saying to my beloved car, “Come on. I’ll take you home.”
No motor turned over. Silence. Except for cawing crows flying around the lot. I opened the hood. The battery was gone. So was the radiator. So were other parts. I turned to Mike. “What happened to all the parts?”
“How the fuck would I know?” he snarled.
I felt miserable. His unsympathetic response made it worse. “Can you help me get this towed back to Brooklyn?” I asked. Then he gave me a price which took my breath away, especially when added to what he said I owed for two days of storage.
“But it was stolen,” I said in painful disbelief. “Why do I have to pay for storage? I didn’t authorize you to store it. The police brought it here. I didn’t.”
“That’s not my problem, pal. You want it back? Pay me what you owe for storage, and I’ll see what I can do about giving you a break on a tow. I mean it’s a hell of a long way to Brooklyn.”
I stood there in continuing shock. Did it even make sense to tow home what was left of that beloved car with half the motor gone, its value plummeting into near-junk? I stammered, “But that’s…that’s not fair. Somebody stole it and…”
“You said that already, buddy.”
“Yes. And said that I didn’t ask you to store it. And why is it missing so many parts?”
Mike was getting angry. “Look, pal. I didn’t steal it. It’s not my fault.”
“But why is it missing so many parts?”
“Hold on. Are you saying I took the parts?”
“No. No. I’m just having trouble understanding this whole thing.”
“Yeah. Well, I’m getting tired of this bullshit. What do you want to do with this piece of junk? I haven’t got all day.”
“I need to call my insurance company and have them come over here and take a look at it.”
“And what am I supposed to do in the meantime? Wait until that fucking agent arrives? Look, pay me for a week’s worth of storage now.”
“But it hasn’t been here a week.”
“God damn it! Now I’m getting pissed off. You don’t want to pay me? Then get the hell off my lot before I beat the shit out of you.”
I walked away, leaving behind the ruins of my beloved car, feeling almost as broken as it was.
The next time WJRZ called, I had to turn down the work. No car. But also I wasn’t sure I’d even want to be in that part of Newark again.
By 1967, though, I was able to afford a new Volkswagen Beetle, which is how eventually I got to WPAT. More about that later.