by Don Swaim
Radio stations once signed off at midnight with "The Star Spangled Banner." It was like that when I grew up. Only the 50,000-watt clear channel leviathans boasted all night signals, which combed the Midwest like spotlights.
Thinking I'd become a writer, although unsure about what that meant, I enrolled at Ohio University. Journalism involved writing, so I decided to study journalism, and OU's reputation in the field at the time was exemplary, its major competition being Syracuse, Northwestern, and Missouri. My parents drove me to Athens from Pittsburgh, then a seven hour trip, to see the campus. The university, trying to diversify with out-of-staters, put us up in a guest house. I managed to get into Athens by narrowly passing my college board exams, and, just barely, by being in the upper half of my high school graduation class. The summer before I went to Athens, 1955, I'd worked (for trolley fare) at a suburban Pittsburgh weekly, the Sharpsburg Herald. High school yearbook, Aspinwall, PA, 1955
Toledo Television Star
Radio too was an enticement. Earlier, in 1950 and 1951, in Toledo, I'd been a cast member of "The Boy Scout Buckskin Scout-A-Roo," as well as an actor on a spin off, "Outdoor Adventures with Uncle Jim." They were both live, locally produced shows, using a cast of hopeful young amateurs, broadcast every Saturday morning on WSPD-AM, the city's NBC affiliate. I was even interviewed on WSPD-TV -- in my Scout uniform. After my first broadcast on "Uncle Jim" (in which I played the sidekick to the juvenile star of the show, my childhood pal Tom Josephsen) I walked along Toledo's busy Monroe Street, nodding smugly at the passersby, and murmuring to myself, Look at me, I'm thirteen and I'm on the radio. I'd been infected with the not uncommon disease of immature hubris. Perhaps someone was impressed, but if so I never found out about it.
Ohio University, founded in 1804, had a student population of 8,000 when I began, with a campus so quaint it might have been a prestigious Ivy school tucked away in the hills of New England rather than in the foothills of the Appalachians. One of the administration buildings on the Green was named for William Holmes McGuffey, the university's president from 1839 to 1843. McGuffey's Electic Reader was the basic schoolbook used throughout America in the middle nineteenth century.
Cutler Hall on The Green
My parents deposited me and my new Samsonite suitcases, a high school graduation gift, at Biddle Hall, its doors opened for the first time, the pale green paint on the walls still fresh and sticky in spots. As my father's Ford vanished up the steep incline overlooking the new East Green, I felt a moment of panic, the sense of being prematurely compelled to face the world friendless and alone. My only previous experience at being away from home was Boy Scout camp, where I was a member of the Covered Wagon Patrol. We saluted a lot, and under tent light I became fully conscious of male physiology.
The new East Green's all-male dormitories were in various stages of construction, and because of regular flooding by the temperamental Hocking River, a lacework of wooden catwalks led from the dorms to a barracks which housed the cafeteria. We were obliged to wear jackets and ties at dinner on Wednesday evenings and Sunday afternoons. Ready-made snap-on ties, tilting precariously at the Adam's apple, seemed to have been invented just for us. Curfew for the girls was 10 PM on weekdays, midnight on Friday and Saturday-and the warning lights flashed ten minutes before curfew outside the girls' dorms. No one used drugs, but at eighteen we could drink what was called low beer, which had an alcoholic content of 3.2 percent.
My roomates in Room 107, Biddle Hall, October 1955: Cameron Foster (l) Don Greenlee (r). They look bad but they could have been worse. In fact, they were great roomates! We were close friends in our freshman year -- and no matter how drunk they tried to get me I could always beat Greenlee at chess.
I took some comfort in the cerebral sport of chess and won a campus-wide tournament held in the ballroom of the student center. My terminal opponent was an agitated graduate student who gnawed on his fingernails, adjusted and readjusted his glasses, perspired profusely, and fidgeted obsessively in his chair. It became clear that, despite the difference in our ages and dispositions, we were evenly matched. I lost the first game, narrowly, but won the second. When he forfeited a vital rook in the third game and realized that his position was untenable, he let out a piercing scream and grabbed the chessboard, throwing it into the air, the plastic chessmen rising and then falling as if in slow motion. In astonishment I watched as he ran howling from the room. My prize for winning the tournament was a $10 gift certificate at Beckley's clothing store on Court Street.
That year, Dwight D. Eisenhower was the nation's president, and had recently conducted the first filmed presidential news conference at the White House. Eisenhower refused to rule out the use of nuclear weapons in the event of war, and by February the United States had stockpiled 4,000 atomic bombs, while the USSR, struggling to maintain parity, had built an estimated 1,000. Even though the nation's economy was robust, with nearly full employment, the New York Stock Exchange recorded its worst single-day loss in history after Eisenhower suffered a heart attack. William Faulkner won a Pulitzer Prize for his novel A Fable. Thanks to Walt Disney, the Davy Crockett fad was at its peak and coonskin hats sold by the million. The Brooklyn Dodgers won the World Series, beating the New York Yankees four games to three. The Academy Award for best movie went to Marty, and the film's star, Ernest Borgnine, won the Oscar for best actor. Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock" was on Billboard's pop music chart for eight weeks.
OU's radio station was in the basement of the Speech Building on South College Street. The call letters were said to have been formed from the station's motto, "We're Ohio University Broadcasting." WOUB debuted in December 1942 in the crudely-partitioned balcony of the auditorium in Ewing Hall, then home to the theater department. The station began as a so-called wired wireless operation, heard only in the dormitories and the student center.
Freshmen weren't allowed to declare their majors until the beginning of their sophomore years. I was uncertain what my major would be, broadcasting or journalism. I suspected that the journalists' BSJ was a better degree than the broadcasters' BFA, but the departments were indisputably separated, and there was not yet a College of Communication. I also had an inclination to write poetry and fiction, so a major in English was not out of the question. The issue resolved itself over time when I graduated as a broadcast major with minors in journalism and English, in some respects creating my own major. The first semester of my freshman year I signed up for English Composition 3, Introduction to Fine Arts, General Psychology, Voice and Articulation, Introduction to Radio-TV, Journalism 1, Fundamentals of Speech, and Seasonal Sports. I didn't choose Seasonal Sports willingly. We were all forced to endure athletics under the theory that a healthy body is fertilizer for a healthy mind. Later, I adopted the more hospitable and intimate sport of tennis.
Later, it moved to an army surplus Quonset hut behind the old Fine Arts Building, the hut now gone. In 1949 a radio department was established as a separate unit in the School of Dramatic Art and Speech. The station's FM companion, WOUI, began in December 1949 with a ten-watt signal at 91.5, one of the first FM educational stations to go on the air. Three years later the facilities were moved to the new Speech Building, renamed Kantner Hall, also home to the theater department. On September 14, 1957, WOUB went on the air with a 100-watt AM signal, which was able to substantially expand its audience since few people at the time owned FM receivers. The FCC allocated television channel 62 to OU in 1952, but it wasn't until 1959 that experimental in-studio only programming began in makeshift facilities that had once been the theater department's costume storage room.
On my first day in Journalism 1, the instructor looked severely around the classroom and proclaimed that two-thirds of the population of the United States was composed of dullards. No doubt the class was a microcosm of the United States, and my eyes darted clandestinely around the room hoping to identify the dimwits.
Acting Like Dimwits
Left to right, chins on the WOUB boom mike: Martin Schmeltz (Howard), Dave Chase, Don Swaim, Will Kitchen. Winter 1958.
Outside of Sammy Kaye, whose big band had such hit recordings as "Harbor Lights," the university's most influential graduate for broadcast hopefuls was Sid Davis, a WOUB alumnus who worked as a correspondent for the Westinghouse radio stations. At the beginning of the school year students were encouraged to audition for shows on WOUB, which I did, and was assigned a weekly half-hour broadcast called "Star Salute." Each thirty minutes spotlighted recordings by a single artist, and at first I carefully scripted the program. The station's top broadcaster was Dave Mockler, who hosted a daily interview show live from the Bunch of Grapes Room [for which I take credit in dubbing the Grapes of Wrath Room] at the student center on East Union Street [now the Schoonover Center for Communications, housing the Scripps College of Communication's five schools]. Mockler was an energetic talker who winged an hour a day on the air with no script, no notes, and seemingly no preparation, and he never ran out of chitchat. After he left OU Dave went to work for a station in Youngstown, there to be forgotten as a broadcaster. The student center's jukebox played the hits nonstop. "The Great Pretender" by the Platters, Tennessee Ernie Ford's "Sixteen Tons," "Love is a Many Splendored Thing" by the Four Aces, Nat King Cole's "A Blossom Fell." Alcohol wasn't sold in the center in the fifties, and it wasn't until many years later that visitors to the campus were exposed to the disturbing sight of post-adolescents sitting on the center's side porch in the early afternoons quaffing schooners of beer and learning the technique of smoking cigarettes. The last time I was there, for a WOUB reunion [at which NPR's Bob Edwards was the speaker], the place was bone dry, which is going a little too far. Alums need to set a good example for the students, but really...
Vincent Jukes, a burly, short-haired man, was head of the RTV curriculum. He had a office in a small building, once a private home, between the Speech Building and the student center. One afternoon, as I finished my broadcast of "Star Salute," Professor Jukes, in righteous anger, accosted me in the hall. "Dammit, the word's not pronounced jest," he roared, it's pronounced just. He was absolutely right, of course, and it was a lesson learned. Thank you, sir. One of the classes he presided over was Radio 59, Engineering Workshop, in which each student was required to wire a radio together from parts and tubes.
Why the college administration thought that soldering radios was integral to academics I'm not sure, although the university--as a state-supported institution--teetered somewhere between a liberal arts school and a trade school. I had a mental block and flunked, almost deliberately. I put off taking the workshop for as long as I could, but it was necessary to pass it in order to complete my major, so finally in my junior year I bit the bullet and succeeded, soldering together a radio that actually worked-although it was only powerful enough to receive a single signal, that of the local commercial station, WATH, a 1,000 watt daytimer that specialized in country music and the gospel.
Before tape became widely used, we cut our own discs for public service announcements and delayed broadcasts. Although no technocrat, I discovered that a recorded disc was essentially a single groove that looped in gradually smaller concentric circles. What was fascinating was that one could cut the disc inward or outward. If cut outward, the stylus would actually play until it fell off the disk onto the turntable. Admittedly, this technological tour de force is amusing only to an irrepressible broadcaster.
Left to right, Don Swaim, Jim Saunders, Jim "Doc" Tuverson. Oct. 24, 1958.
Television began to dominate popular culture by 1955. The big shows were "I Love Lucy," "The Ed Sullivan Show," "Dragnet," "The Honeymooners," and "The $64,000 Question." CBS was the last to hold on to the old network radio ways, airing well-crafted dramas such as "Gunsmoke" and "Suspense" until as late as 1962. NBC folded most of its network radio programming, but was having success with a music-talk-interview format on the weekends called "Monitor." Local radio stations had discovered top-forty, and were bombarding the airwaves with rock and roll, echo effects, and capsule newscasts replete with bells, gongs, horns, whistles, and sirens--the brainstorm of programmers such as Todd Storz and Gordon McLendon. We loved it. Only classmate Ted Yaple, who earnestly hosted a classical music show on WOUB, found the top-forty format tacky and uncouth, which it was. Big city disc jockeys, such as Alan Freed in New York, Bill Randle in Cleveland, Rege Cordic in Pittsburgh, Dick Clark in Philadelphia, and Bob Crane in Los Angeles, had legions of followers. And a lot of us thought that was where the magic was.Ohio U was slow to embrace the unsettling developments in radio, unprepared to refocus on television, so in WOUB's Studio A sat an enormous radio sound effects console, on rollers, which contained all the traditional techniques for creating noises. There were coconuts to reproduce the sound of running horses; sand to simulate the crunch of a person walking in, well, sand; and on an empty frame, a door which could be opened and closed and slammed, just like a real one. The students were expected to produce dramatic shows and documentaries like those heard on radio in the forties. In the forties? One of my better efforts was a drama for my History of Oratory class that I wrote and produced with three classmates, "The Death of Socrates." In it, Socrates intones to Plato, "A life spent in philosophy, the purpose of truth for its own sake, is itself one long preparation for the blissful enlargement of death." In a would-be academic environment it was hard to reconcile the fact that the glory days of radio had deteriorated into a superficial cacophony of simplistic music, rip and read headlines, and fast-buck commercialism. How do you teach that to innocent, wide-eyed students? Especially to students required to produce radio plays about Socrates.
It had been rumored that one of the department's instructors, Archie Greer, actually had commercial experience, having once worked at a radio station somewhere, maybe in Michigan. As far as we knew, the two or three other instructors in RTV had never worked anyplace real, which in some ways equalized their status with the students. It was Archie who said, "You are here to learn not to be broadcasters, but thinking broadcasters." If Archie wasn't the one who said it he should have. Up to now at least -- and as of this writing he's well into his eighties -- he hasn't denied it.
At Biddle Hall on the East Green, I launched my own radio station. With the help of Cameron Foster and Don Greenlee, my two roommates (because of overcrowding following the Korean War students were assigned three to a room), we used a mail-order kit from Lafayette Electronics to build a simple transmitter, which was connected to an amplifier, Foster's record player, and a Revere tape recorder my parents had given to me as a Christmas gift. A line that dangled out the window served as our transmitter tower. Overnight we had a radio station that could be heard, barely, throughout much of the East Green. The programming's focus was jazz from Foster's own library of 33 1/3 long-play recordings (he was partial to the New Orleans jazz clarinetist George Lewis), and I would interview visitors to our room. Soon competition developed from students in neighboring Gamertsfelder Hall. They were actually allowed to use a storage room in the building, and set up a vastly more elaborate station than ours. It all came crumbling down when the university administration, headed by President John Calhoun Baker, ruled that were in violation of FCC regulations and were faced with expulsion, even arrest and conviction, should we continue to broadcast from "pirate" stations [no matter that the signals stretched mere blocks], an obvious threat to the "public interest, convenience, and necessity" (the broadcast axiom Herbert Hoover, as Commerce Secretary, declared for radio--once thought of as a public utility, but now an outdated, ignored, and silly concept). Think about it, really, why should broadcasters have to program in the public interest? Old-fashion stuff. Anything goes now. Too many broadcast options to count. Radio stations are sold in herds like cattle, and half-witted, far right-wing brodcasters defame anyone they wish--and who cares?
OU Post, 1958
My mother drove to Athens to visit me on Mothers' Weekend. The mothers were to stay in their sons' dormitory rooms on the East Green while their boys doubled elsewhere. I carefully reserved my bed, the only single bed in a room with a double bunk, for my mother who'd been complaining about backaches. Later, I was horrified to discover that she'd given the other two mothers in the room the ground-level beds, while she awkwardly climbed the ladder to the upper story of the double bunk. Characteristically, she said, "The other girls need the beds more than I do." My mother drank too much -- especially in her later years -- so also, characteristically, she would become maudlin when she thought too much about all she gave up. Smoking three packs of cigarettes killed her by emphysema when she was seventy-eight.
A student-run station is bound to produce results that correspond to their abilities, and as I look back I cringe at the self-consciously amateurish product we created. We programmed almost exclusively to fellow students and friends, not to the great public, such as it was in Athens. Once, I was at the board hosting a daytime music show called "Matinee." The newscaster, Terry Leedom, was leaning against the console, partially obstructing my access to the controls. I said into the microphone, '"Terry Leedom is about to read the news as soon as he gets off the pot." [note: in the then broadcast parlance a pot was a volume control switch] The nonsense on the radio grew so bad that Vincent Jukes cracked down on the staff by barring us from using our names on the air--under threat of suspension. Jukes was widely ignored by nearly everyone, including myself, and we were promptly suspended as threatened. I went to Jukes and groveled, whining that the only reason I used my name on the air was to tell the audience that I couldn't use my name anymore. He relented in my case, and I remained on the air, much to the disapprobation of my fellow students who justifiably accused me of being spineless and a turncoat. I admit it, and I hope those still among us will forgive me. Eventually, Jukes dropped his ban and restored my suspended colleagues to their air slots.
I also had problems on the journalism front. The department was headed by a reedy, cantankerous man named L. J. Hortin who was equally admired and despised by his students. He was a firm believer in the Socratic form of teaching in which he would fire questions at individuals, usually dealing with the finer point of grammar, so that he could embarrass them when they displayed their ignorance. Students in journalism had to demonstrate what the course catalogue had described as a "proficiency in typing." When I was called upon to display my proficiency, I proudly performed, having taught myself to hunt and peck since I was six. "But you're not touch typing," I was told, and old Hortin barred me from taking further journalism classes until I completed Beginning Typewriting. Sorry for myself, I took my complaint to Vincent Jukes, maintaining that not only had I, indeed, shown a proficiency in typing but that the course requirement did not specify touch typing. Jukes refused to intervene, saying, "I'm not going to start a war between the broadcasting and journalism departments." The decision was unfair, of course, and although angry I made the best of it and enrolled in Beginning Typewriting, which I passed with an A, learning that students could bolster mediocre grade averages like mine by taking Mickey Mouse courses. M'god, if I'd taken Home Ec, say and whizzed through it, as well as taking only the bare requirements for my major, I might have graduated with a stratospheric grade average, which looks good on a resume. I'm not suggesting this be done, but good jobs are hard to come by, so it's possible any moron could wind up being President of the United States, like George W. Bush.
I had more success in English, where in one composition course I lucked out by selecting as my topic T. S. Eliot's "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," which I read histrionically in class, and which happened to be the instructor's favorite poem. I also took creative writing under Hollis Summers, a balding, soft-spoken Kentuckian, who had published a few volumes of poetry and several novels, some of them set in Athens. On the first page of my initial contribution to the class, a short story, Summers wrote, "This pleases me." Some years before, a poet named Walter Benton, who had attended Ohio University, had published a sentimental romance called This is My Beloved, verse considered so salacious that the university refused to expose the students to it, and barred it from the library.
Van Sauter -- looking exactly the way he did in 1957.
The journalism majors tended to associate among themselves, their focus being the OU Post, and not many of them crossed over to the broadcast side. One charismatic journalism student was Van Gordon Sauter, who edited the off-campus humor magazine, The Green Goat. The magazine ended publication abruptly when the Athens County district attorney confiscated all the issues and arrested Sauter on obscenity and pornography charges. The magazine had included a photograph of a young woman, her panties around her ankles, sitting on a toilet. No private parts of her anatomy were seen, however, and how the county's top law enforcement official could equate bad taste with obscenity can only be understood in the context of the time and place. Sauter, who paid a modest fine for his criminality, went on to become head of programming and practices at CBS, the network's chief censor (his pornography conviction obviously establishing his credibility), and president of CBS News. Many years later at an Ohio University alumni party in New York at a place called The Cattleman, the word anxiously spread around the room that, "The Man is here." In walked Sauter, even heavier but looking much as he had back in college, a long-necked bottle of beer in each hand. A golden parachute drop ended his turbulent tenure at CBS (during which he was branded a pariah by the network's old guard), but after briefly heading the new Fox News Channel (later run by another Ohio U grad, Roger Ailes), he repaired to California, married the sister of Jerry Brown, former governor and mayor of Oakland, and became involved in public television.The authorities took it more seriously after someone placed a dummy, looking much like a real body, on the railroad track near the East Green, forcing the engineer of a freight to jam on the breaks, nearly derailing the train. The FBI was called in to locate those responsible, believed to be students. There were no arrests, but rumors surfaced that David Chase, later student station manager of WOUB, may have been involved in the incident. Chase, who became program director of WNBC-TV in New York, died several years ago (at the time he headed a cable operation in Houston, Texas), so is no longer around to confirm the rumors, the statute of limitations having run out in any event. [However, Dave's daughter told this writer that her father admitted that he was the culprit.] In the transition to maturity, the post-adolescent is sometimes given to childish behavior. I was no exception.
Here's an undated interview on YouTube with Sauter recorded at Ohio University in which Van talks about his college days. Click on image to play.
Several staffers at WOUB were members of my fraternity, which shall remain nameless due to the secret oath of brotherhood. The frat's pledgemaster was John Rhinehart, who was the station's assistant chief announcer as well as an actor. He played the male lead in the OU Theater's production of Maxwell Anderson's Winterset. John went on to take charge of daytime programming for NBC-TV. One of my fraternity brothers was a broadcast major named Ted Pritchard, an unusual looking young man with pronounced features -- a bold nose, bushy eyebrows, and thick horn-rim glasses -- who stuttered, except when he performed. He dropped out of school for two years, and with three other fraternity brothers formed a modestly successful singing group called the Four Winds, which recorded for Vic, a subsidiary of RCA Victor. Their "hit" recording was "Find Someone New," and there was also a slight groundswell of interest after their cover recording of "Who Wears Short Shorts?" After he graduated from OU, Ted went to WLW in Cincinnati, and years later on Sixth Avenue in Midtown Manhattan I spotted Ted -- instantly recognizable in the crowd -- threading his way through the throngs. Ted was appearing as Bert Barry in a road company version of 42nd Street when he died suddenly of a heart attack in the Champagne-Urbana, Illinois, area.
Joining the fraternity was a bad decision. Don Greenlee, one of my freshman dormitory roomnates dragged me in. I was also prodded by my mother, who had a romanticized, Roaring Twenties view of college Greek life. She'd attended Lindenwood in Missouri for two years until her wealthy brother-in-law in Tulsa, my Uncle Frank, went bust in 1929. Fraternity life sapped my energy and diverted me from more important things without providing commensurate benefits. During Hell Week, pledges were required to live in the fraternity house, deprived of sleep, forced to eat on the floor by licking plates of fiery food while on their hands and knees, made to carry raw eggs in their pockets (which actives would smash if they saw their subalterns between classes), beaten with paddles, and compelled to wear so-called dink strings, which were attached to a personal part of the anatomy and pulled at will by the actives. Would anyone today in his right mind want to be part of this outfit? Fortunately, my duties at WOUB helped to keep me away from the frat house on Mill Street a good portion of Hell Week, and I would sit for hours in a stall in the men's room of the Speech Building in order to sleep, study, and escape the lunacy. Several years prior, all freshmen, fraternity members or not, were required to wear beanies [I guess to put them in their place]. At least I missed that humiliation. At Homecoming, in which each fraternity decorated a float with a specific theme, I was to walk along side of my fraternity's float as a kind of barker, speaking into a microphone that led to a loudspeaker. But my self-consciousness bordered on terror and I relinquished the microphone to someone else, knowing that whatever credibility I might have had with my fraternity brothers had been compromised.
Black Rock, the majestic CBS Building in New York, my home away from home for too many years -- but that's a different story. The company's current owners, whoever they are, decided to sell this historic monument of broadcasting, which is just another piece of expensive real estate after all.
Once, late at night on a bedside radio in the fraternity house on Mill Street, I picked up WOR, whose clear channel signal from New York thundered across the brittle farmlands of the Middle West like that of a local station. The reassuring voice I heard was that of Jean Shepherd delivering a monologue about childhood that left me spellbound by its profundity and insight and the way it touched me. When Shepherd's show ended I bounded breathlessly down the stairs to share my excitement over what I'd heard with the fraternity brothers who were lounging around a kitchen table sipping coffee. They looked at me, then at each other, and it was plain to see by the quizzical expressions on their faces that they thought I was unhinged. I knew then that I was in the wrong place. Still, I came back to head the fraternity's Four Winds concert at Mem Aud, which was only partially a success. But after that I lost interest. I understand the fraternity lost its house on Mill Street, where I lived for two unpleasant semesters, and if the fraternity still exists one would wonder why.
The Welder: my first bylined story
At the end of my freshman year I had two summer job prospects. The first was working for Ketchum, McLeod and Grove Advertising in Pittsburgh. George Ketchum, who'd founded the agency in 1923, was my father's neighbor in Fox Chapel, a well-to-do suburb, and I introduced myself by the simple expedient of walking to Ketchum's front door and asking for a job. He offered me $40 a week. Meanwhile, the Spang-Chalfont steel plant in Etna, Pennsylvania, which was owned by a company for which my father worked as an executive, offered me a summer job writing for the mill's house organ, The Welder, for $60 a week. While I preferred to avoid the stigma of nepotism, the temptation of an extra $20 a week, not to mention the prospect of actually writing, was such that I couldn't refuse. My first meaningful byline appeared in The Welder in the issue of December 1956.
I was kept out of the military (aided by the fact that the United States happened to be between wars) by a near lethal ear infection that occurred toward the end of the summer before my sophomore year and landed me in the hospital for a radical mastoidectomy. The doctor felt the spongy, painful lump behind my left ear and announced, "He goes into the hospital tomorrow." The surgery took five hours, the doctors using a patch of skin from my thigh to build up the flesh in the passage of my inner ear. It was brave surgery, preventable now with antibiotics, that saved my life.
I was so irresponsibly desperate to return to school, and my show at WOUB, that, against the doctor's advice, I went back to Athens for my sophomore year in the fall with an enormous bandage on my head and a drainage tube feeding from my infected ear. My hearing was severely impacted and my equilibrium was fragile. To make matters worse I had to take a bus for the long trip back to Pittsburgh in order to be examined by the doctor every Saturday morning. While the infection gradually improved, my mediocre class work declined even more precipitously, almost to the point where I was faced with expulsion or withdrawal. My determination to keep up with my peers, as well as my enthusiasm for radio -- not to mention what H.L. Mencken once referred to as "the hot gas of youth" -- kept me in school, and I faked my way through my classes to compensate for my impaired hearing. Since childhood, I'd had a recurrent ear infection and hearing loss, often putting me behind and forcing me to find ways of hiding the disability. At one point, when my family lived in Houston, Texas, my mother enrolled me into a lip-reading class.One of my more ambitious courses was Program Planning and Building, in which students were divided into teams of four and instructed to develop a hypothetical radio station in a hypothetical market-with all the financial, marketing, technological, and programming elements laid out to create such an operation. Ours was placed in Xenia, Ohio, and as chance would have it, a number of years later an actual station was built there much along the lines of the one we had designed. In another class, each of us was to create a thirteen-week radio or TV series, with a sample script and plot outlines for the remainder of the shows. My offering, which I called "Armand's Place," reeked suspiciously of a Jack Webb show of the time, "Pete Kelly's Blues." Over the opening theme, Armand's voice was to be heard saying, "Hello, I'm Armand, with a story to tell, a song to sing, and perhaps a smile to give. I operate the little basement inn down on the lower part of Wine Street. It's a sort of quiet place with a piano always in the background, and in the evening the Blue Notes."
The portals into what was once CBS
The fifties was a period of both complacency and fear. An irrational belief that Godless communists were somehow going to enslave a God-fearing nation resulted in frightening excesses directed at America's own citizens. One black morning, frost on every window, I and couple of dozen other draft-age students were loaded into a bus destined to a military facility in Columbus for pre-induction physical exams. A portion of the test was written, and sitting in a cubicle I was to write yes or no to the question, "Are you now or have you ever been a member of an organization that seeks to overthrow the United States of America by force and violence?" I truthfully answered no. Then a rather redundant, "Have you ever been or are you a now a member of any of the following subversive front organizations?" There followed an enormous list of groups that I'd never heard of, and at the bottom, the word, "other." On the line for "other" I cockily wrote "Republican Party."
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