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Thursday, January 16, 2014

For the Record (Part Two)

Burning up the Airwaves Dept.: A couple of days ago, I shared some of the reasons why I left a nice job as a programmer and morning announcer at Schenectady’s WMHT-FM. Here’s how I got into it in the first place.

By the end of 1979, I’d been working for several years as a waiter and then a line cook at white-linen restaurants in Westchester and Fairfield Counties, ending up in the kitchen at the prestigious Elms Inn in Ridgefield, Conn., the town in which I was raised. But one of my sidelines – albeit for no pay – was an airshift at WPKN in Bridgeport.

Not WMHT-FM, but kind of similar.
That station had developed an identity distinct from the University of Bridgeport, to which it was licensed, and under the aegis of Jeff Tellis and then my high-school buddy Harry Minot, the station became its own free-form entity. Although mine was nominally a classical-music show, representing my passion for that music and trying to combat the sad fact that few others were programming such stuff, I enjoyed mixing things up, throwing in jazz tunes that seemed to make sense in a playlist or, as I did one enjoyable night, offering color commentary alongside “The Magic Flute.”

There were classical-music stations to be heard in the area in those days: WQXR, of course, but also WNCN and, to a lesser extent, WNYC. The music also turned up on such iconoclastic stations as WKCR, WFUV, WBAI, and even WEVD (named for Eugene V. Debs!).

Although those who professionally announced such stuff tended to be unremarkable, Bill Watson was a free-spirited soul who gypsied from station to station depending on who he’d pissed off of late. Watson’s favorite performers were pianist Walter Gieseking and tenor Jussi Björling, and we heard them often. But he also was given to fabulously discursive discourses, especially when he wound up on WBAI.

So when a friend phoned to tell me about a job opening at a classical-music station in upstate New York, I was eager to apply. I’d never been to Schenectady, never worked for the likes of NPR, but I knew my music and was eager to evangelize. My record collection alone would take up half the U-Haul.

I cleverly elided my lack of a college degree in my cover letter, letting it seem that I was a U-Bridgeport grad (this was in that institution’s pre-Moonie days). I was invited to an interview, and thus met the acting program manager, Ron Nicoll, who has remained a great friend. I took the announcing test, sight-reading with ease the more abstruse composers’ names. (So feckless was I in that regard, never pre-reading copy once I was hired, that Ron slipped a card into the PSA box – a collection of public-service announcements we’d read at most breaks – containing a horrific tongue-twister that, I’ll immodestly note, I breezed through with ease.

In short, I brought the cockiness of a 24-year-old to the job, and such a strong sense of self-confidence that I arrived in Schenectady with a suitcase and nowhere to stay, sure that I’d be able to crash on someone’s couch (which I did) and that I’d  quickly find an apartment within walking distance. (My last car had been repossessed.).

But I had my first exposure to station politics during the first hour of my first airshift, shortly after 6 AM. I identified whatever piece I’d just played, identified the station, and introduced the next piece. As I switched off the microphone, the studio telephone rang. In a low-toned, affected voice, the caller said, “It’s ‘double-you.’”

“Excuse me?”

“It’s pronounced “double-you.’ Double-you emm aitch tee. Hi. I wanted to say hello.” It was a part-time announcer who’d been turned down for the position I got. He never would settle into any kind of friendly relationship with me, but I rarely had to see him.

People who phoned me at WPKN were excited about the music or generally looking to chat or, in the case of one memorable call, eager to let me know “that my girlfriend and I are making lu-u-uv to this music, man.”

People called me at WMHT only to complain. First was the barrage of calls asking what happened to my predecessor in that shift, Rich Capparella, who went to southern California, where he still works at KUSC. He called me during my first week on the air to gently warn me about the station’s own politics, which included an uneasy relationship with the TV station that shared the call letters and the dwarfish martinet who had founded and ran the whole operation, Don Schein.

Don rarely visited the FM end of things, which was good, but he had a staff of underlings charged with keeping an eye on us. It was in keeping with his management style that the person who reported to him about FM also was in charge of building and grounds. And, as I indicated in an earlier post, any kind of vocal music was a problem.

But the listenership enjoyed its own bizarre range of prejudices. I got what-the-hell-are-you-playing-this-for calls about early Dvořák symphonies, Bernstein’s “On the Waterfront,” Mozart piano sonatas (because it was an old-sounding Gieseking recording), and anything by Vivaldi. And, of course, anything with voice. And anything with harpsichord. There was a sense of entitlement about those callers. These were people who had donated their $30 and thus had a keen sense of ownership, tolerance or open-mindedness be damned.

The first across-the-bow shot I witnessed was a memo Ron received from the building-and-grounds guy restricting the use of anything to with opera. As a measure of this person’s stupidity, the proscription extended to overtures.

Every month, the station issued a program guide listing TV programming and, in the back of the book, a schedule for FM. A staff photograph graced the cover of one issue, and that cover hung over one of the benches in the tech shop. Whenever a staffer was fired or otherwise moved on, one of the tech engineers blacked out the corresponding face. I was surprised to see, during my first few months, how quickly those faces disappeared. I had no way of knowing that in two years my own contribution to station attrition would be substantial – as you’ll read in a forthcoming installment.


Soundfield said...

Wonderful, Byron. Now why won't "Metroland" publish these memoirs?

B. A. Nilsson said...

Are you kidding? Most of the folks there weren't even born when all this happened.