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Sunday, November 30, 2014

Ron Nicoll: 1937-2014

A SNOWSTORM TURNED THE HIGHWAYS treacherous as I drove from Ridgefield, Conn., to Schenectady, NY, for a job interview in the middle of February, 1980. What should have been a three-hour trip took longer, so it was dark by the time I found my reclusive destination, a building that housed WMHT’s television and radio studios.

I was given a list of composer names to pronounce. I demonstrated my familiarity with a mixing board and microphone – I was expected to be my own engineer – and my ability to assemble an interesting variety of classical-music selections. I had chosen to write a cover letter in lieu of a resume to make it easier to fudge my lack of a college degree, which I did by stressing my experience working at a college radio station, implying that I’d also attended classes there.

Ron Nicoll at WMHT-FM, c. 1981
Photo by B. A. Nilsson
When I returned to begin the job, the station’s Acting Program Manager welcomed me with “Hello, dammit.” This would prove to be his standard greeting, resonating with his re-naming of the Schenectady suburb where we worked as “Rottergoddamn.”

Ron Nicoll died at the age of 77 last Sunday after a long illness and brief hospital stay. My wife and I visited him two days before. Despite his extreme physical debilitation, he retained the wit and acuity I knew very well. “We give you all our love,” Susan told him as we prepared to depart. “I thought I already had that!” he shot back.

He was pretty sure I had no college degree when he hired me. Although he rarely called attention to it, neither did he, but the autodidact is typically better-informed and better-spoken than those who rely for their smarts on academia. And there’s a high educational threshold required to appreciate classical music enough to work with it as a radio professional – or it was back then.

For two years I worked with a lively, literate staff to present an interesting variety of tunes and to promote the musical activity taking place in the listening area. Ron was wonderfully supportive. He encouraged more preparation, which, believing myself to be an old-school rip-and-read type of announcer, I resisted.

Thus it was that he sabotaged the PSA (public-service announcement) box one morning. This was a small container of index cards upon which were written or typed information about upcoming cultural events. You plucked cards from the front and reinserted them at the back when finished. I read them cold, and thus it was that I was confronted with a card in that looked like any other in the box, but which sported a massive tongue-twister of a message. To my credit, I intoned it flawlessly, even as I understood the prank and its reason; to my shame, I never did give enough effort to my prep.

Ron's Tongue-Twister PSA
I always enjoyed poring over the station’s massive computer-generated catalogue of music as Ron did the same nearby, trading ideas about the juxtapositions of pieces, comparing opinions about the many different performances we had to choose from. This was done in a kind of alleyway in which the catalogues were stored, a passage in the center of which was a support pole that drove him crazy. When I brought a camera to work one day and asked to take his picture, he insisted on posing with it.

Also along the way, he cured me of a number of spoken solecisms: at his behest, I abandoned the incorrect use of the word “hopefully,”and, with any luck, you’ll never again hear it from me. 

Working at WMHT often was a struggle. The TV end of things was the star; FM was treated as an afterthought. The station’s founder and general manager was a venal little bastard with enough classical-music knowledge to make him dangerous, and he and his hired guns found ways to interfere with our work for absurdly self-serving reasons.

Anyone who pledged and paid the thirty bucks a year’s station “membership” cost felt free to complain about (never praise) our programming, and two of the biggest bugbears were vocal selections and harpsichord music. Ron knew better, of course, and knew how to program such items – especially during his own shift, which was what the business terms “afternoon drive time.” (I worked the “morning drive” slot.) But, although Ron was well qualified to take over the Program Manager position, our GM (our Leader and Teacher) delayed and delayed the promotion.

WMHT-FM staffers and spouses at my first
wedding, in 1981. Robert and Ron are third and
fourth from the left.  | Photo by Mark Jankowski
First a program manager was hired from the outside, a self-important disaster who knew little about music and nothing about management. He left for what seemed like greener pastures, and ended up destroying a succession of other stations, including one of Manhattan’s most respected. Then Ron was named program manager, but the position of “FM Director” was created above him, requiring him to answer to a former waitress who knew absolutely nothing about music, never mind being able to manage anything more complicated than a hamburger order.

As I began thinking about getting out of there, I secreted a message in a column I wrote for the station’s monthly program guide, arranging it so that the initial letter of each paragraph spelled out the suggestion that the general manager go fuck himself.

“I’m so sorry to tell you this,” said Ron shortly thereafter, “but I spotted your message.” He had the job of proofreading the radio station’s contributions to the guide, and he was a master puzzle-solver, a skill that trains you to view the printed page in any number of directions. “Had I not seen it, I would have enjoyed seeing it in print. But because it’s my responsibility, I have to ask you to change it.” Which, knowing I had an ally shrewd enough to uncover my handiwork, I did happily. (But not hopefully.)

He ended up quitting shortly before I did. Two others left alongside me. None of us had other jobs to go to. The general manager, at his disingenuous best, was quoted in a couple of newspaper articles as saying that he didn't think the departures were related.

I kept in touch with Ron and the other announcers who’d left while we pursued a grievance case with the station’s board of directors, but that board proved to be a covey of servile puppets who showed us no sympathy.

Even as our friendship continued, Ron and I resumed a professional relationship when he became public relations director for the Empire State Institute for the Performing Arts. I was writing about the arts for Albany’s Metroland Magazine, and it was Ron who supplied press kits and tickets when I was assigned to review ESIPA shows.

But there was more change ahead. Late in 1987, he told me about a rumored putsch that seemed to be gaining momentum; as its details became more apparent – people in the NYS Governor’s office wanted ESIPA out of its state-owned performance space – I was researching the background of some of the principals involved, and Metroland broke the story at the end of the year.

It didn’t matter; ESIPA was a goner, but reinvented itself as the Troy-based NYS Theatre Institute, with whom I began a decade of work as an actor in 1998. With the company’s offices located a little distance from the theater, I didn’t see as much of Ron as I might have, but he remained a dynamic presence, as when he plucked me out of rehearsal one day in April, 2003, because opera star Regina Resnik was in town for a press meeting – she would be collaborating with NYSTI on a project – and Ron needed someone in the press corps who actually had heard of her to join the interview session, a story I recount here.

Ron retired after 21 years with NYSTI, working for a while thereafter for the audiology service run by his partner, Robert Ferguson. They were together for 47 years and married for two of those years, once the State of New York came to its senses, and it was the most loving and easygoing relationship I’ve ever seen. If my wife and I were having a patch of heavy weather, just to be in the presence of Ron and Robert was enough to lead us to a resonant peace.

They were frequent guests at the parties I held at my house; we joined them, when possible, for the annual summer pilgrimage to the Tanglewood lawn for, preferably, a program with Mozart’s music as a centerpiece, honoring Ron’s favorite composer.

After spending many years in East Greenbush, they found a property in Loudonville that would give them more space, a carriage house in need of so much improvement that they named the place Tadmore – because it seemed always to demand a tad more fixing. Summers when the trip to Lenox wasn’t feasible, I hauled a radio rig to their house for an outdoor “Tanglewood at Tadmore” afternoon, allowing us to recreate the lawn-picnicking experience as much as possible.

Even without added people, the time I spent with him was like a party because he seemed to revel in every aspect of whatever we were talking about or listening to. He shared my love of Toscanini’s recordings. I’m sure he knew the classical-music repertory better than I do, which is saying something. And precision of language isn’t pursued as some kind of isolated fixation – it’s a by-product of a heartfelt love of the language and a delight in what that language allows you to do with it.

All of this I will miss, and so much more. Ron was the kind of person – and there are very few – whose presence helps the world maintain a reassuring level of cultural enlightenment, intelligence, and social grace. There are no replacements. I already miss him terribly.


Steve Barnes said...

Beautifully done. Thank you.

Unknown said...

Thank you, Byron.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful tribute Byron, to the one and only Ron Nicoll! Ron's words and deeds will live on in our memories and writings. Thx to Don for the update.

Helen H. Bayly said...

Thanks Ron Nicoll for sharing your gifts with us! Thx also to Don for the update, and Byron for such a super tribute to Ron.