By Scott Westerman
With Colleen traveling and a rare rainstorm inundating Albuquerque, I’ve been cleaning up my home office. I found a piece I wrote in 1989, about my un-spectacular start in radio. Looking back at it from almost 20 years later, the writing isn’t as good as I’d like, but since the detail is starting to fade, I’m glad I put it down on paper.
Thinking back, I’m not sure it’s totally accurate, but it’s my memory of some interesting adventures in broadcasting as we embarked on the 1970s.
In a 1974 interview with the Michigan State News, I told Michael Savel that, throughout my life, I had only considered three real careers: Railroad engineer, Percussionist, Radio Announcer.
As a kid growing up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, I used to have great adventures on my bicycle. During summer vacations, I would bid my Mom farewell after breakfast and crisscross the streets of the city for the entire day, usually ending up at the old Ann Arbor train station at 5PM to watch the Wolverine come into town.
I still recall the Beemans Gum vending machines, the never changing list of trains that passed between Detroit and Chicago, and unique railroad smell of the terminal. Although steam locomotives had been 15 years replaced by the diesel electrics, the bricks retained the smell of coal. The underside of the Broadway Bridge still carried the signature of the smoke belchers. I would stand on the platform next to the railway express agency office and watch the silver snake slide majestically into the station.
I dreamed of putting my foot on the dead man’s pedal and moving the throttle ahead to full. I could hear the diesel electric prime movers respond to the call and feel the juggernaut lumber beneath me toward important destinations.
That dream started to fade as my Dad and I tracked the downward trend of New York Central railroad stock. By then I had different desires. Radio!
Most of us have read about storybook kids who had adventures with their grand parents. The tales usually involved estates, or farms, with eccentric old men who had unusual hobbies. As a kid, I always had trouble concentrating on these required readings. My realities were much better.
My Mom’s folks lived in Lima, Ohio. On visits there, I would slip away from adult conversation and head for the basement. Grandpa Perry’s downstairs offices were immaculately neat and lined with mementos guaranteed to charge the young imagination. He began working as an apprentice at the Lima Locomotive Works and grew up to become an estimating engineer. He developed cost estimates for the coal chewing monsters that brought commerce to the newly settled American West. As times changed he priced out draglines and steam shovels, piece by piece. His basement held a treasure trove of pictures of these monumental machines. After each trip to Lima, I would feel a need to do some construction of my own. I would invariably ride my bike to the “Blue Front” and buy a model.
On Dad’s side there was Grandpa W. He and Grandma had retired to a cottage in the country outside Chelsea, Michigan. In that small space he shoe-horned mementos of his career as a Methodist minister: religious books, half a dozen games left over from church socials, a grand piano, bag pipes, a collection of musical scores, and a gold mine of electronic equipment.
Regular Sunday visits to Chelsea would start with a half an hour of discussion about what was happening in our lives. But soon I would work my way toward his study and squeeze through what little space was left between the bed, a grand piano, two file cabinets and a large wooden desk. Sitting on one of the world’s most uncomfortable chairs, I entered the world of short-wave radio.
Grandpa owned a Zenith Transoceanic, one of the first portable short-wave receivers. This iteration was a shiny chrome and onyx design with a telescoping antenna that could nearly touch the ceiling. There was a set of stereo headphones with a mini-plug adapter that caused the sound to come out of only one earpiece. So as not to disturb the grown-ups, I would put on the “cans” , turn on a small desk lamp and put the receiver through it’s paces. In this world, I discovered men who did nothing but sit in front of a microphone and read weather forecasts for airplane pilots. I heard people speaking in the strangest of tongues and would listen to the music of their speech for an hour, not understanding a single word. And as I listened, I imagined the scene at their end of the circuit. From the mountains of Ecuador to the forbidden city of Peking, whenever I heard a location, I would spin the globe and calculate what time it was in their remote part of the world.
Grandpa W. also gave my basic foundation in electronics. I remember spending overnights, sitting at his card table, with a tape recorder completely disassembled. I would sip home made milk shakes and inhale the fumes from the solder resin. I marveled at how the springs, wheels and belts all worked together to move a length of brown Mylar over the magnetic heads that recorded our voices. And I watched closely as Grandpa traced a circuit, eventually finding a loose connection or poor solder joint.
Then there was the evening during my junior high years when he sent me home from Chelsea with an International Cadet. The Cadet was a regeneration short-wave receiver made by a company that one of my great uncles had built. All the way home, I held it’s 25 pound hard wood bulk on my lap and squinted at the frequency read out. In those days, the dials were marked with segments for police and fire communications and had little lines delineating where one could hear Moscow, London and Japan.
Every evening I would pretend to do my homework while listening to the measured tones of BBC announcers. Sunday nights at 9PM I would tune in 11730 kilocycles for Radio Netherlands’ Happy Station program. Each night I drifted off to sleep listening to a tape of short-wave station call sign Interval Signals.
I became a geography expert. If the country had a short-wave station, I could find on the globe, name the capital, and whistle the station’s theme.
In many cases, I could recite the opening paragraph, read nightly at the start of a short-wave transmission. “From wherever you might be, you are listening to Radio Nederland, the Dutch World Broadcasting System in Hilversum Holland.” I could mimic the abrasive style of the Cuban’s and bore someone to sleep with harvest statistics from Radio Moscow. But best all, I could imagine what life might be like amongst the tubes, transistors and wires at these outposts of communication.
It followed that I was soon recording programs to be broadcast on my own imaginary radio station. I got a hold of a bunch of old 45 rpm records from a local station. None of them were hits but they became “Ann Arbor’s favorites” on my station. I would sit at the typewriter and peck out newscasts, weather forecasts, and commercials. I even copied down the entire broadcast of Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds, listening over and over to the LP until I had transcribed every word of Howard Koch’s script.
My clock radio traveled up and down the AM bands stopping to catch the spiel of leading top 40 announcers of the late 60s as they filtered across the skywaves. In the car, I tried my parents’ patience as I practiced weather forecasts over the introductions of tunes playing on the radio. By the age of 15, I was ready for the real thing.
I still remember the moment I decided to get a real radio job. I was working as a bus boy in the kitchen of the Lurrie Terrace senior citizens residence on Huron street. The cafeteria was located on the top floor of the building. Joe Morrison, Bill Calloway and I ate an early supper alone in the large dining room and would gaze out the windows that framed Ann Arbor’s downtown skyline. This particular day, my scan landed on the blinking lights of the broadcasting towers as they came on in the late afternoon twilight. I didn’t particularly like washing pots and place settings for 250 people. My junior high perspective told me that the good life was rushing by. Opportunities were being missed. Only my lack of action was keeping me from my destiny. The next afternoon I forced my way onto the part time staff at WPAG.
Why my parents supported my dream still mystifies my adult mind. They had to know that the supply greatly outweighed the demand. And what real contribution do top 40 jocks make to the betterment of our world? At 15 these guys were my idols. And I wanted to be one of them. I started hanging around WPAG, ostensibly as a 25 cent per hour record librarian. I would convince my folks to take me down to the station after dinner and I would spend hours alone in the production room practicing for the opportunity I knew awaited me.
In 1970, WPAG was located on the third floor of the Hutzel building, downtown. Our studios were one floor above a very successful beauty shop. It wasn’t until I went to Michigan State University that I found out all radio stations don’t smell like hair chemicals.
The production room/record library had taken over what was once the main studio. With the demise of live instrumentalists and the introduction of transistors, the broadcasting took place in two small rooms at the back of the station. In another section of the building, there was a large dilapidated warehouse of a storage room. Forgotten in the dim glow of two bare light bulbs were hundreds and hundreds of old 78 rpm records from the late 40s and early 50s. There were boxes of discarded quarter inch audio tapes and obsolete electronic equipment. The whole place had the musty smell of a cave and I loved to pour through the artifacts as an archaeologist might study dinosaur bones.
My big break came one evening when the sign-off guy didn’t show up. His name was Gary Lane and he was habitually late. The afternoon announcer, an affable guy named Ralph Irene, was usually too happy to let me sit at the control board during the 7PM news so he could high tail it home for dinner. I typically cued a record to start at 7:05PM. On all previous evenings the night guy would show up at 7:03, throw me out of the seat and put his own selection on the turntable. Not tonight. 7:05 came and nobody was there. I started the record, and another and another. By 7:15 I was on the phone to the program director eagerly volunteering to work the shift.
His answer was clear and to the point. “Keep playing records until I get there… And don’t say anything on the air.”
Nonetheless record library chores soon expanded to part time broadcast journalism. I began to get calls to work in the news room when our news director, Ted Heusel, was on vacation. Ted was an Ann Arbor broadcast institution, who ultimately spent more than 50 years on the air. He had great acting talent and it was said that he could have had a successful career on the New York stage. But he loved Ann Arbor and never left. His advice on news reading was to sound mad. “It makes you sound authoritative. If you pronounce Czechoslovakia ‘Hokoslavadnika’, people will think it’s right if you sound mad.”
In those days we had a two-person news department: Ted in the mornings and a college student who would work afternoons and tape local casts to run hourly from 6PM until midnight sign-off. The state and local news on the Associated Press wire would not fill up the two 30 minute broadcasts Ted had to prepare each morning. I would often arrive to find him ad libbing local stories out of the Detroit Free Press or Ann Arbor news. He was the only man I knew who could turn “inverted pyramid” style into broadcast copy right in his head.
When I started covering the mundane Ypsilanti City Council meetings, he would use every actuality I provided, often playing them back to back to fill the time.
Ted also hosted “Community Comment” a lunch time phone in show that followed Paul Harvey News. He would sometimes sit behind the microphone and shake his head as callers took conversations to, as Ted called it, “the realm of dummies.”
I was surprised that a broadcast professional would exhibit this behavior, until the day I substituted on the Comment show. It was New Year’s Eve and I was doing a segment asking callers for their new year’s resolutions. One woman called and started out, “I want to thank all my relatives, and all my friends.” A great intro, I thought. Here comes some warm memories of the past year. She continued, “All these people have made my life the miserable existence it is today.” She broke into tears. Somehow I got her off the line with dignity, making some statement about how this shows us that not everyone feels warm and happy during the holidays, and how we should keep these people in our thoughts during this time. I groped for the next button on the telephone. The caller said that his resolution was to “get dope legal and celebrate the New Year by getting high every day.” After the show, my engineer said “You looked just like Ted does when his callers enter ‘the realm of dummies’!”
My best high school buddy was Tim Shy, a kid who was blessed with the baritone voice of a network staff announcer. He was a great news writer and had the inquisitive personality that could get people to tell him the story behind the story. When we were both 17, we convinced Ted to allow us to cover the John Sinclair Freedom Rally. Sinclair was a 1960s activist who made a name for himself in Ann Arbor and wound up in jail in the process. A number of the famous and near famous of the “alternative culture” converged on Chrysler Arena to support efforts to win his release. That night, we sat in the press section and recorded Alan Ginsburg, William Kuntsler, Bob Seger, Tegarden & VanWinkle and others as they made music and poetry on John’s behalf. It was a Woodstock atmosphere that lingered long into the night as we waited until 2AM for the promoted appearance of John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Ted had to sign all sorts of legal papers to get us in to the show, something I thought was ironic as we sat in thick marijuana smoke listening to speakers talk about civil disobedience.
We never did get to interview John and Yoko. I remember that it was a school night and by 3AM we were back at the front door of the station ready to file our reports before grabbing a few hours sleep. We suddenly realized that neither one of us had any keys to get into the studios. Deciding that passing high school algebra was more important than reporting on societal evolution, we stumbled home to bed. At 7AM I was awakened by Ted’s voice on the phone, “Where the hell is the tape? I signed my life away and paid you guys and there’s no tape!”
Throughout my tenure at WPAG, people were telling me in subtle and not so subtle ways that I had no talent for the radio business. I had a tenor voice and the hint of a lisp that telegraphed “kid” to anyone who listened. When I first brought Tim to the station, he was snapped up for the afternoon news slot I had hoped to get. Dean Erskine was another guy from school came on board as an intern. He soon got an air shift and had a three decade Ann Arbor broadcasting career. I longed for the deep pipes of a Fred Winston, but never got them. My friend Art Vuolo tired of listening to my whining about my lack of success and told me straight out, “You are never going to make it in broadcasting.”
At the time, it really made me angry. But in retrospect, it was the one gift he could have given me. From that moment forward, I had a burning desire to succeed that could not be stopped by anyone, or anything. It turned out that Art’s words would be the catalyst for a career.
I took old wire copy home every night and practiced news reading. I imitated the delivery of other announcers. I learned to play the control board, turntables and transmitters like a virtuoso musician. And I began a voracious study of the technical theory behind the business. If I was going to overcome the voice, I would need to be ten times better than the competition at everything else.
By the time I was a high school senior, I had progressed to the position of morning farm reporter. Charlie Bross, our program director had enough faith to give me my own set of keys and I signed on the station at 6AM . Then I would engineer an hour-long farm show with our farm director, Howard Heath. Howard had a studio in the basement of his Milan home, known to listeners as “Radio Acres.” He would stumble down from bed with his commercial copy and comment on the state of agribusiness in southeastern Michigan. He was hugely popular and his program had the largest listenership of any radio show in the county.
I would cue up tapes of national farm stories, the weather, and read wire copy about Omaha Barrows and Gilts and the price of grain futures. After a while, Howard began to send me and my tape recorder to farming events around the area. I interviewed auctioneers, pie-eating contestants, and grain elevator owners, not really knowing a thing about what they were doing. Howard loved the stuff and usually ran the tape uncut on his noon broadcasts.
While the Farm and Home Hour at lunch time was a more leisurely review of the days agribusiness news, the morning report required Howard to get all of his features done on time. The real trick was getting Howard to quit in time to hit the network news at 7AM. He would be in the midst of a story on the Manchester Chicken Broil when I would fade up the theme music to cue him to wrap up. If he happened not to be wearing his headphones, I would chop him in mid-sentence and bark a quick “Thanks, Howard, and we’ll see everyone again tomorrow mornin’ from Radio Acres and here atop the old gray barn downtown…”
At the peak of my career at WPAG, I ran the control board for the morning farm program, rushed to the station after school to read the afternoon news and worked Saturday nights playing records. The music was something called MOR for middle of the road. We played artists like Hugo Montenegro, Paul Desmond, the Carpenters and Henry Mancini. When I was sure that the owners were not listening, I would slide in some Ted Nugent, Mitch Ryder or Frost from my personal collection. I lived in fear of being caught breaking format, but looking back, I should not have worried…
Nobody was listening.