July 3, 2017

Tales from the Attic: 1950s radio news

Sixty years ago, this then college sophomore got a summer job as a newsman at WWDC in Washington, the top rated station in town. After graduation two years later, I returned to the station and its radio news service, Deadline Washington. Over the coming days, a few memories from that time:

Sam Smith - By the late fifties, the hounds of change were on radio's traces. Television was seizing for itself the stories, the vaudeville and the sense of being there that had been the heart of radio. And into the void was moving a new kind of music called rock 'n' roll.

To be sure rock 'n' roll already existed, but it was known as "rhythm 'n' blues" or "R&B." In the jargon of white broadcasters, it was "race music," although some white teenagers, myself included, listened almost surreptitiously to stations like Philadelphia's WDAS, where DJ Jocko Henderson proto-rapped the commercials:

Get a little cash from out of your stash,
And make like a flash in the hundred yard dash
Right down to my man John Kohler at 4th &  Arch
And tell him JOCKO sent you!

Years later Jocko Henderson would be recognized as one of the fathers of rap and hip hop.

It was not until the mid-decade triple explosion of Bill Haley & the Comets, The Blackboard Jungle and Elvis Presley, that young white America irrevocably entered the age of rock 'n' roll. Radio reacted to the new forces of music and technology by rapidly transforming itself from a ubiquitous stage for all the world into a collection of automated audio wombs for each of the country's proliferating demographic enclaves. It was on the cusp of this transformation, in the summer of 1957, that I was hired as a news reporter for Washington's WWDC.

The station's main offices were in a stone house on Brookville Road in suburban Maryland. Had the house not squatted in front of a large radio tower and been bordered by a county public works depot, it would have looked like just another stone house in the suburbs. Until, that is, you walked inside and found an engineer's booth monitoring three broadcast studios where a front hall should have been

My initial task -- writing nine newscasts a day -- interned me in a small corner room with just enough space for one window, four news tickers, two typewriters, several phones, reams of yellow copy paper, even more rolls of yellow ticker paper and a maximum of four human beings.

Each newscast was expected to be different, whether the news had changed or not. Three of the newscasts occurred during evening drive time and were 30 minutes apart. This coincided with the most likely period for accidents and thunderstorms. Since WWDC paid $1 to $5 for every news tip it aired, I would be regularly inundated with accounts of fallen limbs and fender benders as I struggled to write three newscasts in an hour and a half in the late afternoon. Often the copy ended up like this:

Reports of damage done by this afternoon's thunderstorm are pouring into the WWDC newsroom. At least six houses are on fire, nine accidents have occurred and numerous trees and hot wires have fallen across roads. Police and electric company officials say their phones have been jammed. . .

That newscast probably cost $13, representing the number of incidents I managed to squeeze into one double-spaced page -- all typed in caps with the errors blacked out by a soft copy pencil.

The news tip system worked pretty well, although I sometimes suspected that the suburban volunteer rescue squad dispatchers were calling us before they sent out their equipment, since once the dispatch had been aired, anyone with a scanner could call in the item. And on at least one occasion an employee at WTOP earned a dollar for phoning in a news tip that he had heard on WMAL.

One of our regular callers was Dan. Matching Robert Frost's paradigm for the good life, Dan's vocation and avocation had become one. He sat in his apartment surrounded by police and fire scanners waiting for tragedy to strike somewhere in the metropolitan region. He would then call and hoarsely whisper the news: "This is Dan, Sam. I've got a body for you." And another buck went to Dan.

The reports of fallen limbs and power outages we accepted on faith. More serious matters would be checked out by phone, using a criss-cross directory that was sorted by street address rather than by name. You could often scurry up a good taped interview this way. One such eyewitness began coughing profusely as I questioned him about a fire in his apartment building, finally urgently suggesting that the smoke was getting too thick to continue the questioning.

Writing constantly soon became tiresome and I discovered various ways to amuse myself. One was to pick a word for the day and then see in how many newscasts I could use it. It had to be something like evince or piqued because my goal, unlike that of station management, was to raise the general tenor of the WWDC sound. This quixotic effort came to a halt when a blue paper memo from news director Bill Robinson made it clear that he had noticed and didn't think much of my unsanctioned vocabulary lessons.

And then there were the days when no one was around. Like Thanksgiving and Christmas. And you sat in that little room listening to the click and clack and waiting for the news wire to produce some news, but more likely a huge Santa Claus or turkey drawn completely with letters by the equally bored guy at the other end of the machine.  

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