January 30, 2023

Tales from the attic: Radio news in the 1950s

 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.

It was just on the cusp of this transformation, in 1957 after my sophomore college year, that I was hired for the summer as a news reporter for Washington's WWDC.

My bosses were two Texas liberals -- news director Joe Phipps and his assistant Bob Robinson. I already knew that Texas liberals were special people; Tom Whitbread, the poet and Harvard tutor, had introduced me to the Texas Observer, newly started by Ronnie Dugger. The Observer was a remarkable voice of sense and liberty in an era turning dogmatically dumb and mean.

My initial task -- writing nine newscasts a day -- interned me in a small corner room with just enough room 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 a half hour 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. 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 volunteer rescue squad dispatchers were calling us before they sent out their equipment. And on one 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. 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.

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 Bob Robinson made it clear that he had noticed and didn't think much of my unsanctioned vocabulary lessons.

The Washington I had returned to for my summer job in 1957 was, on the surface, a quiet, rarely air-conditioned southern town. Despite the apparent somnolence, DC was actually undergoing a mass migration of blacks from further south. Almost from its beginning, DC had been the first stop in the promised land. Now the city had just turned into a majority black town.

Despite the demographic trend, however, there was nothing remotely approaching black power. More than once, when calling the DC police dispatcher to check on the overnight action, I was told, "Nothin' but a few nigger stabbings." It had, after all, only been twelve years since the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell arrived to take his seat in the House of Representatives. Stepping into his office for the first time he found a memo on his desk headed "Dos and Don'ts for Negro Congressmen." One was "Don't eat in the House dining room."

In most of Washington not much was happening. This was a town where Mrs. Eisenhower's secretary had trouble charging a pair of gloves for her employer at the White House. The Eisenhowers had, after all, been out of DC for some time and their account had been closed.

If you were a young, neophyte reporter in an old, cynical city, the last thing you wanted to exhibit was idealism. So you watched the older reporters carefully and learned how to be indifferent to the right things at the right time, how not to be swayed by public words, and how to talk sardonically about recent events in the House and Senate radio-TV galleries.

I gravitated to people like Rouhlac Hamilton, who represented a string of southern radio stations and newspapers and carried within him an encyclopedia of congressional information. It was Rouhlac, for example, who told me that South Carolina Senator Olin Johnston -- Olin the Solon as he was known -- had once greeted the Pontiff by saying, "Good morning, your popeship" and had declared trees to be "our primary source of lumber."

After the summer of 1957, I returned to Harvard even more determined to go into radio. I was elected WHRB's station manager but two weeks later received an official letter stating that "the Administrative Board voted to place you on probation instead of severing your connection with the University." It had been my second unsatisfactory term mainly as a result of my infatuation with radio; among the penalties would be the surrender of my new post. Nonetheless, and in the tradition of the station, I continued on the air under a pseudonym and comforted myself with the thought that WWDC had asked me to come back. I toughed it out and eventually graduated without honors but with a job.

Just before I returned to WWDC in the summer of 1959, Joe Phipps left the station to begin a radio news service headquartered in his apartment down one of the long, dark, cabbage-perfumed halls of the Chastleton apartments at 16th & R NW. I started working for Deadline Washington on my off-days and after work on other days -- putting in 12-14 hour stints. Often I would be on joint assignment for Deadline and WWDC.

I was making $85 a week at WWDC plus what I earned at Deadline. A friend who went to work at the Washington Star at the time received only $65 a week, while another friend, the ex-president of the Crimson, was being paid $75 at the Washington Post. I was covering everything from murders to White House and my salary was even higher than union scale.

At its peak, Deadline Washington provided two dozen independent radio stations with Washington news. That in itself was a novelty, but even more appealing to these stations was our ability to appear to be their personal correspondents. This was achieved by recording custom tag lines e.g. "This is Sam Smith, WPIG News in Washington, and now back to the studio." Using two Ampex recorders, each story would be fed to stations with its appropriate tag line dubbed on the end.

WWDC's news fleet consisted of two vehicles, a Nash Rambler station wagon and an Isetta minicar. The light blue Rambler had WWDC NEWS, in reverse image, painted on its front hood in large dark blue letters, thus allowing the sign to be read correctly in a rear view mirror.

The Rambler was, however, the more conventional vehicle of the two. The Isetta, an Italian import, was far smaller than almost any car on the road today, and powered by a motor scooter engine. It had four wheels, but they were tiny and the two in back were almost adjacent to each other. You sat in what amounted to little more than a cockpit with barely enough room for a 210-pound reporter and a radio telephone. The door doubled as the entire front end, with the steering wheel swinging out of the way for entrance and egress. More than once I pulled up to a wall or post only to remember that I had blocked my own departure.