Memories of WBRU
in the 1960s
I started working at WBRU on Election Night, 1964. My job was to listen to the NBC feed and tell someone (probably LB) whenever something interesting was coming up. Because of that experience, I got into public affairs programming, and, before I knew it, I was responsible for filling a 30-minute spot every weekday evening at 6:30 called “Insight”. We made do most of the time with reel-to-reel tapes from Georgetown University – at least that’s what the label said. For all I knew, they could have been 30 minutes of hyena calls. In any event, no one was listening so no one will ever know for sure. I do remember doing some interesting interviews, including John Rousselot, who was a big-time John Bircher and a Congressman from California. I interviewed him at Chez Feeney.
We knew FM was coming, but we didn’t know when, so we had a great time playing rock ‘n roll on 560 AM, especially during the Spring Weekend 69-hour marathon, the Spring Spectacular. I gave myself the name Gene Richards (my middle name is Eugene), because no one on stations like WABC or WLS or WICE used anything other than a “generic” name. Also, someone told me that I would never make it in radio with my “Ro-Dyeland accent”. So, that summer, whenever I was in the shower or driving around by myself, , I practiced talking like a Top 40 disk jockey from one of the afore-mentioned high-production-value stations, so that I do believe I came back in September sounding more like an Ohioan than someone who grew up a few miles from Cvanston (no typo here).
Some time during my freshman year (spring of ’65, as I recall), we “moved” the AM station from 560 to 570. Jerry Hubeny and John Meier did a spot in which Meier screeched out “We’ve moved” like a wounded hippo. It’s amazing how good our production was given that we had an AMPAC reel-to-reel tape recorder, two turntables, and a beat-up cart machine. I think that we had promos from WMCA, 570 in New York (now a Christian station), but then WABC’s big competitor, in which we clipped out “WMCA” and spliced in “WBRU”.
In the fall of 1965 the great Northeast Blackout occurred. I was in the Brown Infirmary that night, recovering from an inner ear infection that made it impossible for me to stand up. Lucky me. That night, as I later learned, a fistfight or shoving match developed at the station. The fight broke down into two sides. I had friends on both, so I never had to choose sides. Unfortunately, the ones who left were some of the best announcers, and we were just about to get the FM license, which sort of left us high and dry.
FM came in February 1966, as I recall. No one listened to FM in those days. That’s because the FCC allowed stations to simulcast AM and FM. FM, in terms of non-simulcast stations, had a few classical stations in each market. We got WPFM’s transmitter for $25,000. 95.5 – right in the middle of the dial, which mattered (to the extent that anyone was listening), because in those pre-digital tuning days, listeners had to roam the dial, and it was a competitive advantage to be in the middle of the dial. Sort of the Alsace-Lorraine of radioland.
Nor was anyone playing rock on FM. First, rock music was not seen yet as meriting the higher fidelity of FM. On that score, I remember buying a Rolling Stones album during Christmas 1965. The salesman asked me if I wanted stereo or mono. Prescient to modern trends (not), I said “who needs mono for rock?” and bought the mono, probably saving $1. Second, FM was seen as too high-falutin’ for rock music. I remember when in 1964 Dave Pearce told me that there would be rock on FM; I sneered at the idea and said it was a sacrilege. Another prescient moment. I believe that fellow WBRU alumnus Robert Lewis Schwartzman (Bob-a-loo on WABC) was the first to put rock (actually folk rock) on FM – WABC-FM, on Saturday nights. The show was called “Some Trust in Chariots.” Bob sent us a tape of the show so we were on the “network” – gratis. It was the first rock we put on WBRU(FM). But that was a good 18 months after we went on the air.
We went on the air with schlock. Big band music, Rosemary Clooney, who knows what else. We were afraid to put on rock, and, besides, no one else was putting rock on FM, either. Classical or jazz all day were too much, so we chose the one kind of music everyone on the station (and almost everyone out there in Southern New England) hated.
One day in the fall of 1966, after I had become General Manager of the station, Fred Brack and I were driving to Boston in the Butler Chevrolet van, we were listening to the station driving through Attleboro. Whoever was on the air stumbled through the station ID (“WBRU, Providence.”) I said “That’s It!”, and decided, or decreed, that we were taking all of the voices off the air until we had a corps of voices who sounded somewhat like radio announcers. Those were the days when I had a three-times rule for bills. I threw away all bills from our vendors until we got the third bill. Then I would accumulate our bills and bring them down to Bill Suprenant, the director of student activities, whose office was down the hall from the newsstand on the first floor of Faunce House. We brought in precious little money – if Stu Aaronson was sick that week, no money – from advertising. But we had a ball broadcasting football and hockey. Hockey was very big in those days and we actually had advertiser interest in sponsoring hockey. For some big game, we sold $300 worth of spots but the transmitter went off in an ice storm. We ended up patching in through WHIM-FM, if I recall correctly.
To deal with the advertising issue, I had the bright idea of conducting a survey to see who was listening. We registered a fictitious name with the City, I think, and corralled everyone to call people randomly and ask what station they listened to. I can’t remember the results of the survey, but we didn’t have many listeners, for sure. I do remember that one lady asked whether the survey was being run by WBRU, because she said she recognized my voice. I lied and said no, but was damned proud that we had at least one listener.
Around February of 1967, if my memory is correct, General Earle Wheeler, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, came to speak about the Vietnam War. The speech was at Memorial Hall at Pembroke and the place was packed. Most of the campus had been pro-war or had no opinion 12 months before; the feeling was definitely turning by the time Wheeler came to speak. I had been for the war, was now vaguely against the war, but was anxious to see if the nation’s top general could make a convincing statement for the war. He didn’t. But what happened that night was more about WBRU’s future than about a mere peccadillo like the wisdom of the Vietnam War.
About 20 members of the Students for a Democratic Society stormed the stage in a silent protest against the War. There was, for days thereafter, a big hoo-hah in Providence as to whether the SDS protest was proper, etc. WBRU was carrying the speech live. The University’s radio-TV coordinator, a former Navy officer named Jack, walked over to the box that fed the audio system into the telephone line back to Faunce House, and literally pulled the plug on the station once the SDS protest was underway. His rationale was that WBRU should not be broadcasting such seditious (or at least controversial) stuff.
I was stunned, but the next day Jerry Hubeny, who, as a I recall, was no liberal, but tended to see the Big Picture, convinced me that this action was a direct threat to the concept of WBRU as a student-run station, rather than as a University mouthpiece. At that point, tactics became important. Only those of us who grew up in the 1950s can understand how conflicted we were. When you grew up respecting authority, challenging authority was a Big Deal. Rather than stage a big, noisy protest, which we feared would lose us control of the station, we at WBRU decided to meet with the University Administration and work out an arrangement that would put an end to that kind of censorship and clarify that WBRU was a student-run enterprise. I am sure we threatened to leave the station, but we understood (or at least feared) that if we made this into a cause celebre, the Administration’s back might stiffen and we might lose our station. We reached a written concordat with the University on our terms, and that was that.
Five other concrete but disparate memories follow. 1. For the second anniversary of JFK’s death, Farida Shaikh (who was from Pakistan) and I produced a 30-minute documentary (more like a panegyric) to JFK. I used the tape to help get a job the summer of 1967 at the Voice of America in D.C. 2. One night in September 1967, Rick Pike, the Jazz Director, who was old (he was a Veteran and must have been 23) and cool, and I drove the Butler Chevrolet van to Queens to pick up a new cart machine. We ended up at the Playboy Club in New York City, where Rick was a member (I said he was cool), and later my then girlfriend’s parent’s house in Westchester. Somehow we got back to Providence in one piece. 3. The night that Martin Luther King was killed, I went up to the station at 8 PM to pick out my records for my jazz show that night. I went to the UPI machine and saw the terrible news. I picked out mournful music, started off with a 20-minute monologue about how the country was falling apart, and then started off with Nina Simone’s Mississippi Goddamn.” Two people called. One said to keep my GD politics to myself. The other said it was the most meaningful 20 minutes she’d heard on radio. 4. Don Berns recorded a great intro to my AM show, where I was Professor Little Stevie Blunder, presenting the Stones Seminar of the Air (30 minutes of straight Rolling Stones). 5. The summer of 1967, when I was working at the VOA, George Lincoln Rockwell of the American Nazi Party, a Brown alum, was assassinated. I drove over to Arlington, Virginia, where his headquarters were, and was standing around in a crowd at the courthouse when a guy came up to me and asked me if I wanted to know who killed Rockwell. I was a little scared but said “yes.” He gave me the guy’s name and I called WBRU collect from a pay phone and broadcast this “scoop”. It turned out to be the assassin’s name. Still gives me the creeps.
There are many other memories, and given that a great amount of my memory these days seems to have taken a permanent vacation, it’s amazing how distinct those days and the people of WBRU are in my mind. I have always told my wife that my fantasy is to own a small radio station where I can do four hours of Top 40 mid-1960s music, with promos and intros and extros from Pepper Packages in Memphis. Just like our fellow alumnus, the immortal Bob-A-Loo, on the Big Bob Lewis Show. By the way, if, like me, you think that Top 40 radio around 1965 is Radio in its Highest Form, make sure you visit http://www.musicradio77.com.
I hope that this meandering piece has not been too egocentric, but that didn’t stop me from writing it and sending it to Fred Brack.
I think Fred Brack deserves a special thanks from everyone for putting this site together. And, by the way, I’m willing to host a get-together for 60’s WBRU alumni and alumnae down here in Miami. If there’s enough interest, I’ll organize it. Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org. (Posted 12/19/04; email updated 5/30/05)