Memories of WBRU
in the 1960s
" I'm Just Sittin' Here Reminiscin' "
Paul Payton, '66>'69
(title by Buddy Holly)
What can I say about my 9-year addiction to – make that, affiliation with – WBRU? 'BRU, as much as its parent university, helped to shape and define my life, introduced me to many of my best friends and to my wife (although I didn't know it at the time), and gave me the foundation for a most enjoyable career talking and/or playing music for a living. I could write a book about it, but since I already did that (more below) I'll just hit a few of the many high points.
I arrived at Brown in the fall of 1962; the biggest political excitement on campus was the Young Republican Club being caught bugging the Young Democratic Club's meeting. (Shades of things to come?) The WBRU administration, either upon my arrival or very soon thereafter, which I think of as the "classic" Executive Board, included GM Charlie Brown, PD Iron Mike Gradison and Chief Engineer Pete Tannenwald, who taught me that "90% of the time, if you take it apart and put it back together, it will work." I remember the "board test" involved unscrambling the control board and getting on the air under a deadline (I forget how much time you had to do this) and also ending a 45, playing a 20-second cart, cuing up an inner LP cut and getting it on the air cleanly. By my second semester, I had become "Lee Edwards" on the air, my first nom d'aire, earned by majoring in WBRU and minoring in Brown! "Lee" joined a long list of station personnel who had similarly earned their air-names. My "regular" air shift was Spotlight, an early free-form show on Sunday evening that I inherited from John Gabree, and which survived into the progressive years; but I covered all kinds of shifts in all of our formats.
As Record Librarian and/or Music Director (I was usually one or the other, often trading the positions with Dave "Chuck Conway" Ogden), I'd prowl the New York record companies during holiday breaks. 1619 (the Brill Building) and 1650 Broadway were hotbeds of independent labels, and I'd bring back shopping-bags full of new releases as well as getting us on these companies' mailing lists. Once we had the records, they had to be filed, so over three semesters I organized the 45 rpm library. Since we spanned so many formats, we had a remarkable and deep cross-section of music, but locating records was a DJ's nightmare – there had been no logical system. So, I created one (details in a separate story). Complex, yes, but it worked well. When the library was eventually purged years later, I felt hurt personally (the memory still stings); but more than that, the station lost some amazing and rare records that would make for hours of fascinating programming and would now, on the collectors market, probably sell for enough money to fund a WBRU scholarship.
We were blessed with some truly outstanding talent on 'BRU-AM, many of whom "worked downtown," bringing back the knowledge of "how to do it" and sharing it with the station. (I remember one Sunday night in the early FM days when 8 of the 15 Providence stations were simultaneously staffed by current or former BRU personnel.) When I went on "academic hiatus" in January '66, working at WHIM as it became a country station, I'd still hang out at WBRU and stayed involved as much as possible in the AM-to-FM transition. With my official return to Brown, I was able to be part of our transformation into the great rock station we were. I've been credited with "co-fathering" progressive rock at 'BRU along with Don Berns, Stu Aaronson and Pete Bedard, although there were dozens of enthusiastic participants in this change; it's not the kind of thing one does – or four do – alone.
With the coming of progressive rock, I got to "redesign" the record library. The letters "T," "Y," and "ND" will permanently be branded upon those who created the programming that made 'BRU what it was in its first years. For those who don't remember, "T" was originally Transitional, music to go from the early-daypart middle-road format into the rock format; "T" music was lighter in texture. "Y" was Yes, play this on the afternoon rock shows as well as the evening show. "ND" stood for New Dimensions, the evening rock programming – first segmented into separate shows ["Music Your Mother Won't Like" was my favorite title] and shortly thereafter united under New Dimensions. Interestingly, "ND" was originally "NO," as in, "Don't play this in the afternoon." "ND" music was the heaviest, spaciest, most off-the-wall, etc.
During the first winter holiday of progressive programming, I was on the air on Christmas Eve; being Jewish, I'd volunteered for it. But I hadn't counted on having a 102-degree fever, and there was no one to cover for me. So, croaking like a strangled frog, I announced myself as "Dr. Strangevoice, or How I Learned To Turn Off The Mike and Play More Music." Two days later, I received my first fan letter, a postcard from a friend of Adam Blistein's, Lisa Bob, addressed to Dr. Strangevoice. "Hmmm," I though to myself, "two years as Paul Payton – no fan mail. Two days as Dr. Strangevoice – fan mail. I know who I am!" And thus, I was. Thanks, Lisa!
I finally graduated in June, 1969, along with BRU staffers Jim Brennan and Rob Sloan, who are among my lifelong best friends along with a close group of other folks who used to come up to the station and hang out with us. (See the photo of "the brothers" in the "where are they now" section.) As a graduation present to the station, Ed Sheets (I think he was the GM) asked me to "write the book" on how to do progressive radio. "Off The Wall: Random Thoughts From My Random Mind" was the outcome; I wrote the programming section, and L. Davidson Corry wrote the production section. (Davidson was later my roommate in Hartford and station-mate at WHCN, along with PD Rich Barna and Sales Manager Vito Perillo.) I long ago lost track of the number of college stations that bootlegged it, but I know the list included Yale, Brandeis, B. U. and the University of Hartford, where it was cut up and interspersed with other resources to comprise a several-hundred page training manual. Interestingly, I re-read "Off The Wall" a few years ago, and while some of the references are no longer timely (and the pronunciation hints are definitely local to Providence!) a lot of it has stood up well. Too bad I never copyrighted it – but that would have defeated the "pure hippie" ethos of the time of keeping what we have by giving it away. (In the next lifetime, I'll know better.)
After graduating, I stayed around Brown and Providence for 2½ years, starving for a living in the band Benefit Street, managed by Jimmy Israeloff of Beacon Shops, and hanging around during my (excessive) free time at 'BRU. The station was kind enough to give heavy airplay to our demos; thanks to that, we became locally famous. That fame, however, was a two-edged sword. Local club-owners thought we had an album out, and were thus too expensive, so they didn't hire us. But there was no album, and therefore, no bookings for large concerts or national tours. As a result, we "fell through the cracks" at a very high level, and I departed the band and Providence, heading for Hartford in the fall of 1971.
But not before one other thing happened: I met Bette Schultz '73 while at WBRU one day in the spring of '71. (Bette later became 'BRU's Business Manager.) We dated for about three or four months, but our relationship at the time was like mixing oil and water, so we mutually broke up. Remaining friendly although not close, we'd see each other sometimes at the semi-annual "station banquets" which a broad continuum of 'BRU folks from the 60s and 70s attended. Meanwhile, we each went off to lead very different lives, I in radio in Connecticut and she in the corporate world.
One of my great regrets was that Benefit Street never did release any records, so in 1985, I put out a 45 of my own and posted the notice in the BAM. For Christmas, 1986, I received a card from Bette, who had seen my note. She asked how the record did, how my life was, etc. I wrote back that the record crashed but life was good, and she replied with a note saying that she'd be out of the country on business for a month, but "here's my phone number" if I wanted to call her when she returned. I did, and we got together at her home in Summit, NJ, for a weekend of non-stop catching-up, after which I amazed myself by returning to Hartford, breaking up with the woman I'd been seeing for a year and a half, and spending the next five years commuting 2½ hours each way to see Bette, until the next step became inevitable. I moved to New Jersey in 1993. We'll be celebrating our 11th wedding anniversary in April, 2005, and it just keeps getting better.
So Jack Edmonston was right when he told me early on, "No matter how much you do for 'BRU, it will always do more for you." It launched my career, it introduced me to many of my best friends, it's where I met my wife, and it has brought me full-circle back to all of you, who Larry Maier called in a recent note "some of the finest people I've ever known." I second that, and look forward to seeing everyone at the reunion in June!