Friday, March 24, 2006

Radio Daze, Part the First

The play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king. - William Shakespeare, Hamlet
In talking about the demise of radio, I mentioned my days at a college radio station, WRUW-FM. Lest you get the wrong impression, I had a ball, mostly because I treated it as a lark, not as a potential career move. That's not to say that I didn't try to do a good job, which I hope I did. But, I did keep in mind that this was a 10-watt station (They’re a whole lot bigger now, a 15000-watt serious piece of broadcasting). It was unlikely that we were going to bump anyone down in the ratings book.
We were doing Public Radio Broadcasting before anyone knew that sort of thing existed. The beauty of it was we didn't have to do fund raisers (they do now, poor guys). The station was originally founded by Western Reserve University (hence the joke that the call letters stood for “Western Reserve University Wadio”), but WRU merged with my school, Case Institute of Technology, so the station staff figured that they could get a lot of engineering talent from Case. Of course, all the techies wanted to be on-air personalities, with the result that the station was still short of engineers.
Except for me. I loved being a radio engineer. You've got to realize that this was the old days of radio, with cables all over the place, 10-inch reel-to-reel tape recorders, and a guy behind the glass giving hand signals to the on-air talent. I was the guy doing the hand signals, plugging and unplugging patch cables, and generally having a jolly time making fun of the on-air guys, as engineers are prone to do. But, as things tend to work out, the guy who doesn't care about going on the air, gets on the air. I was engineering a couple of jazz programs. One of the programmers decided to return to real life, so the second one recommended me for the spot. Since no one else wanted to program jazz, I got the gig.
So I was a jazz programmer from the spring of 1969 to the end of 1970, except for the last six months I was there. During that period, I did an artsy program of readings and music called (in a real burst of originality), “Words and Music.” I was inspired to do the show by a couple of guys who were sort of nuts.
After my slot on Saturday nights, a show followed mine that was weird and wonderful. It was created by the nutty guys, Paul and Ron (at least I think that was his name; if it isn't I apologize and hope he'll let me know). It was one of those ethereal combinations of poetry, music, and offbeat humor that could only have existed back then. The amazing thing is that they usually came in with no script, no plan, just some disconnected ideas, a few books, and some records. They'd spend an hour throwing ideas back and forth, then go on the air. Two hours later, they'd finished a show that was reasonably polished, generally interesting, and always a little odd around the edges.
By way of contrast, when I did my take on this sort of thing, it took me eight hours to prepare and record a one-hour show. I think they had way more fun than I did.
Halloween happened to fall on a show night one year, and much to my surprise, the guys showed up a couple of hours early. It seemed that they had decided to do Orson Welles' radio version of “The War of the Worlds.” Now they knew that no one was going to think we were being invaded by Martians, but they thought it would be a hoot to use the end of my show to begin the radio script, complete with the ominous weather forecast that foretells the coming of the invasion.
The original radio play was slightly less than an hour long. The version Paul and Ron had cooked up was going to take close to three hours, which would run past our normal sign-off, so they had to get permission. The Assistant General Manager said he'd approve it IF he could have a significant role. So they let him do some of the narrative portions as a sort of news anchorman. I got to handle a couple of bit parts and got to engineer the extravaganza. It came off surprisingly well, except the the AGM's narrations became longer and more maudlin as the show progressed. You see, the Martians won in this version, although the whole point was to finish with a very funny interview with the head Martian. The AGM, however, got into the drama and personally added an hour to the show, doing Ingmar Bergman-style monologues.
Flash forward a year. I was hanging around the station one afternoon, when the program director, Art, saw me. He said they were planning to re-air our “War of the Worlds” on Halloween. The only problem was its length. Would I, he asked, help him edit it down? Well, that sounded like fun, so I figured, why not?
We began by creating a short opening, much like the original script, instead of the using the actual finish of my program the year before. That saved about 20 minutes. Then we came to the AGM's first narrative. I adlibbed a two minute version. We went along and removed some more of the AGM's stuff, removed some extraneous ad-lib material that had been tossed into the script, removed some more of the AGM's stuff, cut a repetitive scene that wasn't in the original Welles script, cut some more of the AGM's stuff ... Well, you get the idea. As we neared the end of the edit, we realized we had completely cut the AGM out of the show.
All that was left was his funereal closing monologue, which was followed by the funny interview. Since we had cut his other stuff, it seemed silly to leave that thing in, so out the AGM went. Art and I did a brief funny ending (something about 50,000 Browns season-ticket holders fighting off the Martians from the roof of one of the campus buildings in a vain attempt to rescue football season) then played the interview. Net result: Three hours of original cut to an hour and twenty minutes.
Since the AGM had become the GM by this time, I was concerned that he might refuse to air the version in which he didn't appear. Art said, “So who's going to tell him?”
I heard later that the GM told people he didn't mind being cut because we did such a nice editing job. He did allow as how he'd appreciate it if people would stop telling him how much better the show was without him.
That's show biz.

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