Tuesday, April 4, 2006

Radio Daze, Part the Third

We can't quite decide if the world is growing worse, or if the reporters are just working harder. ~The Houghton Line, November 1965
I actually did a smidge of reportage for WRUW-FM, during the chaos immediately following the Kent State shootings.
It is probably hard for people who weren't alive back then to realize what a galvanizing effect the shootings had. There had been protests about the war in Viet Nam for years, some big ones. But, when the Ohio National Guardsmen panicked and shot four kids, schools that had never had any hint of protest against anything beyond the food in the dining hall suddenly found students marching, taking over buildings, and making demands. CWRU was one of those types of schools.
I think it was the Cambodian bombings that had sparked a wave of unrest that just seemed to mushroom. But it wasn't until the Kent State mess that all hell broke loose nationwide. In the midst of all this, CWRU saw its first real protests. It also saw its first (and last, to my knowledge) riot. And, those of us who were there saw something of a miracle – and some funny moments midst the turmoil.
Things got rolling with a student takeover the Adelbert Main building. No one really knew why they were taking over the building. Once they did, they didn't know what to do with it. So, they started making speeches. At the time, I was the station's Program Director, so I accompanied our remote team to the building to help with the coverage.
To do the remote, we hooked a unit up to a telephone connection (not strictly kosher, but I hope the statute of limitations has run out) and connected microphones to the remote unit. The best place to do this at Adelbert Main was the phone junction box located in the second floor men's room. For month's afterward, we joked that reporters should have said, “Coming to you live from the Adelbert Men's room!” Since our mike was lowered out the window to our reporter, the occasional flushing caused no embarrassment to anyone.
A little before six PM, a deputy showed up and read a “get your butts out of the building” order from a judge. He was somewhat taken aback by students thanking him as they left, because they were hungry and what are you going to do with an 80-year-old building anyway? Seeing everything was over, we gathered up our remote unit, the phones we used to connect to the lines, and a bunch of cables and sauntered downstairs. Just as we went out the door, it occurred to us that it certainly wouldn't be unreasonable for the deputy to think we were a bunch of looters. Stupid looters, but looters nonetheless. It was too late to turn around, so we walked out. He looked at us; we looked at him. We smiled, and the deputy gave us a look that said, “Nobody is that stupid. The stuff must be theirs.” All he said was “Get out of here!”
The next day we had the riot.
It began with more speeches. By this time, the university had given students the option, with their teacher's permission, to end their year immediately and take a Pass grade, rather than a letter. I was one who did that since the station was now on 24 hours a day doing rumor control. So, I was on campus listening to the endlessly repetitive speeches when a Black Panther stepped to the microphone. I've heard stories about people who could whip a crowd into a frenzy, but this was the first time I'd ever seen it in person. Before anyone seemed to know what was happening, 400 students started marching out to block Euclid Avenue, a six-lane main drag.
I got to a building and did a live phone-in report (look out, John Chancellor!). Then I hustled over to the Student Union to help man a remote unit. The guys were there already in an office (no restroom this time) and had a microphone out the window to our intrepid reporter, who was describing the scene. By this time, the Cleveland Police had arrived in force, and a tense standoff had developed. As the cops hauled kids out of the street, a larger crowd grew around them. Things were beginning to look ugly.
I was looking at it when it started, and I still couldn't tell you what triggered the fighting. One minute everybody's standing around hollering slogans and insults, the next cops are hitting kids with billy clubs. Everybody was running around and screaming. Safe as I was on the second floor, my gut got tied up in knots. I just knew someone was going to get hurt. Then, the miracle happened.
When the marchers went into the street, it had been sunny. Gradually the sky had clouded over, but, with all the stuff going on, no one had paid any attention. As the riot seemed ready to get bloody, there was a thunderclap, and a deluge of rain came down. Everyone froze for an instant, then the students moved away from the cops and the cops moved back from the students. People recognize a message from God when they get one.
Our intrepid reporter rushed breathlessly into the office. One of the guys said that it looked like things were peaceful again, so he could go back. Showing the value of a college education, he informed them in no uncertain terms that there was no way he was going to risk his anatomy out there again (insert expletives where appropriate). So I said, “Well, someone needs to go down there. David [anchoring at the station] is going to expect a report.”
Which is how I ended up downstairs, with people offering me wet cloths to use in case of tear gas attacks. I politely declined the offer, explaining that, in the event of tear gas, I would be breaking the 3-minute-mile to get my own anatomy out of there.
A funny thing happened, though. People from various groups got together and began to calm everyone down, negotiating a face-saving withdrawal for everyone involved, both police and students. One second I was surrounded by a few hundred people. The next, all I could see was a mounted policeman talking to two kids who were petting his horse. Just to make it perfect, the sun had come out. Of course, back at the station, they didn't know any of this. So, they needed a report.
I was sitting on the grass talking with someone, when I heard David over the radio monitor I was carrying saying something like, “We're hoping things have calmed down on Euclid Avenue. Let's see if we can reach our reporter. John, do your hear me?” I stuck the monitor earpiece in my ear, and uttered the immortal words, “Hi, David. How are you?”
Taken aback, he said, “Um, fine, John. How are you?”
“I'm fine, David. In fact, everything's fine now.”
Okay, it wasn't Pulitzer material. But, all things considered, it was a wonderful thing to be able to say.

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