A Silver Lining
“That's why I don't talk. Because I talk too much.” ---Joquin Andujar
I spent about a year and a half in the late 1950’s working in a truly small radio station. WALE 1400 AM was either 500 or 1000 watts by day and Heaven knows what power after sunset. Its audience was smaller because of a limited night signal.
1400 AM is still functioning but with different call letters, WHTB. Back then it was the “Whale Station” with a whale statue sitting atop the station’s building’s roof. It was there I got my baptism in radio. Frankly it was an experience I would not trade for anything. The station filed with the FCC for my application for an operator’s permit. There was a short test the station’s engineer helped me fill out and we submitted the test results and background information on me to the Federal Communications Commission and within a few weeks my license was delivered via mail.
The permit allowed me to operate the station alone even though I was not yet eighteen. Go figure.
I gave my original license to the station engineer at WSAR. It was no longer valid so he applied for a new license. I took it with me when I moved on to WRKO. It was not needed there because there is always someone qualified to operate a station on duty or on call at all times.
I learned the following while at WALE:
The pay was awful, not only for me but the regular full time staff as well. Small market radio makes no one rich.
The work is hard but very satisfying. If you’re a story teller there’s a place for you. My idea of a story teller is a person who can relate what he sees and hears, process it, then tell what happened in terms others can understand.
Most of those I have met in broadcasting on the talent, producer and programming side are dedicated to doing the very best they can. The path to the top is difficult and skill and luck are necessary elements.
Mark Gosceminiski was the station engineer at WALE. The place operated on a shoestring. I later worked with either his son or nephew at WHJJ in Providence. Mark was a wiz at keeping what was less than the optimal equipment running and the audience had a signal crisp and clear in the limited area it could reach. Even the turntables and styluses functioned as they were supposed to.
George and J. Roger Sisson owned WALE. They were old school broadcasters. I didn’t get to know George very well, but Roger was the man to turn to whenever a crisis hit. Cool as a cucumber, he was un-flappable. He had been a state representative, a Republican in a Democrat district.
My favorite Roger Sisson story is about him campaigning door to door circa 1956. He was working the old Ward 9 area of Fall River and happened upon a family at about the moment The Rosary was to be said on WALE (7 PM each evening). Roger told those present he would appreciate the chance to join them. The family was Irish-American, communicants of Saint Joseph’s parish. Roger knelt with the family, took the rosary beads from his coat pocket and prayed. Needless to say the entire parish was made aware Roger was one of them. Funny thing, that‘s just how Roger was. Nine or ten children too. One of the most decent people I’ve known in radio.
Pete Mendell, aka Paul Mills, a young and sharp deejay on his way to fame and fortune. I don’t know whether he got there but he worked very hard. I remember him reciting his between songs lines over and over. He would practice back queuing the records, no longer needed in today’s CD world.
James Christopher Barnhorst, the voice of Durfee High football and basketball. The two stations (WALE and WSAR) broadcast the local high schools games. Chris Barnes, as all knew him, was a professional’s professional. He even memorized not only the names and numbers of Durfee’s players but their opponents as well. Chris wound up in Florida doing Seminole football and basketball.
One of my favorites whom I never had an opportunity to meet (ever, even now) though he called the plays in the Durfee/New Bedford Thanksgiving games I played in was Gil Santos, the voice of the Patriots and WBZ in Boston. In those days Gil was at WNBH in New Bedford. I think he still lives in the Whaling City, but I’m not certain.
Finally, the man from whom I learned much about radio is Pat Donahue. Pat had a beautiful voice for radio. I worked with and for him all the time I was at WALE. He taught me many ins and outs which still have relevance including to never, never, never let on when there was a technical problem, advice which served me well when the power and phones went out many years later at WSAR. Pat went on to a station in Casper, Wyoming. Where? Yup, Casper.
I lost track of him there but I learned from his nephew, who is a newsman at WBZ, that Pat returned East and was in the construction business in Southern Rhode Island.
Pat worked a full time job days and WALE at night. He was an eighty or ninety hour per week man between the two jobs. He was always tired and took to taking cat naps in the evening. Ten to fifteen minutes at a time. It was my opportunity queue up the records and play them. If I thought he was sleep soundly (he’d snore) I would open the mike and introduce the next song. Of course, with the snoring it was quite a trick to get him to stop snoring for a minute or two at a time.
Each night Pat had me go to the police station to get the information on the police blotter. I would return to the station and prepare the local news for him. He’d read it on the air and edit my mistakes on the fly. It was a real thrill for a budding radio personality to hear the news he prepared read on the air.
One night Pat left the station with a comment he’d return momentarily. Well, he didn’t show up for more than two hours. I did the music and news. I even stumbled through one of his commercial reads.
Thus was life in a small time radio station. I even got to be a spotter for Chris Barnes who also let me do limited analysis during his Durfee broadcasts the season I was worked with him.
The seeds were sewn for a broadcast career. The only problem was from the perspective of this young person the work was hard and the pay very little. Unfortunately I didn’t understand larger markets such as Providence and Boston paid much better so I went off to a career in textile machinery sales until that fateful period in 1979 and 1980.
What began as a disaster for our family became an opportunity to make a profound change in my life. A change for the better.
Helen and I lived in Fall River most of our lives. I spent a short time in Detroit until the race riots drove me and many others out of the city in 1967. The city went up in flames with fires everywhere. It was probably the hardest hit city in the country in the civil rights riots.
We also lived in New Bedford for a couple of months before returning to Fall River shortly thereafter. We’ve lived in the same neighborhood now for nearly four decades.
Sometime during the morning of Monday, March 19, 1979 a disaster occurred.
At that time I represented various textile machinery manufacturers from all over the world and traveled most of the United States and Canada. I was vice president of Norkon, Inc., a company based in Windham, New Hampshire. Its founder and owner was Paul Weise who was a good friend and in previous years a customer.
Paul was somewhat shy, but highly technically oriented. And very smart. He knew textile dyeing and finishing, as well as textile printing. I was the more flamboyant sales type who relished the opportunity to promote some new and/or improved machine or concept. I made the promises and Paul made them come true. We were a perfect fit for one another. Even our wives got along well and we often vacationed together.
On the fateful morning of Monday, March 19, 1979 I was working in New Bedford, Massachusetts and Helen was teaching school in Swansea, Massachusetts.
We both left at the same time that morning, about eight. I had an appointment set for that afternoon at a mill in Rhode Island. I planned to pick up a proposal Paul Weise had mailed to me from New Hampshire the previous Friday. I hoped the mailman had been by our home so I could have the proposal with me for the meeting.
As I traveled along the highway from New Bedford I saw a dark cloud hovering over the north end of Fall River. I couldn’t tell exactly where it was coming from. The city incinerator was much further to the south. There was nothing in the area of the cloud of smoke except homes. No mills or large structures. It didn’t make sense. As I got closer and closer it became evident the cloud was in the general vicinity of my neighborhood. Finally when I was within a few blocks of the smoke I realized it was near our home. As I drove up my street reality set in, it was our home.
There were fire trucks everywhere. I don’t recall what time it was but it had to have been sometime shortly after noon.
Our home was engulfed in smoke. Heavy black smoke. My stomach churned.
The first reaction was panic. Our oldest daughter had been absent from school Thursday and Friday the preceding week and was not too well when she left for school that morning. Was it possible she had come home and was in there.
I identified myself to the police or firemen at the scene. Everything from that moment is a blur. My mind was focused on Georgette. Was she in there? Finally fireman confirmed they had been through the house and no one was in there. Minutes later Helen was on the scene and we embraced and cried together. To this day the emotions well to the surface when I think of those early moments.
At that time we had three children, fifteen, eight, two and Helen was nearly eight months with Helene. She arrived on schedule in May.
Prior to the fire we spent many years working on the house to make it a home. New wall to wall carpeting, painting and wallpaper everywhere. We made many improvements and it was our home.
We lost our cat in the fire, having found her weeks later in the attic. It seems she was trying to get away from the flames only to die from the smoke.
Our homeowners insurance agent was an old friend I’d known since childhood. When he viewed the damage from the fire he realized it was not a total loss. He told me cryptically I would later wish the building had burned to the ground because repairing the home was in its best of circumstances a major undertaking. He was right.
After a long discussion with our agent he spelled out our options. First, find a furnished apartment.
So we set out to secure temporary housing. Finding a furnished apartment was difficult. The moment we mentioned to a potential landlord it was only temporary there was no way anyone would rent to us.
We got a hotel room. The problem was, with children a hotel was not a good long term solution.
The agent had me call our adjuster. Could we rent a furnished trailer? He checked with the company and told us we could.
So we rented a full size trailer with three bedrooms, a living room, and kitchen and dining area.
Within a couple of days the trailer was delivered to our back yard. Boy was that thing huge. Within a day water, plumbing and electricity was delivered to the trailer from our home’s utilities.
Though seeing our house each day was a reminder of the worst day in our family life, we were still in our neighborhood and we could supervise the reconstruction.
Finally in mid-October the work was completed and we were able to move back in.
In the meantime I had become a family man for the first time in years. Before the fire I spent many weeks of each year on the road. It was the only part of the job I didn’t like. The “hello/goodbye” aspect of being a traveling salesman was a big negative.
I became spoiled by being with my family all the time.
When I traveled I listened to radio, especially talk radio. At that time talk radio was mostly a northern phenomena. The major population areas of the eastern seaboard had talk. New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, D.C. and the like. Atlanta and Charlotte had talk in the south. Same for Montreal though it was as boring as Public Radio in the United States.
Fall River and New Bedford had been "talking" for years. Stations in both cities were among the pioneers in the business. One day I called the Steve Cass Show on WSAR. After the on air call the producer asked if I’d like to be Steve's guest in studio. I agreed.
After the show, Ken McLean, WSAR’s program director asked if I’d like to fill in for Steve whenever he needed some time off? I agreed to the idea.
I was back on the road again traveling to points in New England and making mostly day trips at the time. I was not in a rush to go on long trips.
Then the big call came. Maurice, could you fill in for Steve tomorrow? I couldn’t say yes fast enough.
Over time Ken asked if I’d like to take on an evening show. We discussed money and he worked out a plan where I could do the evening show and still do some limited traveling. I would do the 8 to 11 shift and work whenever the Celtics and/or the Red Sox were off. I would have the shift from Sunday night through Friday night.
Since both teams played at least two or three nights a week it would give me time to conduct business.
Paul Weise was understanding of my situation since we had discussed my problem with traveling. We both agreed to give it some time to see whether I could catch on in radio and stay home more or return full time to selling for him.
By the end of the Red Sox season the station decided to not carry the Celtics. That gave me six nights a week on air. It was wildly successful to the point the station dropped the Red Sox the following season. I later began to work until midnight since CBS had decided not to offer Mystery Theater any longer.
Of course WSAR was in a small market, so we did a lot of community things. One Sunday afternoon I was broadcasting from a parade route in Buttonwood Park in New Bedford. When the parade finally approached our mobile studio I was given a microphone with a long wire to go out and describe the happening. Just as I went on air a young boy began to play tug of war with me using the microphone wire as a rope.
This delightful child’s mother suggested he stop pulling on the wire. “The nice man could get angry.” Just as my mike was turned on by the engineer who was oblivious to my trials I hollered back to the mother I wasn’t a nice man and I’d strangle the boy if he didn’t release the wire.
He saw my eyes bulge from my head and realized he was only moments from meeting the angels.
The brat released the wire.
That was just one of the many pleasures of a remote broadcast. Lesson number one in broadcasting: Anytime you’re out of the friendly confines of your studio you’re life in danger.
While at WSAR I was involved with many interesting experiences. One of the more memorable was Mark Williams’ and my day of darkness.
If there really are angels here on earth Edna Feijo was one of them. Born in Fall River, Edna worked in the mills for most of her early years. She married and had children. During the child rearing years two major health events befell her.
First, Edna was diagnosed with having a severe form of Rheumatoid Arthritis. For her it was fast destroying her ability to do things for her family. Second, she lost her eyesight.
Despite her travails, Edna was as full of life as anyone I ever met.
She first became a volunteer with the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind. Later she became a fulltime employee there.
In the years Mark and I knew Edna she never once complained about her circumstances. She was always cheerful, had a great spirit and looked forward to each day.
Edna asked Mark and me if we’d spend a day working together alternately as a person who needed someone to maneuver him about in a wheel chair and later as a blind person. We accepted the challenge to better understand what it was like trying to navigate in each condition. It was decided Mark would begin the day as a blind person and I would be in the wheel chair. We would change positions at mid day.
Mark was blindfolded and I was seated in a wheelchair. Mark pushed me around and I guided him along walk ways, crossing streets and entering and leaving buildings.
The experiences which stood out for me were friends whom I hadn’t seen in some time who we encountered on the street. They were shocked to see me in such a condition. Many individuals I had experience with didn’t know how to approach or speak with me. Most could not as much as make eye contact. I guess they feared contracting whatever caused my debilitating situation.
The other lesson centered on the ability to enter and leave buildings.
Private buildings were far more accessible to someone in a wheel chair than government buildings including, the post office, Fall River City Hall (then a relatively new building) and the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Building. We couldn’t even get into and turn around in the Rehabilitation Building’s elevator. The City Hall wheelchair ramp was narrow and steep for a novice. The handicap bathroom facility was built for a contortionist. Thankfully I was not in a serious need at the moment.
Mark and I experienced most of the obstacles persons with those disabilities would encounter. We both looked differently at handicap access and the pain of others. Even friends and long time acquaintances reaction to our disabilities, after our shared experience came as a surprise.
No pun intended here, it was an eye opener.
I think the experiences I gained from my time at both WSAR and earlier at WALE were essential elements of becoming a good talk host. Ok. A fair one?