It’s sunset on a Sunday afternoon. I’m eight years old and alone in our darkening living room, listening to a block of creepy radio mysteries crawling out of the Magnavox – Inner Sanctum, The Green Hornet, Lights Out, and the scariest of all, Orson Welles as “The Shadow.” Years later, I’d have strange, personal encounters with Welles himself, but that’s another story...
As a boy, I'd spend hours seated at the console of our Magnavox - a magical machine with a 78 turntable and combo AM/shortwave radio – transfixed by its glowing green dial that drew me into its exotic world: Hong Kong, Paris, London, Tokyo. Strange music and foreign voices, rolling and fading like ocean surf, blending fragments of Morse code or teletype and eerie squeals and squalls, calling to me from somewhere…far out in the ether. This before FM and TV, and the LP, only just beginning to come into our homes.
1964. Fresh out of the army and back home from two years in Japan. I enrolled at the Longy School of Music and Emerson College, and began a part-time job at WBCN, starting on the graveyard shift - Saturdays from 4:00 PM until midnight.
Majoring in organ performance at Longy, I produced my own organ music series at WBCN, “The King of Instruments,” which I later shared with two college stations in Boston - WERS and WBUR. Years Later, “The King” also ran briefly on WCRB before ending up at WGBH in 1967. When WGBH abruptly cancelled the show in the 1980’s, it went up on the bird to NPR stations in the Public Radio Cooperative. Long Live the King!
Staffed by true music lovers, a few cranky Bostonians, and super-bright students from Harvard and MIT, there was no better place to work than WBCN, and no finer opportunity to learn the art of music broadcasting. WBCN had an unusually high-quality stereo signal and despite the makeshift apparatus that served as our broadcast console (see photo below), we were blessed with a magnificent Neumann condenser microphone (see photo) that made every announcer sound like a pro!
Me at the WBCN console (c.1965)
WBCN was the originator in a string of classical music FM stations on the east coast (the Concert Network) – and we were the Boston Station of the Concert Network. Others stations included WRFK in Virginia, WNCN in New York City, WDAS in Philadelphia, WMTW Mount Washington, New Hampshire and WHCN in Hartford, Connecticut. Broadcasts recorded in Boston were “tape-bicycled” to other member stations which worked pretty well, except when the automated Hartford station started playing our Christmas-week programs in July. For economic considerations, WHCN had no “live” announcers. Money was constantly a worry for everyone.
By 1967, WBCN was nearly broke and our blissful existence as devil-may-care broadcast mavericks was coming to an end. WBCN underwent a format switch from classical music to “middle-of-the-road,” so time to move on – to WGBH. Volunteering in the summer of ‘67, I teamed up with Fred Barzyk and Olivia Tappan on their experimental TV series, “What’s Happening, Mr. Silver?” One night, David Silver, Fred and Olivia visited me at WGBH. They had brought along a brand-new, just-released album by the Beatles: Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. That night, I decided to break with WBCN’s traditionally classical format to air for the first in America, a stereo broadcast of the album. Listeners were astounded – and generally seemed quite captivated.
In December of 1967, with just one-hundred people on staff, I was officially hired at WGBH. My new boss, Bill Busiek, informed me WGBH wanted to continue my organ program and that I could fill in as a part-time announcer, but that I would be paid as an audio engineer – the position for which I was actually hired. Until my move to TV five years later, WGBH Radio seemed the ideal job, although a few quietly questioned whether newcomer Nat Johnson really ought to be wearing so many hats!
Soon after I was hired, ‘GBH-FM built its first “combo” studio whereby on-air-talent could “spin” their own records. I became the first “combo” operator, but that too raised some eyebrows and garnered more grumbles. The compact-disc era had just begun, so WGBH bought a player. One morning, I aired the first compact-disc ever broadcast on WGBH, but only a few minutes in, it stuck – repeating a passage over and over and over. Fortunately, a listener called in to suggest the problem was probably only dust, or a fingerprint! I took the disc out of the player, apologized to the audience, explained what I was about to do and after cleaning the disc, it played successfully.
For two years, I hosted the weekend edition of Morning Pro Musica, beginning at 7:00 AM, until the indefatigable Robert J. Lurtsema arrived and took over the program in a seven day-a-week marathon. By then, I was happy to rescue my social life on weekends, and be allowed the luxury of sleeping-in on Sunday mornings.
In 1968, a year after I joined, WGBH-FM received grant money from the NEH, the NEA and the Old Dominion Foundation to produce, record, and distribute 13 radios dramas on LP to educational stations around the country. Joan Sullivan and Lyon Todd produced and directed, Bob Carey and Bill Busiek were the principal audio engineers, and I assisted. With my ongoing interest in radio drama, this was the ideal situation to learn, experiment and apprentice. There was nothing like it then, and probably never will be again.
(to be continued)