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Threads: Marion CATV

Letters written by me, updated April 2016
to include the period March 1970-February 1974

More About Threads



Background:  I was lucky enough to get a job in broadcasting as soon as I graduated from the master's degree program at Syracuse University.  It was very small-time broadcasting, but it was in Marion, Ohio, which meant that I could live at home in Richwood.

The letters that I wrote during this four-year period make a rather lengthy article, so I've broken it into four quarters.  Highlights include:

For more stories, pictures, and audio, also visit the article Those '70s Shows.

 
Start of 1st Quarter . . .

 

Sunday, March 1, 1970

Mr. Jack P. Rubins
Systems Manager
Marion CATV Inc.

Dear Mr. Rubins:

I’m a graduate student here at Syracuse, in the television-radio program which will lead to a master’s degree this August.  When August comes I’ll be looking for a job.

I understand (from a clipping my parents sent me last fall from the Marion Star) that as a result of the October 24 FCC ruling, Marion CATV plans to “go into locally originated programming in a much bigger way.”  I know you’ve been covering the City Council meetings and occasional activities at the Coliseum; now that the FCC announcement has made it safe for you to invest in additional equipment and a studio, I presume you’ll add newscasts, interview-discussion programs, and more remotes, plus maybe some film programs.  If so, I’d like to be a part of it.

Reasons?  Well, I’ve lived in Richwood since 1952 (except for my four years in college and my one year here in grad school).  In Richwood, the “local radio station” is WMRN and the nearest thing to a “local daily” is the Star; so I feel that I know Marion, its industries and high-school sports and traffic problems, pretty well — much better than an outsider would.  Secondly, I’m not a specialist; I enjoy being called on to do almost every job, from pushing a camera to conducting an interview, more than I enjoy being tied down to one narrow job on a highly-polished team.  In a CATV operation that’s just learning the techniques of local programming, I expect that I would get a greater diversity of things to do than I would in a big-city station.  Thirdly, it’s beginning to appear that CATV has an exciting future.

My experience includes four years with WOBC-FM, the radio station at Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio.  For the last three of those years, I broadcast the play-by-play of all of Oberlin’s away football and basketball games.  In addition, I was a newscaster, engineer, disk jockey, program director, and eventually station director for 1968-1969, spending great amounts of time at the station and thoroughly enjoying it.  Here at Syracuse my experience has been broadened to include television; I’ve produced and directed three taped programs of up to half an hour in length and have served on the crew of a couple of dozen more, all as part of class work, and this semester I’m in a class which each week will produce and present a half-hour newscast (closed-circuit, of course, but otherwise realistic).

I plan to be in Richwood for the latter part of my spring vacation.  If you have any time available on Friday, April 3, or Saturday, April 4, I’d like to come up to Marion and talk to you about the possibilities.  Please write and let me know when you’ll be available.

 

Sunday, June 7, 1970

I think I do have a job lined up only 15 miles from Richwood, but a lot depends on what happens there between now and August.  It's with a new CATV system (cable) that just started local programming on June 1.  (Actually, they're been in business several years just taking programs off the air and sending them to their subscribers, but by January they must be producing some programming of their own on one of their channels, according to an FCC ruling.)

I was there on the afternoon of June 3, watching them put together some of their programs.  It's a crude operation, much less sophisticated than even our lab setup here at Syracuse, but they are doing a lot of programming, and if I worked there I'd have a fairly important position in producing it.  The question is whether they're going to be well enough off financially, as of August, to hire me.  They've got a low-budget operation that they're trying to make pay for itself with advertising, but as of now they have sold very few commercials.  I'll also be writing to a lot of small stations to see if they have any jobs open.

 

Sunday, July 19, 1970

Eight days ago I got a letter which said, "Dear Tom:  Just a line to let you know that things have been happening very fast and at this point it looks very favorable that we will want you as an employee immediately upon your graduation from school.  If you are still interested, please keep in touch."  I wrote the man that I was still interested, and I'm fairly confident that I'll be working at Marion CATV three weeks from tomorrow.

 

Thursday, August 20, 1970

MONDAY, AUGUST 10:  Went to Marion CATV at 9:00 in the morning.  Found out that the job wouldn't start until Monday, August 24.  Also found out the salary is rather low ($5,100 a year plus overtime).  But this is typical for small-town broadcasting, and I can hardly get a job anywhere else because of my "lack of (real-world) experience," so I accepted the offer.  Most of the salary will probably go to savings anyway, since I'm living at home.

 

Saturday, August 29, 1970

I am now working for Marion CATV.  I've just completed the first of three weeks devoted to training.  Actually, what it is is that John Snyder, who has been doing this summer what will be my job this fall and thereafter, is not going to go back to Bowling Green State University to begin work on his master's until September 11.  Since he hasn't vacated his job at Marion, I can't have it until he leaves.  But the three-week overlap, with him doing his job and me watching over his shoulder, does provide a nice relaxed setting in which he can give me pointers.  And in the meantime, I'm getting paid.

The part of the job which John won't turn over to me for another two weeks yet is the newscasting.  This amounts to the following:

(1)  Go to City Hall at 8:30 a.m. to look over the previous day's traffic accident reports and to talk with the mayor and/or members of his cabinet.  They rarely have anything very newsworthy to say.  (Marion, by the way, is a city of 39,000 located in the midst of a farming region.)

(2)  Report to the CATV studios to look over the morning mail.  From these press releases and from what was learned at City Hall, usually one or two stories can be written. 

(3)  Go to the county courthouse at 9:30 a.m. to see if the county officials have any news.  They very rarely do.

(4)  Buy a copy of the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the Columbus Citizen-Journal, two morning papers that sometimes have an article of interest to Marionites.

(5)  Return to the studios and spend the next four hours worrying about the fact that so far only one or two stories have turned up.

(6)  Buy a copy of the Marion Star at 1:45 p.m. and rewrite six or eight of the stories therein.

(7)  Go on the air at 6:00 p.m. (soon to be changed to 5:45) and deliver a 15-minute local newscast.  Sometimes the newscast has a picture or two — if the mayor says anything, he can be quoted while a slide of him is put on the screen — but mostly it's just words, plus two commercials.

About half or the newscast seems to come straight out of the Star, the local newspaper.  Part of this lamentable situation arises because people don't realize there is a CATV news program, and so they send the reports of their softball games or whatnot to the paper and to the radio station but not to us.  The only way we can get them, then, is to pick them up from the paper.

Another reason is that the job I'm moving into has other duties in addition to newsgathering, which means that this job's incumbent doesn't have enough time available to go out and dig up news.  John is gradually turning some of these duties over to me now.  Among them are the following:

(1)  Host of "Bowling for Dollars," a contest show in which people write in with guesses as to how many pins a filmed bowler will knock down with one ball.  The correct answers have been pre-selected, but the guesses are drawn from a goldfish bowl just before the film is run.

(2)  Cameraman for several other productions.

(3)  Director for the productions, sometimes.

(4)  Changer of scenery and otherwise handyman.

(5)  Host of a Monday-night show and a Tuesday-night show, each an hour long and each devoted to one of the two high schools in town.  The football coach brings in the films his school shot of the game they played last weekend.  We watch the films and discuss them.  This, obviously, won't start until football season, which is a couple of weeks away.

I have several ideas as to how I can improve some of this, such as how to get more visuals into the newscasts.  I'll try them and see how they work out.

 

Saturday, September 5, 1970

They really should have hired two people instead of just me, because they need me from 8:30 in the morning until 8:30 at night five days a week, but they don't want me to work more than 40 hours because they don't want to have to pay overtime.

The problem is that they're trying to do too much with too little money.  Most of our programs are produced with a crew of only two men, which is unheard of in television.  You really need eight or ten to handle all the equipment smoothly.  As it is now, the control room reminds me of that old simile about the one-armed paper hanger.

 

Saturday, September 26, 1970

As I write this, a thunderstorm is threatening.  I hope the electricity for my typewriter doesn't fail in the middle of the letter.

Yesterday evening, the lead story on my 15-minute TV newscast was on an airplane that landed on a shopping center parking lot as a publicity stunt.  The rest of the stories, as nearly as I can remember, were these:

  • Martin Luther King's father will be in town Monday and Tuesday and will speak at two schools, the state prison, and the Rotary Club.

  • The YMCA Coffee House opens this weekend.

  • On Monday, the YMCA begins its judo classes.

  • The Community Band begins rehearsals next week; anyone who can play is welcome.

  • The county has asked the state to reduce the speed limit on a one-mile stretch of road.

  • There's a new copywriter at a local advertising agency, and a new account executive at another; here are their pictures.

  • They'll be testing some new recipes at the cafeteria of one of the local elementary schools.

  • Sunday is Gold Star Mothers Day.

  • They played two slow-pitch softball games Thursday night.

  • The high school cross-country team got beaten.

  • There will be some high school football games this weekend; here's the schedule.

  • It's expected to rain on Saturday.

Some days are more newsy than others; sometimes, for example, the city council is arguing that the privately-owned water company should be taken over by the city as a municipal utility, and the water company is arguing that it shouldn't be but that the water rates should be increased by 48.5%.  But Marion isn't big enough a city to have things like that going on all the time.

It hasn't rained yet, but the sky really looks black to the northwest.

I'm directing programs all morning and part of the afternoon, leaving me just a couple of hours to get that 15-minute newscast together.  So I spend the news time reading the paper and rewriting their stories, and taping the local radio station's newscast and rewriting their stories.  I have time once or twice a week to get to City Hall, and if I hurry I can go someplace during my lunch hour and take a Polaroid picture of some news event.  But the greatest part of the newscast is stolen from the paper and the radio station.

A few drops of rain are on my windowpane now, but no real thunderstorm has started as yet.

Now the average viewer might not realize this, since I do a fairly good job of rearranging the information I steal and making it sound like an independently-researched story.  But I'm sure the radio news director, at least, must realize that I wasn't at that meeting that he attended, and yet my story has exactly the same facts in it as his.  As far as

— it's raining hard now! —

as I know, there's nothing illegal about this.  What I'm concerned about is whether it's ethical.  But I don't see any other way to do it.  If Marion CATV wants a news program every night, they should have hired more than one part-time newsman.  (But, alas, they're trying to keep costs low so that they don't lose too much money on programming, so they aren't about to hire anyone else.)

Sunday, October 4, 1970

This weekend, my major accomplishment has been to learn to tie my necktie in a Windsor knot.  It's a wider knot than a four-in-hand, and it looks better on TV.  Always some little improvement . . . .

Oh, yes, here's one item of interest from the last week:  On Monday I met Martin Luther King's father.  (He's Rev. Martin Luther King Senior, the pastor of a church in Atlanta.)  Rev. King was in Marion for a special "Brotherhood and Understanding Day in Marion" observance, and I went out to City Hall to take a picture of the mayor giving him the ceremonial key to the city.  He's a friendly and intelligent man; looks much younger than his 71 years; talks quite slowly, like many Southerners.  He gave some good talks in Marion, too.  I heard one on the radio in which he said that if anyone should be bitter, it should be he (he had two sons follow him into the ministry, both are now dead), but he doesn't hate anybody.  Our country's problems have no easy solutions; a good place to start, though, would be with love and understanding of each other.  That, in a nutshell, was his message.

 

Saturday, October 17, 1970

At Marion CATV, I have now started going around getting television news interviews using a cassette tape recorder for the audio and a Polaroid camera for the video.  Stick the Polaroid picture in front of a TV camera, stick the cassette recorder in front of a mike in the studio, and away we go on the newscast.  That's what you call a low-budget way to do TV interviews.  But, if you don't mind pictures that don't move, it's okay.

 

Sunday, November 8, 1970

I reported some election news Wednesday night on my newscast.  I expressed everything I could in percentages, rather than raw numbers.  This made my report of the results sound different from the newspaper's report (which was really the source of my figures).  And I think it's easier for a listener to understand "the Mental Health Clinic levy received only 45 per cent of the vote" than it is for him to understand "the Mental Health Clinic levy was defeated, with 1,233 votes in favor and 1,507 votes opposed."

 

            At the 1970 company Christmas party.  On the left is Sally Flowers.
            In the 1950s, she was a TV personality in Columbus;
            for several months in 1970, she came out of retirement to host
            a morning show for us in Marion, The Sally Flowers Show.

 

Excerpts from memo of December 4, 1970

Measurement of Average Audience
for The Sally Flowers Show

I.  Sally has made 119 phone calls for National City Bank; about 113 of the calls went to subscribers.  There have been five winners [who knew the correct amount in the jackpot].  So five out of 113 CATV subscribers, or 4.4 per cent, were watching Sally at the moment she called.  This can be projected to the entire system, and we can say that based on this sample, 310 out of the 7,000 subscribers are watching The Sally Flowers Show at any given moment.

II.  On the last weekend in November, Steve Stewart and I made 114 phone calls to randomly-selected CATV subscribers.  We asked, "Hello, is this the John Doe residence?  I'm calling for CATV and we were wondering if you watch The Sally Flowers Show here on TV-3?  How about the news?  Bowling for Dollars?  Potpourri?  Measuring Up?  People and Their Faith?  Have there been any other programs on Channel 3 that you especially enjoyed?"  Here are the results.

>

 News

42%

>

 Sally Flowers

40%

>

 Bowling

29%

>

 Measuring Up

21%

>

 People & Faith

14%

>

 Potpourri

12%

>

 Football

12%

>

 Weather Scan

7%

>

 Jolly Jingles

7%

>

 Cactus Flower (movie)

6%

>

 Prom

3%

>

 Elections

2%

>

 Parade

1%

The difference between the 4.4% rating for Sally Flowers from Part I, and the 40% rating from Part II, is that the first measures the audience at any given moment, and the second measures the audience at any time during the week.  [There are other methodological reasons for the difference.]

I'd suggest that these figures not be advertised to our potential sponsors indiscriminately.  If only 333 homes are viewing Sally Flowers when the Welles commercial comes on, and Welles is paying ten dollars for that commercial, their cost per thousand for that spot is $30.00.  Of course, we could quote a "cost per thousand per commercial minute" figure of around six dollars, since the Welles commercial normally lasts about five minutes.

———————————————————

After Sally was replaced by DaLee Mounts on February 2, 1971, the program became known as Marion Today.  The jackpot phone calls continued; DaLee's ratings were equal to Sally's.  She was replaced later in the year by Judy Rock and Sandy Park, and the audience apparently increased somewhat.  Their best ratings by the jackpot method were from November 1971 to March 1972:  a 7% rating (and 40% share of homes using television).  But had the subscribers figured out how to know the jackpot amount without actually having to watch Marion Today?

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I recorded my voice plus music from a turntable to make the opening theme for Potpourri, an interview show about such topics as fashions and the activities of women's auxiliaries.

At the right is a recreation, from my original sketch, of the title card.

 

Sunday, December 27, 1970

This last week, I spent 61½ hours working (actually 53½; we get eight free hours for Christmas Day).  The hectic pace is a result of the Christmas season, of course.

Last night we taped a 90-minute program at the local basketball arena in Marion, where the annual "Hospital Charity Ball" was being held.  A lady on our staff interviewed the guests as they arrived, and I served as straight man and commercial reader; then, as soon as we were done taping, we raced back to the studio to put the tape on the air.  It ran from 11 to 12:30 last night, and the same hours this noon.

The whole thing was sponsored by a bank and the phone company.  If you're interested in figures, they each paid $65 for five one-minute spots apiece plus an opening and closing "billboard."  The $130 we thus took in just about covers our costs, so we didn't get rich on the deal.

Nor did we make any money on another special Christmas-week program, a cantata that we taped at a church in Marion.  In fact, we probably lost around a hundred dollars on that one, since we presented it as an unsponsored public service.  We taped that affair on Thursday night, with a 60-voice choir and a 20-piece orchestra, and played it back on Thursday and Friday evenings.  I hope the viewers appreciate our efforts.

(That Tuesday was the day that I went to work at 8:15 in the morning, had no lunch break and no supper break as I ate McDonald's hamburgers with one hand while running the control room with the other, and finally got done at 10:30 that night.  A non-stop 14¼ hours.)

But we did make some money on some other shows.  We had a Santa Claus show on from the Monday after Thanksgiving until Christmas Eve, which may have made a $300 profit over the four weeks.  (In this business, the Christmas season is an opportunity to make more money, it seems.)  And the reason that I wasn't able to take a lunch break on Tuesday was that we were taping our regular basketball programs that day, rather than canceling them because of the holidays that fell on their usual days.  More greed.  Get all out of the advertisers that you can.

 

. . . End of
1st Quarter