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Threads: Returning to WOBC

Letters written by me, updated February 2004
to include the period 1970-1989

More About Threads



Background:  When I graduated from Oberlin College with a degree in physics in 1969, I was the station director at student radio station WOBC.  Over the following years, I returned from time to time to visit the campus and the station and some of the people I had worked with there.

 

Saturday, October 17, 1970

Last Sunday was Laymen's Sunday in our church.  This usually means that some lawyer or insurance salesman or somebody gets up and gives the sermon, and usually it's not very good.  So my parents suggested that maybe we could go up to Oberlin to church that week, and I agreed that it would be a good idea.  We attended the service at First Church, and then I went over to Wilder Hall while my parents drove around looking at the town.  Not counting a break while we went to eat lunch, I was there about four hours between 12:30 and 6:00.

No one at Oberlin knew I was coming, and it was Sunday afternoon, but nevertheless I got to talk to (in order of appearance) Rich Kesner, Janice Derr, Glenn Davis, Randy Bongarten, Cathy Frye, Hank Dolmatch, and Marc Krass.  All of them just happened to come up to the station.  (Well, Glenn had a show and Hank was on a news story and Janice was instructing a new combo-er, but the rest of them just sort of dropped in.)  For a while there, it seemed like nothing had changed since two years ago:  Randy, Marc, and I were sitting in the inner office, and Hank was popping in and out working on his story and adding comments.

As far as how the station is getting along, most of my information comes from Janice, who as program director could be expected to be fairly optimistic.  The news staff has 60 people on it, many of them serious-minded go-getters who actually volunteer to go out and cover a senate meeting or some other story.  (That's twice as many people as we had two years ago.)  The classical music department is apparently getting along fine, too.

The problem is in the pop department, where there's no responsible person to take the leadership.  Prue Kline resigned a couple of weeks ago, and Glenn asked for applications to replace her as pop director, but so far no one has applied.  There also was a bit of a flare-up in the pop department recently over certain persons who repeatedly used, over the air, what were classified as obscenities, and who therefore were dismissed from the staff.  They didn't deny that they'd said some no-no's, but they felt that that wasn't sufficient grounds for disciplinary action.  What's wrong with obscenity, anyway?  And just because you're station director, what right do you have to tell me what I can say on the air?  Hopefully, this group is only a very small minority, like about three people.

Later, alumnus Marc Krass remarked on how inconsistent the program schedule was.  You can see for yourself from the enclosed program guide.  Note, for example, that Monday Lunchline and Wednesday Sunrise are jazz, while the others are presumably rock.  Note that's there's a Rendezvous-type program every afternoon at 3:05, except Thursday when we hear the second half of an opera.  Note that the 7:00 and 8:00 p.m. programs are classical, except 8:00 Monday (poetry), 8:00 Tuesday (new pop albums), 7:00 Thursday (blues), and 8:00 Thursday (folk).  As Marc said, this can cause frustration among listeners who tune in at 8:00 Monday and hear poetry and like it, and then tune in at 8:00 each succeeding day of the week and hear something different each day.

Console hasn't fallen apart or blown up completely yet.  It did fall apart partially there for a while, but recently they've replaced the slider pots with the good, old-fashioned round pots.  A whole menagerie of them, different sizes and shapes but (thankfully) all the same color, black.

Seems the slider pots kept falling off or something because they were homemade inside; I didn't get a technical explanation.  So they took them out and stuck these round pots on, putting the round-pot shafts through the slots in which the sliders formerly slid.  The round pots being wider than the sliders, it was not possible to put them all in one horizontal row.  So they alternate; one is up at the top of its slider slot, and the next is mounted down at the bottom of the next slot.


Photo detail from Life
 magazine (see below)

Despite its faults, new console does look impressive.  I sort of like the idea of not having any labels on the pushbuttons, just different colors.  That really impresses the guy who doesn't know what all the buttons are for.  And the console design doesn't appear to have changed much from the sketches I drew up for Gary and Larry, based on what they were planning a couple of years ago, so I could understand just about everything.

One thing I don't understand.  I was standing there when Glenn hit the red button for Mag One to put Music from Oberlin on the air.  The mag started, but as soon as he let go of the red button the green one came back on, and no sound came through.  We hit the button a couple of times more, with the same result.  So Glenn quickly patched Mag One into Aux Two and ran it that way.  Experimenting with the buttons, I found that you could go from green to yellow and then from yellow to red, but you could not go from green to red directly.  Could new console be getting crotchety and obstinate already?

And the entire outer office has been painted aquarium blue.  The new pop cabinet looks now like it's always been there, since it's now painted like everything else.

 

Sunday, December 27, 1970

If you didn't see the November 20 issue of Life magazine, see if you can locate it in a library somewhere.  In that issue, Rob Singler became the first unsuccessful candidate for WOBC Station Director to have his picture on the cover of a national magazine.

It's in connection with an article about co-ed dorms, especially at Oberlin.  On page 40, there's even a picture of the new WOBC control board, complete with its staggered round black pots.  Rob is doing a show with girlfriend Cindy Stewart holding his finger.  And, of course, on the counter is a food tray from the Snack Bar, empty.

WOBC's staggered pots may cause a new fad in college radio stations around the nation.  They'll figure the rest of the board looks so impressive, the pots must be staggered for some good reason.

Whatever happened to Rob and Cindy?  Here's the rest of the story, via an article in the alumni magazine 40 years later.

 

Sunday, February 4, 1971

I received two letters from Oberlin this week, both from faculty members.

Mr. Warner of the physics department had written me earlier, asking whether I wanted to collaborate on the revision of that programmed-learning course he and I wrote during the 1969 Winter Term.  I had written him back, saying no, I wasn't interested.  I'm now so far removed from physics I can't even understand what I wrote in 1969.  And I also told him what I was doing in Marion.

This week he replied to that letter.  His reply was handwritten.  When I saw it, I experienced an involuntary feeling of apprehension, because it was written with a fountain pen in the same style with which he graded exams and lab notebooks, and seeing it aroused the fear of getting a poor grade.  "Thank you for your recent, unusually interesting letter," he wrote.  "I took the liberty of showing it to others in the department, including [the secretary] Mrs. Edwards, all of whom were delighted to hear from you and to learn about your diverse activities!  [Department chairman] David Anderson's comment:  'Physics obviously provides a broad, relevant background.'"

The other letter was from Herman Henke of the Conservatory.  (He sings bass and for a time directed the First Church choir.)  Mr. Warner had suggested my name to him as a possible source of names of candidates for a new position, Educational Director of Audio-Visual Services.  "The person we are looking for," wrote Mr. Henke, the chairman of the faculty's audio-visual committee, "should be capable of working closely with our College and Conservatory faculty in developing imaginative and innovative ways to enrich their teaching with audio-visual media."

I referred him to the chairman of the TV department at Syracuse, who knows a lot more potential candidates for this job than I do.  And I also said that I might have applied for the Oberlin job myself "if I had some experience in the teaching field — and if I didn't already have an interesting job at Marion CATV.  In my daily TV newscast," I wrote, "I feel I'm teaching a course in local current events, using audio-visual aids."

As far as I know, not many newsmen think of their job in those terms.  It's more a matter of putting on a good show that will keep the viewers entertained and the ratings up.

 

Sunday, March 21, 1971

The weekend you spent in Oberlin included my birthday (February 20).  Next time, take a two-hour side trip and drop down to see me.

Your description of the old alma mater as "fun, disillusioning, a nice place to live but I wouldn't want to visit" is a bit obscure sounding, but I think I know what you mean.  I kind of doubt I'll go back again.

Having seen the new console last October, my life is complete.  Any further visits would be, as you say, disillusioning.  The old guard has almost disappeared from the station, and the students have changed at least twice since I first went there nearly six years ago.


Dressed for dinner and passing the milk, from the September 1964 Oberlin College Bulletin

Nearly six years ago . . . that was back when we were still required to dress for dinner in the dining halls (suit and tie for the men), and when we were required to remain seated after finishing our meal until the house mother rose to dismiss us from dinner.  And there were invocations, not moments of silence.  And the front part of the King Building hadn't been built yet.  Ah, nostalgia.

It hasn't even been six years yet, and already things have changed so much I can reminisce like an alumnus of the Class of 1905.

 

Sunday, September 12, 1971

Or, as Morse and Feshbach wrote [in one of our physics textbooks], "This arbitrariness concerning the residue at a-A, which may be included or not as desired, corresponds to the arbitrariness of the complementary function, a solution of the homogenous equation, which in this case is proportional to the difference of two particular solutions of the inhomogeneous linear equation."

 

Sunday, June 1, 1975

I attended the Oberlin reunion of the Classes of 1969, 1970, and 1971 last weekend.  Had a fairly good time, too.

There were maybe 30 people from each of the three classes in attendance.  With the exception of physics major Ed Francis, all the people who were there that I knew were WOBC people.  People like:

• Randy Bongarten, who succeeded me as station director and is now a radio-TV junior executive in Schenectady;

• Clark Hyde, a classical music host who is now an Episcopal priest in northwest Ohio;

• Bob Steyer, who was WOBC news director and is now the Washington correspondent for a Harrisburg newspaper;

• Larry Gellman, who succeeded me as WOBC sports director after re-creating the play-by-play of a basketball game into a telephone in another part of the building, and is now a newsperson for a Columbus TV station;

• Jan Weintraub, who married another WOBCer, Marc Krass, and is now the president of the Class of 1971;

• Mark Christiansen, a newscaster who has just finished law school; and

• Paul Wilczynski, a WOBC DJ whom I had to suspend from the staff when he handed Randy a fake news bulletin to read.

Many of the above-mentioned WOBC alumni descended on the station on Friday.  It was Wilczynski who first arrived at the third floor of Wilder and who talked the people who now run the station into letting some of us do a disc-jockey show after midnight.  Randy, Mark, and I also got in on it.  We were all unfamiliar with the new control room and out of practice with DJ work, so we weren't very good, but we had fun.

We met both the incoming and outgoing station directors and noted the changes in the station.  They've built two new consoles since the new one Randy helped install.  The older of the two new ones is in "R & E" (the production studio), and the brand-new one is in the control room.  That room has been enlarged by tearing out "Studio C" (the announce booth) and moving the Ampex tape decks into that corner, thereby making the room twice as deep.  The walls have been painted in various bold colors.

Several more offices have been added by taking over some additional Wilder rooms along the south wall of the third floor (just beyond the teletype room, which is now a listening room; the teletype now lives in what used to be the station director's office).  This has to make WOBC one of the biggest radio stations, physically, in the country, with probably more than 2,000 square feet of floor space.  And it's still just ten watts, although they have gone stereo.

As you can tell from the enclosed program guide, WOBC is on rather long hours, and the programs are comparatively well organized, although the program-guide editor seems to have a fondness for inside jokes.

I had expected the campus to be greatly changed, for some reason.  After all, it had been six years since I graduated, and 4½ years since I'd been back to visit.  But very little had changed.

Of course, there's the new Mudd library and the new Phillips gym.  Wheelchair ramps have been added to a few buildings.  The King building is now beige rather than white.

But the lobby of South still has the same carpet and furniture.  The breezeway between the biology and chemistry sections of Kettering still looks exactly the same as it did when I was a freshman ten years ago; even the smells there are the same, including the shrubs outside the south door.  Eating breakfast at Dascomb is still an every-person-for-himself fight to get to the beverage dispensers.  And believe it or not, still painted on the tile in Dascomb's rear courtyard is the Class of 1969 calculus equation which, as I recall, was put there during our freshman orientation.

The people are hardly changed, either.  All in all, I had the feeling that it was the late 1960s, and most of the people I knew simply happened to be away for a couple of days.

Of course, the campus is more "apathetic" about political matters these days.  The WOBC people told us that a few kids tried to get up an anti-recruiter demonstration some time back, but no one was interested in demonstrating.  The activist editor of the Review editorialized in the commencement edition:

"Student impact [in the governance of the college] has increased, but apparently at the cost of the concern of large numbers of students.  A possible explanation is that formalized input has made a very limited group of students intensely concerned with campus issues, while leaving the rest of the students alienated from these issues.  There is little room for emergency mass meetings when student influence is being carried out within the system.  . . . The student body, therefore, must be careful not to accept a quiet campus, an ineffective student senate, straight academics, when they should be demanding an influential voice in the running of the institution."

It sounds like the Review is almost wishing for a return to the good old days of campus turmoil, which after all is much more exciting for the activist leaders.  Now the leaders have no one to follow them.

The students seem to be quite concerned about getting good grades, however, as we can see from the lead story in that edition of the Review.

"The honor system has been shaken, following evidence of widespread cheating in Art 110, Revolution and Tradition in Modern Art.  Art professor Ellen Johnson said that honor code violations in the 459-member class show that 'the whole system has collapsed.'  . . . In signing the honor pledge on her exam, one student wrote, 'I have never witnessed such organized widespread cheating in my life.  . . . At the moment I'm pretty disgusted at the methods of passing used by many others on this.'  . . . One student commented, 'It was a  zoo — answers were flying all around.'"

I talked with Bob Warner, one of our physics professors (remember Physics 36 lab?), who told me that the department was still going along much as it had been, despite the fact that there are fewer jobs now for physicists.  He said that many of the graduates are going on to other fields of graduate study.  You and I are examples of that.  He mentioned another recent graduate who is now in oceanography.  We pretty much agreed that the physics major at a liberal-arts college can be a good foundation for other endeavors mainly because of the way of thinking which it teaches.

Mr. Warner is apparently trying to spread that gospel into the Conservatory; he said he's now teaching a course on the physics of musical instruments.  You know, the frequency is inversely proportional to the length of the vibrating string or air column, things like that.  Sort of a poet's physics for the Con.

Speaking of the Conservatory, I attended a standing-room-only recital at Warner Concert Hall on Saturday night, featuring seven student performers:  three pianists, a soprano, a cellist, a trumpeter, and an organist.  The new Flentrop organ in the hall is a fine Baroque instrument, but unfortunately that's all it is; there are many post-Baroque types of tone that it can't produce.  Another complaint I had was that the organist is completely hidden from view by the pipes, so that you can't see anybody at all during an organ solo performance, just the big assemblage of metal pipes with their gold and red decoration.

I also attended a performance of Gilbert and Sullivan's Iolanthe, and the formal installation of President Danenberg at Finney Chapel, a brief ceremony that was quite comparable to a weekly assembly.  Incidentally, the Finney Chapel podium still has the same copper-colored plastic water pitcher on it.

The new Mudd Learning Center is a marvelous place, bright, colorful, spacious, and (one of the big improvements over Carnegie) air-conditioned.  The stacks are open and inviting, not at all like the maze of iron stairways in the old library.  At Mudd, each floor is like one big room, with parts of the room set aside for study areas and other parts of the room containing bookshelves.  There are six levels, and as you wander around a level discovering a group of study carrels hidden here or a little lounge area there, you're constantly surprised by the colors and designs.  They're all different.


>>>Photos from 2002
>>>Oberlin College
>>>website

As a matter of fact, Bob Steyer said he thought Mudd looked like a playground.  For example, as I was walking along one level, I came to a section of blank wall that was covered with what appeared to be semi-glossy aluminum foil, eight feet high and ten feet long.  In front of the foil was a furniture grouping, if you can call it that, consisting of an artistic jumble of 2½-foot cubes, padded and covered with green or blue carpeting.  This little area was like no other place in the entire building.  In Mudd, it's hard to feel regimented.

They do have the famous "womb chairs," which are plastic spheres about four feet in diameter mounted on swivel bases.  A cutout section in the side of each sphere enables you to climb in, and the interior padding absorbs most sound and light from the outside world.

On the more serious side, an interesting architectural feature of Mudd Library is the set of "bridges" across its façade.  TPhoto by Tom Thomas, 2002he top few levels of the building each have an enclosed bridge running from the southeast corner to the northeast corner, except that as you go higher towards the roof, each bridge is about 15 feet farther east (away from the main part of the building) than the one below it.  Each of these bridges has a great view of the Wilder Bowl and the backs of Finney, Cox, and Peters.  And what's on the bridges?  Each one has about ten private offices for student scholars.  I gather that if you're an honors student doing research on, say, Eastern Asia history, you can find yourself an office on the same floor as the history books and equip it with your papers, typewriter, reference books, and whatever else you need.

The building also has numerous seminar rooms of various sizes, from a cubbyhole just big enough for four people to an auditorium with about 80 seats.  There are vending machines, and even coin-operated electric typewriters.  The computer center in the basement has a whole room of teletypes, on which students may communicate directly with the Xerox computer.  There's an experimental computer terminal upstairs that may someday replace the card files for looking up the call numbers of books in the library.

But I do think the people who designed this building made one major mistake.  It's completely carpeted, which is fine except that as you're walking along you can develop severe eyestrain.  The carpet design on the major traffic areas consists of dark-brown and beige stripes, about half an inch wide, oriented horizontally as you look down on the carpet ahead of you.  This zebra design made my eyes water even without opening a book.

 

Monday, April 15, 1985

The Winter 1985 alumni magazine finally caught up with me this week, and in it I found a request for WOBC alumni to get in touch with the station.

Allow me to introduce myself.  Starting in 1966, I was the sports director for three semesters and the program director for one.  I then was the station manager in my senior year, 1968-69.

No Prior Experience Necessary

When I arrived at Oberlin, I was pleasantly surprised to find that it wasn't difficult to join the WOBC staff.  Two years later, Randy Bongarten had a similar experience.  In his application for WOBC station director, the future NBC Radio president recalled his first contact with the station, as a freshman in September of 1967.

"I had never been to a radio station before," he wrote, "and the place fascinated me.  I held it as one of my chief goals at Oberlin to get a show on WOBC.  With no experience in radio, of course, I wasn't very good.  Yet I was given a show (classical music)!  I was overwhelmed.

"Since then, I really haven't been away from WOBC too many days.  I think that the experience I have had is beyond words.  Being on radio, dealing with people, learning about certain technical aspects of radio, and innumerable other things have greatly contributed to my development as a person.  Realizing this, I believe that the first and most important goal of WOBC is to provide this opportunity to as many people as possible."

So what was this happy place all about?  Herewith a few reminiscences.

News, Talk, and Comedy

The increasing political consciousness of the campus in the late Sixties led to an increase in the news department's efforts, as well.  Newscasts had been mere "rip and read."  Often they weren't even read very well.  One neophyte referred to a northern-Ohio city as "Arkon" instead of Akron.  I myself got the emphasis wrong when reading the UPI headlines on the three-way 1968 presidential race.  "In the campaign today," I reported, "Hubert Humphrey seeks labor support.  Richard Nixon addresses young Republicans.  And George Wallace turns on hecklers."

Gradually, though, we began sending reporters out to cover campus stories.  When the first cassette recorders were introduced, I saw the possibilities for news and bought one for use at the station.

An innovation in my senior year was a telephone talk show, Oberlin Forum, on Sunday nights.  Such programs were less common then than now and had never been tried on WOBC before.  Our biggest concern was how to keep the inevitable obscenities off the air.  We knew we'd have to tape the conversation a few seconds before it was actually broadcast, but we lacked the type of cart machine that is customarily used for such delays.  Our solution was to put a one-hour reel of tape on the rack-mounted recorder we called Mag One, run the tape past its heads and capstan, then run the tape across to the heads and capstan of the adjacent Mag Two and onto Mag Two's takeup reel.  We'd record the calls on One and play them back for broadcast from Two a few seconds later.  Amazingly, it worked.

But the most innovative show of this era was a satire hour, Fridays at 11:30 pm as I recall, named Backgammon 101.  A crew of crazies led by Ken Braiterman was in charge of the proceedings.  One skit featured an expedition into the mysterious caverns under Tappan Square, where the explorers came across various well-known campus figures in surprising situations.

Whatever It Takes

Improvisation was necessary at WOBC, not only for comedy but often simply to get a show on the air.

I recall one basketball broadcast from Denison University.  The only microphone we had with us developed a loose connection.  The only solution was for engineer Lynn Abbott [shown here] to kneel in front of the announcers, holding the mike in one hand and the cord in the other, squeezing them together through the entire game.

We went to another basketball game at Capital University and found that the telephone company had failed to install a circuit for us.  They were apologetic and offered to let us use a regular telephone to broadcast the game, but unfortunately there was no phone in the gym.  The nearest one was in the athletic director's office, near the referees' dressing room.  We couldn't see the game from there.  What to do?

In old-time radio, "live" baseball broadcasts were often actually re-created in the studio from wire service reports.  The sportscaster, armed with sound effects, would glance at slips of paper to find out what was happening in the distant game.  He then would pretend to describe that action, pitch by pitch.  Ronald Reagan used to practice this deception at a station in Iowa.

Well, Larry Gellman and I didn't have any sound effects, but we figured no one would miss them because the audio quality on our remotes (through Northern Ohio Telephone) was generally so poor anyway.  We decided to try the old technique on a basketball broadcast.

Larry [shown here] got on the phone back to the station, and I sat in the gym, in the front row of the bleachers.  Whenever a player took a shot or was fouled, I wrote it down.  Every couple of minutes, a runner would take my notes in to Larry.  He used his imagination to fill in the passing, rebounding, and such to make a complete play-by-play.

The system wasn't foolproof.  Once I forget to note that a starting forward had been replaced in the lineup.  Thinking he was still in the game, although he wasn't taking any shots, Larry had him pulling down rebounds and handing out assists.  Larry even commented on what a great floor game this forward was having — while in actuality, the forward was sitting on the bench.

When Larry came to end of one page of my notes and the next page had not yet arrived, he had to say that one of the coaches had called a time out.  When a minute had passed and the next page still hadn't arrived, he had to describe a minor yet time-consuming injury that was holding up play.

Larry said afterwards that the referees gave him a strange look when they returned to their dressing room at halftime.  Here was this guy sitting in an office describing into a telephone the game that they had just been officiating, and in his game there were still two minutes left in the first half.

More Hours

When I was station director, the size of the staff was roughly what it had been four years before:  a little over a hundred students.  But our hours of programming had grown.  Some of us enjoyed WOBC so much that we took on several shows at the same time, like a classical program on Monday, a rock show on Tuesday, and a newscast on Friday.  Earlier, we had expanded our schedule with rock shows in what would be "drive time" in the real world:  Sunrise in the early morning and Rendezvous in the late afternoon.  Now we were breaking in new DJ's on Lunch Line (noontime popular music) and Afternoon Concert (early-afternoon classical).

Our program mix was quite varied, and we weren't sure in which direction to head.  Did our listeners want more jazz and less folk music, or what?  We took a survey.  When presented with a list of program categories, the listeners came to a consensus:  they wanted more of everything.

One listener had a specific request.  She wanted us to sign on and sign off the way other radio stations did, by playing the National Anthem.  With the political feelings on campus, making that change would not have gone over well; it smacked too much of supporting the Establishment side in the debate over the war in Viet Nam.

Maximum Hours

But we figured out a way to respond to all requests.  We would give our listeners more of everything, and we would eliminate the allegedly unpatriotic sign-offs.  We would accomplish this by never signing off!  WOBC went on the air 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Actually, the idea came from engineer Gary Freeman, who wanted to build a simple automation device.  Between Mags One and Two he mounted a small blue box with toggle switches and colored lights.  Inside were logic circuits, probably built with transistors because this was before integrated circuits became generally available.  Gary called his creation "Igor."  It would play, in sequence, the two Mags and the two cart machines.  When one tape reached a cue tone, Igor would stop that tape and start the next one.

So we loaded several big 10½" reels with lots of thin, cheap tape.  We recorded popular music onto them in 15-minute blocks separated by cue tones.  The recording was done at a slow 3¾ inches per second, so a pair of reels could run more than four hours without having to be rewound.  Of course, the result of the low-quality tape played at a low speed was rather low fidelity.  But it approached AM-radio quality.

The post-midnight DJ, upon finishing his show at 2:00 am, would activate Igor.  Four hours later, the Sunrise DJ would take back the controls and put Igor to sleep.  To satisfy FCC regulations, we didn't actually leave the station unattended from 2:00 to 6:00.  Someone would volunteer to baby-sit Igor, doing some all-night studying while listening to the music and supposedly taking meter readings every half hour.

The Voice of Igor

For the carts that played every 15 minutes, I decided that Igor needed a voice to match his robotic personality.  So I recorded a cart with phrases like "this is Igor your auto mated disk jockey you are listening to radio station W O B C whoopee do."  I even had Igor sing what passed for a song.

To make the cart, I recorded myself speaking in a monotone into a telephone.  Then I wrapped masking tape around the recorder's capstan, increasing the diameter so it would play back at a somewhat faster-than-normal speed.

This was fun.  I couldn't stop.  We experimented with other staffers speaking into the telephone; unfortunately, female voices all seemed to be transformed into something that sounded like the normal voice of one of our less-popular Lunch Line DJ's.

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The public service announcement described in the paragraph below, recorded May 10, 1969.

Later I produced a PSA using six voices, all of them my own, by running the tape faster or slower and with or without the telephone filtering.  I carried the voices beyond the edit splices by adding a little echo afterwards, so that one voice slightly overlapped the next.  Ending with three of the voices joining in a chorused "whoopee do," this PSA was quite an accomplishment.  But it panicked a few DJ's who played it on the air without having listened to it first.  The opening line was "Presenting the Mummers' one-acts."  I used my normal voice for "Presenting," but slowed down the tape for "thuuh Muuhmmuhrzz."  Upon hitting the start button and hearing that, the DJ's natural reaction was "Good grief, this cart machine is dying!"  The spot did get listeners' attention, though.

 

Sunday, March 13, 1988

Along with about 40 other alumni of the Oberlin College radio station, I was on campus last weekend for the first-ever WOBC Reunion.  Your address was on a list of people who couldn't make it, so I thought I'd write and let you know how things went.

Everyone was pleased at the turnout, but then WOBC always was a big organization.

From the class of '68, former station directors Ted Gest and John Heckenlively were on hand.  Ted's now a journalist; John, a doctor.  I was the only representative of '69, but Marc Krass (Marc "Knight") came from Cincinnati and Paul Wilcyznski and family came from Massachusetts to represent '70.  Neither of them is still in radio, either.

But the keynote speaker was Randy Bongarten ('71), the president of NBC Radio.  Randy was a skinny kid in the '60s; now he's chunkier, deeper-voiced, and has grown a mustache.  (You'd probably recognize me, too, although I too have gained weight and the bald spot of the back of my head has grown to three or four inches across.)

Hank Dolmatch was there from '72.  And there were some people from '74 whom I didn't know but you probably would have:  Jonathan Cohen, Tom Hogan, Joe Hylton, and Larry Kutner.  We all talked at length about old times.

Also on hand:  Bob Chamberlain and two of his buddies from the Class of '51.  Bob is legendary to me, because I once found at the station a recording of KOCN's first broadcast in 1950; Bob was the first station director and introduced the broadcast.  He says now that that was the only time he was ever on the air.  Although he was the president of his class, he must have been mike-shy.  But he and his contemporaries had started playing magic tricks with little radio transmitters and, over a couple of years, developed that into a campus-wide AM system.  They detailed their struggles at the reunion.

KOCN was the carrier-current AM station, heard only in certain dormitories on campus, that later became WOBC.  Above, the first letterhead.

Below, the "April Fools" issue of the Oberlin Review (March 31, 1950) satirizes the broadcasting powerhouse.

 


The article continued:

Under FCC regulations, the station is not allowed to radiate more than 250 yards or broadcast at a frequency of more than 590 kilocycles.  Explaining the move by the FCC, Thompson stated, "These guys were coming in every spot on the radio, from 590 kc up.  Our boys even picked up their programs in Puerto Rico."

Primarily responsible for the crackdown by the FCC was the broadcasting of what Thompson termed "lewd and salacious material of an extremely vulgar and embarrassing nature."  According to Thompson, the content of the test programs was such that three FCC officials fainted and a fourth suffered a nervous collapse.

FCC officials broke into Chamberlain's room in Embassy at 6:10 yesterday afternoon and found the station director sleeping.  Not until he was taken to the basement of the Varse for questioning did Chamberlain come to sufficiently to realize what was going on.  Interviewed by a Review reporter this morning, Chamberlain gushed, "The whole incident is very embarrassing.  They caught me with nothing on, and they haven't got anything on me."

According to an estimate by Chief Engineer Thurber, FCC officials confiscated over $2000 worth of valuable equipment lodged at the KOCN studios.  "I don't care about the rest of that stuff," Thurber commented, "but they just better give me back my record of 'Ragmop'." 

 

I was surprised that most of the people I knew 20 years ago had changed very little.  Paul looks different, but I did recognize his voice at once.  Randy has grown up in both appearance and voice.  But the others were just as I remembered them.

So, too, were the studios.  No structural changes have been made in 15 years.  The same on-air lights are on the walls.  One of the Ampexes we had in the '60s is still in the control room, still with the original typed warning about lifting the tape off the heads.  But the function of some rooms has changed.  Studio A is sort of an office, Studio B is used for news production (if they ever do any), and the control room is also the on-the-air studio.

As you can imagine, WOBC's programming has also changed as student generations come and go.  The biggest change came about seven years ago, when by FCC mandate all 10-watt stations had to either increase power or stop cluttering up the band.  WOBC went to year-round operation at 440 watts, which gives it a coverage area stretching from Sandusky to the outskirts of Cleveland.  Now it "serves Lorain County" and avoids mentioning Oberlin on the air any more than necessary.  The staff is roughly 50 students and 20 outside volunteers.

This leads to at least two identity crises.  Is WOBC a college-based station or not?  And does it exist primarily to serve its staff or its listeners?  As a traditionalist, I vote "college-based" and "staff."  Surprisingly, I think we convinced most of the current station management that WOBC's prime function is not actually to serve its listeners, even at 440 watts.  It simply doesn't have the resources.  WOBC cannot afford to send a news team into Elyria to cover a city council meeting.  Rather, it must let its staff do what they're interested in doing, and hope that whoever is within the coverage area is interested in listening.

Programming seems very free-form.  WOBC bills itself as "alternative radio," something completely different from commercial stations.  And it is.  The music is mostly from smaller labels; those companies seem grateful for the exposure, but I didn't hear much that I would want to listen to.  There isn't much classical music, because it's currently hard to find people who want to be classical hosts.  WOBC does still carry the Metropolitan Opera, though, and it sounds much better than in our day because it now is distributed by satellite.

And, as usual, there are problems with finding enough money to upgrade the equipment, which is, as usual, falling apart.  We alumni spontaneously began thinking of ways to help.  This struck me as remarkable at first, because no one had asked for help.  But then I realized that all of us at the reunion still have a soft spot in our hearts for WOBC.

Paul suggested that the station really ought to have a UPI news wire.  I agreed, but said it would be better to leave such choices up to the current station management; maybe they need a new transmitter more.  Randy suggested raising enough money (tens of thousands) to endow future capital expenditures.

[Oberlin College] President [S. Frederick] Starr, who admits to listening to the station at times, warned that first we should talk to the Student Finance Committee.  If we alumni donate a couple of thousand to WOBC, then the SFC is likely to cut a couple of thousand from their annual allocation, and they gain nothing.

Eventually, an informal committee was formed.  So be expecting a "would you like to contribute" letter someday.

 

Monday, March 7, 1988 (to Jim Rippie, Music Director)

Along with the rest of the WOBC alumni who visited the campus this past weekend, I enjoyed meeting you and other members of the current staff.  Many of the problems you're struggling with are quite familiar to those of us who have been there before.  For what it's worth, here are a few thoughts on the station's future.

Area of Service

After seven years as more than just a campus station, there still seems to be uncertainty as to what sort of station WOBC actually is.  You profess to serve Lorain County, but the reality is both more and less than that.

More than that:  WOBC's signal also reaches parts of the counties of Erie, Huron, Ashland, Medina, and Cuyahoga, an area of well over a thousand square miles.  Transmitter and antenna improvements could greatly increase that area in the future.

Less than that:  the station lacks the resources to go out of town even into Lorain County in search of issues that affect people in this broad and diverse coverage area.  On a regular basis, you can't provide news coverage of wheat prices or go to Lorain to investigate the proposed casino.  "Serving" the community is limited to such things as welcoming volunteer broadcasters from the community and providing programming that speaks to the general human condition.

I think WOBC would have a better sense of direction if it were to proclaim, without apology, its location on the campus of the most important cultural resource in its listening area.  Let it be "alternative radio from the campus of Oberlin College."  (Not "from Oberlin College"; that implies official control.)  Continue to invite non-students to come to campus and do their shows; continue to explain to out-of-town listeners where Finney is; continue to explore non-College issues like unemployment and day-care centers.  But let all this have a focus and a home at the great center of liberal education in Oberlin.

Priority:  Talkers or Listeners?

Another area of uncertain philosophy is the question of whether WOBC exists for its listeners or for its staff of volunteers.  The consensus at the reunion was "for its staff."  But still, with 440 watts, there has to be more attention paid to the needs of the listeners than there was in my day.

Let me suggest the analogy of the college football team.  Why does it exist?  Well, the players get exercise and a break from the pressure of studying.  They learn how to work together, each playing a role in a larger enterprise.  They provide entertainment for the fans, and they keep the name of Oberlin in the newspapers.  These are among the purposes of the team, its reasons for being.

What about winning football games?  Well, victory is the goal each week.  It's what the players work toward in practice.  It's what they sincerely want to achieve.  But if they fail to win, that doesn't invalidate the purposes of the team.  They have, even in defeat, achieved exercise and diversion and cooperation while providing entertainment and publicity.  The process of working toward the goal is more important than actually attaining the goal.

At WOBC, I submit, the purpose is to provide various benefits to the staff members, including recreation as well as practical experience in cooperation, organization, and the technical and business aspects of broadcasting.  The goal is to serve the listeners.  You should always be aiming for that goal, but it is not WOBC's true reason for being.

Implications

I think it follows that there may be instances where the quality of the product has to suffer in order to promote the broader purpose.  If you have aspiring DJ's who aren't good enough to be on the air, don't reject them completely.  Find something else for them to do (off the air, or in classical music, for example).  Hide them in an obscure time slot (which, you'll recall, is where Randy Bongarten got his start in radio at WOBC).  Or apprentice them to established DJ's who are willing to help bring them up to WOBC's standards.

Apprenticeship might also help on the Coordinating Staff level, where one of your problems is continuity of direction from one semester to the next.  Suppose each officer appointed an assistant to share some of the detail work.  When it came time to replace the officer, the assistant would have enough experience to be the leading candidate (though not the automatic choice) for the job.  And presumably he would share some of the philosophies of his predecessor, who appointed him assistant in the first place.

So there are some thoughts from the perspective on one who's nearly twenty years removed from the realities of the station.  I hope they have some validity.  Pass them along to others who might be interested.  But, of course, it is you who are at WOBC now who have the choices to make.  From 1951 to the present day, we all are agreed that the great glory of WOBC has been that is run by student volunteers . . . not an academic department, not the College administration, and certainly not the alumni.  Interested as we are in the continued success of WOBC, it's your show.  We wish you well.

 

Friday, December 15, 1989

One of the things that we alumni did at the WOBC reunion at Oberlin in 1988 was to sit around reminiscing into tape recorders.  Ted Gest then edited the transcripts of what we said into a "WOBC Oral History," which was finally published this past summer.  I helped out by proofreading the book.

An excerpt, from Kristin Webb '78 (page 58):

"We also serialized 'War and Peace' on the air.  Jim Oppenheim, who was on for 10 minutes a day, had the idea to do 10 minutes a day of 'War and Peace.'  He would get guest readers from all over the campus.  He'd have all kinds of stars come over to sit in Studio A, and we would knock out a week at a time.  Every day, we would have a blurb in Newscope telling who would be on the air.  John Proffitt, an opera announcer from New York who was here as a guest in residence, serialized much of it; he got us a fair way into the book.  He had a wonderful, resonant, rolling voice.  He was there for just a semester, but it was wonderful.  We would just sit there and listen to these rolling waves of sound."

 

TBT

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