March 19, 1968, was the last Tuesday before Spring Vacation at Oberlin College. It was also the birthday of James W. Pratt III. As he did every Tuesday morning, Jim switched on the transmitter and rocked into Sunrise! his DJ show on WOBC-FM.
But there would be much more to come on March 19, 1968. It was Election Day!
At Oberlin, student activism was at its height. Many students spoke out in favor of civil rights and against the Vietnam War. Over 30 undergraduates were headed to Wisconsin to campaign for Eugene McCarthy in the presidential primary. There were also local issues: student autonomy in setting dormitory rules, visits by military recruiters, and so on. Activists hoped that Student Senate would be the agent of on-campus change.
A total of 46 candidates had filed for 22 one-year terms on Senate. Most of them grouped themselves into parties. The most radical party, called SLATE, already held a plurality in the current Senate; this year, it was fielding a full "slate" of 22 candidates. ACT had eight, CHANGE five, VOICE three, and COMMUNICATORS two. There were six independents.
Campaigning lasted about a week, and then we students voted for as many as 22 of the candidates. We marked our ballots that Tuesday at our various dining halls. They would be counted that night in the student union building, Wilder Hall, where Student Senate occupied rooms on the first floor. The results would be announced in the building's lobby.
WOBC's studios were on the third floor of Wilder, so it was a simple matter to set up a feed from downstairs. The single brown cord from a "stick mic" on the west side of the lobby ran across the floor to an amplifier in the stairwell. I would be the reporter holding the microphone.
Upstairs, news director Bob Steyer would anchor our coverage from Studio A.
There were no disk jockeys in the evening, because evening hours featured classical music introduced by hosts in Studio D. Therefore the DJs' normal microphone in Studio B, called Mic 3, would not be needed until after midnight, and my feed was patched into a circuit called MIC 3 NN, for "NON-NORMAL."
Although Bob and I had no direct communication channel, I needed some way to know when I was on the air. I borrowed the book-sized battery-powered FM radio from my dorm room and threaded a belt through its handle so that I could wear it over my shoulders like a backpack. As usual, I also wore a jacket and tie, so the radio was barely noticeable beneath my navy-blue blazer except for the white earphone wire running from my collar to my left ear.
Standing in the first-floor hallway, listening to the station on my backpack radio, I filed a thirty-second live report during the 7:25 pm news. I described how, minutes before, the first ballot boxes had arrived at the Senate office. Then it was time for Evening Concert. At 9:00, Bob and I updated the listeners with a three-minute report. Next came a program of new Nonesuch releases, another update at 10:00, and Music Perspective I at 10:03. Full coverage would begin with the Oberlin Digest time slot at 11:00 pm.
When Bob called on me for a live report, I considered ending it with a question or a leading comment directed back to him. This would have allowed us to have a brief two-way conversation on the air. But we'd forgotten to discuss this possibility, and we hadn't warned the engineer that he might need to leave me on the air a little longer. So I played it safe and closed out each report with the standard tag line, "This is Tom Thomas, WOBC News."
The ballot boxes from the various dining halls could not all be counted at the same time, of course. It had become the custom to count the ballots from the conservative parts of the campus first and hold the "radical dormitories" until the end of the evening. Those were the dining halls at co-ops and upper-class dorms, where the voters would be more likely to support a party like SLATE.
A conspiracy-minded skeptic might suggest one reason for this procedure. The SLATE-controlled Senate could delay opening the boxes from "their" dorms until they knew how many votes would be needed to elect their candidates. Then they could slip in the necessary number of fraudulent ballots before the official tally began. But that scandalous thought never occurred to me in 1968. It occurs to me now only because I've read Robert Caro's account (in the biography Lyndon Johnson: Means of Ascent) of some similar shenanigans by "Landslide Lyndon" in Texas during the 1940s.
No, I still think that the SLATE-controlled Senate merely wanted to increase the drama by arranging an inspiring come-from-behind surge by their candidates to win the election going away. And that's what happened. In our updates, we listed several conservative candidates among the early leaders, but we cautioned that the leaders could change as the evening went on.
In the Wilder lobby, a wall of poster-board charts displayed the interim totals. Sometime after 11:00, Ted Gest stepped in front of the charts to announce the final results. Ted had been the program director of WOBC until I assumed that post two months before. Now he was speaking in his role as the chairman of the Senate's Administrative Committee. I stood nearby with my live microphone and held it toward Ted as he called out the totals for each candidate.
Occasionally I'd pull the mic back and add, in a low golf-announcer voice, the key piece of information that Ted was omitting: party affiliation. "Those last two candidates were members of SLATE. Next to be announced will be an ACT candidate." I had no VU meter, but instinct told me that my soft close voice and his loud distant voice should register at similar audio levels. At one point, Ted announced several hundred votes for Bob Weiner, pronouncing it "wye-ner." I knew Bob. We'd worked together on Oberlin Digest. So I said quietly, "Bob Weener is a member of CHANGE." I held the mic back toward Ted, who laughed, "Excuse me; that's Bob Weener."
It was a record-setting turnout. An astounding 80% of the campus participated, more than 1,800 students, with 1,040 of them marking their ballots for the top vote-getter, SLATE's Bob Shapiro. The campus newspaper reported:
(If you're keeping count, Bob Watts is the fourth "Bob" to figure in this story. There were a whole lot of Roberts back then.)
When Ted's announcements were complete, I wrapped up my report from the scene and sent it back upstairs to Bob Steyer, who concluded our coverage. It was now 12:30 am. I had been playing reporter for more than five hours, and we had been on the air continuously for the last hour and a half.
I stayed in the lobby for a while, soaking in the scene as the winners celebrated and congratulated each other. I was also waiting for the crowd to thin out so that I could wrap up my microphone cord and return the equipment to the station. In my ear, I heard WOBC's station ID, followed by rock music as the next program began, Night Patrol. Randy Bongarten was going to be spinning the records.
And then, over the music, I heard my mic come back on the air. By that, I mean that the lobby noise that I had been hearing with my right ear was now also emanating from the earphone in my left ear. This was unexpected. It was as though a tally light had come on and a stage manager had pointed at me and said, "Go!"
Probably I should have said nothing. Maybe I should have tried to be clever with something like "And now it's time for another 90 minutes of election returns!" But it had been a long night and my brain was tired. What I said into my live mic was "Hello?"
Upstairs in Studio B, Randy immediately understood the reason why, after turning on his mic, he had heard my voice instead. He flipped off the NON-NORMAL switch and said, "Oh, no, you don't! That's enough politics for one night." And indeed it was.