About Site


Threads: Benchmark Series

Letters written by me, updated June 2001
to include the period February 8-May 29, 1970

More About Threads

Background:  My year of graduate school at Syracuse University was not limited to the campus.  We went on several field trips, under the name of "Benchmark Series Lectures," to visit people who were actually working in the upper levels of the broadcasting industry and hear what they had to say.  The first trip was to New York City.


Sunday, February 8, 1970

Our group (about 50 students and three professors) met morning, afternoon, and evening for 2½ days at Syracuse House, which is located just off Fifth Avenue at the southern corner of Central Park.  This building serves mainly as an alumni club for Syracuse grads when they're in Manhattan and as an interviewing center for prospective students, but we used the library to hold our meetings.

Members of the New York chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences talked to us about what they do and what we should be doing.  So did some other people, including TV Guide's movie critic, Judith Crist, and a couple of newscasters from WABC-TV.

The most interesting of these talks (to me) was one given by the producer-director of the CBS Leonard Bernstein Young People's Concerts.  He brought along not only films of parts of these concerts (and, to show a different technique, of part of another program which was done in a studio rather than in Philharmonic Hall); he also showed, on a separate screen, slides of the pages of the musical score, which he had marked with red numbers to remind himself which camera to use at what times.  Seeing the two simultaneously (the film and the slides), we got a good idea of his method and of what it's like to direct a show like this.  Eight cameras he was using!

Another thing most of us did was to go on a special tour of the NBC studios, special in the sense that the man taking us around actually worked there as a unit manager (he wasn't merely a guide) and we got to see and do things that ordinary tourists would never be permitted to do, like go through the video-tape center with its 30 VTRs and its engineers running around in circles, or wander around the darkened Johnny Carson studio totally unrestrained, inspecting cameras and cue cards and furniture and microphones.

Some details that I didn't include in this letter:

The video-tape center was feeding the NBC television network to the eastern part of the country.  The feed that night happened to be a black-and-white movie; it was running simultaneously on two or three different machines in case one developed a problem.  It impressed me to be within touching distance of the NBC network.

Among the other studios we visited was one for a soap opera, with many little sets jumbled up close to each other in the middle of the room so that the cameras could set up around the perimeter.

And there was the huge Studio 8-H, formerly home to Toscanini's symphony orchestra.  Five years later, it would become home to Saturday Night Live.  When we saw it that night from the balcony, Studio 8-H happened to be arranged to try out ideas for Election Night, though most of the room was empty.

The view from that balcony is shown in the picture above, which was taken 15 months earlier during the 1968 election.  A camera crane looms in the foreground, while a couple of people walk on the floor below.

The studios of WNBC-AM are in the same building, and they had a telephone talk show going when we went through; the engineering setup was almost the same as for Oberlin Forum, except that they used special gadgets on their two tape decks that made a Croxall Loop unnecessary.  Also, there was only one engineer rather than a gaggle.

A Croxall Loop was something we'd invented at my Oberlin College radio station, WOBC.  Both WNBC and WOBC used a pair of tape decks, standing side by side, to produce a seven-second delay on telephone talk shows.  The conversation would be recorded on the left machine; then the tape would travel over to the right machine and be played back seven seconds later.  If the caller said anything obscene, the engineers had seven seconds to switch to something else before the obscenity made it to the playback deck and onto the air.  But with only the feed reel of the left deck and the takeup reel of the right deck in use, the other two reels tended to spin wildly.  The Croxall Loop ran a dummy tape between those two reels so that they were loaded normally.

All in all, it was quite an interesting time.  I also walked around midtown Manhattan quite a bit, Fifth Avenue to the Hudson and Central Park to Times Square; I had been there only once before, when I was 11 years old, so I wanted to get a feel of what the place is like.

Saturday, April 18, 1970

During the first half of spring vacation, our Syracuse TV group took a field trip to Washington D.C. to learn a little more about how things are in the real world.  This was the second in our "Benchmark Series"; the first trip was the January one to New York City, the third will be to Rochester, New York, next month to look at a lot of famous old films, and the fourth will be to Toronto at the beginning of June to visit the CBC and the National Film Board of Canada.

About 40 of us went to Washington.  We did such things as:

  • listen to a panel of four foreign correspondents, from Australia, Germany, the Netherlands, and the USSR, talking to us about how they reported the Washington scene to their radio listeners back home.

  • take a tour of the Capitol press galleries and studios, with a broadcast newsman as a guide.

  • talk to the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense at the Pentagon, plus three more newsmen including Robert Goralski of NBC and Steve Rowan of CBS, about how Defense news is given to the press.

  • take a tour of the Voice of America studios, complete with a talk with the Deputy Director of VOA in his office.

  • take another tour of the USIA television studios, where programs are prepared for foreign distribution.

  • view a couple of USIA films, which cannot be show publicly (only privately) in the United States because they're supposedly propaganda.

  • listen to a talk by a CBS vice-president on the relation of the government to broadcasting today.

  • take a full tour, complete with lecture, slides, and impressive consoles and wall-sized global maps, at the brand-new Comsat building.  (Comsat owns and operates all the communications satellites.)

In addition, one morning we split up into small groups to go with various news teams on their rounds.  My group of six ended up attending a White House press briefing; these are held twice a day in the West Wing of the White House, with the press secretary making statements and the reporters asking him questions.

We stood quietly against the wall with our backs to the Rose Garden, as indicated by the red arrow.

Neither Richard Nixon nor Ron Ziegler was at the podium.  It was Ziegler's deputy who made the daily announcements.

About the only news that came out of this particular conference was that Nixon would not be available to throw out the first ball to open the baseball season.

But it was still an interesting meeting, because the reporters were trying to find out whether the White House would make an announcement if Nixon decided not to withdraw more troops for awhile, or whether they would simply not make any announcement until he decided actually to withdraw some more.  We stood in the back of the room with the reporters who didn't get seats, including CBS's Dan Rather and NBC's Herb Kaplow, just as though we belonged there.  As someone said later, "I've decided that the only way to see Washington is if you have contacts."  How many tourists get to attend things like that?  We did because our professor knew one of the newsmen.


Friday, May 29, 1970

We did go to Rochester two weeks ago (May 14 and 15) to view some old films at George Eastman House, as previously announced.  These included, among others, some newsreels from the late twenties and a couple of very well-done Nazi films from the mid-thirties.

One of the latter was a classic, Triumph des Willens (or "Triumph of the Will").  It showed a Nazi party convention in Nuremburg in 1934, a little over a year after Hitler came to power.  Actually the convention was more like a pageant, with parades of workers and youths and soldiers singing and reciting in chorus (Wir sind die Soldat-Arbeiten, "We are the solider-workers," sang hundreds of men in work uniforms holding spades).  There were also speeches from time to time, most of them by Hitler, always from a different podium or at a different time of day, always well photographed.  I would have been able to understand more of them if Hitler hadn't had the habit of starting out his speeches calmly but then starting to shriek and continuing to shriek until the end; this made the sound distorted, and of course there were no subtitles.  As a matter of fact, there wasn't even any narration, which is unusual for a documentary-type film.  The viewer simply watched the spectacle and listened to the speeches, deciding for himself whether Hitler would in fact restore greatness to Germany.  Of course, the whole thing was planned to give the impression that he would.

Sorry if I went on a little long about that, but I just finished a term paper yesterday in which that film had to be discussed.  I can't stop myself.



Back to Top
More BroadcastMore Broadcast