Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Jack Shelley (1912-2010)

Jack Shelley died yesterday (9/14/10) in Ames, Iowa.  A veteran broadcaster and journalism teacher, he was arguably one of the best known Iowans of the past half-century or so.  He was 90 years old.

Many accolades for Jack have been offered by people who knew him well – and others who never met him, but remember his work as a long-time broadcaster at WHO radio and television in Des Moines.  He followed that with a distinguished career as a journalism professor at Iowa State University.

The Des Moines Register and ISU School of Journalism are among those who've posted a wealth of information about Jack, including some audio excerpts of memorable broadcasts, a few photographs, and a tribute compiled by Jeff Stein of the Iowa Broadcast News Association.

Jack was a teacher of mine at ISU, and I’ve written about him before in this Radio-TV Journal.  Now I’d like to offer a few more stories about this remarkable man.

I first got to know Jack in the late 1960s when he had already retired from WHO and had gone to Ames to teach broadcast journalism at Iowa State University.  I was News Director at KMA Radio in Shenandoah and met Jack at gatherings of the Iowa Broadcast News Association, for which he served as Secretary-Treasurer for many years.

Jack Shelley was a major influence in my deciding to leave KMA and return to school to work on a Master’s degree at Iowa State, which I did in 1969.  Like a long line of students who studied under Jack before and since, I became an ardent admirer.  I had known little about his work at WHO, but his reputation as a top-flight broadcast journalist and manager were well-known across Iowa.

After completing coursework for my M.S. degree, I chose to return to the Navy and signed up for Officer Candidate School in Newport, Rhode Island.  But poor color perception cut short my aspirations of a career in the active duty Navy, and I soon found myself back home – with a wife and two children, but no job.

I still remember Jack calling me one evening and saying, “Larry, there’s a job out in Sioux City that might suit you.  It’s not in news – it’s a job as a TV weatherman, and I remember you said you’d done weather before in western Nebraska.”  Within days, I interviewed for the job and was on my way to Sioux City as a weatherman at KMEG-TV, the CBS affiliate.  Jack’s help allowed me to become gainfully employed again, for which I was -- and remain -- deeply grateful.  I’m guessing he did that sort of thing for hundreds of ISU students over the years.  

Since leaving Iowa State in 1971, I’ve returned only once – in 1974 to defend my M.S. thesis before a graduate committee.   Remembering that trip back to Ames spurs other poignant memories of Jack, who served on my committee, going above and beyond the call of duty to help me.  By that time, I was working for KLRN-TV in Austin, Texas, and raising a family.  I was very “non-traditional” as students go.  Jack offered several valuable suggestions for my thesis regarding Armed Forces Radio and Television service.  Without that guidance and inspiration, I doubt that I would have persevered.  Jack was a major force in my pursuing and receiving a Master’s degree.

Perhaps the most poignant illustration of Jack’s graciousness came just a few years ago.  It was the spring of 2003, and I was in my final years of broadcasting, serving as President of the Pennsylvania Public Television Network.  I had gotten wind of Robert Underhill’s book, Jack Shelley and the News, published in 2002 by McMillen Publishing in Ames.  I immediately called the publisher and ordered a copy – but was soon overtaken by a desire to get in touch with Jack.

By this time, Jack was already a spry 90 years old.  I tracked down his phone number in Ames and gave him a call. 

And what a delightful exchange it was.

Despite years having passed since we last communicated, Jack answered the phone and it was like a segue from a commercial to the news.  He wanted to know all about what I was up to, and how things were going.  I asked about his Rotary activities, WOI, and other ISU faculty I remembered – folks like Jake Hvistendahl, Ed Blinn, and others.

Then I told him I’d ordered his biography from McMillen Publishing.

“You have?  When did you order it?”

“Just today,” I remember saying; whereupon, Jack – having celebrated his 90th birthday just a few weeks earlier – announced that he was going to McMillen’s that very day. If they hadn’t already shipped the book, he would sign it for me.


Underhill’s book, and the abundant obituaries and tributes pouring out for Jack Shelley are a testament to a life well lived.  And as I gaze upon Jack’s perfectly penned note inside the cover, I am very moved.  “For Larry, with happy memories of our time at Iowa State.  Best wishes… Jack Shelley, April 1, 2003.

Happy memories, indeed.  Godspeed, Jack Shelley.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Bill Finch was a 'King of Swing'

Bill Finch loved music. But it was broadcasting where he left his mark.

A native of Illinois, Finch was deeply rooted in the music and culture that he had grown up with in the 1930’s and ‘40s.

He also had a knack for new technologies and ventured into broadcasting – first radio, and then television. But television was a mere flirtation, and he molded his lifelong career around radio, sharing his love of big band music with radio audiences from Nebraska and Colorado to South Carolina – and around the world.

It’s no surprise that he was blending those two traits when he partnered with Coloradan Bob Fouse to put Chadron radio station KCSR on the air back in May of 1954. That event was listed among “New Beginnings” in the recently-published history of Chadron, Nebraska, prepared as part of the quasquicentennial celebration this summer.

Few folks with first-hand knowledge about the beginning of KCSR are still around. So it’s left to those of us who were mere youngsters romping around Chadron in the mid 1950’s to tell the story. And that story can’t be told without first knowing about the people who made it happen – and Bill Finch was in the thick of it!

Born in Lovejoy, Illinois, in 1922, Finch was just a few months old when his parents moved to Chicago. In later life, he told newspaper writer Thom Anderson that life as a big-city kid was pretty exciting. He said he remembered the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, which took place not far from his house – as was the Biograph Theatre, were gangster John Dillinger was killed.

“The gangsters were often looked at as sort of folk heroes…we didn’t worry about them, though. They were never a real danger to citizens – only to each other when one invaded the other’s turf. The police figured they’d just kill each other,” Finch was quoted as saying.

He also remembered with great delight the wide array of big bands that would play in the many ballrooms around Chicago – from Glenn Miller and Guy Lombardo to Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman.

“Being raised in the Big Band era was the best thing a person who was musically inclined could possibly experience,” he was once quoted as saying. Those inclinations led him to master the saxophone and clarinet.

During World War II, Finch served a stint in the Pacific with the U.S. Army Signal Corps. His four-year hitch included an assignment to Special Services and ended in Tokyo, where he was a courier with the Army Security Agency. After his discharge as a 1st Lieutenant, he enrolled in the broadcasting program at Denver University, where he graduated in 1951. Then it was off to his first radio job at KRAI in Craig, Colorado, where he was Sales Manager and also handled announcing chores.

It was likely in Denver, however, that Bill Finch crossed paths with Bob Fouse, an announcer and Promotion Manager at KTLN in Denver. It was fortuitous that Fouse’s family was apparently quite wealthy. Finch and Fouse joined forces in the early 1950’s and decided to build a radio station in Chadron, Nebraska. The station went on the air in May of 1954 from studios at 212 Bordeaux Street, just a few doors north of where the station is now located.

Much could be written about those early days of KCSR, which operated at 1450 Kilocycles with only 250 watts. Nonetheless, the station boasted that it was the “Tri-State Voice by Listener Choice,” but the signal struggled to reliably serve an audience in South Dakota – let alone Wyoming, which was even farther away.

But everywhere the signal could be heard, the station was a hit!

Early KCSR staff members included other DU alums like Cliff Pike and Freeman Hover. They were creative and resourceful, and they didn’t hesitate to take chances trying new things. The station was on the air 18-hours a day and incorporated everything from country and western to classical music in a format that was “keyed to the mood of the day.” But it was the local news, sports, and weather that caught the fancy of a Chadron-area audience hungry for their own radio station. They loved it.

Other early staff included Dave Scherling, who had been at KGOS in Torrington, and local Chadronites Ted Turpin and Sherry Girmann. Turpin did news and sports. Girmann was receptionist and stenographer.

Finch served as Station Manager and guided most of the technical work, while Fouse was Commercial Manager. Both did on-air work, but Fouse dove full force into programming, injecting his rare brand of creativity that was showcased on a weekday morning program called Breakfast with the Boys. We have some photographs from this era; you'll find some of them posted in our KCSR Gallery.

Finch and his wife Dorothy became well-known in the community; their children Barbara and Ron enrolled in the Chadron public school system. Finch had a flair for showmanship, too, creating and hosting a live weekly music program called Curly’s Corral,” featuring area country and western musicians. “Curly” Finch became something of a celebrity, donning western outfits (at left) and even riding a horse down Main Street in a parade. Quite a trick for a guy who grew up in Chicago! But he knew the importance of country music to station listeners, and he responded in a positive way.

In 1958, as a part-time announcer at the station, I vividly recall one summer afternoon when Bill was at the control board hosting an afternoon of recorded music. He decided to spice it up a bit by playing Count Basie's “One O’clock Jump,” followed by another version of....“One O’clock Jump”......and then..... yet another version! I have no recollection of just how many renditions he found, but he was loving every minute of it. It was clear he had a passion for big band music – even if it was demonstrated in a rather unorthodox way! He was, after all, the boss!

By late 1958 and early 1959, Finch was simultaneously managing KDUH-TV in Hay Springs, the new television station owned by Duhamel Broadcasting Enterprises. Whatever the motivation for Finch and Fouse, they sold KCSR to the Huse Publishing Company of Norfolk, Nebraska. The deal was done in August 1959, and Finch was gone from Chadron.
Finch then bought a radio station in Clewiston, Florida, but it became a tumultuous time for him and his family. He was soon divorced from Dorothy and lost the station, taking a job at WFTL in Fort Lauderdale.

By 1963, Bill Finch met magazine editor Patricia Lane, and they wed on New Year’s Day in 1964, soon re-locating to Casper, Wyoming, where he was again involved in broadcasting. But the lure of the Rockies took hold, and Bill and Pat moved to Colorado Springs, where – among other things – he hosted a weekend big band program called The Finch Bandwagon on KVOR.

The program was heard by an Air Force colonel who had some clout with higher brass, and Finch was asked to produce the program for the worldwide audience of the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service. He’d periodically fly to Los Angeles and record as many as 13 programs in one trip.

This phase of Bill Finch’s career accomplished several things. First, it gave him an opportunity to invite top-name talent to the studio for interviews that could be inserted into his programs, which were pressed to LP discs and distributed to AFRTS station and ships around the globe. Surely, it must have been a real kick for the kid from Chicago to rub shoulders with top entertainers, ranging from musicians like Percy Faith, Patti Page, Stan Kenton, Frankie Carle and Lawrence Welk (shown here with Bill Finch), to legendary writers like Jimmie McHugh and Sammy Cahn, to name just a few. Second, as an ex-GI, Finch relished being able to share music that he had grown up with and loved with a whole new generation of American kids – not to mention the large “shadow” audience that tuned in AFRTS in every part of the world.

Bill and Pat Finch had a son of their own, Holmes, who spent his formative years in Colorado Springs.

The AFRTS gig went on for more than a decade, but – according to a 2002 news story – Finch lost is voice and had to undergo surgery on his vocal chords. While he regained his voice, it was markedly different, and Finch apparently felt that his tenure as a radio announcer was at an end.

Shortly thereafter, the family headed east – to South Carolina. They settled in Pamplico, where Pat had grown up.

In 1975, the final chapter of Bill Finch’s broadcast career unfolded. He went to work at WJMX in nearby Florence and resurrected the Finch Bandwagon radio show. It thrived and became something of a fixture on the station, running steadily for 27 years. At the end of that long stint on radio station WJMX, writer Stella Miller dubbed Finch the 'King of Swing' in an article for Golden Life magazine.

Finch's first wife, Dorothy, suffered a bout of heart ailments and passed away in 1995 in Orlando, Florida. Their daughter Barbara lives in Orlando today, where her husband is project manager for a construction company. They have five children, 10 grandchildren, and one great grandchild. Finch's older son Ron lives in China and owns his own window dressing company. Ron’s two sons are in college and his daughter is in high school. Finch's younger son, Holmes -- by his second wife, Pat -- is an Associate Professor at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, where he serves as Director of Research for the Office of Charter School Research.

In 2002, on his 80th birthday, Finch suffered a stroke. Despite this significant setback, he fought his way back and was soon sharing the helm of The Finch Bandwagon on another South Carolina station, WOLS, where he was again immersing himself – and his many fans in the area – with his beloved big band music. Click on the "Play" button below and enjoy an original AFRTS broadcast of The Finch Bandwagon.

Bill Finch died June 9, 2004, just a few weeks shy of his 82nd birthday. His widow, Pat, continues to live in her old hometown of Pamplico, South Carolina.
Our thanks to Pat Finch, Barbara (Finch) Schenk, Holmes Finch, and Ruth Munn Kilgallon for generously sharing photos and other materials used in this article.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Lillie Herndon -- a class act

Some 35 years ago, shortly after I’d just taken a job as General Manager of public radio station KOSU-FM at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, I had the opportunity to meet one of the most gracious and inspiring ladies I’ve ever known.

Her name was Lillie Herndon, a South Carolinian who had been appointed to the Board of Directors of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting by President Nixon. This photo shows Lillie during the period she served as president of the South Carolina Council of Parents and Teachers – long before I met her. She later would serve as president of the national Parents and Teachers Association (PTA).

Our paths first crossed at a “CPB Regional Roundtable” conducted at a small hotel near Kansas City International Airport. It was one of my first out-of-state meetings as a fledgling manager in the public broadcasting system, and I knew few of my new colleagues – and even fewer of the big guns from Washington, D.C.

How fortuitous and delightful it was for me to end up seated next to Lillie Herndon, whose southern charm was at once disarming – if a bit misleading. Not that she was ever anything but gracious. But her kindly manner and gentle ways belied her enormous experience in business and education.

We swapped pleasantries and had a chance to visit a bit before and during the meeting. By the end of the day, I was on my way back to Stillwater, while Lillie and other CPB folks were trekking toward another city on their jaunt across the country to yet another CPB roundtable.

It would be some months before Lillie and I would meet again at another meeting, and I don’t remember where it was, but I do remember her greeting me with, “Hello, Larry, how are you?”

Many folks have a knack for remembering names. Some work at it. For others, like Lillie Herndon, it comes from a genuine interest in other people and wanting to learn more about them and their ideas. It’s getting beyond the exterior shield that too many of us throw up in our personal and professional relationships.

Lillie and I crossed paths several more times in the following years, but as fate would have it, we never had occasion to work together or have more discussions about our passions for public broadcasting.

I learned only this week that Lillie Herndon died in December (12/3/09) at her home in South Carolina. She was 93 years old. Hers was a remarkable career of public service – one that touched so many lives, through her work in business, education, and public broadcasting. Her obituary provides a glimpse into the career of this wonderful southern lady.

I wish I had known her better, but I’m grateful for having known her at all. Lillie Herndon will be deeply missed.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

America's "Voice

Despite intense jamming by the Soviet Union and China during the Cold War, and unabashed political assaults within the U.S. government over the years, the Voice of America has survived.

Alas, while the broadcasting service is a mere shadow of its former self, VOA continues to span the globe in 45 languages, reaching an audience that they estimate at about 130 million people every week. To serve that audience, VOA uses shortwave, FM, medium wave AM broadcasts, the Internet, and television.

Long-time international broadcaster Alan Heil, Jr., who toiled in the vineyards of VOA from 1962 until 1998, has written Voice of America – A History, and it’s a masterful history of an important American institution. While little known within U.S. borders because of the Smith-Mundt Act (yep, that’s South Dakota’s own Karl Mundt), the Voice of American has been a beacon of information and hope for millions of people around the world since it was created in 1942.

The Heil book introduces us to VOA by providing a fascinating narrative about its role in providing news and information to some 60 million Chinese during the tumultuous 1989 uprising in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. The VOA delivered news that the Chinese citizens couldn’t get from their own government. It’s a compelling story that hooks the reader right away.

Then Heil escorts readers back to the origin of the VOA in 1942, when its first broadcasts in German pledged to listeners in Europe, “We bring you voices from America. Today, and daily from now on, we shall speak to you about America and the war. The news may be good for us. The news may be bad. But we shall tell you the truth.”

And that has been a guiding light for VOA for nearly seven decades.

Heil sorts out the continuing struggle to “get it straight” during the early journalistic years of VOA. He provides insightful stories of correspondents doing their jobs from Cairo and Beijing to Munich and Moscow. He adds some touching stories about the many talented immigrants who escaped from dire political and economic circumstances to find a home at the Voice of America. There’s an inside look at the abiding struggle for a VOA charter and independence – a firewall from political influence.

While the bulk of the book focuses upon news and information services at VOA, Heil also pays tribute to the value of music and cultural programs. He acknowledges the plight of many VOA broadcasters: they are well known around the world, but unknown at home. The late Willis Conover (at right), long-time producer and host of “Music USA” jazz programs was a real celebrity around the globe, but virtually unknown in the United States.

Alan Heil's book takes the reader right up to the turn of the century (it was published in 2003). It’s extremely well documented, but it reads every bit as easily as a good novel. Alas, its final chapter, “Conclusion,” leaves the reader with some anxiety about the future of VOA.

And rightfully so.

By 2010, we find a complicated menagerie of bureaucracies – each pitted against the other – fighting for missions and funding from the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). It’s the 9-member BBG that tries to oversee not only the Voice of America, but a group of so-called “surrogate” broadcasters – also funded by U.S. taxpayers. English and many foreign language broadcasts have been chopped from the VOA schedule. Some of those foreign broadcasts, like Arabic, were moved to the surrogate agencies: Radio Free Asia, Middle East Broadcasting Networks, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), and Radio and TV Marti broadcasts to Cuba in Spanish.

As nearly as we can tell, the BBG has allowed itself to be mired in day-to-day operations, rather than focusing upon policy and planning. Some of the services seem bent on luring only a young audience, thus we find a real dominance of music and youth-oriented programming – at the expense of news and information programming.

We were taken by a quotation Heil offered by our former public broadcasting colleague and one-time VOA Director, Mary Bitterman, who said, “It is not the organizational structure which permits creativity and integrity, but the character of the people involved in oversight.”

Alan Heil’s book offers a rare glimpse of both the organizational structures – and the people – who have shaped the Voice of America.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Veteran broadcaster gone

One of the legends of South Dakota television has passed away. Veteran broadcaster Dave Deadrick died Friday, January 22nd in Sioux Falls.

While we had met Dave in the 1980s when he was still going strong at KELO-TV, we didn’t know him well. But his visage was well known for decades throughout east river – and later west river, when KELO expanded its television operation to Rapid City.

A long-time weatherman for KELO-TV Channel 11 in Sioux Falls, he was perhaps even better known as Captain 11, host of the longest-running children’s program in the country. It was a job he loved for 41 years. Dave Deadrick was inducted into the South Dakota Broadcasters Hall of Fame in 1997 and the South Dakota Hall of Fame in 1999.

He reportedly was the first voice broadcast by KELO-TV when it went on the air in May of 1953 and landed the job as Captain 11 by winning a coin toss!

Dave Deadrick was 81 years old. Read Dave's full obituary.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

All aboard!

Now for something completely different.

We don't often link to external websites, but this is an exception. With our youngest granddaughter frequently bursting out into song with "Do-Re-Mi" from the Sound of Music, we just couldn't resist sharing the link below. It was forwarded to us by Harvey Herbst, one of our old bosses at KLRN-TV in Austin.

The availability of high quality consumer cameras, some willing and talented dancers, access to the internet -- plus a good dose of creativity -- and you might come up with something like this. Imagine that it's 8 o'clock on a March morning in Antwerp, Belgium, and you're whiling away the time......waiting for a train........when something very different happens.