Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Glover "Jack" Thayer (1922-1995): A Visionary Broadcaster

by Larry Miller
It was 40 years ago this month that the world’s first 24-hour television news service, the Cable News Network, went on the air from Atlanta.  It became better known simply as CNN.   Created in by business tycoon Ted Turner in 1980, the fledgling network initially reached fewer than two million homes in the United States.
Today, CNN is seen in more than 89-million homes across the United States and over 160-million homes around the world.  There’s an abundance of other 24-hour news and information services around the world, too.
Jack Thayer
But CNN wasn’t the first 24-hour news network.  Five years before, in June of 1975, NBC Radio launched its “News and Information Service (NIS),” and the fellow credited with its creation was NBC Radio President Glover “Jack” Thayer.
Thayer was a midwesterner.  Born in Chicago in 1922 and raised in Minnesota – but he also had lived and gone to school in Chadron, Nebraska
Jack Thayer’s father, Harley, was a railroader.  He started his career back in 1897 as a “Station Helper” in Ridgefield, Illinois.  He worked his way through the ranks as a Brakeman, Conductor, then Trainmaster by 1930, Assistant Superintendent, and finally – by the late 1930’s – Superintendent for the Western Line Division of the Chicago & Northwestern Railway headquartered in Chadron.
But son Jack remained with his mother in Minnesota in 1939-40 so he could finish his senior year at Winona High.  He was active in choir and drama, was a cheerleader for three years, but also developed a keen interest in radio, “haunting the local station, KWNO.”  The chief announcer at the station was a fellow named Jack London, a graduate of the Beck School of Radio in Minneapolis, where Thayer would later enroll.  In early May 1940, about three weeks before graduation, Winona High scheduled vocational conferences on a variety of jobs.  One was “Radio Broadcasting,” and the student chairman for that session was “Glover” Thayer.
The Thayers in Chadron - 1941 -  Harley, Jack, and Martha
(Photo courtesy of Tracie Ireland)
After receiving his high school diploma, Thayer was off to Nebraska to join his parents in their new home at 342 Ann Street in Chadron. There wasn’t much summer vacation for Jack, going to work June 6th as a laborer for C&NW before enrolling at Chadron State Teachers College for the 1940 fall term.
Thayer was in good company at CSTC.  Among his classmates was a bright young fellow from Gordon, Nebraska named Val Fitch.  They were also fraternity brothers in Delta Pi Sigma, a popular social fraternity.  Four decades later, Fitch would gain fame as a professor at Princeton University – and a winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics. 
While Fitch was preparing for a career in science, Jack Thayer was more focused on the arts.  As a freshman, he won Second Award in short story competition and became active in the Pi Kappa Delta, the national forensics honorary fraternity.  He would serve as its vice-president his sophomore year.  The CSTC varsity forensics team, comprised of Thayer and Harold Mitchell, ranked at the top of competition in Omaha and at the State Tournament.  
Another fellow freshman at CSTC was a well-known “local boy,” Don Rickenbach, who later became a highly regarded and successful area rancher.  Rickenbach was also a “brother” in Pi Kappa Delta, and they were pictured together in the 1941-42 CSTC Anokasan yearbook.
Thayer’s two academic years at college in Chadron were chock full of activity.  He was particularly active in drama, serving as president of the Thespians his sophomore year and performing in at least three plays.
There was no radio station in Chadron in the 1940’s, so in the spring of 1942, Thayer departed for the Black Hills of South Dakota and was hired as an announcer at KOBH in Rapid City.  The station later became KOTA, flagship station of what later became Duhamel Broadcasting Enterprises, operating five radio and three television stations across South Dakota, Nebraska, and Wyoming.
First radio job - KOBH Rapid City
(Photo courtesy of Tracie Ireland)
Apart from a photo of the 19-year-old Thayer as a new staff member, there’s little information about his short tenure at KOBH. 
By 1943 Jack was seeking his fortune in Minneapolis, first by attending the Beck School of Radio, followed by a job at WLOL Radio.  He also found a wife.  Marjorie Gossman and Glover “Jack” Thayer were married in 1944. Later that year, son Terry Lee Thayer was born. Meanwhile, Jack’s career as an announcer/salesman for WLOL began to blossom.
In April 1945, he was elected as an officer of the Twin City Radio Announcers IBEW Local 1331 union. He would remain with the station nearly three years – but during that time his marriage ended.
Television came to the Twin Cities in 1948 when KSTP-TV went on the air in St. Paul.  Across town, Joe Beck’s old “School of Radio,” became “Beck Studios,” adding a television school and with plans to build a commercial television station.  The Star Tribune noted that Beck was “even opening a store on Nicollet Avenue to sell television sets” and that Jack Thayer and WLOL colleague Bob Bouchier had quit the station to run the store for Beck.
After WLOL fired a popular host of its “Swing Club” show, they invited Thayer back into the fold.  Minneapolis Tribune columnist Will Jones wrote, “To capture the undershirt and beer listener, WLOL has rehired Jack Thayer.  Thayer, a former salesman for the station, left to sell television sets.  He’s giving up the television business to spin records.”
Jack’s Record Shop” on WLOL Radio became exceptionally popular and picked up a sizable new audience.
Local newspaper ads showed “WLOL Disc Jockey Jack Thayer” in a spiffy new Groshire suit from Grodnik’s haberdashery, proclaiming “I go for Groshire…You’ll go for Groshire, too!”  He also endorsed footwear for Bob’s Shoes for Men. Such ads bolstered Jack’s newfound celebrity – and likely were a welcome supplement to his income.
Some stability seemed to have arrived for Thayer.  His career was going well, and he met a young lady named Donna Marchand.  That summer, they may have talked marriage, because Jack posted an ad in the Star-Tribune on August 18th, simply saying:  “…need 3 to 4 room furnished apartment.  No children - Call AT 0406 8 a.m. to 12 noon except Sun.”   Three weeks later – In early September 1949 – Jack and Donna applied for a marriage license and were married two months later on November 12th.
Two nationally-recognized performers would host Jack’s popular WLOL radio show while the couple was getting hitched.  Star-Tribune columnist Will Jones wrote that singer June Christy and actor/comedian Billy DeWolfe were in town for club appearances and agreed to do the show for Jack.
Thayer remained with WLOL for the next two and one-half years, moving across town to WTCN Radio and Television in 1952.
More big changes were in the offing.
First came the birth of Jack and Donna’s daughter, Tracie Nan, in 1952, followed in 1953 by a son, Todd Neal.
Also in 1953, Thayer launched “Jack’s Corner Drug Store” on WTCN-TV. The show was a “dance get-together” for teens, replete with popular music of the day and dance contests. The studio set was a replica of a drug store, and area high school and college students were invited to participate in the fun.  This was a full four years before Dick Clark and “American Bandstand” would sweep the country.  It was another early indication Jack Thayer was an innovator and had a knack for knowing what audiences would like.
In February 1956.  Jack was lured to WDGY Radio in Minneapolis, which had been bought by Omaha-based Storz Broadcasting.  Young Todd Storz was the instigator of a “revolutionary” radio program format of “Top 40” music that would sweep the country. Thayer had already gained a reputation as the most influential disc jockey in the Twin Cities – credited with getting hit records started locally.  He would become the new General Manager of WDGY.
In September 1956, Donna Thayer gave birth to their second son, Timm.
The next three years brought many new professional challenges for Thayer, including the firing of a popular disc jockey.  These were valuable management experiences for Jack, and he gained stature as a good manager. The station fared well – and so did Jack Thayer.
In 1958, Jack was elected President of the Minnesota Broadcasters Association.  By the following May, after 16 years in in Minneapolis-St. Paul, he left the station to become Vice President and General Manager of KFRC Radio in San Francisco.  It was another short stay, followed by a five-year stint at yet another major market station, WHK in Cleveland, where – among other things – he lured the Beatles to town as part of their legendary 15-city tour of the United States.  Jack said their fee was “the highest entertainment price ever paid to bring a group to Cleveland.”
Thayer was lured back to California by Metromedia in 1965 to take the reins of KLAC in Los Angeles.  The Thayer family – after five years in Cleveland and an earlier brief stay in San Francisco – was ready to settle down.  They went to church at Brentwood Presbyterian Church, where Jack would become an elder.
At KLAC, Thayer began moving the station more and more from music to what was dubbed “two-way talk radio.” The call-in programs with expensive hosts such as Mort Sahl, Joe Pyne and Les Crane were extremely popular – and often quite controversial. Within two years, according to the Los AngelesTimes, Thayer had “built a big winner out of a perennial loser – the best balanced talk station.”  The Times recognized KLAC for its news and special events coverage.  Jack Thayer was honored as “Radio Executive of the Year.”
Audience ratings for KLAC continued to hold strong, and all seemed well.  But in late 1968, cross-town rival KABC Radio began leading in some charts, and – as LA Times columnist Don Page noted – even “high ratings yield to economics.”  Too, the budget for KLAC’s talk radio format was “enormous.” KABC was owned by the ABC network, while KLAC’s owners, Metromedia, seemed to be diversifying itself “out of the radio business,” wrote Page.
Rumors of change abounded at KLAC, and in very early January of 1969, Jack Thayer was fired.
By April, Donna and Jack Thayer divorced, just a few months shy of 20 years of marriage.  Donna would raise the children as Jack departed KLAC and began pursuit of new opportunities in broadcasting.
Within weeks, Thayer – the “architect of ‘two-way’ talk radio” – had formed Radio Consultants, Inc. to assist struggling radio stations.  He was credited with turning around floundering stations in major markets, including WMCA Radio in New York, fixing what was described as a “terminal case of no listenership.”  WMCA’s ratings spiked and its morning audience doubled within just two months.  He found similar success at WGAU in Philadelphia.
It’s all in the planning and promotion and careful audience control,” he was quoted as telling the Los Angeles Times.
A young Don Imus - On the Air
Thayer was hired in 1970 as General Manager of KXOA in Sacramento, where he brought on board a relatively new talent, a young ex-Marine named Don Imus, who’d worked as a railroad brakeman and stumbled into broadcasting at a couple of smaller stations in California.  

Imus’ early “shock jock” strategy generated criticism from inside and outside broadcasting – but gained enormous audiences.  His is also an interesting career, but – alas – Imus had no ties to Dawes County, Nebraska, so we’ll bypass his story!
By early 1971, Jack Thayer had moved to Ohio with Nationwide Communications in Columbus, a subsidiary of Nationwide Insurance Company.  He served as Vice President/General Manager.  The company owned seven broadcasting stations, including WRFD-Columbus and WGAR- Cleveland, among others.   Shortly after arriving, Thayer brought Don Imus from Sacramento to help bolster ratings. 
Jack Thayer’s career of frequent moves was not atypical for broadcasters, but what seemed to set him apart was his ability to land on his feet – almost always in jobs with greater visibility and responsibility.  And he was ever the innovator.
So it likely surprised few in the industry when in July 1974, Jack Thayer had been appointed president of NBC Radio.  His responsibilities would give him authority over the NBC Radio network and its owned-and-operated stations in San Francisco, Washington, New York, and Chicago. Those stations hadn’t been profitable for years.   The Chicago station, WMAQ, hadn’t seen a profit since 1963.  In just 16 months at the helm of NBC Radio, Jack Thayer was able to announce a profit for the station in December 1975.  Optimism abounded.
Jack also wasted no time in forging ahead with planning a new project – something that could transform radio news across the country.  He envisioned a 24-hour radio news service.  There were several all-news stations in major markets, but such a resource was unavailable to medium and smaller markets.  Plans were developed for what was called the NBC News and Information Service (NIS) with a start-up budget of about $10 million.
In February 1975, NBC announced the venture, hoping to attract about 75 of the top 100 markets in the country by mid-April.
Thayer told Broadcasting magazine, “The widespread success of all-news radio in this country is testimony to the information explosion we are experiencing.
He said that the NBC 24-hour service would, ”offer local radio stations the unique opportunity to go all news – practically overnight – backed by the manpower and resources of the world’s largest broadcast news organization.”  And many smaller market stations did sign up, including KLNG in Omaha and KVOC in Casper.
The round-the-clock service was scheduled to begin June 1, 1975, but fewer than 50 stations had signed up by mid-April.  The start-up date was pushed back to June 18th. Larger markets like Los Angeles already had two all-news stations – KNX and KFWB – and it was unlikely another could survive.
Thayer traveled the country meeting with stations to encourage their interest and participation, but the number of stations lagged behind the number needed.  At start up time, there were only 47 stations.
Reviews of the service were mixed.  Some markets loved it and did well, others complained about the quality of the terrestrial microwave distribution system.  Satellite service for the networks had not yet arrived.  After one year of operation, the NIS all-news service had 63 subscribers.
By late 1976, it became apparent that the News and Information Service (NIS) wasn’t going to be viable in the long run.  On November 3, 1976, Thayer announced that the service would be discontinued by mid-1977.
Recent projections demonstrate that NIS will not reach satisfactory levels in future years.  The unavoidable conclusion is that there is no long-term future for NIS as a national service,” he told reporters.
Some supporters of the all-news service claimed it was simply “ahead of its time.”  Within just a few years after NIS pulled the plug, satellite delivery systems began distribution of high quality audio and video signals that far surpassed the fidelity of the old terrestrial microwave.  Too, improved audio and video compression techniques accommodated multiple channels of content, rather than just one.
There was also criticism that NBC had not invested itself enough in the project.  Even some of the NBC owned-and-operated stations did not participate.  And a labor strike at NBC certainly didn’t help.
Jack Thayer ~ NBC Radio
NBC president Herbert Schlosser acknowledged that the venture had not succeeded, but he concluded that “real progress” had been made in strengthening the NBC Radio network and the network-owned stations.
Commenting about Jack’s role in the initiative, one NBC executive observed “He’s done a good job,” and noted that Thayer was brought in as president of NBC Radio to do two things:  “Turn the O&O stations around” and “to bring the radio network out of a loss,” and that, they concluded, is exactly what he did.
Jack Thayer continued to oversee NBC Radio into 1978, but left the network in 1979 to become General Manager at WNEW Radio, the “Big Band Station” in New York City.  Managing WNEW would be Thayer’s last stop on a remarkable career of managing radio and television broadcasting stations.  In 1980, Jack's peers honored him again by electing him President of the New York Broadcasters Association.
In 1983, WNEW was preparing for its 50th birthday in 1984.
The station had been mainstay in the Empire State since the early 1930’s.  Luminaries from Frank Sinatra to Dinah Shore had performed on the 50,000-watt radio powerhouse of New York.
According to Kathy Larkin, writing in the New York Daily News, Thayer believed the story of the station was worthy of saving and sharing – in print, as well as on the air.  He proposed a book full of stories about the founders of the station, entertainers who’d performed there, and how the WNEW signal was so strong that “pilots flying troops home after the war followed its beam into the airfield.”  The book, “Where the Melody Lingers On” would chronicle the storied past of WNEW.
Thayer was on the board of the National Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) Foundation.  Some of his friends had been afflicted by the disease, so he went to the board and pledged all proceeds from sales of the book would go to help fight ALS, “Lou Gehrig’s disease.”
At about the same time WNEW was celebrating its 50th year, Thayer received the sad news that his son, Todd Neal Thayer, an account executive for a Los Angeles radio station, had been killed in a glider accident near Los Angeles.  He was 30 years old.
Jack Thayer departed WNEW for what would be his last-known job.  He served as Chief Operating Officer/Executive Vice President of Gear Broadcasting International, a communications company in Providence, R.I., delving into a relatively new technology:  wireless cable, which was growing in popularity during the mid 1990’s.
He had homes in both Providence, Rhode Island and New York City. While with Gear Broadcasting, he suffered a stroke and lived a few years in Morningside House, a New York nursing home.  He died of a heart attack in Providence  on January 1, 1995.  Jack Thayer was 72 years old.
Jack daughter Tracie, who still lives in California, says her father was cremated.  Some of his ashes were spread over his son Todd’s grave at Forest Lawn in the San Fernando Valley of California. 


(Editor's Note:  My sincere thanks to: Tracie Ireland (Jack Thayer's daughter), John Miller, Con Marshall, and Terry Sandstrom for their assistance in helping me gather information and photographs for this story.  In 2013 Jack Thayer entered the Minnesota Broadcasters Hall of Fame.  Visit our "Thayer Photo Gallery" to see additional images related to this story. 

~~~~~  Larry Miller / Spearfish, SD

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Remembering Vera Lynn (1917-2020)

Dame Vera Lynn, the "Forces Girl" who during World War Two brought joy and hope to British and other Allied Troops – and people around the world –  has died in London at age 103.  

Below is a video – recorded 25 years ago – revealing the talent and spirit of this remarkable woman.

Friday, May 8, 2020

Belatedy...HAPPY BIRTHDAY VERA LYNN – and Thank You!

by Larry Miller

It was 75 Years ago today – May 8, 1945 – that the Allies celebrated Victory in Europe (V-E Day).  Citizens across the United States and Great Britain celebrated with parades and celebrations everywhere.

During the war, Allied troops were given a bit of "home" by British and American radio broadcasts, many of them coming from small field stations operated by the U.S. Armed Forces Radio Service (AFRS).  Music from "home," wherever it might be, was divvied up by the BBC and AFRS.

Perhaps no single performer was better known than British singer, songwriter and actress Vera Lynn.  Songs like "The White Cliffs of Dover," "We'll Meet Again," and "There'll always be an England" became know around the world.

Of course, there were many other American, British, and French entertainers, along with performers from other countries, whose voices became familiar to many-a-soldier or sailor.  But few entertainers from WWII are still with us today. However, "Dame" Vera Lynn recently celebrated her 103rd birthday, and she was still performing well into her 90's.

When I began working in radio in the late 1950's, I remember playing a few Vera Lynn records on KCSR in Chadron, but I confess she was not someone with whom I was familiar – other than knowing she was British.  In later years, I came to better appreciate her work.

Her wonderful WWII recording of "We'll Meet Again" was revived for Stanley Kubrick's 1954 film "Dr. Strangelove," a black comedy surrounding the military and nuclear war.  British radio actor/comedian Peter Sellers had done a few films, but this one brought him to the fore with American audiences.  It also acquainted a whole new generation of Americans with the talented Vera Lynn, whose "We'll Meet Again" was featured over the ending credits of the film.

Born the daughter of a London area plumber in March of 1917, Vera Lynn's first record was pressed in 1936, followed in 1937 by two hit recordings: "Red Sails in the Sunset" and  "The Little Boy That Santa Claus Forgot." Little could Vera Lynn have known they would help launch a performance career that spanned more than 80 years!

Of course, Vera Lynn is best known in her native England, where she has remained throughout her life – apart from trips abroad for performances or vacation.

Lynn is something of a national treasure in Great Britain.  She has been awarded the War Medal (1939-1945), the Burma Star, and the Order of the British Empire, among numerous others.

Beyond her lifetime achievements as an entertainer, her charity work is impressive, from establishing the cerebral palsy  organization known as SOS (Stars Organization for Spastics) to the founding of the Vera Lynn Charity Breast Cancer Research Trust.  She was president of the Trust for Children with Cerebral Palsy and served as a patron of the Forces Literary Organization Worldwide. She is a patron of the Dover War Memorial and Project to Support Refugees from Burma and Help4Forgotten Allies.

Back 25 years ago, when she was a mere youngster at age 78, she helped celebrate the 50th Anniversary of V-E Day.  Below is a video excerpt of her astonishing performance at that 1995 event.  Enjoy.

And.....a belated 103rd Happy Birthday to a remarkable lady, Dame Vera Lynn!

Friday, April 10, 2020

The years seem to slip away, just like melting wax...

The House of Wax
by Larry Miller

I admit it.  Being "self-quarantined" during the Covid19 Coronavirus pandemic gives us all way too much time getting way too immersed in way too many things that make way too little sense.  And this is one such diversion.

It was 67 years ago today that the infamous 3-D horror film House of Wax premiered at New York's Paramount Theater.  

Okay, but that was a motion picture – not a radio or television broadcast, so why is it taking up space here?  Well, like I said, way too much time on my hands.  Besides, Dawes County, Nebraska, had no television station in 1953.  Heck, we didn't even have a radio station until the fledgling "Tri-State Voice by Listener Choice" – KCSR – took to the airwaves the following May.

So if you think of radio and television as "entertainment" media, it's not a big stretch to spill over into the motion picture industry.  And Chadron had the Pace Theatre, where teenagers would fork out 40 cents for a movie.  We teen wannabes got in for just 14 cents.  

But House of Wax wasn't just any old movie.  It was....well....good!  The characterization "good" might be considered heresy by some, after all, this is Good Friday.  

But I was a wannabe teenager in 1953, and I thought the House of Wax was really cool.   It wasn't the first movie from a major motion-picture studio (Warner Bros.) to be shot in color.  However, its real claim to fame was that it was the first 3-Dimensional color movie.  And that's what made it memorable.  Plus I think we had to pay extra for the movie, so it had to be special!

There are likely a few folks who've never seen a 3-D movie, and I admit to seeing only a few.  But for me, this was like a first date.  You just never forget it.  My first 3-D movie!

While I won't give away the plot (which, as I remember wasn't all that great) it had an under appreciated cast.  Vincent Price was again typecast as a really weird dude inclined to the macabre'.  There were stars like Frank Lovejoy, Carolyn Jones, Charles Bronson, and Phyllis Kirk.  I'll bet those names already conjure up images for you – even without seeing their photos (if you're 70 years of age or older).

But the supporting cast really was phenomenal.  

They included the familiar faces above. 

Okay, those are not exactly household names. They weren't "sexy," "powerful" or even particularly "memorable."  So why do we remember them?  They were skilled.  They were available. They were believable.  And boy were they busy!   I'll wager most of them spent as much time in front of movie and television cameras as most stars.  You can still see any one of them almost daily on MeTV.

Frank Ferguson, like all these actors, chalked up hundreds of performances in films and television, most of them westerns.  A native Californian, he was educated at UC and Cornell and also taught acting.
Dabbs Greer was a product of Missouri and his prolific career covered some five decades.  Like Ferguson, Greer also spent considerable time helping aspiring actors.  He  was an administrator and instructor at the famed Pasadena Playhouse.  Roy Roberts, a Floridian by birth, was first a stage actor and reached broadway before switching to film and television. We best remember him as the cruise boat captain on the Gale Storm "Oh, Susannah!" TV series in the late 1950s.  Oliver Blake's nearly two decades in the movies made him a familiar face, too, from his 1942 appearance in the classic Casablanca to a recurring role in the Ma and Pa Kettle movies of the 1950s.  He, too, was reportedly "a fixture" at the Pasadena Playhouse.

Sadly, these talented character actors are all deceased.

Before ending this missive, perhaps I should confess exactly why the House of Wax was so memorable for me. 

It wasn't the story.  Horror movies like Bride of Frankenstein and Creature from the Black Lagoon were okay, but not nearly as fun as science fiction thrillers like The Day the Earth Stood Still (which could well be a title idea someday for a movie about a quarantined society during the Covid-19 outbreak "back" in 2020.)

Nor was I excited about the movie because it was in color. 

Even the impressive cast of character actors wasn't the reason.  Heck, I didn't remember any of these folks being in the film until I Googled "House of Wax" – and readily recognized them from their long and impressive careers.

Nope, not even the evil Vincent Price character or the alluring Phyllis Kirk.

It was that barker guy!  The guy with the bolo bat, aiming to hit me in the nose with that ball!

Alas, the above non-3-D video just doesn't capture the thrill of a popcorn-chewing 10-year-old ducking behind a seat at the Pace Theatre, trying to avoid that cottin'-pickin' ball!

(Sigh...Like I said – way too much time on my hands these days.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

A familiar voice shares other " Voices of Oklahoma"

Some 40 years ago or so, while living in Jenks "America" just outside Tulsa, Oklahoma, we were frequent listeners to local radio stations.  This, of course, was when stations still usually identified themselves with call letters and frequencies.

KWGS, a public radio station serving the Tulsa area was a favorite, along with KVOO, the AM station that I believe had long-since abandoned their location " the PhilTower."  Our favorite, though, was KRMG, largely because of the witty antics of "Erling in the Morning."  Like most folks, we knew John Erling only "through the radio."  For those of us driving to work, morning commutes with Erling were informative and fun.......and seemingly shorter.

Although his KRMG career has long since ended, Erling has taken on a new gig, and one for which he is particularly well suited.  "Voices of Oklahoma" is a great project.  For those of us who were "Cowboys" for only a few years (with apologies to "Sooner" fans) this audio series is a great way to re-connect with our enjoyable years in Oklahoma. 

Monday, May 7, 2018

Two "Cowboys" – Allie Reynolds and Oliver Willham

by Larry Miller

So....earlier today, I was searching Ancestry for a distant relative who'd attended college in Stillwater, Oklahoma in the early 1950's.  That's when I happened across the 1954 "Redskin," and saw the above photo of Dr. Oliver Willham visiting with one of the school's famous alums, Allie Reynolds.

Who knew?  Back in 1954, when the images above were produced, I was an 11-year-old kid with a passion for baseball cards.  My senior partner in that endeavor was Lawrence Denton.  Together, we begged, borrowed, and ...... well, bought packages of really bad chewing gum, simply to collect the baseball cards inside the package.

Card collectors will know that the '54 Topps cards came out in two releases.  Lawrence and I had amassed most of the first card release before our interest was diverted to baseball, girls, movies, and other activities.  Maybe even a bit of schoolwork.

In any event, Lawrence was kind enough to pass along the collection to his junior partner, and I dutifully retained the collection in an old cigar box, most likely discarded by Jim York, the Denton boarder who was like a member of the family.  But that's another story.

While I readily remember the Allie Reynolds card (#141 above), I could only tell you that I knew he had first pitched for the Cleveland Indians, and that his real career kicked off with the New York Yankees, where he was a standout pitcher from 1947 until his playing career ended in 1954.  I vaguely remembered that he was from Oklahoma, but I didn't know until today – after a bit of research – that he was the son of a preacher and a stellar all-around star athlete at Capitol Hill High School in Oklahoma City.  With a track and field scholarship, he enrolled at Oklahoma A&M in Stillwater.

The legendary basketball coach, Henry Iba, was coaching baseball for the Cowboys, when – giving injured pitchers a break – he asked Reynolds to throw batting practice one day.  The rest, as they say, is history.  Reynolds became team captain and helped the Cowboys win the conference championship his senior year (1938).  After three seasons pitching in the minor leagues, Allie landed a slot with Cleveland, followed by his big break with the Yankees.

While playing professional ball, Reynolds invested in oil and did quite well.  After his baseball career, business would provide him with another successful career.  He died in 1994 at age 77.

Dr. Oliver Willham, President
Oklahoma State University (ca. 1954)
Back in the 1970s, my bride and I moved to Stillwater.  I had taken a job at Oklahoma State University.  Among my more pleasurable tasks was conducting radio interviews for KOSU radio.  One series was called "Faculty Forum."   The interview I remember best was with Oliver S. Willham, a retired president of OSU.  During my time at the university, the presidents were Robert Kamm and then Lawrence Boger.  I knew Willham only by name, but I found him to be a straightforward and even folksy interview.

I've never forgotten his observation about how difficult it had become for a university president to remove a really bad faculty member, which occasionally occurred – even at splendid schools like OSU.  Willham opined that it was a laborious and tedious task for then president Kamm to get rid of any really bad faculty members.  "Much easier," he recalled, back when he was president (1952-1966), although there were still lots of hoops to jump through.

Then, Willham leaned back in his chair and – almost wistfully – remembered long-time president Henry Bennett, who served 22 years as A&M president back in the 1920s, '30s, and '40s.  Willham recalled how Bennett could remove bad apples from the faculty.  "He'd have 'em clean out their desks and be off campus by sundown."

Oliver Willham was the first OSU president to retire while still in office.   That was in 1966.  He was 73 years old when he died in 1974.

Seeing the top photograph of Allie Reynolds with Oliver Willham was a very pleasant surprise.  It caused me to read a little bit more about both of these gentlemen – both very successful in their chosen careers.

Both Allie Reynolds and Oliver Willham are members of the Oklahoma Hall of Fame.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Douglas Edwards of CBS News would be 100 years old today

by Larry Miller

Having lived and worked for nearly a decade in Oklahoma broadcasting, I'm almost embarrassed to acknowledge that I did not know that long-time broadcast newsman Douglas Edwards was born there 100 years ago. A native of Ada, Oklahoma, Edwards would pursue a career in broadcast journalism, leaving a superb legacy and inspiring lots of young men and women to enter the world of broadcast news. 

I've always been proud of the profession I chose.  I still am, but I must confess I'm disappointed in many of its 21st century practitioners. 

"Main Stream Media" and "Fair and Balanced" have become cliches, and it's all too easy to witness would-be reporters abandoning objectivity and fairness. A generation earlier, many young journalists would trade in their objectivity for advocacy journalism. After all – they would argue – there's no such thing as true objectivity.  That may be true, but to abandon striving for objectivity and fairness, it seemed to me, was not the answer. At least, it wasn't my approach as I departed the news end of the business for management. 

A good share of my career was with PBS and National Public Radio (NPR) stations.   Public broadcasting is often vilified – particularly National Public Radio – for being liberal and elitist.  I never found the service elitist, but it was and does have a liberal leaning.  Nonetheless, to my mind, it remains among the best organizations for comprehensive and thoughtful news coverage.  I'm pleased that through the Kroc Foundation and other funding sources,  NPR was able to fill the void when commercial networks were withering, closing overseas news bureaus and reducing their international news coverage.  To be sure, they are not the BBC.  But then, even the BBC has lost a lot of its primacy in the world of broadcasting.

I was a fledgling broadcaster when Douglas Edwards was replaced by Walter Cronkite as CBS Evening News anchor in 1962.   I didn't like that change, but I came to respect Cronkite as a class act. Through most of his many years at CBS, Cronkite – to my mind – did not give a clue as to his political persuasion. While that changed in the waning days of the Vietnam War, my most vivid recollection of any perceived "biased" reporting on the CBS Evening News came in the form of frequent Cronkite introductions of Eric Sevareid to provide "analysis." 

By the standards of today, Sevareid's analyses were golden. And they truly were more analysis than opinion – although it was not difficult to often identify the opinion.  They were head a shoulders above what's found today on CNN, Fox, and most other services.  

One hundred years after his birth, it would be interesting to know how Doug Edwards would feel about his old profession today.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

John Eskew inspired more than just a few sailors

by Larry Miller

Regrettably,  this site increasingly has taken on the appearance of a gloomy obituary page from the morning newspaper.  While many of the stories, indeed, chronicle the passing of several individuals, they also conjure up memories of many good friends from over the years – friendships dating back to the 1950's.

Such is the case here.

This time, a belated acknowledgement of a gentleman I first met more than 50 years ago.  In fact, we shared little time together – hardly two years.   His name was John Eskew, and he died nearly 15 years ago, October 27, 2002.  I happened across his obituary while doing some other online research recently, and I must share with you the great impact he had on a young Nebraska sailor.   And how he served as a great role model for a group of Navy guys back in the 1960's.  Eskew was not a broadcaster.  Nor was he a journalist.  But he was a leader, and one heck of a guy.

John Eskew was a 32-year-old Navy pilot when I first met him in 1965 aboard the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga, anchored in the Mediterranean off the coast of Spain. But Lieutenant-Commander Eskew wasn't in flight status.  He was serving as Public Information Officer – probably not his first choice – and I had just reported aboard as a Journalist.  He was my boss, and he was a good one.

My job, as leading Petty Officer, was to supervise the day-to-day operation of the Public Information Office.  It was an easy task, given that we had a seasoned staff already aboard, and Commander Eskew pretty much let us do our jobs with minimal oversight.  We really were blessed with a talented crew, several with considerable experience in broadcast and print journalism, graphics, and other related areas.

Our Public Information Office staff aboard the USS Saratoga (CVA-60) in late 1965. LCDR John Eskew is seated at left.  Others (l-r) are Ensign Ron Cameron, and enlisted staff  Larry Miller, Joe Johns, George Guercio, Mort Fleischner, Ron Schuster, Mike Adams, and Dan O'Sullivan.  We were a pretty diverse group – but we worked well under LCDR John Eskew.
John Eskew was an affable character.  He was bright, articulate, and had a great sense of humor.  He expected productivity from the staff, but he didn't hover over us.  He was our link to the Commanding Officer of the Saratoga, home to some 5,000 or so souls.  Before the ship would anchor near ports of call across the Mediterranean, he would fly ahead to help represent the ship to local officials and business people.  We're sure he had some fun, too, but he always took care of business. Our staff produced "Port Booklets" for sailors going on liberty.  Those publications offered a litany of things to do – and things to avoid.  A few useful foreign phrases were always included, along with a list of sites to see.  A currency exchange table was important, too, so sailors wouldn't end up on the short end of the exchange stick!  

Our PIO crew put out a daily mimeographed newspaper while the ship was at sea, and we also broadcast music over a closed circuit system.  We operated a closed circuit television station, offering daily news reports, and filled most hours with lots of music with still pictures.  Videotape was not yet available aboard ship.  We occasionally had special interviews and programs, including periodic appearances by the Saratoga Commanding Officer.  Our boss, LCDR Eskew, had responsibility for all of our PIO services.

If I ever knew where LCDR Eskew called home, I had long since forgotten it by the time I discovered his obituary last week.  As it turns out, he was a 1950 graduate of Leon High School in Tallahassee, Florida.  I still don't know where he went to college, or anything about his early Navy career. 

I left the ship – and the Navy – in 1966, and we lost touch.

A decade later, having completed college and finding a job teaching at Oklahoma State University, I returned to the Navy as a reserve Public Affairs Officer.  It was on a temporary training assignment at the Pentagon in about 1983 that I had the great pleasure of crossing paths with John.  By then, he was a Captain working full-time at the Pentagon, and I was a Lieutenant-Commander.  We dined together and enjoyed re-living some of our "sea stories" from our days aboard the USS Saratoga.

At one point in his career, John Eskew, also a Naval Reservist, became commanding officer of the U.S. Naval Air Station at Glenview, Illinois, just north of Chicago.  According to his obituary, he returned to Tallahassee in 1985.  That's where he died 17 years later.

I never knew his wife, Bessie, or their three children.

Should fate ever lead me to cross paths with any of them, I'd be proud to reaffirm what they likely already know –  John Eskew was an outstanding Navy officer and a real gentleman.  He was a man of great character.  For me, and I believe all who worked for him aboard the USS Saratoga more than half-a-century ago, he was a terrific role model and a real inspiration to all of us.

As long as we may remember him, he is still with us.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

A world celebrity, but relatively unknown in the United States

by Larry Miller

Happy birthday to Steven Spielberg and Willis Conover.  

Okay, you likely know about movie mogul Steven Spielberg, who turns 70 years old today.  The Ohio native is legendary among science-fiction folks, especially for his early successes with movies like Jaws, ET (Extra-Terrestrial), and Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Willis Conover at the VOA microphone
We’re fans of both Spielberg and Conover, but who – you may ask –is this Conover fellow?

Sadly, Willis Conover died some 20 years ago at age 75.   And while he had an early affinity for science fiction just like Spielberg did a generation later, even publishing a science fiction magazine, it was a radio announcing job while in college that took Conover down a different career path. 

Willis Conover was born December 18, 1920 in Buffalo, New York. He went to teacher’s college in Salisbury, Maryland and later worked for radio station WTBO in nearby Cumberland, Maryland.  During World War II, he was assigned to Fort Meade, Maryland, returning to commercial broadcasting after the war.

According to Voice of America writer/producer Dana Demange, Willis Conover went to work for commercial radio stations in the Washington, D.C. area, developing an affinity for jazz.  He became acquainted with many jazz musicians and helped organize concerts.

He also helped stop racial separation in the places where music was played at night…creating musical events where people of all races were welcome,” wrote Demange.

Apparently, Conover was unhappy about not being able to play more of the jazz music that he loved on the stations where he was working.  He began considering options.

In 1955 he began a stint of producing and hosting jazz programs for the Voice of America (VOA) in their Washington, D.C. studios.  He was given great freedom as an independent contractor.

Conover knew that he had found a perfect job,” wrote Demange.

While a well-known local radio personality in the Washington, D.C. area, Willis Conover was hardly known anywhere else across the United States.   His VOA broadcasts were beamed around the globe, and that’s where he became something of an international celebrity. You'll find a few Willis Conover photos in our Voice of America Gallery.

Voice of America broadcasts were not intended for U.S. audiences – but for citizens of other countries around the world.  It was the U.S. Information Agency's way of sharing news, information and a bit of culture from America to foreign audiences, hopefully gaining a better understanding and appreciation of the United States among world citizens.

But Conover and VOA also had a “shadow” audience right here in the United States, where powerful transmitters in Delano, California, and Greenville, North Carolina beamed VOA signals toward Latin America, Europe and Asia – picked up by relay stations that re-transmitted the signals to specific regions.  

Conover interviewing Sarah Vaughan at VOA
It was in the 1950’s that this writer – then a teenager in Chadron, Nebraska – remembers tuning in to the VOA shortwave broadcasts on cold winter nights, enjoying the deep-voiced introductions offered by Willis Conover for the music he’d selected for his programs.  And his superb interviews with musicians ranging from Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington to Sarah Vaughan and Louis Armstrong – “Amabassador Satch,” as one of his hallmark LP albums proclaimed.

My shortwave listening continued well into the 1960’s, and I often listened to VOA while at sea in the Navy – and during a year-long tour of duty in Cuba following the missile crisis.   Tuning in to hear Lee Hall and VOA’s “Report to Latin America” was a must!  And Willis Conover’s “Music U.S.A.” and “Jazz Hour” were always delightful listening. 

The strains of Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the A Train,” performed by Duke Ellington and adopted by Conover as a theme song, still linger warmly in my memory after all these years.

Were he still alive, Willis Conover would be 96 years old today.

Happy birthday, Willis.  Thanks for the memories.

(Note:  Enjoy the following video tribute to Willis Conover)

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Remembering radio programmer John Rook (1937-2016)

by Larry Miller

Some sixty years ago in Chadron, Nebraska — a bespectacled youngster named John Rook seemed to many local folks an unlikely candidate for finding success.  He was a bit uncoordinated and talked with a slight lisp.  But he would prove them wrong shortly after graduating from high school, forging  ahead  to a highly successful career in broadcasting.  He became a top name disc jockey, but found his real talent as a nationally-recognized programmer during the heyday of rock and roll.

That career, and his life, came to an end March 1, 2016 in at Coeur d'Alene, Idaho.

John Harlan Rook was born in Ohio.  He and his brother, Charles, moved to Nebraska at a young age and grew up in Chadron.  Both attended Chadron Prep.

"I certainly was not the most popular guy in my elementary and high school days," he wrote in later years.  

After breaking his glasses playing football as a high school freshman, John discontinued playing sports.  He had difficulty seeing until a year later when the local Lions Club replaced his glasses. John's relationship with his father was strained — to say the least — and it was with his step-mother, Della, and his grandmother Rook that he was closest.

"I held down three jobs…and while I didn't play sports, hunting and fishing became my time to get away from home on a limited basis."

Interestingly, it was a popular classmate — Eddie Kuska —  with whom he became friends.  Ed was all that John was not:  class president, a talented musician, and a good football and basketball player — even helping the Prep Junior Eagles win the Nebraska state class "C" basketball tournament.

"How he ever accepted me as a friend is beyond me, but Eddie was my protector as we walked the many blocks to school each day."

Rook was proud to be photographed with one of Chadron's biggest sports boosters for many years, Joe Lichty, a long-time barber best known for ringing his cow bells at sporting events.  This photo appeared in the Omaha World-Herald.

John Rook - 1955
One of John's jobs while in school was working as a fry cook at the old Frontier Drive-In.  After his junior year, he took a summer job with the Gering (Nebr) Courier, doing a many of the  menial tasks it took to run a small town paper.  Gaining some writing skills, he became editor of the high school newspaper during his senior year at Prep, and his senior yearbook predicted that Rook  might end up as publisher of a newspaper.  A good prediction — but the wrong medium.  It would be broadcasting, not newspapering, where John Rook would find a career and much success — but it was a wild and circuitous journey via Hollywood.

"I was on a Trailways bus to California within a few weeks of graduating from Chadron Prep in 1955," Rook later recalled.

"Dad insisted I take a job crawling under and greasing steam locomotives at the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad or a full time job as a cook at the Niles Cafe and Hotel.  Having already sampled both of those jobs part time during the school year, nothing would hold me back from escaping to California, even if it did mean I would start my venture with only $38 left to my name after purchasing my bus ticket."

Rook's two years in California found him working a variety of odd jobs, but fortuitously crossing paths with a few celebrities and ending up in a classroom at the prestigious Pasadena Playhouse, rubbing shoulders with fellow students like Sal Mineo, Natalie Wood, and James Dean, among others.  

During this period, he also became acquainted with an up-and-coming rock and roll singer named Eddie Cochran.  A southern California transplant from Minnesota, Cochran and his family became fast friends with the young man from Nebraska.

Although he landed an "extra" job on the "Wild Bill Hickok" television series and a small part in the 1957 June Allyson movie re-make of "My Man Godfrey," John soon decided that acting was not for him. 

"After just two bit parts, my desire was waning on being an actor."

John Rook - KOBH 1958
In the Los Angeles area, John had been exposed to a wide variety of radio stations and radio announcers.  Too, he recalled a chance meeting at lunch with legendary singer and television star Tennessee Ernie Ford, who suggested that radio offered the best opportunities for a young man in those days.  Many radio announcers were leaving for television jobs, and the field would be "wide open".

Interviews for radio jobs in Los Angeles, Salt Lake City and Denver resulted in dead ends, accompanied by suggestions that he start in a smaller market — like Scottsbluff, Nebraska, where he showed up to apply for a job in 1957, only to learn it had been filled a few days earlier.

Low on cash, John returned to his home in Chadron— and a less than pleasant reception from his father.  Nonetheless, a visit with friend Freeman Hover at Chadron's KCSR resulted in a good lead:  the radio station in Newcastle, Wyoming was looking for an announcer.

Rock & Roll star Eddie Cochran received a "Key to the city"
in October 1959 in Chadron.  L-R are Lucille Redfern, Janet
Redfern, Eddie Cochran, and John Rook.
Within days, John was on the job at KASL Radio in Newcastle.   While the station's format was a bit alien to him, it served as a stepping stone to an opportunity at a new 1,000-watt radio station in Hot Springs, South Dakota the following year.  KOBH was an AM station at 580 on the dial, and it quickly became a favorite station not only in the Black Hills, but throughout much of eastern Wyoming and the northern Nebraska panhandle.  The reach of the station, coupled with numerous personal interviews with music artists crossing the region on tour, helped catapult John to larger market radio stations over the next five years.

In the fall of 1959, Rook brought rock performer Eddie Cochran to KOBH and organized live concerts in Hot Springs and Chadron.  When Cochran performed on his 21st birthday at Chadron's Assumption Arena on October 3, 1959, he was presented with a "Key to the City."  It was only a few months later that Cochran was killed in a taxi accident in England.  He was later named to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.

For John Rook, the next career stop was KALL in Salt Lake City, following by KTLN in Denver.   He earned an even bigger break in January 1965 when he was hired by ABC Radio as Program Director of its Pittsburgh  station, KQV.  After three successful years in Pittsburgh — including a short on-air stint as "Johnny Rowe" on WABC New York during a strike by radio and television artists — John Rook was a part of "management."

In 1967 he moved to WLS in Chicago as program manager and helped the station move to #1 in the market the following year, reaching an audience of some 4.2 million listeners each week.  In 1969, he was named "Radio's Man of the Year"  

Among the many industry people with whom John would become good friends was Bill Gavin.  A legendary figure in Top 40 radio, Gavin published The Gavin Report, widely used by stations across the country. 

"His (Gavin's) advice not only guided my career moves, but even my personal life.  'It will be the most important thing you could do in life,' he said, urging me — a single parent — to adopt two young lads, David and Clifford, from the Lena Pope orphanage in Fort Worth.  Guided by his wisdom, I would raise them to manhood and watch them get married.  From time to time, Bill visiting our hom 'beaming' his approval of my family.  He sent Christmas gifts to the boys each year."

In the early 1970's, John left Chicago to become a programming consultant with Drake-Chenault and Draper-Blore, only to return to the Windy City in 1972 as a consultant to WCFL Radio, engineering what Billboard magazine Radio Editor Claude Hall called "a miracle" turn-around for the station.  It was an early win for his newly-created John Rook & Associates consulting firm which went on to provide programming advice for some 30 stations across the country over the next few years.

By 1977, John returned to California, accepting the top programming job at KFI in Los Angeles.  The station, considered one of the most powerful in the country, beamed its 640 AM signal westward to Hawaii and could even reach portions of the eastern United States.  With a home in Northridge, John remained with KFI for nearly seven years, but departed after a dispute with a new station manager.   

"While I loved programming, it was time to be the P.D. of the entire station. I scraped every penny together and purchased my Spokane FM (licensed to Couer D'Alene, Idaho) in 1983." He bought a place in the country, "Rook Ranch," where he could have his horses and enjoy a bit of solace from city life.

"Son Clifford and I arrived on July 4th 1983.  Later, David would arrive with his bride, Rhonda, and still later sister, Dottie, would call Coeur d'Alene home.  In time, brother Charles would take a job anchoring the news on a nearby Spokane TV station." (Photo at right of Rook gathering.  You can also read an earlier story about about the career of John's older brother, Charley Rook.)

It wasn't long, however, before he and some partners bought an FM radio station in Spokane, adding an AM station there the following year.  In 1986, the Rook group activated a new FM station in Spokane, followed by the purchase of two additional stations — one in Pasco, Washington, and the other in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Seeking a bit of tranquility from the rush of working in an urban environment, but still desiring to keep a hand in the business he loved, John Rook moved to the country just south of Couer D'Alene, Idaho. 
Then, in 1988-89, John took something of a sabbatical from his new life in Idaho, returning to Los Angeles for a brief tour as program director of KABC Radio.  Managed by his friend George Green, John worked with some of the top talent in the country as the station struggled in its efforts to migrate from a music format to talk.  People like Wink Martindale, Bill Smith, Sonya Friedman, Bill Press, and many more. But it became increasingly clear that his friend George Green was making the programming decisions — not all of them to John's liking.  In one instance, Green cancelled a popular team (Martindale & Smith) that John had brought aboard, later learning that the ratings would place them at #1 in the market during their time slot.  John also recalled recommending the hire of a hot Sacramento talk-show host for an evening block, only to have the plan nixed by Green.  Alas, the ascending star from Sacramento — Rush Limbaugh — would not be hired by KABC.

John Rook (1937-2016)
"I truly loved being program director of KABC…but I really wasn't…..George was."  John saddled up and returned to his ranch and business interests in Idaho.  Although he sold most of his stations by the early 1990s, John kept hold of KCDA, the Couer D'Alene area station, until 2000.

At one point in his career, John Rook was considered for a seat on the Federal Communications Commission.  He later reflected that his staunch opposition to the frenzy for deregulation in broadcasting probably cost him the appointment.

Deregulation of the media, he later opined, was even more destructive than he had earlier predicted.

"Perhaps it would have been best if regulators had not allowed the monopolization of radio that resulted…a feeding frenzy of unethical lawyers devoured anyone offering competition.  Within days of congressional passage, the nation's media was gobbled up by three billionaires."

Retaining close ties with many of his former colleagues and friends in the entertainment business, John took the initiative in 2007 to organize the Hit Parade Hall of Fame.  It was largely intended to pay tribute to the many performers who weren't selected for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but yet were clearly deserving of more recognition for their enormous contributions to the music business. 

John enjoyed the pastoral setting of his rural Idaho ranch, where he kept a few horses and dogs.  He died of natural causes on March 1, 2016 at his home near Couer D'Alene.  He was 78 years old.