The Dick Summer (re) Connection – Chapter 13

Quickie quiz…what famous pretend tv newscaster liked to describe his start in broadcasting as…”It all started at a 500 watt station…” (No fair going to Google.) For those of you who have perhaps wisely managed to avoid spending any time in the broadcasting business, here’s a little context. Fire hose AM stations like (the late, great) WNBC and WNEW in New York pour 50,000 watts of power from coast to coast at night. 500 watt stations are more like water pistols that sometimes squirt half way across the sandbox. Everything has to start somewhere, and like the famous pretend tv newscaster, I also started my career at a 500 watt station…WNRC in New Rochelle.

The station gave me an on air name …”Platter Pappa.” Honest to God, that was their idea not mine. I was a junior at Fordham University, and
for some reason I was convinced that WNBC and WNEW were just waiting till I graduated to start some kind of bidding war for my services. Wow, was I ever an egotistical, dumb college kid.

Some more broadcasting contexts: At the 500 watt New Rochelle station, Platter Pappa played his own records ran the control board, and also had to keep an eye on the transmitter. The transmitter was in a small room just behind a window but outside the studio, because it was noisy. One day I noticed that the dials on the transmitter were all lying down, and the tubes were dark. Right away my highly trained instincts told me “that doesn’t look so good.” So I called the “consulting engineer.” We didn’t have any actual engineers at the station. But if something broke, you could call the owner’s brother in law who had an FCC license, and if he happened to be sober, he could sometimes help get things straightened out. So I called and said, “hey, it looks like the transmitter is off.” And he said something that sounded a lot like “kick it kid.” I said WHAT ? He said “hold the start button and kick the damn thing.” Breaking the transmitter wasn’t something old Platter Pappa wanted to have to pay for out of his buck an hour salary. But “Hold the start button in and kick it kid” the slightly slurry voice on the phone said again. So I tucked my head down into my shoulders, squeezed my eyes shut, turned off my ears, and I kicked. And all of a sudden the Platter Pappa show was back in business.

In contrast, WNBC management and both the engineer’s union and the announcer’s union frowned on “air talent” having anything to do with the transmitter, the light switches, the studio thermostat or even the water jug. As a matter of fact, my introduction to the WNBC technical rules was on my very first night on the air. All WNBC studios had a water jug. About half way through my show, the jug was empty, so during a record, I went out into the hall and re-filled it. My tech Vic Lombardo, said, “Hey Dick you’re new so I’m not going to write you up, but that’s a stage hand’s job.” At WNBC if you got thirsty, you called a stage hand to get you a drink of water.

Even more broadcasting context: A while ago, I told you about the Manhattan Midnight Ladies who often visited the WNBC studios which were on the second floor of the RCA Building in manhattan. WNRC’s 500 watt studios were in a converted two car garage on a side road in New Rochelle. Midnight Ladies never came to see Platter Pappa. However there was Madeline, the station’s receptionist. Madeline was about my age, and the Lord had blessed her so to speak. Madeline had a boy friend, and I had a girl friend. But I must confess I had lustful thoughts, and Madeline knew it. And she had a wicked sense of humor. She never wandered into the studio or out into the transmitter room during my show while a record was playing. Except on my final night on the air.

In order to explain what happened you need to know a couple of things. First, I always got bored reading newscasts. And as a matter of fact I had a tendency to yawn while reading them. But along with running the control board and the transmitter, Platter Pappa had to do the news, including the sign off 15 minute newscast, which was the one the station owner always listened to, to be sure you didn’t sign the station off early. I had already given Mr. Big Shot my resignation because graduation time was here, and it was time to put some real pork on the fork. I called WNBC and WNEW to alert them to the fact that I would be available in a matter of days, and they should make their best offers. They declined for some reason. No, the truth is they totally ignored me. So I stuck out my lower lip and I managed to get a staff announcer’s job at WROW and WTEN-TV in Albany New York.

Madeline the Lord’s Favorite Receptionist knew all this. She also knew that I tended to nod off doing a newscast. And she decided my last newscast would be different. So just as I started my fifteen minute struggle with the day’s news, she appeared at the window looking out on the transmitter room. She looked me right in the eye, licked her lips, smiled wickedly, and started a very slow strip-tease. Now remember Mr. Big is listening, and watching his clock to be sure he gets his full fifteen minutes worth. I did all right for about five minutes. But when Madeline got down to her underwear the newscast came seriously apart. Never in the history of radio up till that point was there such a screwed up newscast. As I hit the sports scores, Madeline stood there in all her considerable glory. Then she did one memorable bump and grind, picked up her underwear, put it in her purse, slipped on her dress, and as I was stumbling all over the weather forecast, she blew me a kiss, and disappeared into the parking lot. I was gong to say I never saw her again, but as I was writing this, there she was in my memory, smiling and stripping just like she did all those years ago. I never got to thank her then. So in case you might be reading this Madeline, you better believe your memory has warmed me through many a lonely night.

Quickie Quiz answer: It was “Ted Baxter” of the Mary Tyler Moore show who loved telling people his pretend tv newscaster career “all started on a 500 watt station.” Ted’s real name was Ted Knight. A very kind, talented and intelligent guy who started his real career in Albany, New York at WTEN-TV. He did an afternoon kiddy show called “Ted The Mailman.” The “Booth Announcers” (the guys who did the opening and closing announcements) on duty for his show were…”Platter Pappa” Summer and “Juicy Brucie” Bradley. As I said, everything has to start somewhere.

And everything that had to start somewhere has to change somewhere…even a laugh, a love, or a life. Change is tough. Ask Whitney Houston. For some reason I have always felt protective of her. I think it’s that sound in her voice that is so un-protected. It’s more than vulnerable. It’s like she is saying, “Here I am. I trust you not to hurt me.” As you’ve probably heard, she got hurt badly by somebody she should have been able to trust. I’ve never met Ms. Houston. But there’s a story from the Night Connections personal audio cd in this week’s PodProgram that I’d really like her to hear. it might help some of the hurt to heal.

Next time, getting shot at in the American Graffiti studio on top of the drive in on WIBC.

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