by Frank Morrow
First, there was KOME through which we broadcast Central Highs weekly program "Experimental Theater of the Air" under the direction of the legendary CHS speech teacher Isabelle Ronan. Also at Central we had "KVOO Day" (or "Central Day" if you worked at KVOO), in which the students took over all the production and performance duties at the station. This was at the last of the "Golden Days" of radio. (see Tulsa Radio, page 4)
Next, it was KAKC during my freshman year at TU. I took over the announcing duties from Raymond King and hosted the night disk jockey program, "Music for Listening." ($185 a month for a 48 hour week) After signing off, I would go over to KRMG to meet John Doremus, then go to Bishops for a meal of dollar pancakes. Lewis Meyer did a weekly program on KAKC, and Mack Creager did sports. (It was great fun to create sound to simulate crowd noise, while Mack made the Oiler baseball games come alive with only the Western Union ticker tape to provide minimal information.
After a year I moved to KTUL, working for Karl Janssen and with people such as Jack Morris, Jack Charvat, Ed Neibling, Vic Lundberg, Jack Alexander, Roy McKee, Al Clauser, and Roy Pickett. While at KTUL I co-narrated the Tulsa Easter Pageant for two years over KRMG.
After three years I got a job for a few months with KFMJ where the weird Lawson Taylor was general manager. Squeezed in between all this were a couple of newscasts over KWGS. This was like reading in a closet, because there were no FM receivers at the time.
My last stop was with KRMG, a great place to work. At first I did the night music show "Music til Midnight," taking over from Johnny Chick who had followed Doremus. When KRMG started its newsmobile, Chick was selected to man it. However, because the work gave him ulcers, Johnny was moved to the afternoon disk jockey show, replacing the departing Joe Knight. I assumed duties on the newsmobile, and worked the late afternoon and early evenings while Doc Hull and Johnny spun records. I also did newscasts working with Glenn Condon, a beautiful person. Also at KRMG were Keith Bretz (program director), Bill Minshall, Bob Parkhurst, Larry Strain, and Mack Creager.
Driving the newsmobile was a blank check: It was the first of its kind in Tulsa (maybe Oklahoma). I chased ambulances, interviewed visiting dignitaries, and covered local significant events such as the indictment of the Police Chief, Police Commissioner and some detectives on corruption charges. There also was a crash of a B-52 on the outskirts of Skiatook. But the big thing was another first: taking the newsmobile to the airport during tornadic weather, and broadcasting from in front of the radar screen, reporting where the areas of danger were. One listener called and said, "Take that guy off the air. Hes scaring us to death!"
There are three incidents which are recounted in the new book on professional wrestling, "Theater in a Squared Circle" by Jeff Archer. One was my meeting with the scary Ed "Strangler" Lewis late one night at KAKC, and the other two were my experiences interviewing Gorgeous George and Farmer Jones over the KRMG newsmobile. I have many memories of these years which I will write down sometime. I would like to hear from other announcers and staff members from this era. This is a significant part of Tulsa history which has yet to be documented.
I got into broadcasting through the Saturday morning KOME programs while at Tulsa Central, under the benign tutelage of the sainted Isabelle Ronan. She had more influence on my life than any other teacher. My first appearance on television was as a member of the cast of a musical comedy show at TU which was telecast on KOTV in the fall of 1949. In 1950, I went to work for KSEK, in Pittsburg, KS, then returned in the fall to KAKC, the basement studios of Sam Avey's Coliseum. Ken Reed, Lewis Meyer,and Mack Creager worked there, too, as well as a hideous host of pay-by-the-quarter-hour preachers.
Someone asked about Karl Janssen. He was one of the pioneers of Tulsa radio, at least from the mid-Forties on. He moved to Tulsa from Youngstown, PA, in 1944. He was Program Director at KTUL for many years. I knew him and his family very well. He gave me my first job ---weekend announcer at KTUL in June, 1951, after I graduated from Central. I worked for him full-time a year later, after 12 months at KAKC (I had the same disk jockey program at KAKC that Jim Ruddle performed about two years before.)
I had a couple of dates with Karls oldest daughter in college; my little sister was in Brownies and Girl Scouts with Janssens youngest daughter; and my mother and Mrs. Janssen were good friends. I would go to Tulsa Philharmonic concerts occasionally with the Janssens. He always made sure that I had complimentary tickets to the concerts.
He was a great person to work for. He took me in as a diamond in the rough, and gave me some well-needed polishing. Karl had occasional disagreements with the general manager and sales staff over FCC requirements. Karl was a stickler for adhering to the rules and regulations, whereas the others occasionally wanted to do things which Karl thought could jeopardize their license.
Karl also loved the theater. He was in many productions of the Tulsa Little Theater. He tried to get me to try out for a part once.
Karl had a lovely, unique voice which he never lost. His love for classical music extended to a Sunday afternoon broadcast which he hosted.
In 1994, I called him. We had not conversed since about 1955. We talked for two hours. When his wife complained about tying up the phone, he invited me over to his house. We talked for two more hours. An added treat was the unscheduled appearance of Sadie Adwon, who had been the first woman radio salesperson in Tulsa. (She died in 1997.)
Even though he was 88 years of age, Karl still had that beautiful voice, his mind was razor sharp, and he looked half his age. But he was living with a weakened blood vessel in his brain which could explode at any time and kill him. Thats what happened a year later.
Frank Berry did a program on KAKC for the last few months I was there in 1952. I was the engineer for him. He played Rhythm and Blues music in the late evenings except on Friday when he presented spirituals...
Once during his spirituals program he talked for a long while about how he needed people to patronize his sponsors more frequently or he would not be able to retain them, and he would have to cease doing the program. After a record started I asked him if there were any danger of his going off the air. He said, No. But I have to jack up the listeners ever so often to get them to stop by the sponsors more frequently.
...He was very personable and fun to work with. I loved to get him laughing while he was on the air by inserting sneak voices from various commercial transcriptions. (This was pioneered by KVOO, particularly on Sleepwalkers Serenade with Doc Hull.) After a few weeks he said that he thought the sneak voices were great, but he asked me to refrain from doing it while he was reading a commercial. His sponsors just didnt find it amusing.
I had only regret in quitting KAKC and moving to KTUL: I wouldnt be seeing Frank Berry. Its a shame that Oklahoma was a Jim Crow state at the time. Frank and I could have become good friends, and I could have enriched my life by experiencing black culture.
There is one aspect of the radio and TV cultures which were completely different in the 40s and 50s: trying to get an on-air announcer to break up and start laughing. In radio at that time it was raised to a fine art. Here are some examples.
KRMG: During a sportscast (presumably Creagers) the other announcers set his script on fire while he was on the air. Creager was busy trying to save his script by pounding it onto the desk (quietly) with used pages while continuing to read as if nothing was happening.
KRMG: A variation of the above occurred to the same announcer. His buddies laid a trail of lighter fluid completely around the edge of the table being used. After it was lighted, Creager (presumably) frantically tried to continue amidst the wall of flame.
KRMG: During a 60 second commercial two fellow announcers crept up behind their on-the-air colleague. At the end of a sentence one conspirator quickly turned off the mike while his collaborator pulled the trigger on a CO2 fire extinguisher, placing a short blast onto the back of the head of the reader. The mike was immediately turned back on. It took about a third of a second to complete the act.
KTUL: Joe Cummins and I were doing a station break. After I gave the call letters, Joe started a 60-second commercial. I took my coke and started to slowly dripping it onto the top of Joes head. He kept his cool and continued reading. It was not until the coke started rolling down his nose, falling onto the script, and fizzing that Joe finally broke up.
KTUL: Jack Alexander was asked to start a weather program--something new. Because there was not really enough significant information to fill the entire program, I would scour the AP and UP wires for something interesting. The only thing I could find was weather from obscure places. I would run into the studio while Jack was reading, and hand him a piece of news onto which I had printed Bulletin! in large letters. Jack would usually break up, particularly when I would come in with the weather from Antelope Valley. Neither of us knew where Antelope Valley was, but it was absurd enough to break up Jack every time. After a couple of weeks Jack asked me to desist, because Program Director Karl Janssen had admonished him.
Call-in programs are a staple of radio now, but back in the early 50s such programs had not been tried. Even reporting via telephone was rare. The only broadcast I can remember was KVOOs fishing report which came from out of town, complete with the periodic beep which was required at that time. But either in late 1952 or early 1953, KTUL decided to have a weekly call-in program on local events. Not trusting the audience to speak either within the very restrictive norms of proper English or to refrain from slander, the host, Vic Lundberg, took the calls and relayed to the audience what the caller said. (There was no five-second tape delay equipment then.) As I recall, the program only lasted for a short time, only a couple of weeks, because the callers remarks were upsetting the local politicos and power structure.
Although the program occurred on my shift, I did not ascertain what had happened behind the scenes, because I was new to the staff, and still very inexperienced. This was during the McCarthy period, and Tulsa was one of the cities most deeply affected by that scourge. Any outspokenness beyond the restrictive range was anathema.
I previously mentioned the McCarthy era and its effect on radio in Tulsa. Here are two examples. I was doing my evening record show Music for Listening on KAKC when the general manager came running in with a strange look on his face. Get rid of all the Weavers records. We wont play any music of Communists on this station.
Sen. Joe McCarthy had just named the Weavers folk singing group as being on his list of subversives. Their transgression in reality had been mainly to support the unions and union organizing. Conservatives and liberal Democrats had used the Red-baiting Era to de-fang the unions by driving out the radical members who were providing the energy for the successes of the labor movement. Conservative union leaders had used it to take over power for themselves. In this they all were successful. (There are many good books on the subject. One is Red Scare by Don Carleton, who states that the only city in the country that was worse than Houston in being affected by the McCarthy Period was Tulsa.)
The good news is that, as a result of Joe McCarthy, I now have a nice collection of Weavers music on 78rpm records.
The effects of the McCarthy Period lingered on after the downfall of Tail Gunner Joe. (His legacy continues even today.) In 1956, when I was driving the KRMG newsmobile, Program Director Keith Bretz told me that the general manager, a man whose last name was Lane, wanted me to have a man (sic) on the street interview each day. I expressed my doubts, but went ahead with the assignment. Night after night I would park the Microbus on a downtown street, roll out my microphone cord, and stop people walking by. After explaining what I would like for them to do, the fear would immediately light up in their eyes, and they would say, I dont want to go on record to say anything, or I keep my opinions to myself. They then would rush off.
Meanwhile, Lane was putting pressure on Keith, who was pressuring me. The only solution I could think of was to stage the interviews. I started going to my Kappa Sigma fraternity house to do it. Occasionally one of the boys girl friends would join us. The interviews would take an almost pre-determine path: Two guys would express opposing views, start shouting, and end up getting into a fight. I could have given Sam Avey a lesson or two in staging events.
Eventually the requirement the man (sic) on the street assignment was dropped, but Ill never forget the fear on the faces of the people I approached when I asked them to exercise their First Amendment rights.
An example of the hysteria caused by the McCarthy period and the Cold War can be found in the preparation for a KRMG Newsmobile broadcast in 1957. Larry Strain had a lady friend who had an avocation of airplane spotting for the government. Larry asked me if I wanted to go with him to watch her perform her patriotic duty.
We met the woman at the National Bank of Tulsa building, and ascended to the tower, where we could see in all directions. It was a beautiful view of Tulsa. But, we were not there to enjoy the view. We were on a mission of helping to protect our fair city from the nasty Rooskies.
The lady explained that, because the Russians might fly airplanes under our defensive radar blanket, we needed to observe the skies and report all aircraft we could see. As we scanned the heavens for the approach of Armageddon, we spied an airliner. She hopped to the phone, and made a long-distance report to the Kansas City processing center. Alfa, Baker, Kilo, Kilo, Gulf. I have an American Airlines flight heading northeast at about 3,000 feet.
She returned with a satisfied smile on her face. Larry then spotted a Piper Cub out for a spin. Our heroine rushed back to the phone. Alfa, Baker, Kilo, Kilo, Gulf. I have a single-engine plane--probably a Piper Cubon a southwesterly course at about 4,000 feet.
I asked her why she reported all airplanes, even commercial airliners that were landing at the airport as well as such a non-threatening thing as a Piper Cub. She replied that those were her orders. The people at the federal agency told her that atomic bombs possibly could be placed in any type of aircraft.
We stayed there until it became dark, enjoying the darkening, soft view of our beautiful city, and reporting on each aircraft we could see. I had qualms about the long-distance telephone bill that the taxpayers had just paid for, but I had a warm feel from knowing that, at least for now, the Tulsa skies had been made safe from a Soviet attack and nuclear incineration.
Here is a story that Jim Ruddle will find familiar.
Before the coliseum burned down in 1952, the KAKC studios were in the basement of that building, on the northeast corner. There was only one exit--at the front. The studios were in the back. Near the ceiling of the control room there was the only window, a tiny, barred thing which looked out at foot level onto the street. There was a sealed door at the rear of the control room, the only thing separating us announcers from the myriad of rats which ran rampant in the large area under the used part of the building. It may have been used as a storage area. The rats made a terrible racket as they ran around, fighting, mating, bumping into things, and knocking things over as only rats can do. It was really spooky to be listening to this noise during a disk jockey program when you were the only one in the building.
It was not unusual to see the V/U meter jump when there was a thud coming from the back. One night, after experiencing a series of noises which were picked up by the mike, I explained to the audience what was happening, stating that we were broadcasting from the bowels of the Coliseum. I got a cease-and-desist call from the general manager.
At least the door separated us from the rats, but nothing protected us from the mice. During a newscast a mouse left its hole on the left side of the control board, and ran across my hands and script. I was too shocked to react.
However, I could not ignore the next incident several weeks later during a disk jockey program. A mouse left its home, ran across the control board, and hopped onto the spinning turntable, knocking the tone arm off of the record which was playing over the air, and slinging the mouse off toward the back of the room. (It was a 78rpm record.) I turned the mike on and explained what had happened. Fortunately, this time the general manager was not listening.
When the Coliseum burned, there must have been a terrible slaughter of rodents.
Great reminder, Frank. That back door was not sealed when I worked there, maybe they figured it would keep the rats out by closing it permanently. Once you opened it, you were faced with a catacomb running under the Coliseum that was filled with stacks of what appeared to be old wooden bleachers, or braces, or something like that. Obviously, good fuel for the later fire. I, too, got called down for referring on the air to "Our subterranean studios."
Actually, the only real rodents I encountered worked in the front office.
This 1958 radio spot advertised apartments in downtown Tulsa "for colored people". Unbelievable, but here it is. We don't want to get too nostalgic about the "good old days", because they were some very bad old days, too. Download MP3 (775KB)
Former KAKC jock Steve Suttle said via email:
I got that spot from Henry Mark (son of then-owner of KAKC, Carl Mark). He told me he took it off an old transcription disc he found at the Tradewinds Studios (at one time there were hundreds of them stacked up on the production room shelves). I believe he told me the spot aired in 1958. Tulsa was considerably different in the 1950s. I remember watching the NAACP picketing the Piccadilly cafeteria in the very early 60s when Okla. had the same segregation laws as the other border states