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Robert Anderson

Editor’s Note: I worked with Bob Anderson at KGO-TV, SF Channel 7 in the late 1970s and ’80s editing documentaries he produced and directed. Bob was great to work with and taught me early in my TV career how a true professional operated. It was a pleasure to edit with Bob. His career started in radio and ended in TV. He lives in San Francisco and is approaching 93 years young! This is his story… And it’s a good one. Please enjoy and Thank you Bob!  Steve

Portland and Denver were the largest American cities without television in 1950. Or so I was told. The FCC was holding off new construction permits until dueling systems for broadcasting in color were sorted out.That held promise for getting in on the ground floor of a hot TV career if I hitched on to a prominent radio station that had a pending license to broadcast pictures.

Thus, when I was among those cannonaded out of Washington State University with a diploma declaring that I had completed the Ed Murrow College’s  requirements for kilocycle-talking, I pounded on the closest network-affiliated doors where radio still ruled.

Of the Portland stations, KGW (NBC) and KOIN (CBS) were the remaining giants.  Each featured daily live music productions, audience-participation, talent and variety programs, kids’ shows, and local drama with real-by-God-actors. They both broadcast dance-band remotes from the city’s formidable hotels. They had their own instrumental and vocal musical combos and could, when called upon, assemble a full studio orchestra (made up largely of moonlighting musicians from the Portland Symphony). And they each had a stable of sportscasters and a large and formidable newsroom., including analysts and commentators of some distinction.

( Of the principal others: The ABC affiliate, KEX, had recently made major staff changes, now publicly admitting to a major schedule of recorded music, and was hiring — gasp! — disc jockeys.  The Mutual Network station, sometimes hitched to the West Coast-based Don Lee network, originated little in the way of local broadcasting unless covering a hometown sports event.  KXL was the leading independent and had long enjoyed financial success by being essentially a pop music station with a tight format and a small staff.)

I looked over the KGW installation in the new Oregonian Building at the top of Broadway and was impressed by the cavernous unfinished section in the structure’s center that had set aside for the future television studios “when the TV freeze ends.”  Okay, I could wait that out. So it was with Portland’s NBC Radio outlet that I became a staff writer-producer-director (junior grade, to be sure) for a grand $45.50 a week.

I was not entirely a radio novice. While still in high school I had careened in to my hometown staton: KWLK, a  250-watt MBS-affiliate downriver in Longview, Washington. It was the usual progression:  lugging equipment / hooking-up remotes / taking a control-room shift / filling in as weekend  announcer and newscaster /spotting and doing color on local sports broadcasts. Then  finally: my own disc-jockey show.

Lugging a Webcore wire recorder, and later a heavy reel-to-reel machine, on weekly safari to Portland’s Jantzen Beach Ballroom, I interviewed big-time bandleaders:  Gene Krupa, Stan Kenton, Woody Herman, Les Brown, among others. Never mind that this was carried on a small-time 250-watt percolator: it was RADIO!

For the next stop, I chose Washington State College for no reason of academic excellence.  Rather, to the contrary: it had 5000-Watt KWSC, at that time mostly student-run and student-fun. There was an additional plus: the Department of Speech had a reputation for turning out radio personnel with a certain professional sheen — not necessarily polish — and a roster of well-placed alumni who might help guide a recent grad to a meaningful professional notch.

The summer before graduation I caught the Shasta Daylight down to Palo Alto for the Stanford-NBC Radio-Television Institute.  That was the big-time.  Growing up, I had tuned in to the strong KNBC nighttime signal from distant California that carried big-band remotes from glamorous hotel ballrooms and Bud Hyde with “The hi-di-ho and what’s new with a musical dissertation on the Three R’s: Rhythm, Romance and Reminiscing” — then, as a later teen, the ultimately hip Jimmy Lyons with live jazz from the Club Hangover or introducing me to the recorded likes of Dave Brubeck on Lyons Busy. Now I would be there: The Source. How cool would that be?!

Half the classes featured guest lecturers of various disciplines and were taught at Stanford,  a locale of blinding opulence compared to the rather raggedy Pullman campus of Washington State of the 1950’s.  Better yet, other classes  were held in the Radio City San Francisco studios ensconced in a streamline-moderne structure with rounded edges and horizontal stripes of glass brick. I had never encountered anything exuding such glamour as that building, fronted by an epic four-story ceramic mosaic mural portraying a hand on a radio dial from which waves reached out to people of many lands and cultures. The building alone shouted Uptown Broadcasting!

Therein,  the gentlemanly and urbane John Grover (“This hour is yours … the Standard Hour…”) taught production, deep-voiced Chief Announcer John Storm lectured on the finer points of radio speech, and instruction on how to build an audio mood with music was demonstrated by elfishly amusing Tony Freeman directing a studio orchestra.

The radio half of the summer session was capped by a half-hour production, student-written and student-cast, with full professional musical and effects backup,  and directed by Grover.  A dramatic heart-tugger, “The Right To Interfere” went on the network as a Saturday afternoon one-time-only sustainer and was —  perhaps — picked up by few affiliates outside of the Bay Area.  But what the hell, we were on the net!  (I played the second lead and blew the show’s concluding word –“Mom!”– with a rather gargled delivery.  Lesson learned: never base an important one-liner on a single word unless it contains at least two syllables).

The television components of the Institute were undertaken under distinctly down-scale circumstances in the Chronicle Building at Fifth and Mission where KRON-TV was jammed into a newsprint warehouse repurposed as a studio. We also visited KPIX, even more cramped in an attic above the Top of The Mark. San Francisco’s third station was closed to us,  indeed to anyone  including staff or performers, when the numbers inside approached a dozen; KGO-TV was housed in a former mansion with extremely strict covenants to keep it from becoming a tavern. The TV course also concluded with a student production but was only broadcast locally. (My meagre participation was in set design — by then I was more involved  back on the Stanford campus as a vacation replacement dic jockey on the student station and with a stage production of Rain.)

While San Francisco was still suffering through its pioneering television era, the arrival of pictures-through-the-air was still on the far horizon in Portland, Oregon. Radio was still king when I went to work there. It was January, 1951.

KGW’s studios, five of various sizes, were acoustically designed with high ceilings and parabolic sound-reflectors on the walls. Each studio had its own control room entered through a double-door sound lock. The two largest, designed for an audience, had elevated individual booths furnished so that program sponsors could watch what they were paying for in well-upholstered comfort. And so the quality was spread through KGW’s instillation, from a thoughtfully-furnished announcer’s lounge to the newsroom layout with central desks for each major newscast of the day, adjoining divisions  for sports and farm news coverage, and a sound-proofed sanctum for the chattering AP. UPI and INS teletypes.

My desk was in a gallery with large windows overlooking Broadway, in a line comfortably shared with three other writer-producers and the Continuity Director who checked everything written for broadcast except news. At the far end was the Traffic Manager whose wall-size, multicolored flowchart showed the exact time every program, announcement and commercial was scheduled for broadcast  — a large part of his work was to guarantee discreet time between competing products. The Program Manager had a separate office for dreaming up new projects, though he often seemed seemed to be fretting mightily over how his voluminous program logs would appear to the FCC (his name was, fittingly: Frank Coffin). Most of these duties no longer exist in radio.

KGW, circa 1950, was a class act suitable for the grand finale of Old Time Radio as we knew and loved it. The sound effects technician rolled out his cart loaded with creaking hinges, slamming doors, gurgling drains and a wind machine that could crank out quite a storm.  Staff organist Glen Shelley might coax his instrument into anything from the ominous chords of threatening doom to a soothing Brahms lullaby to jazz-touched hipster hits. Music Director Abe Berkovitz, an accomplished violinist, oversaw a library of complete musical scores for instrumentation from trios to a full symphonic orchestra. In addition, there were the recorded works of three transcription services and an always-mounting collection of 33 and 45 rpm discs. (By then it was only for special occasion broadcasts that Abe called out a full studio orchestra. But he still led the four-piece studio group on the daily morning variety show, accompanying the singing host and a vocal quartet, “The Men About Town.”)

These studios were where I sweated through my first gig as a writer-director with a professional cast, musicians, and a sound-effect tech:  a half-hour Oregon Trail frontier drama. My other weekly assignment, not as harrowing, was a Saturday morning kid’s talent show in which the major threat was stage-shocked young contestants loosing bladder control. In between, I hacked out commercials for a handful of accounts who disdained ad agency copy. They ranged from a very upscale and rather arrogant outfitter of  men’s fashions, to the  Hyster Corporation, manufacturer of fork-lifts.

When a hole opened between network shows in the weeknight schedule I was challenged to fill it with “Something impressive and dignified but appealing — and cheap.”  The result was Spindrift — ” audio portraits of the sea,” as my script somewhat portentously described it. The concept was descriptive passages from Melville, Conrad, Hemingway and the like voiced in the rich baritone of actor/announcer Dick Rand, interspersed with music ranging from selections of DeBussy’s La Mer  to pop tunes like Shrimp Boats Are Comin’  and I Cover the Waterfront. These elements were connected by recorded effects of crashing surf, roaring winds, ship whistles and fog-horns … with occasional harp arpeggios and glissandos for mood-switches. It was a very wet presentation.

All programs using recordings as the music source were, at the time, legally required to verbally reveal the fact. That was downplayed at KGW– almost admitted with shame, buried  in the  credits and covered by a term like “electrically transcribed” or “recorded under the direction of (BANDLEADER/CONDUCTOR).” Even then, the practice seemed to me rather quaint.

Every weekday afternoon a growing number of staff members gathered in the announcers lounge to cheer on the new Bob & Ray show coming in from New York to satirize the hand that was feeding us.  With “Mr. Trace, Keener Than Most Persons,” “Mary Backstage, Noble Wife,” “Bob & Ray’s Overstocked Surplus Warehouse,” and dozens of stumbling, bumbling, self-important and air-headed broadcasters. It was an hilarious and judicious comment on our own professional lives. All characters were portrayed by the multi-voiced pair.  A special target particularly appreciated by the listening radio pros was identified simply as “Arthur,” expertly recreating the insufferable-yet-popular host of the Godfrey Show over on competing CBS — no radio personality or show or broadcasting type was immune from barbs hurled by Bob Elliot and Ray Goulding.

I look back on that year of ’50-’51 with special fondness because it gave me the opportunity to experience radio as it once was while it was still happening. But at age 22 I was still searching for a television future and it was not going to happen soon Portland, Oregon. The TV freeze was dragging on. Thus, despite the offer of a ten-percent raise to $49.50, I cast off for New York.

More radio adventures would follow: the New York Times’ WQXR, Anchorage’s KENI, San Francisco’s KYA moving from middle-road pops to raucous rocker, then the short-lived KQBY and its Mutual Network news bureau.

There were television gigs in-between, as well. An early one was furnished by the Army in San Luis Obispo where, as a draftee to the Signal Corps, I helped establish the first American Forces Television Station. My buddies on that assignment were Privates Rufus Petersen (later to become a prominent San Francisco TV director) and Bill Anderson (who would morph into Adam West/Batman). Then I narrated documentaries at the Signal Corps’ huge Long Island Studios in New York, and after discharge had my own afternoon show in frozen Anchorage..

Radio was my fall-back if the video screen faltered. I was doing a pair of morning newscasts and a commentary for “good music” San Francisco newcomer KQBY which, like me, was sailing perilous financial waters, when KRON-TV called. Channel 4 was gearing up a weekly documentary project  — the first by an individual station anywhere — and I said “sign me on.” With that, I said goodbye to radio … with fondness, but forever.

For the next couple of decades I wrote, produced and directed a couple of hundred documentary programs, worked both staff and freelance for for a number of bosses, traveled over a good part of the world — but insisting on maintaining my base in San Francisco base.  Mighty good years!

En todo: A career in broadcasting ultimately brought awards and press accolades, and I don’t deny appreciating them. But well above that: it was more FUN than anyone is reasonably be entitled to … beginning as a sixteen-year-old lugging equipment for a 250-watter beside the Columbia River.

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Bob Anderson