It was 1944 and near the end of my freshman year in college. Professor Brooks Quimby
had asked to see me after his "Introduction to Public Speaking" class. I hung back,
waiting for the professor to answer student questions about the assignment. Finally
he turned to me: Walt, do you drink?"
I was startled. "You mean beer, wine, whisky? No, it's against my religious beliefs."
"Then would you be interested in a night announcer's job at WCOU?"
By way of explanation, the local Yankee/Mutual affiliate in Lewiston, Maine had until
recently employed an announcer during the 6-12 midnight shift who had two significant
1. he became bored easily, and
2. he drank alcoholic beverages on the job to wile away the lonely hours.
Matters came to a head when the announcer -- loaded with cheer one night -- decided
to put on the air a specially made transcription announcing the end of World War II.
The transcription featured the voices of President Roosevelt and other dignitaries,
thanking God for the sudden, unhearalded Allied victory.
The good people of the listening area -- lead by a local daily newspaper which competed
with WCOU for advertising dollars -- were properly outraged by this "cruel hoax during
the darkest hours of the War!"
WCOU apologized; the announcer was fired; and the business manager of the station
held down the night shift until a sober replacement could be found. Most of the key
personnel at the station were away fighting for Uncle Sam; the owner, Faust Couture
(from whose last name the call letters were taken), station manager and ace sports-
caster John Libby, chief announcer Bob Payne, and announcer/musician Laverne
So it was business manager Oscar Normand who -- all in one fateful evening -- inter-
viewed me for the job, showed me how to run the RCA console and turntables, pointed
out the pile of commercial copy, watched me as I stumbled through the routine for a
while, and left me to my own devices.
WCOU, the only radio station since 1938 in the Lewiston/Auburn area, was part of
the Couture family dynasty. The family had pioneered French language newspapers
in the U.S. The first floor of the building housed the paper Le Messager;business
offices for the radio station took up most of the second floor; the third floor was
reserved or the studios and control room which were (as of 1938) state of the art.
The UPI teletype machine was on the second floor where it would be "handy" to
both the newspaper and the radio staff. When I was the "radio news staff" and
had to dash down to the teletype machine for news while a record was playing, I
didn't find it wonderfully convenient -- especially when the newspaper guys had
gotten there first!
Other than being a terrible announcer (and I have off-the-air recordings to prove
it) the first few weeks were marred by one minor tragedy. To understand my plight
the reader needs to understand the setting. From 6 PM to 8 PM, programs alter-
nated between network and local shows. For example, the Yankee Network
News was on at 6:00, followed by state/local news at 6:10; Fulton Lewis Jr.
was on at 7:00 with local commercial tie-ins. Strictly local programming included
live music shows from Studio 1 and sports shows etc. from Studio 2. The control
room where I worked exclusively when I was alone contained the master console
and turntables, two metal cabinets filled with Standard Transcriptions, no more
than a dozen 78 rpm records, and a rack of special transcribed 15-minute shows
scheduled for specific dates and times.
Paulette, the receptionist for the station, was responsible for putting the tran-
scribed shows for each day in the rack. On this particular occasion she had forgot-
ten Leave It To The Girls, which was scheduled for 10 PM. I went to cue-up
the 16-inch disk a few minutes before ten. No transcription. I was horrified. The
show must go on! At 9:59:30 I cut away from the network broadcast, switched on
my mike, read a commercial, and then said to radioland, "I can't find Leave It
To The Girls scheduled for broadcast at this time; so there will be a period of
silence while I hunt for it!" I turned off the mike and dashed for the mail room on
the second floor. Five minutes later the show went on the air.
Oscar, my mentor and wartime boss, patiently explained that the show was sustain-
ing [a public service show for the WAVES), no harm done; and I should have simply
put on some records to fill the fifteen minute spot.
Local newscasts from a station with NO news gathering staff were always a problem,
and on weekends and holidays a veritable nightmare. We relied on the publicity
handouts of state agencies, colleges, and the like. Sometimes in desperation we
generated news. For example, if we knew that 6 deaths were predicted for the Maine
highways over the Labor Day weekend we'd call the Mayor and ask for his comments.
Being both inarticulate and trusting he would say, "You boys make a quote for me!"
The quotes we dreamed up were often so outrageous that we should have been sued
for defamation of character.
On One occasion two part-time staff announcers were convinced that they knew
how a local crime had been committed. Hungry for news at any cost, they took an
old shirt, shot a hole in it, and planted it near the scene of the cime. They they pro-
ceeded to "discover" it and scoop the media. The scoop backfired, because when
the police arrived on the scene to inspect the shirt -- it had mysteriously disappeared.
The crime was eventually solved; the shirt incident was not!
For me the most dramatic news story occurred in February, 1952. I left my apartment
for work before 4 PM. One of my regular duties was to do the Six O'Clock News
(sponsored locally by this time). I edited the world and regional stories, but two local
items were handed to me just as I went on the air. One of the local items concerned
a fire in progress at 13 Lowell Street -- the address I had left two hours before!
Somehow I got through the rest of the newscast, but fifteen minutes later I viewed
in person the smoking remains of all my worldly possessions.
The station had many live local shows, especially during the early evening hours.
Many of them were built around two personalities: Roselle Coury and Marion Payne
Roselle was a raven-haired song stylist from Berlin, New Hampshire, who broke into
radio by buying her own air time, selling spot announcements within her shows, and
arranging for the additional musical talent. She drove the six hours from and to Berlin,
New Hampshire, every day -- summer and winter -- that the show was aired. By the
time I knew her she had been so successful in selling her talents that the station hired
her full-time rather than compete with her! Not all of her daily shows featured her
singing voice. Roselle did a women's show in the morning with recipes, birthday
greetings, and the like. She also did an early evening show called the Lucky Dollar
Roselle was multi-talented. She also had a temper as volatile as it was violent. One
evening on the Lucky Dollar Program she perceived that one of her telephone
contestants was trying to con her into awarding him "Lucky Dollars." Before she had
exhausted her vocabulary of four-letter words I cut her off the air and played an inter-
lude of organ music. She then proceeded to roast me. I tried to calm her ruffled
feathers by pointing out that Ididn't want her fired and the station sued. She went on
with her show, and we were good friends after that. I wrote comedy sketches and
continuity for many of her variety programs. Roselle Coury was a first class talent in
every respect: a terrific speaking voice and a fine pop singer. There were few women,
local or network, on the airwaves in the '40's and '50's any better than Roselle Coury.
Of course, Roselle was blessed with a superb studio organist, Marion Payne Louisfell.
Marion began her career in silent movie house orchesetras as a pianist and later as
a Migfhty WurliTzer organist. On the Hammond organ, Novachord, and Steinway grand
in Studio 1 Mrs. Louisfell was incredible. Every pop tune that came into the studio she
would write down quickly in her own notational system. Then she could play it in any
key for any vocalist. Marion, the sister of Maine's Senator Fred Payne, was the
kindest, most patient, most humble, most charitable person I have ever met. Her
charming Gaslight Serenade had a loyal following at 12 noon. Marion could have
been "big time" except that she was too busy making other lesser talents sound good --
including this writer.
Early in 1947, when WCOU pioneered FM broadcasting in Central Maine, I had an idea
for a stereo music show, Conversations In Music. The show was to help promote sales
sales of FM sets. Studio 1 was now wired so that two microphones could broadcast over
FM and two microphones could broadcast separately over AM simultaneously.
Marion's voice and her Hammond were emphasized over FM while my voice and the
studio Steinway were emphasized via the AM signal.
The result (wherever there was an AM and FM radio in the same room tuned to our
stations] was perhaps the first commercially sponsored 13-week series in stereo.
Marion cheerfully put up with the countless hours of rehearsals I needed because
I was a rank amateur on the piano. Her musical arrangements made me sound good
-- even when I was lousy. Unfortunately, neither of us ever heard the show in stereo.
There was no equipment invented in 1947 to let us hear a playback stereophonically.
This was the Golden Era of live talent in local radio. In addition to Roselle Coury and
Marion Payne Louisfell, WCOU employed singers Paul Daigneau (a Ray Eberle type),
Gideon Saucier who did the Crosby tunes, Dolena McIntire who had a glorious operetta
voice, and Georgette Giboin who could do the classics and grand opera. For a season
we featured a young war veteran Bill Hall during an afternoon show. This was at the
insistance of the station owner who believed that the horribly wounded Marine deserved
a chance to find himself again. I was paid extra for serving as his accompanist/coach.
Bill had blackouts and blinding migrane headaches during some rehearsals, but he never
let us down at showtime. Bill's voice had the same sort of appeal that later made super-
stars of Buddy Clarke and Perry Como. He could break your heart with a ballad.
Bonnie Laird was another talented songstress who filled in during times when Roselle
Coury was on maternity leave. Bonnie's husband , Johnny Marsh, had a magnificent
baritone voice with which he sang "Ol' Man River" when he wasn't reading commercials.
A superb jazz pianist Gratien Ouellette took over Mrs. Louisfell's duties during times
when she was seriously ill. After being told by the station management that there was
no "future" for him in radio, Gratien went to New York City and had a briliant career,
the favorite accompanist of many top recording stars.
There were moments of hilarity on and off the air. On one occasion the morning
announcer Hal was expecting Johnny, the "Call for Phillip Morris" diminutive
ambassador, to show up for an interview at 8:45. Hal put his records away in
anticipation -- Johnny didn't show. Hal talked and stalle, and stalled and talked.
It was almost 9:00 and Hal was apologizing for the 10th time and getting more and
more disgusted. Suddenly the door to the studios burst open and in waltzed Johnny
with his entourage. Just as suddenly Hal blurted into the open mike: "Jesus Christ!
The little son-of-a-bitch finally made it!"
On another occasion a hillbilly band was rehearsing in Studio 1 while the Boston Red
Sox were on the air from Fenway Park. In our local station control room two staff
announcers noticed that the band members were having a heated discussion. Why
not listen in?
But instead of routing the Studio 1 mike into the control room, it was accidentally
routed out over the airwaves, and with it a stream of cusswords and vulgarities.
Horrified by what had happened but ever resourceful, one of the announcers cut
off the Red Sox game momentarily, apologized for the "foul language in the radio
booth at Fenway Park," and assured listeners it wouldn't happen again.
The station carried the nightly commentary of Fulton Lewis Jr., a great favorite of
conservative listeners, but a colossal blow-hard in the opinion of two announcers --
one of them yours truly. One night my like-minded crony and I hit upon a plan to cut
fulminating Fulton down to size. While Mr. Lewis Jr. was ranting and raving we
silently opened the microphone in our control room. During his dramatic pauses we
made throat-clearing noises, coughed, blew our noses, and perpetrated other antisocial
sounds. In the middle of this merriment the telephone lights blazed insistently. It was
the boss telling us to "cut the crap...instantly!" It had never occurred to us that anyone
we knew actually listened to the creep!
Like all other "hip" radio announcers we tried soaking commercial copy in lighter fluid
and igniting it while a colleague was earnestly selling. That wasn't as effective as
walking naked into the line of sight of a buddy who was trying to wax enthusiastic
about swim suits. When tape recorders first came into use after the war, a Brush
Sound Mirror was wired into our console. If one were wearing earphones while reading
the news, some clown would turn on the tape recorder which played your own voice
back to you a split-second later. The results were pretty funny -- unless you happened to be the newscaster. We soon learned to tolerate delayed feed-back at high sound levels.
Perhaps the most monumental breakup for this announcer came during a broadcast
for which some federal agency had provided a script to be read locally. Rudy Hamel
(who later in life had a brilliant career in the legal department of Bristol-Meyers) and
I started reading the script "cold" without ever checking the contents. We soon
discovered that we were supposed to be farm experts talking about the virtues of
"sticking pigs" and "slaughtering hogs." We both knew what the other person was
thinking and we began to break up. Finally it got so bad that we had to cut ourselves
off the air and play the standby organ transcription.
This time we were convinced that we were in deep, deep trouble with the Front Office.
Actually the outcome was very touching. A woman wrote to the station thanking "those
two fools" for saving her life. She had just received word that her soldier husband had
been killed in Germany, and in her grief planned to end her own life. Her radio was
turned on, and when she heard us trying desperately not to break up she became
hysterical along with us.
Mostly, radio was serious business in war time. We were forbidden to broadcast
weather reports or play song requests at specific times. These could be signals or
the enemy who lurked off the Maine coast in Nazi submarines. Much of the military
news was strictly managed by the Office of War Information. As an example, lists of
military casualties and the names of local people killed in battle or lost at sea were
marked "Hold for your next local bond drive."
My other job to help pay my way through school was as pastor of a country Methodist
Church. Often I would open the station Sunday mornings at 7:00; write my sermon
during the network religious shows, and leave at about 10:00 when Conrad Giguere
came in to do the French language program Le Messager En Parade. On one
particular August Sunday morning in 1945 I checked the UPI teletype to discover that
the U.S. had dropped an "atom bomb" on Hiroshima. I incorporated this news into my
sermon and probably preached the first -- if not the best -- of the warnings about a
possible nuclear demise for this old planet earth.
I did Big Band remote broadcasts on my Saturday nights off. I did them because I
thought it was fun. Only the engineer got paid. My reward was to stand beside the
likes of Duke Ellington, Jimmy Dorsey, Johnny Bothwell, Gene Krupa, and others.
As pop records became a studio staple after the war there were many interviews
with the Stan Kentons and the Arthur Fiedlers.
Hollywood stars playing summer stock came in to plug their current productions. I
happen to have a recording of an interview I did with Moe Jaffe went over to the
piano in Studio 1 and played his latest song, "If I Had My Life To Live Over." I
secretly thought it was a "bow-wow," but Buddy Clarke and countless other crooners
proved me wrong.
Although most of the locally produced efforts were music and variety shows, we did
not avoid drama at WCOU. The Bates Manufacturing Company sponsored a dramatic
series written by one of my college classmates, Florence Furfy, called Do You
Know Maine? It was excellent. I coped periodically with local groups such as
Hadassah who used me as narrator but supplied volunteers for less demanding parts.
The cause was noble even if the productions were sometimes less than professional.
Norman Gallant and his wife Catherine Rice did some very fine dramatic shows over
WFAU, our sister station in Augusta, Maine. In addition, Cay did some brilliant
dramatizations for children along the lines of Irene Wicker, "The Singing Lady."
One summer I wrote an adaptation of Shakespeare's Othello which we aired over
WFAU. Fortunately, I walked off with the rehearsal tape of the show which I saved.
In my opinion it holds up reasonably well against some of the things NBC, CBS, and
Mutual did during the same period. Local radio did a lot of drama -- some of it well
worth repeating today!
Although I left radio broadcasting in 1948 to begin a college teaching career, I
"moonlighted" while teaching until 1957. Many years later my son worked his way
through college doing radio work in the same market area but not the same stations.
I was able to observe the change in technology and the dynamics of local radio in
the 1980's. I think my era was more fun, more creative.
True, working conditions in radio today are better than in the 1940's. For a starting
salary of 60 cents an hour I operated the master console, read spot announcements,
wrote commercial copy for certain accounts, directed radio plays, wrote and acted in
comedy skits, sang in a jazz trio, played piano solos, accompanied singers, hunted
for records in the right key for singers to do voice-overs, cataloged records, performed
newscasts, read poetry, wrote and produced commercial jingles, and did background
color for sporting events. There was never any paid holiday nor time-and-a-half for
overtime. But it was exciting. It was fun. I was very young.
While I was in college I heard most of the Mutual Network shows out of one ear with
a textbook in my lap. Certain shows could always pull me away from the books. I liked
The Falcon, The Shadow,
Orson Welles' The Black Museum, and my favorite was
Wyllis Cooper'sQuiet, Please! What a kick it is to listen to these same shows today
and give them my undivided attention -- thanks to SPERDVAC.
[NOTE: Thanks to a WCOU engineer of the era, the late Colby Cooke,
many variety and musical shows mentioned in this article were preserved
as air-checks recorded on glass-based 16-inch transcriptions and stored
in Mr. Cooke's Wilton, Maine, barn. Before his death he gave the transcrip-
tions to the author who transferred the programs to cassette tapes at the
University of Rhode Island Media Center and donated copies to the Maine
Broadcasting Museum. Some of them have been rebroadcast for Old Time
Radio Fans in Central Maine.