September 30, 2005

The Canaries in Studio A


A version of this story appeared originally in Washington History

Sam Smith

By the late fifties, the hounds of change were on radio's traces. Television was seizing for itself the stories, the vaudeville and the sense of being there that had been the heart of radio. And into the void was moving a new kind of music called rock 'n' roll.

To be sure rock 'n' roll already existed, but it was known as "rhythm 'n' blues" or "R&B." In the jargon of white broadcasters, it was "race music," although some white teenagers, myself included, listened almost surreptitiously to stations like Philadelphia's WDAS, where DJ Jocko Henderson proto-rapped the commercials:

Get a little cash from out of your stash,
And make like a flash in the hundred yard dash
Right down to my man John Koler at 4th &  Arch
And tell him JOCKO sent you!

Years later Jocko Henderson would be recognized as one of the fathers of rap and hip hop. And WDAS would gain a reputation as one of the early providers of black music and news, as described by Tim Whittaker in Philadelphia Magazine:

Back when WDAS was in trailblazing mode, talking ‘50s through ‘70s mostly, the station was a true community radio station. Some would argue, and pretty convincingly, that it was the purest community station in the nation. Which may be why it became a regular stop for the biggest recording acts of the day, like Sam Cooke, James Brown and all the STAX and Motown groups and performers. And a must stop for Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and every other major civil rights figure as well—because they all knew, like everyone in Philadelphia and in the radio business knew, that people listened to WDAS, a lot of people, and while most of those listeners may have been black, not all were, and that’s because the station had a sound and a rhythm that could make you color blind real quick.

It was not until the mid-decade triple explosion of Bill Haley & the Comets, The Blackboard Jungle and Elvis Presley, that young white America irrevocably entered the age of rock 'n' roll. Radio reacted to the new forces of music and technology by rapidly transforming itself from a ubiquitous stage for all the world into a collection of automated audio wombs for each of the country's proliferating demographic enclaves. It was on the cusp of this transformation, in the summer of 1957, that I was hired as a news reporter for Washington's WWDC.

In the spring of my sophomore year I read in Broadcasting magazine that WWDC, an independent station in Washington, DC, was developing a major news operation. Most stations at the time just ripped and read copy from the wires; the exceptions were usually network affiliates.

I immediately added WWDC to a list of 40 stations -- all the others in New England -- to which I sent summer job applications. The 40 New England stations rejected or ignored me, but WWDC took me on. And so I returned to my native Washington, which my family had left when I was ten.

The station's main offices were in a stone house on Brookville Road in suburban Maryland. Had the house not squatted in front of a large radio tower and been bordered by a county public works depot, it would have looked like just another stone house in the suburbs. Until, that is, you walked inside and found an engineer's booth monitoring three broadcast studios where a front hall should have been.

My bosses were two Texas liberals -- news director Joe Phipps and his assistant Bob Robinson. Short and bald, Phipps appeared a bespectacled and ambulatory small mouth bass. When excited his eyeballs almost rubbed against his glasses. His voice ebbed and flowed between 1950s broadcast fog and full-blown southern oratorical eruption. Robinson, on the other hand, had an unflappable Texas drawl. A tall man with white hair, Robinson was as imperturbable as Phipps was instantly reactive.

My initial task -- writing nine newscasts a day -- interned me in a small corner room with just enough space for one window, four news tickers, two typewriters, several phones, reams of yellow copy paper, even more rolls of yellow ticker paper and a maximum of four human beings.

Each newscast was expected to be different, whether the news had changed or not. Three of the newscasts occurred during evening drive time and were 30 minutes apart. This coincided with the most likely period for accidents and thunderstorms. Since WWDC paid $1 to $5 for every news tip it aired, I would be regularly inundated with accounts of fallen limbs and fender benders as I struggled to write three newscasts in an hour and a half. Often the copy ended up like this

Reports of damage done by this afternoon's thunderstorm are pouring into the WWDC newsroom. At least six houses are on fire, nine accidents have occurred and numerous trees and hot wires have fallen across roads. Police and electric company officials say their phones have been jammed. . .

That newscast probably cost $13, representing the number of incidents I managed to squeeze into one double-spaced page -- all typed in caps with the errors blacked out by a soft copy pencil.

The news tip system worked pretty well, although I sometimes suspected that the volunteer rescue squad dispatchers were calling us before they sent out their equipment, since once the dispatch had been aired, anyone with a scanner could call in the item. And on at least one occasion an employee at WTOP earned a dollar for phoning in a news tip that he had heard on WMAL.

One of our regular callers was Dan. Matching Robert Frost's paradigm for the good life, Dan's vocation and avocation had become one. He sat in his apartment surrounded by police and fire scanners waiting for tragedy to strike somewhere in the metropolitan region. He would then call and hoarsely whisper the news: "This is Dan, Sam. I've got a body for you." And another buck went to Dan.

The reports of fallen limbs and power outages we accepted on faith. More serious matters would be checked out by phone, using a criss-cross directory that was sorted by street address rather than by name. You could often scurry up a good taped interview this way. One such eyewitness began coughing profusely as I questioned him about a fire in his apartment building, finally urgently suggesting that the smoke was getting too thick to continue the interview.

Writing constantly soon became tiresome and I discovered various ways to amuse myself. One was to pick a word for the day and then see in how many newscasts I could use it. It had to be something like evince or piqued because my goal, unlike that of station management, was to raise the general tenor of the WWDC sound. This quixotic effort came to a halt when a blue paper memo from Bill Robinson made it clear that he had noticed and didn't think much of my unsanctioned vocabulary lessons.

And then there were the days when no one was around. Like Thanksgiving and Christmas. And you sat in that little room listening to the click and clack and waiting for the news wire to produce some news, but more likely a huge Santa Claus or turkey drawn completely with letters by the equally bored guy at the other end of the machine.


At times it seemed that the little stone farmhouse on Brookville Road marked the precise divide between the old and new worlds of broadcasting. In one studio, for example, were the props of WWDC's morning man, Art Brown. These included several caged canaries and an organ. Brown, a large, rumpled gray haired lump of a voice, would alternate current recordings with traditional tunes -- which he played on the organ accompanied by the canaries. Years later he would reveal -- or claim -- that he could control when the birds would sing because they would only warble in the key of A flat.

Brown had already been in radio for 25 years when I met him and had enough clout to get away with refusing to play rock and roll. If a listener called to complain, he would point out that there were 16 other spots on the dial.

Meanwhile, however, the commercials for this archaic program were stored in experimental tape cartridges that WWDC engineers were helping to develop. Every 30 or 60 seconds of advertising had its own continuous play cartridge that could be simply slipped into a machine and started on cue -- an immense improvement over tapes that needed to be rewound and manually lined up.

In the late fifties WWDC was the area's top rated station, but it maintained this status with substantial help from the exclusive broadcast rights to the Washington Senators games. Absent baseball, WWDC dropped to second or third in evening listening, behind WTOP and WRC, although keeping its lead in the daytime.

The new single format radio hadn't quite reached Brookville Road. While WWDC was known as a top-40 station, emphasizing the two score most popular records of the day, it still pursued a relentless eclecticism ranging from singing canaries to the most modern local radio news operation in town. And while we were expected to write our newscasts with journalistic dignity, it was also true that on my arrival each morning, I would be greeted not only by Art Brown's birds but by a jingle that chirped:

Good morning to you in the land of the free
This is Washington's Double-U, Double-U DC . . .
May your skies above all be sunny and blue
WWDC says good morning to you!
Good morning, good morning, good. . . [fade]

For such reasons, WWDC was sometimes known as Bubbly Bubbly DC. The song had come from a jingle house, one of the new parasites of the business -- a firm that provided stations with customized musical fillers. Knowing that the same jingle, slightly reworked, was being used by stations all over the country was a reminder of the illusions one could create in a medium where no one saw what you were doing.

There were many new illusions being created in those days. The radio contest, for example, was coming into its own, contests like the one in which new dollar bills were placed in circulation each week with a payoff every time the announced serial numbers were matched. Taxi drivers would keep lists of the serial numbers attached to their visors; clerks taped them next to the cash register. There was also an insidious contest in which the winner was whoever correctly counted the number of times the station's call letters had been mentioned in a two hour period.

Between about a dozen commercials every half hour, WWDC played its songlist, inserting more traditional music after every third or fourth current hit. Although such programming clearly pleased the audience, surveys confirmed what some observers suspected, namely that the new radio was appealing to an easily influenced but small segment of the population: the record-buying teenager. Stations thus were not only deceiving themselves but their advertisers since sponsors were trying to sell things a teenager would never buy. Someone described radio at the time as "a bunch of 12-year-olds trying to keep up with a 14-year-old audience."

Three years after I left the station that description fell apart. As Beatles Again explains:

15-year-old Marsha Albert of Silver Spring, MD, viewed The Beatles performing "She Loves You" on the CBS news and like what she saw and heard. Marsh wrote a letter to her favorite radio station, WWDC, referring to The Beatles' appearance on the news and asking, "Why can't we have this music in America?" DJ Carroll James, who also had seen The Beatles on the news, arranged to have a copy of the group's latest British single, "I Want to Hold Your Hand", delivered to him by the BOAC airline.

On Dec. 17, 1963, exactly one week after the CBS broadcast, James had Marsha Albert come down to the station to introduce the song on his radio show.. . According to James, the station's switchboard lit up like a Christmas tree with eager listeners phoning in to praise the song. "I Want to Hold Your Hand" was immediately added to WWDC's playlist and placed in heavy rotation.

It didn't take long for Capitol to learn that a Washington station had jumped the gun by playing "I Want to Hold Your Hand" four weeks prior to its scheduled release date of Jan. 13, 1964. Capitol telephoned WWDC and requested that the single be pulled off the air, but the station refused. Capitol then hired New York entertainment attorney Walter Hofer, who represented Epstein, The Beatles and the song's publisher, to contact the station and demand that WWDC "cease and desist" playing the song. According to Hofer, James told him, "Look, you can't stop me from playing it. The record is a hit. It's a major thing."

Realizing that they could not stop WWDC from playing the record and believing that this was an isolated incident that would not spread elsewhere, Capitol decided to press a few thousand copies of "I Want to Hold Your Hand" to send to the Washington area.