Radio Days

Driving along Route 79 near Pennsylvania’s Allegany River, I turn on the radio, KDKA, Pittsburgh.

KDKA was the first radio station licensed in this country, the license issued October 27, 1920. A ramshackle structure was constructed on the roof of one of the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing buildings in East Pittsburgh. It wasn’t really a studio, just a room filled with transmitting equipment, a turntable and four man staff.

On Tuesday evening, November 2, 1920, the microphone was switched on and the KDKA announcer began broadcasting election returns. About a thousand people sat in their homes, transfixed by this magical new medium, and learned Warren G. Harding had won the race for the White House. That night broadcasting was born.

Eventually it was decided all radio station call letters assigned east of the Mississippi would begin with the letter “W,” those west of the Mississippi with a “K.” KDKA remains the exception east of the Mississippi.

As I listened to KDKA I considered the beginnings of radio and the beginnings of my own lengthy broadcast career. Early on I learned about broadcast professionalism, learned that the airwaves were not intended for private use, but belonged to the public. There was great responsibility in being a good broadcaster.
A few miles closer to Pittsburgh the news came on, “This is Bob Kemetz, KDKA News,” the voice announced.

“Bob Kemetz?” I said aloud turning up the volume. “You’ve got to be kidding.”

My broadcast career began in April 1967 in Joliet, Illinois. The radio station was situated in an old brown-shingled house, far from glamorous. The studio windows opened onto the alley and in the summer garbage trucks had the uncanny knack of retrieving their cargo from just below those open windows at the precise moment the microphone was on. I began keeping the windows closed; it was hot, but the On-Air sound was professional.

The news director at the station was a serious young man named Bob Kemetz. Bob strove to be a consummate professional. He reinforced the belief that being a broadcaster, being allowed the privilege to be “On-The-Air” carried a heavy mantle of responsibility. Even with something as simple as reading the weather forecast Bob told me, “Always look out the window. The wire service forecast might say it’s sunny, but in truth it might be pouring rain. Always check first.” I never forgot that.

One day Bob told me he was short handed and asked if I would like to cover a news story. I declined using some paltry excuse. In reality I was hopelessly lost in being a rock & roll disc jockey, so news held little interest for me then. The story Bob asked me to cover was the incarceration of mass murder Richard Speck at Stateville Prison. The following day, when I discovered the importance of the story, I secretly wished I had gone.

Often over the years I have wondered how my life and the course of my career might have changed had I chosen to accept Bob’s offer. I will never know, but I have always remembered Bob Kemetz for presenting me with that moment, that opportunity.

So here I was, driving down the Interstate on my way to Cincinnati, Ohio to surprise my friend Karl Corbett on his 50th birthday and there, filling my ears on the radio, was a voice I remembered from the past.

Curiously, Karl’s father had also been a radio broadcaster. Karl showed me a book his father had been given at the beginning on his career, “The United Press Radio Style Book,” written in 1943. Thumbing through the book I found a primmer of nearly forgotten basic rules essential to every professional broadcaster; advice many of today’s broadcasters would do well to revisit. “In radio no adjective has been invented that will take the place of a good active verb. Radio wants particularly the verb, which paints the quickest and clearest mental picture. Avoid redundancy. Differentiate between ‘can’ and ‘may’. Avoid make-shift meaningless, easy way-out terms such as: Crack Down; Brewing; Show Down or Crisis. NEVER deviate from the facts and confirm every story.”

Karl told me that on November 22, 1963 when a story came over the wire saying President Kennedy had been shot, instead of rushing to get the story on the air, his father Jim Corbett’s first action was to call Dallas and confirm the story.

Listening to Bob Kemetz on KDKA, America’s first radio station, I thought about that time in Joliet. I was just a kid then, but subtly Bob pointed me toward becoming a responsible professional broadcaster. My critical broadcast ear found pleasure in the deep smooth timbre of Bob’s clear voice, his confident, unhurried communicative pace and style, his diction and flawless pronunciation, his writing flair and his ability to deliver a good honest story. Bob had become a superb broadcast professional, a responsible voice of objective information. I was proud to have once worked with him, pleased to hear him again. He had achieved his dream, I thought; to be the most professional broadcaster possible. I smiled and drove on.

We’ll talk next time From The Road.

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