The Roy Neal Story
The Roy Neal Story
Roy Neal was born and raised in the Philadelphia area. He is one of our own, a native son who went on to great things. He was at WIBG in the forties and then went to WPTZ, Channel 3 (1947 to 1952). From there, he went to NBC where he stayed for over three decades. In the sixties, when you really wanted to know what was happening in the space race, you turned to Roy Neal.
Well, Roy was semi-retired and lived in North Carolina. He was in the process of a writing a book, and was kind enough to send us the first three chapters for use on our website. It's simply wonderful. Enjoy.
Our friend Roy Neal passed away on Friday, August 15, 2003. No further chapters of the book were ever written.
Come with me, back to 1927.
To a day when my father brought home a mysterious black box, with silver dials and knobs. It was small, about a foot on each side and a foot deep. I looked at it with the inquiring eyes of a six year old.
”It’s a RADIO,” my Dad said, as he strung a wire around the living room, hooked it up to the box, then gave all of us what looked like small tin cans on a frame. They were headsets. We put them on, over our ears and when they were plugged into that mysterious black box...PRESTO...IT WAS MAGIC. WE HEARD MUSIC AND VOICES. WE WERE LISTENING TO THE RADIO!
It was a crystal set. From our home in Philadelphia we were able to listen to a couple of local stations and occasionally we could hear as far away as New York and Pittsburgh.
The music we picked up was mostly piano or string quartets but it claimed our full attention by its novelty. The voices were announcers. From time to time they even described special events, parades and such, fed from the scene live for lack of recording devices.
The box truly was magic for its time but the larger magic was yet to come. Tubes and transistors were on their way. Those crystals of the early years actually were the predecessors of the transistors that would transform the world of electronics, although it took a long time for engineers to figure that out!
The early radios were simple devices. A Galena crystal was mounted in a casing of lead. A needle, called a “catwhisker” was the other half of the unit. When the catwhisker was touched to the crystal, and hit a “sweet spot” (a sensitive spot on the crystal), it rectified the current going through it, just as tubes and transistors do. Hooked up to an antenna, it could receive radio signals, turning them into electricity and amplifying the resultant product so that it could be fed into a headset to make sound.
A few years later, at the ripe old age of 11, I made one of the first “bicycle radios.” I took one of the crystals, potted it in tar to keep the needle on the sweet spot, clamped the tiny unit to the frame of my bike, which performed as an antenna, fed the output into a headset and rode around town listening to WCAU, a powerful local radio station! It was the envy of all my friends.
In the 1930s, tube sets came in and radio became a focal point of the American way of life. Jack Armstrong, The All-American Boy, competed with Buck Rogers in the 25th Century for the attention of kids in the afternoon. In the evening, the whole world took time out for fifteen minutes to tune in Amos and Andy. Pundits such as Hans Von Kaltenborn and Boake Carter brought opinions on the news and Lowell Thomas brought us the real news in doses of ten or fifteen minutes. There was drama like The Little Theater Off Times Square and the Lux Radio Theater. Comics Fred Allen, Jack Benny and Bob Hope became stars. The Metropolitan Opera played a prominent role on Saturday afternoons, when we weren’t busy listening to football and baseball broadcast live from the playing fields. SHORT WAVE brought us the world, live and noisy. The Olympic Games in Berlin were followed by the rantings and ravings of Adolph Hitler when his troops set out to conquer the world. A drama, War of the Worlds, drove listeners to a frenzy. Edward R. Murrow shocked the nation with his dramatic broadcasts from London as he covered the Nazi bombers’ nightly raids. President Franklin D. Roosevelt talked to us regularly with his Fireside Chats. The Magic boxes of radio were opening a new world.
I was intrigued by those early day radios and went on to become a ham radio operator. The sounds of Big Ben, direct from London, and the chimes of DNA ( Nazi Germany’s short wave stations), were frequent visitors in my bedroom.
It was a time of incredible growth in broadcasting. NBC grew so large it was forced to split its two networks. Its Red Network continued as NBC. The Blue Network became ABC. The National Broadcasting Company and the American Broadcasting Company were joined by the Columbia Broadcasting System.
As a student at the University of Pennsylvania, I became an avid member of the Pennsylvania Players. This campus drama club not only gave me a shot at amateur theatricals but also a chance to take part (as an incidental player) in some fascinating tests being made at the Philadelphia Academy of Music by the Walt Disney company. They would result in the incredibly advanced technology of the movie “Fantasia.”
Imagine this. You are on a huge, empty stage, lit by 5 lamps on black metal stands. There are three VERY large microphones also on stands...stage left, center and stage right.
A muscular black man enters from the left, walking heavily. You can HEAR his footsteps. He is easily recognizable as Paul Robeson, one of the most popular actors of the day. He begins speaking loudly. The voice is rich, the words and the action are those of the Eugene O’Neill’s “The Emperor Jones.”
A loud voice reverberates through the theater. “OK Paul, CUT. Paul I can hear what sounds like small change...are you rattling coins in your pocket?”
Robeson laughs...a deep, throaty laugh. “Come on, “ he said, “You don’t expect me to believe that!”
“Well listen then...” and the big voice was replaced by footsteps, the sound of Paul Robeson walking on stage! His recorded voice began the monologue and you could follow him as he moved across the stage. You ALSO could hear the jingle of coins!
“I’ll be damned,” said Paul, echoing what the rest of us felt that day so long ago as we watched the performance.
The engineers had wired up three one thousand watt audio amplifiers to three six foot loudspeakers and a three track film recording system. It was a noble experiment in the directional sound which is commonplace in our modern digital world and the film it made possible was years ahead of the times.
Recording was pretty crude in those days. The motion pictures recorded on film. Film quality was a little better than other methods in use by the new medium of radio. Radio and the music recording industry moved slowly and for many years were hampered by the poor quality of their audio.
In the studios, engineers cut grooves in large discs, made of acetate, to record. Needles imbedded in microphones sensed or felt the impressions on the sides of those grooves and the vibration created sound, although the quality still left a lot to be desired. It was possible to make a master recording and duplicate the master to make commercial records, most of which spun at 78 revolutions a minute. Experiments were ongoing at slower speeds such as 33 and 1/3 or 45 RPM. Audio quality was acceptable but scratchy at best. In spite of the relatively poor quality, records became big business and most homes had playback machines. At first they were called Victrolas, for the RCA Victor company. Later they were played through so- called “Hi-Fi” audio systems, although they still were far from the High Fidelity of today and did little to improve the quality of the records.
Big band recordings sold like hotcakes. Radio stations coined the word disc jockey for their popular announcers, who jockeyed the discs and became stars by simply playing records on the air.
SOME broadcast networks, including the Armed Forces Radio Service, used large, sixteen inch discs as a basis for their programming but most networks’ programming in that era was LIVE.
Recording quality was so poor that the major networks would do LIVE repeats of their programs to accommodate the different time zones! Radio reports and broadcasts from overseas often were very hard to understand.
In 1940, I had a chance to work in radio on a network scale. When KYW, a powerful, NBC affiliate, decided to originate “The Lost Continent,” the story of a group of boy scouts who got lost on The Lost Continent, I was one of the scouts! We aired on the network immediately following “Jack Armstrong,” Monday through Friday.
Radio was and is an incredible medium. It allows free play of the imagination, including the way in which we put those early shows together. Working live in the studio, we actors would emote. An electric organ made exciting noises, much like those in use at basketball and hockey matches of the 1990s.
Sound men would crinkle newspapers to create the sound of fire...clap their hands and thighs to sound like horses hooves on soft soil and slap tables with toilet plungers to make the clip clop of horses’ hooves on pavements They would open squeaky doors, real doors in a frame. Everything was done live. They could make your mouth water with the sound of bacon sizzling, made by drawing in breath over the tongue. Winds came from the same source, breath blown out with a slight whistle. Soundmen used recordings of real sounds sparingly. They were hard to make and play back in the thirties...and the early 1940s. It was easier to fake the sound.
Reporters, in the field, experimented with WIRE recorders and prayed for the day when they could properly bring back the sounds they experienced while covering the news. When Edward R. Morrow put microphones on the rooftops of London to bring his listeners the sounds of Nazi Bombers there were no field recorders capable of bringing back the audio of events as they happened, so he went on the air live and sometimes the bombers cooperated by dropping their bombs while he was on the air! Studio recording machines also were used by Murrow to make acceptable playbacks.
Live radio was king and it became part of the national psyche. Broadcast circuits made it possible to originate broadcasts from nearly anywhere. Dramatic shows originated in Hollywood and New York. Soap operas, named for the soap companies that sponsored them, came in from Chicago. News was anchored from New York and Washington with live pickups from newsworthy locations, including foreign pickups by cable and short wave from overseas. Dance bands from ballrooms everywhere were broadcast and picked up in homes all over the world where they became immensely popular. The broadcast frequencies soon filled with stations and short wave frequencies were equally populated by the propaganda machines of the nations that eventually became part of World War II.
I fell in love with the medium. I HAD to get into it. And so it was that I left college to go out into the world of RADIO! What a world and what a medium
Can you hear them? Echoes of the golden days of radio? Why it was only yesterday that they were on the air!
BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY...
HOLY MACKEREL DERE AMOS...
DUFFY’S TAVERN, ARCHIE THE MANAGER SPEAKIN’...
JACK ARMSTRONG, THE ALL AMERICAN BOY, BROUGHT TO YOU BY WHEATIES, THE BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS...
PEPSI COLA HITS THE SPOT. 12 FULL OUNCES, THAT’S A LOT. TWICE AS MUCH FOR A NICKEL TOO...PEPSI COLA IS THE DRINK FOR YOU. NICKEL, NICKEL, NICKEL, NICKEL, NICKEL...
It was 1941. A time when the airwaves were filled with the vibrant sounds of a new industry that was seeking its level, probing to create new sensations in the imagination of its listeners.
A half century or more later, at the turn of the century, radio had fallen back into mediocrity. The technology of AM and FM, coupled with solid state electronics produced magnificent machines, capable of remarkable reproduction. But for the most part, the product they reproduced had dimmed, become lackluster. The spark of imagination had moved into television and motion pictures. And television, the never, never land of endless commercials, mixed a brew of Talk, Drama, News, Sports and Sex as the medium became the opiate of the people.
For thousand of years, civilization provided diversion to keep its population in line. The Romans fed Christians to the lions, the Egyptians built pyramids, Shakespeare wrote plays for the queen, and some governments even waged war to provide diversion. Radio and television, the mass media, provided a bridge to the population, for better or for worse.
In the Spring of 1941, the world was teetering on the edge of a World War while I was working my way through college. I took every odd job that came along, even sold blood for five dollars a pint to the Red Cross. One of the ways I made money was acting. That’s how I wound up with Paul Robeson at the Academy of Music. Radio paid up to ten dollars an appearance. Stage extras made five dollars. So college boys like me earned their board and keep while learning how to appear in public.
I was an active participant in The Pennsylvania Players, the University’s drama group. Through them, I got a starring role in a college drama that aired on NBC, It was the story of Edward Muybridge, who came to fame by photographing racehorses to prove that they had all four feet off the ground when running.
We were in Studio A of KYW, the powerful NBC affiliate in Philadelphia putting the show on the network. There were stage managers in headsets, wired to the Director in the control room and throwing cues to coordinate the action, much like Stage Managers in television and motion pictures.
Although some of us were professionals, many of the cast were amateur performers. The Director, Ken Martin, spent hours teaching them the basic technique of talking for radio. On stage, lines are delivered “with projection.” That means speaking loudly and clearly enough to be heard throughout the theater. But radio, television and motion picture for that matter, are more intimate. Projection must be tempered with realism.
When we got off the air that day, Ken called me aside. “Ever thought about being an announcer?”
“Yeah. You have the voice for it. A guy named Doug Arthur, at a little teapot up in Glenside is looking for a summer relief man.”
‘GLENSIDE!” It was a small suburb, North of Philadelphia.
“Sure, Glenside. You go there, get mebbe a year’s training and then, the next opening here...bam, you’re in.”
“But I’m an actor!”
”That’s a matter of opinion. But you could be a good announcer. Maybe even a news reader.”
An announcer! King of the mountain in that time. They announced programs. They did shows using recorded music and called themselves Disc Jockeys. Some read news and called themselves newsmen. Some ad libbed sports and special events.
So I went to Glenside to seek my fortune.
Doug Arthur turned out to be a perfectly delightful, freckle-faced gnome who could charm you with his voice. Not a deep, resounding set of pipes but a mild mid-ranged voice with a command of words that was extraordinary. He was a professional musician who coupled his knowledge of music and musicians with his ability to talk to make a golden combination.
WIBG was indeed a teapot in 1941. Its slogan was “At your service from dawn till dusk” because the station went on the air at sunrise and signed off at sunset. Its thousand watts of power were weak in many parts of the city of brotherly love. But Doug Arthur was a star in Philadelphia! His “Danceland” show played records every evening and Swing was the Thing when I came on the scene. He had the highest ratings in town. His counterpart and friend in New York, was equally successful with “The Make Believe Ballroom.”
To my delighted surprise, Doug hired me. Twenty dollars a week. Just enough to live on in a time when there was no income tax and you could buy a meal for twenty five cents. He said I would do a few musical shows but basically the station wanted me to read a lot of news. He became my mentor as he introduced me to the intricacies of radio broadcasting.
The station programmed music, news and religion. Recorded music, live dance band remotes, radio newscasts and remote religious broadcasts.
The winds of war were blowing warm as we went into the long hot summer. I tried to quit after my very first newscast.
My experience with stage and radio drama had not prepared me for this! I had carefully culled wire copy from the United Press Radio Wire and put it into a sequence that I hoped would work. I even timed a closing story and signoff so I’d know when and how to get off.
In many small stations, announcers double as engineers, throwing switches and turning dials to get on and off the air. But WIBG used engineers at consoles, cued by hand signals from the announcers. You beckoned toward a microphone and they opened it. You drew a finger across your throat to turn it off. Fingers were used to indicate seconds in a countdown. After a few minutes of rehearsal, my first engineer, Paul Krantz, pronounced me ready to go on the air.
I sat at a green felt topped table, ready to go...until his hand came down in a cue that meant “You’re on the air!” Suddenly my hands shook and my mouth went dry. The words simply did not want to come forth. I stumbled through the copy, forgot about the clock and eventually got cut off. Then I ran into Doug Arthur’s office.
“OK, OK, I quit. You don’t have to fire me. I’ll go peacefully. I can’t believe it. I couldn’t get two words straight...I stank up your airwaves...”
“Whoa, Roy. Slow down. What did you expect? Did you think you were just gonna walk in here and sound like the boys at NBC?
“Doug, I came here FROM NBC! That’s where I did most of my acting!”
To which Mr. Arthur responded. “This is not acting. This is live radio news. it’s the here and now. It hot off the wires, with some words of your own. You’re not preaching and you’re not talking to the back of some auditorium, you’re talking to your next door neighbor, across the back fence. Give it time...it usually take at least three months before you start to sound human and three years to become a half decent newscaster. Now get outta here and get ready for to news at two!”
After a week or two, I began to feel more comfortable on the air and soon began to rewrite material, to make it flow. I was on the way to learning how to present news. Arthur encouraged this, saying it gave me an edge over other announcers who were content just to read the wire copy.
Our newscasts were flexible in length, most of them running ten or fifteen minutes, so I soon learned to edit stories in the order of their importance. The broadcast timetable was tight. We had to go on and off at preset times, so you learned to read until you ran out of time then signed off. After a few weeks I even learned how to read without “fluffing” or tripping over words very often and I began to look for better ways to set up the headlines. I learned to write and time closings so that our newscasts came to a proper and usually humorous conclusion.
I had written for the campus newspaper THE DAILY PENNSYLVANIAN, and had taken nearly every basic English course the University had to offer so I had some writing background at a time when there was no school that taught broadcasting or news gathering. I decided that I really liked news and wanted to specialize.
All this before I ever went into the field to report a story.
All that changed on a Sunday afternoon. On the 7th of December 1941, I had the duty, signing religious programs on and off from the studio. It was just after 2:30 when our teletype began ringing. They used bells to summon us when news was breaking. Three bells meant information from the wire service. Four bells meant urgent stories, five bells signaled bulletin material. But this time the ringing never stopped. I was sure the teletype was broken as I went to the wire room to make repairs.
There, in capital letters, the print on the machine read: “FLASH: JAPANESE BOMB PEARL HARBOR.”
I had never seen a flash before. They are very rare, only used for stories of overriding importance, such as this one that signaled the entrance of the United States into World War II. I pulled off the wire copy, waited a few moments until the bells stopped ringing and a bulletin cleared, giving a few early details on the sneak bombing of the American Pacific fleet. Then I ran into the studio and signaled my engineer. We broke into the religious program peremptorily.
A few minutes later, more bulletins were on line, bearing early reports of serious damage to American ships. So I broke in again to read them on the air. And then the phone rang in the control room.
“Are you outta your mind?” It was Ed Cleary, the Station Manager. “Are you trying to lose the account? You can’t cut in and out like that, “ he fumed.
“I think you’d better talk to Doug Arthur, boss, we just went to war. Even those people in church have to know about this.” I may have been young and inexperienced but I knew we HAD to get out the word.
A few minutes later, the phone rang again.
“Keep right on interrupting. We’re on the way to give you some help.”
It was Doug Arthur. Within half an hour he and three other top staffers were with me. Bless them, they let me stay on the air while they hustled bulletins. We set up a listening post. Rupe Werling, the station’s Promotion Manager, started writing copy using stories stolen from the networks. Arguably the most respected commentator of his time “H.V.” Hans Von Kaltenborn, made an almost pitiable mistake when he said that the Japanese were a tiny nation, ill prepared to do battle with the mighty United States. They would soon be destroyed, he said. I read his words without comment.
We were not as locked into the system in those days. I felt no compunction in using other station’s and network’s stories, with attribution, and coupled them with the factual material coming in on the wires from Japan. And no one ever registered a complaint!
You couldn’t tackle a pundit like H V without credentials. Lacking those, I let the actuality of the news speak for me. Even as a new kid on the block, in a tiny newsroom in Glenside, Pennsylvania, I had learned my first lesson. Let the story tell itself. The audience will understand, even if you’re calling the lie to learned commentary. So I followed Kaltenborn with the real news as a picture of devastation emerged and Pearl Harbor took its place in, as President Roosevelt called it, “A day of Infamy.”
The war made huge changes almost immediately in the life style of America. The media always are a mirror of society and so we made changes in our broadcasts to accommodate the changing times. People wanted news and they wanted it fast. I was named News Editor of WIBG.
We developed a different approach. Instead of ten and fifteen minute newscasts at infrequent intervals, we began dropping in one minute bulletins throughout the broadcast day. More importantly, we scheduled five minutes of news every hour on the hour and on the half hour so listeners knew when to tune in for fresh news. I believe we were the first to use the five minute format. I know it was picked up quickly by WNEW in New York, a powerful independent station with which we had close connections and it seemed that almost every station in the nation went to that format soon after. It became the standard for News and Music stations.
In 1942, John B. Kelly, a major Philadelphia contractor, bought into WIBG. In partnership with our original owner, Paul Harron, he turned the station into a high power, 24 hour operation. To gain recognition, they made a deal with pro baseball. There were two major league teams in the city at that time. The A’s, of the American League and the National League Phillies would broadcast exclusively on our air. The station paid each of them ten thousand dollars for the rights. That was a bold financial move and it worked. The station moved into the city, into the heart of downtown Philadelphia. I began doing the news from a showroom studio and we attracted huge crowds, especially for the News at Noon. We became one of the top four stations in the Philadelphia market. Many years later, when NBC’s TODAY show put a studio on the street in New York, I wondered if perhaps someone had remembered what we did first, in 1942.
The growth of the station also worked for me. The N W Ayer agency operated baseball networks for the Atlantic Refining Company and they were the major sponsors of the Athletics and the Phillies.
I won a competitive audition and became the color and commercials announcer for both teams’ coverage.
Les Quailey ran the networks and was as fine a teacher of sports broadcasting as was Doug Arthur in the studio techniques. Byrum Saam was the play by play announcer. Claude Herring was his backup. Together they were remarkable role models who won national recognition for the excellence of their broadcasts.
We did two games a day, seven days a week. One team would be out at the ball park, the other on the road. So we covered live from the field and we did telegraphic reconstructions of the road games, usually from the studio. Western Union telegraphers at the games, using keys and Morse code, sent such abbreviations as BY out...Ball one, outside, or S2 High in for strike two high inside. A second wire man, in the studio, typed the notes and gave them to the play by play man who built his commentary around them. Sometimes we even used sound effects to heighten the effect. It was remarkable.
I learned how to ad-lib under those conditions. It may have been sports but it also was an introduction to reporting news in the field.
And during that time, the station insisted that I do the morning shift, dawn till noon, to keep my staff position. Then I announced baseball as a free lancer in the afternoon and evening hours, often until midnight. I was only 20 years old. Had I been much older, I doubt that I could have survived such a schedule. Broadcasting always has been considered a young man’s game. In more recent years that has changed to become a young PERSON’S game as women entered the field; a movement that dates back to the same war years of the 1940s when most young men were called out to go to war.
I became News Editor and Chief Announcer for WIBG, titles considered War Essential in an industry considered essential to keeping the people of the United States informed on what was going on in the war. So I stayed home, as a civilian, until 1943, when Washington decided that all young men under the age of 26 should be drafted.
Belatedly, I joined the rest of my generation and went off to do my duty. I earned a commission as Second Lieutenant, Infantry, and in 1945 wound up in Europe just in time to witness the end of the war. The casualty rate among Second Lieutenants, Infantry, in combat was over ninety percent! They handed me a commission in one hand and shipping orders in the other as I took off for Europe and the Battle of the Bulge.
I was lucky. I arrived just as that battle ended. I joined the 71st Division at Nuremberg and was given one of the lead platoons in Patton’s Third Army to command. My combat career consisted mainly of chasing and capturing green uniformed German soldiers. Thus I survived the war. When it ended, my Division pulled back to Augsburg, Germany and my broadcasting background was quickly spotted by Headquarters. It earned me a role in Special Services; scheduling movies, Red Cross Clubmobiles, USO shows and generally trying to keep up the morale of thousands of men who wanted to go home, now that the war was over.
The 71st Division was staffed by many of the cadre from Fort Benning, Georgia, The Infantry School, and included top professional athletes as well as several highly competent communications experts. That happy combination worked to my advantage.
Nazi Germany had developed several very high powered, 100 kilowatt broadcast station transmitters, mounted in trucks. Twice the power of the strongest stations here in the United States. To avoid being triangulated by radio direction finders that would bring in Allied bombers, these units would broadcast for only an hour at any location, then move on. High quality broadcast lines were installed all over Germany, tying the mobile units to studios in Berlin. Our Division engineers located those circuits and wondered what to do with them and I heard about it from some of the higher ranking officers at Division Headquarters.
Coupling the information about those circuits with the incredible array of athletes we had, I went to the nearest major station of the Armed Forces Radio Service, in Munich. A young captain, Bruce Wendell, was in charge.
“I guarantee that the 71st Division will win every football, baseball and basketball championship in the theater,” I told him. What’s more, I’ll even provide spotting boards and spotters to identify our stars for your announcers. AND we will provide a Class A broadcast circuit and an engineering loop to every field at which we play.”
We discussed how those broadcast lines could be the backbone of a network that was just moving in. After doing a superb job during the war from Headquarters in London and later in Paris, AFN now had the difficult assignment of trying to provide radio broadcasts in occupied Germany that might bring young soldiers a link to their homes in the United States, thousands of miles away. Good quality audio was a huge plus since the main staple of their broadcasts was recordings of all major programs being broadcast in the states.
The Armed Force Radio Service was headquartered in Hollywood. They had access to all stateside programming, much of which they recorded. All commercials were deleted! Masters were made and duplicated and large 24 inch acetate discs that contained an hour of programming were shuttled from station to station. Jack Benny and Bob Hope competed with Bing Crosby on AFRS air and drama came straight from Hollywood.
AFRS also had two powerful short wave stations that were used to send out special live programs and news. Stations and networks in the field received the discs and tuned into the short wave. They also originated their own programs, much like affiliates of the commercial networks.
AFN came into being as a long arm of AFRS. Operating independently, during the years of buildup to D-Day, it became a great favorite of the troops in England. The BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) was not happy at this invasion of their territory. To keep them happy, AFN used only 50 watt transmitters in troop encampments but used medium power broadcast transmitters in all other countries, plus several powerful transmitters that fed all of Europe. The network became immensely popular, even in foreign nations where English was not the language.
During the war, Glenn Miller ran the AFN staff orchestra, which made musical history by playing to the troops. They also played an international propaganda game. The band vocalist, Johnny Desmond, sang many of his songs in French, Italian and German as well as English.
Football and baseball were picked up via shortwave and rebroadcast. “Pass In Review,” a military adaptation of the famous “We The People,” dramatized events in the news. And the daily newscasts were renowned for their accurate accounts of the war in progress.
Following the war, AFN needed to establish its network in Germany. The broadcast lines would help get an audience and sports were the fastest way to pick up an audience, just as baseball had served so well in Philadelphia. I had that experience and it was presented to the management of AFN as they moved from London to Paris, in anticipation of moving to permanent quarters in Germany. They were looking for officers with radio experience.
Live coverage of Theater championships was set up and AFN helped arrange the schedules. We were civilians in uniform, doing the same thing we had learned how to do before putting on those uniforms. We practiced our profession and we honed our skills for the life we hoped to go back to. I say “we” because Bruce Wendell recommended me to his headquarters in Paris and I was dispatched almost immediately to Frankfurt, to set up what was to be the key station of the new network.
In the suburbs of Frankfurt, a couple of authentic German castles had been appropriated by the Army, in the town of Hoechst am Main. I was appointed Station Manager. They were beautiful. One had been built around 1300 AD and had painted red devils and a dungeon to show for it. It was circular, with a winding staircase that ran from bottom to top and we decided it would be ideal for housing the large staff that would be required to run the place.
The second castle was perhaps a hundred years old. It was a magnificent, rambling mansion, with terraces, a rose garden, a large ballroom and an entry hall with winding staircase. There were rooms galore. We decided to turn the first floor into studios, putting offices upstairs. The Army Corps of Engineers was called in.
The ballroom was turned into Studio A. Draped with blankets requisitioned from the German Wehrmacht to provide soundproofing, its beautiful crystal chandelier was cut down and windows were cut in the walls to provide a view of the control room. The beauty was gone but the studio was eminently practical and would be used over the next few years to stage all kinds of dramatic and musical programs. Smaller rooms also were converted into studios. The library was stripped of its books to make room for recordings in what became one of the world’s largest and finest record libraries. Master Control was set up in what had once been a living room. And I blushingly admit, the chapel made a great bar!
The Nazi broadcast circuits, discovered by the 71st Division, were put to work. They became the broadcast lines of AFN, The American Forces Network of the Armed Forces Radio Service.
The Germans had developed high frequency, microwave circuitry to replace telephone poles when wood grew scarce in their nation toward the end of the war. They also had developed a system for long distance dialing telephones. These were soon adapted to our needs and in short order, engineers from all over the world flocked to our headquarters to see what they also could be use from the German technology.
The network moved into its new key station in the Spring of 1946. I was named Station Manager and Headquarters AFN moved from Paris to Frankfurt. As the new officer, I wanted to do something impressive, to call attention to our new operation.
I called Captain Kay Summersby, who arranged a meeting with the theater Commanding General Dwight Eisenhower. I was shaking in my boots, as a Lieutenant, talking to the five star general who had won the war.
“Sir, I’d like to propose that you go on the air once a week with a sort of Fireside Chat, like those of President Roosevelt. The troops in the field want to go home. You could reassure them. I know because I’ve just come here from there. I left the 71st Division to set up the new AFN station here in Frankfurt.”
Eisenhower didn’t respond. He sat there, looking at me, for perhaps 20 seconds that seemed like an hour. Then, finally, he said: “Lieutenant, that’s a great idea. But I will not do it. Since you’ve taken the initiative to think this up and come here, I will have something to say in a couple of weeks and we’ll release that story through your network. How much time will it take you to come to headquarters to put me on the air?”
“Give us an hour, sir.”
“Very well...you’ll hear from us.”
I went back to Hoechst, filled with mixed emotions. What could he possibly have to say to the world? Why wouldn’t he do a series? How would we handle this?
We set up a standby crew of engineers and reporters. The newsroom was given a set of instructions for recording and releasing whatever it was General Eisenhower wanted.
Two weeks later the call came. We were told to report to the I G Farben building that housed theater headquarters at 0700 next morning. And we went on the air with the simple announcement that General Eisenhower had something to say.
He spoke for less than five minutes, giving his farewell to the troops in Europe as he left to fly back to the United States. AFN broke the story, fed studio recordings of the talk to the world and generally had a field day, courtesy of Eisenhower, our boss who knew how to do a good thing for his supporters!
“Ike’s” replacement, a General named McNarney, inherited the problem of keeping those troops in the field. They were threatening to strike when his Chief of Staff called a meeting with the staffs of AFN and the GI newspaper “Stars and Stripes. We met in the General’s office and came up with a program that would put the theater’s top officers on the air every Sunday night,. answering questions from enlisted men in the field. It was a huge success as the generals told the men how soon they might go home and what the status was of their replacements. The threat of a strike went away. In gratitude, we were permitted to become an accredited organization under the Information and Education Division. For the first time we were real people, not just a Temporary Duty Organization.
We went on to deliver some exceptional programming, as a result. Our staff included movie stars Mickey Rooney, Marlene Dietrich’s daughter Maria Riva and actor Tom Brown. Our technical staff adapted those once mobile giant transmitters to give us an audience all over Europe.
We also had the opportunity to pioneer magnetic tape recording. Our engineers met some of the German scientists and technicians who had developed the systems. We hired them and soon we started using the Magnetophones...tape recorder and playback machines that delivered sound that was close to live in its quality. A few years later, it would revolutionize the broadcasting industry, in time even becoming the mainstay of television but in 1945 it was a remarkable novelty and we had the only machines of their kind. We had to fight off the invasion of engineers who came, trying to figure out how to duplicate the hardware, which we guarded jealously and used profusely.
We put the new tape recorders to good use. On Sunday nights we programmed every major USO star that came to the theater. They performed at the Wiesbaden Opera House and we were given a 36 piece house orchestra, arranged and led by Warrant Officer Lyn Arison to back the performances. The show was called “You asked for it” and was scripted to match requests from field troops as we continued making AFN the voice of the people...the men in uniform who were waiting impatiently to become civilians.
Soon after acquiring the tape machines, we heard that the Army Air Corps was going to fly in the first American jets, the P80s, to the Wiesbaden Airport. It was a natural for a taped show so we went there and had a grand time taping the arrivals. On the flight line, one of our reporters, looking for color, found an elderly German mechanic who spoke English. “Aren’t these flying machines great, Hans. What do you think of JET airplanes,” he asked.
“Ja...they’re very nice,” came back the reply in a heavy German accent.
“But...what do you think of them? They ARE different from anything we’ve ever seen before!” enthused the reporter.
“Vell, not really,” Hans came back. “You see vee vair flying jets here for long time...near zee end of ze war!”
It was true. The German jets had gone into combat early that year...but they were too few, too late to make much of an impact. Except to give us a great show closer for our special remote, on tape, from Wiesbaden.
One beautiful Fall afternoon, I had a visit from a small group of enlisted men. They had asked for a meeting to discuss what they could do for AFN and AFN could do for them! They all were former members of “Grand Old Opr’y,” one of the most successful Country and Western shows in history. They had been drafted and now were working at driving trucks and standing guard duty. They had banded together to form a musical unit. Would we be interested?
Grady Edny, our Program Manager, set up a studio and an engineer and we listened. I don’t really like Country and Western music but those boys were GOOD. They were extraordinary. We had an opening in the late afternoon schedule and put them on the air. They ad libbed, sang and played so well that half an hour after they got off the air we were cutting orders assigning them to Temporary Duty with us. They were a sensation! Within three month they pulled more mail than any other program we aired! We had them originating from remotes all over Europe. Never underestimate the power of Country and Western!
When the Brits decided to start playing tennis again at Wimbledon, we went to Center Court LIVE.
When Austria was declared a liberated nation rather than an occupied one, we went to Salzburg and fed the broadcast to all the networks in Europe. We also gave them a bonus with the entire opening night Mozart Festival opera “Don Giovanni.”
It was a wonderful world for young broadcasters. We could do anything! We went to Nuremberg for the trials of war criminals, and to Rome for the Pope’s Christmas message. Incidentally, our Producer in Rome, Lee Schulman, took keen delight in the fact the he was a “nice little Jewish boy who got along with the pope!”
It was a wonderful world for a young broadcaster but I was glad to leave it behind as I returned to Philadelphia. Once there however, I soon came to realize that all that wonderful programming opportunity at a network had spoiled me for life at an independent radio station. As Chief Announcer and News Editor I was given a good deal of leeway in what I did but it soon became painfully obvious that if I wanted to cover news and do live special events, I would have to look elsewhere. One Sunday morning, for example, a huge fire broke out in the downtown station of the Pennsylvania railroad. I left the studio, went to the scene and began doing live bulletins from a pay booth telephone, using a telephone patch in master control to go on the air. I had done perhaps half a dozen reports when I had a call from Ed Cleary, still the station manager.
“”Knock it off,” he bellered. “We don’t want that kind of crap.”
Ed Cleary was a pleasant man except when it came to anything that might cost his station money. He also was the boss. So I went back to the studio, settled into what I considered to be a boring routine. My newscasts were spiced with a one hour show daily that featured our 15 piece house band, led by Eric Wilkinson at the organ. And during that time I watched big companies try to develop tape recording to the level we had used in Germany. For a while I even considered going back to Germany as a civilian. And then, one day I had a call from Walt Cleary. Captain Walter Cleary, USAF, was one of the two technical officers in charge at AFN. He had worked closely with the German inventors of the magnetophone, magnetic tape recorders.
“Hey pops,” he said, “Waddayknow...I have a signed contract giving us the world rights to magnetic tape recording.” He had signed up the original German inventors, not only for their tape processing but for all the devices they had developed to use it. Recorders for broadcasting, playback machines for the home, even a small unit that was designed for secretaries, complete with a foot switch that would knock the playback head back a few seconds for replaying dictation.
Walter retired from the Air Force and came back to Philadelphia, where we borrowed money and set up a small corporation. He went to work to sell magnetic tape. We were very young and inexperienced. The big boys ate us alive!
The Germans used a plastic base, impregnated with ferrous oxide (rusty iron dust), to make their tape. The iron held magnetic impressions.
Minnesota Mining came up with a switch. They COATED plastic tape and once they had solved the problem of making the oxide stick to the tape, they successfully defeated our patent with a cheaper way to do the same thing!
The mechanics of our German machines were easy to switch, so soon magnetic tape recorders sprang up all over the place. Walter and I gave it up as a lost cause. Thinking back, if only we knew then what we know now, we could have owned magnetic tape. We could have been millionaires!
Another fork in the road opened up at about the same time to convince me that my future was here, in the United States.
In 1946, I came home from the war to a job that had turned dull. I began to look for alternate solutions. One of my friends had a 3 inch screen television set. There were only 132 receivers in the Philadelphia area at that time. The station had a very accurate count. You had to correspond with them by postcard to find out when they would be on the air. My friend was in the radio repair business and used to get $100 a night for installing that set in show windows. It attracted huge crowds...who waited in line for the glimpse of the motion pictures on the small screen. The first show I saw was the Gillette fights on Friday night, from Madison Square Garden. In looking at that crude presentation, I remember saying ”Even YOU can do better than that.” Three days later I went to the local station, WPTZ, with a dozen program ideas that I thought might make good, inexpensive TV.
Ernie Walling, the Program Manager, was intrigued. “Would you be willing to take an audition?”
“Why?” I was curious because after all I was News Editor and Chief Announcer of a major radio station, with a reputation in that city for baseball and news.
“Because we want to see what you LOOK LIKE!”
Walling’s reply suddenly brought it all into focus. This was a new world. One in which the blind could see. In which radio had eyes. I wanted to try it on for size.
Next day they ushered me into a studio, on the top floor of the Architect’s Building. It was big and square, with a window in one wall, much like the windows in radio control rooms that allowed engineers to peer into the studio floor. The ceiling was the big point of departure. It was entirely covered with lights! Big lights. Early day television was black and white and took a lot of light to make a picture.
Two large boxes, with lens turrets, mounted on tripods with wheels were on the floor. These were the cameras. Each had a man with a head set behind it. There was a microphone on an extended arm and another headsetted technician. “Just like Hollywood,” I thought.
I sat behind a desk and read news. Then I delivered a memorized commercial. Then a big voice that reminded me of the Fantasia experiments at the Academy of Music came rumbling through the studio loudspeakers. “We’ve had a failure of the network feed coming in. You’re on the air live. Tell our audience anything but just keep talking.”
I recognized what was happening. They wanted to know how I reacted during emergencies and they wanted to know if I could ad lib. So I began describing the studio, suggesting to the Director that he follow my lead by showing what I was talking about. After about ten minutes I realized that they were enjoying the show...at my expense! So I wound up, “ And if you don’t know by now that I can ad lib, you’re never gonna find out because I quit!”
A week later, in the Spring of 1947, I went on the air with my first show, “Pleased To Meet You” a twenty minute interview show, once a week. We usually delivered four studio guests. One was hard news, one was feature news, one was an entertainment personality and the fourth element was usually something about the new medium of television.
And so I entered the wonderful world of television, even while continuing to work in radio. After all, radio was where the money was. It was 1947. I worked at radio and had a good time in television. It was a very good year.
In Spring, 1947, I went on television. I also brought home my first TV set. The station was owned by Philco so it was a Philco. Big box, small picture in those days. Mine was a seven inch black and white screen and was the wonder of the neighborhood. In my two story house, kids would sit ten deep on the stairs to peer across the room at that tiny image to watch Howdy Doody’s antics. Their parents took over the same vantage point in the evening to watch the Gillette fights and an occasional drama or movie.
There were 132 receivers in Philadelphia when I got that first set. That number was accurate and so were our ratings. To find out when we were on the air, viewers had to send in postcards every week. We received 132 cards a week during my first couple of weeks on the air. The cards carried their evaluation of our programs and “Pleased To Meet you” was an instant success. It had no competition!
The only cameras we had at that time were called iconoscopes. They delivered a somewhat fuzzy, black and white image and they required an immense amount of light. The ceiling of our small studio was literally covered with lights, which generated so much heat that the temperature on the floor was around 115 degrees! After my 20 minute stint on camera, my shoes would be filled with perspiration and squished when I walked!
A couple of months after my first show, all that changed dramatically. We took delivery of the first two RCA Image Orthicon cameras to be produced. They made a much sharper image and required about one fourth the light of the iconoscopes. They helped immensely until we lost one!
We went the to race track at Langhorne on a Saturday afternoon, to cover the automobile races. One camera was set up in the announce booth, high in the grandstand, to cover the race. The second was put at the final turn, which had a commanding view of the cars coming in and crossing the finish line.
The races were terrific UNTIL one of the cars threw a wheel, coming into the turn. And that wheel flew on a straight line, right into our invaluable and irreplaceable camera!
It made a great take, sailing right into the picture, on the air until the moment of oblivion, but left a huge hole in our coverage plans. We were lucky, however, RCA managed to divert another camera off the line and WPTZ was able to stay on the air, as a result. It may seem ludicrous in terms of the multi-camera shows of later years, Producers call up dozens of cameras and even have recorded video that looks as good as live television but back in 1947, at one of the top stations in the country, two cameras made early television history. In time, of course, we acquired more hardware and the station began to expand. We moved from the small studio in the Architect’s Building to large studios across the street at my old alma mater, KYW. Studio A, from which I had broadcast “The Lost Continent”, became a television studio.
There were three stations in the early NBC network. New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. The phone company had an experimental relay system that tied New York to Washington and we came in on a pass! Philco owned WPTZ. They also built microwave relays. So we tapped into the telephone company and joined the network, which soon expanded as more and more stations went on the air.
Remote broadcasts were a main staple of programming in that era and that, indirectly, is what moved me out of radio. The Mummers parade is a New Year’s day institution, as important in Philadelphia as the Parade of Roses in Pasadena, California. We were setting up to cover the Mummers for the three station network when WPTZ took exception to my working television on that day. I had no choice. I quit radio, the television station set me up with several programs and a salary and the transition was made! On the day I checked out of WPTZ, the station’s treasurer said: “Are you really sure you want to do this? That TV is just a flash in the pan. Mark my words, two years from now you’ll be back here, beating on the door!”
I walked out and never looked back. The excitement was back in my life. Everything we did we did for the first time because we were breaking in new ground for television.
One of the major, early groundbreakers was coverage of the National Political conventions in Philadelphia. For the first time the public was exposed to the antics of the politicians and the public loved it. One highlight, for example, came when the Democrats opened their first session by releasing Doves of Peace in Convention Hall. The frightened birds did what frightened birds usually do, they defecated on the audience and we were treated to some of the major names in the political world dodging the projectiles.
Special events became a main staple of our early programming. In the studio, we developed and experimented with new formats. One of which was the predecessor to NBC’s TODAY show. A columnist from Trenton, New Jersey, Ernie Kovacs, turned out to be a wonderful and original comic. Ernie spent an entire summer doing relief announcing so that he could study what was being done in the field. I introduced him to beauty contest winner, whom he trained to be his partner on the air. They did inspired, brash comedy. One morning, for example, Ernie literally climbed the studio rigging to bring The Phantom Of The Opera to life. I read capsules of news every 25 minutes during the 2 hours the program aired. It was the first real morning program and years later the Producers of TODAY gave it the credit for pioneering the techniques.
We programmed news but it was one of our continuing problems. I sat behind a desk in the studio, on camera, reading wire copy and basically doing a radio report. We had a couple of film cameramen that went out with me to cover stories but it took hours to get the film developed and edited so it was all we could do to put on a story or two in the evening. We wound up with three minutes of news following the cowboy shows at 6:55 Monday through Friday. In time I also got on the air on Sunday evening, around 6 o’clock. The morning news was pure wire copy.
Then NBC began feeding a few news film stories. We also tried buying newsreel footage. Most of the news film was large size, 35 MM, and the camera techniques were those of the motion pictures, lacking the closeups that are so vital to television on its smaller screen. We started expanding the time of our newscasts to ten and fifteen minutes but still had not figured out a format.
The Camel News Caravan changed all that. The Esty Agency, in New York, bought fifteen minutes of prime air time at 7:45 PM Eastern, for Camel Cigarettes. They held meetings. We guaranteed to cover all the news of Pennsylvania, Southern New Jersey and Delaware. The bought the old Fox Movietone Newsreel and went on the air. After the first few shows, it was decided that a studio personality was needed to tie the stories together, a technique that also would permit some stories to be covered with words, when pictures were not available. It also allowed use of crude maps and other visual devices.
John Cameron Swayze was hired to anchor the show. He was a staff announcer at NBC, who had come to some notoriety with his coverage of the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia, in 1946. John had a high pitched, exciting voice, a classic style for news reading and PHOTOGRAPHIC MEMORY. He could read a script, then look squarely into camera and deliver all those words flawlessly, from memory. Long before the teleprompters came into being that would make this facility with words available to everyman, Swayze was there, doing what came naturally.
NBC hired Clarence Thoman, Director of Special Events at WPTZ, to come to New York to produce the new show. Ralph Peterson was Director and Reuven Frank, a young writer from the New York Herald Tribune became the brains of the show. They discovered how to do television news by doing it. I was privileged to be part of the team. They would switch to me for film reports and live stories. There was another young reporter in Washington, David Brinkley, who worked regularly on the Camel News Caravan while the other correspondents in the capitol newsroom were tied up doing radio. The transition was gradual as radio would down and television fire up.
When Thoman left, I became News Editor and Director of Special Events at WPTZ, The station began programming very aggressively. On my first day in the new job, I looked out the window of my new office and saw smoke, billowing out of the basement of a hundred year old church across the street. It was a five alarm fire...as big as they come.
“Let’s go on the air, LIVE!” I shouted into my telephone.
The Station Manager, Roland Tooke, agreed. We were not on the air at that hour, around nine in the morning, but engineers were found. The secretaries and executives pitched n to man cameras and pull cables. Within half an hour I was down on the street and we were broadcasting. New York and Washington both picked us up. I and my intrepid executive camera crews went everywhere. We went up the ladders with the firemen and down into the blazing basement. There were no limits either to our ambition or to our coverage because no one had ever done something like this!
After the smoke settled, we got fan mail from firemen hundreds of miles away. We stayed on the air for five hours that day and when it was finished, the television coverage made as much news as the fire in the newspaper headlines that evening.
Don Charles, a visitor to our website e-mailed:
I thoroughly enjoyed reading Roy Neal's accounts of his days as a broadcaster for WIBG, the Armed Forces Network and his pioneering days as a telecaster with WPTZ.
Back about 1948, my family had acquired one of the first TV sets (a 10-inch Philco) in the Allentown area. Reading just these first chapters of Roy's remembrances brought back many fond memories of the early days of Philadelphia television, and the trials and tribulations we "fringe area" viewers went through to pull-in your stations from 55 miles away.
Initially, WPTZ and WFIL were the only stations on the air. WCAU appeared soon after; but, in its early years of operation, its high-frequency signal arrived at our house in a very snowy picture. WPTZ's low frequency signal was the best received; and, I well-remember watching Roy Neal on many of its programs. Another favorite was WPTZ's "Three to Get Ready" morning program, with the incomparable Ernie Kovacs.
I actually have a real memento of one of WPTZ's programs from those early days. This one (I can't remember its title. Could it have been "Quick on the Draw?") featured a famous guest cartoonist. Each week, the guest drew an original cartoon, minus a caption. The viewing audience was invited to think up a caption and send it to the station. Whoever submitted the best caption would win the drawing.
One week, the famous Syd Hoff, who at the time was drawing "Snuffy Smith," drew a picture of Snuffy and his wife in their home, standing next to a shiny new grand piano. The piano was obviously a gift to Snuffy from his proud wife. My father (now 92 years of age) submitted a caption, under my name, and I "won." I still have the framed, original drawing. The caption has Snuffy asking, "So now I can be president?" Of course, that caption's meaning is entirely lost on anyone who doesn't remember President Harry S Truman and his fondness for playing the piano, which was well publicized in those days.
What a pity Roy's autobiography could not be completed. I'm sure he had much more to tell about his days with WPTZ and also his long career with NBC. Nevertheless, I am very grateful that you have allowed us to read what he left behind.
From the official archives of the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia
Photo originally donated by Roy Neal
Book Chapters written and donated by Roy Neal
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