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WVXU Honors the “Nation’s Station”

"Cincinnati Radio: The Nation's Station" is the latest in a series of documentaries produced and funded by public station WVXU(FM) to chronicle broadcasting history. Previous productions include "Cincinnati Radio: The War Years (1941-45)," "Red Barber: From the Catbird Seat," "The Moon River Collection," and "D-Day Plus 50 Years," which received a 1994 Peabody Award...Radio World Editor Paul McLane interviewed the producing team for his column in Radio World. Here is the full text of their replies.

“Cincinnati Radio: The Nation’s Station” is the latest in a series of documentaries produced and funded by public station WVXU(FM) to chronicle broadcasting history. Previous productions include “Cincinnati Radio: The War Years (1941-45),” “Red Barber: From the Catbird Seat,” “The Moon River Collection,” and “D-Day Plus 50 Years,” which received a 1994 Peabody Award.

Radio World Editor Paul McLane interviewed the producing team for his column in Radio World. Here is the full text of their replies.

Mark Magistrelli provided most of the answers, with comments also by Dr. James C. King, Mike Martini and George Zahn.

Q: What prompted the project, whose idea was it and why? Why is this an appropriate project for your organization?

A: “The Nation’s Station” was intended as a “prequel” to 1991’s “Cincinnati Radio: The War Years,” which had been conceived by WVXU general manager Dr. James C. King and producer/writer Mark Magistrelli. However, technical limitations and the continuing quest for additional recordings forced the station to put the enterprise on hold for a few years. Early in 2000, Dr. King, Magistrelli and WVXU(FM) Documentary Director Mike Martini met and agreed that the time was right to actively pursue completion of the project.

King: I feel this is an eminently appropriate project for WVXU. Much of WVXU’s mission concerns the preservation of radio and broadcast history, and bringing it to new generations. Indeed, the most popular elements of our broadcast schedule – the old-time radio comedies and dramas – are largely listened to by audiences who weren’t even born when “Fibber McGee and Molly” or “The Great Gildersleeve” were on the air. Projects such as “The Nation’s Station” help connect contemporary listeners to broadcasting’s pioneers.

Q: Who were the notable participants and the project people responsible?

A: WVXU(FM) general manager (and Xavier University’s Director of Radio) Dr. James C. King served as executive producer. The project was produced by Mark Magistrelli and Mike Martini. Mark Magistrelli wrote the script, transferred the original lacquers and restored much of the audio. Technical producer George Zahn handled the editing and additional audio restoration. WVXU(FM) Chief Engineer Jay Crawford led the technical team.

Q: Is the package intended for sale? How much will it cost and how will you market it?

A: In keeping with our practice of offering new productions to station members first, “The Nation’s Station” is available to members of WVXU and its XStar Radio Network stations (covering Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky and Michigan) for a yearly membership at the $12/month pledge level. It should be available in retail outlets by the fall of 2003.

Q: This project reflects a huge amount of work, labor, research and attention to technical detail. Describe the resources that were devoted to it and the process.

Dr. King: As a public station, WVXU does not have access to large amounts of funding, especially in light of vastly diminished federal, state, and university financial support. Despite this, WVXU has made an ongoing commitment dating back to the early 1980s to do whatever it takes to preserve the cultural essence of early radio history. We fully realized then and now that the costs for these ongoing projects will never be recovered through sales of the products. Our philosophy, in essence, is rather simple: If WVXU doesn’t do this work, who will? Time is running out on us as recordings deteriorate or get destroyed and first-hand participants pass on. WVXU has never asked for one dime from foundations for any of its restoration work. It has been funded entirely by station operating income.

Mark Magistrelli: Something that needs to be kept in mind is that WLW no longer had any of its own recordings. Luckily, we were able to enlist the aid of former WLW engineer Ed Dooley, who was an avid collector and had saved over 600 WLW discs over the years. But since recordings from the 1930s only formed a very small portion of his collection, we found ourselves tracking down performers or their relatives, hoping to discover additional discs.

Also, Randy Michaels (of Jacor and subsequently Clear Channel) was enormously helpful. He gave us a blanket release for the use of this material that gave us access to material in libraries and collections all over the country. Whether it was the National Archives or the Library of Congress, Randy’s signature opened doors that would otherwise have remained closed to us. I spent a week doing nothing but going through all the NBC paperwork at the Library of Congress, examining file cards, memos and contracts to flesh out the many network shows WLW and its sister station WSAI fed to NBC. The Broadcast Pioneers Library (now the Library of American Broadcasting in Maryland), the Thousand Oaks Library Special Collections Departments, Berea College, SPERDVAC, the Country Music Foundation – you name the library or collection, and chances are Mike and I have been there!

Mike Martini: We drew upon over 160 interviews, more than 70 of them done for this project alone, and although not all of them were used in the final mix, we learned something different from every one of them. Some of the people we spoke with had left the business 60 years ago, so tracking them down was quite a challenge.

Dr. King basically allowed me to put my regular station duties on hold for two years in order to complete this project. Phone or studio interviews were out of the question when dealing with elderly people who sometimes had difficulty with their hearing, so we “hit the road” and flew from coast to coast to conduct in-person interviews. Most of the people we spoke with ranged in age from the mid-80s to their late 90s, and were an absolute delight!

Q: Describe the technical process by which these recordings were found and prepared.And what has changed technically since 1991 that allowed you to finish this project, which was conceived more than a decade ago?

Mark Magistrelli: We were still using analog multitrack tape decks in 1991, and had no way of effectively restoring sound apart from using equalization, impulse noise eliminators and the like. CEDAR and NoNoise were still far beyond our budget, and the idea of renting time at a studio with those processes was out of the question due to the extraordinary time that it would take to restore the material. For me, the advent of CEDAR and NoNoise systems have made all the difference in the world. When we decided to bite the financial bullet and get into digital audio restoration, we chose CEDAR because of its ability to let one hear the processing results in realtime.

George Zahn: CEDAR was the gate that got us into the Garden of Eden, but we still had a lot of hoeing to do. On “With Plenty of Money and You,” it became apparent that a mic on one of the vocal groups had all but died during the broadcast. Using a parametric equalizer, we were able to isolate the vocal range of the affected performers and actively remix their vocals during realtime playback of the source material. The challenge was to do this without increasing the remaining surface noise. Apart from Mark and I, nobody will ever know the level of noise and disc damage we started with on so many of these recordings.

Mark Magistrelli: Some of these two or three minute excerpts literally took weeks to restore. I came across a lacquer that was delaminating so badly, I thought it would never play again – the surface had crazed into little pieces of black lacquer that were separating from the aluminum core. After some touch-and-go experimentation, I was able to get it to play well enough that we could edit around most of the problems. Then I turned it over to George, who spent 9 or 10 12-hour days doing nothing but hand-drawn waveform restoration, getting the worst scratches and distortion out before I could run it through CEDAR, equalizers and other processing gear.

Q: What was the most interesting or surprising thing you discovered personally during this project?

Mark Magistrelli: Talking with Dorothea Ponce of the Ponce Sisters. To me, it was mind-boggling that I was able to talk to someone who made records for Thomas Edison during the mid-1920s – and then, as daughter of Phil Ponce (manager of jazz pianist-singer Fats Waller), “Dobbie” told us how Waller came to WLW, and about his break with the station in late 1933. This was all information that shed new light on an ill-documented phase of Waller’s career, just before Fats exploded into national prominence.

Martini: Discovering that both (legendary radio writer/director) Norman Corwin and (noted broadcast historian) Erik Barnouw both worked in Cincinnati during the early-to-mid 1930s. I’ve always admired both and was able to spend an afternoon with Mr. Corwin at his L-A home and Mark and I spent two days in Vermont at Mr. and Mrs. Barnouw’s house chatting radio history not long before Mr. Barnouw passed away. Unbelievable.

King: I was surprised to see how much money these two guys could burn in only two years. Nonetheless, my respect for the scholarly excellence given to these projects by these three comparatively young men is unbounded. The stars have been aligned at WVXU for lo these many years when we’ve had the good fortune to have a managerial vision for radio preservation coupled with the scholarship and technical innovations of Mark, George, and Mike. It has truly been a privilege to work with these gentlemen.

Q: Why do you think Powel Crosley Jr.’s role in broadcasting is a ‘lost story,’ as Dr. King writes in the booklet?

Magistrelli: Several reasons come to mind.

First of all, Powel Crosley began losing interest in broadcasting once the experimental authorization to operate WLW at 500,000 watts was not renewed by the FCC. He preferred to look ahead to new ventures, most notably his Crosley compact automobile. By 1945, he was selling WSAI to Marshall Field and WLW to the Avco Corporation in order to finance the new car. So he didn’t stay in the business over the long haul., as a David Sarnoff or Edwin Armstrong did.

Second, when AFRA came to Cincinnati, the economic incentive to produce programs more cheaply in Cincinnati vanished, and from that time on, network production was largely concentrated in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. Finally, WLW was ultimately defined more by the performers it developed, rather than the programs it created. Unlike WXYZ, which radio buffs still remember as the home of “The Lone Ranger” and “The Green Hornet.,” WLW never made an equally big splash in national dramatic programming, although it certainly played a big part in the development of radio drama.

Much of WLW’s reputation as “the Cradle of the Stars” centered on its development of young musical talent – the Mills Brothers, the Ink Spots, Fats Waller, Doris Day, Andy Williams and a little later on, Rosemary Clooney. They were all featured on musical shows fed to the networks.

Mike Martini: In most cases, the history of broadcasting has been written by those who have lived and worked on the coasts. It’s the plague that affects all of Midwestern culture. One common thread linking many of the interviews we conducted is that most of these actors and vocalists felt that, as important as “the Nation’s Station” could be, it was nevertheless deemed a track to something bigger in New York or Hollywood.

No matter how much success Cincinnati enjoyed in broadcasting during the 1930’s, it still was considered a stepping stone for many of those in the business. Fortunately, during that period, there was a bottomless well of young talent.

Q: What do these recordings tell a modern listener about the role of radio then, and how it has changed since?

Martini: I was surprised how good the live music sounded, and how well it’s held up over the years, as opposed to some of the comedy shows, which have definitely dated – but still provide a fascinating window into what America was like 60 or 70 years ago.

Magistrelli: What strikes me is the overwhelming amount of creativity taking place when the medium was young, and nothing seemed impossible.

King: I guess my age is showing here but it saddens me that younger listeners (and many older ones as well), have little or no sense of the glorious history of the radio medium. Someone exposed to radio for the first time, in today’s world, would have absolutely no sense of the creativity, the majesty, the seriousness, or the sheer glory of this medium that positively captivated and linked America for over 40 years. All I can hope for is that these productions will catch the fancy and the ear of someone who had no prior knowledge of radio in the 1930s. If we can turn on that cultural light bulb for even a few people, all of this will have been worth it.

Q: What was the cost of the project?

King: I suppose a “real” station manager would be able to produce a budget with some kind of meaningful breakdown of expenses. Since I’m not a real manager in the strict sense of the word, I can’t give you a number that would make any sense.

Here’s what I can tell you. WVXU shoveled money, time, and resources into this effort as the circumstances demanded. If money was needed for equipment, we found a way to fund it by cutting back on other internal station projects. In hard equipment costs alone, WVXU has invested well into six figures essentially dedicated for this one project. The number of man-hours dedicated to the project has to be well into the scores of thousands when we look at the time of three staff members and my own involvement. Release time was given whenever needed and as much as was needed to get the job done.

This might be a revealing figure. If we factor out any of the pre-production costs incurred since 1991, the actual per-unit production cost, to WVXU, is well above $30. This includes just the CDs, the packaging, and the printed materials accompanying each 2-CD set. Imagine what the actual unit cost might be if we elected to include the hard costs incurred by WVXU during the production phase of the project.

As I noted earlier, the cost of this production really isn’t the issue. It’s a work of radio art that had to be done before it was impossible to do so. It is utterly impossible to put a cost on this and, frankly, I sleep better at night not thinking about those kinds of matters.

Q: Will there be another in the series?

King: Of that I have no doubt. We have four people, Mark, Mike, George, and myself who are utterly committed to this kind of production effort. As long as we have the energy, the ideas, and the ability to muster the resources, WVXU will continue these kinds of efforts.

I hate to be an alarmist but all of us fear the inexorable ticking of the clock here. We know, firsthand, how difficult it is becoming to find useable recordings and reliable information from those who lived through these early radio eras. As long as the potential exists for future such projects, WVXU will be there to get them done. The “ghosts of radio past” continue to haunt us.