Welcome to the June issue!
What were you doing when you were 20 years old? Many pages of the calendar have turned since I was 20, but I still have a memory or two of that year – and I’ll share one of them with you this month. Plus, you’ll find a link to a very special commencement speech.
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Cheers! – – Steve Pender
A memory from my 20th year: Don’t touch that dial!
The Association of Personal Historians, of which I’m a member, has been the premier trade group for professional personal historians for 20 years. With the group celebrating two decades of existence, I started thinking about what I was doing when I was that same age. Here’s a memory from my 20th year:
The year was 1976. I was a couple of months into my junior year at college, where radio was my life. When I wasn’t in class, or working part-time to earn enough money to pay tuition and buy lunch at the Campus Sub Shop, you’d find me at the Seton Hall University radio station, WSOU-FM. I loved being in front of a microphone, and did everything from reading news, to anchoring our election-night coverage, to spinning records on both an early-morning pop music “wake up” show called Bacon ‘n’ Eggs and our late-night “progressive rock” offering called Nightrock.
What I really loved, however, was writing and producing; being able to write a script, direct actors, and edit a finished piece of audio that came out of the speakers sounding like it originally did when I “heard it” in my head was a gas. In fact, my first professional award came when I was 20, for a series of promotional announcements I wrote, directed and produced for Nightrock. If you’d like to hear one of those spots, first aired in 1976, just click on the audio player below.
I also co-wrote and produced a comedy show called Harrold. It was a sketch comedy show, inspired mainly by the National Lampoon Radio Hour. (Not old enough to remember the National Lampoon Radio Hour? Google it.) We packed our half-hour with all sorts of bits, from fake commercials to irreverent skits of all kinds to song parodies. It was lots of fun – but, as I came to find out, also a ton of work.
In the mid-1970s, there was no such thing as digital audio recording and editing. When I wanted to make an edit in a recording, I physically sliced into the tape with a razor blade, removed what needed to go, cut the tape again, and then stuck the two ends of the tape together with splicing tape. And since multi-track recorders hadn’t yet made their appearance at WSOU, adding music and sound effects was also a challenge. All in all, it was a time-consuming process. Even though I got to be very fast with a blade, I spent many hours hunched over tape decks in the station’s tiny production studio, doing my best to finish each week’s show before airtime.
Once I nearly didn’t make it.
Thanks to a number of factors (school work, regular work, procrastination), Harrold’s Christmas 1976 installment was only half done by the time the show was due to air. I was in a panic. I handed the reel containing the first fifteen minutes to the engineer and told him that, if I wasn’t out with the second half by the time the first half ended, he should just keep playing public service announcements to fill the time.
I hustled back to the production studio, grabbed my blade and editing block and bent feverishly to the task at hand. I remember how surreal it felt, listening to the show playing on-air while I was still editing it. My fingers flew faster then ever before, and by the time I rushed into the control room with the second reel, I think only four or five PSAs had played. Luckily, all the splicing tape held and the rest of the show ran without a hitch. I breathed a sigh of relief and swore that I’d never, ever, come that close to missing a deadline again.
A historian looks to the future.
May and June are the months for commencement speeches, and renowned documentarian Ken Burns (The Civil War, Baseball, Jazz, The War) recently gave a thoughtful and passionate one, grounded in history and with an eye on the future, at Washington University in St. Louis. You can watch his speech here. I think you’ll be glad you did.