The year 1977….is this a radio story, or one of “normal” life? Well, 1977 was a pretty eventful year in my life, so I guess I’d have to say some of both. Let’s see…it was the last year I worked at ABC as a VR, it was the first time I walked a picket line, it exposed me to some interesting parts of the broadcasting business, it was the year the lights went out in the North East, and it was a year that cemented the course of my life in more ways than one….so let’s get started!
Back in those days, there were 36 NABET Engineers on the 8th floor of the ABC Building, and they were responsible for WABC and WPLJ’s on the air product, News Production, Commercial Production for WABC and WPLJ, and maintenance. The NABET/ABC contract specified that vacations were to be taken between April 1st and October 31st of each year. This was the vacation period, and during this time, about 8 VRs or Vacation Relief Engineers were hired by Win Loyd and Bob Deitch to cover the vacations of the WABC/WPLJ Staff Engineers. That’s how I had started at ABC in August of 1976, and how I expected to come back in 1977. Now, there was a little wrinkle in that the NABET/ABC Contract said that if you worked for 14 months as a VR, they had to give you a staff job, or they couldn’t use you again for 12 months. I’m sure that the union’s reasoning behind this was that it prevented ABC from just keeping a temporary work force on hand (this was long before we heard the term “Daily Hire”) to fill in during the vacation period, but the downside for us was that since there was a slim possibility of getting a staff job, your time on the 8th floor of the ABC Building was limited. So, the process seemed to be to bring in new people first, and then bring back the established folks who had less time, so I started working at ABC mid April of 1977. Everything was great for about a month, and then the strike hit! On May 17th of that year, in the middle of contract negotiations, NABET called a strike against ABC, and now rather than be working on the 8th floor of 1330 Avenue of the Americas, we were outside picketing 4 hours at a time every other day.
For many of us, this was a new experience and something we’d frankly never envisioned being a part of. Walking 6th Avenue between 53rd and 54th Street was an interesting learning experience as we answered questions like, “what’s a strike?” (That was a difficult one to explain) , “why are you on strike?” (Didn’t know the answer then and 37 years later still don’t), or our favorite “can you spare a dollar?” (Hey jackass…WE’RE ON STRIKE!!). Most folks who are on the streets of New York are on their way someplace, but when you spend 4 hours just walking back and forth along one block in the middle of the day, you become a target, and so we saw and/or talked to many more weirdoes then one would normally notice during the course of a stroll in the city. We were also, frankly, really rotten strikers! As TV and RADIO technicians who were used to setting up cameras, designing light set ups, running audio boards and the like, walking a picket line and harassing fellow ABC employees was just not in our wheel house. We were not teamsters, or by in large, union activists. Most of us, were frankly, members of NABET because when we got hired, ABC said we had to join, so not only didn’t we know why we were on strike, most of us really wanted to be back at work. Many of us who worked at WABC and WPLJ were lucky because we were young, almost kids; but many of our fellow strikers were older folks with families to support, mortgages and car payments to make, and responsibilities. By the time the strike was finally over mid October, EVERYBODY was ready to return to work. It was hard on those of us out on the street without pay checks (we did get unemployment payments, but only after we were out for almost 2 months), but for our friends inside, it wasn’t a piece of cake either. That was back in the days when WABC and WPLJ needed someone on the board 24 hours a day 7 days a week, so for many, they had to do their job and then had to take a board shift too. For our friends on the air, they were stuck working with many folks who had no idea what they were doing. Some were able to handle the frustration of that better than others….we came back in October to find George Michael hobbling around with a broken foot he got when he kicked something in studio 8A after a very frustrating session with one of the fill in folks. That prompted a new 8th floor rule…when you are pissed, you throw one piece of ABC property against another piece of ABC property, never a part of your body against a piece of ABC property!
Standing in front of 1330 every morning, you waited to see folks you knew coming or going so you could get some information from inside. It wasn’t really “inside information” because they knew as little as we did, but you did get a sense of what was happening on the 8th floor, and we craved that. Be it Assistant Chief Engineer Bob Deitch, DJ Johnny Donovan, News Man Gus Engelman, or a sales person, everyone had the same question….”when are you guys coming back?” We were on strike for almost 5 months, and there are many memories of that period, but there is one concerning one of our fellow 8th floor inhabitants that I will always remember. Every morning that we were on strike, a Fink Bakery truck would stop at 1330 and drop off a restaurant sized bag of rolls and bread products. This was a very welcome gesture arranged by WPLJ DJ Jimmy Fink, and a reason Jimmy will always go down in the good guy column in my book!
As I said before, I was lucky in 1977 to not have a family or bills to pay, but after being on the picket line for a couple of weeks, and since I’d only worked a month so far in 1977, a couple of extra bucks coming in might be nice. Back then I subscribed to Broadcasting Magazine, the weekly bible of the radio and television industry. Each week’s issue was full of stories about what was going on around the world of radio and TV, puff ads run by stations, studios, and equipment companies, and what many who subscribed turned to first: pages and pages of “help wanted” ads. So it was in the June 13, 1977 issue on page 72, that I came across the following ad: “Instructor, part time work only. New York City area residents, commercial (not college) radio experience required. Control board proficiency. Work 3-10 PM weekdays and/or Saturday, Sunday”. Sounded perfect…I had 4+ years of NY radio experience and I certainly had “control board proficiency”, so I figured this was the perfect strike extra curricular activity! The fact that the ad said “instructor”, I figured it could be a NY area college, or perhaps something like the Connecticut School of Broadcasting…so I called.
Boy was I wrong!!
They really didn’t want to talk on the phone, but my resume impressed them, so they asked me to come in and see them. They had some impressive name like SBS Broadcasting, and they were located at 33rd Street just off 6th Avenue. I truly was not prepared for what I found. At that time, there was an FM radio station that we’d get a kick out of listening to late at night, whose programing was made up of blocks of shows (some as small as 15 minutes) bought by folks who had absolutely no business being on the radio ANYWHERE, not to mention in New York City. For example, they had one guy we loved, who called himself “Happy Holiday”, and who had a “jingle” that he’d made by cutting the words happy and holiday out of the Andy Williams song of the same name! Well, what I walked into was the front for all those wonderful programs. This was the radio version of a cheesy phone scam parlor…lots of little “studios” (a room with a window, a small mixer, a turntable, Spotmaster cart machine, a microphone, and a cheap reel to reel machine), and poor folks who thought that what they were doing would lead to a career in radio. And what were they doing? They were buying a 15 minute “show” on a NY radio station, and along with their “instructor” they were cobbling together 15 minutes of audio that was recorded on reel to reel tape in these horrible facilities. As their “instructor”, your main job was to collect their money (I think it was something like $25 per 15 minutes), and then do what you could to make sure that the 15 minute recording was not a total train wreck…but most were!
Every now and then, you’d work with someone who actually seemed to have some ability, but most of the “hosts” could barely put two words together! Some of them had incredible accents that made what they said almost unintelligible, while others were so stupid they were clueless about what they were saying! Then there was their technical ability! Cue up a record? Play a cart? Adjust level? It was so sad. What was also sad is that these folks all had jobs where they worked hard for their money. They were bus drivers, post office workers, folks that worked in restaurants, and all of them seemed to think that what they were doing would someday lead to a better life for themselves and their families! It didn’t take me long to realize that the people that ran this organization were crooks…to both the clients and the employees. You see, we weren’t employees, but rather “independent contractors”, so basically they had no responsibility for taxes, and probably never reported anything to the IRS…including their profits! Who even knew if this organization existed in a legal sense. A scam from one end to the other, and after working there two or three weeks, I told them that I was sorry, but I wouldn’t be able to continue, and they were not happy!
The couple of weeks I “worked” there as an “instructor” were not without their humorous moments. One I always remember was the young cocky guy who came in and thought he was really cool, and had a future in radio. He was happy to make fun of the poor folks with thick accents, and although he didn’t have an accent, he was as stupid as they come. I’d worked with him for a couple of sessions, when I guess in an effort to impress me, he told me that he was a close personal friend of Dan Ingram from WABC. I enjoyed the look on his face when I told him, “Hey small world. I’m an engineer at WABC and work with Dan a lot.” That really shut him up fast, and as it was about the time of the end of my relationship with SBS Broadcasting, I never saw him again!
Just before I stopped working at SBS, I worked the evening of July 13th, and was standing in Penn Station waiting for the Long Island Rail Road train home around 9:30, when suddenly the lights went out. Anyone who knows Penn Station knows that the Long Island Rail Road level is really the sub-basement, and even with emergency lights, it was dark. So I headed up the 2 flights of stairs to the street, and what I saw amazed me! I came out on 7th Avenue and 32nd Street and the only lights were those from car and bus headlights. I looked south and it was dark. I looked north and it was dark. New York City in the dark…that’s how I became aware of the New York City Blackout of 1977! So I was standing there on 7th Avenue and trying to figure out what to do. Do I wait and see if the lights go back on and go back down to Penn Station, or how else do I get home to Queens??
It was then that I remembered that Bill Mozer and Jimmy McGuire had picket duty that night in front of the ABC Building. Bill always drove in from his day job at CW Post College, and if I could get there before they left, I could hitch a ride out of the city with them, so off I went. I walked up a dark 32nd Street, and made a left on 6th Avenue and headed up town. Before I left Penn Station, something told me to take my money out of my wallet and put it in my shoe, and I was glad I did. 37 years ago, back in 1977, Avenue of the Americas in the 30s and 40s was not the built up corporate skyscraper area it is today. There were lots of one and two story building containing stores, empty lots, and lots of bars! It was very dark and there were a lot of people milling around, and so I just kept my head down, looked at where I was putting my next foot step, and trucked up to 54th Street and the ABC Building….and truck I did. My normal walk time from Penn Station to 1330 was about 16 or 17 minutes if I caught the flow of the street crossings. That night I did it under 11 minutes!!
So I found Bill and Jimmy were still there, and frankly, up at 54th and Avenue of Americas, the mood was very different. Yes, the lights were out, but it was more like a party rather than the fear factor that seemed to be in the air down near Penn Station. So I knew I was going to get home….or was I? Turned out that Bill was running late on his way in, and should have stopped for gas, but figured he’d stop in Manhattan or Queens on the way home. Well, the power was out till you got to LILCO territory at the Nassau border, so that plan was out the window. Because there was no power, there were no traffic signals, so the trip home was slow, as it was not easy getting out of Manhattan without traffic lights. We all held our breath, crossed our fingers, and we made it out to Queens, and ultimately Bill made it to Nassau County and a working gas station…but just barely!
One of the good things about being on strike for 5+ months was that it was easy to get together as we no longer had different days, off and different shifts! So there was a lot more socialization among the younger members of the Engineering Department. We went out on my boat, went to street fairs, and were all available for parties all through the summer. As a VR, the likelihood of me being off on a Saturday or Sunday hovered somewhere been slim and none, but that was exactly the case on Sunday, July 3rd, when a lot of us were invited to a Forth of July party at Bill and Marianne Epperhart’s house. Bill had worked at WABC for several years, and was a good friend I’d first met at CW Post College almost 10 years before. He now worked at NBC, so it was kind of a mix of WABC folks, NBC folks, people from Post, and friends of his wife Marianne, who was a nurse at Glen Cove Hospital.
It was fun to be able to party with such a large group of my radio friends, and once it got dark, I somehow got volunteered to help a nurse friend of Marianne’s set off some fireworks. We might have been drinking a bit by then (I know…shocking), but we seemed to have a lot of fun trying to light the fireworks (that seemed a little soggy) with a Bic lighter that seemed more likely to set us on fire! By the time the night was over, arrangements had been made for the following Saturday to go on a double date with the Epperharts. We spent the day on my boat in Connecticut, had a great Chinese dinner at a favorite restaurant, and then went off for a round of mini golf. It was a very successful night, and to add icing on the cake, my fortune cookie after dinner said, “you will marry your present lover and be happy”. Smart fortune cookie…a little over 2 years later, we made the first part of the prediction come true, and 35 years later, I can attest that the whole prediction has come more than true! We later found out that getting us together was the main reason for the July 3rd party, so as I said, 1977 was a very important year in my life. Who knows if Susie and I would have gotten to meet without the NABET strike?
Well eventually, a contract was negotiated, ratification votes were held, and we went hack to work! It was just about the end of October by that time, and the end of VR season, so my time working for that summer would have been just about up but for a new section in the NABET/ABC contract. Stipulation 19 said that a small percentage of ABC VRs could be retained past the October 31st cut off date without adding to their time worked allotment, but they had to be gone by the end of the year. I was very happy to be asked to stay, so another first for me, in my last year as a VR, I became a Stip19 engineer and could work November and December! This also got me what was probably my first Ingram close when I got a letter about mid December that my last day to work would be Christmas Eve, 1977. I do believe Dan equated the WABC Management to Ebineezer Scrooge and Company that night, as he saluted me as I engineered the end of his show!
So that was my 1977…an interesting year in my life, and a year I made a total of $4500!