Students recall days at Radio House
heard they were offering this, I couldn’t get down here fast enough.”
The university launched its first experimental radio broadcast in 1921, before Robert Heller, 87, was born in Okmulgee, Okla. His wife of 65 years, Phyllis Heller, 84, whom he met at UT, is a Dallas native. They now live in Houston, where for many years Robert Heller ran a political media firm.
Unlike his wife, Robert Heller enjoyed no early propensity for performance. He flunked out of school before going into pilot training during World War II. While in Phoenix, he befriended a staff announcer on latenight radio.
“I hung out at the studio,” he said. “Then I headed back to Austin for this program. It was a fascinating concept at the time.”
Their college chum, Carolyn Jackson, 85, grew up a freckle-faced upstart in Taylor. She sang on the radio and did secretarial work before breaking into the advertising business. Later she became a regular on Austin TV screens, host of “Woman’s World” and “The Carolyn Jackson Show.”
“I was born a ham,” Jackson says. “I competed in the county meet in declamation and interpretive speech. I appeared in the senior play. I loved every minute of our classes at Radio House. Nobody could have drug me out of that school.”
Radio was something of an academic stepchild when the three friends met there in the early 1940s. Radio House, though part of the College of Fine Arts, was considered a “tech school” by some.
The ornamented carriage house, which once housed UT Regent George Littlefield’s horses and servants, was made to look like a functioning radio station. Upstairs were offices for script writers and program leaders. Downstairs were studios and equipment.
Microphones and control rooms were added. Some of their shows were broadcast on the KNOW radio channel before Radio House became a fully functioning studio.
The students studied journalism, drama, speech and music appreciation along with media courses. They also took required classes in English, history and other core curriculum.
While in school, Jackson and Phyllis Heller, sorority sisters, kept up their performing chops by singing with big bands and trios. During one amateur night, Jackson recruited an entire fraternity to support their act.
“The prize was $25,” Jackson says with a laugh. “So we spent the whole $25 buying those boys beer.”
The novelty of Radio House, other than its building, was its faculty. There was no systematic study of media in those days. So UT relied on the pros.
“An AP reporter taught reporting,” Jackson remembers. “If he caught you adding any editorializing to your story it was an automatic F.”
NBC Radio veteran Tom Rishworth served as chairman of the program.
“He had one of the deepest, most beautiful broadcast voices I’d ever heard,” Jackson says. “But he had a slight stutter. We were all stunned wondering how he managed that as an announcer. But we said nothing because it was a delicate matter.”
One of Rishworth’s methods of bringing out future radio personalities was to insist that each student impersonate somebody else.
“One of the guys impersonated him,” Jackson says. “I froze in my desk thinking this was an insensitive thing to do and surely Rishworth would be hurt or mad. But he smiled and said that was an excellent impersonation.”
Another standard procedure was to interview a class partner.
“You had to learn as much as possible about that person,” Jackson says. “Dig, dig dig, find out interesting things that no one in the class knew about that classmate. After the prep work was done, you did your interview in a studio with the class watching through a studio window.”
JoAnn Whitmire, a trained speech therapist, served as an exacting speech coach.
“She was as tough as a Marine drill instructor,” Robert Heller says. “At times, we were on the witness stand. She forced us to remember her lessons.”
Whitmire encouraged the students to vary their speech patterns.
“’Don’t start each change of topic at the same pitch level and beware of a repetitive rhythm,’” Heller recalls her saying. “‘You’re announcing, not singing.’ She also pushed us to complete words at the end of sentences – don’t let them fade away.”
Jackson cherished Whitmire’s rigorous training.
“I cringe daily when I hear local and network anchors with irritating nasal voices,” she says. “Their mispronunciations and terrible abuse of grammar drive me up the wall. They don’t seem to have a grasp of the basics of good grammar.”
Rishworth forced students to look up random place names in the “NBC Handbook of Pronunciation.”
One of Phyllis Heller’s favorite classes was radio drama.
“For one of our finals, we were paired up, given a situation, and had 15 minutes to act it out,” she says. “I was a nurse and my patient was a soldier who had been blinded in the war. His eyes had been operated on and I was taking the bandages off. The dramatic peak, of course, was whether or not he would be able to see. The conclusion was left open for dramatic effect. Would our patient see again, or forever be lost in a sea of darkness? Tune in next week.”
Jackson remembers another final exam during which students were given random topics to broadcast. Her topic: the London Blitz.
“First of all, women didn’t do that type of reporting back in those days so I had no one to pattern myself after,” she says. “And how could I possibly bring the emotions, the devastation, etc. to the listeners with just my voice? When it was my turn, I sat before the microphone, took a deep breath, closed my eyes and pretended I was watching the bombing.