Stu­dents re­call days at Ra­dio House

Ra­dio

Austin American-Statesman - - AUSTIN360 DAILY - Con­tin­ued from E

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 fac­ulty

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.

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