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Ken Alexander's Radio Recollections

Ken Alexander passed away on November 2, 2022 at the age of 93. For more than 20 years, he was with Chuck Schaden and myself every week as the announcer of Those Were the Days but of course his duties went far beyond reading commercials: He was our "newsman" and a man of many voices during our annual Hallowe'en shows. He was a beloved member of the show's family for many years and he will be missed. We are grateful beyond words to him for sharing his love of radio with us for as long as he did.—Steve Darnall, host of Those Were the Days since 2009

I started working in radio in 1959, and I’m glad to have lasted this long doing what I love to do.

As a boy, I was fascinated by radio. I would "play radio," using a make-believe microphone. I had a couple of discarded electrical switches and a doorbell WebKenAlexander.jpgbutton, and I would pretend to be in Master Control at one of the networks waiting for my cue to put Studio "A" on the air.

I memorized the station breaks of all the Chicago stations, and I dreamed of working one day at WAIT, WAAF, WMAQ or WGN. At times, I would even fantasize about being another Ken Carpenter or Ben Grauer or Don Wilson on the coast-to-coast network shows.

By the time I graduated from Austin High, I had decided that I wanted to become a radio announcer, although I knew that I would not achieve my goal for some time — if ever. There was no chance for a 17-year- old lad to be hired as an announcer at a Chicago radio station. Even for a mature man, radio was a field that was very hard to break into.

In those days, only a small minority of young people went to college; most of us, when we left high school, went to work, and lacking the training for a trade or profession, we would get a job in a store or a factory or an office.

I got a job as an order-picker at Sears Roebuck’s mail-order warehouse at Homan and Arthington. During my stint there, I received word from the employment counselor at Austin High of an opening for a messenger boy at WGN.

This was wonderful news. If I could get that job, I thought (perhaps unrealistically), I might work my way up to the announcing staff.

I arranged for an interview with a Mr. David Taylor in WGN’s offices in Tribune Tower. The interview went well. The job would involve delivering commercials and other continuity copy to the various studios in the building, and the copy would have to be in the right studio at the right time.

My experience at Sears was a factor in my favor, as all of the mail orders were time-stamped and needed to be filled on schedule.

It seemed that the job was mine; however, Mr. Taylor did need to check with another executive down the hall. Mr. Taylor went into the other man’s office while I waited in the corridor. After a short time, he rejoined me in the hall.

"Well," he said, "I thought we had that job all sewed up for you. But that fellow," gesturing toward the office from which he had just emerged, "that fellow has a nephew, and...."

Mr. Taylor, nice man that he was, apologized. He was obviously disappointed and embarrassed. As for myself, I was in deep despair. How, I thought, could I ever become a radio announcer? I couldn’t even get a job in radio as a messenger boy.

I had heard it said that to get a job in radio, "It’s not what you know, it’s who you know." Now I believed it. And I didn’t know anybody.

On that day I gave up all hope of ever having a career in radio. The year was 1948. I was 19 years old.

Fast forward to 1959.

 I was now 29 and working in a store called MusiCraft on Oak Street a few doors west of the Esquire Theatre — a store that sold hi-fi and stereo equipment and records and tapes.

One of our customers was a man named Dick who, I was to learn, was working a Sunday shift at an FM station in the Edgewater Beach Hotel: WEBH (93.9). I told Dick of my interest in radio, and he invited me to come to the Edgewater Beach one Sunday and watch him work. I readily accepted his invitation.

Those were the early days of FM, and not many homes and few autos were equipped with FM receivers. Because of the small size of the listening audience, advertisers were reluctant to buy time in the medium, and the typical FM station was struggling to stay afloat.

WEBH was owned at the time by Buddy Black, who had been an announcer at WGN.

There really wasn’t much to see at WEBH. A small studio with a tiny adjoining office with one desk on the first floor and the transmitter on the top floor were all there was to the station’s physical plant.

The station was a "combo" operation; that is, the announcer ran his own board. He was a combination announcer and engineer. In fact, the announcer on duty was often the only person on the premises. This was far different from the way I envisioned a radio station to be.

Even for a simple record show, I would have thought there would be a music host (disc jockey), a staff announcer to introduce him, an engineer to operate the mikes and watch volume levels, a turntable operator to spin the records, and a director to see that all ran smoothly. All this in addition to an engineer on duty at the transmitter, which might be miles away.

Here there was only one man doing everything.

The format at WEBH was easy listening music: Mantovani, Roger Williams, Frank Sinatra, Doris Day, Joe Bushkin, Jonah Jones, etc. There were few commercials. The music was not programmed in advance, but was chosen by the announcer, who made up the program as he went along. The source of the music was LPs and 45s.

WEBH signed on the air at ten o’clock Sunday mornings, and when Dick and I arrived, one of the first things he did was turn on the transmitter filament current to allow the unit to warm up. This he did by remote control from the studio. Then he assembled a newscast with copy from the noisy UPI teletype machine in the corner of Buddy Black’s office and selected some music.

The day’s programming at WEBH was called Sunday at the Edgewater, Thursday at the Edgewater, etc. On Sunday afternoons, there was a program of recorded classical music called Edgewater Concert.

Dick worked Sundays from ten to six, playing the easy listening music from ten to two, and the classical from two to six. I spent the entire eight-hour shift with him that Sunday and greatly enjoyed the experience.

A week or so later, during one of his visits to MusiCraft, Dick asked me to make a tape recording of myself reading some news and some ad copy from a newspaper. I did as he asked and forgot about it.

A few days later, Dick returned to the store. This time he asked me whether I would care to come to WEBH again on Sunday to watch him work. I told him I would like that very much. "You’d better pay close attention," Dick said, "because the following Sunday you’ll be on your own."

Dick explained that he had grown tired of working the eight-hour shift; he preferred to do only the latter half, Edgewater Concert. He also told me that the tape I had made for him was, in fact, an audition tape, which he had played for Buddy Black and which Buddy had approved. Buddy had agreed to let me work the first four hours of the Sunday shift.

Dick drove me to the Edgewater Beach on my lunch hour one day soon after that in order that I might meet Buddy Black.

Buddy explained that, like the other part-timers at the station, I would not be paid. I was more than agreeable to work without pay — the experience I would gain would be invaluable. Buddy offered me a bit of advice which I’ve always followed: "You’re a nice fellow. When you’re on the air, just be yourself and people will like you." He added, "If you have something to say that’s clever, something that’s original, something that people have never heard before, say it. If not, put on a record."

I’ve been putting on records ever since.

As far as I knew, that four-hour Sunday shift without pay might be the only radio job I would ever have. I didn’t think about that. I was happy, working at MusiCraft five days a week and at WEBH on Sundays.

The WEBH studio was situated opposite the entrance to the hotel, and the announcer would sit behind the broadcast console facing a double-paned window which looked onto the corridor where people entering and leaving the hotel would pass.

The record library consisted of a couple of shelves of LPs on the back wall of the studio. I used to take my records from home to play on the air; they were in better condition than the station’s albums, and I had some LPs that the station didn’t have.

After a few months, Dick left the station and Buddy asked me to take over Edgewater Concert in addition to my own shift. He also began paying me, at the rate of two dollars an hour.

Then, as now, I loved classical music, and although my knowledge of it was far from comprehensive, I knew enough to squeak by.

One Sunday, at the end of my shift at six o’clock, I answered the phone to find Bill Florian, the founder and owner of WNIB (97.1 FM), a classical music station, on the line. He asked me whether I would be interested in working for his station. I told him that I certainly would be. He told me that there was no opening but that there might be one in the future and that he would keep me in mind.

Nothing happened in that regard for a while, but in the spring of 1960, I received a call from the station’s program director, Sonia Atzeff. The station was in a bind. The announcer who had recorded the announcements for that evening’s classical music program had furnished a tape that was technically defective and which could not be used on the air. The announcer was out of town, and Sonia asked me if I would come to the station and record the announcements.

The WNIB studio and office was in a suite on the sixth floor of the Chicago Federal Savings Building, 108 N. State — on what is now known as Block 37 — across from Marshall Field’s. I went there on my supper hour from MusiCraft.

Sonia gave me the music list for that night’s three-hour program — Music Eternal it was called — and asked me to introduce and back-announce each selection while an Ampex tape recorder took it all down.

One of the selections was listed as "Symphony No. 8 in F, Opus 92" by Beethoven. When I introduced the symphony, I called it Opus 93. Bill, who was standing behind me and reading over my shoulder, stopped the machine and interrupted: "It says Opus 92."

"It says Opus 92, but it should say Opus 93," I told him. "Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8 in F is Opus 93. His Opus 92 is the Symphony No. 7 in A."

Bill and Sonia looked at each other and then Sonia said, "I’ll check the record."

She stepped into the music library and returned a moment later. "He’s right," she said. She had typed "Opus 92" on the music list by mistake.

And so it was a minor typographical error that may have been a factor in my getting a job.

When I had finished my recording, Bill and Sonia led me out of the studio and into an adjoining office, where Bill said to me, "We want you to replace [our current announcer]."

That moment was one of the most memorable highlights of my life.

Bill told me something about the station. It had signed on the air a little less than five years earlier. The transmitter was situated on the top floor of the Midwest Hotel, at Madison and Hamlin. The format, as I knew, was essentially classical music. The station signed on each day at 5 p.m. and was on the air until midnight. (In those early days of FM, few FM stations could afford to be on the air more than a few hours a day.)

Most FM stations were operating on a shoestring, and WNIB was no exception. The station could not afford to pay an announcer to be on duty at all times that the station was on the air; therefore, it hired an announcer to work only a few hours a week recording the announcements. Either Bill or Sonia would then produce the program on the air, using the taped announcements and the music from LPs. To the listener, it sounded as though the announcer were live in the studio.

On my day off from MusiCraft I would go to WNIB and record the announcements (and the few commercials that the station had at the time). My pay was thirty dollars a week, which was not bad for a few hours’ work.

I was now heard on two Chicago radio stations: WNIB every evening of the week (on tape) and WEBH on Sundays (live). I also continued to work full-time at MusiCraft.

After a year or so of this, I began to feel that I needed an occasional day off, and I left WEBH. I will always gratefully remember, though, that it was Buddy Black who gave me my first job in radio.

The staff at WNIB was small: Bill, the owner; Sonia, the program director; an advertising salesman; a part-time engineer; Dick Buckley, who did a jazz record show six evenings a week, and I.

I enjoyed my years at WNIB in the early ’60s. My job at MusiCraft had become distasteful, but the time I spent working at WNIB seemed to compensate for the unpleasantness at the store.

But I would not be working at the store much longer. On November 26, 1963 I and a number of my fellow employees at MusiCraft were fired in an economy move. In just four days’ time our president, John F. Kennedy, had been assassinated and I had lost my job. It was a bad week all round.

I still had my job at WNIB, which was now paying sixty-five dollars a week, but I needed to work full-time. I considered trying to get a full-time job in radio, but I lacked the self-confidence. I was without a full-time job for several months.

Two friends of mine — a young married couple — offered me some advice: Send an audition tape to WAIT (820 AM), the only AM station that was playing what we considered to be "good" music.

I dismissed the suggestion. WAIT was one of the highest-rated stations in Chicago, and I felt sure that the management would have not the slightest interest in a person of my limited experience — even if there were an opening, and there most likely was not.

My friends urged, practically forced me to record an audition tape. I made the tape one day at WNIB. I was familiar with WAIT’s format, and I made an effort to sound like a WAIT announcer, emulating their style and using some of the phrases they used:

 We begin another quarter-hour of the World’s Most Beautiful Music with Percy Faith and the orchestra — the Tara theme from "Gone With The Wind" — music composed by Max Steiner. Then, try a little tenderness with Jane Morgan, as she sings the waltz "Fascination," accompanied by the Troubadors.

I read a couple of news items from the Chicago Daily News and a newspaper ad for Northwest Orient Airlines in addition to the musical introductions. I typed a short note and placed it in the package and prepared the package for mailing.

A day or so later, I met my friends for dinner after work. I showed them the package addressed to Radio Station WAIT and, as they watched, I dropped it into the mailbox at the corner of Rush and Oak.

"Now I hope you’re happy," I said.

 My friends were pleased to see that I had taken their advice. As for myself, I was happy to have pleased them, although I considered the effort a waste of postage, tape, and time.

A few days later, I received a call from WAIT’s program director: "We’ve received your tape and we like it very much. I wonder if you’d care to come and talk with us."

This was another of those never-to-be-forgotten moments. I could hardly believe that something so wonderful was happening to me.

Although WAIT’s business offices were downtown, in the Randolph Tower at 188 W. Randolph, the studios and transmitter were in Elmhurst, not far from the suburb where I lived.

I met with the program director, who told me that one of the announcers was leaving for a job at WSB in Atlanta, creating an opening at WAIT. The job went to me on the condition that I would resign from WNIB. I agreed to do this, as I needed a full-time job and WNIB was not in a position to put me on a full-time basis.

Even though I left WNIB, I did not sever my relationship with Bill and Sonia.

On July 7, 1964, I went to work full-time on the announcing staff of WAIT. I don’t believe I can convey to you the sense of how happy I was, but it may give you a hint when I tell you that I used to wake in the middle of the night and find myself wondering whether this was all a beautiful dream.

WAIT had a daytime license, authorizing the station to operate only between sunrise and sunset. But during the day, when the station was on the air, its 5,000-watt, non-directional signal was "in the air everywhere" in the Chicago area and beyond.

The station was remarkably successful. Its musical stock-in-trade comprised the best songs from the American musical theater, from motion pictures, and from Tin Pan Alley. We would not play a recording that had even a suggestion of a rock-and-roll beat. All of the music we played was tasteful, and in this regard WAIT was unique among Chicago’s AM outlets.

While the music was the station’s main attraction, there was more to the format than music. We had brief newsbreaks on the hour:

Stay tuned for news flashes as they occur. Our next scheduled newsbreak at three o’clock — but when the news breaks out, WAIT breaks in.

After the news, and just before we began our music for the hour, we would have what we called a mood intro, a bit of purple prose with appropriate musical background designed to fit the season of the year, the time of day, or some aspect of the Chicago area. For example:

Dawn breaks in Chicagoland. The summer sun seems to emerge from the calm blue surface of Lake Michigan. As it rises, its rays glance off the tops of the highrises on Lake Shore Drive. The sunbeams reach farther and farther to the west, soon bathing the entire metropolis in golden light. The city awakens — to the World’s Most Beautiful Music... on WAIT.

There were stock market reports on the half-hour, and rush-hour traffic reports. We had other features, such as the Kal-Kan Pet Patrol. Help us locate these lost or missing pets. And there were the daily salutes to the Businessman of the Day and the First Lady of the Day.

When we introduced, or back-announced, a quarter-hour of music, we always did so with a recorded harp playing in the background.

The beautiful music format was by far WAIT’s most successful one, but as the public’s taste in music changed to favor rock-and-roll and "adult contemporary" and as FM stations began to surpass the AM outlets in terms of audience size, the management felt that a format change was in order.

In fact, while I was employed at WAIT, I saw seven formats come and go, along with seven general managers and seven program directors. A couple of times, the entire air staff was fired — except for me. Somehow I survived for twenty-one and a-half years — not, it seems to me, because of the quality of my work, but because of my reliability and conscientiousness.

At the start of my employment at WAIT, the principal owner and managing director was Maurice Rosenfield. In 1979 the station’s ownership changed and I became unhappy. I remained until 1986, when I resigned.

A couple of years later WAIT went out of business. The 820 spot on the dial was subsequently taken over by another station, and still another station, at 850 on the dial, applied for, and was granted, the call letters WAIT.

It had been a long ride for me at WAIT, and, while the station was owned by Mr. Rosenfield, a wonderful ride.

Now, at fifty-six years of age, I had in effect retired, although I didn’t like to be referred to as a retiree — it made me feel old.

I had met Chuck Schaden in 1975, when he began a series of five-minute old-time radio clips on WAIT. The feature, When Radio Was Radio, was sponsored by North West Federal Savings (It’s North West Federal Savings Time, Sixty-Three Hours a Week.) Via recording, Chuck introduced the clip each day and I delivered the commercial. When Radio Was Radio was on WAIT for two and a-half years.

Beginning in the summer of ‘84, Chuck was on WAIT Monday through Friday evenings from, 7:00 to 11:00 with Radio Theatre, devoted, of course, to old-time radio. This series ran for a year and a-half.

During this time, I began writing and recording commercials for Metro Golden Memories, a nostalgia shop Chuck owned, as the "Mighty Metro Art Players." Chuck had not asked me to do this; I did it on my own, for the fun of it. But Chuck used the spots on the air for several years, until he sold the store.

Sometime in 1986, Chuck approached me about subbing for him one Saturday on Those Were The Days on WNIB. I was honored to sit in for Chuck, and it seems that I didn’t goof up too badly, because the following year Chuck appointed me to be his permanent guest host.

So I wasn’t completely retired, after all.

Shortly after I had quit WAIT, my old friend Sonia Atzeff — she was now Mrs. Bill Florian and the general manager of WNIB — asked me if I might like to return to the station as a substitute announcer, filling in for the regular announcers when they were ill or on vacation.

The state of FM radio — and WNIB — had changed for the better since I had left WNIB twenty years before. WNIB had moved into its own building just northwest of the Loop; the transmitter was now atop the Standard Oil building (now the Aon Building), one of the tallest buildings in the city. The station was now broadcasting in multiplex stereo and was on the air 24 hours a day. And the announcers were no longer taping their announcements, but working live on the air.

I went to work for WNIB – for the second time – now as a part-time substitute announcer, in 1986. In 1996, a permanent shift opened up two days a week, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and I worked that shift in addition to sitting in when another of the announcers took a day off.

That part-time work at WNIB was a job that I loved. It was a pleasure to present to our listeners the classical music of which I was so fond, and I much enjoyed the camaraderie of the station’s small staff. I was happy in my semi-retirement.

But nothing is forever. In February 2001 the Florians sold WNIB and the new owners turned the station into a rock-and-roll outlet. Needless to tell, there was no place for me in that operation.

Nor, indeed, was there a place for Those Were The Days. But Chuck Schaden was able to find a comfortable spot for the program on WDCB (90.9 FM), the Public Radio station in Glen Ellyn in Chicago’s western suburbs, operated by College of DuPage

. It was at this time that Chuck invited me to work on Those Were The Days not only as his substitute when he took time off, but also as a co-host with him every Saturday. Of course, I accepted Chuck’s invitation, and I now look forward to each Saturday afternoon as the high point of my week.

And that brings us up to date. How much longer will I continue to work in radio? Who knows? But I will share this thought with you: I feel sure that when I do finally quit, I will quit because I have to, not because I want to.