Howard's Story, Part 1

Howard's Story (Part 1)

by Howard Dicus

My first contact with the old UPI Audio came in 1975 when, in my fifth years in radio, I took my third radio job, afternoon anchor for WAVA Newsradio in Washington, D.C. When I first got there WAVA ran the UPI hourly newscasts and, even after the management shifted to an all locally-anchored format, we used plenty of UPI Audio cuts and the hourly business reports.

We ran pieces by Jack Vail, Ed Kerins, Mike Aulabaugh, Merilee Cox, Gene Gibbons, Michael O'Neill, Denis Gulino, Tom Foty, Craig Smith, Don Fulsom, and my personal favorite, because he wrote so well and read his writing so compelling, Pye Chamberlayne.

I filed a report to New York once and Jim Lounsbury ran it on a newscast that I still have a tape of. The report is nothing special but it was the first time I was heard on any radio network.

Pye phoned one night to ask if we had run a certain report because he had friends visiting and they wanted to hear it. "I just ran it," I said. "But I'll run it again for you. It's a great piece." And I did, explaining why on the air.

Hey, what do you want? I was 22 years old.

I met Pye in 1977 when we both covered the Hanafi Muslim siege, the seizure by local Islamic extremists, or what passed for that in those days, of the District Building (Washington's city hall), the International B'Nai Brith, and the Islamic Center, a mosque.

WAVA got AP Radio and began using the two audio services side by side. UPI had much better reporters, but AP was superior in every other respect including audio quality, number of cuts fed, and number of stories covered with sound. We told UPI executives, figuring they would want to know, but they kept telling us we were wrong.

"You're forgetting that they number their sports cuts in the same numerical sequence as their news cuts," one of them said.

"We know," I said. "And you're forgetting that they have separate numbering sequences for agriculture cuts and regional cuts and we use some of them. I'm telling you, they cover more stories and put out more cuts." UPI always seemed to run huge feeds of Michael Keats Q&As from Beirut while providing very little coverage of really good domestic stories. And when President Ford went to China they ran scores of pieces daily while sending only a single Al Rossiter report when RNA was synthesized.

The last time we renewed, it was because they promised a better quality audio feed commensurate with what AP had. As soon as we signed they went back to the old telephone line. I led a movement on the staff to drop UPI in favor of AP. We did.

In late 1977, WAVA was sold to a company that dropped the all-news format and laid everyone off except one amiable part-timer named Michael Del Colliano who was related to the publisher of Inside Radio. The station went to an album rock format.

I went to AP Radio as a temporary fill-in anchor and editor. I also got part-time work as a weekend overnight newscaster at Mutual News. Mutual used me once or twice a month. AP Radio would use me full-time for weeks in a row and then have nothing for me but stringer assignments for a month after that. The most work I got was filling in for their agriculture editor John Holliman, who had accumulated two months of vacation time because no staffers wanted to do the AgReports. I found them interesting. AP sent me to the White House on the Friday before Christmas. It was the only time I reported from the White House. I broke a very minor story by finding an agriculture policy official to interview, knowing things to ask him about from having filled in for Holliman. In retrospect I can't believe that there was a time when a second- or third-tier advisor could be coaxed into giving an on-tape interview in the White House. This was in the Carter administration.

In June 1978, the same month I got married, both APRadio and Mutual offered me full-time work. But at AP it was still temporary, while Mutual offered a full-time newscaster position. The catch was that I had to start immediately. I left AP with abject apologies instead of notice. Bill McCloskey, then number two at AP Radio, forgave me for it maybe a dozen years later. At Mutual I put in a full day of work only to have the guy who hired me take me to the Crystal City Underground for a Diet Pepsi and tell me I wasn't hired yet after all. He said he needed approval from the network president C. Edward Little, didn't have it yet, and pleaded with me to be patient. He gave me a tape editor job to tide me over. But tape editors made half of what newscasters did. And the newscaster job never came through. Little had done more than not yet approve it. He had flatly told my boss no more newscasters from Washington, start hiring people from around the country. The opening that had been given to me went instead to Paul Henderson from WIOD Miami. I should have filed suit. I would have won, because I worked a full day in full view of everybody and was even introduced as the new anchor. But I've never sued anybody. After months of working freelance and sometimes being idle, and with my wedding only days away, what I mainly wanted was a damn job. I wound up staying at Mutual for seven years, and sometimes even anchoring (I did the last newscast with old theme and the last regular newscast with a live engineer, though the longer shows had engineers much longer.) I was promoted into management by Tom O'Brien, who told me I wasn't network anchor material. Later I was comforted to hear that he had previously made similar statements to Charles Osgood and Ted Koppel.

In 1984, Mutual cut 50 positions and I was laid off. I was sick of management and wanted to get back on the air again. Jim Bohannon, by then a powerful figure at Mutual, and his then-wife Camille, then an anchor at UPI, jointly recommended me to Lou Giserman and Tom Foty, the New York and Washington bureau chiefs for UPI Audio. I was offered a job at UPI on the day of, and indeed during, an eclipse of the sun that visible in Washington, D.C. When I got home there was a message on the machine with a job offer from the local oldies station. I had told my wife I would take the first on-air job offered me even if it was local. That's how close I came to working for XTRA-104 instead of UPI.

My first experiences at UPI were like those of many other people. I was hired as a part-timer but never worked fewer than five days in any week. Yet for months the computer kept paying me for two days a week. I finally had to grieve the matter. Lou Giserman, by now in Washington and clearly the news director no matter what his title was, made a halfhearted effort to tell me that I wasn't ingratiating myself to him by filing a grievance but clearly understood.

My training was supposed to be as follows: watch the morning anchors for one day, engineer some newscasts the next day and maybe deliver some newscasts while someone else engineered, and then we'd see if I could manage for real on the third day. Training me was Camille Bohannon. She had me doing two newscasts the first day. Something bizarre happened on the first one. The anchor control board had a digital clock and a digital timer that always ran and reset to zero when a cart was fired. The two readouts looked identical. Reading the wrong one, I thought I was running behind, adlibbed to shorten a couple of readers, and took the fill minute 15 seconds early. During a voicer in the fill minute, Camille, who was running my carts, told me what I had done. "Yikes!" I said. "Okay, I'll leave two re-entry windows, one a minute after I began, and one 15 seconds later where it ought to be for automated stations." And I did. I was afraid I was going to be fired but Camille apparently told Giserman what I did and they agreed I probably had what it took to what for UPI. But they didn't know for sure until the next morning. UPI had just moved its audio operations to Washington, and many of the New York-based anchors chose not to move. That's why there was work for me. We were still doing some newscasts out of New York, though, as the guys who wouldn't move worked out their last days. One of them had a problem with his headphones, thought he was off the air, said something profane, and stormed out of the booth. The general manager for the radio operation said, "That's the last newscast from New York!" So on my second day, when I should have been doing just a couple newscasts, I did nine hourlies in a row.

Welcome to UPI!

(more to come)

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