It was the winter of 1959 in Ithaca, New York. It wouldn't have mattered what town the college was in; I felt grayer and colder and blanker than the dirty white that swirled around me as I grumbled down the hill to the class I should have loved. It was supposed to teach you how to write, produce and direct for radio and television, but everything I was being taught had been surpassed by what I could see and hear any day on the television in the dorm lounge and the radio in my dorm room.
Not that it was really a dorm, not yet. Just before the semester began, the college bought and started to refurbish a former hospital halfway up the hill from the classrooms in town. It still had the hospital smell -- of Lysol that couldn't mask the sickness in the air. This is where the townspeople used to come to get well, or to die. It wasn't making me feel any better, that was for sure.
It was only a few months ago when I arrived here, after a bus ride that right at the start promised to seem even longer than its scheduled four hours, when the driver yelled at my cigar-smoking father. Dad was a hard working factory man, employed for the 25 years since the depression, and now he was using his hard-earned money to help his only son get the first college education in the family. Second try, too, because his namesake had already been asked to leave the local men's college after two years, because my grades were a disgrace.
Why in the world did I think I could master chemistry and German, the scientific language of the 1950's? I didn't know how to study, and if I had, I wouldn't have wanted to learn to be a chemical engineer. It just sounded good.
Now I was here, in this hilly cold town in central New York, because somebody told me they had a good Radio/TV school. I had a cousin who was writing for a radio station and it seemed glamorous and fun. But what was I learning in this town? This town where people -- the ones who sold them things -- were the only ones who tolerated the students. Even the teachers seemed to resent them.
Why was I here? My own teacher told me that my class project -- a TV production featuring my roommate lip-synching to a swinging Sinatra recording, and a cigarette commercial that was supposed to have a burning cigarette in the ashtray but I forgot to have my crew light it -- was “insipid.”
I looked up the meaning of insipid and promptly tried to forget it. I never would. I didn't know it, but this would be one day when I would be glad I went to class, instead of devoting myself to my unofficial major, darts, or my minor in eight ball.
I was about to learn my first two important life lessons: 1. how to get a job in the business when you had no experience, and 2. how to get experience in the business when you had no job. It came from a visiting lecturer from NBC radio in New York. He was a flashy salesman, with an eye patch, and his name was Matthew “Joe” Culligan. He ran the weekend radio service called Monitor, and it was state of the art for the late 50's, with news reports and feature stories from all over the world. And Culligan had it piped in to the classroom for his lecture. Very impressive.
But what was most impressive was his practical advice. He had a way for the students to get a job when they didn't have experience, and at the least, to get some experience that could lead to a job. It was so simple, it was brilliant.
“Go the radio or TV station you want to work at,” he said, “and offer to work for two weeks, for nothing.” His reasoning was that no one can turn down something for nothing. It gets you in the door. They get enough time to assess your capabilities, you get enough time to learn the ropes. If they like what they see, they might hire you. And if they don't, you've had two weeks of experience that you can put on your resume.
So I left the Radio/TV school at the end of that semester, and tried what I had learned. I knew there was an opening at WPTR, a 50,000 watt rock & roll radio station I'd been listening to when I was in high school. I made them the offer they couldn't refuse, and they took me up on it, offering me $25 a week to cover expenses. I had just turned nineteen, I was beginning my career. And the stories started.