End of UPI Radio in 1999

The following article by Tom Foty appeared in the Sep.15, 1999 issue of Radio World, published bi-weekly by IMAS Publishing. Posted with permission of the publisher.

UPI Radio: 40 Years Of Sound

WASHINGTON -- It was the network created with and held together by leader and splicing tape. It was also the last network, radio or TV, to report the end of the Vietnam war from the scene.

It started out as UPI Audio in 1958, became the UPI Radio Network in 1983 and followed the NBC, Mutual and RKO-Unistar networks into broadcasting's graveyard just before the expiration of the century it helped document.

A quarter century ago, Americans heard a President of the United States resign his office. Many radio listeners heard that history on some of the 1000-plus stations carrying the audio news coverage of United Press International.

Almost to the day, twenty five years later, UPI resigned itself as a broadcast news service.

The final words on the 40-year old news network were read by Craig Smith, one of its first newscasters when top-of-the-hour broadcasts were added to an actuality service by UPI in 1971:

"This is the final broadcast from UPI Radio," he said.
"United Press International is getting out of the broadcast  news business
and has sold its contracts to Associated Press Radio.

For those of us suddenly out of work, it's been fun.
We feel UPI Radio has done its job well overall, even as we struggled with
fewer and fewer resources.
So we sign off now with smiles, memories, a few tears ... but no regrets."

Smith was speaking for the hundreds of radio news people who worked at the little "smoke and mirrors" network in the four decades of its existence.

Little publicized, the service was a kind of "stealth network," rarely mentioning its own name, which did not even include the word "radio" until 1983. It was marketed as a news service ... not a commercial network.

At a time when "network radio" meant the "big three" of CBS, NBC and ABC, plus the Mutual Broadcasting System, UPI structured itself differently. It sold its service for cash, not commercial time. Its emphasis was on the sound of news, not the sound of entertainment or commerce. And for most of its existence, it made little attempt to establish a "brand identity."

UPI correspondents signed off their pieces without any network identification, allowing local stations to leave listeners with the unstated impression that it was the far-flung newsgathering staff of the local carrier-current college station, or the small market 500-W daytimer or the 50 kW "Top 40" rocker that was deployed at world hotspots in the interest of its listeners.

For a long time, that bit of sleight-of-ear worked. Without "network lockouts" that would have signified market exclusivity or rating diary confusion, UPI reporters could be heard on multiple stations in the same market, even on stations in direct competition with one another .. made simple by the printed "billboards" that ran on UPI's broadcast wires, identifying every numbered "cut" of actuality or correspondent report.

UPI Audio was actually a partial outgrowth of United Press' attempt to get into the television news business at the dawn of the TV era. With 20th Century-Fox, it started a newsfilm syndication service, UP Movietone, in 1948. After United Press acquired the International News Service in 1958, adding the "I" to "UP," that became "UPI Movietone" and later still, UPITN. While the rest of UPI was based at the Daily News Building in New York, the new audio service was originally housed with the newsfilm operation.

Audio editor Phil Bangsberg joined from the film service in 1960 and recalled the early operation:

"A client would phone in, give his ID (for billing) and be dropped into the running tape. He simply waited until it recycled, then rang off. Clients were notified of audio availability by an AUDIO BULLETIN on the wire. The charge (per cut) wasn't much, and the novel service drew a consistently strong response. " As we got more ambitious," said Bangsberg, "we did live remotes. Those sorts of things were offered both as live feeds and as excerpted cuts.

"High-tech, it wasn't," says Bangsberg. "We had two Wollensak tape recorders and 10 phone lines. The cuts were recorded on small reels with long leaders each end. Each leader had a narrow metallic strip pasted on. When it hit a sensor in the Wollensak, it automatically rewound and played again."

At about the same time, UPI gained a temporary competitor doing much the same thing. So UPI bought out Radio Press International and brought over many of the key RPI staff. Out of that mix evolved the national audio service.

Some of the ex-RPI people played key roles, including Pye Chamberlayne, who would spend most of the next 37 years with UPI and some engineers, one of whom, Frank Sciortino, would later run the whole operation from New York. In the late 60's, UPI had another temporary competitor when the large Metromedia radio group formed its own news service. Chamberlayne briefly left UPI to head its Washington bureau. But Metromedia did not stay in the field long and sold its affiliate contracts to UPI much the same way UPI just did with AP.

At its peak, UPI Audio was a major force in radio news. Its material was appearing on more than 1,200 radio stations, including most CBS, Bonneville, RKO- General, and Metromedia properties.

Later, foreign broadcasters and even other networks sometimes subscribed: state networks, RKO, NPR and Bloomberg. The audio quality might have been a bit cheesy, mostly 3KHz "voice grade," but the quality and the quantity of the material were not.

Some of the network's most memorable broadcasts came from Vietnam. In one, Roger Norum was rolling his tape recorder in the field as his colleague, UPI photographer Charles Eggleston was fatally shot by a sniper. Seven years later, UPI's Alan Dawson filed the final broadcast reports from Saigon as the helicopters were taking off from atop the U.S. embassy. Dawson's reports aired on Walter Cronkite's CBS TV special the night of the city's fall.

Terrorists and hostages

Pye Chamberlayne so angered Lyndon Johnson with his mid-60s White House coverage that the president made an overt if unsuccessful, effort to get UPI to fire him.

Audio GM Pete Willett was arrested several times when his detailed eyewitness account of the terrorist hostage drama at the 1972 Munich Olympics was transmitted back into Germany. Dressed in a track warmup suit and believed to be a competing athlete, he got himself into a position with clear line of sight of the terrorists and the hostages.

Rob Navias ad-libbed for hours alone in UPI's memorable coverage of the Challenger disaster, recycling information from suitcases full of briefing materials he had memorized.

UPI used a single phone line, held open for four days to transmit audio, text and pictures from a cramped hotel room in Guyana after the 1978 Peoples Temple mass murder/suicide. The radio reporter returned home without a hotel bill on his expense account ... the result of using the floor instead ... to "downhold expenses."

And it was all being done with a skeleton staff with decades-old equipment in competition with network staffs five times as large. New York headquarters would be staffed by two people or even one. Weekends would have Washington staffed by one reporter and London by another.

The equipment? Headquarters had two reconditioned vacuum tube Altec-Lansing consoles and a half dozen mid-1950s Ampex decks which had come from RPI. The Ampexes would stay in service until the early 1980s. UPI was not known for not getting its money's worth.

What New York did have in abundance however was paper leader tape. It was used to separate news material interrupted by manually spliced "beeptones" which preceeded every cut. The reels were archived, but UPI lost much of its library through the decades and the splices are breaking on what little of its history remains.

The key to the long run was the multiple-affiliate presence in major markets and UPI's ability to bundle the service with its broadcast wire. The AP had unsuccessfully supported the efforts of UPI competitors RPI and Metromedia in the 1960's by carrying their billboards.

In 1974, facing a difficult job of competing with UPI's wire/audio package, it went into the same business. It copied the UPI service to a remarkable degree and offered it at sometimes drastically lower rates.

A few years later, both services faced a threat from a now-defunct commercial network, behind in its wire payments and in heated disputes with the parent wire agencies. In retaliation, it petitioned the FCC to formally declare UPI Audio and AP Radio "networks" in the regulatory sense. That would have meant the elimination of the multi-affiliate service that was the wire audio services' bread and butter.

The FCC ended up declaring them "networks," but eliminated the ban on multiple station contracts.

A changing marketplace

Just as UPI was upgrading its audio quality and product by adding staff in Washington and relaunching long-dormant radio bureaus in LA and Chicago (later Dallas and Miami too), the marketplace was changing.

AP's lower rates for big station groups were having an impact on UPI's ability to hold on to those customers at its higher rates. Then came more competition from new radio networks: RKO (which, in fact, subscribed to the audio service), additional "demographically targeted" networks from CBS, NBC and Mutual; even a radio network from CNN. Perhaps most crucially, the FCC did away with public service requirements that kept news product on many stations.

UPI's ownership change in 1982 from the Scripps company to two Tennessee businessmen soon brought an imminent threat to the re-named UPI Radio Network. The haphazard and poorly-planned move of the company's editorial headquarters from New York to Washington resulted in millions of dollars of unanticipated costs and a major financial crisis in 1984.

UPI Radio hung on, despite threats to repossess unpaid equipment.

The new owners were forced out in bankruptcy, but UPI's downward spiral continued. At one point, it was under the control of Earl Brian, chairman of cable's soon-to-be bankrupt Financial News Network. UPI Radio was put up for sale in the early 1990's, but survived again as Brian's financial empire collapsed. He was later convicted of fraud.

Since 1984, UPI has undergone two bankruptcy reorganizations, frequent ownership and management changes with different managements stressing different kinds of services. Its current ownership is made of a group of Saudi Arabian investors who bought the company's assets out of its second bankruptcy.

Even as UPI was retrenching as a news service, its radio network and its broadcast wire continued their transmissions until the lights were finally put out, quite literally, by radio editor Rod Bower in mid- August.

At the news conference announcing the sale of UPI's remaining 400 broadcast contracts to the one- time arch-rival Associated Press, current UPI CEO Arnaud de Borchgrave made it clear he had little faith in the broadcast services United Press inaugurated. Referring to the broadcast wire started in 1935 by UP (not yet UPI) when the AP refused to anger newspapers by doing likewise, de Borchgrave said "what was brilliant pionering work on the part of UPI prior to World War II, with radio news, is now a static quantity and, sofar as I'm concerned, certainly doesn't fit into my plans for the future."

His plans for the future call for the UPI name on an Internet-delivered paperless newsletter service, focusing on technical and diplomatic specialties, rather than general news.

The UPI Radio Network, nee UPI Audio, ceased operations at 12:32 PM EDT Thursday, August 19, 1999. Two minutes later, AP material was flowing on the UPI broadcast circuits. The AP says it was approached by UPI to take over its contracts, but not any of its services or personnel.

Throughout the years, the path from UPI Audio/Radio led staffers on some unusual detours. One, Art McAloon, became a comedy writer for Johnny Carson; Brian Lamb went on to create C- SPAN. Jim Russell did the same with public radio's popular business program "Marketplace."

Space reporter Navias fulfilled his dream and joined NASA. Others moved into TV, including a son of actor Gregory Peck. But many stayed in radio and former UPI Audio/Radio staffers later moved into management positions at the other networks; some are at CBS and ABC now. And then there were some who left ... and returned.

Thirty two years after starting with UPI and twenty three years after leaving it, Don Fulsom was back covering another presidential scandal. He was in his White House broadcast booth in the days before the final shutdown and had to end a nostalgic conversation saying "I've got to feed some cuts."

Three days later, he would feed the last news cut UPI would ever transmit:

65 :35 V Wh Hse (UPI's Don Fulsom) President Clinton is celebrating his
birthday and preparing to fly to Massachusetts to start a nearly two-week
family vacation

Paraphrasing "Naked City," an old TV cop show:

There were about two million UPI Audio news cuts

This has been one of them.


(Tom Foty has spent more than twenty years in network radio news including twelve years with UPI, 1972 to 1984.)