Willett's History of UPI Audio

Here's Unipresser Pete Willett"s history of UPI Audio:


UPI's Audio service actually had several starts.

In the early 1950s Ed Allen (C. Edmonds Allen to be exact) tried to start an audio service at the suggestion of a number of leading broadcasters who were upset with the power of the networks. Allen had a number of major stations lined up, but Earl Johnson shot the idea down. Then in the fall of 1957 Phil Ellis, news director of WPTF in Raleigh, NC, brought Bill Shires, Bob Gately and crew a wire recorder and showed us how to use it and how to hook it up to a phone line. The idea being that when staffers had a good story they would answer questions about it for recording, likewise with stringers who had a good story, and these reporter actualities were fed each afternoon to about 12 stations on a conference call. Among the initial clients: WWNC, Asheville; WSJS, Winston-Salem; WBT, Charlotte; WBIG, Greensboro; WDNC, Durham; and of course WPTF.

Note that this was strictly recycling or re-use of existing reporting. This "service" proved amazingly helpful in radio wire sales and even helped us in the newspaper area as well since staffers became better known thanks to the exposure they were getting. We just about ran AP out of the state in the broadcast business and pulled even with them in the newspaper end. So in 1958 Hig (Bill Higginbotham, one of the greats) came down from NX where he was running UPI Movietone to take a look. He talked to Shires, to Phil and several other clients and noted that the Los Angeles bureau was doing the same thing. (I thought he said Vernon Scott was running it.) RA knew nothing about the HC operation and I doubt HC knew anything about RA's and I do not know who was first. (WCS always claimed HC was and WCS was never wrong.) I suspect the HC operation was far more professional than ours, given Rieger's reputation.

Hig then started a national audio arm of newsfilm, using edited versions of the sound track from newsfilm clips. Again strictly a recycle/re-use product. The Chicago newsfilm buo (Paul Sisco) was involved in Hig's audio operation, as was Washington newsfilm. Hig was a former European division news manager and well aware of its enormous newsside talent. I know he was using the stars like Grigg and Shapiro and Thaler and Musel in newsfilm which would have meant audio spinoffs of all four as noted by Phil Bangsberg. Plus Hig had some real heavyweights in newsfilm and was one hell of a newsman himself.

Time passes: Sometime in '62 a new NX exec comes to HX, RWB has a lunch for him, and the fellow confides to our group (I'm then at HXP) how he is going to save the UP a lot of money by getting rid of this loser audio, selling the operation to Metromedia. I later filled in HCT on how much our pissant RA audio operation had helped broadcast sales in North Carolina and how it would be a hell of a note if the real audio was dumped before it ever even got to the central division. Cal agreed. So Jep Cadou mounts an audio sales campaign in Indiana with the help of HX newssider Bill Reilly. At the time audio had only 32 clients and the network extended only as far west as Cleveland. (I believe in the newsfilm heyday it was up to around 70 or 80).

In two weeks time we picked up 28 contracts and sent them in NX in a bundle, doubling the audio client list and getting the network as far west as Moline. That scuttled the sale-to-Metromedia negotiations. It also led to one of the better lines about audio. The Jepper, as Cadou was fondly known, was in an elevator coming down from the eighth sales call (and sale) that day. He was leaning back against the elevator wall and was just about out on his feet: his head slumped over and his always present cigar beginning to burn a hole in his tie. (Jep was then about 70.) I nudged him: "I don't think your heart's really in this, Jepper."

"Oh, no kiddo," he said, shaking himself awake and putting out the smoldering tie, "I love to sell this stuff, if I just didn't have to listen to it." (Jep, one of Indiana's greatest reporters and owner of the political beat, called audio "our shoutin'-down-a-rainbarrel service.")

Time passes, have moved from newspix to financial to communications and am in NX helping Jimmy Darr set up the Unistox financial services and then IS&R. Sometime in I believe '64, HRT and Mims called me in and moved me to audio. It hadn't done anything since that sales push in Indiana and Illinois, was losing business and there were rumors that AP was getting ready to jump into the field.

So I moved to NXA. Huge change from the period Bangsberg describes. No longer any connection with newsfilm, no Chicago or HC involvement, never heard of RA's or HC's efforts, was an empire unto itself (no re-use or recycling now). Mostly kids and none with any real news experience. A closet operation almost totally separate from UPI except for being on the same floor. The NXA leadership had no connection with UPI, did not want to use UPI reporters (voices weren't good enough), preferred using only radio stringers, wished they had been sold to Metromedia (and of course the guy who tried to make that sale continued playing his political games). They also were full of the same old horse shit I heard when I first moved from newsside to pictures and later from pictures to DP: "You don't understand, this is different, we're special." Well, story telling is story telling and whether you do it with images or words or sound, it is still story telling. Editing with a razor blade is no different than editing with a pencil or shaded light. (Gombrich's "Art & Illusion" still the bible for all three.)

I found, for example, that NXA no longer used Henry Shapiro out of Moscow (bad accent), or Karol Thaler out of London (bad accent). Good grief. These two are giants. Baker Marsh, the editor of CDN, is on record saying no one, not CDN, not AP, not even the august New York Times, can compete against the combination of Shapiro and Thaler on major diplomatic news in Europe. Grigg was also verboten; and the NXA management bitched constantly about having to use Smitty. I couldn't believe it.

Then (as now) the airwaves were saturated with dulcet tones blathering on without having the foggiest idea of what they were talking about; and only rarely would one hear a voice that did know what it was talking about. And here we had a bloody army of folks who knew what they were talking about and wouldn't use them because they had accents or didn't sound right. And you wonder why even now I get pissed? No wonder the place was down to only 50-odd clients and losing its shirt.

Fortunately, amidst this bad joke, there were some gems. There was a crazy deskman in NXA who had a bottle problem, a cock problem, a getting to work on time problem, but who was a natural-born news genius, Art McAloon. There was a guy in WAA, John Chambers, who knew more about Washington politics than anyone else in the business and already had the respect of pros like Frank Eleazer, Stu Hensley and Smitty. And there was Don MacKay, a pro's pro who had forgotten more about news and broadcast news than the rest of the operation combined knew. Don had been a standout newsside staffer and buo manager in Europe, had helped set up radio free europe and had run RKO General's foreign operation. (There were other good ones, such as Ed Ingles, but those three were the nuggets.)

While the then-NXA operation had been refusing to use UPI staffers (and usually forgetting to pay those it did use), the London operation was making heavy use of them to great effect in a daily world news program it produced for the SABC. (A program which more than paid for the entire LNA operation, incidentally.)

No attention was paid to Newspix. These were the folks you wanted to know if you wanted to have any idea what was coming up (the newspix futures book always was far superior to everyone else's). Besides, newspix was far better at tracking folks down, a skill audio needed.

Thus in a few short years, we had gone from being an attempt to get more value out of our existing reportorial assets to being a private, self-serving empire interested only in itself.

Reverse course. We began making more and more use of Shapiro, of Thaler, of Joe Grigg, of Dick Growald, of Nate Gibson (talk about accents), of Peggy Polk, of Dick Longworth, plus a continuing great crew of newssiders in Vietnam and on and on. But it was like pulling teeth. And very inconsistent until McAloon was put in charge of the desk.

Sales began to pick up, we got audio into Denver and were on the verge of getting it onto the west coast when another India-Pakistan battle broke out and MacKay and company completely stole the show (I think it was John Barton who was the hero on this one). This was the final straw for Vic Minihan, the fellow running Radio Press International (RPI). The next day, RPI owner Peter Strauss tried to call Bubbles, Dick Fales fortunately intercepted the call, realized immediately what it would be about, set up a meeting that afternoon with Strauss. I was in Seattle and Mims was somewhere away from New York (Dallas, I think), but Dick got hold of Mims, got a go ahead, and got the deal closed that same night while I was flying back. That morning Minihan and RPI editor Vic Rattner told me that as long as audio operated as a separate entity RPI could compete with it on an equal footing, but that once Audio began using the full UPI staff, "we knew we were done for."

The beauty of the RPI acquisition was that while on paper it appeared a take-over, it really was a merger in the best sense in that we hired the entire RPI engineering staff (Pen Stevens, Bill Wilson, Frank Sciortino), purchased most of the RPI equipment, and adopted most of the RPI transmission procedures (far superior to ours). The deal was a great one for both sides: we paid nothing down, but 50% of any income from RPI clients for two years. Thus Minihan and Rattner had every incentive to encourage their clients to accept our service and we had no risk (more important, no need to go to the S-H Board for financing). For all that, thank REF. RPI, incidentally, wound up getting far more than its original asking price.

Now sales really took off and so did our use of the general UPI staff.

When the six day war broke out we didn't send a beginner "because he was an audio staffer," we sent Bob Musel. Sure we had to show him how to use the new (small) tape recorder -- but Musel was one of the world's best reporters and he gave us far and away the best coverage. (That was thanks to MacKay learning Bob was available; but I still had to over-rule the NXA editor to get it done. Imagine, wanting to send a beginner because he is "staff" instead of a Musel??? It still boggles the mind.)

Look at it from a business standpoint: do we try out sugarthroat the networks. Or do we out-content them, put on people who know what they are talking about regardless of how they sound. There was no way we could out sugarthroat them, for chrissakes. But outcontenting them was easy: they all (except ABC) were like the wizard of oz -- big, big voice but when you opened the curtain there was nothing there.

Biggest uproar came with the GOP convention renominating Nixon for his second term in MH Beach. It was going to be a non-story convention. No way Nixon wasn't going to get the nomination and the Dems already had committed suicide in Chicago. It was certain dullesville.

So we hired Lowery Bowman, then the editor-owner of a tiny weekly in Abingdon, VA, to work for audio at the Miami Beach convention to give us the cowshit & barnyard view of the goings on; sort of a what it was was football approach to politics. Bowman had never even seen a tape recorder. But he had been one of the best writers ever employed by UP, he had covered all the beats in Washington, was not about to be awed by any of the politicos, was a great newsman with a great eye, and he had a fresh, outside of the beltway, view.

It bloody worked. He did 10-15 pieces a day and WOR, WGN, KSFO, etc. used everyone of them repeatedly throughout the day. (So, for that matter, did just about every other audio client). The NXA editor was aghast. The final blow came when he called home about the third night of the convention and his wife noted that all she ever heard was "that Virginia hillbilly you have down there."

As for the overall approach? It wasn't long before you would see Lou Carr coming back into audio looking for McAloon for help on a story; or Ted Majeski coming up to audio looking for McAloon for help finding someone. That is what is known as credibility among your peers. And when I finally failed to hang on to John Chambers in face of a rival's pay offer Eleazer tore me a new rectum. That's when I knew audio had arrived. (Painful learning.)

The fact that MacKay could operate equally well as a newsside buo manager or as audio foreign manager (and later as UPI's General Manager for Canada); that Dawson could move from audio to newsside leadership, that John Burnett & Bill Reilly could move back and forth between audio and newsside, that Ted Shields & Jim Anderson could do the same: that is what made audio successful. When it was in its own little shell claiming to be special, it wasn't worth a pisshole in the snow. When it began to make use of the huge pool of talent within the news&pixsides (and to begin to give something back to newsside instead of just taking), that's when it took off. You have to get credibility in your own house before you're going to get it outside.

And these days had some real funners. LBC-CBS-Kuralt for example:

The Brits finally opened the door a crack for commercial radio and awarded licenses for two stations, one a rocker (Capital) and the other an all-newser, LBC (London Broadcasting Corporation). The two execs hired to run LBC were from the Times of London and came to NX to talk to us, CBS, and ABC, all of us after their business. I had them all morning at Audio, then took them over to Black Rock to meet the head of engineering for CBS for lunch. We are waiting in this huge cavern of a lobby/waiting room at CBS (an empty room far larger than the entire UPI bureau in NX) when in walks Charles Kuralt and goes to the receptionist to tell her who he is and who he is waiting to see (Stanton, the chairman).

My guys are agog, a real honest to God star. They are like little kids, all akimber, and Charlie, looking around the room, sees this and me. (Back in the fun days in Raleigh he and I had shared a common goal: the destruction with humiliation of a certain horses ass publisher for whom Kuralt then toiled as an editorial writer in Charlotte.) Over he comes, old home week. Then: "Are you still doing that radio thing you were doing in Raleigh?" When I admitted yes, "That's all I ever hear now days when I'm out on the road. I have a lot of fun with our radio network people, you know they take themselves so seriously and I tell 'em all I ever hear is the UP service. Really pisses 'em off."

(Oh, Charlie, I love you man). After lunch they get taken in tow by a typical CBS affiliate relations twit who proceeds to pee all over UPI as a bunch of typewriter jockeys (this after they had heard "the truth" from a "real newsman." Talk about blind luck.) In addition it turned out these two, knowing nothing about radio and not really wanting to, were far more interested in Greenwich Village, booze and other life pleasures and there was never a better guide to Village drinking than the Loon (the aforementioned McAloon). Needless to say, we got the business.

(In fairness, it should be noted, we probably would have anyway. Everyone had assumed Beaverbrook would win the license for LBC but surprise, a Canadian group won it and the secret author of the winning proposal was our own Don MacKay, a fact kept secret until now. Bill Hutton, the behind the scenes real boss at LBC, a Canadian and the one who had worked with Don to put the whole thing together, would have done whatever it took to get us the business, but said that thanks to Kuralt and McAloon, he never had to utter a word.)

And there was our attempt to act like a real network early on and have our own "Affiliate luncheon" at an NAB, not having the foggiest on how to conduct such affairs. We opened it up to "Tell us any problems you are having with the service:" Each little teenybopper gets up and says "I am Joe Schmoe, news director of XXXX, a 10 watt super station in Fleahop, and last Thursday your noon market report ran one second over a minute." Next guy, "I'm vice president for news of this monster station and your cut numbers sound funny." And on and on, each one of these twerps trying to outdo the last with some tale of egregious error on our part. Finally, as I'm about to lose it and give 'em that wonderful Brit expression: 'Fuck Off,' a figure rises in the back of the room. "I'm Burrel Small, OWNER of the seven Mid-America stations, and I want to say UPI Audio is the best thing that ever happened to the broadcast industry." (Whew!) Needless to say, not another word of complaint. (From then on our 'Affiliate Meetings' were strictly cocktail parties with no one allowed to speak...)

Then there were the stock market reports. A one minute rundown of prices of most active and widely held stocks. It was a bitch to read and always done at the last second. It usually fell on my number two to handle, Stan Sabik. Stash would be a book in himself but for now, stocks will have to suffice. You would start one of the big 351s going, dash into the announce booth, read the stock script (which usually would take three or four takes to get it right without a fluff), rush out, spin the tape back to the start of the good take, start it up and throw it on the network. On this particular occasion, Stash spun it back to the wrong start, threw the network key, and left to go back to his office to do his regular work. The desk wasn't paying much attention, but suddenly there was silence (it had been a fluff take). Silence always gets your attention in that business, and then Stash lets loose: :That f'ing willett, sticking me with this f'ing stock horse shit, that lousy little son of a bitching bastard, etc, etc. A good 40 seconds got out before the desk managed to throw the key, get it off the air, cue up the right take, and get it going. Do the phones light up. Mercy. We got about 30 cancellations in about ten minutes. Of course these stock reports were supposed to be tape delayed, but a lot of stations carried them live. Anyway, about two months later, after the dust had settled and we had managed to lift most the cancellations, I get a call from the editor/owner of a newspaper in South Carolina. The paper owned a radio station, an audio client, and he wondered if he could possibly get a tape of "wonderfully angry Sabik stock report." Seems one of his idiot flunkies had accidentally erased the only copy he had. When I told him it really was something we wished had not happened, he said such occurences were wonderful ways of checking listenership, of gauging audience level. Used 'em all the time in his sales presentations...(and some wondered why I resisted going to newscasts for so long...)

As I said, these were fun days.

For the record: during this period, audio went from 50 odd clients to 1,726; went from being a closet case loser to UPI's most profitable operation; and helped broadcast wire sales retake the lead from AP to the point UPR served almost twice as many stations as rox. Remember that in '73-'75 UPI was charging and AP was in deep trouble. So what happened?

Foty made a most perceptive comment in noting LNA's "major function was intake and relay of overseas material." Pair that if you will with the statement by RPI GM Vic Minihan that Audio's foreign coverage was what did RPI in. (Competitors often see you better than you see yourself.)

Simple: London stuck to the original concept. It made use of UPI's existing reportorial assets, which were damned good. Far better than any network's. Instead of trying to be heroes, it concentrated on doing the vital grunt work of getting the reporters' work to the customers.

Audio wasn't started for audio's sake, it was started for UP's sake. One more flailing attempt to keep the place afloat financially. You have paid to put a reporter at the scene, you have paid for the space and equipment and circuits to handle his/her story and get it to clients. Is there some way you can make another buck out of this, another market for this reporting, re-use, re-cycling?

It's so simple it hurts. Yet in almost every case, such attempts at getting more out of an existing asset wind up becoming self-serving empires unto themselves. (Interestingly, Special Services under the oft-maligned Ed Allen was one that didn't and as a result stayed immensely profitable until management jealousy did it in -- "Never make money in an outfit that loses money.")

If we domestically had done as good a job of staying the course as our overseas brethren, there might not be so much weeping in the beer these days.

That is, of course, an over simplification. Just one of a multitude of reasons. And even though the late '60s & early '70s were a period of booming UPI growth and innovation, the seeds of its destruction were planted then and its dying began on my watch. So I'm throwing no stones.

Besides, I'm of an age where death is normal. Everyone and everything does it. No use crying about it. Celebrate the life that was: it was after all, a hellofa ride with an amazing crew.