FOUR “YANKS” WITH ENTERTAINING WAYS
By E. K. GREEN
YOU could call yourself an optimist if you expected to find a radio station high in personality power in that building at the top of Shortland Street that looks like a cross between an electric power board sub-station and a mausoleum. But buildings don’t mean a thing to Technical-Sergeant Larry Dysart, and Sergeants Gene Twombley, Karl Jean and Frank Gaunt, all of the U.S. Army.
You see, they are four Yanks with ideas about pleasing a radio audience that have no relation to the buildings in which they are located. With memories, dating back a year, when they manned the first American Expeditionary station in the South Pacific (it was in New Caledonia, if you want to know) and found it a 12 by 8 room, containing turntable, control panel, microphone, record library (“and,” adds Gene, “Sergeant Dysart, writing out the news”) they look at their soon-to-be-vacated two-room station in the basement of 1YA and call it a home away from home.
Yes, it’s 1ZM, “perched high on a windy hill in downtown Auckland” – and those are the four whose mike-expressed personalities have drawn most of the listening ears in Auckland and environs during the period while the station has been one of the “mosquito network” of the American Armed Forces Radio Service.
Getting Into Tune
It’s a help, they told me, to have all the entertainment resources of the United States behind you when you start out on this job of pleasing the public, with programmes arriving regularly starring the top-price artists of the day. And it’s a help, too, not to have to worry about sponsors and product “plugging.” But mostly they put the label “success” on just getting into tune with the listening audience.
Their task in this country has been a dual one. Their primary purpose has been to entertain personnel of the U.S. Armed Forces stationed in this country. But they could not escape the fact that their listening audience of New Zealand civilians far exceeded the servicemen in numbers. Their constantly ringing telephone and their daily bulging letter bag wouldn’t let them forget; and their programmes were planned accordingly.
They have discovered some interesting facts about New Zealand’s tastes, and some apparent contradictions.
A Mind for Good Music
New Zealand, says Karl Jean, who studied music at the Westminster Choir College, and who has sung in choirs under the leadership of Toscanini, Stokowski, and others of the world’s best conductors, has a special taste for good classical music. He was surprised about that, knowing the limited opportunities here for hearing world-famous orchestras and soloists. But New Zealand has a special need, arising from that limitation.
It doesn’t just want classical music played to it, with an announcement of the number of the record. It wants to be told something about the composer, about the music and its meaning, about the performing artists. Given that, it will take classical music in large quantities and ask for more. Karl hasn’t found New Zealanders lacking in response, either. Phone rings have been plentiful, and letters have averaged ten a session. People here pass intelligent comments, ask intelligent questions, he says. Far more New Zealanders expressed interest in the classical session than did American servicemen.
Karl admits having learned from New Zealand taste, also. He has learned to appreciate English composers, to whom previously he had not given much thought. Sir Edward Elgar, for one.
“I’m only one in 135,000,000 people, but I think we could give more time to those composers,” he said.
“It all depends how you present classical music,” he summed up. “You’ve got to talk about it in an informal way and in non-technical language. New Zealand has a very decided interest in good music.”
Ardent “Swing” Fans
On the other hand, New Zealanders like swing, Cab Calloway style. That came from Larry Dysart and Gene Twombly, who have plenty of experience to call upon, both here and in the States. Larry was a regular broadcaster from KOY Phoenix, Arizona; Gene was a sound effects engineer with the C.B.S. Hollywood station. (He got a surprise recently when he dug a two year-old record out of the 1YA library and heard his own “noises-off” in the background.)
Said Dysart: “There’s quite a strong group of New Zealanders here who are more enthusiastic swing fans than their opposite numbers in the States. They like to hear it played, anyhow.”
And who is the top-starring favourite with New Zealand audiences?
“Bing Crosby,” said Larry, and Gene, and Karl and Frank. “Bing Crosby by a mile.”
Larry took over the conversational running.
“We put over a full session of Bing Crosby – two full sessions, in fact. The only comments we got, and we got plenty, were ‘Keep it going all night.’ That goes for our fellows and the civilians, too. We wrote a letter to Crosby about that and we got a personal letter back. Bing said he was pleased to know he was so well received here.”
This station was organised originally by Major P. H. Gould, U.S. Army and for a long time was under the supervision of the U.S. Navy. Latterly it has been under the Information and Education section, directed by Captain George A. Furness – and he conducted a survey.
Crosby Led Field
The radio audience here voted Bing Crosby 1, Command Performance 2, Bob Hope 3 and the Boston Symphony Orchestra 4. They were ahead of all other 1ZM offerings.
“When Frank Sinatra was first put on there was little response,” said Gene Twombly. “We kept putting him on occasionally. In spite of his bad publicity, he’s a good technician. Now there’s hardly a night that we don’t get two or three requests for him.”
“You’ve got to say something about Spike Jones and his ‘Chloe’,” added Karl Jean. “We get an absurd number of requests for him.”
In addition to requests for records, they have been deluged at times with requests for information. New Zealanders have wanted to know the meanings of American expressions, information about the United States, and explanations of American customs. Numbers asked the background of Thanksgiving Day; still more wanted to know how American elections were conducted.
“Ad Libbed” All the way
Of all sessions, most direct interest has been taken in the Make-Believe Ballroom, made up of selections from the 1YA 30,000 record library. Strange as it may seem, this is a spur-of-the-moment show. Nothing is arranged in advance, except that the announcer who takes it goes up to the library and pulls out a pile of records – a rough selection from which to select. After that the session goes with the tide.
“I’ve felt in a different mood sometimes when I started the session, and gone up and got an entirely different bundle,” commented Gene Twombly. “Or you start off with a ‘sweet’ session and somebody rings up and says ‘What about making it hot?’ You put on one or two and you get into the mood. You’ve got to sense your audience, and give them what they want.”
“We’ve very seldom got any written continuity,” said Larry Dysart, who, in addition to being an announcer Back Home, was also a radio dramatist. “I think that’s why we’ve sounded so informal. We’ve just ad-libbed in our various styles.”
The only instruction under which they operated, they told me, was that they could not accept phone requests for definite numbers. They didn’t even have to worry about public relations. “Except that when we play ‘Anchors Away,’ we have to follow it with the ‘Marine Hymn.'”
“There’s one joke against us,” commented Karl Jean. “On our Anzac Day session we played ‘The Yanks Are Coming,’ and followed it immediately with ‘God Defend New Zealand!'”
None of these four was specially selected for A.E.F. radio work. All were just “in the Army.” Larry drifted in when the first station was being prepared; expressed interest, was tested – and appointed. Karl was taken on when another man took sick. Frank Gaunt was started off sorting records, and in an emergency was asked if he could announce, quoted experience and was received with open arms; and Gene Twombly…
“He didn’t drift in,” said Karl. “He hit on an idea, and followed it up.”