REMEMBERING THE 30s
Bob Sievers shared several memories with News-Sentinel staff writer Bob Caylor. Here are some excerpts of their conversation.
Sievers' inspiration to get into radio:
What inspired me to become an announcer was the old Majestic Hour. They had as their theme song "Pomp and Circumstance," and with that in the background, the announcer would say, "From the boundless everywhere comes the magic sound of the Majestic, mighty monarch of the air." I would rehearse that and tell my mother I was going to be an announcer. She said, "Oh, Robert, I can't send you to college." My father had died when I was a boy. She said, "We can't afford that." But I said, "Nothing is going to keep me from it."
Sievers' big break:
The Gospel Temple on Rudisill Boulevard had two broadcasts. In the morning, they had the Morning Radio Bible Class, and every Sunday evening at 10 o'clock, they had the Back Home Hour. And I hung around there and got to carry the microphone from the choir to Paul Rader, the minister, and to me that was the biggest thrill in the world, to be carrying a live microphone. I would have loved to have been able to say something into it. And I would go there in the morning for the Morning Radio Bible Class, and one morning, the engineer didn't show up, and they thought they couldn't go on the air.
I said, "I can put you on the air."
"You know how to run all those radio controls?"
I said, "Sure, I memorized them all."
In those days, we had the old-fashioned street cars in Fort Wayne, and I knew I could drive a street car. The motorman would take this big lever and come around this way, and we'd go, and he'd want to stop, and he'd bring it back and use the air brake. So the same way, I learned to run the radio controls, and I did that morning, and the broadcast went fine.
And WOWO said, since you're the first program on the air in the morning, if you have somebody who will sign the station on, we won't have to bring an announcer in at that early hour. I said, "I will." So every morning, I carried my morning paper route, Route 64, on Bowser and Oliver, from McKee to Rudisill, and after I carried the morning paper, I would go to the Gospel Temple and sign on WOWO, and then I would go to South Side High School from that broadcast. 7 a.m. sign-on. The Morning Radio Bible Class was from 7 to 7:30, then I would leave there about 7:45 and just walk one block to South Side High School and go to school.
And this makes me sound ancient, but I first signed on WOWO Dec. 4, 1932. I was a freshman in South Side High School. And I'm still on the station doing commercials. All four years in high school, I signed on WOWO every morning.
I loved radio so much that if I were a millionaire, I would have worked all my life at WOWO for nothing, I just enjoyed it so much. And when I speak to young people in career days, all over the area at high schools, I tell them, "Do what you want to do, and your work is fun, and you'll never hesitate about going to work." The only thing is, if you really love your work, the years go by so fast. . . . I said on the air one time, "All I do is put up and take down the Christmas tree, the years go by that fast."
To tell you how I got into radio, one morning, Paul Rader, the minister, said, "Well, Bob, you believe the Lord answers prayer, don't you?" I said, "Yes," but I didn't have that faith of a grain of mustard seed, I don't think. He said, "After the broadcast, let's just kneel down here on the carpet and pray that you get into radio." So we did, and he put his big hand on the back of my neck, and I almost felt like the power of God was right there. I had been knocking on WOWO's door for two years, trying to get in, and they'd say, "There's that kid again, tell him to get lost." And two days after Paul Rader prayed that I would get into radio, two days after that, WOWO called me and said, "We heard you do a commercial on the Back Home Hour"the other Sunday evening, and we just wondered if you'd ever thought about getting into radio."
So as I tell these young people, nobody can tell me beyond a shadow of a doubt that it (wasn't) answered prayer that I got into radio. When I speak to these career days, I'll ask them, "What do you want to do?" "Oh, I think I might be a doctor." Or "I think I might be a lawyer." And I say, "Forget it. Know what you want to do beyond any shadow of a doubt, and work to that end and pray to that end, and nothing can prevent you from being what you want to be."
And then I end that little talk by quoting a sentence I got from Glen Stebing in my Foster Park Lions Club, a 10-word sentence made up of two letters, each word: "If it is to be, it is up to me."
Sievers' man-on-the-street programs:
All of shopping was centered in downtown Fort Wayne. I can remember when, at Christmastime, downtown Fort Wayne was so crowded that you couldn't walk on the sidewalk, you had to walk on the street. . . . I had a man-on-the-street program in downtown Fort Wayne for 25 years. . . . Well, mainly I wanted to bring the communities into the area. If they were from, say, Berne, Ind., or Coldwater, Mich., I'd talk to them about their hometown and what they liked about their hometown and what they were doing in Fort Wayne. Of course, I knew they were shopping. And the news of the day, if there were some big news article, an event that happened. But one policy I had, and if a lady really had a lot of interesting things to talk about, I may stay with her three minutes. But the last two minutes of the program -- I'd have maybe 35 or 40 people around me -- the last two minutes of the program, I'd go around and get everybody's name so they could go home and say, "Did you hear me on the radio?" Anybody who came down there knew at least that they would be on the air. I enjoyed that.
Radio was delightful, but not the road to riches:
In those days, I was making about $35 to $40 a week, but my house payments were only $35 a month, so it took about one week's pay to pay for my house for a month. You know, the funny thing was, everybody down through the years thought, "Oh, he's in radio, he's making big money." But, say, 15 years ago, when my son-in-law came to Fort Wayne and married my daughter, he started right out at International Harvester making more money that particular month than I was making at WOWO. So for me to put my two daughters through college, I had to go out and speak, put on record hops and show travelogues, or I wouldn't have made enough on my salary to put my daughters through the University of Michigan. I had to burn the midnight oil.
Sievers on promoting local talent:
"One thing about radio in the 30s, which they aren't doing now, radio in those days promoted local talent. We had so many local stars. Back in the '30s, the big stars on WOWO were Penny West, George Arthur, Joe Trim, the Blackhawk Valley Boys, Joe Taylor and the Redbirds, Norm and Bob, of course, Nancy Lee and the Hilltoppers, even then; Kenny Roberts, a famous yodeler . . . and I could go on and on.
First of all, the local talent, if they weren't a member of the union, they didn't get paid for it, and they got publicity. They promoted WOWO by having all their friends tune in for them. It was a two-way street. There was a lot of satisfaction in helping young people get started.
The Sievers-Elvis connection:
Down through the years, I've probably helped 25 young people get started. I'll just tell you one story now. This was the year before tape was invented. A mother wrote to me from Mississippi and said, "Bob, we've heard you promoting all these young stars, and my young son has just recorded a hymn. We wish you would use his hymn for your Song of Inspiration on the Little Red Barn." Well, in those days before tape, the first record that came out was always acetate on aluminum. And on one side of the hymn was "How Great Thou Art," and on the other side was the old hymn, "Softly and Tenderly." And I thought this young boy did a pretty good job. So I used it on the air, but his mother's name meant nothing to me, and I threw the letter away. But the record was good enough, and about every 10 days for three months, I'd have this young 12-year-old boy singing "How Great Thou Art." And when that was over with, I got the nicest thank-you letter from his mother. "Bob, you'll never know what that meant to us down here, you giving my son his first exposure on the air." I thought, well, I've done that for so many other people, so I threw that letter away.
Five years later, I received a call from a mother down there, not his mother, but a neighbor. She said, "Bob, I'm five years late in thanking you for helping our neighbor boy down the block get started in radio. I want you to know that through your help, he's begun to appear on other stations, and he's started making a name for himself." And the letter I threw away from the boy I didn't know was a letter from the mother of Elvis Presley.
On meeting Jay Gould, his sidekick for decades:
Jay came in about 1938. He was known then as "The Old Songsmith." He worked with all the high school boys and girls in this area. He had what I think he called "The Sunshine Chorus." And he would teach them singing. He was a musician. In those days, I had to laugh, because he was what I called "prissy." He wore spats on his shoes, and he wore pinch-on glasses. When I went away to the Navy and came back at the end of World War II, they told me Jay Gould is our new farm director. I said, "Farm director? I don't think he even knows what a cow looks like."
But he grew up on a farm in Michigan, and when he became farm director, all of the colleges every week would send him all of the latest agricultural releases, and he had about six college degrees then as it was. He was a brilliant man, and he wrote the finest poetry I've ever read. He was one of the finest farm directors we've ever had also. So I have a great deal of respect for Jay Gould. In fact, he was the one who twisted my arm to get me to go out and speak to the public, because that's the way we built our audience.
Sievers on audience-building:
One night I spoke down at Greenville, Ohio, and that night in my audience, half of the people listened to WLW in Cincinnati, and the other half listened to WOWO. Well, the people who listened to Cincinnati said, "After seeing you in person tonight, tomorrow we're going to be tuned in to you."
Being out speaking about every other night, this is the way you build your audience, too. By going out, meeting the people, shaking hands. To this day and age, my wife and I go to a restaurant, say in Coldwater, Mich., or Muncie, Ind., she'll say, "Now keep your voice down, so nobody recognizes you." Invariably, two or three people will come over to the table and say, "You're Bob Sievers, aren't you?" They'll say, "Will you sign this napkin for me?" I'll say, "Better than that" -- and in all of my suit pockets, I have pictures, so I'll sign a picture for them.
People ask me about being interviewed, about speaking, and they ask me, "Aren't you bored?" I say, "No." I feel so honored to think that they even knew me that probably it builds my ego, actually.
Sievers on the beginning of the Little Red Barn:
About in November or December of 1945, right at the end of World War II, we had sound effects. We pretended we were out at the little red barn milking cows. He would pump water for the coffee. When I was doing a show called "Help Your Neighbor," I was traveling all over the area, I remember a little elderly lady in a large brick house at Markle, Ind., had a kitchen pump, and I recorded that kitchen pump. So in the morning, Jay would say, "Sievers, make the coffee." So I would use that sound effect of the pump to pump the water for the coffee.
We started out with a rooster crowing in the morning. And after the rooster crowed, I'd say, "Good morning, neighbors. Now it's chore time at Indiana's world-famous Little Red Barn. Chore time with farm-service director Jay Gould and yours truly, Bob Sievers, and the music of Nancy Lee and the Hilltoppers," and they'd go, "In a little red barn," y'know.
"The Little Red Barn" was an actual song; I forget who wrote it. . . . Then (Jay) would interview a county agent each morning. In those days, radio took care of its audience. In other words, we would have what we called the calendar. If you were a member of a club or a church, and say your church was having a fish fry Friday night, I would have it on the air. Every morning, I would have about five pages of what we called calendar announcements. Only about two lines each one; we didn't give them much time. Everybody who wrote to me and had an announcement about their church or their club or their group, sometime between 5 a.m. and 10 a.m., their announcement was on the air.
More on taking care of listeners, Little-Red-Barn style:
And to show how radio has changed now, and I think WOWO is beginning to do more of it now -- when I heard Macy the other morning -- but everybody who had something to get on the air, I took care of them. Nowadays, all the stations are tied into satellites, and about every three hours the satellite will say, "use three announcements." Well, the great bulk of the people who have written to that station, their announcement probably never gets on the air. But when I was on, everybody who wrote to me got on the air. Then on the next morning, I start out the other way, so the people who were on late would be on early, to get a different type of audience driving to work in the morning.
I believed in taking care of my listeners. For instance, it got to be a standing joke. I'd put on a lost dog or a lost cat, and one time the manager said "Sievers, if you put any more dog announcements on the air, you're going to be released." I said, "Folks, I have a real problem this morning. The boss told me that if I ever put any more lost-dog announcements on the air, I'd be fired." And I'm on the air talking about it. I said, "Wouldn't you know it? An elderly lady on Rudisill Boulevard has just lost her little brown dog." I said, "I can't mention it on the air. But I'll tell you what I can do. I've got her name and telephone number stuffed in my shirt pocket. And once I get off the air, if you find this little brown dog, you call me and I'll give you her name."
It got to be a standing joke, because every morning, Jay Gould would come in and say, "Sievers, you got any lost dogs stuffed in your shirt pocket this morning?"
We did it the way we believed it -- helping people. If you help your audience, your audience helps you. It works both ways. We weren't worried about ratings. In fact, back in those days, I don't think they took ratings. The Arbitron ratings didn't come out until much later.
We just did it the way we felt it should be done, doing whatever we could to please them, within the laws of the station. . . . Our station policy was music, news and sports. We broadcast all the basketball games, starting out with John Hackett, then with Hilliard Gates, who came here from Michigan. I have the greatest respect for him. Then Art Saltzberg and Dougan Frye, the other announcers. . . . And special events. Harry Steckbeck for a long time had Program P.M., where he took our Ford Thunderbird and went around doing special broadcasts. We were continually trying to bring the audience to the microphone to let them say their part and get their story told.
Sievers on broadcasting morning police checks:
That was my idea. People were interested in national and international news, but also, they want to start out with what's happening here, then they'll get the world after that. To get the local news, I called the Fort Wayne police and the sheriff every morning. Then at 5:15, I made my long-distance calls -- on the air. I would call Paw Paw, Mich., to get the news out of Michigan. . . . Then I would call Ligonier to get the news out of northern Indiana and Pendleton to get the news out of central Indiana. And then . . . Van Wert, Ohio. . . . So I called within a good 100-mile radius to get any late news from sundown to sunrise that some of it wouldn't even make the morning paper.
I used to do that while a record was playing, but then someone sometime said, "Why don't you let us hear them?" I thought, "By gosh, that's a good idea." It was a listener suggestion. I did that for years and years and years, making my local police calls.
Jay Gould, the father of school announcements:
That was Jay's idea, Jay Gould's idea. You know, when I'm out speaking now, people say, "You don't know it, but I always tuned you in to hear you say, 'There will be no school today.' " That was Jay's idea, getting the school announcements. All those little pieces in the pie add up to building your audience.
How 300 secretaries persuaded Sievers to make degree days part of the Little Red Barn:
They worked either in gas, oil or coal. They said, Bob, if you'll just call the weather service in the morning and give us the degree days, all 300 of us won't have to call long-distance to get the degree days. . . . I knew those 300 women would be tuned in, because we were the only station giving degree days.
Sievers on his most memorable April Fools' Day joke:
Just for the fun of it, I'd have an honorary person serve breakfast every morning. I would have a bushel basket of cards, and every morning, I'd reach down and pull out a card and say, "Mrs. Melvin Jones of Decatur is serving us such-and-such," and every half-hour I'd use it. She would be the star of that morning.
The only thing was, as a lot of you remember, that backfired on me one day on April Fools' Day when I received a telegram from Sammy Sneed, a famous golfer in Milwaukee. He said, "Bob, I'd like to serve you breakfast today on your show" . . . and he said he'd like to serve nanny-berry pancakes. I'd never heard of them before. So I said, "Folks, we have a very delicious breakfast of nanny-berry pancakes, and at 5 minutes before 10, before I got off the air this April Fools' Day, the door opened and Jay Gould came in with the entire staff. Jay came down to my microphone and said "Sievers, what are you serving for breakfast this morning?"
I said, "Jay, we have a very delicious breakfast. Sammy Sneed, the famous golfer, is serving us nanny-berry pancakes."
"Sievers, you know what nanny-berries are, don't you?"
I said, "I suppose they're delicious."
"No, they're what sheep leave in the pasture." Then the whole audience shouted, "April Fools!" So I never forgot that.
In the 1930s, microphones were so big that . . .:
Back in those days, microphones were so big that in the studio, you couldn't carry them. They were on a tripod. In fact, I fell in the baptistry at the Gospel Temple one Sunday evening announcing the baptismal services. . . . At the Gospel Temple, we had an RCA condenser microphone on a huge tripod, and it would be my job . . . to lower the microphone to a lady in the baptistry because they baptize by immersing, to get the name of the lady being baptized with Rev. Hollifield. This Sunday evening, the lights dimmed, the organ played softly, and I lowered the microphone and got off balance with the mike and -- splash! -- I fell right in the baptistry.
The audience, who was normally solemn, you'd have thought Bob Hope was on the stage and had cracked a joke. They broke out laughing in the middle of the baptismal service. As I say, I really hadn't planned on being baptized at all that evening.
Sievers on the amazing mystery of the singing stove:
I had a lady call me one morning and say, "Bob, I wish you'd come out to my house this afternoon and tell me what is wrong. I hear your program every day in my gas stove." And you know, I didn't know whether I wanted to stop out there or not. So I went out to her house southwest of Fort Wayne, and lo and behold, her gas stove was playing music. Well, later on, a farmer at Roanoke, Ind., was complaining to us because his tin roof on his barn was playing music so loud that he claimed it was causing his cows to go down in milk production. So WOWO went down to his farm and tore off his old rusty, tin roof and put on a wooden, shingle roof to appease him. And I still didn't know what was happening. But when I got sent away to the Navy and studied the technical end of radio, I found out that wherever you have two dissimilar pieces of metal with a coating of rust or oxide in between, it acts as the old-fashioned crystal-detector set. It rectifies the RF signal and changes it to the AM, the amplitude modulation, imposed on that, and that's what the human ear can hear.
Sievers on the details of the Little Red Barn:
That was entirely Jay's idea. We had to pretend we were in the barn milking. . . . We would walk from the farmhouse to the barn, and we'd talk about the weather that morning. If we had a foot of snow, we'd be wading through the snow. So many people thought we were actually -- "Where is the Little Red Barn? We'd like to see it sometime." Play radio is what it was. When he'd interview an agricultural agent, he'd say, "C'mon, let's sit down on this bale of hay and talk." So we were supposed to be in the barn, and a bale of hay makes a good seat. In the various seasons of the year, we'd talk about what the farmers were doing, whether they were farming or planting. The funny part about the Little Red Barn was, Jay Gould would always say things that could be taken two ways. You could take it one way, or the other was the dirty way to take it. And I would always take the dirty way to understand it. I wouldn't say it on the air, but I'd break up and laugh. My mother would say, "I heard what that old Jay Gould said to you this morning." She didn't like him at all. I'd say, "Oh, Mom, Jay was just kidding." "It didn't sound to me like he was kidding."
But Jay said, "When you have a two-man team, the person who is picked on, the audience sympathizes with him." So he's building my personality by picking on me. But my mother couldn't understand that. But Jay and I had many, many years together.
Mentioning an unwritten rule, we kind of between us agreed we will not discuss politics or religion. And those were two subjects we steered clear from.
(After Jay left) I missed him terribly. But people who took his place were always such a pleasure to work with. One was Dougan Frye. And he's down in Florida now. Dougan had been there as a newsman, so he knew the whole operation, so we did the same thing at the same time, whether it was the calendar of announcements or something else. But we all missed Jay. After Dougan Frye left, our farm director was Dave Russell. He's down in Indianapolis now.
Sievers on today's radio:
Nowadays, we've gone away from music to block programming, block programming and talk shows, and I think Tony Richards has done an admirable job with WOWO. I still listen to it more than any other station, but I listen to other stations, also. I'm gradually learning to like Macy in the morning. At first, he said things that turned me off, but it's growing on me. And WOWO's noon news magazine, with Paul Harvey and all of the rest, I love that. Michael Reagan at night. And in the afternoon, when I'm free, I lie down and listen to Rush Limbaugh. I'm hooked on him. Tony has charge of many stations, but I think he's doing a terrific job. . . . I'm hooked on Art Bell because he's way out. I get intrigued by UFOs and by ghosts and everything else he talks about.
Sievers on the reach of WOWO:
It was nothing for me to hear from all over the world. I would have missionaries who were born and raised in Elkhart, Ind., hear me every morning in Africa. And I would get about 50 letters from farmers in Norway and Sweden alone. "We listen to you and Jay every morning." They weren't tuning in for us; they wanted to get the price of corn and soybeans. On the Little Red Barn, we were not only pleasing farmers, but we were pleasing the schoolchildren with no-school announcements and with news and sports and music for everybody.
Sievers guiding in a lost plane:
I had a listener call me. Maybe the airport first called me. I don't know. There was a man landing a plane, and I don't know how large a plane it was, but it was a foggy night, and he couldn't see the lights of the runway. This was way back before they have all of the modern technology that they have now. And somebody called me and asked if I'd help that plane land. He didn't know where he was, so I would have the listeners call: "Bob, that plane right now just flew over my farm at New Haven. He's headed north." I knew the plane was listening to me. I'd say, "Now you're about 5 miles north of Fort Wayne. Reverse your course and fly one-eight-zero back this way." Then pretty soon the phone would ring: "Bob, I'm out here at Roanoke, and this plane just flew about 50 feet above my house." I'd say, "Now you're southwest of Fort Wayne. Fly about zero-three-zero," and . . . finally I got the plane to where he was low enough to actually see the airport.
Sievers on the young preacher who didn't quite cut it:
"This was in 1938. I sat there with a young man on the platform (at Gospel Temple). Paul Rader had just left, and we were auditioning for a new minister. Clifford Hollifield was the one they picked. The other young man, the one they turned down, sat beside me, and he was brokenhearted. He said, "Well, Bob, I'll make it somewhere else."
And the young minister they turned down, who they didn't think had a chance of being successful, as I tell the audience, was none other than Billy Graham.
Sievers on his longest five minutes in radio:
We had three news machines: International News Service, Associated Press and United Press. Whenever we had a big bulletin, a news story, the bell would ring 10 times. We'd hear it, we'd run out, we'd tear it off and take it into the studio and read it. And on this Saturday morning, it was in October of 1972, I believe, I had a show on WOWO called "The Top 50 in the Morning." Later it became the Top 25, because I couldn't get 50 records in that time. . . . So this particular morning, the bells were ringing, but they didn't ring just 10 times; they kept ringing. I thought, "What the heck?" The machines were printing ALERT ALERT ALERT ALERT ALERT ALERT. I thought something big must be happening. I was told, if we ever did have the missiles leaving Russia, they would send a secret code word. Behind me, scotch-taped to the wall, was a black envelope I was to tear open and verify it. So after they kept printing ALERT ALERT ALERT, they printed the word "cauliflower." "Codeword: cauliflower." So I ripped this off the wall and opened it up, and the codeword was cauliflower. So this meant one thing to me: The atomic bombs, the missiles, have left Russia, and they're on their way here. Then the doggoned machines were silent. They didn't print a thing.
Every TV and radio station within 100 miles, we were the control station, and I thought, "What the heck do I do now?"
So I thought the only thing I can do is be honest. So I walked back 10 feet into the studio and said, "Folks, we have some sort of an emergency. I don't know what it is. On all three of our machines, I've had the alert. I have received the secret codeword. I have verified the secret codeword. But now our machines are silent. So the only thing I can ask you to do is to stay tuned, and I'll let you know the moment I know." . . . The record I had on the air was easygoing on your nerves at that time. It was Henry Mancini and the orchestra and the love theme from "Romeo and Juliet." So it took 21/2 minutes for that record to play through. I looked at the machines. They were still silent. So I merely picked the needle up, put it on the beginning of the record and played through it twice. Then the machines came alive. They said, "MISTAKE MISTAKE MISTAKE FORGET FORGET. We sent you the wrong tape from Colorado."
Then I told the folks, "Folks, it ended in good news. The news services said they sent us the wrong tape. So there is no emergency. I hope you are as relieved as I am." But during the time I played that record -- Henry Mancini's love theme from Romeo and Juliet through twice -- believe me, that was my longest five minutes in radio."
As he was waiting to find out what was happening with the alert:
I felt like heading right home, forgetting the radio station and everything, picking up my wife and two daughters, and heading to Ossian, Ind., or someplace away from Fort Wayne. That was in my mind, but I thought, I can't do that."