Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

A Hard Act to Follow

I’ve been lucky enough to know a few folks who would be filed quite readily under the heading “a hard act to follow”.

For a couple of weekends this month, Garrison Keillor took the opportunity to yield the host duties of his “Prairie Home Companion” radio program to someone else. I don’t know whether he sat and listened to the shows along with the rest of us … but there was such spectacular subtext every time his guest host, Punch Brothers lead singer Chris Thile, opened his mouth that I actually found hard to listen. And it’s not even my show! Can’t imagine what the creator of Lake Wobegon was feeling, no matter how much he may have brushed off the idea.

Not that Thile did poorly; he did fine, considering the task set before him. But for forty years, the voice that has spoken words like “coming to you live from the stage of the Fitzgerald Theater in Saint Paul” and “heavens! They’re tasty, and expeditious” has been Keillor’s, and if anyone else tries it, it is simply Not. The. Same.

When NPR’s “Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me” news quiz program begins each week, I admire the baritone of “legendary anchorman Bill Curtis” doing the introductions … but it’s just not Carl Kasell.

Re-boots have that innate challenge. We love the folks who are “our first”. Shatner is Captain Kirk. Dirk Benedict is Lieutenant Starbuck. Don Adams is Agent Maxwell Smart. Lou Ferrigno is the Hulk. Good luck to Chris Pine, Katee Sackhoff, Steve Carell, and the CGI version of Mark Ruffalo. Your results may vary.

And heaven knows, in the last decade, I’ve had the opportunity to bid farewell to a number of performers for whom there will be no re-boots. They played their roles in such a way that any attempt to recreate those roles precisely … would be seen as cheap imitation. My Dad, as my primary example, will never be duplicated, which is a shame; but at the same time, doing a Dad impression is of less use than carrying on in such a way that the good works he left behind are what continue.

It’s a balancing act. Even in the Drum Major Academy world, we’ve brought both George Parks’ guiding principles and many of his bits of schtick along with us, in the four summers following his passing … but the curriculum and presentations are evolving. Wisely, the people who were charged with the task of presenting the “beware the drum major attitude” lecture session (which were shot through with Mr. Parks’ personal anecdotes) have been encouraged to bring their own additions and elements to it.

When Garrison Keillor retires, will “Prairie Home” even continue? His voice, his writing, his “old-time radio” approach, and without doubt the fictional Lake Wobegon community that existed only in his head, are so individual to him that it might be anywhere from wild and blind optimism to hubris for someone else to try to reproduce his act.

Assuredly, if it continues, it won’t be the same; but will that turn out to be okay? Depends upon whom you ask. Some will refuse to listen to a changed “PHC”. Some will keep on tuning in, to listen to Rich Dworsky at the piano, to Tim Russell and Sue Scott and Fred Newman’s able radio acting voices … but someone else will be writing the Ketchup Advisory Board and “Guy Noir, Private Eye” sketches – if they even survive the transition. And, if this month’s guest-hosted shows are any indication, no one will even try to reproduce the “News from Lake Wobegon”. At which point, some will say that it’s not really “PHC” anymore, and others will appreciate the “Moth Radio Hour” storytellers that may be brought in to fill that show segment. I don’t even know which direction I’ll go.

Last week, the radio world – and New England’s more local radio world – lost someone who will be a hard act to follow.

Richard Sher, the host of the public radio word-and-wit panel quiz show “Says You!”, passed away on Monday, February 16, after a battle with colon cancer.

I’ve been regular listener of the show for the majority of its eighteen and a half seasons. Happily, I live in a part of the country that plays host to live tapings of “Says You!” at least once a year; so once a year since 2009, I’ve taken my mother (also a big fan) to an afternoon or evening session wherein a couple of episodes of the show are recorded. (I even bumped into one of my former students in the audience on one occasion; I was both thrilled and totally unsurprised.) It’s as close to old-time radio as it gets anymore, with the possible exception of, yes, “A Prairie Home Companion”.

Part of the fun of “Says You!” has been its refusal to take itself too seriously. One of its philosophies is: “it’s not important to know the answers … it’s important to like the answers.” A larger part of the fun is the panelists who are asked to wrestle with the ferocious trivia quizzes, word puzzles, and brain-teaser questions that Richard Sher created for each week’s broadcast. Six New England-based writers, radio journalists, television personalities and other performers, in teams of three, tussle with the intellectual challenges and also interact with each other – with equal helpings of brilliance and silliness.

These masters of out-loud problem solving and on-the-spot joke-making were assembled into this verbal gymnastics team primarily because they all were long-time friends of Richard Sher. As the moderator and ringmaster of this flying circus of word and wit since its inception in 1997, by turns Sher guided the proceedings and sometimes seemed to hang on for dear life.

He would shamble onstage before a taping started, usually clad in tan corduroy jacket with brown elbow patches (necktie optional), and grab hold of each side of a small speaker’s podium, slightly hunch-shouldered … looking for all the world like a cross between an amiable English professor and Gru, the evil mastermind of the “Despicable Me” movies.

And always, he came off as the kind of person that his friends described him as, in the various obituaries that have appeared in the last fortnight: affable … creative … quirky … a mensch … warm and funny … “cynical but zany” … gentle and humane … eminently lovable.

Sher could make audiences laugh explosively at his gently acerbic emceeing (“That is a brilliant answer. Totally wrong, but brilliant even so.”). But he would not have been above literally falling over laughing at one of his panelist friends’ ad-libbed jokes. This happened during a number of the tapings that I attended; when it took him a few minutes to recover his composure afterward, the audience learned what an “edit point” in radio was. (“You’ll be amazed at how seamless this all will sound when it hits the radio.”)

When my mother handed me the Boston Globe‘s obituary page and said, “read this,” I read the headline: “Richard Sher, 66; created and hosted radio quiz show ‘Says You’”. I’ll admit that my first thought, following the initial sinking feeling that always accompanies such a realization, was: “aw, Ben.”

Benjamin Sher was Richard Sher’s beloved son, whom the obituary described as “part of the show, serving occasionally as scorekeeper and doing voice-overs”. At the end of each broadcast, the show’s credits finish with Richard saying, “Benjamin, give ’em the skinny!” and his son replying, “Says You! is produced by Pipit & Finch, Boston!” They’ve had to re-record Ben’s reply at least twice. I think there’s a four-year-old version, an eight-year-old version, and a thirteen-year-old version. He’s just as much a vet of the show as any of the panelists.

Mr. Sher was devoted to his son,” continued the obituary, “driving him to school and attending every event possible. When work took him out of town, his wife said, he would pause the taping to take phone calls with results of his son’s sports contests.” There’s no good time to lose your father, but I can appreciate that I got most of forty years to enjoy my dad’s company. Benjamin Sher got something like fifteen of them.

My next thought was: “Richard Sher is a hard act to follow.” I wouldn’t want to. There are just some acts, whether big and bombastic or subtle as a raised eyebrow, that are unique. My mother and I agreed that it would be next to impossible.

In January, when I attended the taping of two shows at Regis College, not far from Boston, I obviously didn’t realize that I was watching Richard Sher’s radio swan song. It’s not often in life that one consciously realizes they’re seeing something happen for the last time. And I wonder if anyone in that audience knew that Sher was suffering from colon cancer, that he had just six weeks left. He wasn’t lettin’ on, that’s for sure. It must have been one of the great moments of “the show must go on” that I’ve seen, at least live and in-person and in the fifth row.

Sure enough, Richard Sher (along with the extended family he’s left behind) appears to have defied expectations once again. Who might have predicted that a wordplay radio quiz show would thrive for most of two decades, in our current short-attention-span entertainment world – even if it was public radio and not commercial? And the website pronounced, not long after he passed away:

It was Richard’s wish that the show continues – the laughter it generates from you, our loyal listeners, will be the greatest gift that could possibly be hoped for …”

According to the Globe obituary, “’Says You!’ will continue its broadcasts. … [T]here is a reservoir of nearly 500 taped shows that can play at any time. Part of Richard’s genius was his foresight in editing out all topical references, so each program is freestanding.” “This truly is an ensemble,” said Sher’s wife, Laura, a program producer for the show. “While Richard has been the lead in that, this is an ensemble strong enough to go on.”

As in, not just in reruns. I’m beyond pleased to read that; I’ll be curious to see how they do carry on. I hope, and suspect, that Richard Sher has laid a foundation that really can endure. He was the literal voice of the show; but he emphasized and showcased the contributions of his team in such a way that the transition may actually not be nearly as jarring as it could have been.

Perhaps this past January wasn’t the last time I’ll get to a taping, after all. The show will go on.

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February 25, 2015 Posted by | arts, entertainment, Famous Persons, media, npr, radio | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hearing Voices

I stumbled onto an intriguing job posting today.

No, I’m not looking for a new job. I just GOT this new one, for heaven’s sake.

In any case, the job is in an almost entirely different field from my current line of work; although some of the job qualifications I could have acquired eventually, had I somehow stayed in the journalism biz long enough and pointing in the right direction (which is to say, not the direction I was pointing, which was toward trade and tech journals, rather than television and radio).

National Public Radio is looking for someone to say, “This is NPR”. Repeatedly.

There’s more to the gig than that, but that detail was what got quite the attention of a number of my online acquaintances.

There’s a certain something about an NPR voiceover that makes it distinct, and distinctly different from, say, yahoo sports talk radio, or from 1010 WINS in New York City, or from most commercial broadcasters. Hard to pin down exactly what that certain something is. Once I heard some rube describe the men of NPR News as “announcers who’ve discovered their softer side”. But if you randomly turn a radio on and get an NPR voiceover, whether it’s “from NPR in Washington” or from a local affiliate’s on-air personality, you know you’ve hit public radio.

To describe the NPR voice, I suppose I could use adjectives like calm, relaxed, urbane, serene, or folksy; but that would label me as biased toward the organization. So sue me; I like the sound of it. With a few possible exceptions like the Car Talk guys, just about everyone on public radio, from news programming to “America’s Test Kitchen”, has those certain, yes, soothing elements in their voices. It’s a little jarring, the first time you hear “Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me” when one of the panelists is comedian Bobcat Goldthwait, he of the reedy and slightly desperate voice.

THAT’S what it is – nobody at NPR ever sounds like they’re breathless and desperate. (Except around pledge drive time, but that’s not really programming, that’s begging. So.)

Anyway, the job opening. I’m not qualified. I have a few of the qualifications that NPR lists in its classified ad, but not nearly enough for them to toss my resume in the “take another look” pile.

We’re looking for someone with serious production chops, … and is comfortable managing a complex workflow and ‘ready-to-air’ deadlines.” So, not me. I’ve only visited radio stations.

Must have strong [experience with] Dalet, Adobe Audition, ProTools or similar production tools” … I’ve heard of the latter two, but I admit that I looked at the first one and heard the word “exterminate!” in my head, so I think that tends to deny me full marks.

[Must have] at least four years of production or broadcast experience with emphasis in professional voice announcement and production” … not even nearly close, unless you count my emcee work at church hymn sings.

[Must demonstrate] at all times respect for the diverse constituencies at NPR and within the public radio system” … well, I know people who can confirm that I’ve never made fun of Garrison Keillor, Ira Glass or any attempt by NPR to cover professional sports, so that’s something. And, years ago, I wrote a set of lyrics to the tune of “O Tannenbaum” that on the surface made me sound like I was taking shots at the public radio fundraiser, but actually there was plenty of affection involved. (“O woe is us, O woe is us / If we don’t get your pledges / Our operating budget is / Ragged ’round the edges”…)

So, knowing that I was not going to be a finalist for this position, nonetheless, I got to wondering: what would I sound like if I tried to make an audition recording?

Very few people I know actually like the sound of their own recorded speaking voice. Something to do with how we’re used to hearing it from inside our own heads, and it sounds different on the outside, where we never are. Many times, students of mine have exclaimed, “that’s not me! That’s not us!” Ah, but it is.

(I’ve gotten used to my speaking voice. Now my singing voice is another matter, but that’s one thing that’s great about being a church choir director: you’re almost always facing away from the congregation.)

From the NPR ad: “Bonus points for the ability to sound authentic on the radio – we’re not looking for ‘the voice of God.’”

You’re not? Why didn’t you say so sooner!?

So for kicks, I marched over to my little digital recorder device, took a deep breath, and read the copy that NPR suggested would constitute a proper audition recording.

Support for this program comes from Zurich Insurance, providing risk management and insurance solutions to help businesses meet their ever-changing needs. Learn more at Zurich N-A dot com. {ZUR – ik}. Novo Nordisk, committed to diabetes care and changing lives for more than 90 years. Novo Nordisk hyphen U-S dot com. and CarMax, offering more than 35,000 used cars and trucks. Online, and in stores from coast to coast. Learn more at CarMax dot com. This is NPR.”

I will admit that speaking those words … words which for the most part are just ads for NPR’s corporate sponsors … put my mind in a different place than most words I speak.

All Things Considered is a production of NPR News, which is solely responsible for its content. Transcripts of stories you hear on this program are available for free the following day at NPR dot org. Select the “Transcripts” link on every story page. To find out more about the movies you hear about on NPR programs, go to NPR dot org slash movies. This is NPR.”

The equivalent in the non-NPR world would be contributing your own voice to the paragraph “You unlock this door with the key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension: a dimension of sound, a dimension of sight, a dimension of mind. You’re moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas; you’ve just crossed over into the Twilight Zone.”

Or substituting your own voice for the CBS Sports announcer who used to rattle off the commercial sponsors of its NFL games: “Brought to you bahhh…”

Or using your own voice to pull a Don LaFontaine movie trailer maneuver, saying things like, “In a world… where this and that collide… one man… has the power to change the world… forever.”

Can’t pull any of that off. Sorry.

But this, I can manage:

And even though Ernest Shackleton organizes another doomed expedition to the Antarctic whenever he hears us say it … this is NPR, National Public Radio.”

May 22, 2013 Posted by | media, npr, radio, technology | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Piece o’ Cake, Dave

I grew up in a suburb of Boston in the late 1970s and early 1980s. One of the more important things then was to listen to the radio on a snowy morning to see if school was cancelled, and I thereby became a habitual listener of WBZ-AM. ‘BZ was an AM radio juggernaut in a time before radio stations became so narrowly focused on one demographic or one format or one style of music – “newsradio”, “talk radio”, “sports radio”. The station’s 50,000-watt signal, on a clear night, reaches something like 38 states (all the way to Wyoming, reportedly) and several Canadian provinces; if I’m driving south on Interstate 95 from New England, WBZ still powers its way onto my car radio in broad daylight all the way to White Plains, before New York City’s “1010 WINS” starts to overwhelm it.

And during the early 1980s, a time a lot of folks consider a golden age in Boston radio, the morning drive-time DJ crown was worn by Dave Maynard.

Maynard was considered a Boston radio legend, even while he was on the air. And he was on the air in some form for nearly 50 years. Yesterday, he died of Parkinson’s Disease, at his home in Florida, at the age of 82.

He was the afternoon drive-time DJ on WBZ in the mid-1970s; in 1979 he moved to the wee-hours talk-radio shift. As a junior-high-school student then, I listened to WBZ on weekday mornings, partly to check for snow days, but also increasingly to check into the news, and of course reports about my beloved Boston Celtics. At that time, the morning radio DJ’s job was to be the genial host and moderator of a cast of characters including The News Reader, The Sports Guy, The Weather Guy, and the Traffic Guy in the Sky, as well as the musical portion of the program. Yes: news, weather, sports, traffic on the 3s, and at least three or four pop-radio hits every half-hour. That format was where I first misheard the lyrics to “Stayin’ Alive” and many other 1970s disco and soft-rock classics.

WBZ’s morning DJ through the late 1970s was a gentleman named Carl DeSuze, whose older, distinguished voice was (in my estimation) just a little too pompous for the gig. In 1980, station management made the decision to move DeSuze to afternoon drive-time, and moved Dave Maynard to the morning commute – and “Maynard in the Morning” was born. For eleven years, “Maynard” was the top-rated radio program in its time slot (challenged gamely and humorously by WHDH-AM’s Jess Cain, but ultimately to no avail!).

Maynard was a headlining radio host who nonetheless allowed his sidekicks to get the punchline, to be the funny one, to be The Show.

The weatherman was New England meteorology legend Don Kent; later in the “Maynard in the Morning” decade, AccuWeather’s Elliot Abrams took that role, providing perhaps the only scripted “set-piece” humor the morning show ever utilized – everything else, funny or serious, was entirely organic and in-the-moment.

His traffic reporter was “Joe Green In The ‘BZ Copter”, in the days when the traffic reporter was neither the now-requisite statuesque blonde, nor standing in a TV production booth surrounded by monitors showing highway webcam images. Green was in the air, every morning except in truly stupid weather.

Maynard’s news reader was veteran reporter Gary LaPierre – whose far-western-Massachusetts hometown of Shelburne Falls was a regular source of Maynard punchlines, and who commented this week that Maynard could make “anybody laugh at any time” and would do “whatever he could” to break up the more serious Kent and LaPierre. “He would walk into the studio and I’d start to giggle,” LaPierre said. “I’d have to lock the door to keep him out.” On more than one morning, neither I nor my parents could remain standing, we were laughing so hard – because something had struck Dave Maynard and Gary LaPierre as so funny that THEY obviously couldn’t stay standing up either. I vividly remember a stretch of 30 seconds one morning that wasn’t dead air in the usual sense of a radio station broadcasting no sound at all – it was dead air full of two guys who had stepped away from their microphones, trying to keep the sounds of their mad giggling off the airwaves. A desperate and futile attempt at professionalism and dignity.

Also taking part in the more-than-occasional silliness was sports reporter Gil Santos (who was the television voice of the Boston Celtics during the Larry Bird championship era, and is currently the radio voice of the New England Patriots). Recalling Maynard’s wit and comic timing, Santos said yesterday that Maynard was “never afraid” of allowing his on-air teammates to emerge with the punchline. I remember hearing Santos and Maynard getting into back-and-forth exchanges over the course of a morning, or a week, or sometimes longer, beating to death any number of running jokes. A single word uttered by one of them could set the other to fits of barely-controllable laughter. Maynard’s affectionate nickname for Santos and his warm baritone voice was memorable enough that, even now, if Santos’ warm baritone voice comes over the radio or TV and I’m in the same room as my mother, we’ll look at each other and say, “hey, it’s Ol’ Honey Lips!”

Interestingly, in the early 1980s, morning radio DJs in Boston chose the music that they played on the air. Station management had very little to do with that, and corporately-driven surveys, statistics and demographics studies had nothing whatever to do with it. In an interview this week, WBZ news reporter Don Batting said, “It was very personal for [Maynard], and people loved what he was playing.’’ Aside from Ron Della Chiesa and his “Music America” afternoon program on WGBH-FM public radio, Dave Maynard was the Boston media personality who got me listening to big-band jazz (of all things to find on late-20th century AM radio): when he came on the air at 5:30 every morning, the first thing he did was play a recording of Steve Allen’s “This Could Be the Start of Something Big”. Don’t think we’re likely to hear that on morning radio again any time soon.

Gary LaPierre said of Maynard, “He was one of these guys on radio that always wanted to include the people around him. … He was always willing to take the back seat, make himself the butt of jokes.” He starred in a series of nearly two dozen TV commercials over the course of eight years, which promoted the WBZ radio morning show and won two Gold Medals at the International Film and Television Festival in New York City, as well as a New England Emmy Award. They included guest cameos by the likes of boxer Marvin Hagler and Boston College quarterback/legend Doug Flutie, and could be counted on to include two things: Maynard blundering comically into great peril, and his punchline, “Piece o’ Cake!”

Maynard did two important things for radio broadcasting in Boston: he made it sound easy, and he made it sound fun. Beside, he sounded like a decent guy whose company one would probably treasure, on-air or off-. His colleagues have offered testimonial in the last day or so to that effect. And I’m sure I wasn’t the only 14-year-old kid who heard him do his thing and wondered what it would be like to be a voice on the radio one day.

February 10, 2012 Posted by | celebrity, entertainment, Famous Persons, media, news, radio, television | , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment