First Person / On the radio, almost: I might have been a star on WYEP

But way back then, it was kind of scary ...

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A recent Post-Gazette article about WYEP’s 40th anniversary (“At 40, WYEP Still Bellwether Radio,” June 5) dislodged a long-buried memory.

Sometime around 1978, when I was a court-reporting student at Duff’s Business Institute Downtown, I heard that a radio station in Pittsburgh was looking for interns. I had wanted to work in radio ever since my friend Betsy spun records and read commercials on our small-town station. I made an appointment, bused to Oakland (no small feat for a small-town girl) and found the place. I don’t remember entering the building, but I do remember what happened next.

Stepping tentatively down a long flight of stairs, I slowed even more as a basement room revealed itself to be the aftermath of a vinyl record/​yard sale tsunami. Was it possible to even move around in a space filled with that much stuff?

There were two humans among the detritus. One of them said something to me. It might have been simply “Hello.” Whatever it was, that, combined with the scary-handyman-storage-shed decor, caused me to reply exactly this: “I can’t.” I backed up the stairs as a voice begged, “Please don’t leave.”

That didn’t end my attempt at a radio career.

A few years later, in my early 20s, I was living in San Francisco. I took classes at the Columbia School of Broadcasting near the Civic Center. It sounds bigger and better than it was. The schooling consisted of mostly outdated equipment (although I did learn to splice tape) and a binder of equally outdated commercials and radio bits. The only bit I specifically remember involved The Swingle Singers, an a cappella singing group from the ’70s that I had never heard of.

In the practice studio, without much guidance, I made a few attempts at an hour-long show. I had to use my own records, and that meant a whole lot of Linda Ronstadt and Billy Joel. I proposed doing an hour of show tunes. My instructor told me, with a sigh, “I’m really sorry, but you’re probably more geared toward public radio.” With that in mind, I signed up for a workshop run by a couple of people who had worked in public radio.

Also at that time, I was interning at KFRC, a big-band radio station in San Rafael, showing up at 4:30 a.m. to pull news feeds and occasionally recording a local commercial. One of the announcers for the station, Jim Watt (who wore a long, waxed mustache), also worked as an announcer for a real live big band — the Del Courtney Orchestra, under the direction of Bill Hammett — that played at a weekly “tea dance” at the Hyatt Regency in San Francisco’s Financial District. Fodder for my public radio course. After 30 hours of work, I produced one 3-minute radio piece that has never been aired. The subject? A resurging interest in ballroom dancing. That was in 1985.

Before totally giving up on commercial radio, I interned at KMEL, a Top-40 station at the time, near Pier 39. I didn’t do much except call record stores and ask about their sales. Yes, that’s how the Top 40 were determined in the olden days.

Then, out of the blue, I was told I would do an interview. Me, do an interview? They needed a piece for the dead time, the wee hours of a weekend morning, a public-service segment required of all communication companies. The subject: transportation.

I was told I would be interviewing a San Francisco city council member. OMG. With no preparation, and I mean no chance to read anything (this was pre-Internet) and no advice on how to conduct an interview, I ended up as radio road kill.

I asked one question, and then the councilwoman simply talked for 15 minutes. I had no follow up, no depth of knowledge, no nothin’. What did I know about transportation? I rode the J Church trolley or BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) to my job as a legal secretary. I got really good at using the stick shift of my little 5-speed Honda Civic (that I could barely drive off the lot when I bought it). Pittsburgh has hills, but not like San Francisco hills. Cut your front wheels against the curb or get a ticket. So I got around San Francisco just fine. But questions about transportation? I could only sit and listen.

Fast forward 30-plus years. I’ve been back in Pittsburgh for many years, but now my daughter lives in San Francisco. She’s one of those high-tech workers who commutes by bus from the city to Silicon Valley. Those buses have been picketed by some San Franciscans who resent the influx of high-tech workers whose presence has pushed rental prices from sky high to stratospheric. Discussions about transportation in the Bay Area are no longer relegated to dead airtime in the middle of the night.

I never had a career in radio. Instead, I became a writer. I tend to over-prepare for interviews, most likely due to my first radio interview fiasco.

These days, I love to dig around in archives, in boxes of unknown stuff. If I walked down the step to WYEP’s original basement room now, I would dive right in.

I am a public radio person, and I have the utmost respect for the amount of time it takes to produce one hour of “All Things Considered.” The Swingle Singers? They still exist. A cappella groups are back in style. As is ballroom dancing. Again.

My husband and I moved to Oakland a few years ago from the ’burbs. I mostly ride the bus, walk or ride my bike. My main transportation issue now is how to get to the West Coast the quickest (it’s not quick), easiest (not easy, either) way and how my kid can do the same in reverse. Maybe someday she’ll come “home” where we now have our own tech industry. (I’m a Pittsburgh mom. I have to try.)

Today, if I had a radio show, I’d play Linda Ronstadt and Billy Joel. Their music has held up nicely. And I’d throw in a show tune or two, just because.

But I’ll leave that to the experts, like the folks at WYEP. It’s nice to know that, even without me, they survived.

Leah Pileggi is the author of “Prisoner 88,” a middle-grade historical novel, and “How to Design a World-Class Engineering College: A History of Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University” (leahp1@gmail.com).


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