The Summer of WEBH

At the end of Spring Quarter, 1959, I unenthusiastically headed back to Wichita to look for a summer job but was there for only a few days when Jim Aagaard, one of my profs (who was also sponsor of the Northwestern Amateur Radio Club, of which I was a member, as well as sponsor of the monthly engineering magazine, of which I was on the photography staff [and later art editor]) called with news of a job opportunity in Chicago. I got back on the train and returned to Chicago.

The job was with the Seeburg Corporation, the same Seeburg that manufactured all those juke boxes of the 50’s and 60’s. Seeburg had a subdivision that designed and built specialized antennas for the military, and I was going to be a low-level technician with that group. Everything went well for the first week, learning abut the project, forging bonds with the engineers, and going out to lunch at Sieben’s Bier Stube, just around the corner from the office.

Military contracting is a crap shoot. Before the end of my first week, everyone was called into a staff meeting where it was announced that the contract supporting the project had been cancelled and the entire staff would be laid off. My salary for the few days I had worked would not last long, nor would it buy a train ticket back to Kansas. Since I had returned to Chicago specifically to take this job, I was able to negotiate a “sympathy” bonus equal to train fare home. But I really wanted to stay in the big city rather than camp out in my mother’s basement for the summer.

I had secured lodging in the Evanston YMCA, where a room cost something like $18 a week. With my ticket money, I could afford to stay at the Y and look for a job, at least for a couple of weeks. After that, I’d have to beg for train fare from my mother, which I definitely did not want to do.

Late in our senior year in high school, my buddy, Darryl, and I had passed the FCC licensing exam to permit working as radio and TV transmitter engineers. Before I got to NU, I had worked as a transmitter engineer for an AM radio station in Wichita and as a studio engineer for a Wichita TV station. I had also spent a few months at WNMP-FM in Evanston, as a studio announcer. Naturally, my job search started with Chicago radio stations.

The only nibble I got from my inquiries was with a small (actually, tiny) FM station located in the lobby of Chicago’s famed but fading Edgewater Beach Hotel. WEBH was a vanity station owned by Buddy Black, a former radio celebrity interviewer on WGN radio. Back in the day, many famous people would stay at the Edgewater Beach Hotel, and Buddy would walk around the dining room during lunch hour, microphone in hand, in search of interesting people to interview. If a celebrity was not in the dining room, Buddy would interview one or more hotel guests. Ordinary guests outnumbered celebrities by a huge margin. The rest of the day, the station played “easy listening” music with little or no on-air personality.

The day I arrived for my interview, the transmitter suddenly went off the air. Buddy took me up to the transmitter room on the 28th floor, and paced back and forth while I studied the transmitter manual and fiddled with switches and dials. After about 15 minutes or so, I had located the problem, and in another 15 minutes had made the necessary repair and got the station back on the air. I needed a job. Buddy needed an engineer. Needless to say, I had the job. A match made in heaven…well, as close to heaven as you can get on the 28th floor.

The problem was that Buddy didn’t like to pay people: in fact, several of the announcers who did work at WEBH did so for free, just to get a start in the radio business. (These days that would be called an “unpaid internship.”) After a lengthy exchange of ideas, and a thorough analysis of my financial needs, Buddy agreed to pay me $31.75 a week in exchange for regular transmitter maintenance and repair, which ultimately amounted to about 20 hours a week, to be put in between midnight and 6 am. I was delighted. I could stay in Chicago for the summer and had my days free for other adventures, and maybe get a second job.

I didn’t get to see much of the splendor of the Edgewater Beach Hotel. I always used the service elevators and stayed pretty much behind the scenes, and was hardly ever there during daylight hours anyway. I spent quite a few 4 am mornings with my elbows on the ledge of the 28th floor balcony, watching sparse traffic on Lake Shore Drive, and moonlit waves wash the shore of Lake Michigan. I also remember the sweet ripe odor of rotting garbage in the back hallways of the hotel, something I’ve come to associate with food-service institutions in general.

The Edgewater Beach Hotel was an elegant landmark at one time, but its grandeur was already fading when I worked there. The WEBH transmitter was also a relic, and required tremendous effort and expense to keep running. I had to fight Buddy’s budgetary restraints to keep spare parts on hand, so I can’t imagine that he would have been able to stay on the air much longer after I left, without major expenditures.

WEBH and I parted ways in the fall when school started again. I had survived the summer on $31.75 a week, living at the Evanston YMCA. It was against the rules to keep food in my room, but my friend Charlie subsidized my diet with loaves of several-days-old Limpa (rye bread) from his father’s Swedish Bakery.

I spent summer evenings hanging out on Chicago’s Near North Side, making friends with beatniks and book sellers, reading a lot of depressing Russian novels, listening to radical orators on soapboxes in Bughouse Square, and generally getting a liberal education unavailable to most electrical engineering students.

I never did get that second job.

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About Jesse

My name is Jesse Blatt. My first name is actually “Ramon,” but I haven’t used that name, except for official purposes, since 1970. I have a high school diploma and a PhD…nothing in between. I’ll get around to explaining that in a post sometime. From time to time I will be posting true stories from my past, though not in any special order. I’ve been fortunate to have had a dozen or so different careers, most of them very satisfying, some fairly frustrating, and none that I wish had never happened. In my many former lives, I have been a mail clerk, radio and TV engineer, radio announcer, electronics engineer, college instructor, psychologist, research consultant, Federal employee, supervisor of research professionals, computer programmer, web designer, instructional designer, construction site handyman, and carpenter, not necessarily in that order.
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