WHRB: Unofficial sounds of Harvard in the 1950s

Sam Smith

WHRB was started during World War II as an AM station, using as its antenna the university’s electrical wiring system running through huge tunnels for the steam pipes. Its signal was not supposed to be heard beyond the campus, but there were periodic reports of it being picked up as far as Medford and Worcester, thanks to miscreant radiation. In 1957 WHRB was given an FM license, becoming a real station legally heard throughout the Boston area.


WHRB was a radio station, but it also functioned as a counter-fraternity, a salon des refuses for all those who because of ethnicity, class or inclination, did not fit the mold of Harvard. Other organizations sought students of the “right type,” WHRB got what was left over. Eccentric WASP preppies, Brookline Jews, brilliant engineers, persons obsessed with a musical genre, addicts of show business or their own voices, seminal journalists, future entrepreneurs, prospective advertising executives, and persons of heretofore unrequited imagination and energy filtered through the door in the alley known as Dudley Gulch to become part of The Network.

As you entered, there was a control booth on the left and in the narrow hall a stand that held a large thick black covered journal of the sort once favored by lawyers and accountants. This was the Comment Book – or CB – the living Torah of the station. In it, notices of import and nonsense were written or stapled in undifferentiated order. Amusing excerpts from the news wire might be followed by a serious critique of a recent program. Hardly a notice appeared without someone, perhaps many someones, commenting on the notice, each addendum ending with a slash and the symbol of the writer. These symbols — mine was a puerile SAM — were carefully explained in an index at the beginning of each book, along with the names and addresses of any former members – “ghosts” – who might have wandered in during the interim. By WHRB’s fiftieth year there were 2,300 ghosts and 227 volumes of comment books stored in some archive, a remarkable trove awaiting a Ph.D. student seeking to write a cultural history of Harvard outsiders. Here are some entries from April 24, 1958:

The psychology story on ATN [All the News] was one of the worst I have ever heard. Much too long and clumsily written/mrf

KAS:Eat shit/JAN

JAN reacts sensibly and calmly to constructive criticism/KAS

Like members of other underclasses, we tended to treat each other with brutal directness — anything from diction to ethnicity was fair game — while maintaining a united front towards larger Harvard. Perhaps in our language we wanted to mock the disingenuous civility of the Harvard patois. We were, after all, different. We were actually doing something. We had the Federal Communications Commission logs of every minute of the day to prove it.

It was in the comment book that I learned that one of my classmates had failed a paper assignment, in part because he had footnoted large sections to “the unpublished works of Richard Zacks,” who, it turned out, was his roommate. And it was in the comment book that we all followed gwh’s — always lower case — repeated efforts to pass “Heaven and Hell.” gwh, a classical music announcer of mellifluous intonation, would later become a Methodist minister, but it was a career being seriously impeded by the general science requirement. On one occasion he stapled his entire exam blue book into the CB. Asked to describe an atom, gwh wrote, “An atom is very small. No one has ever seen an atom. Lucretius was the last person to write in an engaging manner about the atom.” When called upon to draw a chart showing the typical pattern of a solar prominence, gwh demurred: “I don’t remember that chart, but one I do recall and liked particularly is the following.” His final exam not only produced a failing grade, but two pages of exasperated comment from the section woman: “How can anyone fail to see the beauty of the stars, the fascination of the solar system? Your eyes must be closed. . .”

She obviously did not know gwh. His eyes were not closed; they were just elsewhere. gwh, after all, was the person who had once broadcast the complete daily New Bedford fish tonnage report in the manner of a funeral oration, complete with strident symphonic background. gwh also managed, prior to graduation, to redesign all rail passenger service in Florida, the existing schedule not being to his satisfaction. Some years later I ran into him in Harvard Square. He was attending Harvard Divinity School and I asked him how it was going. “Well, Sam,” he intoned, “this semester we learned that Moses didn’t exist. Next semester we take up the New Testament.”

When I reminded him of this several decades later, gwh said, “Ah yes, Harvard Divinity School was trying on one’s faith. One of our professors told us, ‘Gentlemen, our duty is to effect the burial of the dead. What God does with the body afterwards is his business.'” Otherwise I pretty much lost track of him after graduation, except for one postcard bearing the photo of an empty Massachusetts village green with the notation: “Sometimes the silence here is terrifying.” Then in the sixties, he phoned me in Washington and, with no other greeting, announced, “Sam, this is gwh. I have just bought the observation car of the Royal Blue. If you care to have a drink with me, Terry, and some others you may come to Track 17 at Union Station at 5 pm.” I did. Long after, I asked gwh what had happened to the observation car of the Royal Blue, a famed Baltinore & Ohio express train. He told me that he had written without avail to several presidents of railroads seeking a siding. Finally he wrote a letter to the head of a short line that went like this:

DEAR SIR: I am a poor Methodist minister and I need a place to park my observation car. Can you help?

The short line president responded with a deal. He explained that no one had ever prayed for his road and if gwh would promise to do so, he could have a siding. The arrangement worked for several years but then “the president of the short line began to covet my observation car and I finally sold it to him for three times the price I had paid for it.” A long pause. “Of course, I immediately stopped praying for his railroad and it shortly went bankrupt.”

gwh was not a typical WHRBer because there was no such thing. Among WHRB ghosts have been a network correspondent, a former assistant secretary of defense, communications lawyers, radio station owners, the president of the Conference Board, an NPR correspondent and the editor of an alternative journal. Many are still in broadcasting; many have never been heard from again. Both gwh and the president of the Conference Board are dead.

I thought that might be the case with another friend until he called me from a motel in Laurel, Maryland, a town best known for its race track. He was the product of a fine Catholic education whose arguments were welcomed for their Jesuitical eloquence whether one agreed with them or not. I had seen him a number of times after college, for he had ended up at Fort Holabird nearby in Maryland, where they trained soldiers for military intelligence. I was vaguely aware that he had become enamored of the horses and even more vaguely aware that he had gone to Vietnam with something called Air America, rumored to be a CIA front. It was good to see him again, although I was puzzled how he had come to be traveling with a beehive blonde, a decade older then himself, and her fourteen year old son.

As dinner progressed, he gave a carefully edited review of his life since our last meeting, during which I learned that the beehive blonde had once worked in a casino in Batista’s Cuba. I was curious, but failed to pursue, a couple of names he dropped such as Egil Krogh of Watergate notoriety. He had, he admitted, been in intelligence work, but was far more interested in describing his growing fascination with the turf. According to his version, he had primarily followed the horses, from Laurel to Vietnam and back to Laurel. After dinner, my friend settled back and said, “You may have noticed that my story had a couple of years missing from it.” I hadn’t, but nodded. “And that I mentioned meeting Egil Krogh.” That I had noticed. “Well, I got into a bit of trouble over a racing matter with the Mafia and it ended with me spending some time in Allenwood,” the federal penitentiary. A few days later, he came to my office and tried to sell me on publishing his fail-safe system of betting. I declined and never saw him again.

One joined WHRB after a rigorous competition devised to determine whether one was competent and eccentric enough to belong. Once a member, you were entitled to engage fully in the internal politics of the station, played out daily in the comment book and culminating in election meetings in Studio B so raucus that there had to be a sergeant at arms, whose primary job was to prevent the disappearance of quorum. It was while serving in this capacity that I shredded the shirt of my friend Lew Walling as he forced his way out the door.

A few years later Lew’s luck would turn. He was part of a classified Air Force mission in Vietnam. His plane went down and according to an account, “Dawn found the SAR team getting off a Vietnamese Army helicopter on a dirt road several miles from the crash site. The team, led by Colonel Gleason, hiked across the side of a mountain where they found the C-47 had plummeted into a ravine and burned almost completely.” Walling’s name is one of the first forty on the glazed black wall of the Vietnam Memorial. The first one had died in 1959, the year I graduated.

One of the earliest WHRB stories I heard was of a station camping trip. The participants, I was told, quickly divided into two groups. The first arose early and enjoyed the attractions that nature offered. The second slept during the day and played bridge all night. But a few did both and they were the ones, it was pointed out, who came to run the station. It impressed me but not enough to learn bridge, a game still underway in Studio B many evenings after one am.

My interest was journalism. I signed up for the news department and was quickly baptized by news director Dick Comegys, who had the skill and temperament to run a broadcast news operation but would become a minister instead. Dick told me that my first assignment was to interview the president of the Arab League who would be arriving at the station in a few minutes. Just like that. I have no idea what I asked the poor man, for my knowledge of Middle Eastern affairs at that point came largely from the Bible, but I somehow stumbled through the interview and into Comegys’ good graces. I suspect that Dick didn’t care what I produced, only whether I would freeze. It was a silent message that one could and should be able to do anything. It was not unusual for the president of the Arab League to come to the station. After all, Duke Ellington had once played the upright in Studio B, Eleanor Roosevelt had visited for an interview and Leadbelly had performed for four hours live while being plied with Scotch. Once a staffer was sent to try to entice Robert Frost to tape an interview, a seemingly futile task since Frost had always refused to appear on radio. The student went to Frost’s home and started discussing poetry, never daring to broach the invitation. Frost enjoyed the talk and invited the student back. On the third visit, he finally asked what had brought the student over the first time. The student explained, Frost accepted, and subsequently made his first radio broadcast ever on WHRB.

And then there’s my note referring to a live folk music program: “We had the usual motley collection of musicians and would-be musicians. The best by far were Bill Woods and a beautiful girl named Joan.” Joan was a Boston folksinger brought to the station by her friend and later Vietnam casualty, Lew Walling. Lew also helped launch her career, getting her a seminal serious gig at 47 Mt. Auburn.

Joan Baez was a rare woman to enter WHRB other than as a staffer’s date. Some of us wanted to have women members and talked about it but, it still being the Fifties, that was about all we did. Still, one year after I graduated, the first women went through the station’s competition and joined.

During most of the year, broadcast standards at the Network were as high as those on many professional stations. For example, I was allowed to host a jazz show, Jam with Sam, and to do news reports but not to read the regular commentary I wrote. My voice wasn’t considered good enough. But during the reading and exam period, however, the station permitted any staffer to take a block of time as WHRB went on the air 24 hours a day to provide music to study by. Whimsy was encouraged. Mike Bell did a regular eight hour stint of Eastern European classical music and I once played a Music Minus One version of Mozart’s clarinet quintet – without the clarinet. We would have eight-hour live folk or jazz orgies; I hosted one of the latter that featured over 35 campus musicians including eleven drummers. By the time the station was a half century old, the term orgy had been registered as a trademark and planning orgies had become an orgy in itself. Not only had the station once presented 168 straight hours of Art Blakey recordings but the staff that same year listened to 500 hours of Mozart to find 220 for airtime.

Dispensation was also regularly given for a well-designed trick or “croque” derived, one was told, from “a crock of shit.” The best croques required even the unsuspecting to act as though nothing had happened. Thus I was expected not to fall apart on air as I tried to quietly leave the squeaky wooden chair in Studio A only to find that someone had fastened the belt strap on the back of my chinos to its rungs. Nor when I read a newscast that began “Here’s the latest news hot off the wires of United Press,” as the staffer beside me lit the newsprint copy with his Zippo. I was, in that instance, annoyed but cool until a few seconds later, when the engineer sprayed the studio window in front of me with a foam fire extinguisher, at which point I broke up beyond repair.

The more elaborate croques required great planning, such as the never-ending symphony, comprised of the codas of about a dozen different compositions carefully spliced onto the end of the victim work. There was also a version of the 1812 Overture untouched except for the spot in which the cannon fire was respliced with the sound of a crying baby. And then there was Yehudi Menuhin and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Substituting for Yehudi’s cadenza was a skilled student violinist recorded in studio B. He played according to the transcription for many measures and then hit a bad note. He stopped, tried again. Another bad note. On the third try, he said, “Oh, to hell with it” and the Philadelphia Orchestra came blazing back. It was this skill and perversity that helped to produce the notorious black box, a device that could circumvent the telephone company’s then only internal use of tone switching, It was alleged that a WHRBie, using the box, had managed to reach Worcester via the White Elephant Hotel in Katmandu. And it is true, or at least can be reasonably argued, that WHRB may have been the birthplace of hacking.

One of WHRB’s ghosts who graduated in 1965, wrote me in 1999 confirming that hacking may well have started at WHRB. He and another student “built a black box, but our great discovery was the Blue Box. That was discovered sort of by accident, as the result of a long chain of events, including “a Wagner orgy which required dubbing a pirated version of Seigried using an audio oscillator borrowed from the techies. . . One part of this wasn’t quite so fun: being interrogated by 12 FBI agents, who ended up annoyed that ATT had contacted them, once we explained that we had gotten into military bases only “because they were there.”

Little of the eccentric activities inside WHRB were reflected on air. WHRBies took broadcasting, if little else, seriously. When I played an Earl Bostic R&B record on Jam with Sam, jazz director Reilly Atkinson took me aside to lecture me firmly against attempting any future heresy. It was a time before format radio and while classical music filled the bulk of the schedule, there was plenty of room for jazz, folk, country, and play-by-play broadcasts of Harvard games, both at home and away.

I eventually became news, sports and special events director. I also produced and hosted a weekly four-hour collage of news, interviews, poetry, live and recorded music of all varieties, and strange noises, called The Saturday Show. One of our advertisers, Minute Man Records, allowed us to pull anything out of its stock for airplay in return for commercial time. I would rummage around its shelves looking for selections of Celtic verse or the music of the Royal Dutch Air Force Band to play between a conversation with a professor and live jazz. Several times I played Lennie Bruce records, making nervous mentions of Mary Jane Morris, secretary of the FCC.

Our competition at WHRB was the Crimson, although it often pretended not to notice. We would share joint news briefings with university officials such as Dean McGeorge Bundy, who would lean back in his chair with his feet on his desk and implicitly dare us to put him in a corner, saying things like, “We are sparring with ten foot poles, gentlemen.”

Our work was immensely aided by the fact that I had a battery operated tape recorder. These devices were extreme rarities. One of our staff, Jim Flug, supplemented the machine with his motor scooter so that, in effect, we had our own mobile news unit. Flug, who later would become news director and even later a respectable Washington lawyer, once snagged an interview with president-elect John F. Kennedy (at Harvard for a board of overseers meeting) by jumping into his limousine and shoving the tiny mike in his face.

The most noteworthy figure to appear at Harvard during my tenure was the newly victorious Fidel Castro, who spoke to 8,000 enthusiastic faculty and students (including one from Brandeis named Abbie Hoffman) at Dillon Field House. Castro was still considered a hero by many Americans for having overthrown the egregious Batista. While those of us who had taken Soc Sci 2 knew that not all revolutions were for the better, there was about this one a romance that took my thoughts far from Harvard Square as a top Castro lieutenant, sitting in front of my little recorder in the Bick, told me of his days with Fidel in the mountains. Castro was booed only once according to my broadcast report later that evening, when he “attempted to defend the execution of Cuban war criminals after the revolution. Castro asked his listeners, ‘you want something else?’ and proceed to give them a fifteen minute further explanation.”

My story continued:

Some of Castro’s aides expressed a feeling of relaxation during the Harvard tour in comparison with the formal diplomatic visit to Washington. Leaving the faculty club, Castro’s air attaché was cheered for his snappy uniform by the students who surrounded the area. . . WHRB will rebroadcast Dr. Castro’s speech on Monday at midnight. WHRB’s recording of the event will also be broadcast by the Voice of America and Station CMQ in Havana.

With Fidel Castro we were just part of the medium. Our coverage of Al Vellucci was another matter. On a May morning, the Crimson came out with a story that Cambridge city councilor Alfred Vellucci had announced plans to introduce an order asking the city manager to “confiscate” all of the university’s lands because of the Harvard administration’s “lack of cooperation” in solving the city’s parking problems. Vellucci was quoted as saying that “I am going to fine every Harvard student who parks his car on the public street at night unless the university makes all its property available for public parking.” Down at the radio station, I assigned one of our reporters the job of calling Councilor Vellucci. He got an earful:

The citizens and taxpayers are sick and tired of supporting Harvard. The time has arrived when Cambridge should break away and let the state and federal government support the school. Our taxpayers are not able to do the job alone … Our police department has to rush to the university every time the students start one of their foolish riots … The fire department has to go in there on school fires. We have to put police officers on extra duty to handle the traffic situation after one of the football games … Let the university become a state of its own like the Vatican in Rome and pay for its own fire and police departments.

Vellucci added: “John Lund, commander of the local Sullivan Post, American Legion, has told me every veterans organization in the city will support my bill.” He went on like that for twenty minutes. We ran excerpts on the 11 p.m. news and student listeners began calling the station demanding to hear the full interview. It was not just the words; the Vellucci voice lent impetus to the message. It was the precise antithesis of a well-cultivated Harvard accent and even at its most irate had a buoyant quality tinged with the faintest hint of satire that in those amusement and issue-starved years of the fifties, tickled the student ear. These were not times when you worried about the impact of the media on events; there were no seminars on TV and violence, no breast-beating over whether the press covered a hostage situation correctly. There was, however, a lot of boredom and whatever else he might be, Al Vellucci was certainly not boring. I ran the whole interview at midnight and calls from those who tuned in during the middle of it were so numerous that I ran it again at one a.m. The next morning, the story was page one in the Boston Globe — culled from the WHRB interview — with a two column headline:


The Crimson had the Vellucci story first, but in its stately way had missed the exploitation potential. It was WHRB’s Vatican angle that caught the imagination of Harvard’s student body. Some of us, I suspect, also subconsciously recognized in Vellucci a man who, despite his attacks on students, was really waging war on a mutual enemy, the Harvard administration. It would still be some years before students learned to stand up to their campus oppressors and Vellucci was a prophetic voice, calling for rebellion not just by the citizens of Cambridge against Harvard, but, subliminally, by the students as well.

The Cambridge citizenry kept calm but not the students. It began, as those things often did, with a peculiarly unrelated and insignificant act the very next night. During a drunken argument in the offices of the college humor magazine over the relative merits of prose and poetry, someone (by some accounts Neil Sheehan, later a famed NY Times correspondent) threw a typewriter out of a window. The riot was on. Two thousand men of Harvard gathered shouting alternatively, “Hang Vellucci,” “Vellucci for Pope,” and “We want Monaco.” Beer cans and water-filled bags were tossed about. Eddie Sullivan, the mayor of the city, showed up in his radio and siren-equipped Chrysler Imperial and attempted to quell the disturbance. He failed to get the attention of the crowd, part of which was busy letting the air out of all four of his tires. From one of the dormitories blared a recording of Tchaikowsky’s 1812 Overture. The cops sent reinforcements to Al’s home but no one strayed from the campus.

The riot ended in typical fashion: once half the students had marched into Harvard Yard, its gates were closed and the ones not trapped inside counted their losses and retired to their rooms or to Cronin’s.

With what the city would come to realize was his normal tactical brilliance, Al Vellucci had succeeded in turning Harvard against itself. A few students were arrested, a few faced disciplinary action and by one a.m. it was over. Those of us in the WHRB news department went to sleep content in the knowledge that in twenty-four hours we had created a celebrity and a riot. Not a bad day’s work for a few student journalists.

The story no doubt helped me get elected as station manager, a post I held only for a month or two as I was put on academic probation and had to resign. I had considered WHRB a Harvard honors program but it turned out to be only an extra curricular activity.

2 thoughts on “WHRB: Unofficial sounds of Harvard in the 1950s

  1. I too am a ghost (i), Harvard 64/67, spent a large part of my freshman year in Dudley Gulch. Upstairs from the WHRB studio was what I regarded as the best dining room at Harvard, rivaled, later, long after it was gone, by the Law School dining room in Langdell Hall.

    i was a techie, sometimes running the board on Saturdays for Tom Rush’s “Hillbilly at Harvard”. One time when Joan Baez was the guest, I asked if she could sing in !osa the Miriam Makeba “click song”. Not only could she, she knew and sang a couple of other songs in !osa.

    One time were doing a remote hockey game via a rented Telco line, when in during an intermission, the line went dead. We hacked into a pay phone, called the station, connected to the control board and continued. The operator asked for more quarters, on the air of course, only once.

    During the election night of 1960 (Kennedy vs Nixon for the younger crowd) we did not have a teletype news feed; someone had a connection with a professor who had a news ticker (might have been Louis Lyons), so we had runners between his office and WHRB. Someone else had a friend who claimed to be able to type at TV commentator talking speed. We tried her out but she could not keep up. She explained that she could keep up but the typewriter couldn’t. She said that the only typewriter that could type fast enough was the then-new IBM Selectric. We found one, and she was right – she could type as fast as the talking heads could speak, thus converting NBC to our own news feed.

    Soon after I too went on probation and was gone for 3 years, a very different story.

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