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February 15, 2012

VIDEO: New display at Historical Society looks back at golden days of radio in Wabash Valley

Radio veterans share memories of time on the air

TERRE HAUTE — You can almost hear the nostalgic sounds of radio broadcasts long past in newest exhibit on display at the Vigo County Historical Society.

“Tuning In: The History of Radio in Vigo County” features more than a dozen antique radio sets, including some of the first ever made. It also features photographs and memorabilia of Terre Haute’s earliest radio broadcasters.

“You could have listened to FDR’s ‘fireside chats’ or the announcement of the attack on Pearl Harbor on this radio,” said antique radio collector Mark Day speaking of a 1941 “Firestone Air Chief” radio, which is part of the museum’s display.

And that’s just one of many radios from the 1920s to the 1950s on display at the museum, many of them the property of Day. Others are the property of the Historical Society, which is at 1411 S. Sixth St.

On Tuesday, three Wabash Valley radio veterans met to see the exhibit and to reminisce about the “old days” of Terre Haute radio broadcasting and how they got their starts in the business.

Martin Plascak, the familiar news voice of Terre Haute on WBOW-AM and later WTHI-AM and FM, got his start in radio in 1951 when he was still a student at Indiana State University Teachers College.

Plascak said his first moments broadcasting were very nearly his last. Finding himself alone in the air studio and attempting to broadcast “The Glenn Miller Show,” Plascak panicked, he recalled. Only the encouraging words of then-WBOW program director Harry Frey convinced him to stick around, he said.

“My career was almost over before it began,” Plascak said.

Nancy Bradford was a reporter for WBOW after doing a variety of jobs at her first station, WAAC-AM, where she hosted “The Tips Show.”

Bradford recalls working the day Elvis Presley died. The radio station’s Associated Press teletype machine erupted in a long series of alarm bells signaling something extremely important had taken place.

“I thought the world had come to an end,” Bradford said. She ran and tore the bulletin from the AP machine and hurried it into the broadcast booth. Once the news was broadcast, people called the station for the rest of the day “sobbing and crying,” Bradford said.

Jerry Arnold, a 2008-inductee into the Indiana Broadcast Pioneer Hall of Fame, still works in radio as director of engineering for Midwest Communications. He was fascinated by radio as a kid and eventually volunteered to do some announcing at his southern California high school. “After that, it was all down hill,” he said. He got his first job in radio at age 16 and in March will celebrate 45 years in the business.

“I think the thing I liked most about radio was its immediacy,” Arnold said.

Plascak, Bradford and Arnold would sometimes meet while covering news for different radio stations. But one story was especially notable for involving Arnold and Bradford.

Arnold was working for WAAC when police scanner traffic indicated there was a big fire on the east side of town. When he arrived at the scene, Arnold found the burning home belonged to an employee of WBOW who was also a friend of Bradford’s.

After he returned to the station, Arnold’s news story included the remarkable information that a woman at the scene of the blaze had given mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a kitten left virtually lifeless from inhaling smoke.

“I gave the mouth-to-mouth,” Bradford said smiling, adding that the kitten did revive. Unfortunately, however, Bradford, then working for WBOW, never got the story reported, giving Arnold the scoop. “That’s because we were at the cat hospital with the stupid cat,” Bradford said laughing.

Radio broadcasting has changed dramatically over the past several decades. When Plascak started, radio announcers wore ties at work and even into the 1970s, Terre Haute radio stations had large news reporting staffs.

“There was fierce competition between radio stations,” Plascak recalled. And radio stations conducted large-scale promotional stunts to attract listeners, such as Jim “JA” Austin remaining awake at the former downtown Roots store for more than 100 hours. Or a station hiding money around town in a sort of massive scavenger hunt.

The money was hidden at the former Memorial Stadium golf course, Plascak recalled. Naturally, listeners tore the course up looking for the loot. “We had to repair it,” Plascak said. “The promotions of radio back in those days were just unbelievable.”

Arthur Foulkes can be reached at (812) 231-4232 or arthur.foulkes@ tribstar.com

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