Friday, July 11, 2014

Building up memories

My former workplace, reduced to rubble.
Is it easy to feel nostalgic over the death of a building?

Of course it is.

I worked at WEBR Radio from 1978 to 1986, and then in 1993 or so. I made a lot of friends there. In other words, I'm probably never going to be able to forget the address of 23 North St. for the rest of my life.

This was back in the day when most of Buffalo's radio stations were in the same neighborhood, in Allentown. WGR/WGRQ and WYSL/WPHD were down Franklin, WKBW was just over on Delaware, and WBLK was around the corner. This is as opposed to today, when all of a city's radio stations are in the same building or two, thanks to giant companies that swallow up outlets with the zest that bears have for salmon. Our building was a classic three-story mansion between Linwood and Main St. While it had been remodeled a few times in certain ways, it must have been quite a place in its day.

Let's start with the main part of the structure during my days there. The first floor consisted of a switchboard area/lobby and the station manager's office at the front. My old friend, Hall of Famer Margaret Russ, was in a room just off the station manager's office, and across the hall from a big area the size of a fancy dining room. When a station (AM or FM) had a fundraising period scheduled, that's where the phones rang. I believe that was where Mike Collins passed along the news around 1993 that virtually everyone was being fired as the station was going to mostly National Public Radio programming with almost no local news. Sigh.

There were wide stairs leading up to the second floor, which contained studios, offices and a music library. That's where WNED-FM was located. The news group and the classical music types didn't mix too much. Longtime program director Peter Goldsmith bravely came into the news area once in a while to talk hockey with the sports guys. You can build up a lot of good will that way.

From there, stairs led up to a third floor. I think it took two years for me to get the courage to go up there. It was the official office furniture graveyard. You've never seen more broken tables, typewriters, etc. in a relatively small space. I never asked why the area wasn't cleaned out - it probably was because no one could figure out how to get the stuff out of there without using the window.

In the back of the main building was a stairway leading downward to the basement, the true mystery area of the place. Dave Kerner and I one day figured it was time to look around. It was pretty empty. The "find" of the tour was a tiny political button for Franklin Roosevelt, running on a minor party line for President. We asked engineer Don Lange when the last time the basement had been used. "Well, I've been here since 1937, and it's never been used in that time," he said. So maybe that button played a small role in FDR's win over Alf Landon in '36.

In the back of the main part of the building was a good-sized room, perhaps the kitchen once upon a time. There were a couple of rooms just off it, converted to office and supply space. The main area had a vending machine, copier and individual mailboxes, the latter of which was too frequently used to announce via memo that someone else - usually a friend - would be departing the station soon for parts near or far.

There was a door in the corner of that room that led to the major addition, which was the home of the AM radio news operation in my day. There was a long hallway on one side, bordering a couple of offices and the rest rooms (where one employee essentially had a nervous breakdown one night). When I first got to WEBR as an intern, Pete Weber handed me a baseball glove and told me to catch some slapshots as a goalie as he fired plastic pucks in the hall. ("So this is big time radio," I thought to myself.) By the way, the hallway also served as a soccer area, and when someone broke an exit sign with a shot, the station manager banned hockey from the hallways. Well, sports weren't his strong point.

On the other side of the hallway came studios, the main newsroom (the spot where Richard Simmons once yelled at me for eating a doughnut), and a "bullpen" for reporters' desk. The bullpen, by the way, was the scene of an arrest. One night someone broke into the front of the building, setting off a silent alarm in the AM control room. The Jazz in the Nighttime DJ was taught to call the police and leave the building, which Eulis Cathey did. When the policemen showed up, they asked the guy in the bullpen who he was. "I'm the burglar," he responded. Thus ended the fastest and most effective investigation in Buffalo police history.

The last big change to the building came when I was there. The garage had contained a variety of items beforehand. I seem to recall some sort of pedal-cart that WEBR had used once upon a time. It (the garage, not the cart) was turned into more studio space and offices. I spent quite a bit of time dubbing news features there. Just outside in the parking lot was a large tower, used at one time to send the signal to the transmitter in the Southtowns.

There were all sorts of characters in the building over the years, but I'll only bring up one of the most obscure: Nelson. Mark Hamrick certainly would remember him. We had some sort of cleaning service take care of the place, and Nelson came in around 6 p.m. to start the nightly process. He looked about 60, was actually over 80, and was the nicest guy you'd ever want to meet. I think Mark went over to his house for Thanksgiving one year. The problem was that Nelson wasn't particularly good at his job. He spent most of his time talking and little of his time cleaning. No one was too concerned, because he was such a good person. His manager showed up one night to look around, and was absolutely horrified by what he saw. We had a new cleaning person soon after that. But I've still got Nelson's voice on a fake broadcast that I created for Jonathan Aiken's goodbye party. (I was good at that stuff - much better than I was on the air. Which is partly why I work for a newspaper now.)

As some have heard, lightning struck the building, and I mean that literally. The construction crew came in and judged the place not worth saving. So demolition began. There had been plans to turn the place into a residential building, but they never got off the ground. On Facebook, there are pictures of an opening where a wall should be. Haven't felt like that over a building's demise since the Aud came down.

I used to drive by 23 North St. once in a great while. The building was sold when WEBR moved into the new public broadcasting headquarters close to the waterfront, and has been vacant for some time. It was rather depressing seeing the old place lately, so I didn't go often. 

But the day after I heard about the demolition, I went back to the grounds. The building was completely down, but the area hadn't been cleared yet. So ... I snapped a picture (see above) and took a brick home with me.

While I was there, I thought of my coworker, Bruce Allen Kolesnick. He passed away earlier this week, and I had attended his memorial ceremony earlier in the day. Bruce hosted a weekend show at WEBR among other duties. He was one of the most good-natured people in the building's history, always having a smile on his face and making the area a better place to work. When Dave Kerner and I needed a third voice for a spoof of a rap song we were doing, we knew Bruce would figure out what we wanted and go at it with enthusiasm and good humor. I believe Bruce and I left WEBR at the exact same time, sharing a goodbye party at Bullfeathers. I didn't see him enough after that, as he was at UB in a separate orbit. My loss.

I thought of some other friends who used to spend 40 hours per week on that piece of land - people like Dawn Hamilton and Mary Brady and Larry Hatzi and Brad Krohn and Steve Coryell and John Gill and Jerry Fedell and Peter Goldsmith, who aren't around any more, and the many others who are.

And then I smiled.

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1 comment:

Barbara Chinsky Cohen said...

I also did my college internship at WEBR. My first assignment outside of the building was the day of the Blizzard of 77. I along with reporter, John Krieger Jr. spent the night with Mayor Makowski in City Hall. Great memories and lessons
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