Protesting James Brown in Harlem (excerpt from the upcoming book, “The Slow Death Of American Radio”)

I’ve always felt a visceral connection to Harlem, the world’s most famous black community. Maybe that’s because Harlem is where I began my radio career.

The Harlem of 1973 was completely different from the Harlem people know today.

Frederick Douglas Circle, Harlem NY

Frederick Douglas Circle, Harlem NY

The community was, along with the rest of the city, sliding backward, much of it due to the heroin epidemic.

By 1973, the drug seemed to have Harlem firmly in it’s powdery grip. It was into this world that I first began covering news.

It was a world where Sylvia’s, the famous soul food bistro, was little more than  a lunch counter. Mrs. Sylvia Woods, a great and gracious lady, still worked behind the counter. It was where we went for breakfast when we could afford it. There was also a Chinese restaurant where Sylvia’s Also now stands. Old timers in the neighborhood told me that Ho Chi Minh, the leader of North Vietnam, used to work there. I was never sure if this was true, but the guy who told me certainly thought so.

Sylvia and Herbert Woods

Sylvia and Herbert Woods

 

The Harlem of the 1970s was full of people who had lived there most if not all of their lives. Yet it was the white powder, which some pronounced “hair-on” that cast a pall over the community.

Heroin addict

It was a time when cabbies would have preferred driving into the Hudson River rather than taking a fare north of 96th St.

My first assignment, not long after I made the transition from intern to paid reporter, was to cover a protest at the World Famous Apollo Theater.  A group called the Harlem Salute Committee was picketing the Godfather of Soul, James Brown. Thing is, James Brown shows at the Apollo were special events in Harlem. There were always lines around the block, and folks turned out in well coiffed afros, and their best clothes, then called threads.

james Brown Apollo marquee

I thought this protest, led by a man named Rabbi Judah Anderson, was barking up the wrong tree. He accused James Brown of refusing to co-operate with his Committee, and their efforts to honor Harlem’s black heroes.

My boss simply handed me a tape recorder, and with the words “there’s a protest at the Apollo, go see what’s going on”, sent me on my way.

The protest wasn’t all that large, and Rabbi Anderson, was easily available to talk. When I finished the interview, I came to the conclusion that the Harlem Salute Committee just wanted James Brown to write a check. The Godfather of Soul apparently came to the same conclusion, since he wrote about the protest in his autobiography. He called the protests a shakedown. No matter to me. I dutifully brought the taped interview back to the newsroom, where it was dubbed, edited, and used on the air that afternoon. My qualms about giving voice to a hustler were more than overwhelmed by my pride in putting together a report worthy of being broadcast on the radio.

That protest was the first of many stories I covered in Harlem through the years. Ten years after I started at WLIB, I lived in Harlem for several years. One thing that has stood the test of time is the neighborhood’s unique rhythm. By that I mean people uptown have their own way of doing things, of walking, of talking, of being. Working at the only radio station then located in Harlem made me attuned to that rhythm.

Mark.wwrl.microphone.NYC skyline

It’s why I love Harlem – then and now – and why I will always love radio.

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WTF You Can’t Type? (from the upcoming book “The Slow Death of American Radio”)

My early days in radio were full of discovery, both good and bad.

WBLS

On the first day of my internship, I went to 310 Lenox Avenue in Harlem, eager to get started.

My bubble burst when I walked up to the receptionist, and asked to see Mr. David Lampel. She called to the newsroom, and then asked me, “Who are you, and what is it you want”?

I froze, and explained I’d been there a couple of days before, and had been told to come back. She called to the back recording studios a second time, then, in a stern voice said, “You work here! You don’t have to stop by me,  go straight to the back!”

My function, aside from shadowing people while they worked, was to steal traffic reports from another radio station. I scribbled out the delays and the mass transit stoppages on a piece of paper, then handed them to the newsperson, who read them on the air.

I didn’t know at the time, but I was stealing from the great Fred Feldman, who later founded Shadow Traffic, and invented the phrase “rubbernecking delays.” He is also the first New York radio helicopter reporter. Several years later I had lunch with Fred, and told him of my thievery. We both had a good laugh.

Shadow traffic

If I had a mentor  in those early days, it came courtesy of Steve Reed. Steve was one of the newscasters on WLIB, and he was the absolute best at what he did.

One afternoon, he looked me over and said, “Hey kid. Want to write a story for me?” This was one of the most exciting things anyone had ever said to me.

I took some Associated Press (AP) news copy, a notepad, and got to work.

As an English major at NYU, I was a decent writer, so in about 20 minutes I had what I thought was a pretty good news rewrite.

I handed it to Steve, who began laughing hysterically. I couldn’t figure out what was so funny.  He said, “You don’t know how to type?” I was dumbfounded and said simply, no. “What the hell you mean you can’t type? You’d better learn if you want to write news.”

It had never dawned on me that I couldn’t just hand write a news story on a notepad. They didn’t teach that at NYU. Talk about embarrassing!

Steve, when he stopped laughing, sat me down in front of a typewriter (long before the invention of computers), and said, “Now type this out. Don’t worry about capital and small letters,  just type it in all caps.”

typewriter

 

I began pecking, and well over a half hour later, I had the same story on a yellow piece of copy paper. Steve looked it over, looked at me and said, “Not bad.”

During the next scheduled newscast, Steve read my story exactly as I’d typed it. I was in heaven!

For many years, I only typed in all caps, no mater what it was I was trying to write.

And so began my baby steps to becoming a newsman. Steve Reed (now Steven) eventually left WLIB and went to WCBS, one of the ‘all news’ stations in New York City. From there he went on to become the  spokesman for Bronx DA Robert Johnson.

da.Robert Johnson

Steven is getting ready to retire soon after many jobs well done.

Fred Feldman died of a heart attack in 1996. It was these two men, along with David Lampel, who let me get my feet wet. Later that year, 1973, I’d be sent on my first story to cover as a reporter. That’s another experience for next post.

Mark Riley.JesseJackson.WLIB

Mark Riley and Jesse Jackson

In these days of internships, teenagers, college grads and…dare I say…arrogance….learning to type was an experience that helped shape my skills as a journalist and a reporter. What if you don’t have mentors? Leaders? Trainers? Coaches? I am really glad they invented computers but I do know how to type just in case there’s a need for plan B.

Who was your mentor? Post a comment and let’s have some conversations….

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