The old WWJ radio and TV in downtown Detroit was in an old-time radio building: THE old-time-iest radio building in the Midwest, WWJ-AM. And the newsroom was on the third floor in a mammoth converted radio studio: at one time apparently the largest radio studio between New York and Chicago, the origination point for symphony concerts, big band programs and who knows what else.
That big old windowless barn was close to three stories tall, maybe 60 by 80 feet, and was suspended for acoustics. That is, it was hanging—almost free-floating—to eliminate vibration. An engineering marvel. You had to step over a sill to get from the “solid” building that surrounded it to the suspended inner sanctum of that huge airplane-hanger of a studio. The walls and ceiling were covered with acoustical tile—long-since yellowed by decades of cigarette smoke. A few light fixtures high overhead provided some light, but changing the bulbs was almost impossible. Most of the real illumination was provided by goose-neck desk lamps clamped to each of the heavy old linoleum-topped desks that ran in facing rows down the center of the room and around the walls. Cubicles? We don’ need no stinkin’ cubicles! The floor was littered with cigarette butts—wastebaskets overflowed with the output from eight wire-service machines—it was all incredibly low-rent and yet incredibly big-time. You felt like you were in some secret journalism command center, some bunker, doing high-tech, top-secret, earth-saving work (“Get me on the air NOW, I’ve got a bulletin!”). No creature comforts for the men (and one or two women) who worked in the newsroom at WWJ in the early 70s!
Near the main entrance was an audio cartridge player—a “cart machine”—so reporters could play back and time their recorded audio tracks (these were the waning days of film, remember).
Dunno who had this idea, but one day we turned out the lights—all the lights—and sat in pitch-black darkness waiting for News Director Lou Prato to enter. We saw his silhouette outlined in the door—standing there wondering why the room was dark and silent and waiting for his eyes to adjust.
Someone punched “play” on the cart machine—which was cued up to “Hail to the Chief.”
And every single goose-neck lamp in the place was switched on, used as a spotlight and shined directly at Lou.
He never missed a beat. He jumped up on the row of desks, waved a two-handed Dick Nixon “V-for-Victory” salute, and started marching the fifty-or-so feet down the middle of the desks, kicking papers onto the floor while his loyal subjects trained their spotlights on him, cheering and cat-calling.
He got to the end, jumped down, the overhead lights were switched back on, and everyone went back to work.
I’ve always said my love affair with TV news is based on the fact that the happiest I’ve ever been—the angriest I’ve ever been—the proudest I’ve ever been—the hardest I’ve ever cried—and the hardest I’ve ever laughed have all been in newsrooms.
Maybe “You had to be there,” but that was the hardest I ever laughed: 1974, Lou Prato channeling Dick Nixon in the dark in Detroit.