Commentary

Frank Hoffman: Happy 45th Birthday, Vermont Public Radio

This commentary is by Frank Hoffman, who produces audio and video content for various channels and is a fundraising consultant for nonprofits across the country. He lives at the base of Mount Ascutney, where he enjoys VPR's strong HD signal from the mountaintop.

I know, I know, my favorite radio network is now called Vermont Public. Whether you like the branding change or not, we Vermonters need to feel proud of the many achievements this small statewide network has achieved in the last 45 years. 

It is a time for celebration and personal recollection for me. VPR signed on the air on Aug. 13, 1977. I was one of the original staffers and enjoyed every minute of my seven years there. Well, almost every minute. What I remember can certainly be disputed, but even though I may not make it to the 50-year party, I can be thankful for my beginnings at VPR, which helped me throughout my professional life. 

As I ponder my personal celebration of this startup, I have high admiration for the people who saw that the state needed public radio and did something about it. Vermont Public TV had been on the air since 1967, and was already firmly established in the Vermont tapestry, even though for many people in southern Vermont, picking it up off air was a challenge. 

The plan was that VPR was not going to be affiliated with Vermont PBS (until now), or with the University of Vermont, or the state, like many public radio stations are in this country. VPR was a "community licensee," which carried with it the burden of raising the money needed to pay the bills and comply with FCC regulations. Hats off to the founders who had the guts and vision to bring VPR to the Green Mountains. 

Qualifying for federal grant money through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was the only way to go, and the founders were able to be part of the CPB Expansion Program. The NPR system was in a growth spurt. 

I admit that getting this position at VPR was sheer luck. I was living in New York, working at the American Place Theater and workshopping a play of mine. Weekends I would escape back to my home in Tunbridge, usually by Amtrak. I wanted to be in NYC, but I really wanted to be able to work and live in Vermont. 

My girlfriend at the time had clipped an ad from a newspaper that said, "Radio Producers Wanted." I don't think I knew what a producer was but applied anyway. I was registered with the Vermont Council on the Arts as a playwright, and the two advertised positions would be funded through the council and a Comprehensive Employment and Training Act grant. There was part of the act set aside for artists, and I think that this is how the funding happened to get producers for VPR. I'll never forget Fonda Siegel at the council who was able to make this happen. 

I applied for the position of “spoken word producer,” but at my interview I was told that position had been filled, but did I know how to read music? asked Betty Smith, the program director, who interviewed me while Ray Dilley, one of the founders and the general manager, sat back and listened. I told Betty that I read music, had played in my high school orchestra, a rock band or two, and loved music — all kinds! She nodded. Ray had picked up a call, and I thanked them both and walked out from what was my very first interview for any kind of job other than restaurant work and carpentry.

The following week I got a call from Betty saying that I got the job. All I could say was, "You picked me?" I couldn't believe it. Later on, I learned that I was the last one on the list of interviewees of some 200 applicants for the two CETA positions. The spoken word producer hired was Frank Anthony, a poet and writer who lived in Chelsea. We made plans to commute to Windsor in Frank's VW every day to begin our new jobs. 

We had voice training, breathing exercises, and electronic training on how to run the board, tape recorders, cartridge machines, and how to read a log and deal with traffic: Tapes coming in and going out. I had the best training at VPR from Steve Robinson, the development director at the time, who had years of radio experience. He also loved pitching during the fundraising marathons and taught me a great deal that served me at the other stations where I worked.

The first show on the air I believe was the British import “The Goon Show,” followed by “Saturday Afternoon at the Opera.” You need to know that this was pre-satellite, so the programs were either sent through the mail on reel-to-reel tapes or were being fed on phone lines. “All Things Considered” and “Morning Edition” came to us that way until satellite connections happened in 1980.

I was on the air weekdays from 7 until 10 p.m., playing the few classical music recordings in the library. Oh, how I butchered the classical names of the composers and the European conductors. I didn't know enough to be embarrassed. Steve would be listening at home and in his gentle way would educate me on the correct pronunciations. Learning by doing seemed to be how this training was going to develop. 

What really sounded the best was live programming from Windsor Studios. This was not really like community radio, where producers bring to the air what they like — folks, blues, jazz, classical, poetry. We were trained to follow format, and VPR was a classical station. LPs sounded great through the new system on radios at home and in cars. 

To me, this was the best job going, though the annual salary was about $8,000. There was earned vacation time, but no retirement packages. Ah, yes, the good ole days in broadcasting. It was a great time to be at VPR because there was some freedom. Freedom of ideas, or developing concepts, or taking a risk or two. 

The first collaboration with NPR brought producers to Windsor to help train us in how to tell a story in audio terms. "Maple Syrup" was the first half-hour special that “All Things Considered” ran. But there were others. 

I produced "Portrait of a Rural Symphony" with the Vermont Symphony Orchestra performing Aaron Copland's “Fanfare for the Common Man” with Gov. Richard Snelling narrating. This was at Hopkins Center in Hanover, New Hampshire, and Maestro Copland was in attendance. Deborah Amos and Fred Calland worked with me to get this 15-minute piece on the network. 

I also produced a two-hour special for Folk Festival USA on Canadian traditional music, and there were numerous collaborations with WGBH in Boston producing music from the White Mountains Music Festival with Gerard Schwarz and Gunther Schuller.

I also produced short features on the Jose Orozco Murals at Dartmouth and contributed performance recordings of Vermonters and visiting musicians to the long-defunct program “The Sunday Show.” And let’s not forget Midsummer, Vermont’s first statewide folk festival at Shelburne Farms. 

This was just some of the work that was done in the early years that led to seven grants from the National Endowment for the Arts for my audio productions. I also served on the review panel for radio production.

After 45 years, I think it is appropriate to remember how small beginnings grow into larger opportunities. I know this was the case for me. After VPR, I went on to raise $250,000 to produce, market and host a weekly program called “U.S. Ear: The New Music Review.” This magazine program brought to the air electronic music, performance art, found-sound, criticism and commentary using a group of independent producers across the country. It won a Corporation for Public Broadcasting award for programming "innovation and audio excellence." I met my co-producer, David Moss, a vocalist/percussionist from Marlboro who played in the VPR studios in Windsor. 

There were many firsts in that studio, including the first live broadcast of the Synclavier, an electronic keyboard instrument developed by composer and electronic music pioneer Jon Appleton. I can't forget to mention a performance on my Friday afternoon program, “Audio Files for the Compleat Eclectic,” by Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky. They sang tunes from Ginsberg's “Birdbrain” album, read some poems, and took calls from the audience. 

I was an independent producer for three years and then went on to join my old friend and mentor, Steve Robinson, in Lincoln, Nebraska, to be the assistant network manager of Nebraska Public Radio. The network was just a few years old and did some local programming, including a nightly news program. I was able to be a manager but kept my hand in producing. I won three Associated Press awards, a Gabriel Award for a series of features on child abuse and incest, and created a 12-part series of Willa Cather's “My Antonia.” 

I pitched Steve on breaking format and playing the programs back-to-back with a few musical interludes and station breaks, of course. He said yes and we had a memorable Dec. 7, 1994, radio event. Steve went on to do many of these specials at the Nebraska Public Radio Network.

I went on to be general manager of the statewide radio network in West Virginia, producers of the nationally syndicated “Mountain Stage.” Steve went on to have a stellar career as the CEO and president of WFMT in Chicago. The irony is that Ray Dilley, our old boss at Vermont Public Radio, eventually took Steve's position at the Nebraska Public Radio Network. He passed away in Lincoln. 

The second irony is that Scott Finn, the current CEO of Vermont Public (VPR and Vermont PBS), was the CEO and executive director of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, where I was the general manager of radio for five years.

I am happy that VPR has thrived for the last 45 years. In my time with public radio, creativity was key, and it was not always easy to be heard. Sound quality was also essential.

Now it seems anyone who can speak can have a podcast. Delivery of content has changed in the last four and one-half decades, and that is a good thing. I believe it's also good to celebrate the past when appropriate and learn from one's mistakes. 

VPR gave me so much. I know the network continues and will continue to produce and deliver many creative, unique, stories. Radio succeeds in giving the listener a way to connect personally to issues and to other people. Ideas are in the air and it’s up to us to reach out and grab them and make them into radio programs, what else?


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