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George Hale in his own words Part two

January 2, 2013
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George Hale in his own words  Part two photo by Jeff Kirlin

When Maine Edge assignment editor Katy England asked me to submit a favorite column from the past year, I didn't need to think about it for very long.

Putting together my cover story featuring George Hale (June 20, 2012, click here to read part one) was an extraordinarily fun but somewhat difficult experience. The first draft was nearly three times the length of the story I ultimately submitted.

I edited the original story on a beautiful summer Saturday morning. The sun was shining, the birds were singing, but I couldn't appreciate any of it. For hours I sat in front of my computer, wincing each time I hit the 'delete' key. I am grateful for this opportunity to share more of George Hale's story with you.

George is currently recovering from elective surgery. When I visited him a few days ago, he told me that he could not wait to get back on the radio as part of 'The George Hale/Ric Tyler Show' (airing each morning on WVOM The Voice of Maine).

In fact, George had the following day's broadcast mapped out in his head. He knew exactly how the show would unfold and how the callers would respond to the day's topic.

Spring 2013 will mark the 60th anniversary of George Hale's arrival in Bangor. He continues to make The Queen City a better place for all of us.

Even before I sat down to interview George for this story, I knew I wanted to present it as a first-person narrative. Nobody could tell George Hale's story better than George Hale. All I needed to do was ask questions and then step out of the way. With only a few tweaks from me, what follows are highlights in George's words - from two interviews recorded in June 2012. This barely scratches the surface we're talking about a man who has been a broadcaster in seven different decades. George's full story could only be told in a book. Mike Dow 

There were only four things I ever considered doing for a living. I was going to be a radio announcer, a sports writer, an actor or an airline pilot. Nothing else ever came into my mind. Along the way, I had a few other jobs. I was in the U.S. Navy, which is actually how I started in broadcasting. I worked at a grocery store, I was an usher at a theatre in New York City, I worked at a publishing house, and I spent my Saturday mornings cleaning monkey cages at a zoo.

My father was a marine engineer and would be at sea much of the time working on a boat. He would be out there for 21 days, followed by 10 days off with us at home. My mother used to say that my conduct was much better when my father was home.

My father encouraged my love for sports by taking me to major league ball games to see the Dodgers, the Giants and the Yankees. Even then I didn't like the Yankees. I thought everyone went to major league baseball games. You know how it is when you're a kid. 'If this is what my life is like, it must be the same for everybody everywhere.'

When I arrived in Bangor in 1953, there were only three radio stations WLBZ, WGUY and WABI-AM. WABI-FM had either just gone on the air or was about to sign on. If I remember correctly, WABI had the first TV and FM radio stations in the United States to sign on after the Korean War. During the war, prospective new radio and TV stations were 'frozen' because the military needed all of the tubes and equipment for the war effort. WABI had been on the air for only three months when I arrived.

My original plan was to stay in Bangor one year. My brother was the program director for WSCR in Scranton, PA. He told me, 'Get one year of experience, get out of there and get to a bigger market.' Well, that didn't happen because I decided I liked it in Bangor.

On WABI, I did sports and music 'block programming' we called it then. When I started, I was the country music announcer for the noon-time show, and then I did sports in the afternoon. The first song I played was 'Your Cheating Heart' by Hank Williams. Hank had died a few months earlier, but his music was still hot.

On WABI, I did everything, including news for the morning show. Eventually the WABI morning man left, so the afternoon guy took over both shifts until that became too much for him. That's when they moved me to mornings, and I've never stopped.

If you were what we now call a broadcaster, you did a little of everything. If you wanted to keep doing it, you needed to branch out and learn as many different things as possible. I tell kids coming up in the business, 'Don't tell me you're only going to be a sports announcer. What happens when you don't get a job in sports?'

In addition to doing morning radio, I was doing television on a part-time basis. For a short time, they moved me completely to television and I begged them to put me back on the radio I liked it much better than TV. The compromise was this: I ended up doing both. I did the morning show on radio and then spent the rest of the day directing live TV shows on WABI.

We didn't use videotape then, but some shows were recorded on Kinescope - which was basically a crudely-shot film of a TV screen - and those films were sent out to other stations.

On WABI, we did 'The Bud Leavitt Show,' Norm Lambert and other live shows which were extremely popular at the time. I directed live ladies' cooking shows and country music shows where the groups would come in, set up and play live on the air. 'The Lone Pine Mountaineer' was a big one.

Hal 'Lone Pine' and his group would come in play for an hour each week. We sent it out live from WABI to ABC, where it aired coast-to-coast. On the air, they would announce their live dates 'dates and rates' they called it. It was great free publicity for them. Hal's real name was Harold Breau, and his son, Lenny Breau, went on to become one of the finest jazz guitarists in the world. 'Lone Pine' would close his show with these words, 'Goodbye friends. I've got to leave you now. So I'll leave you with a smile.'

Up to that point, I had lived my life in cities from New Orleans to New York to Chicago. When I came to Maine I didn't know where I was, but once I became established here - and it didn't take too long - I really liked Bangor. I had morning radio locked up in this market and then I would go off and do TV.

I had to deal with 'record pushers' during those times. They were aggressive promotion guys who would call the number one announcer on the number one station and try to get me to play whatever song they were pushing that week. You've probably heard about the 'Payola' scandals that took place back then. I can tell you that nobody offered me money to play their record. Instead, they would send promotional items. I recall receiving a blanket and a sweater with the Capitol Records logo.

On the morning show, I played what you might call middle of the road music. Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, Kaye Starr singers like that. In the afternoon, we had Jim Winters on the air playing rock and roll for the teens. Elvis, Chubby Checker, Fats Domino all of it. Jim was also the 'sock hop' guy. He would go out and do these hugely popular live appearances where he played rock and roll records at teen dances.

Those dances were so big. We did a live TV version on WABI where local teens would fill the studio and dance to the rock and roll records that Jim played. It was called 'Studio City Bandstand' - Bangor's version of American Bandstand.

Sometimes we would talk to singers and artists on the air. This happened a little later, but I vividly recall meeting a young new singer from Australia called Olivia Newton-John. Her label was very anxious to get her record on my program. She was very sweet and seemed a little nervous.

As I mentioned earlier, sports has always been a big part of my life. I wanted to be a football player, but I weighed 117 pounds, which nearly caused my coach to faint. Instead, I ran track and cross-country at some of the big meets in New York.

I knew that sports would somehow become part of my job, but I thought I would be a sports writer instead of calling the games on radio and TV. When I came to Maine, that was really the first time when I saw high school games broadcast as such a regular event especially basketball.

The tournaments were big even then in fact, the first WABI tournament was broadcast just before I arrived in Bangor. Some of the games took place in the old Bangor City Hall, some were held in the old auditorium and some were played at the University of Maine.

By the second year, I started doing some of the color during the games (the color commentator provides background info, statistics and anecdotes during moments when plays are not in progress). They had other people to do play-by-play, including Bud Leavitt. Eventually, they asked me to start calling the action and I soon became the play-by-play announcer.

I worked some long days, but it didn't seem like work to me. I would arrive at the station at around 4 a.m., do the morning show on WABI AM, spend most of the day dealing with station business, rush home to see my family and have dinner then rush back to cover sports on WABI's 'Telejournal News' during the evening newscast. Since I had to come back anyway, they also had me do a version for radio before I went on TV.

Somehow I found the time to do freelance work on the side, and I covered horse races extensively at Bangor Race Track, Skowhegan, Windsor and other places. From there, I was asked to cover stock car racing for Unity Raceway. They needed an announcer for the races, so I tried it and ended up doing it for 10 years.

I've always been crazy about airplanes. I was a kid during World War 2, but I could tell you about every kind of war plane that was built. There were a couple of Army-Air Force pilots in the area and I kind of sidled up to them just to be around those planes. I would mow their lawn whatever it took - just to see those things up close. They would give me a ride in their planes once in a while.

Eventually, I became a part owner of two different airplanes. It's very expensive to own a plane, so it's not uncommon for several people to buy a plane together. I owned a third of one plane and a quarter of another. The thing about being a pilot is you need to keep your flying skills sharp, so I would sometimes take what I called the 'One hundred dollar hamburger flight.' I would fly out of Bangor, land in Portland for a hamburger and then fly home.

There was a point in time where I knew I had two choices either get out of the business and retire or learn this new technology. From automated systems to computers, I had to learn it if I was going to stay in this business. Things were changing rapidly and I had to get on the motorcycle or get off for good. I decided to get on.

I think it's been helpful for me that I've always been kind of a 'techie' guy. I've always liked technology and finding newer and better ways to do things. Some radio people were always afraid of the engineers because they know so much. I was a friend of the engineers and always knew what was going on in their department. That worked out for me later on when the technology started evolving. When we gradually transitioned into using computers, I knew what to do.

To this day, somebody asks me, 'What are you?' I say 'I'm a radio broadcaster.' I wouldn't identify myself as only one element of it. If the boss comes in tomorrow and says, 'We're going to do something new,' I'll say, 'Let's do it.' Election night coverage? A broadcast from Joe's Store? Let's do it. The only place I've never broadcast from is outer space.

I've been the 'man on the street,' I've done dance-band remotes - you name it. In fact, I nearly left town to travel with one of the big bands who wanted to hire me as their announcer. That was a long time ago. Ralph Flanagan was a big band leader and conductor and I used to introduce him. 'From the Coconut Grove in beautiful uptown downtown Scranton, Pennsylvania, it's the big band sound of Ralph Flanagan!' I did that. Horse racing, auto racing, wrestling we had to do it all. We were staff announcers and we were expected to do all of those things.

I've been interested in politics off and on for my entire life although I've never run for elected office. In high school, I was absolutely terrible with math, but I loved government and history. Even as a kid I liked politics and would volunteer for different campaigns. When I came to Bangor, Governor Hildreth was the owner of WABI. I was a Democrat and he was a Republican, but in those days that didn't matter. People worked together back then it wasn't like it is now.

After I had been doing the morning show for a while on WVOM, they asked if I knew Ric Tyler. I told them that I knew him he had been a weather man on Channel 7, he had been on WLBZ and on Kiss 94.5.

The bosses wanted to have us do a test show together. One morning, they put us in the room to record an audition and we started fighting immediately. I said to Ric, 'Do you really believe what you're saying?' Things like that. I don't remember exactly what the topic was, but he was taking the right side and I was taking the moderate to left side. Jeff Pierce was our operations manager and he said, 'That's our show.' In 2004, we started doing a show called 'Maine in the Morning.' I think I suggested that we change the name of the show to include both of our names.

I hear this question a lot: 'When are you going to retire?' The only answer I have to that is, 'Would you ask a successful photographer to stop taking pictures? Would you ask Stephen King to stop writing books?' Not that I'm in his league. 'Would you ask a scientist to stop doing what he does?'

What I do is me. When I get out of bed and come in here, I'm not working. Money has never influenced a broadcasting decision for me. If it had, I wouldn't be in Bangor, Maine. I would have been long gone. Plus, I didn't want to uproot my family. I've been happy here. I chose to stay here because I like it.

I do what I do because it's all I know how to do. It's just the nature of this business there is probably nobody who is going to do what I've done. By that, I mean arrive in a market and be a morning radio announcer for 60 years or whatever it is. Remember, I don't consider myself a commentator or a sports guy. I'm a radio announcer. I'm a communicator and that's the reason why I've always liked radio better than TV. Radio is the theater of the mind.

Mike Dow can be heard each morning on Big 104 The Biggest Hits of the '60s, '70s & '80s - airing on 104.3 FM, 104.7 FM and 107.7 FM.

Last modified on Wednesday, 02 January 2013 21:43

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