My first contact with Carl de Suze (1915-1998) on WBZ Boston remains vivid although it occurred some 25 years ago. I couldn't have been more than 3 or maybe 4. It was a family vacation in New England with Boston high on the agenda. Two things stand out. First, a hurricane that never was. Second, a voice on tee radio, which I later learned was that of Carl de Suze.
The voice of New England, a title de Suze earned, is singularly distinctive.
Bob Ryan, of the Boston "Globe", fallaciously described it as "...a phoney British accent." Not so; it’s more complex than that. It is more a New England prep school British accent. Carl sounds as a 'proper Bostonian' should; as a well modulated and controlled George Plimpton. Allen Rossiter of the Lexington " Minute-Man" described Carl's voice as, "...rather plump." Now, that is more to the point. It is not fat as with Howard de Silva. Nor is it vacuously heavy like so many of the early 70's voices extant on Top 40. Nor is it light in any way. Of singular texture, Carl’s voice is of the Charlie Tuna or Charlie Van Dyke-plump genre: it is his own and it is effective.
Carl de Suze is much more than a mere voice. "I have so much to say, I'm just busting inside to get things out," he told Allen Rossiter in a 1977 interview. "And popularity is a great tool. People get to know me, and they will listen to what I have to tell them."
He is so right!
Carl de Suze has been talking and hundreds of thousands of North Americans from the Midwest East have been attentively listening for decades. In an industry persistently characterized by transience and partial accomplishment, CARL has been unusually successful. Consider, for example, he was number one in the highly competitive Boston market for 36 consecutive years; one of the most listened to morning jocks – a title he most definitely deserves – in North America; employed by the same station in the same time slot for nearly four decades.
This leads WBZ Program Director, Dave Martin, to point out that Carl is among a very select, very special class of broadcasters: the industry elite. Included among his peers are: Wally Phillips, WGN, in Chicago; Wally Crouther at CFRB, in Toronto; the father-son Gambling dynasty at WOR, in New York; George Balcan, CJAD, in Montreal; Dick Whittinghill at KMPC, in Los Angeles; Rick Steele of WTIC, in Hartford; Don Percy, CKY, in Winnipeg; Ken Grant, CFRA, in Ottawa and Aku, KGMB, in Honolulu.
Carl’s entry into the media was the result of a long-time interest in journalism and financial expedience. "I was in college. It was 1934, the height of the depression, so I had to work my way through school. I had been accepted to Harvard, but could not swing it financially, so I went to the University of Maine.
"I was interested in history, art and journalism and never sure which direction to go in. Journalism, I guess, had the advantage. From the time I was four, I read the New York "Times" and the old New York "Herald" – from cover to cover. News developments were always discussed at the dinner table. With a Scotch mother and a French father, both with roots in Europe, everything that was going on around the world interested them. When I was in grade school, I had submitted a poem to a literary magazine, and it was published. Once your appetite is whet, when you have been published or broadcast, you try to go on and on.
"AB a result, the local papers – the college and the town paper – seemed the most likely place to earn money to put my- self through college. This experience resulted in my being picked up by the Portland "Press Herald" on graduation. It was the big state paper. An important place for a new journalist to start.
The Press Herald got approval for a new radio license for Portland shortly after I joined them. When the station went on the air it was meant to resemble a newspaper. Naturally, the print journalists just moved over to radio – split their time. And I was in radio."
WGAN was an early CBS affiliate and gave Carl his network debut, spectacular in its own way.
"I was covering the sinking of the submarine, Squalor, in Portland Harbor. WGAN was a CBS affiliate and the network asked if they could tap into our lines. WGAN engineers were pretty straight guys and they said, 'Why not show off?' They pushed the plug and, without knowing it, I was on the full CBS Radio Network. I was covering the activity from a barge, which pitched and heaved in the water.
“Needless to say, I was getting sicker by the minute. All I can remember saying is, 'Ladies and gentlemen, the diver has just gone down again and I don't know when he will be up again.' When I said 'up,' everything came up and over the side. That was my first sound on network radio! The CBS people asked what the noise was and our engineers mumbled something about trouble west of Denver. I was able to recover and continue. That was my network debut."
Carl arrived at WBZ in 1941, “just prior to Pearl Harbor,” he says, and spent the first year working for the American Office of War Information (OWl).
"Although I came to WBZ in 1941, I wasn't officially on the books until April 1942. I spent that first year on short- wave, working for OWl. They had several foreign language broadcasts, and I used to broadcast in both English and French. In 1942, OWl moved to New York and I had the choice to go with them or stay with 'BZ. You know the rest."
AM Drive has changed considerably over the 37-odd years CARL has been doing it.
We used to have a live show," he says. “We had a live orchestra, singers, comedians and I emceed it. It was a 'break- fast club' type of show, if you remember that old show from WGN, in Chicago.
"As WBZ, and radio in general, went through various developmental stages, live broadcasts were deemphasized. [Still,] it’s only comparatively recently that we have been locked into the current tight format. It is, I guess, only over the last 10 years or so that we haven't had time for interviews in the morning. We don't have as much opportunity for the give and take which used to occur.
“I used to do a lot of funny stuff with Don Kent, our weatherman. The newspeople got involved. We just don't have time for that anymore – at least not as much time. We’re clogged with commercials. There is so much vital information we have to get across and the … music people want to hear and so forth."
In the early days entertainment seemed to dominate. Today, it is information. “We try to keep people up-to-date not only with the news, weather and other hard information available, but also with the kind of music and the kind of cultural milieu they are living in. The idea, I guess, is to keep our listeners 'au courant' of what is happening around them."
Like Al Pascal, PD of CFRA, in Ottawa, Carl de Suze disdains the term “disc jockey.”
"That is a term," he says, "which is not only demeaning, but it does not really say what we do. It is only partially accurate. We don't devote ourselves to discs! Few radio announcers rely solely on music. Where they do it is a specialized situation such as classical or jazz or big band and so forth.
"I have never relied on the music. It has always been an adjunct to the real life we are trying to represent and [convey]. Music is a way to establish contact with people. As radio personalities or announcers, we are really acting as correspondents in the best sense of the word. We try to respond and co-respond, to act and react to listeners and involve them in the life that is going on around them. This we do by providing information. We also get them involved in great causes that they ought to know about.
“We have a great many things, as all broadcasters do, that we have interests in and that we feel is of interest to the community. The 700 Fund, which helps out local underprivileged families at Christmas is just one ex- ample. There are many more.
“As announcers or broadcasters we try to serve our listeners and our community as well as we can. Musical entertainment is part of that purpose. Informing is another. We provide the news, weather, information and other environment surveillance items that people want.
“The riches are, I think. right there. Here in Boston we have so many colleges and universities that input into the daily life of our community. The area is unique in that dimension. We do theatre reviews, movie reviews and talk about how they contribute to the tapestry of life in New England and throughout the continent.
“Many things start here and go elsewhere. WBZ gave Joan Baez first recognition. We were on the “Beatles” very early because we felt they were something that was fresh. We recognized the importance of the folk scene as having a very rich contribution."
“All along we have tried to point out what is infiltrating the whole ambience of life. We try to make people aware of not only the hard news but also the existence of others in the community. Overall, I don’t think it is fair to limit our purpose by cal- ling us disc jockies. We are much more than that---much more."
Preparation for the morning show is a full-time, lifetime job. "The kind of life I lead," says de Suze. “[It’ prepares me for the show. I am involved in the Boston community on many levels. I'm on the boards of several organizations including the National Braille Press, American Diabetes Society, Museum of Fine Arts, Museum of Science. As well, I serve in many organizations in my home town of Concord (Massachusetts).
Preparation, then, is equivalent to community involvement and it is exceptionally important. "Involvement IS preparation. I'm not telling people I meet something. They are telling me a lot of things. I get a perception of the station and how we are directly servicing the [women and men] I meet.
“When I'm out in the community it is not like being isolated in the studio with little chance for direct feedback. Out there I am accessible. I am open. They can get to me and they do. I'm told what is liked and what is not liked.
“This accessibility within the community really shows itself when we ask for opinions on the air. My gawd! Within seconds the phones light up. Our public is immediate. I attribute this, in large part, to my community involvement. I am not seen as someone on the radio, but rather a friend, a neighbour, a confident."
His love for journalism has not abated over the years, and it’s paid some interesting dividends.
"My interests are in foreign affairs and how they affect people as individuals. There is a lot going on in the world outside of Boston or Toronto or Calgary in which each of us has a stake. I can't report on and discuss all of what is going on, but, like my great hero Benjamin Franklin, 'I can't do everything, but what I can do I will do.' I feel you have to get a viewpoint and show it. It is more than documentary-making or reportorial news coverage, it is more like a missionary effort. You try to show people how they are affected by what is going on in the world. An interpretative window on the world, I guess."
The de Suze viewpoint is inescapably simple.
“There is an irrevocable link between our- selves and every other person in the whole world. No man is an island. We are mutually involved, like it or not. That is the reoccurring point of my documentaries and my show. Sometimes as I travel around the world making these films, I get caught in the fracas; I get shot at, but it is all somehow worth it.” Canada does not escape his purvey.
“I spent much of Canada's Centennial Year traveling the country. I felt the country, our big neighbour, was too poorly covered here. Too many Americans don't want to hear about Canada, or even South America for that matter. This is why I reported on it from coast-to-coast and went with Princess Alexandra on her cross country trip. When the Queen toured I followed her around reporting on the activities for Group W.
“My aim is to let Americans know that Canadians strive to keep the Canadian difference. They don't want to be another u. S. They want to be Canadian and in 1967 it seemed to me Canada was just getting psychologically a feel for it- self as Canadians and not Montrealers or Albertans or Manitobans and so on."
Does he think the feeling of Canadian Nationhood still exists?
“I'm sorry to see what is going on now," he says. "It's the separatist cause; I realize how the French-Canadians feel: that they have felt as second class citizens for a long time. On the other hand, I think it is a shame that Quebec would break off because of their need to gain respect and status for a particular language group. Every language group says the same things. I don't think separation would set too good an example.”
Canadian ties extend a little deeper, for Carl, than just that of an interested and concerned journalist.
“My daughter works in Vancouver, for the Vancouver Sun and my son, who is a TV news consultant, has several Canadian clients."
At an age when too many people are thinking of retirement and contemplating a rocking chair in Miami, Carl plans for the next thirty years!
“I see myself working for another 30 years. I'm going to have to with two more children coming along! I would like to do more things that involve me with the listeners. Not necessarily a talk show, but I like the idea of getting information and putting it together into a form that’s vivid and 'telling' – dramatic enough to make people act on it. I'd like to do more of the re- porting angle but at the same time be able to have people respond to it on the spot, so to speak. Reporting which permits an on-going dialogue. Something like “America Alive,” when it was on. Maybe the new developments in 2-way [cable] will permit this.”
As for advice for beginners and the ambitious, Carl suggests, "...getting as rich and as broad a background as possible. Keep up with what is going on around you. Read all the newspapers and magazines you can. Go to all the museums, all the plays, all the concerts you can. You have to be a kind of Renaissance person. Don't waste a moment. Learn all you can about as much as you can. The dividends will follow.”
Click here for a list of all Grub Street Interviews
Interview edited and condensed for publication.
dr george pollard is a Sociometrician and Social Psychologist at Carleton University, in Ottawa, where he currently conducts research and seminars on "Media and Truth," Social Psychology of Pop Culture and Entertainment as well as umbrella repair.
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