An interview with Tom Berge
6 months ago
Radio tends to be taken for granted by most listeners; they use it for hours every day but video usually occupies the spotlight.
Over the last few days, however, appreciation for public service provided by radio during an emergency has reached new heights in Berkshire County. For many residents on the day of the Great October Blizzard, the area's radio stations provided a lifeline for some, and the only link to the outside world for others isolated and marooned by the devastating storm.
With power out, phone service disrupted, TV sets disabled, those with the foresight to keep their portable radios powered with fresh batteries were able to gain reassurance from the knowledge that thousands of others share dtheir plight and, in many cases, were even worse off.
The surprise storm hit the region at a time (Sunday morning) when most radio stations are minimally staffed and are offering pre-taped syndicated, religious or ethnic programming.
Although most of Pittsfield's stations eventually rose to the occasion, Berkshire Broadcating Co. (WSBS in Great Barrington and WMNB in North Adams) deserves special recognition for quickly recognizing the severity of the storm and suspending normal programming in favor of continuous storm coverage.
As heard in an isolated South County cabin, WSBS provided what amounted to an emergency command post, taking calls from listeners who needed special help, interviewing utility officials, police, and others involved in the crisis, and providing invaluable updates on highway conditions, road closings, power failures and phone problems.
Although the Barrington station focused, and rightly so, on South County, it also offered information on North County via reports from its sister station WMNB and on the Pittsfield-Dalton area from its news director, Tom Jay, who happened to be in Dalton that morning.
The WSBS on-air team -- program director Bob Collins, Dick Lindsay, Tony Betros, Liz Chaffee, Nick Diller -- combined authoritative news gathering with just the right amount of folksiness and sorely needed comic relief. There were several phone calls from stranded New Yorkers who insisted they just had to reach the Taconic State Parkway Sunday afternoon. Collins and company gently coaxed them into the realization that any kind of highway travel would be folly.
Those who complain about Berkshire radio -- too many commercial, "conservative" music programming, an overly homespun approach -- must now realize that without the outstanding service provided by the county's station's since Sunday, more lives might have been lost, panic could have developed, and the sense of isolation experienced by many storm victims would have been genuinely overwhelming.
Last May, in his capacity as program manager for radio station WSBS, he compiled a policy handbook, what he calls a "storm package," that established programming formats designed to serve listeners tuning in during any of four levels of meteorological disturbances ranging from rain-swollen rivers to, as he put it, "total paralysis."
Total paralysis is as good a description as any for the impact of the Oct. 4 blizzard. And through it all, from early morning to late at night, Collins' storm package (and voice) provided listeners in South and Central Berkshire County with information, weather updates, help, tips and, as the grateful Great Barrington Civil Defense director put it, comfort.
As a result of the station's fast and facile assumption of the role of storm-information center, it has become a candidate for canonization among the many listeners who lacked power, lights, phone, transportation and heat. It's not just that he station was broadcasting -- it was broadcasting valuable information in the form of itnerviews with utilities' spokesmen, current weather reports, cancellations, and sources of help and shelter.
"It may sound like nobility," Collins said, "but it was part of a plan."
Collins, 33, said he is no fan of what he calls "stream-of-consciousness radio." he likes to plan ahead and organize the station's day. When he first came on board last April, the station's music policy was DJ's choice.
"Lawrence Welk would be followed by Whitney Hosuton and then some old song by Walter Brennan," he recalled.
He worked at rationalizing the music menu, allocating so much time for oldies, so much time for contemporary. He weeded out some strange records ("the Ballad of the Green Berets" was an early casualty) and threw away all the elevator music.
Beyond that, he said, he has tried to make the station a part of the life of the community. Fundraisers for sick children, such as Jared's Jamboree and HUSTLE, the SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) auction, and the effort to raise money to bring a Spanish boy to the Berkshires received the station's cooperation in the form of live broadcasts and plenty of on-air promotions and public service announcements.
The news coverage got a little broader and more ambitious under Collins' direction. he's not exactly taking bows for that advance, because Collins, who gets his feelings hurt when criticized, has gotten his feelings hurt a lot by angry selectmen, irritated listeners and aggravated advertisers.
Interestingly, he's not all that comfortable with praise. The praise from many quarters that's been coming in since last Sunday ought to be shared with his colleagues, he said, and really should go to the electric company and telephone crews who worked without rest to restore service.
"We were just sitting in a warm room passing on information," he said.
His journey to that warm room at WSBS has been long and bumpy. Born in Fitchburg, the youngest of five children of an insurance agent father and housewife mother, he developed an interest in radio early on. He used to record records on a reel-to-reel tape recorder and then play the DFJ -- announcing the hits and providing patter between platters.
He earned a bachelor of science degree in mass communications from Boston's Emerson College and landing his first radio job right after graduation in 1972, selling advertising for a little station in Marlboro. He didn't like ad sales and wasn't any good at it, either. He lasted a week. He got a DJ job at a station in Southbridge -- a 90-mile round trip commute from Fitchburg -- working six days a week for $110 a week. Then he got a better offer from the Fitchburg station, WFGL, and had his baptism under snow during the big blizzard of 1978 when he was one of the only staff members to make it to the station. He learned the value of making the station accessible to listeners, he said, as he took calls and did what he could do to let people know what was going on.
That year, he took a newsman's job at WBEC in Pittsfield, covering City Council meetings and other events. It was a good period, he said, for he liked working with Bob Cudmore, George Bulgarelli and others associated with the station at that time.
But WBEC changed hands and job security became a questiion, he said, so he bailed out and landed at WUPE, another rewarding interval darkened only by the time he forgot to throw a switch while making a personal phone call, drowning out a Zayre's commercial with language that was somewhat unfortunate.
Opportunity, in the form of WHDH in Boston, knocked in 1981, and there he worked until WCVB-TV in Boston hired him to write TV news copy. He said he didn't mind the anonymity of the news writer -- "I've always been content to be Joe Nobody" -- but the caste system of the anchorman and on-air "news personalities" turned him off. He went on to New York City to work for RKO Broadcasting until his father-in-law, Donald Thurston, owner of Berkshire Broadcasting, called in August of 1985 and asked if he would like to bring his wife, Carolie, and 2-year-old son, Sean, back to the Berkshires. Thurston wanted Colling to try the new position of program manager at WSBS.
He took over last spring and, judging from the response to his "storm package," he's been doing OK. But there have been many tough moments -- an on-air retraction over a mix-up in the coverage of the covered-bridge hassle in Sheffield and complaints from listeners who say there's too much rock-and-roll, too many changes.
He takes the criticism the way he takes his responsibilities: to heart. Does he ever think about giving up and getting out?
"Yeah, all the time."