These days, students and faculty pass the red brick building without a clue.
Sure, the two-story Victorian structure tucked behind the historic Littlefield House looks a little out of place. But so would any other 19th-century remnant on the constantly evolving University of Texas campus.
Inside this modest, two-story building — a block from the sleek Belo Center for New Media — once resided UT’s entire communications program. Today, no signs remind the visitor that this shady spot once housed a grand experiment in training the media workers of the future.
This was Radio House.
From 1939 and into the 1950s, aspiring media talent merited no tenured professors or textbooks. At first, they made no real broadcasts. Radio veterans instead taught the eager students through somewhat unorthodox methods.
Three alumni — Carolyn Jackson, Robert Heller and Phyllis Heller — remember when this was the only place they knew where one could learn to speak, sing or act on air, write scripts and ad copy, as well as manage the technology that seemed so up-to-date when Radio House opened.
"We were taught everything in that one little building," says Jackson, among the first 10 students to graduate from the program. "And we all went on to careers in radio and television."
They came to learn radio
"I had grown up around using voice," Phyllis Heller says. "I was in plays. When I heard they were offering this, I couldn’t get down here fast enough."
The university launched its first experimental radio broadcast in 1921, before Robert Heller, 87, was born in Okmulgee, Okla. His wife of 65 years, Phyllis Heller, 84, whom he met at UT, is a Dallas native. They now live in Houston, where for many years Robert Heller ran a political media firm.
Unlike his wife, Robert Heller enjoyed no early propensity for performance. He flunked out of school before going into pilot training during World War II. While in Phoenix, he befriended a staff announcer on late-night radio.
"I hung out at the studio," he said. "Then I headed back to Austin for this program. It was a fascinating concept at the time."
Their college chum, Carolyn Jackson, 85, grew up a freckle-faced upstart in Taylor. She sang on the radio and did secretarial work before breaking into the advertising business. Later she became a regular on Austin TV screens, host of "Woman’s World" and "The Carolyn Jackson Show."
"I was born a ham," Jackson says. "I competed in the county meet in declamation and interpretive speech. I appeared in the senior play. I loved every minute of our classes at Radio House. Nobody could have drug me out of that school."
Radio was something of an academic stepchild when the three friends met there in the early 1940s. Radio House, though part of the College of Fine Arts, was considered a "tech school" by some.
The ornamented carriage house, which once housed UT Regent George Littlefield’s horses and servants, was made to look like a functioning radio station. Upstairs were offices for script writers and program leaders. Downstairs were studios and equipment.
Microphones and control rooms were added. Some of their shows were broadcast on the KNOW radio channel before Radio House became a fully functioning studio.
The students studied journalism, drama, speech and music appreciation along with media courses. They also took required classes in English, history and other core curriculum.
While in school, Jackson and Phyllis Heller, sorority sisters, kept up their performing chops by singing with big bands and trios. During one amateur night, Jackson recruited an entire fraternity to support their act.
"The prize was $25," Jackson says with a laugh. "So we spent the whole $25 buying those boys beer."
The novelty of Radio House, other than its building, was its faculty. There was no systematic study of media in those days. So UT relied on the pros.
"An AP reporter taught reporting," Jackson remembers. "If he caught you adding any editorializing to your story it was an automatic F."
NBC Radio veteran Tom Rishworth served as chairman of the program.
"He had one of the deepest, most beautiful broadcast voices I’d ever heard," Jackson says. "But he had a slight stutter. We were all stunned wondering how he managed that as an announcer. But we said nothing because it was a delicate matter."
One of Rishworth’s methods of bringing out future radio personalities was to insist that each student impersonate somebody else.
"One of the guys impersonated him," Jackson says. "I froze in my desk thinking this was an insensitive thing to do and surely Rishworth would be hurt or mad. But he smiled and said that was an excellent impersonation."
Another standard procedure was to interview a class partner.
"You had to learn as much as possible about that person," Jackson says. "Dig, dig dig, find out interesting things that no one in the class knew about that classmate. After the prep work was done, you did your interview in a studio with the class watching through a studio window."
JoAnn Whitmire, a trained speech therapist, served as an exacting speech coach.
"She was as tough as a Marine drill instructor," Robert Heller says. "At times, we were on the witness stand. She forced us to remember her lessons."
Whitmire encouraged the students to vary their speech patterns.
"’Don’t start each change of topic at the same pitch level and beware of a repetitive rhythm,’" Heller recalls her saying. "‘You’re announcing, not singing.’ She also pushed us to complete words at the end of sentences – don’t let them fade away."
Jackson cherished Whitmire’s rigorous training.
"I cringe daily when I hear local and network anchors with irritating nasal voices," she says. "Their mispronunciations and terrible abuse of grammar drive me up the wall. They don’t seem to have a grasp of the basics of good grammar."
Rishworth forced students to look up random place names in the "NBC Handbook of Pronunciation."
One of Phyllis Heller’s favorite classes was radio drama.
"For one of our finals, we were paired up, given a situation, and had 15 minutes to act it out," she says. "I was a nurse and my patient was a soldier who had been blinded in the war. His eyes had been operated on and I was taking the bandages off. The dramatic peak, of course, was whether or not he would be able to see. The conclusion was left open for dramatic effect. Would our patient see again, or forever be lost in a sea of darkness? Tune in next week."
Jackson remembers another final exam during which students were given random topics to broadcast. Her topic: the London Blitz.
"First of all, women didn’t do that type of reporting back in those days so I had no one to pattern myself after," she says. "And how could I possibly bring the emotions, the devastation, etc. to the listeners with just my voice? When it was my turn, I sat before the microphone, took a deep breath, closed my eyes and pretended I was watching the bombing. I gave every ounce of energy within me and called upon all my creative juices to make the scene come alive for the listeners. Never have I been so mentally exhausted."
Into the field
After a few years, the faculty was confident enough in their Radio House students that some were thrown into the deep end of broadcasting. Two students, for instance, were sent to cover the April 16, 1947, Texas City disaster that killed 581 people. The students talked their way onto the scene of the horrific explosions and relayed some of the best reporting from the scene.
Robert Heller’s career breakthrough came when Sen. Lyndon Johnson pushed through the license for Austin’s first television station.
"LBJ pledged he would have it on the air by the time of the (Texas) A&M game the next fall," he says. "But nobody knew how to put on a TV program. I wrote the first script. I had to go to the Co-op to buy a book (about writing teleplays)."
The fresh TV team put their transmitter on Mount Bonnell and, after a few mishaps, hit the airwaves Nov. 25, 1952.
Robert Heller worked at the station until he moved to Houston in 1955 to join a large advertising agency. In 1960, he formed a group of media specialists who advised political candidates. He worked on more than 200 campaigns, including those of Lloyd Bentsen, John Tower and Dolph Briscoe. He retired in 1990.
When his wife started in the media business, there wasn’t a single woman on local TV or radio, she recalls.
"I did commercials," Phyllis Heller says. "That began because I had no competition. It was awesome."
She continued to supplement the couple’s income with voice work. Listeners became most familiar with her telephone recording: "The number you have reached is not in service. Please hang up and dial your number again."
"People said they would call just to hear my voice," she says. She eventually earned her own Houston afternoon talk show on which she interviewed guests such as Rich Little and Imogene Coca. After decades of radio and television, the work petered out.
"We got no residuals," she says. "Ever."
Jackson started her career on air in her native Taylor. After attending the NBC Institute at Northwestern University, she wanted to stay and work in Chicago media.
"My mother went crazy and told Dad to tell me not to do that," Jackson recalls. "He said: ‘She’s 21. She has a degree from UT. She’s not asking for money. I think she can do pretty much what she pleases.’"
Jackson worked for a Chicago ad agency then returned to Central Texas to marry her high school sweetheart, who had been in the Navy.
When she applied for advertising jobs in Austin, she was rejected at one agency because of her gender. The agency owner admitted he chose a man because, as she recalls it, "They thought I would leave when I got married. Funny thing is I stayed in Austin and the man they hired started his own agency."
Jackson began her first TV job the day of the Charles Whitman shooting at the UT Tower. She later earned her own shows and was known around town as the "friend next door." She jumped around radio and television stations, adding movies and commercials to her repertoire, but never retired.
What happened to Radio House? After Jackson and the Hellers graduated, UT recruited Bob Schenkkan, the public broadcasting pioneer who founded KUT and KLRU. Ten years later in 1965, a formal College of Communications was created for radio, television, film, journalism and other studies. Radio House faded away and the building is now used for offices by university fundraisers.
All along, Jackson remained close to the Hellers. "Since the Radio School was in its infancy, the classes were very small," she says. "All the students knew each other and were a close-knit group. We were loyal to one another and had great respect for each others’ abilities and talents."
Although Robert Heller has trouble getting around, his voice is still round and powerful. Phyllis Heller and Jackson keep up their honeyed on-air diction as well.
"You never know," Robert Heller says. "The show’s not over yet."