My name is Caroline Isber, and I have had a career in and out of media, both in radio and television, and then in government, working on environment and health issues, and right now I work on climate change legislation and executive branch issues on the outside of the federal government. In 1963, I had my first job in broadcasting after working as a reporter for a short time for the Boston Globe, and I was a producer of radio in the early days of the Eastern Educational Network, which later became the National Public Radio. I was at WGBH in Boston, and we had a very small group of people in basically a broom closet before the first building was built, and then we moved into the first building.
We were very excited about the March on Washington, and when it was proposed that the Eastern Educational Network cover it live, it seemed as if we were at the cusp of new technology, because before that, we used to what we call ‘bicycle tapes,’ which meant that we’d mail them from station to station, and duplicate a few of them but this time it was going to be open mike. I wasn't allowed to go to Washington; I was really annoyed about this, because I was an on-air person, and I covered the state house, and I did all sorts of things. And I was very young, and so I thought I should go and cover it, but I was told to stay and produce the show out of Boston, and Susan Stamberg produced it out of Washington.
We were the only women producers; this was not an era where you had very many women allowed to either be on the air or working as producers. So we thought this was unfair and all the men went down, but on the other hand they kept saying it was going to be very dangerous and they were worried, and we had a wonderful team of people.
Basically, my job was coordinating some of the discussion because it was all over Washington, the police station and on the Mall and all sorts of places. When were people supposed to come in; there was a lot of back chatter of “I've got somebody here to interview, I found somebody interesting, Where are you, George? Where are you Al?” This kind of thing. And then there's a lot of time to fill, fifteen hours is a long time. And so we had pre-produced a few interviews that we could put into a slot when there seemed to be some time available that we were worried we couldn't fill.
I had a interview with one of the leaders of the March, Dana McLean Greeley, a Reverend, Unitarian Universalist head, who was one of the major organizers of the March, and they were bringing in people from all over the country on behalf of the civil rights movement. He was a great mobilizer and a great speaker. I happen to know him well as he was the father of a friend of mine, and I had spent a good deal of time growing up in their household. So when I saw on your wonderful website that I done an interview with him, I had no memory of it. But I knew it had to be true, since I knew him well, and then I listened to it, of course, and enjoyed it. I was very delighted with this because I’d been fond of him; I thought he was so important to the civil rights movement and to many other good programs on behalf of tolerance. And so I e-mailed the interview to his daughter Penny Greeley Elwell, who was also thrilled and not remembered that I interviewed her father. And she then sent it to her daughter, so this is the granddaughter of Rev. Greeley, who teaches civil rights! And of course this was very exciting to the third-generation, doing good things in this department.
When we set out to cover the March on Washington, when the Eastern Educational Network decided to do it and fund it, we really felt that we were doing something very significant, and that it was important for all the stations and listeners to know what it was really like to be there. And we wanted it to be something that made a difference, that brought together all kinds of people that we could interview and see who came to the Mall, what it was like, and of course we were rooting for the Civil Rights Act but we were trying to keep it very neutral by keeping ourselves out of the discussion; just asking questions. We felt very strongly, Al Hulsen, George Geesey, and the others, that our role was just to report what was really going on. And therefore the ability to have several people in the field, at the same time, able to talk to each other and moderate it was very important to us.
And so the back chatter that I was involved with in being part of producing the show was to go back and forth behind the scenes when they were not talking. The person who was talking would be heard on the air, but I would be talking to the other people, and saying, “Where are you? What are you doing? Is there anything of interest?” And then we would assess where we should broadcast from there. And this is really the first time that we had done this. It seems so easy now, with all the radio and television that goes back and forth, but then it wasn't so easy, and we worried about the breakdown of equipment. There was no guarantee that we wouldn’t be thrown off the air by mistake or something would happen. And I was thrilled at the end, it seemed seamless.
Tom Connolly and Al Hulsen came back to WGBH exhilarated and exhausted, because they had been going nonstop, reporting what was going on. And trying to find each other, and not really being sure what that story was going to be. The Eastern Educational Network as we called it then was an imaginative organization, which was then part of the founding and people like Al Hulsen and Don Quayle became the first heads of the National Public Radio. So they always had in mind a greater link than what we were doing technologically. This was our dream.
And when the March on Washington came and we felt so strongly that this needed coverage of a new kind than we had been able to give, we had rehearsed what we were going to do to a certain extent. And so the engineers had a panel discussion with Geoffrey Godsell, whom I worked with every week about looking at what all this meant. To put the March into perspective. We didn’t know what they were going to say; they were ready to be there when we had a time to do it. So that had not been pre-taped, they were in the studios in Boston, they weren’t in Washington. But they were listening to the coverage of what was going on, and my memory is that one of these people on the panel was in Washington observing it.
So Reverend Dana Greeley had been interviewed before he went to Washington and as you’ll note in the interview, he expressed what he hoped the March would do, and how important it was. At that point, I believe the civil rights movement was not getting a lot of publicity. There had been a lot of talk; there had been sit-ins a couple of years earlier. And then it was all quiet, and so how to get this going, how to get the Kennedy administration to move on the Civil Rights Act was something that people all over the country felt needed publicity. So Reverend Martin Luther King organized this March with a lot of other people including Reverend Greeley. So the fact that we could talk to him in advance of what he hoped the civil rights movement and March could do was very important to put it in, as he was down there actually implementing it, and you hear him talking about how they were training people from all over the country, how they were bringing them in buses.
And the important thing is that really gives you a feeling for how well-organized they were. And they were organized to make sure there was not any violence. There were a lot of things around the edges that were going on, and to everybody's great relief, it ended up being a very good, nonviolent march. But there had been threats that people would come in and disrupt it on purpose. And I think that it was this coverage, along with other coverage, but I think it was very important for people who couldn't go to hear what this was really about.
My role was to be in this very tiny room which had no ventilation and listen to what other people were saying behind the scenes on what was going on, to coordinate what was scheduled on the Mall and whom we had as commentators, so that we could put in the interview when there was a gap. And with 15 hours, you had gaps. And we were prepared for those. And so after talking to the various people on the Mall in my back channel discussions - which I remember mostly as telephone calls, not real links the way you see people with something in their ear, talking to somebody. It was fairly primitive, which made the fact that it all worked seem amazing. Also sometimes we couldn't reach people, but we were sufficiently coordinated that I could make a decision and ask people, if it’s alright, I am going to put in this interview which is X number of minutes long, and if there's any problem, let me know, we can interrupt it, but basically I'm going to do it, and then I would signal, and it would be rolled as we called it, and you would hear the interview.
George Geesey, Al Hulsen, Tom Connelly were down there with a few other people, and they would say, “Okay, Caroline, you've cleared with us that we don't have anything important to say.” In fact, sometimes they’d say, “Help!” (laugh) You know, filling fifteen and a half hours isn’t seamless, or we’re lost, or I've lost my connection, or something's going wrong. My job was to make sure that on the air, nothing went wrong. And so we would then say, “Okay, I'm putting this in a minute,” or something like that, and I’d wave to the engineer, and he'd run it. And the engineers, producers, everybody were very close friends. We worked seamlessly together. The engineers were as good producers as the producers, they could really do anything, they had good ideas, they were creative, and so it was really a joy to work with everybody, and we were a very nice tight-knit unit. And so we expanded that to be at a distance, but it was the same trust that we had in all of us that we would do the best we can, be as objective as possible, and if something went wrong, the other person would rush in to make sure that on the air you couldn't tell. And I’m, you know, a lot goes wrong behind-the-scenes.
I reflect on the civil rights movement, because I had, of course been very interested in it. It was a precursor, in some ways, to the women's movement. And I had gone when I was in college, a couple of years earlier, to Greensboro, North Carolina, where the sit-ins were taking place. I went on an exchange for Mount Holyoke, where I was in college, to Bennett College, which is a girl's college in Greensboro, North Carolina. And so I had gone to the Woolworth's counter to look at it, and I had been the only white person at this college, and my roommates and I discussed my Bennett College roommates and I discussed what was going on in the civil rights movement, and that immersion to me was important emotionally, and I had made some good friends. So when I got to work on this production, I was pretty excited about it, and I was also hopeful that the civil rights movement would move a little more quickly. And of course, as a woman, who was a rare woman producer in this world of public broadcasting, it sort of brought the need to integrate women on an equal footing to the forefront, too. So a lot of us found this an inspiring opportunity to talk objectively, and analyze what was going on.