Chances are when a public radio fan in the Boston area hears the call letters “WBUR,” lots of national programming comes to mind—the scrappy Cambridge voices of the Tappet Brothers’ “Car Talk” show, the in-depth analysis of the day’s issues with Tom Ashbrook’s “On Point,” NPR’s national sports show “Only A Game,” and NPR’s midday news show “Here and Now.”
This wasn’t always the case.
Some 50 years ago, it was the news playground of Boston University College of Communication students — undergrads and grads who hit the streets reporting the news, wrote scripts, staffed the studios, and cut the tape at 640 Commonwealth Ave.
It was in those days of analog, in the early ‘60s, that BU student Bob Cudmore got his professional start on the air.
Bob Cudmore was born almost 69 years ago in Amsterdam, New York, a small industrial town about 35 miles outside of Albany. These days he’s back in that hometown, where he hosts “Coffee with Cudmore” on WVTL Lite 104.7 FM, a one-man morning news and talk show. And at the end of October he announced that he’ll retire from the show in the next couple of weeks.
Cudmore says his driving could be better. And since his show airs so early in the morning (he has to be there before sunrise to be on the air at 6), sometimes the winter roads are perlilous.
“I just don’t want to face another winter,” he said.
Cudmore got his official start in radio as a junior in high school, working Sundays at WCSS in his hometown, hosting weekends and doing summer fill ins. He did some news, he played some records. It was sort of a dream gig for a kid from the ‘50s who loved radio.
After high school he went east to Boston University, majoring in English. He got to campus in 1963 and worked at both of the two student-run radio stations at BU — WBUR “Boston University Radio” on the FM dial and WTBU, which was listened to in the dorms via low power AM carrier current signals.
“WBUR was the big FM radio station, but of course that didn’t mean much then in terms of having an audience,” Bob recalled.
Down the dial at WTBU, he did rock and roll music — hosting the Bob and Rich Show. But on WBUR, Bob did the news.
And that first semester turned out to be a tumultuous one. On November 22, 1963 President Kennedy was shot and killed at Dealey Plaza in Dallas. Bob was on the air.
“I found this one yellowed piece of paper, which I consider an historic artifact,” said Cudmore. “I wrote it — or I probably stole it from different sources and compiled it — it was our wrap-up of some of our coverage.”
The student team — which his notes on the original script say included Jim Holzer, Steve Gendel (who later went on to work for CNBC for many years), and Tom McNiff (later a writer for UPI) — sprung into action and hit the streets of Boston for reaction. Holzer wrote, in big letters on a blackboard at the WBUR studios, “REACTION.”
Bob went out to get it.
Together with fellow student colleague Tom McNiff, Bob hit the streets with a Uher portable recorder, a device that allowed reporters to capture audio and then transfer it to “cutable” tape at the studio. It was a time before computer software — when the raw magnetic tape was sliced with razors and the best parts were taped back together to create a continuous audio timeline.
“The one thing that sticks out in my mind is that we were kicked out of the Ritz Carlton Hotel because we weren’t wearing a suit and tie — we were just college kids,” he said.
They were just college kids. The kinds of kids that went on the work in the medium for years. And it’s easy to hear why Bob stuck with it—he just has a delightful radio voice, after all. It’s one of the voices you might hear in a movie about the golden days of the medium, with that deep baritone, old-school sound.
“I like the notoriety, I like fame,” he said of his love for the medium. “And I like talking, and I like performing. I find I really like having an audience to perform for. I enjoy putting things together.”
Cudmore wasn’t always looking for fame and glory. In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, he looked for a way to avoid notoriety on the stage of war. Put more bluntly, he just didn’t want to go to Vietnam. “It’s not a brave thing to say,” he said.
Luckily for him, Cudmore failed the military’s physical in 1967 and never had to ship out. But by then, he was already married to Mary Pritchard and hosting his own weekly WBUR show, “Conference Call.”
That same year, many of Boston’s newspapers went on strike and WBUR launched a five-hour daily show called “Newspaper of the Air.” Reporters from the papers would join hosts on the air and talk abut the news that they weren’t reporting in print.
By the end of the school year, the papers went back to the presses and Cudmore stepped behind the mic of a shortened one-hour weeknight version of “Newspaper of the Air.” With his own show, came a regular salary… Sort of.
WBUR paid Bob $35 a week for “Newspaper of the Air.” It was the start, says Cudmore, of the days as a professionally run radio station — fading were the days of quirky student leadership. Enter Will Lewis, the station’s new general manager.
“They had become a professional station, what did that mean? They couldn’t pay anybody,” said Cudmore. “But he did have a budget for clerical work.”
So Lewis “hired” Cudmore’s wife Mary, then a typing teacher in Boston, and paid her the $35 a week for Bob’s work on air. Whatever it takes to get paid in public radio.
By the end of the summer of 1967, Cudmore had moved on from WBUR to what he says seemed like a bigger deal, a now defunct AM station in Cambridge. FM was still a newfangled thing, and it wasn’t entirely clear that AM was on the outs.
At the end of 1968, Cudmore had left Boston for WBEC in Pittsfield, MA, hosting the morning show there until 1980.
“In some ways [WBEC] was the highlight of my career, in a way, because that was an era when local radio really meant something,” said Cudmore. “We had an open house at WBEC and the lines would be out the door, people just wanted to see radio. I can’t imagine that people are that interested in seeing it today.”
In 1980 he moved up the dial, scoring a job the Albany news powerhouse WGY AM 810. He did an evening talk show until 1993 when he, like many AM hosts of the early ‘90s, got swept off the air to make budgetary room for talk radio’s rising star, Rush Limbaugh.
In the intervening years, he wrote newspaper columns, hosted a handful of TV gigs, and mainly worked in public relations for the State University of New York in Albany.
“In 2001 my wife passed away. They say you shouldn’t do things like this when you lose a spouse, but I left the state,” he said. “I actually walked away from this great job with the State University.”
By 2004, though, Cudmore returned to upstate New York, back to his hometown to host mornings on WVTL.
Fast forward ten years to today, and he’s prepping to retire.
And while it may not be a full break — Cudmore says he plans to continue writing and hopes to host a history podcast “to keep the media going” — he does have a few career regrets.
“I wish I had gone farther, quicker,” he said. “I don’t know if I’m lazy or, over the years I think, maybe not good enough.”
“I always sort of regretted not pushing harder to get some bigger gig.”
But with a track record like his, Cudmore has lots to be proud of — a radio career that spans decades at some major stations (WGY, WEEI, and yes, even WBUR), two books on the history of the Mohawk Valley, and the admiration of his Amsterdam listeners who wake up to his voice every morning.
Sometimes even radio guys decide it’s time to stop talking.