In the late ‘60s and early ’70s, the WCAU-TV assignment desk communicated with reporters and crews via pagers. For those too young to understand the function of a pager, I’ll explain. Each pager had a specific receiving frequency or was activated by a specific audio tone transmitted on its frequency and the signal would set the pager beeping. The person wearing the pager would know to call the desk immediately if a pager went off. In later years, you could even send messages to pagers. Once cell phones became small enough, pagers became obsolete.
A post on a Facebook group page devoted to people who remember when WCAU-TV was owned and operated by CBS, reminded me of an incident that almost landed me in jail because of my pager.
The assignment desk sent me to cover a federal court hearing involving one of Philadelphia’s big unions in a case where the judge was Alfred Luongo. Alfred Leopold Luongo was appointed to the federal bench by President Kennedy in 1961 after serving as a Philadelphia City Councilman. It was about 1970 and this was a very high-profile case. My task was to take notes and report on the hearing for the 6 O’clock News with John Facenda (The Big News). It was also the first day the assignment desk issued pagers to the reporters.
As the hearing began and Judge Luongo called the courtroom to order, he began issuing instructions to the jury and the audience. Suddenly, my pager started beeping. Horrified, I turned it off as quickly as I could, stood up and walked briskly from the courtroom. I called the office from a payphone (remember those?), resolved whatever question the assignment desk had and returned to the courtroom. But before I could resume my seat, the Judge interrupted me. “Young man, you dared to bring a recorder to my court room.” Apparently, someone unfamiliar with pagers (and let’s face it, most people at that time had never seen one) told the judge I was recording audio in the courtroom. “No Judge, I’m a reporter and my pager went off – the assignment desk wanted me to call them” I explained. “You’ve disrupted my courtroom. I should hold you in contempt.” Then he looked at me quizzically, perhaps recognizing me from some previous TV appearance, and said “who did you say you worked for?” “Channel 10, your honor. WCAU-TV” I responded. “Next time you disrupt my court you’re going to jail. Get out of my courtroom now!” I immediately complied.
A day or so later I discovered why I was not sent to jail for contempt. Dick Kearney, one of the studio cameramen, and a really nice guy who I enjoyed talking to, was married to the judge’s sister, Angie. Dick explained to me that I was moments away from spending the night in the clink when the judge realized I might know his brother-in-law.
To this young reporter, Dick Kearney was a mentor and a powerful example of what it meant to be a ‘mensch’ – a genuine human being – the real article. For more on Dick Kearney, a broadcast legend and World War II hero, read this: https://www.inquirer.com/philly/obituaries/richard-kearney-philly-tv-broadcast-pioneer-and-wwii-hero-20181010.html