Two years after World War II, bronze star pinned to his chest, former POW J. Roger Sisson and his brother George, a fellow veteran, were looking for gainful employment. They were due for some good luck and it came when they were awarded a radio license and established their own station, WALE AM, 1400 on your radio dial, in Fall River. From 1947 until 1963, Mr. Sisson’s voice and personality became a fixture in public life in southeastern Massachusetts. The man knew how to have fun while he worked, and regaled a small crowd with dozens of amusing anecdotes at the Westport Historical Society’s meeting hall on September 21. And it didn’t take Sisson long to get started with the stories.
Tom Flynn, Westport Historical Society member and Fall River native, launched his introduction to Mr. Sisson by saying “Co-founder of WALE radio, businessman, raconteur, salesman, politician, father of a large family...”
“Con man!” interjected guest of honor J. Roger Sisson, to the amusement of the small crowd in the society headquarters at the Bell School House on Drift Road. Unperturbed, Flynn finished by saying “Sisson dominated the airwaves as I was growing up in Fall River in the fifties.”
Mr. Sisson, now a Tiverton resident, had popped any pretension that this would be a solemn gathering and proceeded to rattle off one funny story after another about his sixteen year career on the southeastern Massachusetts radio scene.
Imagine the Today Show produced by a host in his pajamas and you begin to get the idea of Sisson’s early radio programs. Here’s the inside scoop on WALE’s morning news in the late forties with Sisson. Hunched over at his kitchen table, telephone handset cradled next to his ear, Sisson ("hair sticking up all over the place", adds his wife from the audience) would read the morning’s news stories straight from the Providence Journal to WALE's airwaves.
The day’s weather forecast? “We couldn’t afford expensive equipment. I would get up from the kitchen table, walk to the front of our house and look out the front door, “ said Sisson with a grin. “Then I’d hustle back to the telephone line to the studio and give my weather report.”
“It’s gonna be a good day to hang out the laundry, ladies!” he might proclaim. Anyone remotely familiar with New England weather can predict the next part of this story, the part where the skies darken, rain pours down, and Sisson has to field calls from irate housewives complaining about the soaked wash on their clotheslines.
Sisson would broadcast anywhere he could sit down near a microphone or a telephone. For years he broadcast from a storefront in Fall River, and was way ahead of Dave Letterman when he conducted his own “man in the streets” interviews. But these interviews were really live, and occasionally the man in the street didn’t speak the King’s English. On one occasion, a five-year-old “rascal” broadsided Sisson with an unprintable on air comment to which Sisson immediately riposted “That’s naughty language young man, and I know your father and I'm going to tell him!”
Sisson chucked but his face turned red when he recalled an occasion when he himself was guilty of bad mouthing in public. After failing to properly “key in” to a major Boston “feed” for news at the top of the hour for three consecutive hours, a consternated Sisson muttered “son of a b----!” with the mike keyed ON and southeastern Massachusetts listening. Calls in rapid succession from his father, his parish priest, and a very offended female listener were only the beginning of a very long day for Sisson.
It wasn’t always fun and games. After broadcasting his stint, he had to pound the pavement and sell radio time. While he could get away with informal attire when broadcasting from lordknowswhere, he had two suits to go a’courting sponsors. When one suit got too rumpled, he went into the dry cleaners back room, put on his clean suit and left the other to be cleaned.
One of the most unique stories was when Roger and his brother George were “stiffed” after announcing for a rodeo show that passed through Fall River. When they trailed the rodeo to New Bedford to collect their fee, the owners pleaded insolvency and gave them a horse instead of the $500 they owed the brothers.
Sisson was a reporter through and through. In 1954, he fled his Horseneck Beach cottage with his family in tow to escape the devastating hurricane of that year. Just after he drove over the old bridge to Westport Point, he insisted on stopping at the Paquachuck Inn to make a call to WALE to report the storm raging around him. As he was on the phone, he saw the force of the floodwaters lift Laura’s Restaurant, formerly located between the inn and Lee’s Wharf, right off its foundation and float it down the river. As the water continued to rise swiftly, he was forced to pile his family of seven into the inn to wait out the storm (and pray that his wife would talk to him again for his phone call that caused them to be stranded there). After many harrowing hours, both the storm and his wife’s anger subsided.
The Westport Historical Society continues to give us enlightening glances over our shoulders at Westport’s past. The “Images of Westport” photo exhibit from Al Lees collection and landscaper Kevin Baker’s slide lecture about the stone walls of Westport are two of the society’s recent glances at Westport’s heritage. Views of the past help us locate ourselves in the present. Mr. Sisson’s talk shed light on a time in which radio was the principal medium through which we all viewed the world and on the colorful local personalities who shaped the news and in some respects were the news.