If fate had been kinder, Jeff Kraus would be celebrating his 80th birthday with us. Many people who’ve achieved success in broadcast journalism would be partying.
Some of the names are familiar even if they’re not around to remember the man who opened career doors for them. Alan Colmes of the Hannity-Colmes tandem on Fox News, “Big Dan” Ingram – a hall of fame deejay during the heyday of classic rock and, still with us, Charlie Kaye – the successful CBS News executive who just recently retired.
We all cut our newbie teeth in radio at WVHC-FM, the original radio voice of Hofstra College/University – celebrating its 60th anniversary this year. In its infancy, Hofstra Radio was guided by Jeffrey Kraus. His spirit is still there in the studio walls of the latest class of college radio students.
I met Jeff Kraus in late 1960. I was beginning evening college classes at Hofstra and peaked my nose inside the tiny radio operation. I was full of hope and dreams at age 18. Just out of a shortened stint in the Marine Corps, I wanted to be “somebody” but not sure who, what or where.
The tall, thin gent – in a blue suit that would become legend. Wearing cowboy boots and puffing a pipe. He looked like a young Leslie Howard or Ronald Coleman. He sounded a bit like Coleman as he addressed me in a voice like the Lord of the Manor.
I was immediately impressed. I sounded and looked maybe 5 or ten years younger than Jeff Kraus but he was just 21 for all his cosmopolitan manner. I don’t know how it happened but – in the blur of seconds – we formed an unlikely bond. Mentor and student, two non-similar guys who would become best friends.
I was a bit hesitant. I was one of a handful of minority students at Hofstra as the new decade began with JFK promising bold ventures for millions of young Americans.
I was intent on becoming an actor or an author. Maybe both. During the day, I sold children’s shoes at a big Department Store. The job paid for my college fees. Tuition back then was something like 16 or 17 dollars per credit. Hofstra was a relatively young commuting college without dorms. All that would change in decades to come.
The constant was Radio Hofstra. We had an odd collection of people on the WVHC-FM staff which had just grown from carrier current to 10 mighty watts at 88.7 on the FM dial.
I think we were perceived as weirdos by others on campus. We weren’t jocks, frat members or lab rats. Jeff Kraus steered the ship of wannabees with a calming influence. I wanted to be “on the air”, spinning records. However, my hearing impairment left me with flawed diction, not good enough even for a beginner. Jeff worked patiently with me, pointing out my diction problems and helping me find a “radio voice”. He encouraged me to write and gave me great latitude in producing music shows and writing radio drama.
This was the door opening for me. I was rapidly promoted from record librarian to program director to, wonder of wonders, station manager as Jeff moved into an executive capacity. These were heady times for me as I found confidence and maybe a little swagger in my work. Jeff would always “school me” if I overstepped boundaries with the new confidence.
My favorite time was – after we signed off the station at midnight and headed over to our favorite bar. This was my introduction to Imbibing 101. I can still smell the pipe smoke (I shamelessly copied Jeff’s debonair style, adopting pipe smoking) and the sips of scotch, brandy, and vodka as my liquor taste quickly expanded. My shyness faded and, for the first time in my life, felt like I was one of the gang. Jeff led his wannabees in chat about post-college life. We were too good for conventional broadcast media. We dreamed about going to work for the BBC or CBC. We’d do “exceptional stuff” for an audience surely just waiting for us.
This was also a very special period for aspiring college radio folks who had easy access to the nation’s number ONE media market in New York City. I’ve told the story a zillion times about calling DIRECTLY through to CBS, ABC, NBC, and other media giants. The iconic (yes, overused) figures like Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin, Arthur Godfrey, Howard Cosell and news legends who’d worked with Ed Murrow – made themselves accessible to us. They gave interviews, did promotional “ID’s” and generally encouraged our little group to pursue our dreams in the big leagues. Jeff Kraus was generally recognized and respected by the big time media moguls. Jeff was seen as the man who sent well-trained prospects out to mesh with established news people.
The success I encountered in later years on radio and television is directly linked to those early years at Hofstra and the tutelage of Jeff Kraus. Despite repeated “Thank you’s”, I’m not sure Jeff appreciated how he molded the professional lives of so many people.
Jeff Kraus left us — too young at age 53 in ailing health. Rest assured he’s not forgotten. They’ll be many stories about JCK as he is still affectionately remembered when many of his radio kids gather later this month to celebrate Radio Hofstra’s 60th anniversary.
One final round.
Here’s looking at you, Jeff.