Ralph Becker is among MCMA’s pioneers
By Pete Rosenbery
Considered by many to be among the pioneers of SIU Carbondale’s radio-television program, Ralph Becker is recognized for two traits: hard work and being a consummate businessman.
Becker saw opportunities and accepted challenges. Even before he stepped into his first class as a freshman at SIU in 1951, he was unpacking and installing broadcasting equipment. He recorded and produced the university’s first radio and television spots. Later, Becker would use his business acumen to own numerous television stations in a broadcasting career that spanned more than six decades.
“Ralph is not just a guy who understood the broadcasting business, he was an absolutely astute genius as a businessman,” said Larry Brown, a 1966 radio-television graduate and one of Becker’s close friends. “A lot of guys know their craft or trade; Ralph took it a step further. He was an absolute consummate businessman. He was tough, but there wasn’t anybody who was as fair. He knew how to play the game, but he was loyal and honest to a fault.”
Becker, now 83, lives in Winston-Salem, N.C. His career was intertwined with the emergence of television. His broadcasting career started as an intern with KMOX radio in St. Louis in 1949 while he was still in high school. It was an experience that “really hooked me on broadcasting and I’ve never really done anything since,” Becker said.
He continued with numerous broadcasting jobs while at SIU Carbondale from 1951 to 1955, including writing a radio-television column for the Daily Egyptian. After graduating, Becker taught as a lecturer for a year before going into the U.S. Air Force to fulfill his ROTC commitment. His time there included working as an air traffic controller, adjutant to the commanding officer at the now-closed Kirksville Air Force Station in Missouri, and public information officer for the 20th Air Division. Becker returned to SIU in 1959 to continue his graduate studies and manage then WSRV-FM, now WSIU-FM radio.
After college, Becker later expanded his expertise into producing and directing radio and television programs in markets including Peoria and Washington, D.C., working on numerous advertising and marketing campaigns, and serving as president and CEO for a group of television stations. He was later involved with media investing, where his group found poor performing TV stations and implemented changes to improve their operations.
Part of Becker’s work at SIU Carbondale as a student included:
- Script writing, producing and directing several live dance band broadcasts from the Carbondale Armory for events including Homecoming, the Military Ball, “Miss Carbondale” and the spring festival.
- Traveling to many campuses to feed live reports of Saluki football games to Carbondale.
- Recording and processing the soundtrack for the university’s first recruiting film, along with a one-minute commercial in 1954.
- Writing, producing and directing “The Saluki Hour,” distributed to radio stations that reported on campus activities. Becker also arranged for the first live telecast of a Saluki football game on WSIL-TV in 1955.
SIU President Delyte W. Morris would sometimes visit Becker at 3 or 4 a.m. if Morris couldn’t sleep, and saw that lights were on in the World War II barracks where Becker was working. The barracks served as a combination office, broadcast studio and classroom. After Becker and his wife, Jane, married while Becker was in graduate school, President Morris and his wife, Dorothy, were the couple’s first dinner guests at their apartment on South Thompson Street, Becker recalls. The couple has two daughters.
Becker noted that the broadcasting industry was much more regulated than now, but that it was “enjoyable and challenging.” Becker said he drew upon the Federal Communications Commission provision that broadcasters must serve in the “public interest, convenience and necessity,” throughout his career.
“You had to get it right and there was no room for error,” he said.
Becker recalls his visits to campus to discuss his career with students, and he sensed that they also wondered whether they could succeed in such a competitive field.
“I’ve always told them exactly how things were and took my time to explain exactly how it works,” Becker said. He would tell students: “If you like what I do, you can do it, too. I believe that. You scan the horizon; what is to the left and to the right and find out directly what is the most important thing. It should be in the center.”
Becker received the SIU Alumni Association’s Alumni Achievement Award for the College of Mass Communication and Media Arts and was the radio and television department’s “alumnus of the year” in 1985. He endowed one of the college’s largest scholarships, the Ralph E. Becker Scholarship, given annually to a radio-television student whose primary focus is in management and marketing research. Becker was the then-College of Communications and Fine Arts commencement speaker in 1987, and in 1995, received a medallion and clock from the college. The Beckers donated the obelisk sculpture that is located in the college’s courtyard in 1997.
One of the department’s critical components is the hands-on opportunities that students receive, Becker said. He credits SIU with giving students the opportunity to succeed on their own. The university, including the mentoring he received from instructors, “was responsible for my career,” Becker said.
“If it had not been for the amount of responsibility the university gave me and allowed me to have, my career would not have turned out that way,” he said. “SIU was always outstanding in being one of the first to offer actual and meaningful courses that translated to a real job. That was and has been consistently the value of SIU.”
Brown, who is also a Carbondale native, would later work in many of the same television markets as Becker did. Both men, who were first-generation college students, served on the SIU Foundation Board and received alumnus of the year recognition.
Becker was “one of the anchors” in creating the radio-television department under Buren Robbins, the department’s first chair, Brown said.
“Ralph Becker is an absolute pioneer; a classic American success story,” he said. “He is a guy who like myself came from very humble beginnings and is very typical of the kind of student SIU was attracting. He went on to become one of the more successful radio-television giants of the industry. He not only owned 12 television stations, but was someone highly thought of for his knowledge and business acumen.”
Brown, who is 71 and now lives in Dallas, Texas, said it is important that students follow Becker’s lead when it comes to taking initiative – in both class work and their careers. Brown endowed the Larry G. Brown Media Management Lab in the college.
“He wasn’t waiting on a class to go to school and get a grade,” he said. “You have to do more than simply walk around through the day and take a class. It you don’t take the initiative to go the second mile, particularly in the world of communication, it will eat you up.”
Becker also epitomized the importance of knowing what was going on around him, something even more important today, Brown said. Becker’s success came from understanding the market, the business, “and knowing how to make it work,” Brown said.