It was a hot July afternoon with a high temperature that day of 93 degrees. It was a Sunday, my only day off from my gig doing the Nightbeat Show on WCOS so I did not have to go back to the station until 7PM the next day. Even rarer was that Susan had the day off as well. So were both in the apartment on Trenholm Road for the big event. The date was July 20, 1969 and the event was the Apollo 11 Lunar landing and the first moonwalk in history.
Both of us were taking flying lessons out at Miller Aviation that summer and I was just a few weeks from earning my private pilots’ license. So there was a keen interest in what was going on 238,900 miles above our heads. The big RCA color console TV went on in time for the separation of the Lunar Lander named “Eagle” from the command module named “Columbia” with Michael Collins in orbit. The separation occurred at 2:12 EDT and we went back to our weekend chores because that was the only day we had to do them. But the sound on the TV was turned up in the living room so we could hear what was going on as the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) made its descent to the surface. There was some concern; as the descent began, Armstrong and Aldrin found that they were passing landmarks on the surface two or three seconds early, and reported that they were "long"; they would land miles west of their target point. Eagle was traveling too fast.
A picture of Neil Armstrong taken by Buzz Armstrong late in the moonwalk.Around 4 PM the temperature had dropped to 83 degrees and we finished our tasks and were back in place in front of the TV just in time to watch the last 20 minutes of the approach and landing. The fact that it was in black and white didn’t bother me, I was grateful just to be able to watch. With Buzz Aldrin doing the navigation, Neil Armstrong was at the controls. There were some computer “alarms” during the descent that added to the drama of the landing. We all held our collective breath as Armstrong saw that the computer's landing target was in a boulder-strewn area just north and east of a 300 foot diameter crater (later determined to be West crater), so he took semi-automatic control and spent precious fuel to fly over the rough spot on the surface. I remember some commentary about what would happen if they ran out of fuel before touchdown. It wasn’t a pretty picture.
Finally a collective exhale around the world as Buzz Aldren called out: "Contact light!" when one of the probes on the landing gear made contact with the moon’s surface. Armstrong was supposed to kill the engines at that time but in the excitement, he forgot and the module landed with the rocket still running. He immediately shut it down with no incident. Then came the words we will remember forever as Armstrong transmitted to the CAPCOM, Charles Duke, the words, "Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed." Duke was not expecting the change in call signs so he muffed his reply as he expressed the relief at Mission Control: "Roger, Twan– Tranquility, we copy you on the ground. You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We're breathing again. Thanks a lot."
Around that time, it dawned on me that this was the first time in human history that all of human kind was able to watch on almost live TV as the frontier of mankind’s exploration occurred. I say “almost live” because it takes 1.3 seconds for a television signal to reach earth from the moon.
It was also one of the first times that the new instant medium of television was broadcasting something inspiring. We had become used to same day news coverage of the battlefields of Vietnam. We saw those horrific scenes from the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968 after Martin Luther King was shot. We saw the footage from the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles the day after Robert F. Kennedy was mortally wounded. We had seen live coverage of the rioting in Chicago during the Democratic National Convention on August 26 - 29, 1968. It was beginning to feel like all the news we saw on TV was bad. That Sunday changed it all.
Because we didn’t have to work until late the next day we were prepared to stay up and watch the first lunar walk scheduled for 3:30 or so on Monday morning. Fortunately Armstrong and Aldrin were too “Buzzed” to relax (sorry Buzz, I just had to go there) the moonwalk was moved up and happened about five hours before its scheduled time on the flight plan. So at 10:39:33 PM the Eagle was depressurized and Armstrong, after having some difficulty exiting the LEM, began his descent down the ladder to the surface. During the descent, he could not see his feet.
600 million earthlings watched that final foot and a half long “jump” to the dusty floor of the Sea of Tranquility and we heard those incredible words “That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Armstrong intended to say; “That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind” but the word “a” was masked by a short burst of static. You know, it doesn’t really matter – it works with or without the “a”.
We watched for the next two and a half hours as Armstrong and Aldrin cavorted across the lunar surface before hitting the sack in time to get some rest before having to rise and shine for the lunar liftoff at 1:54 PM EDT on Monday. Like Armstrong and Aldrin, sleep did not come easy.
So I was pretty groggy when I arrived at the Cornell Arms studios of WCOS the next day. I picked up the records, commercials, logs and news copy and headed out to the remote site on the parking lot of Doug Broome’s Drive In on Two Notch Road near Beltline. I thought that I would be getting a lot of requests for the number one song at the time; Zager and Evan’s – “In The Year 2525”. I was ready for that. What I did not expect was the number of requests for “Telstar” by the Ventures. It was a “Solid Gold” record by then and normally I would not have it with me. But thanks to his foresight, Mike Rast my news announcer had placed a copy of the 1962 original by the English band the Tornados next to the wire rack containing the Top 40 records. So despite a little sleep deprivation, it was a good night. Oh MY!
This morning I was awakened at 4 AM by the sound a broadcaster, especially a broadcast technician hates to hear; the sound of an electrical arc. My eyes popped wide open and sure enough I could see the “strobe light” effect coming around the shades and curtains of the bedroom window and splashing across the ceiling. More on that later!!!
Left: The source of all the flashing and buzzing.I sprung out of the bed in a flash, with all the reflexes of a “Chief Engineer!” That’s what we were called back in the day despite the fact that few of us had our Registered Professional Engineer’s credentials, even if we were graduates of colleges of engineering. Arcing was bad news in a radio or television station.
Most of the time we dealt with arcing was during thunderstorms where there was plenty of electricity in the air already. During these times the pieces parts of the transmission system were pushed to the limits by direct or nearby lightning strikes. Arcing was their way of letting off steam.
It may be a little perverse of me to enjoy arcs in a controlled environment. I used to open up the doors of the phasor room and sit against the wall across the hall and enjoy the light display at WIS Radio when I was the chief engineer out there. Notice I said across the hall; there was no way I would actually go into that room with all the little lightning bolts flickering across the large capacitors and coils in the phasor. Pretty soon, the smell of ozone would permeate that end of the hall. Sometimes it would get so bad that I had to close the door and let the exhaust fan in the back of the room clear the air.
As much fun as watching arcs in the phasor was, there was always a little nervous feeling in the pit of my stomach. For, you see, there was also a larger lightning display flashing around the three towers out in the field next to the station. And that sometimes meant a lot of extra work, when lightning would strike something important and knock the station off the air. Then it was all elbows around backsides to find out what was damaged, and then replace it; sometimes even while the arcing in the transmission system was still going on.
Just this past week, a nearby AM station up in Newberry SC was blown off the air by a thunderstorm. The storm also blew the roof off of the “tuning house,” a little hut near the bottom of the tower that contained more capacitors and coils that matched the antenna to the transmission line that connected it to the transmitter inside the station. Needless to say, the transmitter would not come back on after the storm passed. These days, many stations do not have a person on staff that can repair a lightning damaged transmitter, so they called a buddy of mine who is an old AM wizard. He surveyed the damage and determined that the components in the tuning house were not damaged, but the station still would not come on the air. He quickly located the problem; an old screw in type fuse was not in its socket. The lightning strike had blown it completely out of its socket and it was lying on the floor. If you are of a certain age you will remember those in our homes. He replaced the fuse, and threw a tarp over the tuning house and they are back to rock and rolling again.
But arcs and lightning are not all fun and games. I remember one particularly bad thunderstorm during my days at WIS-TV. The master control room was on the second story of our building. There is a 400 foot tower with its legs passing through the roof of Studio “T” that was on the first floor right next to the control room. There was a bunch of old school tube type TV monitors sitting on shelves attached to the wall right next to one of the tower legs. That night there were arcs everywhere; between the shelves, monitors and the switcher console a few feet in front of the monitors. It got so bad that Cathy my coworker who was operating the switcher that night would push her chair away from the console except for the few moments when she was actively switching a station break.
I was working on a circuit board on a 20 foot long workbench that had one end near another tower leg and the other near a power breaker panel that supplied power to all of master control. Suddenly I smelled ozone in the room. When I looked up from my work I could see a ball of lightning about a foot and a half in diameter hovering over the end of the workbench that was closest to the tower leg. “How cool” I thought and yelled out to Cathy to come see it. As she rounded the corner of the equipment racks that separated the workbench from the rest of master control, the ball lightning started drifting down the workbench towards me. I was sitting on a tall chair on wheels. All of a sudden everything happened at once, I kicked my legs out, almost backing over Cathy with the chair as I pushed back from the circuit board on the workbench and that ball of lightning found that poor defenseless circuit board and zapped it in one bounce before crashing into the power box with a bang that was just below Armageddon level.
That circuit board was toast! The only thing left to do was to look up the part number for a replacement and write up a purchase order. That left me free to alternate with Cathy switching station breaks amidst all the flashes of light for the next hour or so. Fortunately the storm was over in time for me to turn on all the studio equipment I had turned off when the storm first started up in time for the Eleven O’Clock Report.
Back to last night. I called the power company’s emergency line and updated the ‘line down” report I had called in earlier to let them know that the “hot” end of the broken wire that was hung up in a tree was now arcing. The linemen were on the scene in 15 minutes. By that time the arc had burned itself out without blowing the breaker in the nearby transformer and was unlikely to start up again so they decided for safety’s sake to wait until Monday to actually make the repair. So tonight, I’ll be sleeping with one eye open to watch for the next arc in my life. In truth, I hope that doesn’t happen. My Oldies show on WUSC-FM is at 9 AM and I need to be wide awake so I can rock and roll. Oh MY!
If you are not an old school radio person, you probably have no idea what this week’s blog title is about. It has nothing to do with foot races and certainly nothing about anything that grows. Unless you count that feel good mood that strikes you when you listen to a radio show that is done in the old Top 40 style that ruled the airwaves from the mid ‘50s through the mid ‘70s. “Runnin’ a tight board” meant that there were no moments of silence between songs, jingles, commercials and all the other things that happen during a radio show.
We called those moments of silence “dead air” and we tried to avoid that at all costs. Runnin’ tight boards was not just something that happened in Top 40 radio but was a general practice in all radio formats including, R&B, Country and even “Middle of the Road” programming.
Running tight boards did not come easy; it took a skilled radio presenter as they called them in the UK, DJ was the term here in the states. A lot of physical work went into keeping the stream of sound active. There was cueing records, and reel to reel tapes. Commercials had to be located on the program log, carts retrieved from their places in the in the cart racks and loaded into the bank of cart machines for playback.
Left: a typical first generation cart machine similar to the ones I used.“Wait a minute;” you say. “Just what is a cart?” Well if you are of a certain age I can say it was the precursor to 8 track tapes, except it had only one program track (two if stereo) and a cue track to stop the tape at a spot just before the beginning of the next commercial or jingle. If you are too young to know what an 8 track is; an 8 track tape is a continuous loop of tape that was wound on a single spool in a plastic case. The tape was pulled from the center and passed through openings at the end of the cartridge, where when placed into a cart machine or 8 track player the tape heads could pick up the sound before the tape wound back to the outside edge of the tape on the spool. To the MP3 crowd, that seems like a lot to get the same thing that you get on the click of a mouse these days, but trust me, to the DJ who remembers playing all jingles and commercials on reel to reel tape players they were really something special.
On top of all this physical activity by the Radio Jock, he or she had to introduce records, talk about the weather, take requests and dedications over the phone or on napkins taken at the back door of the announce booth at the local drive in restaurants if you were lucky enough to be where the action was at a remote gig. By the time one got the next break between records set up, the record on the air was beginning to fade out at the end and it was time to do the break and then start all over again.
The breaks were really different depending on if you had a full schedule of commercials or a light commercial load. The maximum non programming time in an hour was limited to 18 minutes by the FCC back in those days. News, weather and sports counted as programming time so that took about 10 minutes out of each hour so that left about 50 minutes for music and commercials. The most common commercial “spot announcement” was 30 seconds long, many were as short as 15 seconds. If you do the math, that meant that during the peak “sold out” time of the day, something had to go between each record. One more thing, the DJ had to start everything by hand. That meant lots of opportunity for screw ups, and most screw ups meant “dead air”.
My most common cause of “dead air” was misplacement of carts into the cart machine. Most cart machines could play more than one size cart, so when the DJ loaded the cart into the machine, he or she had to make sure that it aligned with the right side of the slot on the machine. Additionally the cart had to be placed fully into the machine up against the heads and the capstan that moved the tape in the cart. In one of my stations, the stack of cart machines was located to the left and behind the air chair. Loading carts required either leaning back or turning the chair. The leaning back method was used especially when time was running out and speed was needed. Unfortunately haste makes waste and occasionally the cart would not be seated correctly. If I was lucky, the results were that the cart would not start when the button on the console was pushed. One unfortunate night; I suffered a catastrophic cart failure when the pinch roller that swings up to the capstan to move the tape shattered the plastic case rendering it unusable. During the next song, I located an empty cart case in the production studio and replaced the empty spool with the one I removed from the broken case. I got the commercial on the air without having to do a “make good,” a free announcement to cover the one I missed.
Where the “tight board” rubber meets the road is at the beginning and end of the songs. The Top 40 programmers back in the day required that there be something, the DJ’s voice or a station programming element usually a jingle between every pair of songs. Plus we were required to “walk up a record and hit the post.” That meant talk over the music at the beginning of a song and stop at the exact moment that the singer or singers begin. The kids who were trying to record their favorite song hated this and although I was never told this, I suspect that is the reason this practice came into being, to force them to buy the record rather than bootleg it off the air. The same was true of the musical endings of the records.
To me, there is little that is more satisfying than hearing an old school DJ spinning the tunes and doing a show complete with all this. Alas in this day of block programming and stop breaks these skills have given way to the automation friendly practice of pre and post selling the songs in a music block, and running “loose boards” complete with snippets of “dead air.”
Lest you think I am an old radio curmudgeon who misses the old days, (I stipulate that is the case,) I will relate to you that at least once a semester at WUSC-FM on the campus, a student will walk into the control room in the middle of my show there just to “see how this cool radio is done.” My die hard audience and I are grateful that the powers that be give me a place on the dial where I can keep that ‘50s, ‘60s and early ‘70s radio experience alive. Oh MY!
Top 40 Radio in the 50’s and 60’s had little or no resemblance to what is on the airwaves these days. The difference was much more than the music; it was the entire experience. There were fast paced DJs who loved to “walk up a record and hit the post.” There were Pams and Pepper-Tanner jingles all over the place. And the coolest of the cool stations all had a reverb sound.
The ways they created that reverb differed greatly and the sounds they created were unique signatures for each.
One of the most iconic reverb sounds came out of that 50 thousand watt blowtorch, WABC in New York. WABC used a real room to create their reverb. They had a speaker on one wall and a microphone on the other. The output of the control room was split into two parts, the main part fed the transmitter directly and a small portion ran through the reverb room where the natural “wall bounce” was picked up by the microphone and mixed back with the main signal. This arrangement gave the station a bigger than life sound that made the audience feel that they were part of something really big.
That same “room reverb” arrangement was used in at least one of the big recording studios used by the Brill Building recording companies. You heard it in a number of your favorite tunes.
There was this one place on the dial that for a short while used a tape delay to create an echo. They ran the signal through a tape recorder running at 15 inches per second. Because those machines had separate record and play heads you could get a pretty cool echo effect that way. They built a tape loop that ran around a pair of spools that spun on the supply and take up reel posts. They had to have two of these set ups because there was a lot of wear and tear on the tape loops and they had to change them out once an hour, or more often if the tape loop broke. That station had operating engineers in the control rooms that could manage the extra workload that the echo created, but despite that, they abandoned the echo after a few months because it became too unwieldy and created too many “dead air” gaps in their signal with all the tape breaks.
Left: A two spring Gibbs Reverb Unit typically used in Hammond Organs. Courtesy Reverb.com.The station where I worked in the late ‘60s, WCOS AM/FM in Columbia SC used the most common method for creating reverb on our AM station; spring reverbs from organs. In our case it was a three spring reverb using made from a Hammond organ. Part of the signal was fed by a small transducer (that is a fancy word for parts of a speaker) attached to one end of the springs which were attached to another transducer (this time parts of a microphone) on the other end. One of the unique features of this “home brew” system build by our chief engineer was that in addition to the reverb it had a “chime” style door bell incorporated into it.
Attached to this Rube Goldberg contraption there was a long wire with a steel box containing two buttons. One of those buttons rang the doorbell so we could do our “chime time” announcements between records. The other was really cool. This is the way it worked. Normally two of the three springs were “in the circuit” producing a constant reverb. When pressed, that second button added a third spring to the reverb and significantly increased the reverb sound.
We used these two effects in the live newscasts quite a bit. At first between each story we would ring the bell and then announce the city of origin of the news story in high reverb. Eventually we dropped the chime and just went with the high reverb.
I must say that “high reverb” and new DJs more often than not didn’t mix well. I was guilty of this myself. When I first went on the air there, I got enamored with the effect for the first few months and was “high reverb-ing” almost everything I said. That is until our long suffering program director called me into his office and told me that if I pushed that button outside of the news any time in the next six months I would have been out of there. That broke me of that bad habit.
I found out from him later that he had to have “that conversation” with every new DJ when they first started doing shows. I know he had to get tired of that. There were a lot of DJs involved in a 24 hour station before automation came along. There was always some turn over, especially in the part time, weekend gang. So he had to repeat himself a lot. One of my favorite Top 40 abbreviations, “TTBB”, came from him. It means “Time, Temp, Boom - Boom” and gets to the heart of the fast paced style of radio broadcasting back in the day.
As old school Top 40 radio gave way to Album Oriented Rock and Mono AM passed the baton off to Stereo FM, reverb fell out of favor as a production element. So it is rarely heard on the dial today. Whenever I hear it on the dial it always catches my attention and drives my memory to the days when we played “The top of the pops and the cream of the crop, for all the cool cats and hot kitties.” That is not a bad thing. Oh MY!
There were three of them, all lined up on the wall of the short hallway leading from the lobby to the news booth. Back in the ‘60s, when you entered the studios of WUSC-AM off the third floor hallway two things assaulted your senses, in a good way. The first was the unmistakable smell of vinyl records coming from the record library. The second was the constant clack-clack from those three teletype machines; one from United Press International, one from The Associated Press and the last but not least from the Weather Service.
Left: typical set of teletype machines similar to the one we had at WUSC-AM.Those noisy, dusty, messy machines were the main source of news and weather for the station back in the day. The other input was the old Mutual Radio Network that was the source of the five minute news on the top of the hour. It seemed that most of the time at least one of them was banging ink onto paper. There was a door between the teletype hallways and the news booth that we often left open to get the clacking sound on the air. In fact, most radio stations favored having that teletype sound running on the air underneath the news announcer. So much so that if you couldn’t hear it live, there was a recording attached to the news sounder tape. The thinking was that it added a sense of urgency and “authenticy” to the news presentation.
Paper for the teletypes came in two forms. The AP delivered boxes of yellow paper fan-folded into cardboard boxes that were placed under the machine and then threaded up to the printing mechanism via a slot in the bottom of the machine. UPI’s paper was white and came in similar boxes. The paper for the weather teletype came in rolls that mounted on spools on the back of the machine.
At all the stations where I worked, one of the duties of the on air DJ was to make sure that those teletype machines did not run out of paper or ribbon. To help keep the paper loaded, there would be a strip of red ink on the edge of the last few feet of each box of paper or the end of a roll. We hated to see that because on top of everything else we had to do, we then had to open up a new box of paper and replace the feed in the teletype. If I was lucky and the song long enough I could do it during one song, but most of the time, it was a two-song task.
Ribbons were much worse. You had to put on these cellophane gloves to change them or you would have ink on your hands for days. Ribbons came in cellophane packs containing a full reel with the other end already threaded on the take up reel. So all you had to do was to grab both reels and lift the ribbon between them out of the print mechanism and drop them into the waste paper can that held all the news copy that you didn’t need. But, there was a big problem loading the ribbon into the print mechanism. Those gloves made it very difficult because the ink ribbon was very slippery when handled by them. There was time pressure on this too; all the time you were changing ribbons the teletype was off and you were missing news. I tell you, more than once, after the third song, I would discard the gloves and put up with ink on my fingers. Mike Rast, our news announcer at WCOS had perpetually stained hands from all those ribbon changes.
Those teletype paper boxes create a lot of cardboard, but we had uses for it all. At Christmas time, the boss would bring in all the Christmas music in one of those boxes and place it on the floor of the control room in front of the cart machines. I remember gleefully swinging the air chair around and diving into that box in search of my favorite holiday music; Gene Autrey, Bing Crosby, Darlene Love, The Ronettes, Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans, The Crystals, The Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, The Supremes and Smokey Robinson, they were all there. I was in heaven.
Those boxes were great, for carrying all my stuff out to Doug Broome’s restaurant for the Nightbeat Show. The wire rack containing the “Top 60 in Dixie,” later the “Fun 40” records, along with carts with the new commercials, my headphones and the weather and news copy, if necessary, for the night fit nicely into a teletype paper box. After about a month of wind and rain, the box had to be replaced. It was never a problem to find a new box lying around. Heck, I even had stuff stored in those boxes in my bachelor apartment.
Those teletype machines created a phenomenon known as “rip and read,” mostly in top 40 stations where the announcer doubled as the news reader in the local newscasts on the top and the bottom of the hour. “Rip and read” meant that when the announcer ripped the news copy off the teletype machine and trimmed it down to the newscast with a large pair of scissors, he or she did not actually proofread the news copy itself. Of course this often led to unexpected results. The usual culprit was that during the body of a story, the teletype feed would be momentarily interrupted mid word and something completely different would follow. That usually resulted in my stuttering and stammering while I tried to figure out just what in the heck I was reading.
My worst case occurred when I was a brand new DJ at WCOS doing the all night show. It was a cold and rainy winter’s night and I padded into the studio in my stocking feet just before the “News at 55” newscast at 1:55 that morning. I played the news sounder and started into the 5 or 6 stories that hour. The third story was the one that got me. It said, and I quote “Dallas – An unusual winter storm has dumped 4 and one half feet of heavy snot on the West Texas Panhandle.” Now the internal “rip and read” editor in the back of my brain changed the offending word to “snow” and I read on for a couple of lines before that same internal editor screamed at me; “What did that say!!!!!???” At that point I was a goner. I first started to giggle, and then it got worse. I turned off the microphone and guffawed as loud as I could. I remember pounding on the desk trying to regain composure but alas it would not come. I finally gave up and played the commercial scheduled for that newscast and somehow muddled through the weather and got the first record of the hour started. Needless to say the phone lit up like it was Christmas with people wanting to know if I was OK. At the end of the record, I came clean with the audience and told them that it was not snow that the story talked about and they could use their own imagination. I heard about that one for weeks afterwards and it is probably the funniest and most embarrassing moment of my career.
I mentioned earlier that I sometimes carried news copy out to Doug Broome’s for nights when Mike Rast was occupied recording jazz shows with the station owner, George Buck. As I was packing up the teletype box with my stuff, I put the news copy I would need that night into the box and left it on the table near the exit then I went into the control room to gather the records and commercial carts. One fateful night, Mike realized that I didn’t have the latest news copy so he removed it and went over to the teletype room to get the latest and greatest for me. Unfortunately, he got sidetracked and I left the station without any news. At 8:30, I played the news sounder from the remote location and dove into the box for the news copy only to realize with seconds to spare that there was none there. It is a good thing that it was radio and not television as the expression on my face was priceless. “What the heck do I do now, this is a sponsored newscast.” In inimitable DJ style the answer came, ad-lib the news!! Fortunately my short term memory was better back then than it is now. Helping me out was that it was a “headlines only” news cast, so I didn’t need to recall the details. I managed to muddle through without sounding like a total idiot.
Teletype systems are mostly gone from today’s broadcast newsrooms as the AP, UPI and Reuters news comes in over the internet these days and can be transferred automatically into the Teleprompters and copy printers used in television today. Formal newscasts are almost extinct on radio these days, especially locally. I miss them and rarely miss the South Carolina Public Radio Morning Headlines done by my friend Linda Nunez Mondays through Fridays. Just listening to her read the stories reminds me of those days when news was a part of radio. My mind always goes back to the days of teletypes; “clack clack” noise, paper, ink and all. And a small smile spreads across my lips. Oh MY!
It takes a lot of pieces parts in multiple locations for a radio station to be on the air; studios, transmitters and the stuff that links them together. There are a lot of ways that one of these parts can fail and when that happens you are off the air. That doesn’t happen very often but when it does, strange things happen in radio.
One of the requisites for being on the air is that there is power at both the studio and the transmitter. Back in the day, backup generators were few and far between, so if power was lost in either location, it was crickets time.
Left: Typical Studio to transmitter link antenna used today. Courtesy Nicom.One hot summer’s day we were treated to the usual afternoon thunderstorm. Lightning flickered all over the city and you could hear the boom of thunder through the walls of the control room. Static roared in the headphones amongst the backbeat of rock and roll. We did ok at the studio downtown but suddenly, the music was gone. My buddy, who was on the air at the time, jumped up and dialed up the filament circuit on the transmitter; nada, goose egg, zero, there was no power out at the transmitter site. A quick call to the power company got us a high priority on a repair crew being sent to the site. At that point all we could do was wait.
We sat back in our chairs to catch a break until power was restored. Suddenly the station owner burst into the control room. Let me stipulate that he was a very smart man who know all about radio and how it worked. But that day he was worked up. “We’re off the air!” He exclaimed. We told him that there was no power at the transmitter and that we were waiting for the power company to get the juice flowing again. He then told my buddy to make an announcement that we would be back on once power was restored. When we looked at him in astonishment, he leaned across my friend, flipped on the microphone switch and made the announcement himself, right into – well – nothing really. Because there was no power at the transmitter the announcement never made it out of the telephone line that connected it with the studios. It was all we could do to keep straight faces as he left the studio muttering something about “disk jockeys.” Just before he reached the door, it dawned on him what he had just done. He stopped, turned and sheepishly admonished us that this never happened.
Another time at that same station, we had a failure in that telephone line that connected the studio and the transmitter. It seems that a lineman was working on one of the cables that carried the AM station’s audio. He broke our circuit and inserted his test signal generator. All of a sudden a very loud beep beep crashed through my headphones. I realized immediately what happened and turned the transmitter off and called the local “toll test” room at the phone company to report the problem. Every 5 minutes or so, I would turn the transmitter back on via the remote control system and see if the signal from the station had been restored. I kept playing the same song over and over to help the lineman identify our signal. After about 20 minutes the problem was fixed and it was time to rock and roll again.
In the late 70s, I had recently assumed the position of “Chief Engineer” at WIS-Radio. My desk and workbench were right in front of the 5,000 watt AM transmitter. The week before, I read in the transmitter manual that there was a 30 second delay after the filaments were turned on before you could turn on the plate circuit and put the transmitter on the air. Normally we would wait at least 5 minutes from a cold start but the delay was to protect the big final tubes just in case the operator got impatient.
One cool fall day, we had a momentary power failure that tripped the transmitter off the air. Since the filaments were already warm, I thought it was a good time to test that 30 second delay. Even if it didn’t work right, it would be ok since the tubes were already warm. So I pushed the plate switch on. As I stood in front of the transmitter counting down the time in my head I could hear the clamor of feet coming down the hall and everyone telling me that we were off the air. I raised my hands for silence as I reached 25 seconds. Silently I counted “5… 4… 3… 2… 1” and then in as powerful voice as I could muster I said one word; “HEAL!” To my great satisfaction, the delay circuit did its magic stuff and the transmitter came up with all its warmth and glory and we were back on the air. The on duty DJ and the Station Manager knew immediately what I had done and broke up in laughter, but I noticed that the office staff gave me a little more room when passing me in the hall for a while.
Left: Typical Internet Radio connection diagram with Automation Server.When I started my first Internet Radio station back in 2008, I thought those “off the air” times were behind me. But I soon learned that being off the air is a thing there too. The pieces parts are different; instead of a studio we have an automation server and live DJs from their own studios around the world. The Internet is the connection between the DJ and the transmitter which is called a relay server. When the DJ logs into the relay server it switches the automation server off and broadcasts the live DJ. It also collects the song artist and title information and pays the performance rights fees. The same company provides the “listen live” application that you use to tune in. Yesterday, when I logged onto the server to do my show, I received a notice that the company had gone out of business. So just like a lightning strike, we were off the air. There is no power or phone company to call, or an engineer to fix the transmitter. So for now, it’s “crickets” until I can engage a new company to supply those services. I’d open up my microphone to tell you that we will be back on the air as soon as possible but that doesn’t work any better now than it did back then. Oh MY!
I’ve been thinking about the weather a lot this week for two reasons. First, a friend retired last Friday after a 40 plus year career as a well respected meteorologist on television. Second, after a long, hot dry spell, the temperatures have cooled a little and we have had rain almost every day.
Weather forecasts are something that you don’t hear on the radio much these days. But back in the day we had “weather on the quarters,” you could count on getting the weather forecast four times per hour. It was part of the newscasts broadcast on the top and bottom of each hour, and there was a stand-alone weather forecast at a quarter after and a quarter till each hour. The primary reason we did the weather a lot more then than it is done now is that the broadcasters were the only source of weather to the public other than calling the weather bureau on the phone; an impossible thing to do in the days before wide spread use of mobile telephones.
Left: Typical local forecast from the weather teletype.Radio and television stations got the weather forecasts via a network of teletype machines connected to the local weather office, in our case, located at the Columbia Metropolitan Airport. We would get the detailed forecast and a shorter summary once every three hours or so. And about 5 minutes before the hour we would get the latest actual weather conditions in the major cities in the state. Those would consist of the temperature, sky conditions and wind speed and direction. We would cut the forecast and the current conditions out of the 8 1/2“ wide teletype paper with large scissors. The 2 inch strip with the current conditions would lie on a pair of switches over the cue speaker between the VU meters of the audio board, and the 5 -7 inch long forecast went on the desk over to the right besides the stack of up and coming 45’s.
The problem with this is that we received the current conditions only once per hour and the weather could change a lot between the updates, especially in the summer. To make matters worse, every radio studio in which I did a show with the exception of one and a half either had no window or the window was behind the DJ when he or she was speaking into the microphone. The one was the booth out at Doug Broome’s Drive in at WCOS which had three 4’ x 8’ windows facing the great out of doors. When I first started at WCOS, the control room had no window for the first couple of years I was there. When Milton, our engineer came aboard, one of the first things he did was to uncover the window in the control room directly in front of the audio board and we could finally see if the weather conditions have changed since the last hourly report.
When I built my broadcast studio in my home, I made sure that I could see out two windows from the microphone position. One looks west and the other north.
Back in the day, we had to be careful to read the weather forecast verbatim and not ad-lib funny stuff into it. I learned my lesson the hard way one rainy day when I quipped “It is raining cats and dogs out there, I know because I just stepped into a poodle.” Sure enough, the studio line rang and I heard the voice of John Purvis, the chief meteorologist at the Columbia Weather Office telling me that I needed to take the weather more seriously when reading their forecasts and not make jokes about it. He was OK with joking about the weather at other times but not during the official forecast. That phone call was the beginning of a long friendship with John. When I was giving after hours flying lessons in the 70’s I would be sure to take my students down the runway to the weather service office so they could meet John and his crew face to face. I would have the pleasure of working with John after he retired from NOAA and worked in the South Carolina State Climate Office.
John became somewhat of a local celebrity when we hit upon the idea of having him call the station and record the latest forecast. We had it on a cart and would play it “in his words” and just have the DJs read the latest hourly update. One of the things I remember about that period was the FCC required beep that was put on the studio phone line every 15 seconds. Supposedly that beep was to remind the person on the other end of the telephone line that they could be put on the air or recorded. Really, why else would you be calling the studio line of a radio station? Well, you could be making a request, but why would that matter? I’m sure glad that is not longer required. I hated that sound, especially when it came through the station’s reverb unit.
These days, because there are numerous weather outlets available on the internet, I do the weather only twice an hour, at a quarter past and a quarter till the hour, and that is to keep as close to the “50’s and 60’s radio experience” as I can. Heck, I’d probably do a short newscast on the top and bottom of the hour too if I had a source for local headline news. I’m just too busy in the studio to be able to write the headlines myself. Besides, my handwriting has gotten so bad that I probably could not read what I had just written. BTW, don’t tell me to use a computer, there are three of those in the studio and all of them are running almost to the point where they are nearly smoking. The one where I get my weather has three active windows already open on it.
Which bring up the “TTBB” conundrum. Rick Sklar, the iconic program director at WABC in New York came up with the idea of “Time, Temperature, Boom-Boom. After every song, his DJs would announce the “WABC temperature” or the “WABC Chime Time” the latter accompanied with an actual chime that was pre recorded at the end of a song. Many stations, including WCOS followed suit, so we were instructed to always “TTBB” give the time and or the temperature. Time was easy, we had that big Western Union clock hanging on the wall in front of us, and at our finger tips was a button that rang a doorbell chime whenever pressed. Temperature was a little harder; we had to write the latest temperature on the edge of the teletype copy that contained the forecast. Time is still easy; there is a big digital clock on the automation computer that remains synced to the NIST Internet time service. I have a sound file of a chime I can play when needed. Temperature is a bit more difficult; it changes a lot more often than the hourly reports we used to get. It is also only available on one of the three windows that I have open on my busy auxiliary computer. That window is “on top” only during the times that I’m actually doing the weather. So the other times I don’t have the current temperature at my fingertips. And before you say “Weather Bug” to me, I don’t have administrative rights to that computer and even if I did, I don’t want to load a tool on that computer that in all likelihood I would be the only one using.
So, tomorrow I’ll be “TBB’ing” instead of “TTBB’ing”. You will hear the chime time every so often and the current temperature near the weather forecasts on “the 15’s”. If I am doing the show alone you just might hear the temperature more often because I’ll write it down on the paper where I have printed the “on this day in history” events and birthdays the previous day. I have tried my “Swiss Cheese” memory in the past with disastrous results, sometimes “off by 20 degrees” disastrous. Oh MY!
It seems that vinyl records are making a comeback. I’m always amused when in a movie someone plays a record. You see the needle drop on the outside edge of a 33 1/3 RPM 12 inch vinyl disk. There is a very satisfying and sexy thump that bumps the speaker cones in the theater sound system, then after a moment of silence as the needle grooves over to the first notes of the song that fills the air with a rich mixture of sounds. It’s all too cool, too neat and not at all the way it was back in the day. Don’t get me wrong, I love the vinyl experience but with personal vinyl record plays on the high side of fifty thousand, I have never experienced the start of a record just like that.
True life is a bit grittier than that! And in radio back in the day when vinyl was the main source of music it is a lot grittier than that.
For the most part, the vinyl I experienced was mostly on 7” 45 RPM singles. Rarely did I track an album through from the beginning to end. I must confess that after the second or third song from the same artist or band, I was ready for a change. So when I tracked an album side from beginning to the end, it was usually a multi artist anthology album. The best of those albums were “programmed” by folks that knew how to mix music. You never heard a “train wreck”, two songs that just clashed with each other and that never should be played back to back. You would be surprised at how much effort was put in by the producers of an album to make the listening experience as good as possible.
As rich as the vinyl listening experience is, it should be noted that each time a record is played it is damaged just a little. This is because when the phonograph needle tracks through the groove on the record it chips a molecule or two of vinyl off the ridges and valleys of the groove. So after a number of plays a scratchy sound becomes noticeable. Records made of high quality plastic were more resistant to this wear and tear than those made from the cheaper stuff. As a result, radio stations would go through several copies of a record before the end of a song’s chart life. Especially if the song did well on the charts and stuck around for many weeks from up and comer to the time it fell out of the top 40 and into the oldies bin.
Closeup of cue burn courtesy of Stanton Turntables.For records played in radio stations, there was a special form of abuse; cueing! In order to facilitate the starting of a song at exactly the time the DJ wanted it to start the record had to be queued up. Once the record was placed on the turntable, and the needle of the tone arm placed on the silent part of the groove, the record was then spun until the first notes of the song could be heard in the cue system. Then the record would be spun backwards to a point on the groove just before that first sound. When it was time to start, the turntable was turned on and voila, just like magic, it was on the air.
A couple of things to note here; first the cue system was a separate amplifier that was connected to a speaker in the studio in the control room that only the DJ could hear. Selecting cue was normally done by rotating the potentiometer or volume control for that turntable down past the off position where there was a detent by which the DJ could feel that the record was playing to the studio only speaker. Second, the early turntables took a couple of revolutions to come up to speed. So in order not to hear the unpleasant sound that caused, the DJ would place his or her fingertips on the edge of the record while starting the turntable beneath it. So the record would slip on the turntable until the DJ released it. This was called “slip queuing.” Just to be sure that the needle had not jumped from the chosen spot, in the last seconds before the time the song was supposed to start, he would check the cue a couple of times by letting it spin to the start of the music and then reversing the record back to the silence of the groove just before that point.
All of this activity created a thing that only DJs of a certain age had to deal with; cue burn! Spinning a record backwards with the needle in the groove was hard on the vinyl. After just a couple of times being slip queued a scratchy sound would become apparent at the beginning of the record from a second or so before the first note and continuing into the first second or so of the song.
Two things happened as the record’s time on the chart expanded. The static-icy sound got louder and longer. Then would come the glorious day when the program director would replace the record with a new copy, and the DJs would carry on destroying that version too.
Now, records were supplied to the radio stations by salesmen for the record labels. Each week, we would receive a bunch of 45’s in the mail that contained the demos that the record companies that the record companies were promoting that week. Once a month or so, the record salesmen would come by the station to make a case for their songs that we had not played yet. Quite often their spiel would be that such and such a station over in the next market was giving his song a lot of airplay and we should too. We never took their word; we knew what our competition was playing and what the neighboring markets were playing.
In addition to coming by to “push” the songs that we were not playing the salesmen also brought fresh copies of the songs we were playing so we could get rid of our copies with “cue burn.” Even before I put the new copy on the turntable the first time, I knew it was new. You see, “cue burn” was visible as a fuzzy spot on the beginning of the record. Also, and this is the cool part. The replacement record was usually made of the more expensive vinyl instead of the cheaper styrene on which that the demos were pressed. So usually when a song made it to the top 10, it got a new disk. Good thing too, by then it was in heavy rotation, which got it more airplay than the other songs.
These days, my oldies shows on the radio are mostly free of “cue burn” because I am playing them off of digital audio files that were “ripped” from the master tapes from the old record companies. There are a special few songs for which I could not find copies made from the master tapes so they were made from some old vinyl disk complete with the pops, crackles and “cue burn” that made it all so real back in the days. Heck, when I play one of those songs, I can almost smell the vinyl in the air. I close my eyes and BOOM, I’m 20 again bouncing my groove thing in the air chair out at Doug Broome’s Drive In on WCOS. If I stay there long enough, I can smell the mustard and catsup on the napkins that the kids used to send me their requests. I’m in the zone now, Baby! Oh MY!
Old school radio DJs love to talk about how much better everything was back in the day as opposed to the way they are now. I am one of those who love to participate in those discussions. We’d argue about which is better 45 RPM 7 inch singles, 33/ 13/ RMP 12 inch albums, cassette tapes or CDs. Just for the record, MP3 files don’t even come close because they are “lossy” and the quality isn’t there.
One of the hot topics for discussion is about which is best; rotary or slide volume controls. They are called “pots” in the business, short for potentiometers.
Most of the audio boards I used back in my first 15 years in radio and television had rotary pots, that you turned clockwise and counterclockwise to raise or lower the volume. The big advantage to these controls was that one could rest the heel of the hand on the desk and spin the pot with your fingertips. And there was a detent on the pot when it was turned all the way down that put the input channel attached to it into cue mode. Cue mode meant that you could listen to what was being played on a given input through an auxiliary speaker that was not on the air.
Cue mode was used much more back then than it is today because we had to find the first notes on the song by spinning the record and listening to it. Once found, the record could be backed up a quarter turn and be ready to play. On older turntables the DJ had to hold the record with his or her fingertips while the turntable spun underneath, releasing it and turning up the pot when it was time for the song to start. In the late 60s, instant start turntables found their way into radio control rooms and we no longer had to hold the edge of the records. They came up to speed within that quarter turn. My first experience with those was in the WCOS remote studio at Doug Broome’s Drive In on Two Notch at Beltline. We had three Russco turntables in that cinderblock building, one on the left and two on the right.
My first encounter with a slide pot board was at that iconic blowtorch radio station, WAPE in Jacksonville. I never worked for the Big Ape but I spun a couple of records there one day in relief of a friend who had something come up that he had to handle. After only a minute or two on the board I learned the big advantage of slide pots. You could scan the board quickly and immediately tell which pots were turned up. That was harder with rotary pots as you had to find the pointer on them and see where they were. That took twice as long and sometimes resulted in something you didn’t want to hear getting on the air.
Left: My first board design.I designed my first slide pot board at WIS-TV when we added on a new control room and studio in ‘75. The board was built by Audio Designs and Manufacturing (ADM). The board was a custom built modularized custom built console and I was chosen by the station to design the layout. And like the WAPE board and the one I used later at WIS Radio it had a detent at the bottom of the slide that placed the channel into cue. I chose the standard layout of the time, placing five microphone channels with tally controls for the studio speakers and on air lights on the left of the console, then across the board more microphone inputs that without tally controls and a pair of turntable pots next to them. There were three slots were for the cart machines and two more for the reel to reel tape machines. Finally on the far right in the 22nd position was the network.
The slide pot board I used the most back in the day was the one out at WIS Radio. It had down pot cue detents and remote starts as well. Because of the nature of radio music shows as opposed to running audio on television stations, those features were used more in radio. I know because of the many hours spent cleaning the dust out of the pots and changing lights in the buttons. Dust in those early slide pots was probably the biggest problem from a maintenance standpoint. It should be noted that the pots in the ADM console at WIS TV were actually rotary pots with a twisted piece of metal attached to turn the pot. The pot was turned by a fork shaped piece of metal attached to the slider itself.
The advent of CDs in the 80’s spelled the end of the down-pot cue systems on audio boards. They were used less and less because there was nothing to cue up any more. There are still cue systems on modern audio boards but you have to push a button on the input module to listen to something in cue. And heaven forbid you forget to take it out of cue; the sound blasts out of the cue speaker and nothing gets on the air. It must be my old eyes but that little red light is hard to spot in a hurry. Hard to spot, until “Mr. Dead Air” raises his right hand and cackles “I got ya!!”
Heck, I don’t even use the cue feature on the board in my home studio. It takes four buttons and a rotary pot to listen to an input in cue. Not gonna happen.
So, queuing aside, I come down on the side of slide pot boards because of their visibility. At WUSC-FM I can set and forget my microphone and automation levels, leaving me to ride primarily the auxiliary input where my music computer is attached. Occasionally I need the telephone input and the one to the remote Marti receiver.
I’ll be the first live DJ on the air there tomorrow. I sure hope that DJ Goggles will pull the shade down at the end of the Chronic Chillness show this evening. It will be 82 degrees already when I start my show there at 9 in the morning. The air conditioning in the control room is so poor that the sun streaming through that window easily overpowers it. That brick patio and the side of the building will already be sizzling. Oh yes, and the oldies will be sizzling too. Oh MY!
I was asked the other day how do I keep the music fresh on my oldies shows. After all, there is no such thing as a “new” oldie.
For me, the main way to keep it fresh is to have a large playlist. When I sit down to do a show these days, I have 25,000 to 30,000 songs at my beck and call. That is an order of magnitude over the 200 – 250 songs on most radio station’s play lists. And a huge increase over the 60 – 70 songs that were on the playlists of the old top 40 radio stations. This included the “up and coming” tunes but does not include the one solid gold song that we played every half hour.
So how did top 40 work anyway? The secret was that each week between a fifth and a quarter of the songs on the top 40 got replaced with tunes from the “up and coming” collection which in turn were replaced by new tunes added by our program director. That means that there was always something fresh on the playlist.
The other thing that worked for top 40 was that almost no one listened to an entire DJ’s show from beginning to end. So during a five hour air shift the DJ would play 100 songs, 20 or so per hour. That means that he or she would play the same song twice in a shift. It would be highly unlikely that a listener would hear both plays in one listening. He or she would probably hear the same song between three to five times in a week. The average run time on the top 40 was about ten weeks. So a listener would hear the song between 30 and 50 times before it fell off the charts.
For the DJ however, the number of times they heard the same song was considerably more, up to 500 times during it’s time on the playlist. I can tell you that by time most songs were moving out of “heavy rotation” and ready to rotate off the list I was ready to say; “Goodbye Marcia!” I had to fight the temptation to over play the newer songs because I was not tired of them yet.
Left: A typical clock wheelBack in the day I was fortunate to work at stations that allowed the DJ to choose which songs to play instead of having to follow a “clock wheel” which designated which type of song to play at a certain time of the hour. I had only three restrictions. 1) lead out of the news on the hour or half hour with a “kicker, a fast paced rocker. 2) play a “solid gold” oldie after the weather on the quarter hour. 3) never play two instrumental or female songs back to back. Why couldn’t we play two female artists back to back, you ask? The answer was that the ratio of female to male artists back in the day was much lower than today. So we had to spread them out.
I liked having that free hand because it respected my DJ skills and allowed me to build a mix of songs that was unique to the time of day I was on the air and the show I was building. A good example of this was the All Night Satellite. The music in the 1 AM to 2 AM hour was a lot harder and rockier because the late night audience was out cruising or wanting a pick me up after a long day. The 5 – 6 AM hour leaned more towards “light rock” because that audience was just waking up and trying to ease into the new day. So all this had to be taken into consideration when choosing the next song to play. Oh yeah! I almost forgot! You had to be sure to avoid “train wrecks,” that is two songs that sound terrible when played together. For example; you should never play “Abba Zabba” by Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band and “Baby I’m A Want You” by Bread back to back. Ewwww!
But I digress.
Today, oldies are considered a “stagnant” genre by those who don’t know better. So how do you keep an oldies format fresh? Part of the answer is the aforementioned huge playlist along with a DJ’s ear. When I consider playing a song these days, I usually can remember if I have played it recently. If it feels too recent, I skip it, no matter how much I like it. So you may hear the same song on my show every so often but pretty soon it fades into the background and a “new” song takes its place for a couple of weeks.
Well, this is not completely true. My live shows are always request shows, just like back in the day. So sometimes songs get played two shows in a row due to someone making a request because they liked the song the last time it was played.
The other way to keep an oldies format fresh is to add a few “long lost” gems to the playlist each week. This way the playlist keeps growing and the sound never gets stale. I’ll be adding nearly dozen songs never played on the Backbeat show to the mix on WUSC-FM tomorrow. Full disclosure, I get these songs by listening to guys like Dave Hoeffel, Mike Kelly, Phlash Phelps, Pat St. John, Shotgun Tom Kelly and Cousin Bruce Morrow. They never fail to provide new fodder for my playlist. I’m sure I’m not the only oldies DJ that does that.
So tomorrow I’ll be adding songs by Bobby Vinton, Elvis, Frankie Laine, Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons, Johnny Rivers, Nancy Sinatra & Lee Hazelwood, Ronnie Dove and The Newbeats. Some of these I haven’t heard in years. Listen carefully and you may even hear me play two female artists back to back. I’m such a rebel!! Oh MY!