Sunday, October 2, 2016

A light in the night

If you ever navigated air or sea after dark, you have an appreciation for lights spinning in the night. They are called “rotating beacons” at airports and along the coast they are called lighthouses. I call them “the way home,” because they point the way there. Because of this, beacons in the night have a place close to my heart.

In this modern age, most air and sea navigation is done in a virtual universe crated by radio signals. But at some point most navigators must make the transition from the screens and dials to the real world outside the craft. True, there are “automatic landing systems” in some airplanes but they are rare indeed. I may be a curmudgeon, but I am not quite ready to trust my life to a circuit board yet.

Besides, there is nothing to be compared to recognizing that blip of light that tells you that you have found home amongst that myriad of lights along the shoreline or on the land below you. At that magic moment, you make the transition from virtual to real. There is always a feeling of relief, because no matter how good a pilot (air or sea) you are, you cannot land in the virtual world.

Some of my beacons flash white only denoting lighthouses while others flash white and green alternately denoting airports. There are other combinations around but these are the most common. One of the first that I remember seeing flashed white, white and green, denoting a military airport. That was at NAS Jacksonville, just a few miles from my home. When it was cloudy, I could sit on my front porch and watch the beams reflect off the clouds overhead. Often, when riding in the family car coming back in the twilight after a daytrip to the lakes or the beaches, I would see the flash of light that meant that I was within a few miles of home. That always brought a smile to my lips.

There were two trips in my life where I was glad to see the rotating beacons. The first was a mid winter trip to Florida for my uncle’s funeral. My aunt asked me to fly one of her friends back to Atlanta since it was on my way. I chuckle a bit because if you ever look at a map, Atlanta is not “on the way” to Columbia from Jacksonville. It was late, just after 11 PM when I climbed out eastward from Peachtree DeKalb airport. It was a crystal clear night and at 9,000 feet I could see the entire state of South Carolina in front of me as I approached the Savannah River which forms the state line between SC and GA.

I was flying on an instrument flight plan primarily to help navigate the busy Atlanta airspace under positive control. A few minutes earlier, I had flown directly over the Hartsfield – Jackson airport and was amazed to see the airliners strung out like pearls of light on threads of airways tacked down on one end at the runway thresholds. But now all that was behind my tail. There was this beautiful carpet of lights as far as I could see. The outside air was below 20 degrees so it was smooth and I could enjoy the view. As I approached the state line, because it was so clear, Jacksonville Center handed me off to Columbia Approach Control instead of Washington Center. My friends in the approach control room asked me if I could see the Columbia Airport beacon. Mind you, I was still over Georgia but sure enough, there was a flash of white light ahead. I kept my eyes on the spot and a few seconds later there was a flash of green. To be sure that I was looking at the correct beacon, there were probably about 20 or more that would have visible from my location, I asked him to “hit the rabbit” for a moment. Now, don’t worry, no furry bunnies were being mistreated, the rabbit is a double row of lights that flash in sequence, pointing the way to the end of the runway. Sure enough, I saw the rabbit and was given clearance for a straight in approach to runway 11. I was still 75 miles from the airport and I would not see the runway lights themselves for another 20 minutes. There is always a sense of relief when you see home.

My lighthouse story is from an open ocean voyage I took with some friends as they were sailing down to the Caribbean from Annapolis in their 44 foot sloop. We left Hilton Head around noon on a Saturday and headed out a few miles offshore, far enough to be out of sight of land. We could pick up the signal from the outer marker at the St. Augustine, FL harbor and it was right in the best place for sailing into the prevailing winds which held true for that entire trip. As sunset approached we could just begin to see some lights to our west. The first lighthouse we spotted in the moonlight was the Tybee Island Light on its perch next to the Savannah River. As shooting stars flitted across the sky, we took compass bearings on the Sapelo, St. Simons and Cumberland Lighthouses and marked our progress with hatch marks down the radio beacon path we had marked on the chart. Just before dawn we passed St Mary’s into the Florida coastal waters. Those lighthouses, while not showing us the way home, chronicled our progress in the real world as well as the virtual one in which we were making our way.

One of my favorite lighthouses is the Morris Island Light on the southern edge of the entrance to Charleston Harbor. When constructed in 1876 it stood about 1,200 feet from the water's edge. However, in 1889 the construction of the jetties altered ocean currents, resulting in the rapid erosion of Morris Island and the destruction of many structures and historical sites. Morris Island Light now stands several hundred feet offshore. But last night something magical happened. The Morris Island Lighthouse was re-lit for the first time in over a decade on what was also the 140th anniversary of its first beacon. Crews from SCE&G outfitted the top of the tower with LED panels to simulate the cupola that has long been out of use. The ceremony was part of a continuing fundraising effort by Save the Light, a group that is trying to restore the lighthouse to what it once was. That makes me smile! Oh MY!

Sunday, September 25, 2016

One Hit Wonders

This morning when I popped open my phone and checked into Facebook, the first thing I saw was a posting from a friend who was celebrating, among other things, One Hit Wonder Day. She asked everyone what was their favorite one hit wonder and I replied; “Navy Blue” by Diane Renay.

But if the truth be told, that great song by Renee Diane Kushner from South Philadelphia is not my only “favorite” one hit wonder. I often get asked what my favorite song is and my answer is that I really don’t have one, there are so many great songs out there that choosing my absolute favorite is impossible, so there are a group of songs that are favorites, and of that group there is a sub-group of one hit wonders.

“Suspicion” by Terry Stafford was written for Elvis by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman. Terry’s cover was released on Crusader Records in February, 1964 and battled five Beatles songs being number six on the Billboard Hot 100 on April 4, 1964, when the Beatles held down the top five spots. When I first heard “Suspicion” on the radio, I thought it was Elvis. By the way, Terry sought permission from Elvis to record the song and Elvis graciously said yes. Terry did have another song, "I’ll Touch a Star", rise to number 25 on the Billboard charts but it did not make a big enough splash to be a “Hit!”

“Angel of the Morning” by Merilee Rush and the Turnabouts was recorded in January 1968 at American Sound Studios in Memphis after Connie Francis turned down the song because she thought it was to risque’ for her career. The Turnabouts had been touring that year as the opening act for Paul Revere and The Raiders. When The Raiders recorded their album “Going to Memphis” at American sound Merilee was discovered by Tommy Cogbill who had been hoping to find the right voice for "Angel of the Morning." And as they say, “The rest is musical history.” Angel peaked at number 7 in the U.S. and Number one in Canada that summer. It was one of the most requested songs out at Doug Broome’s on my WCOS Nightbeat Show. I always smile when I hear those iconic trombones on the opening bridge of the song.

Speaking of trombones, that brings up another “One Hit Wonder”; Kai Windig’s “More.” This instrumental from the movie “Mondo Cane” features a melody performed on the electronic Ondioline by Jean-Jacques Perrey. Kai and his trombone are prominently featured in the syncopated musical background. To be sure Kai had other charted hits in the jazz genre, but this was his only Billboard Top 40 chart topper.

Speaking of jazz, there was another jazz cross over that became a one hit wonder in pop music; “Take Five” by the Dave Brubeck Quartet. Like “More” and Kai Windig, this great track was not fronted by Brubeck but rather by the song’s composer, Paul Desmond on saxophone. I’ll give you a hint, don’t try to clap your hands or snap your fingers to “Take Five,” you will get lost before you go through a couple of bars. You see, “Take Five” gets its name from the tempo of the song which is written in 5/4 time. Like Windig, Brubeck had numerous charts in Jazz but this was his only pop top 40 hit.

“Fire” by the “Crazy World of Arthur Brown” is a wild and flamboyant song which opened with the screamed words; “I am the god of hell fire, and I bring you… Fire!” was just too tempting for us DJs not to play with. My favorite trick was to engage the song in the daily morning power change. Back in the day, most AM radio stations had to reduce power at night because AM signals propagate better at night than they do during the day. So imagine this, right at 6 AM, I would complete the 5:55 news block and play the station top of the hour ID. Then I would reach over to the remote control and flip the switch to turn on the daytime transmitter which was four times more powerful than the night time transmitter. Then I would release the slip-que on the record and Arthur’s opening scream would roust everyone who was hoping for a few extra winks that morning right out of their peaceful slumber! Even today, I still hear from listeners who got caught in my wake up trap.

For sure, there were many other “One Hit Wonders” over the years, but this is a collection of some of my favorites. Think back, what were your favorites? I’m sure there are some great ones back in the hallways of your memories. Oh MY!

Sunday, September 11, 2016

15 Years!

It seems so long ago, yet it seems like yesterday. The day dawned warm and clear in Des Moines, Iowa. As I drove from my hotel to the ADP Office on University Avenue, I noticed the lonely windmill just off I-35 turning lazily in the wind. The blue sky seemed deeper blue than normal and the sun brighter than usual. In short it was a perfect Midwestern late summer day. I had a busy day scheduled working on the open enrollment project for our customer, BellSouth.

By noon, the day had darkened significantly. The offices, with the exception of the associates working in the call center were empty. We were all gathered together in the cafeteria watching events unfold in NY, Pennsylvania and Washington DC. I had important conference calls scheduled during the day so from time to time I would wander back to my workstation to hold the meetings which were more about sharing stories and feelings than they were about getting things done. Even Jim, my BellSouth customer contact called to cancel our meeting scheduled for later in the day.

The worst was trying to reach our partners in the project who worked in NYC. We were not being able to reach them for several days. Mercer had several offices in the city, one of which was in the World Trade Center. It would be days before we found out that their employees who were working on our project were in the other office. Still, one or two people who supervised their team were in the WTC that day.

That night, like most of America, I got very little sleep. I was glued to the TV watching those horrific videos over and over again, trying to understand what had happened and searching futilely for that scrap of new information. I tried to sleep but I was so afraid that I would miss some important piece of news that I turned the TV back on and stared vacantly at the images on the tube.

Despite the constant viewing, I did miss something important to me. Up until the end of 1999, I was part of the Television Crew for the PBS “Firing Line with William F Buckley” show. When we broadcast from the city, we used NYC Firemen from the Chelsea and Staten Island fire stations as grips. The guys from Staten Island were safe, not arriving on scene until after the towers collapsed. Those from Chelsea were not so lucky. Two firemen named Angel were standing 20 feet from each other when Tower 1 came down. One of the Angels was killed instantly and the other buried in a void for a half day. To this day, I have been told, he still suffers from PTSD.

Back in Des Moines, a problem was brewing; all air travel in the US was grounded, I had no way of getting back to Columbia, SC. On top of that, I was scheduled to give a seminar sponsored by my customer in Montgomery, AL that Friday. On Wednesday my customer told me that the conference was in-state and would still be happening, and that he really needed me there as many of the other presenters were coming from NY and could not get out of the City. My only hope was my Hertz rental car. I began to try to call the Hertz customer number to ask for permission to drive the rental car that I had to Columbia. Despite a day of trying, I was unable to reach their call center.

Bright and early on Thursday, I headed East under a cloudy sky out of Des Moines on I-35. It was eerie seeing nothing in the air above. In fact, other than birds, all I saw in the air on that trip were Army Apache Helicopters flying perimeter patrols around Ft. Campbell, KY. As a crossed Iowa, Illinois, Kentucky and Tennessee I was enthralled by local radio broadcasts of local events mostly blood drives and fundraisers in response to the attack. Listening to the heartland’s reaction, I began to have hope that it will be all right, not the same but OK nonetheless. By mid afternoon, I finally made contact with the Hertz customer service desk to tell them that I was driving their car to Columbia and would arrive there by the weekend. To my amazement, they said that the only charge would be for the extra days, no mileage! The best $50 my company ever spent on travel!

Just after dark, I pulled into a Marriott on the south side of Nashville. I didn’t have a reservation, but it turns out, one was not necessary. Because I had the highest loyalty rewards status, they guaranteed me a room anywhere during the emergency. Good, I would not have to sleep in the car that night.

At 6 AM the next morning, I was on the road first to Birmingham to meet with my customer then to convoy with him to Montgomery for the conference. I would up delivering two seminars to the Alabama Society of Public Accountants that afternoon instead of the one that was scheduled. Ironically, the second one was one I had done a couple of years earlier on internet security after I removed a slide from my PowerPoint deck that contained a video of a building implosion. Those images were just to “real” for that time.

Despite offers from my hosts to stay in Montgomery that night, by 4 PM, I really felt the need to see my home, to be sure that it was still the same after everything that had happened. So I headed out towards Atlanta on I-85. I picked up I-20 around sunset after passing a silent and empty Hartsfield – Jackson Airport with rows and rows of jets lined up on the tarmac. It almost seemed like a scene from some apocalyptic movie. Was that a zombie peering back at me from underneath that 737? Never mind, I was 200 miles from home and nothing was going to stop me.

Finally at 11:30 that Friday night, I pulled into the Hertz parking lot at the Columbia Metropolitan Airport and found a familiar counter agent waiting there for me. She was the first hometown familiar face I had seen since the world changed. I made it. 1,375 strange miles across the heartland and I was home. But not for long, the project timeline was thrown off by aftermath of the events of 9/11 and by the first week in October; I was back in Des Moines to manage the roll out of the online open enrollment process. That was before the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) was formed in November. But that is a different story. Oh MY!

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Labor Day Tunes!

Tomorrow is Labor Day, the day we celebrate the American Worker. We celebrate it on the first Monday in September and it has come to mark the unofficial end of summer. In some parts of the country folks stop wearing white but down here where we have two seasons, summer and Christmas Day we wear white year round. Now, just where did I leave my Seersucker Suit? Yeah, right! There are lots of reasons I love Labor Day but up near the top of that list is all the great “working man” songs that pop up in my memory.

The first that comes to my mind is Roy Orbison’s “Workin’ for the Man.” It was released as a single in 1962 backed with “Leah.” It was a moderate hit here in the US peaking at #33 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts but made it all the way to #1 in Australia, #19 in Canada and #30 in the UK. In the song, Roy had the hots for the boss’ daughter and fortunately for him she felt the same way so she would sneak him some water. As the song goes on to say “So I slave all day without much pay And I'm just biding my time 'Cause the company and the daughter, you see They're both gonna be all mine.” So it looked like Roy was on his way to being the man.

Then there is “Chain Gang” recorded by Sam Cooke on January 25, 1960 in RCA Studio A in New York City. It was his first hit since “You Send Me” three years earlier. The inspiration for the song was a chance meeting with an actual chain-gang of prisoners on a highway. According to story, Cooke and his brother Charles felt sorry for the men and gave them several cartons of cigarettes. Sam was unsatisfied with the initial recording sessions of this song at RCA Studios in New York in January 1960, and came back later to redo some of the vocals to get the effect he wanted. Finally it was released on July 26, 1960. Who can forget: “That's the sound of the men, Working on the chain, ga-ang That's the sound of the men, Working on the chain, gang – Oooh Ahh.” This was my favorite work song when pushing the lawn mower around the yard. There were lots of covers of “Chain Gang” but in my humble opinion, none quite stack up to the original.

Another favorite working song is "Working My Way Back to You," made popular by The Four Seasons in 1966. Unlike so many of the Four Seasons’ Songs it was not written by Frankie Valli and Bob Gaudio. It was written by Sandy Linzer and Denny Randell. The song reached #9 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100. It spent three weeks on the charts in the UK, at #50. It is the only Four Seasons’ hit to feature the group's arranger Charles Calello in the temporary role of bassist/bass vocalist, having replaced Nick Massi. This song is about a guy who really messed up and cheated on his girl; “When you were so in love with me I played around like I was free Thought I could have my cake and eat it too But how I cried over losin' you.” I wonder if he ever got her back!

Lee Dorsey’s classic “Working In A Coal Mine” was written and arranged by Allen Toussaint. The song concerns the suffering of a man who rises before 5 o'clock each morning to work in the harsh and dangerous conditions in a coal mine, five days a week, the only job the singer can land. The singer repeatedly asks the Lord, "How long can this go on?" He's too tired to have any fun on the weekends. Toussaint said that neither he nor Dorsey had ever been down a coal mine: "We didn’t know anything about a coal mine". He said of Dorsey: "He was very good to work with. Very inspiring because he had such a happiness about him. He loved what he was doing when he was singing. He was a body and fender man when he wasn’t singing and even at his peak, when he would come off the road at the end of a successful tour, he would go and get into his grease clothes, his dirty work gear and go and work on cars. Straightening out fenders and painting bodywork.” Coal Mine peaked at #8 on both the US and UK charts.

Some other great working songs include Bob Dylan’s “Workingman's Blues #2,” Canned Heat’s “Got My Mojo Working”, Bruce Springsteen’s “Working On A Dream”, Pete Seeger’s “I've Been Working on the Railroad”, Loverboy’s “Working for the Weekend”, Elvis’ “Working on the Building”, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Working For MCA”, Michael Jackson’s “Working Day and Night”, John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero”, his son Julian’s “Keep the People Working”, Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band’s “I've Been Working”, Tears for Fears’ “The Working Hour” and Ten Years After’s “Working In A Parking Lot”. The list is almost endless.

So as you head out to the beach or the lake to grill hot dogs and hamburgers this last weekend of summer, celebrate yourself, the working man or woman that keeps this country strong. You deserve it, this is your day! Oh MY!

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Rock and Roll Radio, Airplanes and Quail Droppings!

It was the summer of ’69! I had just earned my private pilot’s license and was eager to take my buddies out for a ride over the city. So late one hot afternoon after his shift and before mine, Scotty Quick (Eddie Knox) and I found ourselves at the end of runway 11 at Columbia Metropolitan Airport “in position and hold” waiting the mandatory delay after the heavy airliner departed some seconds before. I decided to have some fun with Scotty. I reached down beside my seat and found my old flight manual, opened it up and started to flip through the pages. “What are you doing?” He asked. “Looking for the chapter on take offs.” I replied just as the controller cleared us for take-off. “Just kidding” I laughed as I pushed the throttle forward and began our take-off roll. Scotty laughed with me but I noticed that he kept a sharp eye on me as we climbed into the sky.

Left: ADF Receiver There was some turbulence that day so we did a little rocking and rolling until we reached a couple thousand feet of altitude and things smoothed out a little. As we were flying out over Lake Murray he said he would like to see the WCOS transmitter site. I knew the transmitter at that time was in a wooded area on Edgewood Avenue near what is now Charles W Johnson Stadium. In order to fly directly to the station I turned my Automatic Direction Finder (ADF) receiver on and tuned it to our frequency, 1400 kilohertz. We flew across the city listening to Woody with the Goodies count down the Fun 40 as he did every afternoon. Sure enough, after about 5 minutes we could see the tower and made a couple of turns around it and went on our merry way. When Woody started the top 10, I knew it was time to head back to the airport so I could land and get back to the studio in time for my shift on the Nightbeat Show.

Despite the images of fighter pilots speeding into battle listening to Kenny Loggin’s “Danger Zone,” rock and roll and aviation don’t really mix that well. There was too much else to listen to; instructions from controllers, position reports from other pilots and if you are in the military, Surface to Air Missile (SAM) warnings and the ever touted tone, as in “I got tone!” When a sidewinder missile was armed, the pilot heard a growl that increased in pitch until the seeker locked onto the target. When that happened the missile emitted a 400 Hz tone to let the pilot know that it was ready to fire. Today, a voice synthesizer tells the pilot that the missile is ready. Interesting enough, the synthesized voice is female. Somebody figured out the pilots paid more attention to a woman’s voice.

But even in a civilian plane, the cockpit is a very noisy place and listening to music on the radio is a distraction. So just as we say, don’t text and drive” we also say “don’t rock and roll and fly!”

There were times when I did use a radio station to navigate. When flying to Union County Airport, there were no radio-navigation aids on the field, but the WBCU Radio tower was near Buffalo, SC a mile and a half North Northwest of the airport. So sometimes I would have my ADR tuned to 1460 to help in my visual navigation to the airport.

Now I have a funny story to tell about Union County Airport. I had a flight student by the name of Frank Hill that owned his own plane. He was based out of Union County Airport. He wanted to get his Commercial Pilot’s License so he could fly out of state customers to hunt on his quail farm. To make things better for his passengers, he had installed an 8 track tape deck and some speakers behind the back seats. He would fly down to Columbia several times a week for lessons. Despite his appearances, Frank was a pretty good pilot and he was soon ready for his Commercial Flight Test. So I signed off his log and he taxied down to the FAA office to take his test. I was surprised when he came back in half an hour instead of the two hours I expected the check ride to take. Frank was all red faced because the FAA inspector took one look at the extra audio gear and asked Frank for the mechanical log on the airplane. It seems that the weight and balance charts for the plane were not re-calibrated after the installation of the audio gear and the inspector refused to fly in Frank’s plane. He got his license by renting one of our planes for the check ride that day.

Left: Frank Hill on the Tonight Show Now, just in case the name Frank Hill is tickling a place in the hallways of your memories, you just might remember the night he was on Johnny Carson’s show on NBC. You see, Frank had this idea that he could encapsulate quail droppings in Lucite plastic and sell the resulting pendants as art. The Tonight Show staff got wind of this and Frank was invited to appear with Johnny. This is not a tall tale. Just Google Johnny Carson and Quail Droppings, and you can see it all. By the way, Frank dressed the same for the show as he did for his flying lessons; blue or grey denim pants, wool lumberjack shirt, red hat and a quail dropping necklace. Frank gave me one of those beauties but alas, I can’t find it anymore. Oh MY!

Sunday, August 14, 2016

It’s the song, not the medium!

This summer, I’ve been following the hot debate of which is better, analog or digital. There have been long, sometimes heated discussion over which is better. I would like to propose that neither is better, they are only different. To me, it is the content! I’ve heard songs that I would not buy on either and songs that I love even though they are poorly recorded.

A perfect example of the latter is the Moody Blues song “Go Now”, the Merseybeat/R&B Fusion song that hit the charts in 64. The “B” side in the US was “Lose Your Money” and “It’s Easy Child” in the UK. There is so much distortion in “Go Now” that I swear the record wears down the needle instead of the other way round. Neither of the B side tunes are that distorted but they are not far from it. Distorted or not, this is one of my favorite tunes. In fact, a friend put me onto the fact that someone has processed “Go Now” to digitally eliminate the distortion. But I must admit that it doesn’t have the same feel as the original version. I must be addicted to the fuzz!

Another example is “96 Tears” by Question Mark and the Mysterians. The hole in the middle of the single we had at WCOS was slightly off center causing the song to warble slightly as we played it. Even the replacement that was substituted when there was too much Q-burn on the original 45 has the same offset hole. When I heard the song on other stations such as WTMA in Charleston or WPDQ and WAPE in Jacksonville, it just didn’t sound the same. I missed that 45 rpm warble that gave it a Hammond Organ sound created by their Leslie Rotating Speaker cabinets. Needless to say the digital copy I know own is the more technically perfect recording, but it is just not the same.

I mentioned Q-burn a while ago. Q-burn is that second or two of scratchy sound at the beginning of all the records that have been in rotation for more than a week or so. It comes from the practice of cueing up a record in order to play it. The DJ would place the needle on the outer edge of the record, rotate the record forward by hand until he or she could hear the first notes, then back it up until just before the first note. When it became time to play the record, the DJ would hold the record on the edge and turn on the turntable which would come up to speed under the stationary record. Then, the DJ would release the record and the music would start at the right time. All of this caused Q-burn. Even to this day, certain songs don’t sound quite right without Q-burn.

Let’s take a couple of songs that were released by artists in the vinyl era and covered using the same musical arrangements by artists later when recording techniques had “improved.” My first example is “Rockin’ Robin”– Bobby Day (1958 Vinyl 45) and Michael Jackson (1972 Vinyl 33 1/3). Even on a freshly minted 45, Bobby Day’s version had audible clicks and noises. Michael’s version was a cleaner recording, but my ears still liked Bobby’s version with his more mature voice better. Another example is “I Want Candy!” The original version was done by The Strangeloves, a pseudonym for the writers; Bert Berns, Bob Feldman, Jerry Goldstein and Richard Gottehrer in 1965. It has a much warmer sound on the bottom end than Bow Wow Wow’s 1982 cover. Conversely, the or high notes in Anabella Lwin’s voice on the later release are cleaner.

The high end, ahhh the holy grail of the digital audiophile; it is the forte of the digital recording. Vinyl 45s were engineered to start rolling off the higher frequencies around 7,000 hertz, which was the practical limit to the AM transmitter of the day. After all, record sales were driven by radio airplay so the match was a natural one. When 12 inch albums came along that were played more and more on FM stations that had double the audio bandwidth. CD’s and HD radio go even higher yet, up to 20,000 hertz.

Ironically the millennials of today tend not to fill their young ears with high quality digital recordings. Most of them rely on lower quality MP3 recordings downloaded from the internet directly from artists’ sites that tend to have the same quality as those 45 RPM records of my youth. Hence my argument that it is the song not the media that makes the grade.

Besides, I can no longer hear music at much over 10,000 hertz. I used to pride myself on being able to walk into at TV station’s master control room and tell if all the monitors were working without looking at then by listening to the 18,000 hertz whine of their high voltage supplies. I guess it is all those hours playing rock and roll on the radio with headphones on, but it is true, my hearing is not what it was back in the days of AM radio. To me, AM radio, 45 RPM records and MP3 files all sound the same, except for the warm bass of the analog sources. And that’s all right with me. After all, it’s the song, not the medium. Oh MY!

Sunday, August 7, 2016

You can’t take the radio station out of the DJ!

There is an old saying about radio DJs; “You can take the DJ out of the radio station but you can’t take the radio station out of the DJ!” To be sure, a similar saying exists for other professions but there are few for which the saying is stronger.

Every now and then, I run into one of my DJ colleagues on the street or in a local store. Invariably the conversation turns to the good old days of radio complete with “war stories” of things that happened then. Often these stories are repeats and that drives the non DJs standing around listening little crazy. Stories of funny things that happened in the studio and updates on what is happening with our other DJ friends are shared while eyes are rolling all around.

Something else that marks an old DJ is while listening to the radio we “walk up the record” and “hit the post!” Huh! You ask! What the heck is that? Well walking up the record is the practice of talking over the instrumental introduction to most songs and hitting the post is stopping within a beat of the beginning of the vocal part of the song. It’s just something that disk jockeys do. Just like breathing. So down the road I go walking up the top of the pops and the cream of the crop as the driver in the other lane looks at me like I have two heads. On a really good day I can hit the post on a song, then start up again over the tail of the song while listening for the first notes of the next song, recognize it, and walking up the next record. When I “hit the post” I celebrate with a fist pump as the driver in the next lane moves over to give me a little more room.

That brings me to another hallmark of an old school DJ; recognizing a song from the first few sounds of its opening. One learns that skill from doing remotes where the songs are played by the control operator back in the control room. It is not always possible to maintain contact with the studio so the remote DJ has a cue line that he or she uses to tell the control operator to play a station break. “We’ll be back in a moment with more from Uncle Bob’s Car Dealer after these short announcements” is a good example of one of these. The cue back to us is usually the station jingle. We know at the end of that jingle there will be a song and that our remote line will be “hot” so we could walk up the intro if we wanted to.

Left: This is the type of radio I used for remotes. What made all of this possible back in the day was the fact that there was no delay from the microphone through the transmitter. This meant that you could connect a headphone to a radio and listen in real time to what was happening. You could really hear it all, the reverb, the audio processing and compression right in your ears. I had an old tube type desktop radio and set of headphones that I kept with me for remotes. I used it for years at Doug Broome’s Drive In. It “lived” in the cubbyhole in the common entrance to the studio and was the first thing that went into the cardboard teletype paper box that carried all my “stuff” between the studios on the second floor of the Cornell Arms Apartments and Doug Broome’s. You can’t do that these days because almost all radio stations have a delay between the audio board in the control room and the transmitter. Part of this delay is intentional; a 10 second digital delay system that can be “dumped” if somehow a “no no” gets past the DJ. The rest of it comes from the transmission process in the transmitter itself. So what you hear on the air can be as much as 17 seconds later than what was said into the microphone. The same is true for internet streams of broadcasts, only that delay is variable and becomes longer the longer you remain tuned in to that stream.

Another hallmark of an old school radio program is that the DJ speaks more often and always for a shorter time each time he or she speaks. In fact, I would have been fired if I allowed two songs to touch each other without a voice over or some production element such as a jingle between them. The kids would often complain about that, but you see, that was the point. It was harder to pirate a song off the radio onto a cassette if something else was always going on. We had to keep the record companies happy too.

Left: Turntable similar to those used in the WCOS Control Room on the second floor of the Cornell Arms Apartments. Speaking of jingles, they were not sacred. They had intros that could be “walked up” bridges that could be over spoke and endings that were perfect for starting the next song. By the way, when playing songs off of records and jingles off of reel to reel tapes, there were no aids to assist the DJ in “hitting the post.” These days, automation systems running in DJ assist mode present visual cues to the DJ of how must time is left until the post or the end of the song. Some give you countdowns in the form of a digital clock, others let you know with a “pie chart” containing a slice that gets smaller each second and others give you a bar filling up, like Windows does when you are downloading a file. Back in the day, the DJ had to “own” the song’s intro. That made it more fun and dangerous at the same time. If the DJ spoke too long, he or she would “step on” the song. And that was bad. Note: some of the old school DJs still working with automation in DJ Assist mode, ignore the visual aids. These are the coolest of the cool.

This is why I love live radio so much. There is nothing like hearing a great DJ work at his trade. There is no such thing as a perfect live show; there is always some sort of flub, mispronunciation or stepping on a record. The recovery, how the DJ handles his or her own mistakes is a big part of it all. In case you are wondering, the gold standard of the perfect intro is when a DJ interacts with the singer or the musicians on the song right up to the post. A great example is saying the station call letters on the last four (or five in the case of FM) downbeats before the singing starts. That always gets a fist pump and a “whoop” the second the microphone is turned off. Oh MY!