Sunday, May 27, 2018

The Sign On Shift

There is light in the eastern sky but the sun is still not up as I make my way out of the “K” Dorm at 5:45 on a chilly late spring morning. It was a short walk across Davis Field to the Russell House. I briskly pass through the lobby filled with the aroma of bacon and eggs from the cafeteria next door to the elevator and punched the button for the third floor, slowing down at the vending machine for a Coke and a bag of peanuts, the breakfast of champions.

Left: Ampex 351 similar to the one in the WUSC control room Fishing my station key out of my pocket I entered the station with the sound of the teletype machines clacking and whumping in the newsroom by the door. Flicking on the overhead lights I rounded the corner into the main control room, powered up the equipment, turned up the air monitor and listened to the static that would soon be rocking to the beat of the “Dawn Patrol Show“ and turned on the filaments of the transmitter via remote control. Next I threaded the tail of the tape that held last night’s “Night Owl Show” back onto the big Ampex 351 tape recorder just below the remote control panel, and pressed rewind. While the two hour tape was rewinding on its 10 inch reels, I threaded the sign on tape on the left hand Ampex 601, yes this was before cart machines made their way into most radio stations.

All this time, I kept my eye on the big Western Electric Clock as it was counting down to 5:58:30. At exactly that moment, I pushed the switch that turned on the transmitter’s “plates” and listened to the unmistakable “thunk” as the transmitter came to life. There was something very satisfying to hearing that “thunk” followed by a very slight humming sound the transmitter made over the air before the first sounds of the National Anthem pierced the airwaves at 5:58:45. Exactly a minute and 15 seconds later the station sign on ended and I turned up the “pot” for the Mutual Radio News at 6 AM.

I had 5 minutes to walk into the record library and grab the cardboard box that contained the 45 RPM records that were approved for play on this show only. This was the first time in the history of the station that we played Rock and Roll. WUSC was a low powered carrier current AM station at the time, but it felt like we covered the entire city instead of just the area immediately around the campus of the University of South Carolina as we were in our 17th year of broadcasting.

By the time 6:05 rolled around and the Mutual Top of the Hours News was ending, I had crunched the package of peanuts and swigged down a half bottle of Coke and was ready to rock and roll. By the way, it had to be a Coke and not a Pepsi. You see, Coke was a sponsor and I took that stuff seriously. Soon the morning air would be filled with The Four Seasons, The Shangri-Las, The Supremes, Johnny Rivers, Elvis and even The Beatles. Yes, we were playing the top of the pops and the cream of the crop for all the cool cats and hot kitties on campus. In between songs, there were quick announcements about what would be happening that day on campus. I even had a copy of the day’s menu in the cafeteria below on the first floor so everyone would know what was cooking.

There was something magical about doing that morning shift; being the first one to blast across the airwaves. That was something that would come along only once more time in my career. By the time I went to my first job in commercial radio at WCOS, the station was on the air 24 hours a day. So the closest I would come to turning the transmitter on and hearing that thump was at power change time at sunrise and sunset. The thump was there but it wasn’t quite the same.

When I first started working at WIS-TV, I did the morning shift which started at 6:43 AM with the national anthem / sign on and then the Bob Bailey Agricultural Show. I’ll never forget his sign off “He who plants the seed beneath the sod, and waits for it to raise the clod, he trusts in God.” That was a pretty cool sign off, but not the same as rocking to the hits. Little did I know that I was down to only a handful of sign on shifts left in my career.

They occurred during my time as the “chief engineer” of WIS Radio in the late 70s. Part of my job description said “all other duties as required” and since I was very experienced at being on the air, I would get pressed into service when the presenter that was assigned to a shift could not work. The program director at that time was a good friend and I was glad to fill in. WIS programmed what we would call light rock and pop to an adult audience so the DJ patter was a lot more subdued. But it was a joy to realize that I could back time a record to hit the NBC Radio News at the top of each hour.

Sometimes, my technical work could be done only while the station was off the air, so once or twice a month I’d work over night on a Sunday evening. I soon learned that our morning man had a problem with Monday mornings, so at 5:45 AM if he wasn’t there I would fire off the filaments on the big RCA BTA-5T transmitter in the wall behind my desk. If he still wasn’t in the studio by five minutes till 6, I would walk into the control room and make sure that the IGM DJ Assist Automation system was ready to play the sign on cart. Sure enough, the little 13 inch black and white computer monitor would indicate that all was ready. When it was time, I would flip on the “plate” circuit and start the day rolling. I got to tell you, hearing that 5,000 watt blowtorch light off was very satisfying. It would be half way through the National Anthem before the silly grin was off my face.

Now I had records to cue, weather forecasts, traffic reports and live commercial copy to gather. Usually sometime between 6:15 and 6:30, the morning presenter would amble through the door of the studio and say “thanks – good job” as I signed off the program and transmitter logs and turned the operation over to him. I would still have a smile on my lips halfway home.

Today, the sign on experience is not available to most in the business. Most stations run 24 hours a day and transmitters remain on unless something fails or the power goes out. Even most daytime only AM stations do not “sign on.” Their transmitters pop on automatically when it is time, all transistors, no filaments, no warm hum, just a transition from silence to whatever song the automation is playing to the stream. It seems so cold and impersonal. Signing on is one of the most rewarding experiences that a broadcaster can have. I miss it. Oh MY!

Sunday, May 13, 2018

The Wrath of Karma!

Last week I wrote about the humidity in the face of what would be the hottest week of the year so far. I even wrote in my last paragraph; “So to Mother Nature I have this to say. “Yo Mamma! Bring it! We come from sturdy stock, we know how to do “Summer” around here!”

When am I ever gonna learn not to call out Mother Nature! She always gets the last laugh.

Left: It was hot in my home studio yesterday during my show. Friday afternoon around 5 PM just when all the air conditioner repairmen call it a week and head for home, it suddenly started feeling “a mite stuffy” in the house. With a lump in my throat, I stepped out the back door to inspect the compressor unit of our central air… and my worst fears were realized. Not a creature, fan blade or motor was stirring anywhere around that stone dead hunk of steel sitting on that concrete pad like a lump of coal.

A quick call to the company that maintains our A/C unit got in touch with the call center who answers their calls at night and on weekends. After a pretty confusing conversation with someone “not from these here parts” about where our neighborhood was located, they promised a call from the serviceman who was on call that weekend. Hurdle number one was quickly passed.

But I tripped and stumbled on hurdle number two. The serviceman called within a couple of minutes, a good sign, but he said that he was totally swamped and would not be able to get to us until the next day. Then he inexplicably advised me to turn down the thermostat to the lowest level while we waited. “Huh!” I exclaimed, “How will that help with the compressor not running?” I think he must have realized how inane that advice was because he said that he would call first thing in the morning.

This was the second time in the afternoon that modern technology failed me. Earlier in the day I was going to take in a movie at the local theater, my usual Friday afternoon routine. I had not been able to do that in the previous two weeks due to a heavy load at my consulting job and I was really ready to see the Avengers movie that had been out for all that time. There is normally not a big crowd at the early matinee that I usually attend so nothing seemed amiss until I approached the snack bar to buy my ticket, Diet Coke and popcorn. I was told that the digital projection system in that theater had crashed and the show time I wanted was cancelled.

They asked me if I would like to see another movie and I said no, none of the other movies interested me. I didn’t realize how bad the crash was until I asked about the 3-D presentation that was due to start in ½ hour. “You don’t understand, the entire multiplex projection system has crashed and it would be hours before we could show ANY movies”; was the dreaded answer.

I rearranged my afternoon with the idea that I would catch the 4 PM showing, but when I checked with Fandango at 3, they said that the 4PM show was sold out. When I checked the other movies that were starting around the same time, they all said that they were sold out. Not very likely, “sold out” must be the euphemism for “the projectors are still broke.” So Friday was just not my day. Mother Nature “brought it,” OK. I can still hear the cackling.

Yesterday morning the call came a couple of minutes after 7 AM, after a restless night in the heat, that the serviceman would appear between 10 AM and 12 Noon. So at 10 I sat down to do my show on OGR in a warm home studio. I thought this would be a good “warm up” to the hot summertime studio at WUSC – FM. It can get oppressive there with the window in the control room facing south and that big old ball of fire in the sky streaming heat through the glass. The steel mesh pull down shade is just not up to the task.

It eventually got up to 88 before the serviceman arrived at 11:15 and replaced the starter capacitor on the condenser motor and we were back in business. Why is it always the starter capacitor? Fortunately I have a good ceiling fan in the home studio so I was pretty comfortable.

Here comes the silver lining to this hot story. The problem with the WUSC – FM control room is that the A/C supply vents and the return grill are both in the ceiling a couple of feet from each other. So the cool air stays up near the ceiling and never gets down to the DJ and the hot equipment. Correcting the A/C ductwork is not economically feasible. So I plan on suggesting that they install a quiet running ceiling fan to force what cool air is in the room down to where someone could actually feel it. So, Mother Nature; thanks for the Karma! Maybe I won’t be “Sweatin’ to the Oldies” much longer. Oh MY!

Sunday, May 6, 2018

It’s the humidity…

I walked out this morning to get the paper from the end of the driveway and it hit me; for the first time this year it was really humid outside. Mother Nature has been hinting that it was coming off and on this spring but today, she threw down the gauntlet and said “Here I am!”

Now, if you live in the southeast, you are familiar with hot humid summers, it is a fact of life. It doesn’t matter if you like it or not. And one never gets used to it. Just stepping out on the veranda to survey the south forty is enough to cause big old beads of sweat to drip down your forehead.

We don’t have it as bad these days as we did back in the day. We move from our air conditioned houses to our air conditioned cars to our air conditioned offices and back. Still, sometimes the air is so thick with humidity that the thought comes to mind that I may not make it without breaking out my SCUBA gear. Which reminds me; I was always amazed at how cool the air you got from SCUBA gear was, regardless of how hot the tanks themselves were. Good old Boyle’s Law. Compress air and it heats up, decompress it and it cools down.

I can see it right now, you are rolling your eyes and saying “Boyle’s Law, Schmoyle’s Law!” Let me tell you that Boyle’s law has a big impact on summer life around here. The summer air in the area of the Southeast bounded by Montgomery, Alabama on one end and Fayetteville, North Carolina on the other is superheated by the compression of the air flowing off the Appalachian Mountains into the lower plains of the area. Folks in the Lowcountry have the advantage of the sea breezes from the Atlantic and the Gulf. But here especially in the mid day, during the summer, the winds are usually calm. It’s so bad that this time of the year, before the desert southewest heats up. The highest temperatures in the country are right here; Montgomery, Macon, Augusta, Columbia, Florence and Fayetteville are the warmest cities.

And, with the heat, humidity and stagnation comes milky white skies. That old song, “Those Hazy, Lazy Days of Summer” jumps off the Nat King Cole 45 RPM record and says “Got ‘Cha!” Just think about that, the next time you complain about Old Man Winter!

How did we ever survive the summer heat and humidity growing up in Florida? We didn’t even have air conditioning in our homes and classrooms, and very few offices were air conditioned. I was so grateful when Saturday afternoons arrived and Mom would give us each 26 cents, for a Coke, a box of popcorn and a matinee down at the air conditioned Lake Shore Theater. Yes, I did say 26 cents; one and a half percent of the cost of the same today.

Things got better when one summer in the late 50s, Dad, my brother and I spent two days installing an attic fan. That was a game changer. Now we could take our mandatory mid afternoon naps without lying in a pile of sweat. It was relaxing to lie there and listen to the lawn sprinkler go “ki ki ki ki swish” The sprinkler served two purposes, first and foremost, to water the lawn and keep it healthy and lush all summer long. But it also knocked down any dust in the area that would otherwise be pulled in through the window screens. Fresh air, the smell of summer grass and the sounds of the “snick snick” of the fan belt on the attic fan are some of my most favorite memories of growing up.

The forecasters tell s that we should expect a hot summer for most of the country, with above-normal temperatures dominating June, July, and August. The lucky ones this year are those in the Upper Midwest and Great Lakes where they are forecasting near normal temperatures. I know that those long range forecasts are historically not very accurate but it doesn’t take a PHD in Meteorology to read the tea leaves. It’s gonna be a hot one out there, my friends. Be sure your air conditioners are up to the task.

So to Mother Nature I have this to say. “Yo Mamma! Bring it! We come from sturdy stock, we know how to do “Summer” around here!“ Oh MY!

Sunday, April 29, 2018

A proposal!

I saw an interesting article on the internet last week. It was describing that music sales are increasing and how they are back to the level they were before the MP3 era before Napster, iTunes and Spotify. In another article there was a reference to the increase of live “radio” streams on the internet as well. All of this is adding to revenue from music.

Left: A typical home studio used in Internet Broadcasting. Add to that the fairly new phenomena of a smattering of terrestrial radio stations beginning to replace automated programming hours with streams from Internet broadcasters. This is happening on FM, Shortwave and Satellite in Europe, but not here in the US as far as I know. Yet! Watch this space!

Add to this thought, the recent history of most of the major radio broadcasting groups filing Chapter 11 bankrupt papers over the past 5 years and a number of smaller stations going dark in the same time period, there appears to be something in the wind on the facilities side of the equation.

On the personnel side: Over the years, the number of experienced live radio presenters has dwindled as more and more stations moved towards automated systems which were less expensive to operate. In many markets there are fewer live DJs in the entire market now than there used to be at one or two stations in the market back in the day. In case you are thinking, wait that can’t be right, you should be aware that many of the voices you hear on local radio are not live but are either “voice Tracked” or come in via satellite as syndicated programs. In the case of syndication, you might hear a local voice with weather and traffic reports but they don’t spin records, uh, excuse me, play songs; no one spins records these days. But that is a different story. Also back to the point I was making, that local weather and traffic voice may be on more than one station in the local corporate radio cluster at the same time.

By the way, don’t construe what I’m saying here as a criticism of today’s radio. We are where we are because of the history, and that is what I’m addressing in my proposal.

Voice tracking allows a single presenter to record a three or four hour show in less than an hour. But the usual voice tracking methods restrict interaction with the music or lyrics because the voice tracking DJ does not hear the end of the song before or the beginning of the one that follows. So there is no “beat matching” or personality synching to the tunes being played. If you listen carefully you can detect that. To me it is almost like dragging fingernails across a blackboard. The only thing worse is “Autotune!”

Where did the DJs all go? Some like me, moved over to other sides of broadcasting. In my case I went technical, to the engineering side of things in both Radio and Television. Armed with my “First Phone” FCC license and working on my Bachelor’s Degree in Electrical Engineering I was able to keep at least one foot in broadcasting all but 7 years of my working career. Being a “combo” guy helped keep me employed. I could step back in front of the microphone and / or camera whenever necessary. And it was quite often necessary. That suited me fine because quite frankly that, especially in radio is what floated my boat.

The other place the old school DJ went was to internet radio. (Can you see the circle closing yet?) Currently the compensation for these pioneers is not much at best or nonexistent at worst. But they have a fire in the belly for what they do as long as they can do it on their own terms. Add to that is the fact that they can perform their shows from the convenience of their home studios and stream live to the station’s servers and from there to the entire world. Heck, I even do one of my live shows from my home studios in my “jammies” but don’t tell the management that. He’ll bring in a dress code, that’s what manager do!

Just how pervasive is this? Well, look at my the guys that worked at WCOS with me; Woody, Hunter, me and until recently Leo all have their own internet stations. Woody and I do live shows several times per week on our respective stations and Hunter will sometimes take requests and insert them into the queue on his station. All of us are doing it for the love of the medium, the music and most importantly our audiences. My station has 10 live DJs on the air at least once every week. And all are either musicians or former live DJs.

So how would the marriage of a streaming station and a local broadcaster look. What’s in it for either? For the streaming station it is a stronger connection to the audience especially the mobile audience listening in a car. That is something that is not quite there for the internet broadcaster although it is coming as more and more manufacturers are placing internet radio apps in their electronic stacks in the newer cars. For the broadcaster, the advantage is that they get the edge of a live DJ without all the expense. Before you say the words “performance rights” today’s technology allows the broadcaster to capture the artist and title information for a song off the stream itself. That same technology records the name of the presenter doing the program as a time stamp entry for bookkeeping and payroll purposes if they become necessary.

I’m not saying this is a model for the future, but is a potential for interjecting the excitement and spontaneity of live DJs back into local radio. That would drive the station’s audiences which would drive sponsor interest. Sure, it would be an experiment, but if successful could kick start local radio out of the doldrums without the risk of cash outlay to hire DJs to see if this would work. The folks in Europe are already figuring this out.

Finally, the programming angle of all this: right now you could drive across this country listening to radio from one coast to the other. After a while you would notice a similarity, a “samelessness” if you will. It doesn’t matter if you are listening to CHR, Hot 100, Country or R&B, no matter what genre; you are listening to stations programmed by a handful of format executives in four or five corporate headquarters all playing from the same programming handbook that began rolling out with the Drake Chennault packages in the 60s and early 70s. If you are lucky enough to pick up a station that is either independently owned or a station operated by a college or university, you will hear the difference; genres that are not heard elsewhere, DJ presentation styles that are not cookie cutter copies of the others on the dial. The other place you can hear this is on Internet Radio. Can you just imagine if the two joined forces? Wouldn’t that be FUN! Oh MY!

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Not quite right in the head

There is something about working on the air in radio that permanently affects those of us who put on a pair of headphones and spun 45 RPM records. Yes – those of us who have headphone hair have a wicked sense of humor between the cans.

“Pray tell,” you say, “give us some examples.”

Left; One of those Top 40 lists, featuring Scotty. Well, I’ll start off with a story about Scotty Quick, rest his soul. Back in the day, each of us on air jocks had some other task at the station to “fill in” the difference between the time we were on the air and the standard forty hours for which we were paid. One of my extra tasks was to deliver the top 40 charts to about 10 or so record stores and other sponsor locations each week around the city.

So one afternoon, Scotty decided to keep me company as I drove around delivering those colored pieces of paper. We were driving south on Assembly Street one Friday afternoon when we spotted a telephone handset lying in the middle of the street. “Stop! Stop!” Scotty shouted, “I want that!” Traffic was light! I did say this was a long time ago. So I was able to stop in the middle of the lane with the handset just under the door on his side of my old green Plymouth.

The handset was perfect. It was one of the newer cream colors that the telephone company had just started making. Attached was a spiral curled cord with spade crimps ready for connecting to a tabletop phone body. For those of you who are saying “So what!” right now, remember this was back when the phone company owned all the telephone equipment, even the phone in your home. Finding one like this was really unusual, almost unheard of.

I suppose that the right thing to do was to turn the device in to the nearest phone company lineman, but as the title of this blog says, we were “Not quite right in the head.” I had just a few stops left on my route so we drove around and Scotty pretended to be talking on a mobile phone, yukking it up and flirting with the girls in the cars we passed. “Making an impression” he called it. But I was wondering what kind of impression two Radio DJs driving around in a green 1964 Pontiac with a mobile phone made.

As I was nearing the end of my weekly route, Scotty was beginning to tire of the game. We were back on Assembly Street, headed north this time approaching Taylor Street and my last stop of the day; The Taylor Street Pharmacy. As we waited for the traffic light to turn so I could turn right onto Taylor, there was this guy obviously trying to make points with the girl on the corner. It didn’t look like he was being successful. So Scotty handed him the handset through the open window and said “It’s for you” as the light changed and we roared off down the street.

The look on the guy’s face as we sped away was priceless. The look on the girl’s face was unforgettable. I could hardly drive I was laughing so hard. I wonder if our little intervention changed the dynamics of the conversation. Who knows, they could be an old married couple now.

It was a good thing that the on air and production studios of WCOS were in the northern wing of the Cornell Arms Apartments and the business offices were in the western wing. They were separated by the hallway. That kept us “crazies” away from the folks doing the serious business of sales, traffic, copywriting, accounting and management. I don’t know how they kept their sanity, being constantly under a humor barrage from the wild guys.

Even the news guys had to put up with us. Mike Rast has to be a saint today after all the stuff that we put him through while he trying to read the news. Funny faces through the control room glass and lighting the news copy on fire while he was reading it were just two of the things we did to torment him. I could list many more but this is a family oriented blog. All I will say to kind of set the scene is that one of us was named Dan Moon, who used the air name “Looney Mooney.” Do you get the picture?

Lest you think that Mike just sat there and took it from us. He had his moments. On Tuesday nights, he was responsible for recording two Jazz Shows done by our station owner, George H. Buck. On those nights he would place some news copy in the box I carried out to Doug Broome’s so I could read the news from out there those evenings. After a particularly harrowing day, Mike placed the news copy in my box as I headed out with a smile on his face. At 8:30 I played the news sounder cartridge and scooped the as yet unread news copy out of the box, only to discover that Mike had type the message, “Payback is hell!” on otherwise blank sheets of teletype paper. I’m sure the look on my face was priceless and I stammered and stuttered trying to adlib the news from memory.

Dan “Looney” Moonie escaped the WCOS mad house in 1966 to go down to Charleston and the one down at WTMA. That was a good move for him in that he eventually converted from Disk Jockey to talk show host and retired from there after a 50-year tenure. Congratulations Dan, but you’re still “Looney” to me.

So I sit here writing this all awash in fun memories. To Woody, Bob, Leo, Hunter, Eddie, April, Dan, Van, Bill, Rick, Jimmy and all the rest of the very funny, very creative guys and gals that make my memories rich and outrageous. Thank you so much! It’s probably a good thing for the statute of limitations. Oh MY!

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Watching the rain come

We are supposed to have some thunderstorms today as a cold front passes by. Thanks to the internet, I can track the storm on the radar as it approaches; almost neighborhood by neighborhood.

I must admit that I’m a little conflicted by all this. Back in the day, the TV weatherman would tell us on the local news at night that we would have rain the next day. Unless I was working the morning shift at the TV station that would be the last update I heard before the storm arrived.

Back then, the hour by hour forecast was not all that accurate so it was pretty much a guessing game as to whether or not it would be raining at a given hour during the day. So, before leaving the house, I’d look out the window to the west and if it looked threatening I’d grab my raincoat and umbrella.

The usual outcome of this was that I would get a soaking somewhere between the parking lot and the station. I swear that I had the worst luck when it came to getting rained on. Oh MAN! If only I had a weather radar unit in my car. In case you are thinking “Why don’t you keep an umbrella in your car Dummy,” I tried to but somehow it was always temporarily away from the car in the house or the station.

I do have that problem mostly solved these days. Right now there are no fewer than three umbrellas on the floor of my car behind the driver’s seat. Three or more hang on hooks in the foyer closet at home and I even have one in my courier bag that I carry to work. But, even with all these precautions, I still get a little damp from time to time. Don’t say it; I’m just a big drip, wet behind the ears, even! Sigh, that seems to be my lot in life.

One would think that with thousands of flight hours in my log book that I would have a lot of experience with airborne weather radar. But I can probably count the hours flying with radar onboard on the fingers of both of my hands. To add insult to injury, nearly all of those flight hours were in severe clear weather conditions and all I used the radar for was to spot the rivers and lakes on the surface as I flew over the countryside.

This meant that I had to rely on the air traffic controllers to keep me out of the worst of the storms when flying on instruments as only larger commercial aircraft had their own systems. Those professionals usually did a great job keeping me and the thunderstorms separate. The problem was that their prime job was to keep the airplanes separate from each other and on really stormy days, they had to operate their radars in a mode that suppressed the display of the storms. Once or twice that resulted in white knuckles in the middle of copper green clouds. Just in case you didn’t know, if the sky turns copper green, seek shelter immediately. Not an easy thing to do at 7,000 feet.

I often wished that we had radar at the radio stations where I worked so that I could give a play by play of the storm as it streaked across the listener area. But until digital weather radar came along, the quality of the radar display would have prevented it even if we did. Plus those weather radars were far too expensive for broadcasting. Not to mention that special FCC licensing required to operate a ground based radar system.

So how did we do real time weather reporting on the radio back in the day? We went out into the storm in two way radio equipped news cars and reported conditions back to the news room or actually going live from the field. We didn’t do that for every mom and pop rain shower but we did in major weather events, particularly in the winter with snow and ice storms.

Those were, all hands on deck events for the staff that was in the station at the time. Even an inch or less of snow paralyzed the city which had absolutely no snow removal equipment at the time. I can remember several times in the late 70s, when I was in the station and the news crews were trapped in their homes by the snow. The news director would throw a set of keys to a news car and ask me to get out there. The irony was not lost on me as I struggled from bottleneck to bottleneck on the roads around the city broadcasting for everyone to stay off the road. I guess everyone was in a rush to get their bread, milk and eggs. Don’t ask; it’s a southern thing.

Today it is much different, the city and state can keep the major thoroughfares moving but the drivers on the neighborhood streets are on their own.

Image courtesy of wunderground.com. I just looked at the radar, the squall line is 50 miles away and the leading edge has some red colored radar returns which indicate heavy rain and a severe thunderstorm watch has been issued. The rain is supposed to be here in two hours. They say 100% chance of rain. The dogs went out a short while ago. I need to get them in before Chester freaks out and hides under the shed. If he does that, then I’ll get wet again. Oh MY!

Sunday, April 8, 2018

The (Camera) times, they are a’changin’

When I first started working in television in January, 1970. WIS-TV was in the process of upgrading their old TK-42 studio cameras to the new TK-44 models.

Left: Chip Charts like these were used to color balance a camera. I’m sure glad I didn’t work for long with those old four tube TK-42s, which required copious amounts of lighting. This caused television studios to become very warm due to the use of multi-kilowatt lamps (a problem that still exists somewhat today, but is less pronounced). The TK-42 cameras required more than an hour to set up and were comparatively unstable, making frequent adjustment necessary to maintain correct color balance between the red, green, and blue orthicon tubes. I remember having to tweak those cameras around the half way point in the old “Today In Carolina” show that ran from 9 to 10 AM every weekday. One particularly bad day I had to reregister (align the tubes so that the images from each tube was on exactly the same place in the color image) and color balance one of our cameras every time it was moved from the news desk to the weather set or the interview area. I almost made the decision to switch from color to black and white for the rest of the show, but being hard headed I whipped those orthicon tubes into shape time after time. I was one worn out puppy after that show.

Left: Registration charts were used to align the three or more tubes in the old color cameras. Today’s broadcast technicians won’t believe this but it took us an hour to fire up and then set up those cameras every day.

Within a couple of months, the TK-44 models rolled onto the receiving dock to a collective sigh of relief. The TK-44 used three of the more stable Plumbicon tubes that produced much sharper images. One video technician could set up three cameras using registration charts and chip charts in 15 minutes.

I loved those cameras! I had only one incident where I couldn’t get ours to color balance. For some reason one day I could not get the brightness of the blue tube down low enough to balance with the red or green tubes from the camera control unit in Master Control. It should be noted that our Master Control room was on the second floor and the studios were on the first. There was no way that I could see directly into the studio from there. So, with a heavy sigh, I grabbed my tool kit and hiked down the stairs to the studio to get to the broader range controls on the camera itself. The moment I walked into the studio I could see what the problem was.

The theme for the “Today in Carolina” show that day was water and fishing. Our new lighting guy who had tons of experience in stage lighting but was still new to television had placed blue “gels” in front of all the Kleig lights to give the impression that the show was underwater. That is pure genius for stage but not so much for television. The cameras looked really, really bad. Did I say “really” bad. After a discussion with the show’s director, we made the decision to remove the blue “gels” and do the show in normal lighting. I really felt bad for the lighting guy, he had a great creative idea. By this time, it was 15 minutes to air time and I had to scramble to be ready by air time. I spent a few minutes on a tall ladder helping clear the lights. Those lights were 15 feet off the floor. At the ten minute mark I ran upstairs and started the set up. Fortunately I had finished the registration part already, so all I had to do was to do the color balance with the chip chart. A mere thirty seconds before air, while we were in the station break between the “Today Show” and the “Today in Carolina” show I finished the last tweak and the floor crew cleared the chart stand mere seconds before Joe Pinner and Lynn Nevius appeared on camera. That was my closest call.

In 1975 we got our first portable Electronic News Gathering (ENG) camera, an Ikegami HL-75. It was a real breakthrough with tubes that held their registration and color balancing just required that you hold a piece of white paper in front of the lens and push a button. I will never forget the day that we unpacked that camera in the engineering department and started working with it. It would be a few weeks before we could put the recordings the camera made on the air as we needed to install the Time Base Corrector (TBC) which matched the timing of the camera to that of the television station.

I will always remember that day, November 12, 1975, a small tornado came by near the station and did minor damage in parts of Five Points and the surrounding area. When we heard the news department talking on the two way radio to our news crews in the field with their film cameras, Phil Bryant, the other engineer on duty and I yelled “Field Trip” to each other, grabbed the camera, just hours our of the crate, one of the ¾ inch video tape recorders and ran down to the parking lot. We loaded the station’s utility van with me in the back with the camera and Phil doing the driving duties. Five Points was just a few blocks away and we were there in minutes. Phil drove us up and down Hardin Street while I shot video out the side door of the van. Because it was raining we never got out of the van but restricted ourselves to a quick “drive by shooting” of the damage.

The news department was grumbling about not being able to get the film they shot developed in time for the 11 O’Clock Report when we got back to the station. Everybody gathered around the monitor as we played back the tape of the damage. Without the TBC we could not broadcast the raw video, or so we thought. Tom Bradford, our engineering supervisor had the brilliant idea of shooting the monitor with one of the studio camera to get the damage on the air. It worked perfectly, and for the first time in SC history, ENG video was used in a newscast in the state.

Later that evening right after the newscast, I received a call from my good friend, the soft spoken Milton Holladay, Chief Engineer for my old radio station WCOS. That tornado took down their 400 foot tower a few blocks from Five Points at the corner of Gervais and Millwood. When I joined Milton in the middle of the twisted mess that used to be the tower, I said that I wished that I had known this and shot video of the damage. He was just as glad that I didn’t. We got the AM station back on the air within a day by using a long wire strung between two trees in the tower field and the FM on a spare antenna mounted on the top of a wooden telephone pole next to the station. Messy, but it worked until the tower was rebuilt.

By the way, that month, I shot some video of the Carolina Clemson game the week we introduced that camera on the air. I was out there to do a live report at the end of the game. My friend Drew Stewart used in a special report that he recorded in the 90s. It can be seen on YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-7aORQt9u0Q

When I was at SCETV, the next big advance in broadcast camera technology came along. The Ikegami computer controlled camera. One button setup for both registration and color balance. Not only that, but the computer constantly monitored the performance of the camera and made minor adjustments all by itself.

Today, I sit here and marvel at the camera in my cell phone. It does not need to be color balanced or registered. All you need to do is point and shoot and the resulting video is so much better, cleaner and vivid than the best broadcast camera back in the day. So much so that there is an app that many broadcasters can purchase for their reporters phones to get live video back to the station from any where they might be in the world. When somebody figures out how to make a steady video out of something shot with a shaking hand, we will really have something. Oh MY!