In the 1979 movie “Apocalypse Now” Robert Duvall utters the words "I love the smell of napalm in the morning" as Lieutenant Colonel William "Bill" Kilgore. I can’t say that I ever liked the smell of napalm myself. Coffee lovers changed it to “I love the smell of coffee in the morning" and I do indeed love that. But let me take some poetic license and say "I love the smell of an old radio station in the morning."
Here is my buddy the late great Scotty Quick in a reflective mood at the WCOS console in 1967. Cartridges to the left and reel to reel tapes to the right were the source of part of the bouquet of an old radio station. I’m not talking about radio stations today; they are pretty antiseptic compared to the days when studios were full of turntables, cart machines, reel to reel tape recorders and teletype machines. Now this was real radio. Radio in the 50s, 60s and 70s had a distinctive smell and I fear that essence is forever lost to humanity.
Let’s start with turntables. They provided several scents. I’ve written before about the intoxicating smell of vinyl records. You first notice it when you walk into a record library full of 45’s in green sleeves or albums stacked up on edge in wooden bins along the walls. By the way, the best way to store albums is on edge as long as the bins are full, that way they are kept vertical. If allowed to slant across a nearly empty bin or are stacked horizontally, they will warp a little and could become unplayable. In the library, the smell of vinyl is faint and just a little bit intoxicating. But when you walk into a control room where a DJ is cueing up records and playing them constantly, the eau-de-vinyl smacks you up beside the nose. There is no mistaking that. But old turntables don’t stop with the smell of plastic, especially the older ones. These monsters had large electrical motors and gear assemblies that added a the smell of ozone and gear grease to the bouquet. Ahh Yes!!!
Cart machines and reel to reel tapes contributed to the ozone and gear grease smell. But they added the slightly acerbic smell of acetate tape to the mix. And before the days of lubricated tape, cartridges had four bars of pencil lead imbedded in the platter so that got added to the mixture.
Teletype machines contributed more to the ozone and gear grease component of the bouquet. And they added the smell of ink from the teletype ribbons. And more than that, there was the smell of paper in the mix especially with the older teletypes before print heads came along. The constant banging of the typebars striking the paper wrapped around the platen created dust, a lot of dust. It was everywhere. I remember having to wipe paper dust off my headphones as I pulled them out of my cubby hole that sat some 15 feet away from the teletype machines. On days when my paycheck was placed in that same bin, I had to make sure that I wiped the envelope off before stuffing it into my pocket. Looking back, I’m surprised that I never heard of a radio station explosion and fire from all that dust.
Add the smell of coffee to that mix. The coffee component was not constant. It was particularly strong during the morning and mid day shifts. To a lesser extent, the smell of the all night shift was tinged with coffee. April Black who did the All Night Satellite before she left radio and I took over the show had a cup always sitting on the table in front of the cart machines and a pot brewing in the room just inside the entrance to the studio wing of WCOS in the Cornell Arms Apartments. I had not begun my coffee addiction so I didn’t continue her contribution to the mix.
Back in those days, most air shifts were between four and six hours long. Working an air shift was a lot more physical than it is today. The DJ was in almost constant motion handling records, carts and reel to reel tapes as opposed to clicking the mouse on the automation and keying song titles and artists into the log, RDS and web pages. In case you are wondering what RDS is; it stands for Radio Data Service which is what displays the name of the song and the artist onto the face of modern radio receivers in your car and home that are equipped to display that information. If you are working at a station where all the music is played from the automation, you don’t even have to do that.
All of this is to explain why there was the ever present smell of junk food in the active studio. Physically active DJs need to be refueled during long shifts! At WCOS, during my shows done from the main studio in the Cornell Arms, there was almost always a hamburger and fries that I grabbed from Gene Long’s Pharmacy on the way into the station. Beside the burger and fries on that table in front of the cart machines was always a glass Pepsi bottle from the vending machine in the office wing of the station. Outside of business hours there was a key to the office wing attached to a 4” section of wooden ruler. The purpose of that piece of wood was so that no one could put the key into their pocket and go home with it. That actually happened ONCE and I almost didn’t make it through the shift because we didn’t even have a water fountain on the studio side.
During my Doug Broome’s days, there was always a Big Boy Burger, some hot fries and a Coke on the table beside turntable #3. I had to be very careful not to spill anything onto the turntable when grabbing a mid song bite or swig. About three hours into the show, one of the carhops would show up with a refill of the Coke and a slice of strawberry pie topped off with a little less than a pound of whipped cream. They knew I loved whipped cream. It was during this time that I lost the description of “skinny”.
All those smells added to the pleasant side of the radio station bouquet. There was one odor in the mix that I could have done without; cigarette smoke. Nearly all of my fellow DJs smoked like chimneys. So, right after getting my first record on the air, I would carry the ash tray that sat on the edge of the console desk to the table in that outer room where it could keep company with the paper dust from the teletype. Yes I made SURE that nothing was still burning in that ash tray.
Cigarettes, food and drinks are not allowed in the WUSC-FM control room. There are no cart machines or reel to reel tapes there. Turntables and vinyl are replaced with seldom used CD machines. Everything is on odorless audio files on remotely controlled computers that are not even present in the room with the DJ. Sigh, the smell of old school radio is gone… except in my memories! As I come out of the show opening and am playing the “kicker”, the first song of the show. I close my eyes and all of a sudden I’m holding a catsup and mustard stained napkin with a request scribbled across it with an ink pen, not a ballpoint! I can smell the vinyl, gear grease, paper dust and the Big Joy and Coke now! Oh MY!