Sunday, December 8, 2019

Tales of Ice, Snow and Nutty Broadcasters

‘Tis the time of year when folks from “these here parts” begin the annual tradition of predicting lots of snow this winter and being disappointed when it doesn’t happen.

Just for the record, The Farmer’s Almanac’s winter forecast for our area is “Mild, With Soakers”, with the nearest wintery forecast in the Appalachians, 100 or so miles to the northwest. But for you die hard snow bunnies, the Blizzard of 1973 was not in the forecasts either so hope blooms eternal.

Having been born and raised in Jacksonville, Florida, snow was something that I didn’t experience until I was a student at the University of South Carolina. I had naively assumed that since Columbia, SC was nearly 300 miles north of Jacksonville, that I would need snow shoes to get to classes. By the time I went home for the Christmas holidays, I was already a bit disillusioned. But I soon found out that the peak snow time for Columbia was late January and early February. Sure enough, one morning, I awoke to light flurries and snow sticking to the bushes and grass but not the sidewalks. The morning of my first snow, I was scheduled to tape my WUSC-AM “Night Owl” show at 8 AM before my first class at 11 AM, so I enjoyed the stroll across the snow on Davis Field as I made my way to The Russell House for some breakfast and then the taping. I was expecting that I would be able to experience some more “snow time” after class but it was all gone by 10 AM when my taping session was over.

By the time I began working full time at WCOS-AM in January 1966, I had become somewhat jaded about snow. I do remember one night while I was doing the all night show; the phone rang around 2 AM with a listener out in the northwest part of the city calling to tell me that it was snowing out her way. At that time, the window in the control room was still covered with a bulletin board so I rushed over to the darkened FM studio and peered out the second floor window. Sure enough I spotted some snow flurries coming down on the corner of Pendleton and Sumter Streets. I rushed back to the AM control room and excitedly announced that it was snowing. Big mistake: That was the last I saw of that snowfall because everyone in town had to call and share that it was snowing in their yard too. By the time the morning show DJ arrived, the snow was over and the sun was peeking out around the buildings and the frosty covering on the ground was rapidly disappearing.

Then there was the Blizzard of ’73! I was at WIS-TV by that time working as a studio “engineer”; we call them broadcast technicians today as I had not yet returned to the university to get my bachelor's degree in Electrical Engineering.

We were in a complete rewiring of the studio technical plant and I was in charge of the audio portion of the project. In order to maximize my “hands on” time I was working from 11 PM until 7 AM instead of my usual 4 – sign off prime time shift. I was working Wednesdays through Sundays in order to take advantage of the lighter production schedules over the weekend.

That Friday night, February 9th, we started to get a light dusting that turned into a pretty steady snowfall over the weekend. By the time Saturday afternoon arrived, it was beginning to be a challenge to get to and from the studio in my Volkswagen Karmaan-Ghia so I threw a small shovel into the back seat just in case. That turned out to be a genius move. I had to use that shovel several times to dig my way out of my parking space behind the station. Because of the winter conditions I was driving my wife to her job at Baptist Hospital at three in the afternoon, picking her up at 11 PM, driving her home before driving back to the station, just a few blocks from the hospital to begin my work a little late. Then make the trip for the fourth time that day after work to catch some sleep and do it all over again the next day.

It snowed all week end and by Monday the 11th, there was 2 feet of snow on the ground at Rimini, SC some 40 miles to the southeast of Columbia. There was 13 ½ inches of accumulated snow at the airport and drifts of slightly more than that around the 1111 Bull Street St. studios. At 6:15 that morning, I had turned on the studio cameras, punched up “tone and color bars” and turned on the microwave studio to transmitter link in preparation for the Bob Bailey Farm Report that was scheduled for 6:45 AM right after sign on. Around 6:30 I realized that the master control operator had not arrived. I also realized that the camera operator had not uncapped the cameras and pointed them at the alignment charts. I uncapped the cameras and found that the studio was dark. None of the lights had been turned on. I rushed downstairs to the studio to turn on the lights and “chart” the cameras as Bob walked through the double wide studio door and said that the roads were almost impassable. To make a long story short, we locked the cameras down into their “standard” position and Bob and I were the only two people in the station at the time he greeted his frozen audience. Normally, 5 people were involved: Bob, two studio camera operators, a master control operator “switching” the show, and running audio and me running video and video tape.

I don’t need to remind you, this was back in the day before computer control robotic cameras, and all video and audio sources loaded into an automation computer. Film (requiring a 3 second pre roll), slides that had to be manually advanced and don’t flop the projector mirror on the air either, reel to reel audio tape, audio cartridges, 2” quad video tape (requiring a 7 second pre roll). As I think back on this, we were lucky this show aired without incident; other than my blood pressure spike that is!

A few years later, I had moved from WIS-Television to WIS-Radio 56 as the chief engineer. I came in early one morning because it was snowing pretty heavily, again thanks to my trusty Karmaan-Ghia and shovel. Back in those days, everyone did whatever was needed to do to get the job done. Because I had on the air radio experience; I had already been on the air there several times when the announcing staff was decimated by illness or vacation. This particular morning, most of the office staff was unable to get in. Likewise the news staff was similarly stranded. The program director, the morning announcer and the news director all lived close by and all made it in. We enlisted the aid of the SC National Guard to pick to transport critical staff to the station but it was going to take a while. So I was “volunteered” to take out one of our two-way radio equipped news cars and do live reports from the field on the hazardous road conditions. After a couple of hours slipping and sliding the irony of the situation dawned on me; I was driving around in dangerous conditions telling everybody on the radio not to drive around in dangerous conditions.

I often joke with my fellow broadcasters that one had to be a little nuts to be in our line of work. To point out my case: I once climbed the 400’ self supporting tower at WIS-TV to adjust a microwave receiver. Oh, it should be noted it was sleeting with wind gusts in the mid 20 MPH range, that the tower was coated in 1/4“ of clear ice at the time and I was wearing street clothes and had no safety line. Yes, these were the days before OSHA, the days when I was still young and immortal. Oh MY!

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Breaking out the Christmas Music

It’s the Sunday after Thanksgiving and that means it’s time to add some Christmas Music to the mix of Oldies.

As a young Top 40 radio DJ, happiness was that big old teletype paper box placed under the table where the cart machines and Gates ST101 by the way in case you were wondering “ST” stood for Spot Tape! Most of the time, it was like Santa on Christmas Eve, the box would magically appear and it was time to dig in and begin to add those Christmas gems to the mix.

But one year, I guess it was my coming of age, the Santa-delivering-the Christmas-tunes myth was broken when Woody brought the box in during my shift and said, “Have at it, you know the rules!” Ah yes – the Christmas Music Rules! Here is how they went. So that first week, we were supposed to play one Christmas song per half hour. The next week, two songs and so on, adding one more Christmas song to the mix each week until Christmas Eve at 6 PM we would go solid Christmas until 6 PM Christmas Day.

We did not go cold turkey on the Christmas music at 6 PM on Christmas day; it was a gradual decrease between December 25 and New Years Day until we were back to the regular Top 40/Up and Comers/Solid Gold rotation when we hung up the calendar for the new year. For the most part, I think the audience liked the ease-in/ease-out approach to holiday music. A not inconsequential portion of the requests I’d get from listeners over the phone were for those Christmas Tunes. Although, I do remember getting a call from some Grinch one late December day telling me that Christmas was over, and that it was time to drop the Christmas tunes. I had rehearsed the perfect retort in case this happened and I gleefully told him that the Twelve Days of Christmas began, not ended on December 25th and that the last day of the 12 days was not until Epiphany, January 6th.

There were two types of Christmas songs that I loved; the traditional and the rock and roll. In that cardboard box there were classics like Gene Autry’s “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” and Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” which was the number one song of all time until Elton John’s tribute to Diana, Princess of Wales; "Candle in the Wind 1997" replaced it after her tragic passing. The other type of Christmas Music that I loved to play were the ones that were released by the artists of the day, such as The Drifter’s “White Christmas”, Bobby Helms “Jingle Bell Rock” and Brenda Lee’s “Rock Around the Christmas Tree” and who could forget that iconic 1963 album; A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector. Apple Records re-released the album in 1972, with different cover art—a photograph of Spector dressed as a heavily bearded Santa Claus, wearing a "Back to Mono" button—and retitled “Phil Spector's Christmas Album.” My favorite track from that album was "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" written by Ellie Greenwich, Jeff Barry, Phil Spector. Spector produced that album with his classic “Wall of Sound” approach. Also many of the Mid 60’s artists were releasing Christmas singles; Elvis “Blue Christmas”, The Temptations “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” and “Silent Night”, The Supremes, “Joy to the World”, and many more. In 1973 Motown released their Christmas compilation “A Motown Christmas” which along with Phil Spector's Christmas Album is a solid backbone of any 1960’s Christmas Music collection.

As much as I enjoy the Christmas Music season both as a listener and a radio host, I am absolutely not a fan of a radio station going “wall to wall” Christmas in Mid November as so many of today’s stations are prone to do. It’s like candy after Halloween, consume it in moderation.

In modern times, if I heard that my favorite station was going “wall to wall Christmas” I’d immediately begin to worry. So many corporate radio clusters use the Christmas tunes to buffer their audiences from a format change. Not always but more often than not, they would not return to the format that I enjoyed when they went back to regular programming in January, but would switch to whatever the corporate programmers deemed more “relevant.” That’s their word, not mine, what usually followed was never more relevant to me. (Is my grumpy old curmudgeon showing? Bah-Humbug!)

Lest you think that I don’t appreciate newer Christmas Music, for example I’ll tell you that I’m a huge fan of the Pentatonix Albums “That's Christmas to Me” and “A Pentatonix Christmas.” Some of the others, not so much!

This year, I plan on breaking out the Christmas Music on my WUSC-FM Backbeat show in a big way. Tomorrow, December 2nd at 10:15 AM Eastern time I’ll be playing my first Christmas Song of the season. It will be (drum roll…) Snoopy’s Christmas by The Royal Guardsmen. And to make it all special Marvin “Chris” Nunley, one of the Royal Guardsmen will be doing the introduction live over the phone from Ocala Florida. If you listen really closely, you might hear the “B” side: “It Kinda Looks Like Christmas!”

Later on in the show I’ll be featuring a long lost Christmas oldie; “Christmas Eve In My Home Town” by Bobby Vinton. This song was written by an old fiend and long time local television presenter Don Upton. Don worked at both WIS-TV and WLTX-TV. It’s gonna be a good holiday season. Oh MY!

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Abraham Martin and John (A Personal History)

Fifty six years and two days ago marked the day that Lee Harvey Oswald shot President Jack Kennedy in Dealey Plaza from a window of the Texas School Book Depository building in Dallas Texas. I can remember in vivid detail how I learned of the shooting and death of our 35th president.

It was two weeks to the day since I had done the first radio show of my career at WUSC-AM which was located on the third floor of the Russell House Student Union of the University of South Carolina. I was walking back towards my dorm room in the “Honeycomb Dorms” crossing Davis Field next to the Russell House after a meeting with my German professor when I heard a student yell out of a window of Preston Dorm that the president has been shot and that he had died. My first thought was to hurry to the dorm and turn on the radio to find out what was happening.

“Wait a minute,” I thought, “I can get the news faster than the local radio stations or even the networks could get it.” There were three teletype machines just outside the news booth at WUSC, two of them were the United Press International and the Associated Press machines and the third was connected to the US Weather Service. WUSC like most college stations of the day ran an abbreviated broadcast day and wasn’t scheduled to begin broadcasting until 4:30. I checked my watch and it was just after 2 PM EST. I turned around and ran over to the Russell House and up the ramp to the second floor across the lobby to the stairwell and up the steps to the third floor. At that time I didn’t have a key to the station so I was hoping that there would be someone there to let me in.

I needn’t have worried. There was already a handful of students reading the teletype as it noisily clacked the bad news out character by character. It seemed that the teletype alarm bell was ringing incessantly between each paragraph. 10 bells meant that the message coming was a “flash” message that needed immediate attention. That day, the bells were ringing in groups of 15. That raised the blood pressure, I can tell you.

There was not enough room in that small booth for all of us. So we took turns reading each word aloud to the rest of the gathering as it came across the wire. As each story completed, the person at the machine would carefully rip it off the machine and hand it to the folks in the office so they could read the printed copy. Normally, the story would be hung on a 4 “ long steel spike driven into a board on the wall behind the machines but in this case, they were carefully laid out on the news director’s desk sorted by story line and the order in which they were received. The oldest story was on the bottom.

Around 3 PM Eastern Time, a story crossed the wire about a Dallas Police Officer J. D. Tippit who had spotted a man walking along a sidewalk in the residential neighborhood of Oak Cliff three miles from Dealey Plaza. Officer Tippit had earlier received a radio message that gave a description of the suspect being sought in the assassination, and he called that man who fitted the description of the assassin to the patrol car. After an exchange of words, Tippit got out of his car and the man shot him four times before ducking into the nearby Texas Theatre without paying. The theater's ticket clerk telephoned the police at about 1:40 PM Dallas time. In short order the assailant was arrested for the murder of officer Tippet. This created a buzz of speculation that the man who was arrested might be the man who shot the president. It was the first time that any of us saw the name Lee Harvey Oswald. Our suspicions were confirmed when Oswald was charged with the murders of President Kennedy and Officer Tippit later that night.

Our General Manager, Program Director and Chief Announcer held a hurried meeting our Faculty Advisor (Now called the Director of Student Media) to discuss how the station was going to react to the Kennedy Assassination. Would the station sign on at 4:30 as scheduled or remain dark. If we were to sign on, what would we broadcast?

Clearly broadcasting our normal schedule would not be appropriate. Besides, like the others who had shows scheduled for that evening, I was not up to going on the air with a regular light hearted show. The decision was made to go on the air as scheduled at 4:30 with a half hour newscast then Join the Mutual Radio news for their coverage at 5 followed by programming somber music with no DJ Voice work except to announce that we were interrupting normal programming due to the death of the president. Our special programming consisted of somber music interspersed with our local newscasts and the top of the hour newscast from the Mutual Radio network.

The outcome of the meeting was that we would not resume normal programming until after the president’s funeral scheduled for November 25th the following Monday. So, my third show, scheduled for 11 PM – 1 AM that evening was cancelled. It was a pre-recorded show that never aired. We had to sign off at 11 PM that evening because we could not be in the station during the hours that the Russell House was closed; 11 PM - 6 AM. As soon as we could get back into the third floor studios, we went back on the air about 6:15 the next morning and would do so on the following Sunday and Monday mornings. Several of us took on the extra slots in the schedule and I wound up working four three hour shifts; two on Saturday and one each on Sunday and Monday. Our music director gleaned appropriate albums from the music library next to Master Control and left us a cardboard teletype paper box full of albums under turntable #1 to the left of the Gates Master Control mixing console.

By noon on Monday, November 25th, President Kennedy’s state funeral was over and we resumed normal programming. My next scheduled show was coming up that Friday and even then, that show was a little more subdued than normal.

Fast forward 5 years and I would face similar situations in 1968 at WCOS-AM. I was doing the evening shift from 8 PM until 1 AM. On April 4th, as I was about to go on the air at our remote studio at Doug Broome’s Drive in Restaurant that I heard Mike Rast, our news announcer, broadcast that Martin Luther King had been shot in Memphis an hour earlier. When the next newscast came on at 8:30, Mike announced that Dr King had died at 7:05 Memphis time, 8:05 our time, after emergency chest surgery. Two months later almost to the day, came the news that Robert F Kennedy had been shot and killed at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles by Sirhan Sirhan. Kennedy was hit three times, and five other people were wounded. Since this was during the overnight hours, 3 AM in Columbia I was not aware of the shooting until the next morning when my buddy and fellow DJ, Scotty Quick called me during his midday show to let me know to come into the station early for a meeting. By this time, the show was back in our main studios as the remotes from Doug’s were cancelled during the curfew after the MLK assassination.

On October 26, 1968 Dion’s “Abraham, Martin and John” debuted at # 66 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, It would peak at #4 on December 14th and stay on the chart for 14 weeks, On the Cash Box charts it would peak at #2. “Abraham, Martin and John” was written by Richard Louis "Dick" Holler who from August, 1962 until May 1965 along with his band “The Holidays” was based and performed in and around Columbia, South Carolina after a planned tour gig was cancelled leaving them with no funds to continue the tour schedule. Their 1964 third single release "Double Shot (Of My Baby's Love)" become a hit in 1966 by "The Swingin' Medallions". Don’t be surprised if you hear both of those songs during my Backbeat Show on WUSC-FM tomorrow in honor of the memories. Oh MY!

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Pledge Breaks

During the month of November, WUSC-FM is in the middle of its Fall fundraising drive. I just checked the web site and at the time of this writing we have raised $5,839 towards our goal of $6,000. We have 6 days left to raise the final 3%.

Left: On the air at SCETV with Tom Fowler explaining how the computer department was involved with the pledge breaks. I am no stranger to non commercial broadcasting doing pledge breaks. I cut my teeth on the SC Educational TV pledge breaks back in the 80s. Like SCETV, WUSC-FM does not get enough financial backing from state or university funding to operate each year so we have to make up the difference through our fundraiser periods.

At SCETV, this meant that we would be doing live pledge breaks and that meant a lot of extra work for everybody. Live television productions are labor intensive. The minimal crew consisted of a director, an audio operator, a production assistant, a video operator, a broadcast engineer, a Chyron operator, a lighting director, three camera operators and a floor crew chief. In addition to the crew, there were 2 -3 co-hosts in front of the camera along with 15 – 20 volunteers answering the phones. During pledge periods the computer department also was involved with a supervisor who managed the running numbers of the dollars raised on the screens on the set and oversaw three temporary data entry operators who entered the pledge information into the system.

My normal 8 – 5 day expanded with a return to the studio after teaching my 6 PM aerobics class at the YMCA to work from 7 – 10 PM making sure that every pledge was counted and the totals that were displayed on the screen were accurate. Wednesdays and Fridays were easier since my aerobics class met on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Mine is but a small example of the increased hours that everybody on the operational side of SCETV put into the effort. I think the poor director and production assistant who were assigned to the fundraising effort had it the worst of all. They were there during every live moment of the fundraising period. No, they did not have weekends off; in fact the weekends were some of the longest days for them. Weekdays, the fundraising breaks began around 4 PM and ran till 6 PM. They resumed during prime time after the 6 PM news block and continued until 10 PM or later. Weekend fundraising started shortly after noon!

I especially liked the programming that we ran during the fundraisers. When I did my first fundraiser in 1980 the programming consisted of PBS presentations of classical and big band performances. Toward the end of my tenure there we had transitioned to folk music and oldies. I remember those oldie and doo-wop stage shows hosted by the “Ice Man” himself. No not the mob killer; Richard Kuklinski but the awesome 60s singer, Jerry Butler. Jerry has had over 55 Billboard Pop & R&B Chart Hits as a solo artist, including some 15 Top 40 Pop Hits in the Hot 100, and 15 R&B Top 10's.

A short digression here; Jerry Butler was also a politician having served as a Commissioner for Cook County, Illinois, from 1985 to 2018 when he retired from politics. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of the Impressions in 1991. I agree with the music writers and critics who think that Jerry also deserves a second induction as a solo artist, based upon his successful career as a recording artist and songwriter after leaving that group.

The pledge breaks also got me a chance to be in front of the cameras for a time in the late 80s; first being interviewed about the involvement of the computer services department in the pledge collecting and reporting process. And even for a time as a co-host during the afternoon children’s programming. Hundreds of times I said, “Hey boys and girls, it’s time to find Mommy and Daddy because I need to tell them about something important. The volunteers answering the phones would not take a pledge from a kid. It was not unusual for my train of thought to be interrupted by hearing one of the volunteers tell a child that they needed to talk to Mommy or Daddy. That invariably resulting in me repeating the message one more time.

I must admit to running hot and cold as a co-host. It had been a while since I had been on the air and it was tricky getting back into the presenter mindset. There was no script for these pledge breaks, just a few talking points to assist 15 minutes of nonstop adlibbing with my co-host. If I got distracted, I would drop back into DJ chatter mode and that was not a good mix for fundraising on television. Some of the time, I’d look back on those videos and say “not too shabby.” Other times I’d be thinking “OMG!” All in all, I thank the producers for the opportunity to come out from behind the scenes at least for a little while.

It was during this time that my involvement as a crew member of the PBS Firing Line Show began. William F. Buckley was faced with the problem of trying to convince his high powered debate guests that each was being given an equal amount of time to make his or her case. Henry Cauthen, the president of SCETV at the time, thought of the fundraising display which was written by a member of my computer services staff and asked me if it could be modified to show the time each debater had. We migrated the display from the Digital Equipment Corporation VAX system to a DOS laptop and piped the video output to 4 monitors on stage where all the debaters could easily see them. When I demonstrated the system to Bill, he asked if I could begin travelling to the Firing Line Debates and operating the system for the show. That relationship began in 1985 and continued even after I left SCETV until 1999 when the last firing line debate occurred in December in New York City. The Firing Line show ended a couple of weeks later when Buckley retired from broadcasting.

I want to take a moment to thank the listeners of The Backbeat Show on WUSC-FM for donating over $600 towards our $6,000 goal. You guys are the best! My last show during the fall fundraiser is Monday at 10 AM. Wouldn’t it be cool if we could raise the last $161 to make our goal then? Oh MY!

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Reel to Reel Magic!

This week a DJ friend sent me some reels of tape recorded “liners” from a show she did for an upstate radio station she did in the 90s. She asked if I had a way of digitizing them so she could use them on her current show. Thanks to an engineering buddy, I inherited an Otari MX-5050 reel to reel tape machine when it was retired from the production room of a local FM station several years ago. I was all too happy to save it from the scrap heap.

For a fleeting moment, as I reached over to push the power button I held my breath since the machine had not been powered up for several months. But all I heard in my studio monitors was a satisfying “thump” as the machine came to life once more. After all, this puppy is pretty old; they started to appear in radio and television stations in the mid 1980s. They made them pretty good back 35 years ago!

When I opened the box the tape was in I was gratified to see that the person who put the tape in the box was a professional who made sure the audio tape was smoothly wound on the reel and the end was carefully taped to the face of the reel with a short strip of splicing tape. I was also happy that the audio tape itself was of high quality and in excellent shape. When my friend speculated if the tape would hold together for the dubbing, I joked that it only had to do that one time. I needn’t have worried. This tape will hold together for more than one pass across the heads.

So I placed the 5“ reel of tape on the left spindle of the Otari and since I didn’t have an empty 5” reel to place on the right spindle, I left the 10” aluminum AFGA reel that was already on the take up spindle. I wasn’t worried about the mismatch in the reel sizes as I knew the Otari could manage that easily.

The next two things that happened, however, were unexpected.

The first thing was the richness of the sound that was on the tape. It was obviously recorded on a professional grade machine by an operator who knew what he was doing.

The second thing in retrospect I should have thought of but didn’t; the recording was in mono and recorded on a half track machine.

A quick look at the label on the tape box explained both of these phenomena. First the quality, the person who did the recording was Billy Powell, no not the pianist for the Lynyrd Skynyrd band, but the well known and loved upstate South Carolina radio personality and voice talent. It was recorded at Leslie Advertising in Greenville where my old WUSC buddy Steve Green was senior vice president and director of media services at the time. Second, the reason it was in mono was that it was recorded for use on WLBG-AM that is still on the air at 860 KC in Laurens, SC.

So I quickly re-patched the machine and set Audicity for mono recording and restarted the tape. I then sat back in my studio chair and marveled at the rich tonal quality of something recorded over 25 years ago. It took me back, way back. This tape sounded much better than some of my old air checks recorded on a studio “Maggie” in the 60s or on an Ampex AG440 in the 70s. Mind you, I am not knocking either of those machines, but there were some neat advances in tape technology that came along since those machines were in their heyday. I don’t know what machine up at Leslie Billy used to record the liners but it clearly was a top quality well maintained recorder.

All I could do was sit back with my eyes closed and think; “This is REAL radio!” No, this is not WABC in New York, CKLW in Windsor, Canada, or even KRLA or KHG in Los Angeles. This was medium to small market AM radio which was the hometown “go-to” spot on the dial that was the “social media” of the day. Images of the control rooms in my past flashed across my memory, aided by the slight smell of chromium oxide that drifted across the studio from the machine as the tape slid across the heads. I saw the big 16 inch RCA transcription turntable forever spinning at 45 RPM by that big old electric motor mounted in the console below at WCOS, the late afternoon sunlight drifting past the 4’ by 8’ glass windows of the remote studio at Doug Broome’s on Two Notch Road, the three 440’ towers in the field outside the picture window in the back of the studio at WIS radio and that iconic swimming pool at WAPE out the side window and through the glass in front of the board. To be completely honest, I never worked for the Big Ape, but I did get a chance to sit at that iconic Brennan console.

I even felt the warmth of the sunlight on my neck and back in the WUSC-FM control room on a cool winter’s day. That was just last week! Yes, this was real radio.

At my age, there are a great number of memories. So many that you don’t get a chance to remember something specific until something like digitizing an old tape triggers it. Thank you Billy, Ed and Cassie for another pleasant memory. Oh MY!

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Bam! Just like that; Fall’s over!

It seems that we have been waiting forever for Fall to arrive. I know the calendar says it’s been here for over a month but in South Carolina it does not arrive until the week of the State Fair in the middle of October. It did cool down for a while but then it got warm and rainy for the rest of the month. I guess that was our Indian Summer this year.

But this week, I have to pull the trigger and put up all my Ban-Lon golf shirts and pull out my woolies and long sleeved shirts; something that doesn’t usually happen until Thanksgiving week. One could make the case that it is me that has changed and not the weather as I approach my curmudgeon years. Indeed I will be sharing the campus tomorrow with some guys in short sleeved t-shirts and ladies in their oversized shirts and short shorts. But I think, the guys are probably from the north. The ladies are more interested in looking good than feeling warm, so their geographical origins are less obvious.

My long suffering central air conditioning system will be breathing a sigh of relief later today as I lean over the hearth in the living room to light the pilot light and change the batteries in the remote control for the gas logs. The central heater has been warming up and stretching its muscles for short periods of time in the mornings during the past week or so. Its marathon will start next month.

Right on cue, the generator in the back yard has just started up for its bi-weekly test. The light on its side is still green so it is ready for the winter weather. The service technician will be by next week to make sure all the ones and zeros in its mechanical brain are in the right place. The yard guy is coming tomorrow to clear the pine straw off the roof and spruce up the yard. One last thing is to schedule the Fall maintenance check on the furnace and I’ll be all ready for Old Man Winter.

I wonder if we will get any snow this year. Snow is not guaranteed in the Midlands of South Carolina. It seems that we get a nice snowfall about once every five years and a dusting every couple of years or so. With the gradual increase of the overnight lows year round that we’ve seen in the past couple of decades, winter weather events have come around fewer times than they have in the past. The winter events that I can do without are ice and freezing rain. I’m hoping we get lucky this year and dodge those icy bullets.

As a broadcaster, ice is the worst!

When the roads get icy it is harder to get to the radio station to do your show. Back in the day, before automation, this was critical. There had to be a DJ on duty to play the music and operate the transmitter. Sometimes, we would have to work double shifts because the next guy or gal on the schedule couldn’t get to the station because of the bad roads. The overnight DJ usually suffered the most because wintery travel was the worst just before dawn when the sun would rise and melt off the ice.

During my television years, it was worse because you needed an entire crew to operate the station. I remember one icy morning in the early 70s, Bob Bailey, who was the “talent” for the 6:45 AM Farm Report and I were the only ones who could get into the station. I was the “engineer” responsible for the operation of the video tape machines and the microwave transmitter and being the video operator for the two color cameras in the studio. The master control switcher who punched the cameras up, operated the audio board and directed the show was not able to get in. Neither was the one member of the floor crew, who was responsible for setting up the lights and microphones and operating the cameras in the studio.

Fortunately they had both called me to let me know that they would not be to the station on time so I had plenty of warning. I lit the studios, set up the microphones, and cameras. Then had Bob sit in his normal location and locked one camera down on his “head shot” and another on the “wide shot” and ran back up the stairs to master control. The night projectionist had left the sign on film reel on the projector so all I had to do then was to thread the film and set up the one videotape commercial we had on the log that morning. At precisely 6:43:30 AM I rolled the national anthem film and switched it up on the air. At 6:45 the show started with a reel to reel tape introduction over a slide and then I faded the tape out and faded the camera and microphone on the air. While Bob did his thing, I spun up the quad head on the video tape machine and got everything re-cued for the 6:57:45 break before joining the Today Show from NBC. I was so glad to see Barbara Waters smile that morning.

It was right after I asked Bob to leave his lavalier microphone draped over the back of his chair through the “squalk-Box” that the floor crew guy and the master control switcher arrived looking rather sheepish. All I could say was “Really!?!”

It still takes more than one person to do a live show these days on television but during other times, especially overnight, there is often no one actually present in the station. Many of the corporate owned television stations now operate several stations remotely from a central location.

I know, this sounds like some old curmudgeon talking about having to “walk to and from school in six feet of snow.” But I’m not complaining, they don’t have as many good “war stories” to tell as I do. Not only that but they never got to hear all the good rock and roll bands either. Oh MY!

Sunday, October 27, 2019

The Show Must Go On!

It has been said that teachers have the strongest immune system in the world, because they are exposed to every childhood illness that walks the face of the earth. That may be true, but I postulate that the immune systems of radio DJs are nearly as strong. We get exposed to the adult and childhood viruses that are roaming through our cities. Or at least we used to.

First of all, look at the working environment. Combo radio presenters work in a small room usually with poor ventilation (to keep the background noise down), and lots of surfaces that we all touch. Those knobs and switches in most stations almost never got cleaned, especially if you were working in a station with a 24 hour broadcast day. Oh, I should explain that “combo” radio presenters are DJs who run their own mixing consoles, called boards, as well as talk on the air. That would be most of us who worked in music radio in its heyday.

Not only did we have the switches and knobs as common touch points, but we also handled the same records, carts and reel to reel tapes. In remotely controlled stations we used the same remote controls to operate the transmitter. In the case of airborne viruses, we were sharing the same air in those control rooms. It’s almost like being at 35,000 feet in an airplane cabin full of people who have colds.

At WCOS, our chief engineer, Milton, was a clean freak. He would come into the main control room during the time we were broadcasting from our remote studio at Doug Broome’s with a handful of paper towels and a bottle of Formula 409 which was invented in 1957 by Morris D. Rouff. Formula 409’s original application was as a commercial solvent and degreaser for industries that struggled with particularly difficult cleaning problems. Because the degreasing property of 409 removed the residue from hamburgers and french fries from the knobs, I’d say that qualified broadcasting stations as one of those industries that were in the struggle.

I knew where Milton kept his stash of 409 and more than once I’d grab the bottle and give everything a lick and a promise as I started my air shift. I would do that at least once a week out at Doug’s because I was the only one who was in that studio unless something broke down. Oh, yes, I’m guilty, there were times when there was a Big Joy hamburger, fries and a Pepsi sitting on the turntable deck just past turntable # 3. And to make my confession complete, later in the evening, there was usually a slice of strawberry pie covered with whipped cream. If I was not careful, the turntable switches and knobs would get sticky with some of that strawberry filling. So out would come that 409 and a napkin and all would be good again.

Microphones were a particular problem. Spraying 409 on them was a major no-no! Those RCA 77-DX ribbons could easily get covered with 409 if you sprayed it on the windscreens. The solution was to spray some 409 on a paper towel or a rag and wipe the steel screening of the microphone down to get at least the germs on the surface. My greatest fear about those germs was realized back in the 90s when Milton gave me a pair of those microphones which had quit working. I opened the microphones and sure enough, the insides, including the ribbons were covered with God only knows what. Today, those great old microphones are sitting in a place of honor in my home studio, clean inside and out and working perfectly.

Even with all the precautions Milton took to keep all of us healthy, sooner or later each fall or early winter, one of us would come down with an “upper respiratory infection;” a cold or the flu. When that happened, that cold would spread like wildfire through all of the staff. That was a problem. In normal work environments taking a sick day posed an inconvenience. In radio where it was necessary for every DJ to cover his or her shift or the station would have to go off the air. And that meant that most of the time we would have to work sick.

I have to tell you, that “Playing the top of the pops and the cream of the crop for all you cool cats and hot kitties” is a tad more difficult when you have “The Rock And Roll Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu” is not one of the easiest of things to do. There was plenty of times where one of my co – DJs or I would rest our heads on our arms folded across the desk in front of the board while the record played. We were just resting our eyes, you see. I was fortunate in that I never fell asleep doing that, but one time, driving back to the station after doing my show from Doug’s while just a few blocks away I heard a record track through the end of the song and then heard the “bump, bump” as needle jumped in and out of the groove. I parked in the no parking zone in front of the Cornell Arms Lobby and ran up the stairs yelling to the guard to keep an eye on my car while I wake the DJ up. When I came back down a few minutes later, the guard was explaining to the patrol cop what was going on. Fortunately for me, the cop smiled, showed me his 7 transistor radio and told me that he enjoyed my show instead of giving me a ticket that I could not afford.

The effects of the “upper respiratory infections” had on me are two-fold one good and one bad.

The bad one is that having a cold makes you foggy and a little bit daffy. The old brain is only firing on 4 of the normal 8 cylinders. The mechanics of being a DJ; cueing up records and tapes, finding and loading cartridges are one thing. But being witty and funny and sometimes even pronouncing words in English can be a challenge. Eyes don’t seem to focus as clearly; making reading labels on 45s and carts more difficult and time consuming. The one saving grace about 45 RPM record labels was that each record company had their own distinct label so if you knew what record label a song was on, it was easier to find it in the rack of records on the top left of the Altec B-25 console. Yes – even I, with my watery eyes could tell a Buddah record from Motown record at a glance.

The good side effect of a cold is that it makes a DJs voice go low, at least as long as the voice holds out. These days with shorter shifts of 2 or 3 hours as opposed to the longer ones we had in the day of 5 – 6 hours; the voice usually holds out through the end of the show. But back in the day there were the shifts from hell when all we could do was to croak out the “Time, Temp, Boom-Boom” between records. Just in case you are wondering why we didn’t just segue songs together; those were different times, it was in our instructions never to do that!

These days, there are no more records and no more carts; only lines of text on a computer screen, so everything looks the same. That is why my music computer sits on the copy rack over the console right in front of my eyes. Right where I can see it, cold or not! Oh MY!