Sunday, September 15, 2019

The classic smell of radio

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!

Sunday, September 8, 2019

The Dream, Revisited

I’ve written before about a phenomenon that has been experienced by most of us who have done radio gigs; “the song is running out and I have nothing ready to go on the air” dream. It usually happens about a year or so after doing your last live show.

I first experienced that dream back in the 80s while working at South Carolina Educational Television having done my last live show while I was at WIS Radio in the late 70s. I was the “Chief Engineer” they call them “Broadcast Technicians” now, for the station and would fill in on the air whenever the program director ran into a staffing problem and needed a warm body to sit in the air chair.

My “dream” back then was pretty much a standard version of the recurring DJ nightmare of having to ad-lib while frantically searching for the next cart or cueing up the next record. In my dream, the record was always an album and the track I needed was never the first one on the side. This meant having to turn my head away from the microphone in order to land the needle on the groove between two songs. This meant either having what we called dead air, that is nothing on the air for the few moments while the needle was dropped onto the spinning 33 1/3 RPM vinyl disk. Or talking way “off mike” while accomplishing the needle drop. Babbling was more like what happened because it was difficult to be urbane and witty while sighting down the groove. Either way it was embarrassing. To make matters worse, in my dream, my boss, the program director was always sitting in the production studio looking at me through the glass as if to say; “Just what in the heck are you doing!” Those are not the words that he utters in my dream but you get the idea.

After about a dozen years, the dream disappeared completely. I thought I was out of the woods. Nothing could have been farther from the truth! That nightmare would come back, or at least its spawn would bring the night sweats.

It was technology that changed the dream. We no longer queued records up on turn tables. Jingles and commercials and in some cases even the songs were served up to us from the automation in DJ assist mode. Sometimes we didn’t even have to push a button to start the next event. Easy peasy! My case was a little more complicated in that I bring my oldies into the studio on a laptop that I open up on the copy stand that sits over the console. Like the sheriff wearing a white hat and slinging two six guns; I have my Sennheizer headphones and handle two computer mice, one on either side of the board, to blast away my 45’s. To be completely honest, there are three computers and three mice; the third is a Mini-Mac that I use to get the weather and to look up details that I can’t quite remember about artists and songs. So getting things ready for the next break in the tunes would take much less time than it did back in the day. I say would because there is a new task. The artists and the names of their songs have to be keyed into a program called Tre-Cast. Tre-Cast sends this information to three places; 1) the music log so we can pay the royalties on the song, 2) Radio Data Service (RDS) so that those of you with compatible radios can see the song information on the face of your receivers and 3) to the list of recently played songs on the station’s Web page.

So during a show, there is a lot to be done while the record is playing. Adding to that is answering the studio telephone line and checking Facebook for requests. Busy time – but with different technology. This gives rise to the “new and improved” DJ recurring nightmare that I’ve been experiencing the past couple of years.

I’m walking into the control room to do my first show at the station. I sit down in the air chair and look at the audio board for the first time. OMG, it’s the size of a pack of cigarettes, with buttons way to small for my fingers to operate. The DJ in front of me runs through the operation of the board in less than a minute pointing out the different controls calling them who knows what in some kind of foreign language. Then “poof” he’s out the door.

There I am, watching in horror as the song is fading out. Nothing queued up. I can’t even find the media player or automation where the next song, jingle or commercial is and I’m about to make my debut on air on this new station sounding like a complete buffoon.

Oh yeah, one more thing, my new boss, the program director, they call them operation managers these days is sitting in the production studio listening and looking at me like “Oh MAN! Did I make a mistake hiring this guy!” as she slowly shakes her head in disbelief.

I’ve been told that this dream is a variation of the “frustration dream” that we all experience. You know like you are searching all over campus for the location of that final exam that you have not studied for as the time for that exam approaches.

Last month I began my 30th consecutive semester doing weekly shows at WUSC-FM. It’s hard to believe that all started ten years ago this coming January. Actually that’s ten years on every Monday morning, since 2007 I’ve been filling in during holidays and semester breaks. It feels good to give back to the place where I got my radio and television career started. Radio is in my blood and it’s worth an occasional nightmare. I wonder what the next twist to “The DJ Dream” will be. Oh MY!

Sunday, September 1, 2019

The Dawn Patrol

When I first started at WUSC-AM in 1963, the station played a Middle of the Road, (MOR) format. MOR met its demise a long time ago and the best way to describe it is to say that was the music that was being played by the Armed Forces Radio Service before DJ Adrian Cronauer arrived on the scene in the movie “Good Morning Vietnam.” There was a lot of Ray Coniff, Lawrence Welk and even a couple of albums by Jackie Gleason. Indeed the “Bam, Zoom, Straight to the Moon” Ralph Kramden guy was quite an accomplished orchestra leader. Yes there were some vocal records in the mix as well; Andy Williams, Charles Aznavour and Peggy Lee were some of the more popular singers. It was a far cry from the music I came to love as a teenager listening to WAPE and WPDQ in Jacksonville.

We had a shortened broadcast day as well back then; 4:30 PM until 1 AM. It was neatly designed not to compete with the class or lab schedules at the University. Radio automation as we know it today didn’t exist back then. The closest thing we had to it was a two hour long reel to reel tape playing the “Night Owl Show” from 11 PM until 1 AM on an Ampex 350 reel to reel tape machine that was modified to turn the transmitter off when the tape ran out. This allowed us to extend the broadcast day after the Russell House closed at 11 PM. But all the music we played back then was that MOR elevator music.

Left: The WUSC - AM Master Control Audio Board Circa 1965, the home of our "Dawn Patrol Show." A number of us had our eye on entering the local radio market as part timers in our upperclassmen years and we wanted to cut our teeth on Rock and Roll. By that time several of our DJs had weekend gigs at WNOK and WCOS and they remarked that the transition from MOR to Top 40 took a while to make. It seemed that early morning was our best shot. Russell House opened at 5:45 AM for breakfast in the cafeteria. As chief announcer, I had a key to the station once the building was open. So I proposed to the student body that we run the station from 6 -8 AM Monday through Friday in the Fall of 65 as an experiment. I didn’t have a class until 9 am that semester. They agreed and another member of the exec staff who had a key covered the weekend days.

That summer, Adrian Cronauer was making waves on his “Dawn Patrol” show and that name was becoming pretty popular with Rock and Roll stations around the country, especially the college stations who were beginning to experiment with rock and roll. So naturally we went with the flow at WUSC as well. With a fire in my belly for rock and roll radio, it was seldom that my alarm went off at 5:30 in time for me to shower, shave and walk across Davis Field from the honeycomb dorms to the station. At 5:55, I’d be turning on the studio and warming up the transmitter and rewinding the previous evening’s “Night Owl” show tape. At 5:58 I’d hit the plate switch on the transmitter remote control, putting the station on the air and starting the sign on tape that ended with National Anthem. A quick vocal ID followed and then the 6 AM Mutual Newscast from the network.

During that newscast, there were a few minutes to select a few choice 45’s to start off the show and load the first two commercials on the Ampex 601 reel to reel machines on either side of the console. One of the things I remembered from listening to my home town rockers was to always play an upbeat, feel good song first after the news. It wasn’t until I began working at WCOS that Woody Windham told me that those records were nicknamed “kickers!”

It was also the first time that most of my on air playlist was coming from 45 RPM records instead of those 33 1/3 RPM albums that were the mainstay of our broadcast day. At first we had somewhat of a limited selection of rock and roll; filling up two or three bins out of more than 100 bins each containing 80 or more albums in the music library. I had an old Associated Press Teletype Paper box that I kept under the left turntable in Master Control that I would drag into the library during the news and fill with a bunch of 45’s for the show. Being a college station with few commercials, it was not unusual for me to play 20 or more songs in an hour, so there was usually 60 - 80 records in the box each show for me to choose from. It was back then that I began to take requests over the studio phone line for the first time in my career. That was a bit of a problem until the record distributors caught on that we were rockin’ in the mornings. Soon I had almost every song that was being played on the commercial rockers and filling requests became easier.

Sometimes I wish that I had an air-check recording of one of my WUSC shows but the only one I made wound up with Woody over at WCOS, that led me to my first paying radio gig. I say “sometimes” because I soon discovered that the transition from college radio announcer to Top 40 DJ took some work. Those tapes were pretty rough. I am forever grateful that Woody could see past that and hire me on and kick start my broadcast career.

The other thing that was missing from those “Dawn Patrol” shows was the Pams and Pepper-Tanner jingle packages that were the mainstay of Top 40 radio back in the day. We had short promotional announcements, what they call “liners” today and I made up some really short and really awful “stingers” that were used to add more production elements to those rock shows. Because all of these elements were on reel to reel tape, I was busier than a one armed paper hanger in the studios those mornings. No wonder I was such a skinny guy back then.

The other thing that kept me hopping was that rock radio back in those days required that the DJ talk or play a jingle, liner or stinger between EVERY record. If fact at WCOS we were required to actually say something. “TTBB” was the watchword there. “TTBB” stood for “Time, Temp, Boom-boom” keep it short, keep it upbeat and keep it fun! If you listened to WABC in the 60s, Rick Sklar the iconic program director was so into TTBB that he actually had a chime dubbed onto the end of the song cartridges to make sure that everyone knew what the “WABC Time Chime” was. Hey, as trite as it sounds, remember that WABC dominated the New York City market when Top 40 radio was king.

MY WUSC – FM oldies show begins at 10 AM on Mondays, once a week instead of 5 days a week at 6 AM. Hey – I may not be a spring chicken any more but I can still rock and roll for a few hours each week. Listen closely for the “chime time” tomorrow, it’ll be there. Oh MY!

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Radio Commercials

The life blood of any commercial radio station is of course the commercials. Annoying as they may be to the audience, commercials are what pays the electric bill and back in the day was the source of my own income. As with the songs we played, there were great commercials and then there were some that were not so great.

My first sponsor back at WUSC-AM was Coca-Cola. I must say that I loved those nationally produced spot announcements. They came to us on reel to reel tape and since we did not have cart machines, I got to load the tapes the National Ad Agency sent us onto one of the Ampex 601 reel to reel recorders in the studio four times per hour. Those tapes came on 5 inch reels that contained usually a half dozen 60 second commercials. They were supposed to be played in rotation so once I found the first one on the tape and played it, I immediately would cue up the next cut and it was ready. Easy Peasey as long as the traffic director scheduled the cuts in sequential order. By the way, the traffic director was the person who scheduled the commercials into the shows and created the program log that was used by the DJs to record the time that a commercial (or other show element) was broadcast. We had one traffic director who loved to mess with the on air DJs by scheduling the cuts on the tape in random order. We spent forever after each commercial rewinding the tape back to the head and then counting the spots as we fast forwarded the tape listening to the commercials pass in the cue system. He straightened out after a bunch of us had a discussion with him in the music library one afternoon.

Those old Coca-Cola commercials were examples of great commercials. They were informative and entertaining, usually featuring recording artists who had songs that were playing on the station. I’d find myself singing along with those commercials almost as often as I’d be singing along with a song that was in rotation.

After I made the transition to WCOS I began playing more and more commercials for local businesses. Some of these were great; I knew the Kaminer Heating & Cooling Jingle by heart as well as many others that came out of the local ad agencies. Many more of the commercials we had were for local businesses who bought directly from the station. Our sales guys understood that there was a balance between selling something that was good for the advertiser and not getting content on that turned our audience off. Sue, our copywriter and traffic director, wrote great copy that was fun and easy to read whenever she could. But some sponsors insisted that she insert certain words into the copy that drove our production guys crazy. I think they thought tongue-twisters were cool.

There were a lot more commercials at WCOS than there were at WUSC. But instead of reel to reel tapes these commercials sat on Fidelipac tapes commonly known as a "NAB cartridge" or simply "cart". No not the kind that you roll around from room to room but the kind that looked like 8-track tapes, encased in plastic boxes that could be placed in a machine that played them back on demand. In fact these “carts” were the immediate forerunner of the 8-track tapes that were everywhere in the 70s. We did have reel to reel tapes in the studio that were used to play the Pam’s and Pepper-Tanner jingles that were so much a part of radio back then. Those Magnavox tape machines were also used to play back special show segments such as “Dottie Lloyd’s Swap & Shop” and some of the Sunday shows that aired each week. I still have a reel from the old “The Investigators” show produced locally for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which was then a part of the United States Department of the Treasury, having been formed in 1886 as the "Revenue Laboratory" within the Treasury Department's Bureau of Internal Revenue. Hence the name “revenuers!”

So far, this story has been telling the tale of the pre-recorded commercial. There were also live commercials which came in two forms; those read live from commercial copy and the ad-lib commercial.

I must admit that I cringe a little every time I think of the live commercial read from “copy” that was to be read verbatim by the local DJ on the air. Most of these were great but I remember one for a local bank that contained the word “regularly” in every month’s new version of the commercial. I don’t know why, but I had a “thing” about that word that I just couldn’t get over. I’d fumble it every time. One morning when I was doing the overnight show, our morning man, Bob Fulton, gave me a suggestion; “Break it down to multiple words,” he said, “Regular Lee”. I tried it and sure enough it worked but I still hate that word today.

Some of these “live from copy” commercials were very formal and others were less so. I remember when Hardees and Shoney’s came to town with an introductory schedule of live commercials. The respective Ad Agency Representatives held meetings with the DJs and we were given pretty much a cart-blanche to have a little fun with these commercials. Being the terrible punster that I was, I remember that one time I quipped that Hardees should have named their hamburger a “Har Har” instead of the Husky. Then they could hire Jackie Gleason to be their spokesman and he could say “Hardee Har Har!” Note: you have to be a certain age to understand that one, but I got a phone call from the Ad Rep who told me he almost drove off the road laughing at that one.

When I first started doing The Nightbeat Show from Doug Broome’s drive in, his commercials were all on tape. But quickly they changed to live commercials from copy and then again to “ad-lib” where all I had to go from was a menu. These last commercials were so in line with the rest of the show that many folks didn’t realize that they were actually commercials.

For a while I regressed to mixing pre recorded commercials back into the show lineup. Now, these were not normal commercials but funny skits that my buddy Scotty Quick, our mid day DJ, and I came up with; “Sleepy Man at Breakfast”, “Vroom Vroom – Stop That” and “Tex” were the ones I remember the most. It wasn’t long before we started getting requests for these commercials. That was a win-win!

I’m not saying these were slick, well produced commercials but they got the job done. I’m pretty sure that they wouldn’t work in today’s radio environment, but they fit in well with the old 50s, 60s and early 70s radio experience; the golden age of “music radio.”

I feel certain that Wolfman Jack is smiling broadly as he cues up the next 45 in that big blowtorch in the sky. Oh MY!

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Move in Day

Tomorrow morning when I drive up the hill on Bull Street and turn into the parking garage on my way to do my WUSC-FM show, I anticipate delays. Tomorrow is the first student move in day at the University of South Carolina for the fall semester. Gone are the days of the leisurely search for a parking space in the empty garage, I will be dodging freshmen and parents pushing carts laden with clothes, TVs, coffee makers and computers. It will be mayhem and not necessarily controlled mayhem. If I can make it unscathed as far as the patio between the Student Health Center and the Russell House, I’ll be good to go.

The production audio console at WUSC AM in 1963. It will be a nervous time for all those fresh faces, just like it was for me some 56 years ago. But that is the as far as similarity goes.

Tomorrow, the university will have its ambassadors deployed to make the process as smooth as possible. There will be extra muscle to help carry everything to the dorm. There will be smiling faces to be sure that everyone knows where to go and what to do. If tradition holds, one of those faces will be the new President of the University. The dorms will be open early and the campus police there to make sure that traffic flows smoothly to and from the unloading zones.

It should all be familiar territory to the new students and their parents. All spring and summer long, they wandered around campus during college visits and orientation being led by the same ambassadors who will be moving them in tomorrow. They already know the beauty of the Horseshoe and the special place near the Russell House where the sound of claps are transformed to something like the noise a Star Wars blaster makes. Acoustics are a strange and wonderful thing.

That’s a far cry from my move in day experience. When I arrived in Columbia that early September morning, I had never seen the university. In fact I had only seen the city once from a train the summer between my sophomore and junior high school years as the Silver Meteor passed through between the tidewater area of Virginia and Jacksonville. My cousin Harlo and I had helped my Aunt Mally move from Jacksonville to Newport News and were on the way back home. If I had known that a little over a year later I’d be living there I would have paid more attention to the city.

My parents drove me to Jacksonville’s Union Station at the corner of Park and Bay Streets around 9:30 PM on September 1st. I arrived at the quaint Seaboard train station on Gervais St. in Columbia around 6:30 AM and took a Yellow Cab to the corner of Devine and Sumter Streets where my dorm was waiting for me. In retrospect I could have walked it because I had only two suitcases with me. But not knowing my way around town yet the cab ride was worth every penny of the $2.50 fare.

It was cool and crisp when I was let off on the deserted sidewalk outside the dorm. There was a note on the locked door that said that they would open at 8:30 for housing registration and move in. So my first morning started with me sitting on my suitcase near the door watching the city come alive. Being Columbia in 1963, it was a lot quieter and slower than the beginnings of rush hour these days. A handful of cars slicked through the oak leaves on the road as they made their way to their assigned campus parking spaces. Slowly but surely a few other guys from out of state joined me as they arrived by car or taxi. There were no women in the crowd they were on the other side of campus moving into the Women’s Quadrangle and the South Buildings. I saw my first SCE&G bus make its initial circuit of its route the early morning light. The rush of arrivals would not happen until around 10 or so. By that time, I would be moved in, have collected my linen and made my way across Davis Field to the Russell House, collected my pre-paid meal ticket and be eating sausage, scrambled eggs, grits, toast and orange juice. “At least I won’t be going hungry”; I thought as the day grew bright and sunny.

Later that day would come the first of two days of orientation, and that afternoon after lunch in the Cafeteria, a walk over to Hamilton College on what was the other side of the campus back then to meet my fellow ROTC Midshipmen, be sworn into the Navy, be assigned my rifle, books and uniforms and be assigned to the Drum and Bugle Corps of the Battalion, a gift from my high school band experience. When they found out that I had been drum major and know how to march, I was assigned the post position of the block formation right off the bat. At least I would have an unobstructed view as I marched.

I was pretty tired after lugging my heavy duffle bag back to the dorm and getting my uniforms over to the tailor across the street for fitting and sewing on the insignia. I was sure glad I did that first because some of my fellow midshipmen had to drill in their civvies the next Thursday because the tailor was over loaded. I learned the true value of “first in – first out” that day. I hit the sack pretty early that night because orientation would start bright and early the next morning and then that afternoon the three day class registration process began. That is another story. Yes, it really took three days and was a study in frustration, despair and Hollerith cards.

It was the next morning, walking over to the Student Union building for breakfast with a bunch of other guys, that I met Steve who was a Junior in the Air Force ROTC and most importantly for my future, was the chief announcer of WUSC Radio. WUSC was a carrier-current AM station at the time broadcasting to the campus and the surrounding neighborhoods. He invited me after breakfast to come see the station before the final morning of orientation. That visit hooked me and within a couple of months, I was trained and had my own once a week show on the station, and I was off to a lifelong love of broadcasting.

WUSC is the other thing that has changed over the 56 years since my first day on campus. It’s now a Class A FM station that covers four counties in the Midlands of South Carolina. The studios have moved down the third floor hall into the section of the West Wing that did not exist back in the day. No more tape or cart machines but there are still a pair of rarely used turntables. There are three CD players and a full blown automation system for when a live DJ is not available. Most importantly for me anyway, there is a port on the side of the Audio Console’s desk where I can plug in my oldies laden laptop.

So, I’ll head out a little earlier in the morning to make sure that I’ll have time get through the move in crowd, hook everything up, take my “Rockin’ Socks” picture for Facebook and take a breath before doing some “Old School” radio!! Oh MY!

Sunday, August 11, 2019

And Panic Sets In!

Mid August is almost here! Yikes! Back in the day that meant that you could count the weeks before school starts on the fingers of one hand. And that was back in the day when school did not start until the week after Labor Day. These days it’s earlier; the local school district starts school on August 21 and the next day classes begin at the UofSC. That means you can count the days on the fingers of both hands. The days of leisurely rush hour drives downtown past vacant schools is soon to be over. The number of times that I’ll be able to park on the entrance level floor of the Bull Street Parking Garage for my Monday Morning Radio Show on WUSC-FM is down to like, two!

The door to the studios at WUSC-FM. But like back in the day, my relationship with the beginning of the Fall Semester is a love / hate thing. In my high school and college years I was mourning the loss of the “Lazy Hazy Days of Summer” but at the same time I was looking forward to the excitement of getting back together with my classmates and friends at school. I used to wonder what it would be like when I was out of school and in the work-a-day world.

In the fall of ’66 I discovered that not much changed. I was doing the “All Night Satellite” at WCOS and was not thinking about school too much. But my school aged audience quickly reminded me that it was almost time for school to start again. It became pretty common for a jittery teenager to talk about being nervous about the end of summer. It was particularly bad for those that were making the transition from Middle School (we called it Junior High School back then) to High School. Not so bad for those making the transition from High School to College.

During the months of August and September, I spent more time on the phone than usual reassuring the person making requests that I survived the transitions without too many scars. The usual 30 second request call sometimes stretched out to a half hour. It was a good thing that I was a decent multi-tasker back in those days; I could talk, read the log, and load the next commercial, jingle and record while keeping up the conversation. Having to take and write down the transmitter readings every half hour usually caused the end of a phone conversation. I must say that the old analog phones helped; there was no delay between the listener and me. So I could more easily interrupt the caller when I needed to open up the microphone and say something. With today’s digital phones, it is harder to break in to tell the listener to hold on a second because of the slight delay.

By the time the ’67 fall term arrived, I was able to point to the big blockbuster movie of that summer “To Sir With Love” starring Sidney Poitier and Lulu to let the caller know that they were about to embark on one of the most exciting times of their lives.

When Lulu’s song from the movie was released it was one of the most requested songs by the Doug Broome’s cruzin’ crowd. We were not supposed to have folks from the audience in the booth while we were doing our shows, but I can admit now that occasionally there would be a nervous teenager sitting in that tan metal folding chair under the window A/C unit set in the back wall of the studio, waiting to unburden his or troubled heart about the upcoming semester. To my knowledge, Arthur Broome never told my boss that sometimes I let someone into the booth. At least Woody never called me on it. That could have been because he probably had folks in his booth too back in his “Doug Broome’s Days.” Woody “Got it!” Besides, what can he do about it now?

Complete disclosure: The ratio of female booth visitors to their male counterparts was at least ten to one. But in my defense, the girls were more likely to behave in the booth than the boys were. And they were more likely than the boys to want to talk about it. The boys wanted to be “manly” and expressing feelings was just not done. And that my friends, is one reason that women live longer than men.

While this phenomenon was much more prevalent back in the day than it is today, I still occasionally get a younger listener calling about nervousness at the beginning of a school. The prime reason is that my audience demographic has been out of school for decades. What I do get in the line of studio visitors is someone just wanting to get away from it all and listen to some of their grandparents’ “feel good music” for a while.

The increase of difficulty finding a good parking place is offset by walking to the Russell House in the middle of a throng of students making their way to or from classes. Many are in groups of two or three, excitedly chatting about the things that students talk about. To be honest, that has not changed much over the decades. The girls are talking about their professors, their classes and boys, the boys, mostly about football and girls. The one thing different is that someone who is alone is usually talking on their phone, not walking in silence.

Over the ten years that I’ve been on campus every Monday for my show the thing that has changed is that I’m no longer the strange older dude with wild socks dragging my laptop in a roller bag behind him. I never make it all the way without a student or one of the university staff calling out “Hi Rick” on the way. More than ever, it feels like my undergrad days when I knew a larger percentage of the student body. Well, it WAS a lot smaller back then and the majority lived on campus. Oh MY!

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Taking requests for your favorite record!

One of the things I loved about being a radio DJ back in the golden age of rock and roll radio was taking requests. So much so that I still love it today.

There were two kinds of requests; the first was those that we took over the phone when we were in the main studio or on slips of paper when we were at remote locations such as Doug Broome’s Drive In. The other was those “Instant 60” requests where the person making the request was put on the air live.

When I first started full time at WCOS AM I was assigned the “All Night Satellite” which ran from 1 AM until 6 AM. During that time, WCOS was the only station on the air 24 hours a day so my audience consisted not only of the usual WCOS listeners but also people who normally listened to the other stations in the city. So the requests that came in to me covered a much wider choice of music, not only the Top 40, but also country, R&B and even what we called “Middle of the Road” music what later became known as “Elevator Music.” Unlike the huge music library I enjoyed at WUSC-AM, only the “Top 60 in Dixie” the “Up and Comers” and the small sampling of “Solid Gold” records were available for me to play. So if a listener wanted something else, they were out of luck. I would usually suggest a song that I could play that sounded similar to the one they requested if I could and most of the time they were OK with that. What that experience did for me was to greatly expand my knowledge of popular music of the 60s.

Taking those calls in the middle of the night really brought my audience and me closer together. There was usually a “story” behind each request and I felt that it was my duty to listen to each one. Sometimes that meant long conversations, interrupted every 2 ½ to 3 ½ minutes when I had to announce the next record. Many a time I’d hear the tearful story of a high school girl who’s world was crushed by a boy friend who had found someone else.

But to put to rest the notion that it was always the girl who was left broken hearted, I got my share of calls from boys asking the rhetorical question; “Why?” I admit that my teen aged years had their share of angst and heartache, but golly, it was practically tame compared to some of the stories that I was told. One of the things that the callers sought was confirmation that it will get better. As a “much older” person in my early 20’s I assured them that indeed it would be better.

Many a time I would get a call a few months later from a listener to tell me that I was right, there was a new boy (or girl) in the picture and everything was Sunshine Lollipops and Rainbows, as Lesley Gore would put it.

The studio phone out at Doug Broome’s was a private number that was used to coordinate with Mike Rast back in the main studio in the Cornell Arms Building. We were told not to take any requests from anyone who was not present there in the parking lot. Most were brought to us by the roller skate shod car hops on scraps of paper or written on ketchup and mustard stained napkins. Some of those were almost illegible betraying either the writer’s excitement or the number of cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon that were consumed before making the request. I stacked them in a raggedy pile on the desk behind turntable number three to my right and every so often would pull the oldest request from the bottom of the pile, queue up the record and send the request out over the airwaves.

Back in those WCOS days, I was still a relative newcomer to Columbia who had spent most of his time here sheltered in the confines of the University of South Carolina campus, so I would sometimes get caught up in something that I didn’t know about. A good example of that was the night I unknowing read a “coded” invitation for a “rumble” between students of two rival high schools that were due to play their big game the upcoming Friday. The next morning I was called into a meeting with the station manager, the chief of police and the principals of the two schools. That was a mite uncomfortable, but they enlightened me of all the local code words and nicknames for the schools. I quickly learned to cast a wary eye on each and every request; especially those brought to my studio door by a good looking cheerleader wearing a tight high school sweater. Yes I’m a quick learner.

After playing the requests, they made their way into the office sized waste paper basket under turntable number one on my left. One of my regrets in life is that I didn’t save one of two of them in a scrapbook or something. While I’m at it, I wish I had taken a picture or two out at Doug’s; maybe with some of the kids who were always there or even of the cinder block building or the equipment inside.

I wrote earlier that there was also the “Instant 60 Requests.” They were the most fun of all and also the scariest. They could be run from only the main studio because they involved the listener calling the station and being put on the air live. During office hours we had to coordinate with Nellie Pleasant, our receptionist, so that she knew to not answer the shared telephone lines during the request. Sometimes, but not always, we put all the lines on hold to counteract those who dialed all but the last digit then held on until the jingle began to try to gain advantage over the others. It also leveled the playing field for those not in the Alpine telephone exchange. When the jingle started we cleared the line and generally took the caller coming in on line 3. We would talk to them until the jingle ended. Then we put them on the air, got their name and school, found out what they wanted to hear then played a “sweeper” that said “Here it comes” as we queued up the record and played it immediately. By the way in case you were expecting me to tell you exactly how we did that, I’m not gonna tell you, I was sworn to secrecy and I am not about to ruin the Top Secret Clearance that I had gotten from the Navy a few years before. By the way, I still remember that phone number for WCOS – “Alpine 2-2177. “

So why was the “Instant 60 Request” scary for the DJ? Three things; 1) it happens very fast with no margin for error, 2) the DJ needed to know precisely where on the Top 60 the requested song was in order to get it queued up on time, and 3) there was no delay back in the day so if someone uttered one of George Carlin’s “Seven Dirty Words” it went out on the air for everybody to hear and you could do nothing about it.

In fact that did occasionally happen, one night I was on my way back to the studio after the Nightbeat Show when I heard one of our new DJs initiate an “Instant 60” request. Since I had the Top 60 records with me in the car I thought that took a lot of nerve since he had copies of only the top 30 on tape cartridge in the studio with him. It turned out to be a bad move for the DJ as when he asked the caller what he wanted to hear he was rewarded with the word that was on the top of Carlin’s list of words never to be uttered on the air. It was a good thing that there was no other traffic or a police car on Two Notch Road that morning and I swerved all over the road in reaction to what I had just heard. When I got back to the studio, no one mentioned what happened. Come to think of it, neither did the station management nor the FCC. So that was one that we got away with. In case you are getting a wild idea of having some fun with the local live radio personality that could never happen today because every station that takes live calls has a 10 second digital delay on it so we can “dump” any unwanted comments with a push of a big red button.

So the next time you hear me say to call in your requests on the studio line or send them in on Facebook, I mean it. Old school DJs and requests go hand in hand. Oh MY!