They were noisy. They were smelly. They were dirty and they voraciously ate reams of paper. And they lived in the newsroom of every radio station, television news room and every newspaper in the country. And anybody who worked around them had a love/hate relationship with teletype machines.
They usually hung out in groups or two or three which created a cacophony of sound that could drown out a rock and roll band. Both wire services, The Associated Press and United Press International as well as the US Weather Service were connected with broadcasters and newspapers via teletype machines. These machines were usually relegated to an alcove along the wall of the news room. At WUSC, my first radio station, we had all three lined up along the back of the news room, next to the news booth. The news announcer would check the machines for the latest news about 15 minutes before the five minute newscast, read the stories and select the ones they wanted to use, separate the rest by categories and hang them on nails on wooden pads attached to the walls over the machines assigned to each category; local news, national news, foreign news, entertainment, and farm reports.
At WCOS we had two; The AP and the Weather Teletypes in an alcove next to the rest room. Aside from Mike Rast, our only true newsman, we would check for the news summary that came over the AP teletype at 15 minutes before the hour, rip it off the machine and hang the rest on the nail just in case it was needed, carry the news copy into the control room and lay it on the corner of the audio console where it would lie until we played the news sounder and scooped the pile of paper up and read it cold on the air. You may have heard the term “rip and read,” This is how we got it.
Interesting enough, we didn’t get the hourly weather temperature report until after the top of the hour. We usually had it by time we finished reading the news and weather. So during the first record, we would tear the update off the teletype circle the local temperature and lay it on top of a couple of switches on the audio board. Normally the temperatures for all the major cities in the state were on that strip of paper; Columbia, Charleston, Greenville-Spartanburg, Augusta and Charlotte. Every three to six hours, we would get a new Midlands weather forecast. That would go on some more switches to the right of the VU Meters.
Just in case one had the inclination to “ad lib” the weather, there was the caveat that someone out there was listening. I did that once and only once during my first job on the overnight show on WCOS. I had more exposure to getting “that” call because I was the only one on the air in the city at that time. Midway during the record following the weather the phone rang and sure enough, it was John Purvis the Chief Meteorologist at the Columbia Weather Bureau to very nicely explain to me why I shouldn’t do that. He was working the overnight shift as well and was a religious listener. I remember that call well, because it was that night that John and I formed a lifelong friendship.
The worst thing about teletypes was having to change the ribbon. Like typewriters they came on spools. They came wrapped in cellophane packages containing two reels on the ends of the inked ribbon. One had to simply open the package, place the two reels on the table, turn the power off the teletype machine, remove the old ribbon and reels and discard them, install the new ribbon and reels, and turn the power back on. It was simple in concept but not so much in practice. For some reason, the ribbon would always catch on the corner of the aperture that held it next to the paper. Then you had to actually touch the ribbon to remove it. To make a long story short, it was a good thing the rest room was right next to the teletypes. The doorknob on the rest room was permanently stained with teletype ink, and so were our hands.
Changing paper was a little easier. Teletype paper came either on rolls or fan-fold paper. The rolls were mounted on a rod behind the printing parts and fed through similarly to the way a calculator printer is today. It was nice but they had to be changed more often that the fan-fold paper which came in big boxes about the same size as 11 by 7 computer printer paper does today. To change fan-fold paper, you had to feed it up through a hole in the bottom of the printer box and then up behind the aperture. It was a major annoyance during a music show to see that purple or red stain on the side of the teletype copy that indicated that it was time to change the paper.
Teletype paper had a rough surface and high rag content. It was anything but slick. Every key strike shook off a minute amount of paper dust which accumulated on all the surfaces around it. After a week or so, if everything wasn’t cleaned, the teletype alcove took on a yellow patina from the yellow paper that was the norm at the time. Looking back on it, I’m surprised that this accumulation didn’t cause some fires, especially from ash droppings from the chain smoking news reporters and DJ’s who were clearing the wires all the time. But I have never heard of one.
During the 70s, teletype technology improved, they became cleaner, quieter and it was much easier to change paper and ribbons. But it was the beginning of the end. Soon, teletypes would be replaced by computers and then the only time the news and weather made it to paper was when it was printed off to be carried to the radio control room or the television news desk.
I must admit to a fascination with teletypes, especially the older ones we had in the 50s and 60s. I will never forget sitting in front of the AP and UPI teletypes late on the afternoon of November 22, 1963 as the alarm bells kept ringing and the latest piece of information about JFK’s assassination clacked out letter by letter in purple ink on yellow paper in the WUSC newsroom. I was grouped into huddle of folks who couldn’t tear ourselves away from that machine. I remember sitting in a hotel room in Des Moines Iowa on September 11, 2001 feeling exactly the same way while watching the news from New York and Washington late into the night. It was one of those “Where were you when…” moments of my life.
OK, There is no way I’m going to end this story on such a down note. So here goes a funny teletype story. It is a true one because it happened to me.
Picture the scene; it was nearly two in the morning on a cold and rainy winter’s night in Columbia. I was alone in the station doing the All Night Satellite show. I had just ripped the two am news summary off the AP teletype and checked the weather machine to see if there was a change in the temperature. Precisely at 1:55 I started the news sounder and grabbed the AP News Copy off the edge of the desk under the Western Electric Console and begun to read… It was the second story that got me. It said – in all caps, teletypes printed everything in caps those days; “DALLAS – AN UNUSUAL WINTER STORM DUMPED FOUR AND ONE HALF FEET OF HEAVY SNOT ON THE TEXAS PANHANDLE!” Fortunately the synapses of my brain changed the word to “SNOW” before it came out of my mouth. Unfortunately I stopped for a second to re-read the line. That was my undoing. I totally lost it, turned off the microphone and collapsed in a helpless bundle of laughter right there in the middle of the news. You know, nothing is as funny as something that happens when you have to be serious. There were long periods of dead air as I tried to regain my composure, open the microphone only to break out in laughter. Finally I gave up and played the one minute commercial, giggled my way through the weather, played the end of news sounder / station ID and started the next record. It wasn’t until the weather break at 2:15 that I had completely recovered. And that’s why I miss teletypes. Oh MY!