‘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!