There is light in the eastern sky but the sun is still not up as I make my way out of the “K” Dorm at 5:45 on a chilly late spring morning. It was a short walk across Davis Field to the Russell House. I briskly pass through the lobby filled with the aroma of bacon and eggs from the cafeteria next door to the elevator and punched the button for the third floor, slowing down at the vending machine for a Coke and a bag of peanuts, the breakfast of champions.
Left: Ampex 351 similar to the one in the WUSC control room Fishing my station key out of my pocket I entered the station with the sound of the teletype machines clacking and whumping in the newsroom by the door. Flicking on the overhead lights I rounded the corner into the main control room, powered up the equipment, turned up the air monitor and listened to the static that would soon be rocking to the beat of the “Dawn Patrol Show“ and turned on the filaments of the transmitter via remote control. Next I threaded the tail of the tape that held last night’s “Night Owl Show” back onto the big Ampex 351 tape recorder just below the remote control panel, and pressed rewind. While the two hour tape was rewinding on its 10 inch reels, I threaded the sign on tape on the left hand Ampex 601, yes this was before cart machines made their way into most radio stations.
All this time, I kept my eye on the big Western Electric Clock as it was counting down to 5:58:30. At exactly that moment, I pushed the switch that turned on the transmitter’s “plates” and listened to the unmistakable “thunk” as the transmitter came to life. There was something very satisfying to hearing that “thunk” followed by a very slight humming sound the transmitter made over the air before the first sounds of the National Anthem pierced the airwaves at 5:58:45. Exactly a minute and 15 seconds later the station sign on ended and I turned up the “pot” for the Mutual Radio News at 6 AM.
I had 5 minutes to walk into the record library and grab the cardboard box that contained the 45 RPM records that were approved for play on this show only. This was the first time in the history of the station that we played Rock and Roll. WUSC was a low powered carrier current AM station at the time, but it felt like we covered the entire city instead of just the area immediately around the campus of the University of South Carolina as we were in our 17th year of broadcasting.
By the time 6:05 rolled around and the Mutual Top of the Hours News was ending, I had crunched the package of peanuts and swigged down a half bottle of Coke and was ready to rock and roll. By the way, it had to be a Coke and not a Pepsi. You see, Coke was a sponsor and I took that stuff seriously. Soon the morning air would be filled with The Four Seasons, The Shangri-Las, The Supremes, Johnny Rivers, Elvis and even The Beatles. Yes, we were playing the top of the pops and the cream of the crop for all the cool cats and hot kitties on campus. In between songs, there were quick announcements about what would be happening that day on campus. I even had a copy of the day’s menu in the cafeteria below on the first floor so everyone would know what was cooking.
There was something magical about doing that morning shift; being the first one to blast across the airwaves. That was something that would come along only once more time in my career. By the time I went to my first job in commercial radio at WCOS, the station was on the air 24 hours a day. So the closest I would come to turning the transmitter on and hearing that thump was at power change time at sunrise and sunset. The thump was there but it wasn’t quite the same.
When I first started working at WIS-TV, I did the morning shift which started at 6:43 AM with the national anthem / sign on and then the Bob Bailey Agricultural Show. I’ll never forget his sign off “He who plants the seed beneath the sod, and waits for it to raise the clod, he trusts in God.” That was a pretty cool sign off, but not the same as rocking to the hits. Little did I know that I was down to only a handful of sign on shifts left in my career.
They occurred during my time as the “chief engineer” of WIS Radio in the late 70s. Part of my job description said “all other duties as required” and since I was very experienced at being on the air, I would get pressed into service when the presenter that was assigned to a shift could not work. The program director at that time was a good friend and I was glad to fill in. WIS programmed what we would call light rock and pop to an adult audience so the DJ patter was a lot more subdued. But it was a joy to realize that I could back time a record to hit the NBC Radio News at the top of each hour.
Sometimes, my technical work could be done only while the station was off the air, so once or twice a month I’d work over night on a Sunday evening. I soon learned that our morning man had a problem with Monday mornings, so at 5:45 AM if he wasn’t there I would fire off the filaments on the big RCA BTA-5T transmitter in the wall behind my desk. If he still wasn’t in the studio by five minutes till 6, I would walk into the control room and make sure that the IGM DJ Assist Automation system was ready to play the sign on cart. Sure enough, the little 13 inch black and white computer monitor would indicate that all was ready. When it was time, I would flip on the “plate” circuit and start the day rolling. I got to tell you, hearing that 5,000 watt blowtorch light off was very satisfying. It would be half way through the National Anthem before the silly grin was off my face.
Now I had records to cue, weather forecasts, traffic reports and live commercial copy to gather. Usually sometime between 6:15 and 6:30, the morning presenter would amble through the door of the studio and say “thanks – good job” as I signed off the program and transmitter logs and turned the operation over to him. I would still have a smile on my lips halfway home.
Today, the sign on experience is not available to most in the business. Most stations run 24 hours a day and transmitters remain on unless something fails or the power goes out. Even most daytime only AM stations do not “sign on.” Their transmitters pop on automatically when it is time, all transistors, no filaments, no warm hum, just a transition from silence to whatever song the automation is playing to the stream. It seems so cold and impersonal. Signing on is one of the most rewarding experiences that a broadcaster can have. I miss it. Oh MY!