Sunday, January 29, 2012

45 RPM Records and the Top 40!

Back in the day when AM radio ruled the airwaves, the songs we played on the air came from 45 RPM records. Surely you remember those 7 inch disks with the fat hole in the middle! Those records were the staple of both the radio control rooms and the home record players owned by every teen ager in America.

Radio DJs loved 45s because they can be picked up by one hand without touching the playing surface. This is important because getting fingerprints on the grooves invited dust and other pollutants to gather there and make noise when played. One of the other advantages of single handed manipulation was that it was possible to place a record on the turntable and drop the needle on the outermost edge of the record at the same time while talking on the air. This happened more that you would think because no matter how prepared one was, there was always a time or two during an air shift when you had to scramble to get a record on.

Like most stations of the day, we utilized a clock wheel to select the music we played. Ours was very simple, there were only 3 rules; play a fast paced song or kicker after the news on the hour and the headlines on the half hour, play an oldie after the weather at quarter till and quarter past the hour and never play two female artists or instrumentals back to back. Other than that, our DJs were allowed to play any song from the top 40 or the 10 or so records in the “up and coming file”. We kept the top forty in a wire record rack on the left side console desk, records were in the rack in order, with the number one song at the front and the number 40 in the rear. The up and coming file was kept a stack of paper sleeves on the right side of the desk and the oldies in an old teletype paper box on the floor in front of the cart machines. All was in place and in order.

Because the songs were in a specific order, we had the opportunity to create one of the most popular programming elements on the station, the “Instant 40 Request.” When the jingle announcing the instant request hit the airwaves, the telephone lines would instantly jam up with listeners trying to be the one to pick the next song. We would put them on the air, find out a little about them and then ask them what they would like to hear. As soon as they told us their choice, we would play another jingle that said “Here it comes,” then immediately play their choice.

The way that we made that work was to answer one of the blinking telephone lines, and find out what they wanted to hear, while the jingle was playing, find the record and queue it up on the turntable. Then as the jingle ended, we would go on the air with the listener. That way we knew what the listener wanted to hear before we actually put them on the radio. This could have been done only with the 45 rpm records, there was not enough time to find a cut on a 33 ½ rpm album and queue it up. The DJ had to have a good knowledge of the order of the songs on the top 40 to be able to find it in time. Of course, working 5 hour air shifts 6 days a week made it pretty easy to keep up with where the songs were on the list.

The other thing that was important was the trust between the DJ and the listener. The DJ had to trust the listener to use appropriate language on the radio. There was no digital delay system that could be used to drop out the offensive language. We actually used a radio to hear what was going on. So we heard what was going on the air at the same time it was going on the air. Looking back on it, I was pretty lucky, no one ever busted me, some of my fellow DJs weren’t so lucky. The DJ also had to trust that the listener would not change the song once between the time he found out what they wanted to hear and when he went on the air with the listener. I must have played thousands of instant requests during those days and not one of my listeners changed their songs. One or two forgot which song they wanted to hear. When that happened, I would say, “Let me see if I can guess what you wanted to hear.” It worked every time.

There was one group that did not like the “Instant 40,” the phone company. So many people would try to call the station when the jingle came on that sometimes the entire telephone exchange would jam up and they would have to get their engineers to unblock the jam. The kids in the audience loved it because they discovered that they could talk to each other between the beeps of the busy signal. Friendships were forged between people who would have never met any other way. I happen to know that one or two of those friendships led to marriages. So I guess you can say that we had social media before social media was cool. Oh MY!

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