Sunday, July 21, 2013

Let’s break up the news guy

Somewhere in my digital files, I have a recording of David Brinkley reading a long complicated story on NBC radio back in the 60s. The story was so convoluted that eventually David broke up so badly he could barely complete the story and pitch to a commercial. If you think this is an isolated event from live radio, consider the long suffering news announcer at a top 40 radio station. I’ll just say that the things they did to Les Nessman on the TV show “WKRP in Cincinnati” were not as outlandish as they may seem.

When WKRP was on the air, radio was on the cusp of a sea state change where a closely knit group of live DJs and news announcers were the core of many stations’ air presence across the country. These “air staffs” had a fire in their bellies for the music, their station and the competition against the other stations. This often led to hi jinks on and off the air.

Within the air staffs there were two conflicting cultures. The news reader was the serious type, conscientiously gathering the news, preparing his or her newscasts and reading the news straight up, or at most a bell or echo to emphasize the dateline of each story. No jokes, just the facts, Ma’am, that’s the news and only the news. This was serious business. However, this was almost more than the irreverent, fun loving DJ could take. Something had to be done to “spice up” the newscasts, and that made the news announcer the target of all the in-studio pranks.

Sometimes, the audience was in on the prank. Back in that day “toilet water” was another name for cologne. Working up to the newscast at the bottom of the hour, one of my buddies, working from a remote location, complained that his head had been hurting all evening. Just before pitching to the news, he explained the reason for the headache. “Just before leaving for the station, I went to get some toilet water for my hair, and the lid fell on me… and now here is the news!” Needless to say the news guy, who was alone in the station, lost it on the air. Crude, yes, but was effective.

In studio pranks on the newscaster that were not detectible by the listeners were common. Some of them included stealing the news copy just before news time, lighting fire to the bottom of the copy, scribbling jokes and funny pictures in the margins of the copy. Ticking the announcer while he was on the air was occasionally done but not consider fair in the rules of the game; that was cheating. One DJ stood on the air chair where the newsman could see him from the other studio and did the wildest “air guitar” routine that he could come up with, complete with the omnipresent Beatle wig. He got the desired effect, a chuckle.

There were times when it was considered inappropriate to break up the newscaster. When reading stories about some disaster or the death of some famous person, the news reader could relax. We always honored those times by declaring them off limits to the game. We would say to one-another “Cool it, He’s got death!” as a signal that we should leave the news man alone.

Mike Rast was our news announcer at WCOS, he had icewater in his veins! He was such a cool guy who never took issue with our attempts to break him up.

This rather cavalier attitude towards the news did not exist at all the stations for which I worked in my career. One station concentrated on the news and the news department ruled at this one and the DJs knew to leave them alone or face the consequences of a short stay there. Everyone was involved in news gathering. I was the engineer at this station, occasionally filling in on weekends on the air. In times of emergency I would often find myself completely involved in the news process. An example of this was driving around in one of the news cars reporting on the scene of traffic tie ups during a snow storm.

As much fun we had breaking up the news caster, the tables got turned on me early in my career. I was the overnight DJ and as such worked most of my shift alone. That meant that I was responsible for reading the news on the hour and half hour. Because my focus was on the music and being funny and entertaining, my preparations for these newscasts consisted of walking down the hall about 5 minutes before a newscast was scheduled, ripping the latest news off the AP teletype, separating the continuous roll paper into stories and placing them on the edge of the console so they would be handy when news time came. On that fateful night, the tired and overworked keypunch operator for AP did not catch his typo; “An unusual winter storm dropped 4 ½ inches of heavy snot on the Texas panhandle.” Anyone who has worked on the air for a while develops a filter for offensive words, and mine changed the word to snow. But, as I continued to read, it registered on my subconscious that the word was really “snot” and it was all over for me. I started to giggle and recover, then giggle some more. Before I knew it, the microphone was off and I was pounding the console table trying to regain my composure while the station was broadcasting silence, what we called “dead air”. I never finished that newscast, instead punching the commercial cart on the air and laughing my way through an abbreviated weather report before starting the first record of the show. It was two more records before I recovered enough to continue normally. I would like to report that I had learned my lesson, but no, I shared the funny story with my fellow DJs and we continued our incessant attack on the hapless newscasters. what can I say, that was just the way it was back then. Oh MY!

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