Sunday, January 12, 2014

I love live radio!

A bunch of us old time radio DJs got together a couple of weeks ago over lunch, and that naturally led to sharing stories of strange things that happened on the air back in the day. The amazing thing is that some of these stories can be repeated now. So here goes…

I’ll start off with a mild one. Back in the mid 60s, I was working the “All Night Satellite” on WCOS AM. The station was connected to the transmitter via rented telephone lines called “toll lines.” One night as I was in the middle of introducing the next record, suddenly the transmitter went silent. I glanced over to the remote control panel and could tell the transmitter was still on the air. I could hear the hum of power running though the final tubes but nothing was going out. All of a sudden, I could hear an ear splitting “beep beep beep” at what sounded like twice the volume that we used. I immediately shut the transmitter down to protect it as I was trying to figure out what the heck was going on. That sound was vaguely familiar and a moment later I remembered that it sounded exactly like the trace tone used by the phone company to identify pairs of wires in a bundle. After a quick call to the telephone company toll office, the tone was removed and the connection restored and off I went with the rest of the show. I went back on with the song “Road Runner" by Bo Diddley, you know the one, the one that has “beep beep” in it. Well, I thought it was clever at the time.

On another occasion I was sitting in the control room as my best friend Scotty Quick was doing his show in the afternoon. It was storming outside and the transmitter went off the air. In fact both the AM and FM transmitters went down at the same time. The remote control was also dead so we figured out that the power was out at the transmitter site. We still had power at the studio so we called the power company to report it and sat back to wait for them to manage the situation. In the meantime the station owner crashes into the control room to tell us that we were off the air. We told him that we were waiting for the power company to get the power back on at the transmitter. He asked Scotty to announce that we would be back on the air as soon as the power was restored. When Scotty hesitated, the owner reached across him to turn on the microphone and make the announcement himself. He gave us one of those “That’s how you do it, Boys” looks and was half way out of the studio when it dawned on him that his announcement went nowhere. He gave us a sheepish look, shrugged his shoulders and made his way back to his office.

Left: An exciter from a FM Transmitter Sometime after leaving WCOS, I was driving to my new job at WIS – TV one afternoon, while listening to a friend on a local FM station. Suddenly the station went off the air. I realized that only the power amplifiers were down but the part of the transmitter that generated the actual FM signal, the exciter, was still running fine. This meant that if you were within a mile of the station you could still hear it clearly. My buddy, thinking that he was off the air, opened his microphone and said; “Hey – we are off the air, mini-vacation time! Yahoo!” I was only a few blocks from the TV station, so when I got there, I called him on the hot line and said “What do you mean; Hey – we are off the air, mini-vacation time! Yahoo!” There was shocked silence on the other end of the line while he reviewed everything he said into what he thought was a dead microphone. His voice was a bit shaky when he asked if I heard anything that I shouldn’t have. You could hear the relief when I told him that I hadn’t.

My last story is on me. One Sunday night when I was still a part timer, I was doing a hard driving top 40 show on the AM station at the same time that I was doing a classical music show on the FM station. We used the main AM control board to do this with the AM show on the “A” side of the board and the FM show on the “B” side of the same board. This dual use of the board happened only one night a week. The rest of the time the “B” side was not being used. I was in the habit of momentarily flicking the microphone to the “B” side and saying something to check the microphone level just before talking on the AM station.

Me at the WCOS Console at the heart of this story!

By now, I know you can see what happened next. Sure enough, one night right in the middle of Rachmaninoff, Bach, Brahms or something like that, the FM audience was treated to me saying in my full top – 40 projection “Time to rock and roll on a Sunday Evening!”

Thank goodness I had learned not ever to say any words into a microphone that I didn’t want on the air. I can tell you this, I found out that night just how many people listened to that classical music show. The phone was so busy from all the FM listeners calling to tell me what I had done that I could not run a contest or an “Instant 60 Request” for at least an hour.

So today if you are fortunate enough to find a radio station with live DJs instead of automated robotic perfection, listen to that DJ for a while, you will hear something a little different, warts and all. It is not perfect but every time that DJ flips the microphone switch on, he or she is connecting to you in real life. The legacy of all those boo boos down through the ages lives in that connection, there is an excitement that comes from the risk of making a mistake or in my case “having a senior moment” on the air that makes it all special, makes it all real! Oh MY!

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