Sunday, February 9, 2014

Listen, I think one of the machines is breathing

I ran into an old broadcasting buddy last week who had left the business back in the early 70s. He had not set foot into a radio control room since then and he was curious about the changes in them since then. I thought about it for a moment and summed it up with: “You know, nothing moves in a studio anymore.”

When I did my first radio show the studio was filled with turntables and reel to reel tape recorders. Back in those days, something had to move to make music; a record turning under a phonograph needle or a tape passing over a set of heads. Because those old turntables took a couple of turns to come up to speed, we had to hold the edge of the record still with our fingertips until the turntable reached 45 RPM before releasing it. That technique was called “slip queuing”, and was not easy to master. These days, it is totally irrelevant, not needed any more.

We didn’t even have cart machines back then. Cart machines were the first innovation to hit radio broadcasting during my career. The easiest way to describe a cart machine is to say it is almost the same as an 8 track tape, but with only one track. Actually it had three tracks left channel, right channel and a cue channel that had tones on it to tell the machine where to stop so the next recording on the tape was ready to play at the push of a button. Man, when cart machines came along and we no longer had to load each commercial tape on a reel to reel machine, a very time consuming process, we thought we were in hog heaven. When cart machines came into control rooms a lot of motion left; because all the turning, slipping and sliding was inside the cart and machine hidden from view.

Cart machines were the beginning of the end for turntables. It was so much easier to record all the songs you needed onto carts and then play them on the air. No more slip queuing necessary. Another labor saving advance; disk jockeys no longer jockeyed disks, at least for a little while. Soon many radio control rooms were all carts. I have seen some control rooms with up to 9 carts in them, three “triple decker” machines. Placement of the cart machines was important as you needed to mask the distinctive “thunk” of the machine’s pinch roller slamming the tape against the moving capstan as the machine started. There was a very interesting instance of the “all cart” control room in the 60s, that was Radio Caroline, the pirate radio station housed on a ship in the English Channel off the coast of Great Brittan beaming rock and roll to a nation starving for it because the BBC would not broadcast it back in those days. Carts were a necessity in a control room listing back and forth in the ocean currents on “The Boat That Rocked.”

Sony first publicly demonstrated an optical digital audio disc in September 1976. This event would have the biggest impact on radio station control rooms than any other technology; digital audio had arrived. At first, disk jockeys went back to jockeying disks, compact disks instead of vinyl. CD players replaced the few turntables left in the control rooms. Then computers replaced both the CD players and disk jockeys as more and more stations automated. Today’s stations may contain one CD player and an emergency pre-recorded CD that can be put on the air in the rare occurrence that the automation computer fails or needs maintenance.

Even the few stations that still have live DJs are still run mostly with computers. The automation system will play two or three songs intermixed with sweepers or commercials and pause every 15 minutes or so with a “stop break” where the live DJ does his or her thing and clicks the mouse to start the automation operating in “DJ assist” mode again. The music choices are made by the automation often programmed by the corporate music directors in their headquarters office thousands of miles away. So now, we have reached the sad state where, for most of the broadcast day, there is nothing moving in the radio control room, not even a mouse.

The radio station on which I do a show every Monday morning is an exception to all of that. The goal of the station is to have live DJs on 24/7. It has two turntables and three CD players and a very large library that has over 20,000 CDs and vinyl albums lining the walls. There are two racks of CDs, one over the CD players to the left of the console and one in the window sill behind the DJ. There are two computer screens to the right, one for the automation which is the source of the public service announcements, promos and station liners and the other that connects to the internet so the DJ can research the music, get the weather and other facts that he or she wants to share with their audience. Since my music comes from my own library and not the station’s, rather than lugging in a bunch of 45s, I bring a laptop full of music files, set it up on the copy stand over the console and connect to the auxiliary input on the board. So I have finally capitulated to the onslaught of the computers. The only thing that moves in my control room is me. Oh MY!

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