Sunday, April 13, 2014

Did you ever visit a radio station “remote” broadcast?

Back in the day, radio stations often originated programs outside their studios. These were called “remotes” in the industry. Remotes came in many forms; some were music shows where the disk jockey went to a sponsor’s location and did his or her record show right out there in the middle of a live audience, others were broadcasts of sports events at the football stadium, baseball diamond or courtside where the play by play and color announcers brought the athletic event home to the listeners. But this is not about sports broadcasts; it is about the music remotes.

Left: Woody Windham, program director at WCOS, Columbia SC doing a sidewalk remote in Five Points, Circa 1967. Note the audio board on the table to his right. If you didn’t attend a radio station music remote back in the day, your chance of seeing one is pretty slim these days. There are some special remotes such as the radio-thons done for children’s hospitals involving long hours and lots of DJs. But most remotes these days are done by a second announcer calling in over a cell phone to break into a music show that is coming from an automation system, or during certain day parts, a music show hosted by a live DJ doing “stop breaks” among strings of songs assembled by the automation system. “Keep moving, not much to see here, break it up!” Yawn! You get to meet a DJ and chat with him or her but you can’t really watch the magic happen.

Record show remotes back in the day were much cooler than the cell phone remotes today. Most of the time, the DJ is there in the car dealer showroom or on the sidewalk in front of the drug store. Accompanying him is a small audio console, a microphone and headphones, a radio and a telephone. These remotes were designed for audience participation. The DJ would be there entertaining and introducing records. If you were lucky, he would thrust the microphone in front of your face and ask you your name. And there you would be, in front of God and everybody enjoying your fifteen minutes of fame. There was the crowd, and the DJ was in your element and your voice was going out over the air for the whole world to hear. They were exciting and relatively expensive to put on, requiring all that gear and either a radio or special land line connection back to the station, but they really paid off for the sponsor by bringing a lot of people into their place of business.

For the DJ these simple remotes were the most challenging. All they had was a program log to let them know how many commercials they had each half hour and a telephone to talk to the board operator back at the station to coordinate if things got messed up. The board operator had the power over the music as he or she got to pick the songs. When the song started, if there was an instrumental intro, the board operator would leave the remote line up on the console so the announcer in the field could determine the song from the first few notes and then introduce it. That meant the DJ had to be pretty familiar with the station’s playlist. Sometimes the board operator would try to “stump the DJ” by playing songs that were all new to the playlist. I can tell you that usually resulted in a terse phone call back to the station.

Left: Hugh Munn doing a WNOK remote in a small remote control room at Gene's Pig and Chick on Blossom Street in Columbia, SC. Curca 1968. The “Big Kahunas” of music remotes were the ones where a small control room was built on the sponsor’s premises complete with audio board, turntables and cart machines. These were usually semi permanent in nature and became fixtures of the teen-aged social scene of the “American Graffiti” generation. Almost always they were set up at local drive in restaurants and rock and roll, requests and dedications would flow along with the hot dogs and French fries. All the Richard Dreyfuss , Ron Howards, Cindy Williams and Harrison Fords of our generation were in hog heaven. Cruisin’ was the thing to do and in our town, many cars made their way between the two remote broadcasts every night filled with kids drinking cokes and making memories spiced up with laughter and rock and roll.

I really miss those old music show remotes. They were fun to listen to, with the interaction with the live on scene audience and the energy that the DJ got from being in the middle of it. They were even more fun to do for the DJ, who was no longer isolated from the audience, relying only on phone calls to gauge how well he or she was doing. Maybe someday, they will come back to the airwaves. We can only hope! Oh MY!

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