Sunday, February 1, 2015

Did you ever go to a radio "remote"?

“Remotes” is the word that broadcasters apply to a show that originates somewhere else than the main control room or in the case of television, the studio. My first remote happened back in 1963 when we dropped a wire out the studio window at WUSC and did a record show from the patio of the Russell House Student Union below. Remotes used to be a big part of radio back in the day. Indeed in the heyday of remote broadcasting, many radio stations had regularly scheduled music show remotes five or six days a week usually from a local drive in restaurant. The restaurants were not the only locations for remotes; we did them from car dealerships, department stores, parades and festivals even from the State Fair.

Remotes back in the day were a far cry from the cell-phone based remotes you see today. These days the air personality calls in every fifteen to thirty minutes or so and delivers a minute long infomercial touting the retailer’s merchandise, while the board operator or the automation system plays other commercials and music from the studio. In our day, we hauled out audio boards, turntables, amplifiers, cartridge tape players, microphones and cables and built a mini studio in a window-front or a display of our sponsor. Connected to the station via telephone lines, we spun records, took requests and dedications and talked about our sponsor’s products. There were events where folks came out and noshed on hamburgers and hot dogs grilled on the spot and bought products by the carloads. The on-site audience was a big part of the experience.

Left: Station Operating Log from the Burnside Dodge Remote I remember doing a remote from Burnside Dodge back on June 25, 1966. At that time the dealership was located on the corner of Gervais and Harden Streets near where the bus station is now. We set up an audio mixer with a microphone and a radio receiver with headphones so I could hear what was going on. I had a board operator who handled the pre-recorded commercials and the songs. The remote ran from 1 AM till 6 AM and there were people coming in and out of the dealership all night long. They would give me their requests and every 10 minutes or so, I would call the board operator and give him the list of songs to play next. As one song ended, I would turn on my microphone and start talking. After about 10 seconds or so, the board operator would mix the start of the next song under me and I would walk the song up and hit the “post” where the vocal started. Needless to say, you had to be really familiar with the beginnings of the songs to do that. It was challenging but a lot of fun too.

Later in my career, another remote stands out in my memory, this time in the late 1970s at WIS Radio. We were going to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Riverbanks Zoo, by broadcasting the morning show. Gene McKay was the morning host at that time for the show that started at 6 AM when we signed the station on. I arrived at 4 AM and began setting up the remote gear out in front of the flamingo pond. We had just acquired a MARTI unit. A MARTI was a VHF transmitter that include a 4 input audio board and we had every one of those inputs occupied with a microphone or other audio source. As I was working, I was acutely aware that the security guard and I were the only ones in the entire zoo, except for the animals. About halfway through the set up, I began to feel that someone was watching me. I looked over to the guard station by the main entrance and the guard was sitting with his back to me reading a magazine. Still I could not shake the feeling that someone or something was stalking me.

As I was testing a wireless microphone that was going to be used to interview guests attending the anniversary celebration, I caught a motion out of the corner of my eye. One of the flamingoes had just looked away. It was then that I noticed that every eye of every other flamingo was firmly fixed on me, taking in everything that I was doing. I raised my hand and every eye looked up, I lowered it and every eye looked down. Walked to my right and sure enough they tracked right. Same thing happened when I moved to the left. I had caught my stalker, a group of Flamingos. In case you are interested a group of flamingos is called a stand. Sure enough they were all standing there, most on one leg keeping their eyes on me. The reason you don’t normally see this at the zoo is that there are usually a lot of things for flamingos to watch during zoo hours. It was a bit creepy and I never saw flamingos the same way again. Yes, I remember Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds!”

Last Friday, remotes ran full circle for me. I showed the student DJs at WUSC-FM how to set up a MARTI unit and transmit a music show from the patio of the Russell House outdoor stage just a 100 feet from where I did my first radio remote, ever! As DJ Trouble and “The Dude” (who is certainly not a “dude”) played their music, interviewed candidates for Student Body President and talked with passer’s by in my mind’s eye I could see the faces of all my friends back in ’63 bringing the radio station out to their audience for everyone to see. As they were breaking the gear down and carrying it back to the station after the show, I smiled at the excited chatter about what just happened and realized that they had an experience that many a broadcaster who came on the scene during the last couple of decades never had. A REAL radio remote! Oh MY!

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