Sunday, July 2, 2017

Memories of July 4th on the air!

Do you remember back in the day, when everything shut down for Independence Day? There was very little retail activity in the city, grocery stores, department stores, office buildings and banks were tightly shuttered. Even most gas stations were closed, surrendering the holiday sales to those stations that stayed open to support those families driving to the lake or the beach or to grandma’s house.

Even though our sponsors were mainly closed, the radio and television stations where I worked stayed open with a skeleton staff. Well, maybe not a skeleton staff but I was pretty skinny back in those days. Unlike modern radio stations, that rely on computer automation and transmitters that control themselves, we had to have a live DJ to spin the records, play commercials and keep the transmitters on the air. That meant that all but the most senior DJs, also known as program directors took their turns at holiday shifts. These were often longer than our usual 5 to 6 hour long shifts. Some stations even ran their DJs over 12 hour long holiday shifts.

We were much busier when we were on the air back then; selecting and playing the records and commercials, running the transmitter and oh yes – talking between each record. That was the 50’s – 60’s and early 70s radio experience. Some stations allowed the DJ to segue from a record to a jingle and then to another record as long as there was a production element between each song. Not mine, every station I worked for expected the DJ to interject his or her personality between every pair of songs. So after the normal 5 to 6 hour show we were pretty bushed. After a 12 hour holiday shift, one could hardly crawl out of the control room and drive home to bed.

Most of my co-workers and I didn’t mind the longer holiday shifts because we were alone in the station with nobody to bother us. No salesman running in with a last minute change to commercial copy. No traffic person making changes to the log upsetting the plan you had for the current half hour’s spot breaks. Even the phone line quietened down as a large part of the audience was listening from their cars. Yes, these were the days before cell phones and instant communication from everywhere.

Holiday shifts presented the DJ with another opportunity. Instead of playlists being tightly controlled by the corporate programmers of today, the play rules were pretty simple back then. You could select any song from the top 40 or the up and coming list. Play a golden oldie after the weather at 15 minute after and before the hour, kick off the segment after the news with a “kicker” or high energy song, and don’t play two instrumentals or songs by female artists back to back. Other than that were free to musically program our shows the way we wanted, given the input to the choices coming from requests. The program directors and music directors of the station usually relaxed these rules to accommodate the DJs working long shifts in order to help us keep our energy up. In my later on air career that meant mixing in album tracks much longer than the usual 2 ½ to 3 ½ minute 45 rpm record.

These longer records also helped us when we had to grab a bite of lunch from the lunchbox, the delivery guy, or the friend who ran a hamburger, fries and milk shake by the station mid shift. All this eating and drinking led to other activities that took longer than the usual top 40 song. We had creative ways of managing that too. For example; in 1968 Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart wrote a song for The Monkees. “Valleri” was only 2 minutes and 16 seconds long. It was hot, climbing up the charts peaking at number 3. So my buddy Scotty Quick and I took it into the production studio recorded it to tape a couple of times and after passing grease pencil and razor blades over it a few times, we had a nice “bio-break” song a little over 5 minutes long. Whew, just long enough.

I used to love to listen to my co-workers as well as the DJs at the stations that competed with us during the “bleary eyed” portions of these long holiday shifts. It was a treat listening to a professional ply his or her trade under less than ideal conditions. That was when mistakes were made and the exciting part of that was listening to how the DJ recovered from those mistakes. Anyone can do a “stop break” once every 10 to 15 minutes after the automation has segued songs, liners and commercials all by itself. The old school DJs who are still on the air will be the first to tell you that.

So as I was planning my Fourth of July special, which will air on July 3rd this year, I was thinking of reviving an old gimmick of playing songs that had red, white or blue in their song titles or artist listing. That hasn’t been done in a while. NOT! Yesterday afternoon, the legendary Lou Simon, the DJ on Sirius’ “60s on 6” did just that! You beat me to it Lou, but a great gimmick can go a long way. So tomorrow, you wait and see what I do on WUSC-FM. Oh MY!

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