Radio Rewind - A Look Back Through the Lava Lamp

by Mike Harrison

If you wanted to get into radio badly enough, you listened to your favorite station(s) intently, took it all as gospel—how radio was done—and later mimicked what you’d heard when you “played” radio station. College radio, if involved in it, strengthened your desire until you landed your first job. Now, you’re in it. It’s a daily thing, and probably most everything you do is second nature.

But if you ever wondered how it got to where it is now, consider that radio has changed, but at the same time, it hasn’t changed. Here’s what I mean: radio’s longtime partner has been popular music; they evolved together. Popular music has always been a staple of radio programming, and songs playing on the radio really sell albums and CDs. So, more than a generation after radio began playing the popular music of the time, it’s still doing just that, but because the style of the music has changed, radio has had to change they way in which it presents the music. It’s a natural progression: the music we love today evolved out of the music of yesterday. As music (and other forms of programming) changes with society’s tastes, radio does as well, in the manner in which the programming is served.

But, in addition to keeping up with the music, radio has also had to keep up with the ever-changing technology. What is now semi- or fully-automated digital (hard drive) on-air playback, and 20-track digital audio workstations in production, was at one time 2 turntables and a couple of cart machines (all of which worked if you were lucky) in the air studio. And for production you had a 2-track tape machine (two of them, if the company had bucks), 2 turntables and a cart recorder (ok, maybe a player, too). Just a TWO-track tape machine? Yes, mono production for local radio rarely required more than that. These were the early years of STEREO, that wacky new hi-fi thing, and the FM band was barely being used commercially. And digital? A word unknown by most at that time. Heck, we hadn’t even been to the moon yet, for crying out loud. And, what in blazes is a zip code?

So, for those who don’t know what it’s like to warm-up a tape machine, slip-cue a record, or make a “network join” by back-timing an instrumental into a PSA and then reading a live promo before hitting the ID in time to make the join… this is for you.

Just imagining the terror of your alarm clock not going off on time was enough to keep you awake nights during your first weeks as Morning Show host on your local radio station. Getting up at 4:30am meant going to sleep at 8:30pm, so who knew what a social life was? But you did it for your new love. Radio.

Still half-asleep after showering, and guided the last step of the way by the slowly blinking tower lights, you make your way down the long dusty road (the origin, I’m convinced, of many radio personalities’ pseudonym) to the station. Swinging into the parking lot, your headlights illuminate the early morning fog in the tower field. The damp, sweet, earthy spring air is a little crisp as you walk briskly toward the front door. Now decidedly awake, you’re getting “up” for the show. Your mind chugging away on points of possible interest. There were none of today’s “show prep” services, no Internet…and, oh yeah, no partner; you did the morning show solo. This was local radio in the ‘60s.

Now, just as when Dorothy’s house landed in Oz, there is a transformation. As you pull open the door, the undisturbed early morning rural chorus is replaced by the abrupt chatter and static from police radios and the rhythmic rat-a-tat of the teletype machine(s) from the newsroom down the hall. The musk of the dew laden grass dissolves into the drier workplace scent of cheap carpeting, oily office machines, pencil shavings, and Spray-Nine cleaner.

Hanging up your jacket, you switch on a few lights as you head back toward the transmitter room. Putting a new page up on the log clipboard and signing in, you hit the transmitter’s FILAMENT button. The big noisy fan cranks up to speed as you walk toward the kitchenette (which is either a small or an effeminate kitchen, I’m not sure which — also consider “drum majorette”). In the days before Mr. Coffee or 24-hour Dunkin Donuts shops, you either cleaned, reassembled and filled a percolator (assuming you knew there was coffee), and then waited 10 minutes or so for it to perk, or you drank instant, then waited for some of the office staff to arrive with some form of solid food.

The next stop was the newsroom. If you weren’t lucky enough to have a newsperson, you’d be thankful that, during the night, neither the teletype paper or ribbon had run out or become jammed. You rip apart the night’s news copy and set aside the items you’ll be needing and then head for the Control Room.

With your news items from the wire and the Program Log in hand, it’s about 5:55 as the dull thump of the heavy studio door tightly closes out the sound from the adjoining area. The soundproofing gives the studio a hushed and dignified aura, a room where “official business” takes place. The heavily insulated walls retain the unmistakable scent, “Eau de Radio,” comprised of the scintillating aroma of hundreds of record albums and tapes inside their cardboard jackets; the reel to reel machine, with its vacuum tube electronics, heating a new full reel of tape already threaded up. Of course, the console had its share of hot vacuum tubes too, and when all of this was punctuated by the energizing scent of freshly brewed coffee, it created the air of professional broadcasting.

Taking your seat at the console, you might occasionally turn the air monitor way up and, because you haven’t signed on yet, faintly hear skip signals from other stations on the same frequency… is this one in Kansas? There’s no time to find out, so you turn the monitor back down. Now making sure, in cue, that the Network feed is good, it’s about 5:58 as you pull the sign-on cart from the rack, slap it into the Tapecaster, pull its handle forward, and pot it up on the board. You cue up the first record, check the clock, and decide you have time to cue up the second song as well. Now about a minute before six, you reach up to the transmitter’s remote rack and punch PLATE ON. The meters light up and swing into position. Nudging the power up till you reach normal, you enter your first hour’s transmitter readings.

Now 05:59:30, the network feed is silent. At :40, they’ll send a tone burst. Will the clock be accurate? The :40 tone starts at :43; the clock is 3 seconds fast. The tone is out at :53, then, at 06:00:03 you hit the sign-on cart. For the next four to five hours, you’re ambassador, entertainer and informer to the community, and you’ve just invited thousands of people into your home. “It’s about a minute past 6. Good morning… and, you’re up early today; glad you could join me…”

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