I Was a Teenage Radiotelephone Operator

Once, radio disc jockeys were not merely responsible for the show on the air—they were often legally responsible for operating the station’s transmitter. At one time, you needed a third-class radiotelephone operator’s license from the FCC to do that; when I got mine in 1978, you were required to pass a test to get it. By 1979, you had only to fill out a form, and not too many years after that, the license requirement was dropped altogether. It was the operator’s job to take transmitter meter readings every three hours, to make sure the station was operating within legal limits. If the transmitter dropped off the air for some reason, it was the operator’s job to turn it back on. And it was his or her job to turn the transmitter on in the morning and off at night.

The requirement that a transmitter be operated by a live human being was a big reason why, for many years, a lot of radio stations that could have operated 24 hours a day did not. Why pay a guy to sit there all night when the audience is likely to be tiny? But starting about 20 years ago, transmitter technology began to improve, and today, transmitters can tend themselves. If, for some reason, the signal gets out of its legal parameters, the transmitter can adjust automatically, or at the very least, automatically contact an engineer to adjust it. At many stations, when the last shift of the day is over, the last jock need only make sure the station’s auto-pilot is functioning properly before turning off the lights and walking out to the parking lot, leaving the on-air programming to continue, heard in the building only by the cleaning staff and whatever’s growing in the station refrigerator. The likelihood of a finding a sizeable audience on the overnights may not be any greater today than it was a generation ago, but whatever you can get comes cheap.

I suspect I am not the only old radio guy who carries a torch for the process of signing on and signing off. You’d arrive for your shift in the morning and the building would be quiet. You might hear police scanners in the newsroom, or the weather radio, or the news guy himself getting ready for the day, but the monitors in the building would be silent. Transmitters used to require warming up—you’d have to turn the filaments on first and let them run for a few minutes before turning the plates on. The plates were what created the carrier wave on which the programming would be heard. When you turned the plates on, you’d hear a “bump” on the studio monitors with the beginning of the wave. Federal regulations required the operator to log the precise minute at which the carrier came up. How long the carrier would be up before programming went on was left to the operator’s discretion—maybe a few seconds, maybe a couple of minutes, maybe longer. Some stations would simply begin with a station ID announcement, but back in the day, a longer announcement was routine, with call letters, city of license, sometimes the street address of the studios and/or transmitter, the station’s frequency, and the station’s power measured in watts.

At sign-off, the procedure was reversed. Every station I ever worked for had a sign-off announcement similar to the one used at sign-on; although it was common for TV stations to play “The Star-Spangled Banner” at sign-off, it was less common in radio, although some stations did. (I used Jesse Belvin’s “Goodnight, My Love” as the sign-off music at one station I programmed.) Once the audio was finished, you’d turn off the plates to kill the carrier wave, taking care to log the precise time; then, you could turn the filaments off.

From the first day you ever set foot in a radio studio, you’re indoctrinated with the idea that silence—“dead air”—is a bad, bad thing. For that reason, those moments after sign-off always seemed out-of-kilter to me, no matter how often I experienced them. I always tried to get out of the building as quickly as I could, and not just because it was late at night and I wanted to go home. The unnatural silence always seemed spooky to me.

It wouldn’t be long, however, before the morning crew would show up, and start the new day with another “bump.” Today, the jock with the first shift of the day usually steps in to a programming stream that’s already running, which is not the same experience as opening the floodgates yourself. That “bump” in the morning was like announcing your presence to the world—I am DJ, hear me roar.

Recommended Reading: WMMS in Cleveland, during its days as “the Buzzard,” was one of the great album-oriented rock stations, and they had to be one of the few (the only?) with their own resident graphic artist to help create the station’s visual style. Brian Chalmers was his name, and he died over the weekend. Former WMMS staffer Matt Wardlaw of Addicted to Vinyl remembers.

12 thoughts on “I Was a Teenage Radiotelephone Operator

  1. I still have my 3rd Class license. It was a proud moment in my radio career when I passed that test.

    One of my fondest memories was at WSUP. I cranked up the transmitter so that the play-by-play guys in Dubuque could pick up the station’s signal to monitor their broadcast. Fortunately, the FCC wasn’t checking our output. As Bob Uecker might say, it was a bit outside (the guidelines).

  2. Shark

    Ah yes…back in the days when men were men, sheep were sheep, and the FCC actually had minimum standards for broadcasting people.

  3. porky

    indeed something very eerie about a silent radio station after sign-off. The other side of warming up those transmitters was when you overslept (c’mon admit it) and arrived late they seemed to take an ETERNITY to power up.

  4. TCW

    I still carry the torch, although in looking back, the FCC exams had little to do with broadcasting but more with post-WWII electronics theory and two-way radio practices. I took the Third Class test (with Broadcast Endorsement) in my freshman year when the Commish’s examiners used to come to Madison every 3 months. I think the location was the state office building at 1 West Wilson. The next year I rode to St. Paul for the First Class test with some other guys who were also testing.

    I always liked signing on better than signing off. I think it was the carrier’s “bump” defeating the mindless static and reconnecting with whoever might be up at that early hour.

    Once while eating breakfast prior to signing on WSUP I was tuning around the AM dial and can still clearly remember a station looping its unique deep-announcer-voice ID prior to commencing their programming:
    “KWK, Saint Louis. WWWK, Granite City – East Saint Louis.”

  5. Yah Shure

    Aside from Sunday night maintenance, none of the stations I worked at signed off. But being a sign-on/sign-off geek, the next-best thing came at power and/or pattern change times. In my mind, I can still hear the aging relay solenoid in the KOMA transmitter going “Ka-chunk! Ka-chunk! Ka-chunk! Ka-CHUNK!” before *finally* switching contacts at sunset pattern change. It was amazing that something so inconsequential could take that 50,000-watt blowtorch off the air for five, six or seven seconds (which seemed – as Porky said – like an eternity.)

    And yet, once that solenoid was replaced, it never seemed quite the same. Just one “ka-chunk!” and done. Where was the romance in that?! So many of AM radio’s technical quirks made it a unique beast.

  6. jb

    One of my favorite geek stories: I am driving in western Minnesota early one morning listening to an AM oldies station from Winnipeg. In the middle of a record I hear the audio cut out for a second and distort–then, in the middle of the song, the jock comes on and says, “Good morning, western North America.”

    I realized instantly that what I’d heard was the morning pattern change–and I thought I might be the only person listening who knew what had just happened.

  7. bean

    Very accurate description of that feeling of unnatural silence at the end of the day. It seemed quieter than quiet.

    Once I got to sign on a new format, which was extra awesome. It was WBEY, a 3000 watt daytimer in eastern Maryland which was going country. I got to be the first disc jockey and drove over that morning with all the music on carts in my trunk, plus all the paperwork and signage for the studio.

    It was momentous to me but I bet there were zero people listening at sing-on.

    Bean

  8. John G.

    Sadly, somehow my original 3rd class license disappeared in a move over the years. Somewhere, I still have the credit card sized FCC license from Gettysburg.

    Never admitted this before, but Element 9 gave me grief. Had to take it a couple times to pass completely. I remember, in 1978, getting a waiver from the FCC to take it a 3rd time. The waiver made me realize what the FCC was doing. Every few months, the tests given had rearranged/deleted/added questions. I recognized the test I had taken before and passed it finally.

  9. Musicradio

    I added a link to this story on my Face Book page. Many of my older freinds in radio left their comments and it truly was a great thing to have passed that test and got a job on the air.

    I still have my license and maybe I should put it in a frame and stick it on the wall — we’ll never see those pieces of paper mean anything important again.

  10. JP

    Thanks for the radio memories jolt! Originally from Cleveland myself, our family used to summer on Cape Cod (where I now live). I used to listen to WMVY as it was the hippest station back then and they used to always play The Beatles – Good Night before sign off. I always wondered why some nights after the final “godnight” I would hear static, while other nights it was just silent for various lengths of time before the static kicked in.

    When I got my first commercial radio job in ’79, at WKXL in Concord, NH, I had to run the sign off and shut down both the AM & FM transmitters as the station ran both, FM was to be shut down 1st then AM. (AM was live, primarily CBS news features and live reports with music being almost incidental and the FM was the old fashioned reel to reel music automated system) Anyway, my first shut down answered my old MVY question. There was the same eerie silence from the monitors while I took care of the FM transmitter and changed reels for the morning, but the revelation came when I hit the switch on the AM transmitter and… voila, static! I realized the time diference for the arrival of the static at MVY was probably the night jock taking care of other business before shutting down the transmitter. Mystery solved!
    One of my first, “Oh my God, I hope the program director wasn’t listening” experiences happened at that station. I was working the night the story about Richard Pryor catching on fire came across the wire. As I was reading the story, my vivid imagination kicked in and filled my mind with an image of Richard doing one of his bits about a ‘scared brother’ running and screaming. Well I started to chuckle and then, as the image wouldn’t go away, I started to laugh. I tried to keep reading while trying to hold back my laughter… needless to say I didn’t do too well with that and barely finished reading the story before dumping, early, to a spot break… with extra PSA’s as I could not stop laughing, even though I was also worried it would get back to the P.D. Oh well, even Richard made fun of that incident later so I doubt he would have been offended!
    Later in my radio ‘career’ I nearly got fired for a way too ‘blue’ intro to a song. I went from Olivia Newton-John & Travolta’s – One That I Want into Dexy’s Midnight Runners by saying, “Here’s a new song with the answer to the question, What’s better than grease on Olivia Newton-John?”. I no sooner turned off the mike when the ‘hot line’ phone’s wall light (remember those!) went off. Yep, it was my PD who simply said, “cheeky and subtle is OK, but the next time you do ‘blue’ you’re through!” and hung up. Ouch!
    I only just stumbled onto your Blog while surfing about and have you bookmarked for future reading. Excellent work and I couldn’t agree with many of your sentiments more! About radio licences as well as the death of real news. Thanks for a great read, I’ll pop in again in the future I’m sure…. and maybe I’ll drag out my old WMMS buzzard shirt this week in memory of Brian Chalmers!

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