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.