Arrivals and Departures

Odds and ends in the wake of the weekend. . . .

First: I met the newest program director in our group yesterday: John Sebastian. No, not that one—the other one. The radio John Sebastian is one of the great programmers in the industry, with stints at KHJ in Los Angeles and KDWB in Minneapolis during the 1970s, his own highly successful consultancy in the 80s, and later forays into country radio, which is what’s brought him to Madison, to program Q106, after recent gigs in Dallas, Chicago, and Phoenix. As a young program director back in the day, I paid close attention to what Sebastian said and did. I’m interested in seeing what he does with Q. That a group like ours could land a guy like him says two things: First, our group is considered something special by industry bigshots, and second, the raging corporate homogenization of radio has left few attractive places for programmers of Sebastian’s skills and reputation to nest.

Second: My Internet pal Pat posted a note on Facebook over the weekend lamenting the demise of the “radio vacation,” when part of summertime travel was checking out the local radio stations along the way. The Mrs. and I made a trip to southern Indiana this past weekend, one we’ve made many times in the last 17 years, and I can tell you that it was a 20+ CD trip there and back. We didn’t turn the radio on for a second, not even to ESPN on Sunday afternoon, as I’ll sometimes do when we’re traveling. Now perhaps I missed some local station down there that is doing wonderful work swimming against the tide of sameness that’s swamped the industry—but that’s not the way to bet.

Last: This blog had a brief acquaintance with Bill Vermillion, who was music director at WLOF in Orlando during its adventuresome days in the 1960s. I learned over the weekend that Bill died in May of 2008—which is something I feared after I stopped hearing from him and his website went down, although the journalistic quality of this blog is such that I didn’t check it out for myself. Thanks to Dan Kelley for sending this obit along.

Up to News Time

One of the many skills radio jocks used to have (a skill not needed much anymore) is the ability to back-time. In days of yore, stations often carried a national network newscast at the top of an hour—say 12 noon. Listeners would hear the last record of the hour end within a few seconds of 12:00. This did not happen by accident—the jock on the air had to make it happen. That’s back-timing.

Imagine that you are playing your last commercial break of the hour, and you know that it will end at 11:52:00. This means you have eight minutes to fill before the network news at 12:00:00. So you have to divide up the clock in your head to fill those last eight minutes. The easiest way would be to play two four-minute records, although those used to be rare—you might find yourself playing two records of about 2 1/2 minutes each and another that runs about three. If the format you’re running dictates that you must play a jingle, sweeper, or promotional spot between songs, you’ll have to account for those in your timing.

You’ll often have a little bit of wiggle room in your timing. If you’re going to run long, you can cut a few seconds by fading your songs a bit early. This will be less noticeable if you have chosen songs that end with a fade—fading early out of a song that has a cold ending is the radio equivalent of letting the seams show.

To back-time successfully, it’s critical that the timing listed on the record’s label be accurate. Sometimes it isn’t. (Phil Spector famously labeled “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'” by the Righteous Brothers at 3:05 because he feared that if radio stations knew its real length, 3:40, they might have been less likely to play it.) And even when the label timing is closer to being right, it might not be exact. It might say 3:05, but that might not be 3:05 that a jock can use. It might be 3:05 from the start of the record to the last iota of sound before the groove is blank, but the amount of music at a decent level for broadcast might run only to 2:50 or so—and a back-timing jock needs to know that. Some stations would time records by hand to make sure the timing was exact.

The goal in back-timing is to get within a few seconds of the top of the hour, leaving you enough time to give your station identification or news introduction or whatever you have to do. It sounds best when the last record has a cold ending—and the very best is what’s known as a cold fade, a definite ending but one in which the final notes linger a bit. (Think “Something” by the Beatles, for example.) Then you can give your ID over the last notes, and they fade away to nothing just as the network broadcast begins. More often, however, you would simply fade the music yourself as you hit the network broadcast, and that’s fine, as long as the fade occurs at or near the point where the record would normally fade. (Again, to do otherwise is to let the seams show.)

Every veteran jock has used instrumentals to back-time. You’d do this when you couldn’t find the right combination of songs, or if you didn’t feel like doing math that day. You could fade out of the instrumental anytime you needed to. This is the origin of the DJ phrase, “Taking us up to news time, here’s Mason Williams.” Or Lenny Dee or Henry Mancini or the Hollyridge Strings or whatever was in the stack of instrumentals kept in the studio exclusively for back-timing purposes. I always think of Floyd Cramer’s 1960 hit “Last Date” as the ultimate “taking us up to news time” record. I must have heard it used that way a million times growing up, and it wasn’t until I got into radio myself that I even knew the title of it.

Mighty few stations have network broadcasts to hit anymore, however, so back-timing is a lost art (and it is indeed an art). But it’s an art every decent jock used to practice frequently, often once an hour and occasionally more. My greatest moment in back-timing came on the afternoon following the start of the Persian Gulf War in 1991. My station stopped carrying ABC Radio’s wall-to-wall war coverage and went back to music, but we carried ABC updates every 10 minutes. So for six solid hours that day, I back-timed to six network broadcasts every hour.

(DJ beats chest, yells like Tarzan.)

Recommended Reading: David Cantwell of Living in Stereo on Michael Jackson’s loneliness.

“Last Date”/Floyd Cramer (buy it here)
“Mr. Lucky”/Henry Mancini (buy it here)

I Was a Teenage Radiotelephone Operator, Again

My post on Monday about radio-station sign-ons and sign-offs, and about once having a third-class radiotelephone operator’s license, generated lots of comments. Until the readers mentioned it, I’d completely forgotten that most people who took the FCC’s test for a third-class license took a three-part test. The parts were called “elements.” If you passed elements 1 and 2, you could operate the dispatcher’s radio at a taxi service, but if you were going to be on a broadcast station, you also had to pass element 9, the broadcast endorsement. It was the hardest part, as John G. said—lots of technical stuff, like how to calculate the station’s power, the rules for the Emergency Broadcast System, what to do if the lights on the antenna tower went out, that kind of thing. Lots of people passed elements 1 and 2 but flunked 9, which meant that you had to take the whole thing again.

I got my “third phone,” as it was known, during my first semester at college. I took a four-week prep class offered through the university, and by the first of November 1978, I was ready to take the test. But it wouldn’t be offered at the Federal Building in Madison until December, and I didn’t want to wait. So I scrounged around to find another location, and ended up going to Rock Island, Illinois, to take it. The memory is pretty vivid, still—my father had just bought a new truck and he wanted to take it on a road trip, so one fine November Saturday we took the 2-1/2 hour ride through northwestern Illinois to Rock Island, where I took the test. It had been years since I had spent much time alone with my dad. I can still remember the small-town diner lunch we shared that day, as well as the smile I got from the guy who told me I’d passed.

The official FCC certificate came in the mail a couple of weeks later. In those days, operators were required to post their licenses in the studio where they worked, so like my college colleagues, I framed mine, and I hung it proudly in the studio of our campus station until I got a part-time job in Dubuque. I moved it to the KDTH studio then, and posted a copy at the college station. That was a status symbol of a sort, as only a few of us had what we called “commercial” radio jobs. And speaking of status symbols, a status gulf quickly developed between those of us who had been required to take a test to be on the radio and those who had not. By the time The Mrs. got to school in 1979, the testing requirement had been abolished. You could, as we derisively put it, “send in your box tops” and get a third phone. (Sometime in the 80s, even that requirement was abolished.)

At our campus station, we still required prospective operators to pass a test after the FCC test was dropped. One guy who failed the test claimed that it was racist, which was an interesting take on reality; if there was anything unfair about the test, it was probably the question that asked how to check the tower lights. Our tower wasn’t tall enough, so it didn’t have lights. It wasn’t long before we dropped our testing requirement, too. And as my college years went by, jocks who had taken the FCC’s third-class test became scarcer and scarcer. While I can’t rule out the ancient prejudice of the old against the young—you kids get off my lawn—it seemed to me that the jocks coming up behind me did not consider being on the air as great a privilege as my “generation” had. It’s no wonder, really. Something you have earned is more valuable than something you are given.

I am pretty sure my original third-class certificate is around here somewhere—I would never have discarded such an important document. And I still have the little pocket-sized card I received after my original license expired and I sent in my own box tops for a renewal. It’s hanging on the side of the fridge right now.

Recommended Reading: At Living in Stereo, Charles Hughes notes the passing of Barry Beckett, a musician whose work you’ve heard, and whose story you should know.

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.

Another One Gone and Another One Gone

There was another earthquake in the radio biz yesterday, one that’s being felt by literally millions of current and former broadcasters everywhere: Radio and Records, one of the industry’s most famous weekly publications, is going out of business effective immediately.

R&R, as it was known, was all things to all radio people. It was a news magazine that reported the comings and goings of jocks, executives, and other important radio and music-industry people, the sale of stations and station groups, and anything else that had an impact on the business. It published comprehensive and influential record charts for a multiplicity of formats—only a handful of stations had the honor of reporting their airplay statistics to R&R; everybody else followed their lead. And it featured a comprehensive listing of job openings, and for most jocks, the job section was the most important part. I got two full-time jobs through ads I saw in R&R (although I gave one of them back). One of my Facebook friends remembered yesterday that management at one station he worked for would remove the job listings from R&R before circulating it to the jocks. I also placed a looking-for-work ad in R&R at least once. I don’t think I actually said “good prod, tight board, no drifter” (a phrase some of you will instantly understand, while others will not), but many did.

Once, R&R was part of a troika of publications you had to read every week. The Gavin Report was a more programming-centric magazine, a bare-bones pamphlet-style publication in blue ink with no ads. In my files, I still have a couple of articles about the craft of on-air work that I copied from Gavin. It went out of business in 2002. Friday Morning Quarterback, which lives on today, was another. It was focused almost exclusively on music, and when I was reading it regularly, it was written in a breathless, rumor-mongering, exclamation-point-laden style. In the summer of 1980, I got mentioned in FMQB—or my station did, at least. I’d tipped them to the fact that we were playing Queen’s “Dragon Attack” and “Another One Bites the Dust” as a segue, like stations had done with “We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions” a couple of years before, and the editors gave us a single sentence. But since many pages of FMQB were black ink on red paper to forestall copying, I haven’t got any evidence to prove it.

A station generally got its money’s worth with a subscription to R&R—each week’s copy would be circulated to every department in the building. During all my years as a full-timer, it was as much a part of my life as reading transmitter meters and ripping the news wire. But today, the meters read themselves, the wire doesn’t rip anymore, and now, Radio and Records is gone, too. Jerry Del Colliano writes its obituary here.

Other Recommended Reading: At Popdose, Jeff and Jason argue over the merits of late-period Elton John. (I am remaining agnostic on the issue.) And over at WNEW.com, I remember the late Koko Taylor. (Or I plan to, whenever the editors put up my post over there.)

“Dragon Attack”-“Another One Bites the Dust” (segue)/Queen (buy it here)

Think Small

Yesterday I shared the results of a brief and unscientific survey of a handful of radio people I know, with their thoughts on where the next generation of radio talent is going to come from, should the dominant chains in the radio industry carry through with their plans to turn their stations into pipelines for national programming. With fewer and fewer places for jocks to hone their craft, how will the industry stock the talent pool?

A couple of people who responded to my survey believe that the pool will never dry up completely as long as there are stations remaining committed to operating in the public interest, convenience, and necessity—however antiquated that concept seems to the big boys. A current program director says, “The talent [of the future] will come from places where you read the school lunch menu every morning.” In other words, from the surviving small-town stations, wherever they might be. Once, jobs in those places were the ones you took until you could get to a larger market, but today, the West Overshoe Broadcasting Company may well be more reliably committed to its community than the mega-chains. If a jock really wants to serve an audience, he or she is more likely to do so in a smaller market, for a small owner (with a smaller paycheck, alas, but nothing’s perfect).

Another of my survey pals agrees. “Radio’s biggest strength still remains localism. Running more PSAs doesn’t cut it.  With a growing broadband era, it may soon not matter that [Ryan] Seacrest is on the local station when he’s available on so many other stations available to anyone on the Net. Stations need exclusive difficult-to-duplicate content . . . and that includes personalities who can relate to the local market.”

(I don’t know whether you caught the comment from a radio-veteran reader last week, talking about Clear Channel’s plan to institute local advisory boards made up of listeners: “Am I the only one who thinks that the likely function of the so-called ‘local advisory boards’ will be to provide the correct phonetic pronunciations of area names to the [Clear Channel] voice-trackers?” Well played, sir.)

In today’s post at Inside Music Media, Jerry Del Colliano shares the belief in localism we keep coming back to here, but he’d take it further—in his ideal world, not just the jocks would be local but the management, too, and both would have a clearly defined stake in local success. And he would rebuild the talent pipeline within each station.

Those of us who became jocks for the love of it back in the day aren’t able to give up on radio entirely, even when we’re at our most pessimistic about its future. Right after telling me that he thought radio was obsolete, a former colleague of mine came right back with this: “I hope and pray I’m wrong. I have a lot of friends still working in radio. Then again, radio is a medium of change. It may morph into something viable for the next generation and we’ll hear the DJs of tomorrow creating their own radio world.” Then he commences to dream. “All corporate radio stations sold off to local owners and the return of the spirit of radio—local , relevant , thought provoking—I’d love to hear that!!!”

You and me, brother. You and me.

Programming Note: I’m heading out of town to have more than a few beers with some old friends, so our regular Friday feature will not appear here tomorrow. Go play outside.