The Mad Scientists

(Another broadcast engineer story.)

I have mentioned here a time or two the general manager/chief engineer of the stations in Macomb, Illinois, when I was there in the mid 80s. Bob Wille (pronounced “willie”) was a very nice man, as devoted to his stations and his community as any broadcaster I’ve ever known—and a bit of a mad scientist. If there was something he felt he needed that did not exist, he’d invent it.

My favorite example was his time-and-temperature machine. Back in the day, many automated radio stations had a function that would periodically announce the time. It involved two giant tape cartridges, one with the even time numbers (2:22, 2:24, and so on) and one with the odd ones (2:21, 2:23, etc.). Every now and then you’d program it to play between a couple of other elements, thereby telling your listeners what time it was. For his automated FM station, Bob rigged up a secondary gizmo that would also announce the temperature. He put a special cartridge machine in the AM studio and recorded up a bunch of carts announcing temperatures, from 10 below to 100 above. Because the AM studio was staffed for much of the day, it became the jock’s job to plug in the proper cart as the temperature fluctuated throughout the day, so that whenever the time cart played on the FM, it would be followed by the temperature. It sounded clunky on the air, but it was damned ingenious.

Thirty years ago, a lot of radio stations still created their program logs manually. Bob had written a computer program for ours, and if it was determined that we needed a particular function or a particular report, he would modify the program to create it. Modern broadcast scheduling software can do a lot, but for tech support, nothing compares to having the dude who wrote the thing on the payroll.

Another of Bob’s inventions was more prosaic. Tape decks have to be cleaned every now and then, usually with alcohol and Q-tips. You could buy special extra-long Q-tips that would reach into the depths of cart machines, depths unreachable by standard Q-tips, but the long ones were expensive. So Bob took a piece of wooden dowel and hollowed out one end of it so you could stick a regular Q-tip into it. We quickly nicknamed it the “Wille Wand,” and one slow day we produced an advertisement for it. It included a testimonial from a happy user who said, “I had oxide buildup on my tape machines, and I also suffered from impacted ear wax. But now that I have the amazing Wille Wand, all my heads are doing just fine.”

Because Bob was a natural tinkerer, he had an affinity for other natural tinkerers. (Game recognize game, as the kids say.) And that’s how he came to hire a 15-year-old assistant engineer. The kid was the son of a family friend, apparently. One story we heard was this: the family got a home computer, which in 1986 was an expensive, exotic purchase. In the wee hours one morning, the dad heard a noise downstairs, and went down to find the 15-year-old and a friend with the guts of the computer spread out around them on the living room floor. “We wanted to see how it worked,” the kid said—and after they put it back together, it worked just fine.

So Bob hired the kid, to my great skepticism. But I soon learned that he was really good at stuff. It was mostly routine maintenance—rewiring headphones, winding new carts, cleaning and adjusting tape machines and turntables—but they were jobs that Bob didn’t always have time for, so it was good to have somebody doing them, and doing them right.

The kid’s last name was Fess, and it wasn’t long before I started calling him “the Fabulous Fess,” because he was. And because I left the stations at the end of 1986, I never knew what became of him. So I googled around a little bit the other morning, and as best I can tell, he’s still living in central Illinois, in his mid 40s now—and he’s got at least one patent to his credit. Which does not surprise me at all.

Sucked Into the Radio

(Pictured: Bachman-Turner Overdrive, beloved above all other bands by teenage boys of my acquaintance 40 years ago this fall.)

Recently I said this about American Top 40: “Every now and then [the show] hits a streak that captures the full, glorious panoply of 70s music, and even more than that, demonstrates just how much damn fun it was to listen to the radio back then.” It was like that on practically the whole show dated November 30, 1974—one of the most entertaining AT40s ever.

The first hour contains a few clunkers: “Whatever You Got, I Want” by the Jackson Five, in which a really good funk track is undercut by Michael’s pre-pubescent vocal; “Fire Baby, I’m on Fire” by Andy Kim, in which the guy who had asked you to rock him gently only a few months before now wants to burn you down like General Sherman; and “The Need to Be” by Jim Weatherly, in which a man of the Me Decade disappears up his own external orifice. But the show catches fire in the second hour with some quintessentially 70s radio songs and just keeps rolling right to the end. They’re on the flip.

Continue reading →

Doin’ the Christmas Shuffle, Vol. 13

(Pictured: the family gathers around the piano to hear Mom bang out a few holiday tunes, rather like what we’re doing here.)

Once again I’ve put the laptop Christmas stash on shuffle to see what comes out. The wonder is that the first 10 that popped up are not especially schizophrenic. Certainly not as much as they could be.

“Jingle Bell Rock”/Bobby Rydell & Chubby Checker. A couple of Cameo-Parkway’s biggest stars get together for a not-bad version of the Bobby Helms tune. It charted on the Hot 100 in both 1961 (#21) and 1962 (#92).

“Jingo Jango”/Bert Kaempfert. One of those holiday instrumentals you know, even if you don’t recognize the title. It made Billboard‘s Christmas chart in both 1963 and 1965.

“A Winter Snowscape”/Jethro Tull. The Jethro Tull Christmas Album (which you can hear here) is the last record Ian Anderson made under the Tull name, in 2003. It contains new recordings of “A Christmas Song,” “Bouree,” and “Ring Out Solstice Bells,” all of which were first released in Tull’s heyday. Of all the established rockers to make latter-day Christmas records, Jethro Tull is one of the best suited to it. So much of the season’s music comes from England and English traditional forms; Tull worked that same side of the street for 35 years.

“Driving Home for Christmas”/Chris Rea. Recorded in 1986 but written years before, “Driving Home for Christmas” was more popular in Europe than in the United States; it’s been used in commercials over there and was revived for a charity single a few years ago. It’s got an easy pop feel, but if it had been recorded in the States, it would have been slathered in sleigh bells. Which frankly it could use.

“Christmas Time Again”/Extreme. Few bands are so quintessentially 90s as Extreme, from their once-trendy name to their generic brand of pop-rock, which got them two Top-10 singles and two Top-10 albums in 1991 and 1992. Against all odds, “Christmas Time Again,” which appeared on the 1992 compilation A Very Special Christmas 2, is crazy good. The lyrics are awkward and the production is overdone but damn, the whole mess just works.

“Every Day Will Be Like a Holiday”/William Bell. The original version of a song we dig a lot around here, first heard at Christmas 1967. The version we dig the most, of course, is by the late, lamented Chicago jump-blues band the Mighty Blue Kings. Play it loud.

“Silent Night”/Charlie Musselwhite. If the famously snowbound Austrian church that gave birth to “Silent Night” in 1818 had been on the Delta, the original version of the famous carol might have sounded like this.

“The Christmas Song”/John Edwards. A David Porter production from a compilation titled Funky Christmas, released in 1976 by Atlantic with the dual purpose of selling records at Christmas and pushing artists who were new to the Atlantic stable. Appearing along with Edwards (who would eventually join the Spinners) is a group called Luther, led by Luther Vandross, plus soul singer Margie Joseph, the Impressions, and jazz players Willis Jackson and Lou Donaldson. The album got a CD reissue last year, and I gotta go find it.

“Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” (Asbury Park 2000)/Bruce Springsteen. A few years back, the bootleg site ROIO put up a collection called Santa Boss Is Coming To Town, which collects a bunch of live performances, holiday and otherwise, recorded around Christmastime mostly between 1996 and 2001, although one version of this song goes back to Winterland in 1978. If you’re sick of the original 1975 recording of this, some of the live ones are better.

“O Come All Ye Faithful”/Cochise. This is a band I’ve written about before—their 1971 single “Love’s Made a Fool Of You” barely scraped into the Hot 100 but was a Top-10 single on WLS. Their lead singer had been in Bluesology with Elton John, one member would later join Procol Harum and another would be in Foreigner, and the other guys became prominent session players. And for some reason, their album Swallow Tales (which includes “Love’s Made a Fool of You”) includes a barely recognizable version of “O Come All Ye Faithful” that runs 1:15.

We may do this again before Christmas. Or we may not. Life’s a gamble.

Don’s Bad Day

(Pictured: If know what these are, you may have what it takes to be a broadcast engineer.)

A friend posting on Facebook the other day told a quick story about a broadcast engineer she’d once known—and that was all it took to get me thinking about some of the broadcast engineers I have known.

My first paying job was in Dubuque, which was a large-enough operation to have three engineers. The chief was a very nice man and extremely helpful. But he wore a tie and spent a lot of time in meetings, so if you needed something done, you went to the assistant chief, a quiet man with a shambling gait and a wry sense of humor. He would periodically come into the main studio where the transmitter controls were and perform adjustments to make sure everything was operating within FCC parameters. When he was finished he’d say, “That’s close enough for government work.”

The third engineer was a guy I nearly killed one day.

When a station’s studios are in one physical location and its transmitters are in another, there’s a studio-to-transmitter link (STL). In days of yore, it was a wired link or a telephone line; today, it can be a digital connection via a T1 line. In Dubuque, it was a broadcast link, and one hot summer afternoon circa 1982, it died. The only engineer on duty that day was the third one, Don, who’d been at the station since God was a boy and had been promised a job for as long as he wanted to work. He had been working in the engineers’ shop downstairs when something shorted out on the bench and fried the STL. It wouldn’t be a quick fix.

I was on the air at the time. I could see that the transmitter across the river in East Dubuque, Illinois, was still operating, but nothing I was doing in the studio was getting there. Don came upstairs and explained what had happened. The protocol in the case of a catastrophic failure was this: box up a bunch of carts containing music and commercials, unhook the studio cart machines, put everything in the van, and go across the river to the transmitter site and use the emergency studio there until repairs could be made.

The 22-year-old dipshit I was back then would not have taken this calmly. I am sure that I fumed as Don slowly unwired the cart machines. And I may have urged him to hurry, perhaps gently, but perhaps not. I loaded up the music and commercial carts and anything else I thought we’d need over there, grabbed the keys to the van, and raced out to the parking lot. Don eventually came tottering out with the cart machines, and we started for the transmitter site.

Traffic was heavy, and it was clearly going to take longer than the usual five minutes to get there. As I navigated the van and cursed the drivers in front of me, I noticed that Don, in the passenger seat next to me, was breathing heavily and did not look well at all.

“You OK, Don?” “Yeah, I’m fine,” he said, obviously not fine. “I’m just a little winded.” “You gonna make it?” I asked. “Yeah, I’m fine.”

We eventually got to the transmitter site and into the ancient emergency studio, a relic of the 1940s, an old control board with dials and buttons made of Bakelite plastic, equipped with giant transcription turntables. We brushed off the dead flies and set to work, Don slowly wiring up the cart machines, then going out to where the transmitter was and doing the necessary voodoo to get the emergency studio live. I watched his labors with great concern hoping he wouldn’t drop dead on me, and that if he did, he’d do it after the studio was operational.

Long story short: we got the station back on the air from the transmitter, and Don didn’t die until 2011.

Radio types amongst the readership, some of whom are broadcast engineers, are hereby encouraged to share engineer stories in the comments. I bet yours are much better than mine.

Just Like the Ones We Used to Know

Back in the 1950s and early 60s, the typical purchaser of what was then high-end audio equipment was not a kid who wanted it to listen to his Buddy Holly or Beatles records. It was his older brother, or perhaps his father, who had been weaned on the pop music of an earlier era or on classical music.  For this reason, lushly orchestrated pop and classical albums were popular among audiophiles, and producing them became big business. The craze for “mood music” began with 101 Strings in the late 50s, but eventually, each of the major record labels had its own string brand: RCA had the Living Strings, the Hollyridge Strings were Capitol’s, Vee Jay had the Castaway Strings, Warner Brothers had the Londonderry Strings, and even the famous blues and R&B label, Chess, had the Soulful Strings. The Hollyridge Strings were quite successful, charting five albums between 1964 and 1966, covering the Beatles (making the Hot 100 with a version of “Love Me Do”), the Beach Boys, Elvis, and Nat King Cole. So were the Soulful Strings, who made the Billboard 200 album chart five times between 1967 and 1969, covering mostly R&B and jazz hits. Their single “Burning Spear” was a Hot 100 hit in 1968. The Living Strings charted but two albums, both in 1961. Of the major string brands, only 101 Strings managed a Top-10 album: The Soul of Spain in 1959.

The string brands were indeed brands rather than bands. The 101 Strings set the template, hiring European orchestras on the cheap and releasing the results under the brand name. The record-label string brands took the same tack. Recordings issued under the name of the Living Strings, for example, were often made by either the BBC Symphony or the London Symphony Orchestra. These albums were calculated to attract record-shop browsers, adorned with splashy covers (sometimes featuring scantily clad women) and often budget priced. And while only a few of them charted, they represented a pretty solid income stream for their labels—and they gained a good deal of airplay, too. But as the 70s wore on, the music made by these string brands faded from general popularity. The last of their recordings to go, however, were their Christmas records.

Continue reading →

Feeling Fine

It’s December of 1964 and the Beatles are back.

A month earlier, the Beatles had gone missing from the Billboard Hot 100 and from the chart at WOKY in Milwaukee. But in late November, their new single, “I Feel Fine,” backed with “She’s a Woman” hit the radio, and just as Beatle hits had been doing since February, soon conquered all. They charted at WOKY on November 28, shown together at #20. The double-sided hit would pause at #7 for the week of December 5, 1964, before hitting #1 on the 12th, where it would hold for four weeks. On the Hot 100 for December 5, “I Feel Fine” charted at #21 and “She’s a Woman” at #46.

The British Invasion bubbles along in Milwaukee, although just one British hit, the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me,” is in the station’s Top 10 for December 5. Elsewhere, the Zombies (“She’s Not There”), the Dave Clark Five (“Any Way You Want It”), the Rolling Stones (“Time Is on My Side”) and Manfred Mann (“Sha La La”) are in or close to the Top 20. So are Julie Rogers, with the now-forgotten “The Wedding,” and crooner Matt Monro with “Walk Away.” Marianne Faithful’s version of “As Tears Go By” and Herman Hermits’ “I’m Into Something Good” make their chart debuts. On the Hot 100, Chad and Jeremy’s “Willow Weep for Me” and the Searchers’ “Love Potion #9″ are taking aim at the Top 20. Sandie Shaw, the Animals, and Gerry & the Pacemakers are farther down, along with Petula Clark’s “Downtown,” making its Hot 100 debut at #80.

Elsewhere, the Hot 100 is crowded with future classics: “Come See About Me” (which is #1 for the week of December 5), “Baby Love,” “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)” plus lesser hits by the Marvelettes, the Four Tops, and the Miracles. “Leader of the Pack” by the Shangri-Las is on its way out; the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'” is on its way up.

And aside from all that, there are these five records from the WOKY chart:

Continue reading →


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 586 other followers

%d bloggers like this: