AT40 From the Inside, Part Deux

Here’s more from former American Top 40 writer/researcher Scott Paton, talking about a typical week in the production of the show during his tenure between 1976 and 1979. (First installment here.)

The new week began on Friday, and most of the work done through the following Tuesday involved researching, interviewing, and writing–without knowing how the pieces were going to fit together that week. Finally, on Wednesday, the assembly process could begin.

Wednesday: We would wait for the advance, top-secret chart numbers from Billboard so we could block out and assemble the content of the show. Casey did the show from 5-by-7 index cards. Forty individual song cards had the title and artist’s names on them, and each one included the time of the song’s intro, whether it ended cold or with a fade, and it featured the path of the record in the Top 40.  Example:  Debut– #37, #31, #24, #17, #12, #9, #9, #13, #19, #29, #38 . . . and gone! And written in pencil each week on every one of those cards were the famous refrains, “up six notches,” “tumbling eight spots,” etc.

White cards had the extended feature stories typed on them. Salmon-colored cards had basic factoids and statistics on each artist (age, city of origin, previous chart history, famous relatives, et al.).

Nikki Wine would always go into a blue funk every Wednesday night as she would assemble and rubber-band these hourly bundles of 5-by-7 cards because, invariably, we’d have to come up with another story or two to flesh out the content distribution of the show.

Thursday:  Casey tracks the show. Listening to intros and outros of the records to get a feel for the tempo, he “wild tracks” the feature stories, anecdotal trivia, and chart movement. It was called “wild tracking” because the music was actually edited in and around his narrative later in the day by an engineer. This allowed Casey to limit his sessions to a couple of hours as opposed to being in the studio all day.

(AT40 was recorded this way thanks to a suggestion made by Dick Clark. In the show’s first two years, it was recorded mostly in real time.)

When Casey was happy, the sessions flew by quickly. When he wasn’t, you could hear him bellowing through a supposedly sound-proof studio, an adjacent engineering/editing room, and clear into my office, two rooms away. We tried to keep him happy.  Especially in ’78, when he landed a million-dollar deal to voice all of NBC’s national promos. He’d go straight from AT40 to NBC in Burbank, so the pressure became even greater not to ruffle his feathers on Thursday morning. On several occasions, he pointed out the disparity in the paychecks for the two gigs and, thusly, which was more important. Of course, that’s not the kind of thing that elicited much sympathy from we underpaid peons!

After the show was assembled on Thursday night, it went out to a pressing plant in the West Valley (San Fernando, of course), and I believe it started shipping out to affiliates on Monday, which allowed time to ship a replacement in the event of a lost package.

And on Friday, a new week in the life of the show would begin.

Scott says that shows were delivered on seven-inch reels of tape at first, probably until sometime in 1972 or 1973, and on vinyl albums after that.”We asked that affiliates return the discs to us with the signed affadavits of airing, but I doubt that more than half the stations ever did send the discs back.” (By 1986, when my station was running the show, I don’t think we were required to return the discs, and I have a few in storage somewhere. They were still delivered on vinyl then, although CD delivery couldn’t have been far off.) Scott says, “I could have had unlimited copies of every show, but I rarely even grabbed one. I could live for a few years off the eBay proceeds if I had stockpiled ‘em.”

I’m grateful to Scott for being so willing to share this stuff, and for answering a few additional questions to help me understand the process better. If you have questions, put them in the comments. Scott’s already shared one completely mindblowing story there.

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7 responses

  1. I signed up for AT40 at NAB with Tom Rounds who signed me in his hotel room with his pregnant wife. This was 72 or 73. We got our shows on large discs with side 1 and 3 on one and the rest with staggered sides so you could cue up the show and keep it moving. A smarter ( than me) friend kept all the shows and has been getting $50.00 for each show. The old shows are still running on Sunday mornings here in Florida.

    1. That’s a great anecdote, Gene, and a sweet reminder of how business used to be done– it was personal. Tom Rounds– he’s simply TR to those who know and love him; his wife Barbara remains his partner in all things, including their company, Radio Express, which has been producing and distributing radio programs worldwide for three decades now.

      I’m not exactly sure about birthdates, but when you met the Roundses, Barbara was probably expecting their son, Tommy. His sister, Michelle, preceeded him. Both great kids and now, shockingly, 40-somethings!

      1. Thanks Scott. Tom was a gentleman. I loved the show. It was neat that you share the shows background with us radio geeks.

  2. Another great testimonial from Scott. Thank you, JB.

    I would like to clarify a note about program distribution. The show was initially sent to subscribers on 10.5″ reels (some got them on 7″ reels) until October 1971. That month, shipping the show in a boxed set on 3 12″ LPs became the primary program source for stations. Some stations continued receiving it on reels (including WCFL/Chicago and AFRTS affiliates) but vinyl was the way to go for nearly 20 years.

    1. Pete, thanks for the clarification. It’s funny, when I simply threw out the ballpark guess as to when the show transitioned from reel to LP, I hoped you’d chime in with the specifics. You are the Boswell of the AT40 saga. I know that anyone who had anything to do with the show would appreciate your chronicling of the show’s history, as do I.

  3. An addendum here. Watermark’s president, Tom Rounds, had previously been a popular deejay –particularly in Hawaii and San Francisco– and a successful concert promoter. While he didn’t typically attend copy meetings with Casey and the staff, his sensibilities had a significant impact on the show. His weekly escape from the corner office was to direct Casey’s tracking sessions on Thursday mornings. He helped nuance untold numbers of Casey’s deliveries over the years and, nine-times-outta-ten, was able to placate our beloved host when he was about to go ballistic.

    For all intents and purposes, TR was the one consistent “staff member” of AT40 throughout Casey’s reign.

  4. […] —We got acquainted with a former researcher for American Top 40 and learned about the show from the inside (part 1 here, part 2 here). […]

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