Category Archives: Radio Tales

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.

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.

On the Air on a Holiday

(Pictured: “Kids, let’s make a plate for that nice young man from the radio station. He can sit at your table.”) 

This Thanksgiving, more retailers than ever are opening on the Day Itself—and this year, some of them are not merely open in the evening, they opened first thing this morning. Why Radio Shack, Dollar Tree, and Staples need to be open during the day on Thanksgiving Day I cannot imagine, but I am sure of this: the executives who decided it was necessary won’t be at their desks today. It’s only the front-line workers who suffer, and whose only reward for disrupting their family’s holiday is that they get to keep their jobs (so they can stay until 10:00 on Christmas Eve, probably). Within a couple of years, Thanksgiving Day will be just another all-day retail day like New Year’s Day, which was once a holiday on which all the stores were closed, but isn’t anymore. (And you can book it: within a decade, some retailer will decide to start its after-Christmas sale on Christmas night.)

In radio, the trend is in the opposite direction. Time was, a few people had to be at the station all day today, doing routine DJ stuff (including transmitter operation), playing syndicated holiday programming, anchoring news, and suchlike. Today, technology makes it possible to go unstaffed for all or part of the day. Automation is sophisticated enough to handle everything, right up to controlling the transmitters and automatically contacting an engineer if something goes wrong. I don’t have a problem with this, for a couple of reasons. Selfishly, it benefits me: I work less on holidays now than I did years ago. And it also makes economic sense. Why pay staffers when you don’t have to?

Automation or not, working Thanksgiving, Christmas, or New Year’s is a fact of radio life—or it was, back when I signed up for it. And it is—or it was, back when I signed up for it—how you earned your way into the fraternity. Full-time jocks could often get holidays off, but the new kids and the part-timers had to work. After a while, holiday shifts took on a certain feeling of importance—somebody has to be here to serve the public interest, convenience, and necessity, and not everybody’s qualified to do it, so why not me? You might be tracking Ray Conniff records and reading sponsors’ holiday greetings, but you were there, which is the main thing listeners expect of their radio stations. And on those odd holidays when the weather or the news was bad, you were there for that, too.

As you gain seniority, it is a fine thing to occupy an exalted-enough position to merit holidays off. Some people take every one of them, all they can get, and that’s OK with me. But some of us, as we gained seniority (or age, or wisdom, or whatever the opposite of wisdom is), discovered that we actually like working on holidays. My pleasure at being on the air on Christmas Eve is well chronicled at this blog, and I never minded Thanksgivings either, as long as there was time for a nice meal somewhere. During his early years in Chicago, Larry Lujack used to volunteer for holidays “so the guys with kids can spend it with their families,” even though Lujack had a wife and kid of his own. And on my own hometown radio station, the general manager almost always did a shift on Christmas morning.

I asked some of my radio pals for work-related holiday memories that stood out to them. One remembers triple-shifting on Christmas during a blizzard. Another recalls a three-way conference call during the wee hours of a New Year’s Day, three friends on three stations in three states, doing their respective shows but talking to each other while the records were playing. A couple noted the remarkable generosity of listeners, who called in to make sure the jock or newsman would be getting a Thanksgiving dinner at some point, and/or offering an invitation to one.

On this day, radio people on the job are like cops, nurses, firemen, convenience store clerks, and hookers—we’re providing a vital public service like we always have. It’s what we’re called to do. And many of us are happy to do it, even if you don’t invite us to your house for dinner.

Big Mouth on a Big Mike

Pictured: the tools of a hockey PA announcer's trade--mike, mike switch, and line charts.

(Pictured: tools of a hockey PA announcer’s trade–mike, mike switch, and line charts.)

(Late edit: link added at the bottom.)

I’m an occasional public-address voice for the University of Wisconsin’s women’s hockey team, and I had games last Thursday and Friday. Yesterday I did a fill-in gig for the women’s basketball team. Here’s what the job is like from the inside.

I show up about an hour before the game and get a credential at the media gate. If the game is in the Kohl Center (the big arena on the UW campus), I can hang my coat in the media room downstairs, then grab a soda and the rosters for the game before heading to my post. If the game is at the smaller La Bahn Arena next door (where the women’s hockey team plays), the accommodations are less plush—there, we’re paying $5 for a soda like the fans do—and I have to go up to the second level to get the rosters.

This is the point at which I also get my script for the day. Everything that happens is scripted right down to the minute. (That’s why the scoreboard clock is already counting down when you get to the game, and why it runs during intermissions.) All of the promotional announcements I read sync up with the video board. There’s a representative of the UW game-management department in my ear giving me cues, either on a headset from upstairs (for hockey) or right next to me (for basketball).

For hockey, I sit on the ice between the official who keeps the score sheet and one of the penalty boxes. It’s not unusual for players to slam into the glass right in front of us. The ice is cooled to 22 degrees, so I generally wear long johns and multiple shirts for my hockey gigs. The basketball PA announcer has a Spike Lee seat, at courtside, between the game-management guy and the video replay guy. It’s cold there, too, because in a multi-purpose arena the basketball floor is laid directly over the ice, although it’s not nearly so extreme.

Once game action starts, I’m off the script, except for stoppages when there’s something I have to read. For hockey, my job is to announce goals, assists, and penalties, and I may go for several minutes without saying anything. Basketball has more scoring to announce, and we also announce substitutions, which is impractical to do for hockey. You can impose a bit of personal style doing this stuff, as you can when introducing the team mascot before the game, or when you’re doing fan contests between periods. But whatever you do behind the big mike, you can’t go overboard. Wisconsin, one of the most profitable athletic programs in the country and a seriously big-time operation, requires a professional image that may not be so important to Directional State College. Precision is expected, if not perfection: I once accidentally mispronounced a Badger player’s name and heard about it in my headphones instantly. On hockey, I have to relay information on goals and assists to the game-management person so it can get on the video board with my announcement, and if I make a mistake on it, I hear about that, too. And justifiably so.

Fans may be surprised to learn that all during hockey games, the off-ice officials—the scorer, the scoreboard operator, the penalty timer, the auxiliary timer, and the penalty box attendants—carry on conversations that may have nothing to do with the game on the ice. All of the people I work with are certified on-ice officials and lifers in the game. Often, they have just come from officiating one game and may be rushing off to preside over another one after our game is over, and much of what they do is automatic to them. And because the hockey world is remarkably small, the officials sometimes know the players, and will talk to them as they sit in the penalty box.

Almost every hockey arena has a big horn that blows when the home team scores a goal. At Wisconsin hockey games, it’s the PA guy’s job to smack that big red button. The fans will tell you when a goal has been scored, but only when I see the referee point at the goal is it time to blow. And that might be the best part of the job.

I’d like to do more of this work than I get, because I’m strictly a backup guy. But for right now, I enjoy my opportunities when they come my way, and we’ll see what happens in the future.

Any questions?

(For another experience I had doing PA for Badger women’s hockey, click here.)

Country Hop

(Pictured: Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley of Florida Georgia Line. Not your mama’s country singers.)

Country music has always been a battleground of styles. The following badly oversimplifies the history, but here we go: Country fans of the 50s had little use for the softer “countrypolitan” sound that dominated the 60s and early 70s, and many rejoiced when the outlaw movement of the mid-70s brought more traditional sounds back. But outlaw country didn’t transform anything for good, and a good deal of country music remained heavily pop-oriented until late in the 80s, when new traditionalists like Randy Travis and Lyle Lovett gained popularity. But in the 90s, first Garth Brooks and later Shania Twain (and her producer/husband Mutt Lange, who had guided the careers of Foreigner and Def Leppard) redefined what mainstream country meant. In the early oughts, pop-oriented guys like Kenny Chesney and Brad Paisley charted alongside throwbacks like Alan Jackson. No matter the level of creative tension, however, you were always able to draw a line from the contemporary stars back to the people on whose shoulders they stood, whether that was Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Reba McEntire, or stars from even earlier days.

But in recent years there’s come a remarkable break in the history of country music. In 2011, Jason Aldean’s “Dirt Road Anthem” became the first major hit to incorporate rhythmically spoken verses, a style incongruously imported from hip-hop and rap music. It wasn’t long before Aldean released a version on which he collaborated with Ludacris, and it started a flood of country songs with hip-hop elements. This has resulted in some pretty odd music, and it’s not just younger stars making it. In 2013, Tim McGraw, who began as a thoroughly mainstream country singer in the mid 90s, released “Southern Girl,” on which he slathered himself in levels of auto-tune generally heard only on rap records.

Break number two: the 2012 single “Cruise” by Florida Georgia Line. Apart from the vocal—an exaggerated drawl—and an ostentatious banjo, there’s nothing country about “Cruise.” It’s a loud, riff-heavy record aimed at young listeners—and aggressively putting off older ones. “Cruise” arrived at the precise moment Billboard modified its chart rules to give extra credit to records that cross over. The change seems nutty, boosting a record higher up the country chart based on how well it does on other, non-country charts—but the net result was to make “Cruise” the longest-running #1 song in the history of country music.

The success of “Dirt Road Anthem” and “Cruise” had the effect of freeing country singers, songwriters, and record labels from stylistic limitations—and from country’s history. Blake Shelton famously claimed this was natural evolution that only “old farts” would resist, but it represents much more than that. Country music has become whatever country labels release and country radio stations will play, no matter what it sounds like. This trend began in the oughts with Carrie Underwood (even though the most country thing about her was that she dated the quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys) and continued with Taylor Swift. But it’s only within the last two years that the trend has become the norm. Sam Hunt’s current hit “Leave the Night On” might have been released to adult contemporary radio five years ago without changing one thing about it. It’s on country radio in 2014 because country is the mass-appeal pop format of the moment.

As a sometime-country DJ and a card-carrying old fart, I like some of what I’m hearing right now. Kacey Musgraves, Miranda Lambert, Eric Church, and the Zac Brown Band are remarkably good. Shelton and Toby Keith can be, when they choose good songs, but they don’t always. Gary Allan would have been a star in any decade. Despite what I’ve said about it here, I even like “Dirt Road Anthem.” But I often find myself wishing country would stop chasing fads and ignoring its history. And maybe also pick up a damn fiddle now and then.

The Man Who Took an Interest

The old lions of broadcasting are passing in the way old lions do, but the inevitability of losing them doesn’t make the losses any easier to take: Larry Lujack, Roy Leonard, George Lipper—and now, another one is gone. Don Davenport died earlier this month at the age of 78.

I first heard Don on WEKZ, my hometown radio station, probably before I had a radio of my own, but he spent most of the 1970s at WIBA in Madison. I can’t say I knew him well apart from the radio. His son was one of my brother’s close friends. As a result, I knew the younger Davenport well and his mother, Don’s first wife, a little—enough to recognize her when she and I found ourselves in the same summer-school class at Platteville years later. But once Don found out I was interested in radio, he took an interest in me.

I still vividly remember a day during Christmas vacation as 1977 turned to 1978. Don was doing a mid-morning shift on WIBA then, and he invited me up to watch him do his show. I found my way to the station, then located in the country south of Madison (in an area now completely urbanized). He explained what he was doing and patiently answered my questions, even putting headphones on me so I could hear what was happening when the microphone was on. I remember being deeply impressed that he played artists like Billy Joel and Fleetwood Mac at a time when WIBA was more likely to play Frank Sinatra and Doris Day.

(Don had one of those deep, resonant, impossible voices you rarely hear on the radio anymore. The story was told that he once got a check cashed with no identification apart from that voice.)

At the time of my visit, I was just as interested in WIBA-FM, which was then a free-form progressive rock station. That morning, I looked with fascination into the adjacent FM studio, lit by strategically placed spotlights even at 10AM. Don told me some scandalous tales involving WIBA-FM, one of which I can repeat: during the early 70s, if he found himself on WIBA against his will on a Saturday afternoon, he’d sometimes put on NBC Radio’s Monitor program service and go next door to get stoned with the FM jocks.

When I say that Don “took an interest” in me, I don’t mean he encouraged me. He did not fill me with illusions about radio, and was very honest about how difficult it could be to make a living at it. It occurs to me now that as 1977 turned to 1978, he was probably getting close to burnout and ready to make a change. Fortunately for him, he did. He became a successful freelance writer and photographer, specializing in travel pieces.

The last time I saw Don was at our wedding, way back in 1983. That he was kind enough to come meant a great deal to me. As he was leaving the reception, the last thing he said to me was, “If you have any sense at all, you’ll get back to the farm.”

He wasn’t wrong. Mentors and inspirations are good like that.


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