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.