(Before we begin: I owe Indianapolis a modest apology. When I wrote about the city last week, I hadn’t found the best parts of it yet. Now I hope I get to go back someday.)
On radio today, syndicated countdown shows or public service programs get loaded into the automation to play at 7AM on Sunday while everybody on the station staff is fast asleep. But before the rise of self-operating automation systems a generation ago, those programs had to be played by a live human being. And so many of us old-timers started at the bottom of the food chain: weekend board operator.
At my first job (KDTH in Dubuque), I was hired to work from noon to 6 on Sundays. I pushed buttons for the noon news block, then ran a taped public service program. If there was any time after that, I got to be an actual DJ until 1:00, when it was time for the nostalgia show Sunday at the Memories. Then came the 5:00 news block, after which I got to do 30 more minutes of real radio.
Other jocks had different experiences. Just last week a former colleague, who’s back at her hometown station after many years away, remembered how she started there in the 80s by playing the legendary Powerline show. If you listened to Top 40 radio between the 70s and the 90s, you probably heard Powerline—at one time, it was on over 2,000 stations around the world. Each week for a half-hour, Brother Jon Rivers mixed music with soft-pedaled religious messages, which made the show a Sunday staple. It was generally heard early in the morning or very late at night. (The show was revived in 2013.)
There are thousands of people in radio who started by running American Top 40 or some other syndicated music show on Saturdays or Sundays. Shows like these could come to the stations on tape, although more often they were pressed on vinyl. It was the operator’s job to play the show segments in the proper order, and to put in whatever local commercials had been sold. Taped shows usually had to be shipped back to the syndicator (so they could be erased and reused), and it was the operator’s job to make sure the tapes got back to the program director’s desk so they could be sent.
There were other tasks that sometimes fell to the board operator—engineering sports broadcasts, for example. My first station carried University of Iowa football, so it was frequently my job to get the game on the air and put the commercials in. To get the Iowa broadcast, you’d dial a toll-free phone number to connect to the feed. A local high-school football game might come in on a portable transmitter, which often had a dedicated channel on the control board. For an out-of-town game, the play-by-play guy would call the studio hotline, and it would be up to you to get the phone on the air.
Some events required you use to the patch panel, a gizmo that allows connection of various inputs to various outputs. By some sort of engineering alchemy, a broadcast source would be routed to the panel, and you’d plug a patch cord into the right spot to route the audio into the control board. (The same thing happens today, but all an operator has to do is dial up the proper channel on the board instead of using a cord.)
The weekend board operator usually didn’t get to say very much on the air. He or she would sometimes read the weather forecast or the occasional live tag to a commercial, but that was it. Given that they almost always aspired to more, many chafed at this. I once hired a young woman to run syndicated shows on Sunday nights until 11:00, after which she was to return to the satellite service until her shift was over at midnight. A couple of months later and completely by accident, I learned that she’d taken it upon herself to do her own show between 11 and midnight. She wasn’t especially apologetic when she got caught, and I felt like I had to fire her. Too bad for her that if she’d simply asked me first, I’d have probably let her do it. Young jocks have to start somewhere, so why not there?
Old radio types amongst the readership certainly have more and better weekend board operator stories than I do, so please share.