The Board Operator

(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.

7 responses

  1. the patch panel (or patch bay), what memories! Getting in and out of games was the most difficult part of live sports, especially bailing off the automation system.

    I loved Powerline. What soothing, amazing pipes Dr. Jon had.

  2. In the shadow of the big flagship station broadcasting our school’s Big Ten football and basketball and WCHA hockey games, our carrier-current student station did its own play-by-play of all home contests. Toward the end of my first quarter on the air, I discovered that said basketball games would consume a portion of my weekly four-hour on-air shift. I didn’t mind at all and not just because it provided training for doing the same later on in the real world. The games started when I did, at 8 P.M. and by 9:20, I was already well into music. With no TV timeouts, the only distraction in those days was the steady stream of calls from the Vegas bookies asking for updated scores.

    One day when the on-air jock popped out of the KOMA control room for a few minutes, I sneaked into the tight space behind the console and the wall, where I’d be able to crouch down and give him a scare by making a face through the large plexiglass panel mounted above the board. Boy, was he surprised! And so was I, as I looked down and discovered a turntable mounted behind the board, completely out of view to anyone not standing where I was. To think that it took me probably half a year to find the thing [hangs head in shame/]

    I never had to use it until doing a countdown of the biggest all-time Christmas hits and needed to play the out-of-format records from my own collection. The inconvenience of having to walk behind the console to cue up each record when needed was pretty minor, but the weirdness of playing a record live on the air without the visual connection of seeing it spin made hitting that remote start button feel more like an act of faith.

    Slip-cueing those records would’ve been a challenge even for a gymnast.

  3. Oh my – board-op stories – so many; how to choose which one….. Best one was probably at TDY when I was Station Manager circa 1990. The News Director (who would later become my wife) was out of town that weekend and I was covering for her for any “major breaking news”, but one of the other news staffers was actually on call. (I’m getting bogged down in detail here….) Anyway, the Sunday morning board-op called me at home about 7 AM, apologized for waking me, and said he really needed me to come in and speak with the news person, who was scheduled to come in around 5:30 AM, do a couple hours of live casts each hour between 6 and 8, and then cart up casts through 10AM. The board op was a young married man. The news intern that was on the Sunday shift apparently had taken quite a liking to him from prior Sunday morning shifts, and that day came to work in a see-through nightie that left absolutely nothing to the imagination, and she would not heed the young man’s constant warnings that she should stay in the newsroom, that he was a happily married man, etc. I threw on some jeans and a t-shirt and went in to the station, to discover the young board-op was telling the truth. The news intern told me she had overslept a bit, didn’t “have time” to put on clothes because she didn’t want to be late. (Sure wish we’d had smart phones that could take pictures back then, so I’d have “evidence”…..) I mean we’re talking about a virtually transparent nightie that ended above her….well, above her lower lady parts, which were completely uncovered. I sent her home and finished out her news shift. She told me she’d do ANYTHING to avoid losing her (paid) internship, and I’m sure she would have. I had BV let her go the next day with me as “witness”. I still have a pretty fair cinematic memory of her appearance that Sunday morning, and she was quite an attractive young woman, but, dammit, the thing I remember most clearly is that she was wearing pink bedroom slippers that looked like little bunnies. (Probably because I tried to keep my eyes cast downward most of the time we were talking…..)

    1. Ladies and gentlemen, there’s your latest candidate for greatest comment in the history of this blog . . .

      1. No way to top that!

  4. […] (Before we begin: our friend Tim Morrissey told one of the all-time great radio stories in the comments to this week’s post about weekend board operators. Go read it.) […]

  5. […] be popular 50 years from now. One of the best comments that any post ever got came in response to The Board Operator, a radio story about being at the bottom of the broadcasting food chain. (You’ll know it when […]

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