Skipping the Needle Around

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Following on Monday’s post, friend of the blog HERC has some radio questions. Answers follow, to the best of my knowledge.

Back in the day, when new vinyl showed up at a station, was it the music director’s job to listen to it, pick what was gonna get played and given the (imagined) sheer volume of albums (and 45s?) coming in, was said listening session merely a skip the needle around to the beginning, middle, and end of a song type thing?

If a music director wanted to be first with the hits, he’d have a pile of new music to listen to each week. Some of that was listening certainly of the skipping-around variety, but not all. Different people did it different ways. Reader CalRadioPD talks about his music-director experience in a comment here.

When I was a music director, my ears were not the first thing I relied upon. I used the national airplay reports in Radio and Records and The Gavin Report to decide what to play. (I had no local research data.) In the vast majority of cases, I’d be adding new songs when they reached a certain level, regardless of how I felt about them. I’d sometimes make brand-new artists rise higher on the charts before I’d give them a precious playlist spot, and some records I personally disliked were occasionally made to wait a little, too.

Some stations got good service from the major labels (which had the songs and artists most people wanted to hear), but some did not, especially in very small towns. One place I worked got little from the majors but lots from tiny mom-and-pop labels, songs that were going nowhere by artists no one had ever heard of. But because you had to make do with what you got, some of these songs got on the air while others, by famous stars on major labels, didn’t, because the station simply didn’t have copies to play.

Given the relentless barrage of incoming records, the usual wear and tear of playback and the finite space to shelve those records, what were some of the ways a station would thin the vinyl library?

The stuff that was getting played, either as a current hit or an oldie, would be kept in the studio. If a record was no longer getting airplay, it might be stashed away in a closet, an attic, or a basement. Records that were scratchy or damaged were sometimes simply junked, although sometimes they’d end up going home with a staffer. Same for the never-were-hits that a station received. (Again, I refer you to CalRadioPD’s comment.)

Reducing the risk of wear and tear is one of the reasons why lots of stations put their current hits, or their entire on-air library, on tape cartridges. Record companies could be stingy with was called “reservice,” especially to small-market stations. If somebody scratched your copy of a current hit single, you might be able to get another one sent to you for free. If somebody damaged your copy of something older, you’d almost certainly have to buy a replacement.

Given the inherent competition between stations or even formats in some markets, how did you maintain awareness of what other stations were playing?

We listened to ’em. Stations would sometimes log the competition to find out what they were playing, and if possible, to discern what kind of rotations they were using. (One of the things interns were for.) Today, certain data for individual stations is available from a service called Mediabase, but I’m not all that familiar with precisely how it works.

What was coolest station promo or giveaway you ever participated in?

One of my stations ran a contest in which people sent in their household bills, we’d read their names on the air, and if they called back within 10 minutes we’d pay the bill for them. I once made somebody’s $996 house payment. At another station, I gave away $1000 to caller #106. I was at a station event one night when a listener asked that question, and I was topped by a colleague who once gave away an all-expenses-paid trip to Dublin for a U2 concert.

Many thanks to CalRadioPD for more interesting answers than mine. If anyone else has anything to add, please jump in. And if you have additional questions of your own, send them along.

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13 responses

  1. Fascinating! Do you know or recall – wasn’t the American Top 40 broadcast delivered to stations every week in a vinyl record set? When I was a kid I remember a neighbor somehow getting a copy in the late 70’s – it was at least a two-record set and we listened to it constantly.

    1. I was still getting AT40 and other syndicated shows on vinyl in the late 80s, but by the early 90s, most such programs came on CD. (Now they’re sent online via FTP.) I think I have a few vinyl AT40s around here somewhere, but I’m not sure where they are.

      1. I’ve got around twenty AT40 vinyl sets, most of which I’ve yet to clean and listen to; want to get them ripped someday. Among them: the fifth-anniversary rebroadcast of the very first show. One set is missing a disc but it’s worth hanging on to as it contains Casey’s salute to Elvis (including a live-in-Vegas “Suspicious Minds”) after the King’s passing.

        Here’s a question for the professional radio folks: how do you get an hour of programming to finish on the hour? I’ve done some playlisted shows for KPFT in the past (a dark era we’ll hopefully never see again) and I often had to rely on PSAs and instrumentals from my own collection for padding. (“Music to Watch Girls By” always got a few calls of the what-was-that-I-hadn’t-heard-it-in-years variety.)

  2. I started at my local station by carting songs. So thanks for referring to it. Every station I worked for except one used carted music, for the reasons you listed.

    Through the years and through the stations, I’ve carted LOTS of music. At some places it could be a challenge, such as having a turntable that didn’t get right up to speed so I’d have to back up a song several rotations and carefully watch the label go ’round before starting the cart; or cart machines that were persnickety about starting at all (imagine being well into a song before noticing the cart hadn’t even started).

    Most places did not have splice finders* so either (a) I was the “splice finder” or (b) a song got on the air with (shudder) a splice in the middle. To this day, I still “hear” the splice dropout when I hear certain songs played on our local oldies station. There should be therapy for that.

    (*For visitors: every tape cartridge had a splice where the beginning and end of the tape met. Usually there was an audio dropout at that point, so it was best practice to try not to record over that splice.)

    Fun times! And THEY paid ME to do this!

  3. Love hearing about the behind the scene radio stories–fascinating! Thanks!

  4. On the subject of back-timing (starting the next program element precisely at 00:00), when I had to do it regularly, I had a lot more control over what songs I played, and I could pick and choose based on how much time I needed to fill. I could also throw in an extra PSA or promo if I wanted to. Now, if I’m working an hour that has to back-time precisely, that hour is generally overfilled with music so I can pick and choose from a limited number of options. The overfill songs are not usually instrumentals, but songs one can fade out of early without doing significant damage to them. Throwing in an extra PSA or promo is not an option, so it feels like I’m going to be short (which happens only rarely), I have to be ready to do a short live promo or throw in an extra jingle or sweeper.

    When I was student teaching many years ago, my cooperating teacher and a few of my students marveled at the way I was able to talk right up to the bell and end a sentence jut before it rang.

  5. JB: Thanks for the kind words, but I found your experiences interesting. We’re all in the same business, but there are a million different ways things got done—especially in years past.

    Manual splice-finding—man, I forgot about that. Had to do it at my first station. From then on, we had a splice-finder.

    And backtiming…I got pretty good at that, then landed at a station with NBC news on the hour. Found out they had a feed at :54 and another at :00, so we set up a cart recorder with a 4.5 minute cart (the length of the newscast) in the air studio. It took the :54 and we could then hit the “top of the hour” news anytime from :59:30 onward.

    1. Backtiming, eh? Now the discussion is entering the realm of what I at one time believed was THE most important thing in radio. (And to some extent, I still do.) — HITTING THE NETWORK.

      Several stations where I worked used ABC Contemporary, which aired at :54:30 past the hour. Early in my career I learned the art of back-timing, and over time I improved those skills. There was nothing — NOTHING — more satisfying than playing a cold-ending song that ended right when the ABC Contemporary sounder ran.

      It was like a mini-marathon every hour and for some of us one of the very best parts of working in live radio.

      1. The art still exists at KCBS in San Francisco. They roll a music bed at 45 seconds to the hour, and the anchors have 30 seconds to give the day’s date, tease upcoming stories and then say “CBS News covers the world next”. They have to be out at :59:45, because the pre-recorded voice begins:

        ” What’s happening and why. KCBS-AM. KFRC FM and HD-1. San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose.” The music bed hits a four note stinger, the anchor says “It’s four o’clock” and the top of the hour chime and the CBS News sig hits.

        Nine times out of ten it’s a thing of beauty. Once in a while they cut it too close or play it too safe and go a little short on the tease, but when they nail it, it’s magic.

        If you’re a geek like me about these things, anyway.

      2. >>If you’re a geek like me about these things, anyway.<<

        I probably match you geek-for-geek, actually. :)

        I've been listening to our midwestern version of KCBS, which is WBBM Chicago (also a CBS O and O). I've been a fan pretty much since 1968 (a teen listening to all-news? Just another merit badge for my geekiness). Over the years, they have switched up the top of hour ID from jingle-to-voice then voice-to-jingle and back. Current incarnation is jingle first then voice talk up to the CBS gong. I think I like "jingle last" better. No, I'm not in Chicago, but we don't have all news radio here, so I DX at night as I can and listen to the Internet feed (with its gawdawful spots) otherwise.

      3. I got my education in hitting the network back when KPFT carried BBC World Service (up until maybe two years ago). Whenever I filled in on our old morning music show, it was also my job to pre-record BBC Newshour on the digital tapedeck at the opposite end of the hallway from the control room (don’t ask me why we didn’t have a programming option), start the news update at the top of the hour, run down the hall to retrieve the Newshour tape, run back and cue it up to just after the news update to start it at the three-minute pause in the update going over the air. I got slightly exhausted just remembering the protocol to type it out.

        Eventually BBC began broadcasting Newshour just after our morning show, so I was able to hit the network and be done for my shift. So it was one morning when I subbed, hit BBC, gathered my things and got into my car to hear the Beeb reporter discussing a building on fire in Manhattan. Without giving it much thought, I popped in a CD (volume 10 of Rhino’s Have a Nice Day of all things) and drove to my day job where I learned more about that fire.

  6. I love the backtiming references. Haven’t thought about that in years. My first job was at a small country station in 1990, and I had to lead up to the news at the top of the hour. I relied on Bob Seger’s “Against the Wind” a lot since he provided me with a good two minutes or so of “Against the Wind” over and over. It was an easy one to fade right before the news.

    Thanks to everybody for sharing.

  7. […] in months. Also popular amongst the readership were two posts answering radio questions (here and here). If you have a question, send it […]

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