A onetime radio staple that’s gone now is the homemaker show. In a midday time slot, a female host (occasionally with a male sidekick/producer/board operator) would conduct a program aimed at women: about cooking and sewing and crafting and gardening and child-rearing and whatever other subjects might plausibly interest the stay-at-home wives/mothers/grandmothers who made up the audience. Such programs were born in the earliest days of radio and thrived from the 50s through the 70s. They became less important as more women began working outside the home, and by now I’m guessing you’d have a hard time finding one. But in their heyday, such programs were a very big deal. This 1954 radio ad for the Neighbor Lady show on WNAX in Yankton, South Dakota, is a good indication of the power such a show could have, especially on a station with a big signal. (There were similar shows on TV as well.)
When I got to KDTH in Dubuque in 1979, its homemaker show, Cracker Barrel, was hosted by Betty Thomas. Betty, who died in 2013, is a member of the Iowa Broadcasters Association Hall of Fame. She started in radio helping her broadcaster husband, who was going blind, by operating his control board and reading copy into his ear, which he would repeat on the air. In 1966, she took over Cracker Barrel, and would host it for nearly 30 years.
During my time at KDTH, the show was an empire. The phone lines would fill up every morning with listeners who had questions, comments, recipes to share, or advice to give, and the show had a massive mailing list that waited for Betty’s regular newsletter. Cracker Barrel was interactive media before interactive media was cool. When Betty read a recipe, she carefully paused after each ingredient or instruction, and it was easy to visualize dozens or hundreds of pencils scratching down each step. Certain recipes were perennials, and she’d feature them year after year. Sometimes she’d have guests in the studio, but most often it was just Betty, talking about topics she knew her audience would find interesting. The show, crowded with commercials, made a ton of money. Next to Gordon Kilgore, the veteran newscaster I’ve written about before, Betty was the station’s most recognizable personality.
Last year I introduced you to George Lipper, the general manager of KDTH when I worked there, who later hired me to work at stations he bought in Macomb, Illinois. George wanted to turn the AM station into a KDTH-style full-service station, and one of the elements he wanted to replicate was Cracker Barrel. I was skeptical about whether such a thing could be created from scratch in the middle of the 1980s, but George was resolved to try. I wasn’t involved much in the planning of the show or the hiring of the host. Somehow, the station found Debbie, thirtysomething, with a home-economics degree, fairly articulate and not frightened off by the entire concept. And sometime in 1985, we put the show on the air.
Here’s the thing about talk radio: if nobody calls, you, the host, have to keep talking regardless, make it interesting, and entice people to join the conversation. And in the early days of what we also called Cracker Barrel, nobody called. The first shows were brutal, but over a period of weeks, the show got a little better once people discovered it. But we noticed something about Debbie after a while. She was oddly reluctant to offer her opinions on much of anything. She was happy to read recipes and other source materials, but if she had trouble simply conversing with the callers, even on the most innocuous of subjects. She would hem and haw and ultimately say very little. We finally figured out it was because her husband listened to the show every day and critiqued it every night, and the net effect was that no matter what we told her at the office, she became afraid to express herself for fear of getting a bad review at home.
I may have been the sidekick/producer/board operator in those early days, but I don’t think it was a regular gig for me; at 30 years’ distance, I simply can’t remember anymore. And I can’t recall how long the show lasted; I’m fairly sure it was no more than a few months. Our rebooted Cracker Barrel was an anachronism in 1985, as I suspected it might be. Every now and then the green radio man I was back then turned out to be right.
(Pictured: the space shuttle Challenger peers through the fog as it awaits launch.)
January 23, 1986, is a Thursday. In men’s college basketball, Minnesota beats Wisconsin 67-65 in Madison. Tomorrow, three Minnesota players will be arrested for sexually assaulting an 18-year-old woman at a hotel after the game. Minnesota will forfeit its scheduled game against Northwestern on Sunday, and coach Jim Dutcher will resign over the incident. Scientists examining photos of Uranus taken by the Voyager II spacecraft discover a new moon orbiting the planet, which will be named Bianca. The launch of the space shuttle Challenger is postponed for a second straight day. It will be postponed three more times before being launched on
Monday, Tuesday, when it will explode 73 seconds into its flight, killing the crew. The New York Times reports that claims by Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos that he was a guerrilla resistance leader during the World War II Japanese occupation of the Philippines are false. The federal government reported yesterday that the economy grew in 1985 at the slowest rate since the recession year of 1982. In Gainesville, Florida, police dog Gero is killed in the line of duty while attempting to apprehend an armed robbery suspect. In today’s Calvin and Hobbes, Calvin tries a new plan to get out of going to school.
In Los Angeles, Luther Vandross has been charged with vehicular manslaughter and reckless driving after a crash earlier this month that killed one person and injured four others. In December, he will plead no contest and get probation. The first class is inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, James Brown, Jerry Lee Lewis, Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, the Everly Brothers, Little Richard, Alan Freed, Sam Phillips, Jimmie Rodgers, Jimmy Yancey, Robert Johnson, and John Hammond. The Beatles are ineligible because by rule, inductees must be at least 25 years removed from their first hit record. Three days before the Super Bowl, the opposing quarterbacks, Jim McMahon of the Chicago Bears and Tony Eason of the New England Patriots, appear on the Today Show along with NFL wives and NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle. On TV tonight, ABC airs the movie Grease 2 and 20/20; NBC’s lineup includes The Cosby Show, Family Ties, Cheers, Night Court, and Hill Street Blues; CBS airs Magnum P. I., Simon and Simon, and Knots Landing.
AC/DC plays Edinburgh, Scotland, and Hot Tuna plays Boston. Motley Crue plays Essen, Germany, and KISS plays St. Louis. Aerosmith plays Reno, Nevada, and Stevie Ray Vaughan plays Utica, New York. At WKTI in Milwaukee, the station’s new music survey comes out tomorrow. “Burning Heart” by Survivor leaps to #1, displacing “Goodbye” by Night Ranger. The biggest mover in the Top 10 is “How Will I Know” by Whitney Houston, moving from #7 to #2. New in the Top 10 are “When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Going” by Billy Ocean at #8 and “Kyrie” by Mr. Mister at #9. The biggest mover within the station’s Top 30 is “These Dreams” by Heart (#26 to #19). Also moving up big are “Life in a Northern Town” by Dream Academy (to #12 from #18) and “Nikita” by Elton John (to #23 from #29). The highest debuting new song of the week is “The Sweetest Taboo” by Sade at #26.
Perspective From the Present: In January 1986, I had just begun doing the morning show on WKAI. I pushed the buttons on a 90-minute farm and news block from 5:30 to 7AM, then did what was intended to be a wacky morning show from 7 to 10. As I have noted before, my partner and I weren’t being coached by anybody, and whatever entertaining stuff we came up with was mostly by accident. My working day was usually over between 12:30 and 1:00. The Mrs. was selling advertising for a regional magazine, so I’d get home in the afternoon to a quiet house and usually take a nap. Because I was program director, I was on call 24/7, so my naps were frequently interrupted. In January, I would have still put up with those interruptions. It wasn’t until spring that I started taking my phone off the hook. In later years I’ve realized that my career was never the same after that. I was never again as obsessed with radio as I had been until then.
Last Sunday, as we drove home from out of town, we listened to the Packer game on the radio. One of the stations we tuned in was located in a very small town.
As we listened, I was struck by how little the sound of small-market radio production has changed since I was doing it 20 or even 30 years ago. The quality of the ads still varies wildly. Some announcers sound really good, but some have what I call the “small-market lilt.” The lilt is hard to define—it’s a vocal timbre, and/or way of speaking, and/or style of reading copy that sounds less than entirely professional. Sometimes people have it because they can’t help themselves; it’s the way they talk. And sometimes people have it because they haven’t been coached. Sketchy or nonexistent coaching of air talent is extremely common at small-market stations. There’s either nobody with time to do it—which was the problem I had when I was a program director—or nobody who is qualified to do it. As a result, bad habits learned early in a broadcaster’s career become lifelong traits.
Small-market commercial production suffers from another problem it’s had for years—the quality of the scripts. Radio consultant Dan O’Day says that the first job of every commercial is to identify a problem the listener has and then solve it, but even large-market and ad agency scripts don’t always do this. It occurred to me during the Packers broadcast that the ads I was hearing on that little station were like billboards: they told who the advertisers were and what they did, but that was about it. They didn’t offer to solve a problem.
Except for meeting my “needs,” of course. Identifying a listener’s need (as distinct from a problem) is a valid approach to scripting an ad, and nearly every spot I heard over the hour or so we listened included the word “needs” in some form. But those needs were to be met only in the most general sense—your automotive needs, grocery needs, floral needs, farm-equipment needs—as opposed to a specific need and solution, such as “your car needs an oil change every 3,000 miles, so bring it to So-And-So Auto Repair for your next change and get a special price.” It’s not just this one station, either. Small-market advertisers everywhere love to meet your needs, and small-market radio stations love to tell you so, even though nobody talks that way in the real world: “Gosh, Bob, for all my carpet-cleaning needs, I rely on So-And-So Incorporated.” (A friend of mine remembers with equal parts amusement and horror the time he was handed a script that included the phrase “for all your grave-blanket needs.”)
Sometimes you’ll hear about needs in an expanded form that adds additional horseshit: “Make ___ your headquarters for all your ____ needs,” which is a giant blinking red light and siren warning of lazy hackwork. Such a phrase even shows a certain contempt for the listener—that you think your audience is so stupid that they’ll be persuaded to act on the basis of such weak sauce when you know you wouldn’t be. No radio station or client should accept it, but many do, again because there’s either nobody with time to critique ad copy, nobody who feels qualified to do it, or there’s nobody who cares.
It’s not always the broadcasters’ fault that this stuff gets on the air, though. Many advertisers have heard “needs” and “headquarters” and related ad clichés so often that they’re comfortable with them. They think radio ads are supposed to sound like that, and they’re happy to pay for ads that do. I once worked on an ad for a client who had never done radio before—creative copy, character voices, sound effects—but he kept sending it back for revisions. He was unable to articulate precisely what he didn’t like about it, and the sales rep was unable to pin him down. Exasperated after several rounds of this, I wrote a 60-second dry read (no music) containing every advertising cliché I could think of, starting with “Make ___ your headquarters for all your ___ needs.”
You can guess where this is going.
The client pronounced it the best radio ad he’d ever heard.
(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.
(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.
(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.