When I was in college I worked for a radio station as a radio disc jockey. I pulled two shifts a week – Saturday night from 6:00 PM until sign-off (about midnight), and Sunday afternoon from noon until 6:00 PM. Yes, I know – not the typical after school type college job, but I always thought I was cut out for different things, which I’m still trying to figure out today! There have been so many technical advancements since then, but I thought my story might provide some inspiration to readers who may consider the possibility of doing something different with their lives.
The Reality of Working as a Radio Disc Jockey
I’ve seen so many movies and TV shows (“Frazier,” “Good Morning, World,” “WKRP,” and Good Morning Vietnam, American Graffiti, and FM) supposedly showing the inner workings of a radio studio, that one of my justifications for this piece is to declare all of those “bunk” and “hogwash.” The real story is different. Much of it is repetitious, “housekeeping,” and lacking the opportunity for the shenanigans depicted by producers and writer. Except for Hugh Wilson, few likely ever pushed open a heavy sound-proof door.
Here was my reality…My shift started at 6:00 PM, but that didn’t mean I walked in, sat down and started playing music then. I usually arrived at the station around 5:15, checked with the announcer on duty about anything unusual going on and started “pulling” my music. Back then stations had huge libraries of albums, all carefully cataloged on shelves (there’s my age coming through). My goal was to pull enough music to last at least two hours.
How did you figure how much music to have ready? Simple math. The average song ran about 3 minutes. At this station, there was a five minute news cast at the top and bottom (or :30) of the hour.
Commercials ran the allowable maximum of 18 minutes per hour. This left about 32 minutes to fill. With ad-libbing and miscellaneous material (weather, phone “dedications,” public service announcements) subtracted, that meant you needed about 10 songs per hour. You always padded your supply since your mood might swing in a different direction.
With my selected albums stacked aside, I got something to drink, went to the bathroom, checked with the news wire, and hung out in the studio until time for the transition. At the sound of the hour chime, I stepped in and relieved the guy, who was only too gratefully to take off the headphones. He’d sign off the commercial and engineering log, gathered his plunder, and leave. I signed on to the transmitter log sheet (where I would record on an hourly basis) the various meter readings on the huge electronic cabinets on the other side of the glass window in the studio, arranged my first batch of records, signed on to the commercial log, and put on the headphones.
I then set up my first two musical selections on the turntables on either side of the control panel. I glanced at the clock to see how much time was left on the network broadcast, then looked at the commercial log. Checking to see what spots were coming first, I swiveled my chair 180º to face the shelves filled with “carts” – plastic boxes filled with loops of magnetic tape on which commercials were recorded. Stations had different systems for organizing them; sometimes they were by sponsor’s name, subdivided by length. Some were set up by the order they were to be played that day. However, they were stored, I selected enough to fill all the available cart machines, loading them in order from top to bottom so I wouldn’t have to think too hard about which button to push to start them.
There was also a large three-ring binder mounted in front of the control “board” that had scripts for live commercials, community news notes, public service announcements and promotional material. If the spot was to be read, the log noted “LIVE” with the code number of the page to be used. Some the spots were marked “Guaranteed Time,” meaning they had to be aired at exactly the moment listed on the log.
The hourly newscast was ending, so I adjusted the headphones, turned the volume control (or “pot,” for “potentiometer) on my mike down to zero, and flipped open the switch. One hand was on that control knob, the other was on the first record I would play, turntable already spinning, but the record held in place by a “slip cut.” When my cue to start the show came, I spun the put up to the correct setting, flipped off the network switch and started. After I said what I was going to, I turned the pot down to zero, switched off the mike, and noted on the commercial log the time I started.
We’re On The Air
And so it would go for six hours. Every 45 minutes I would take out the used albums and gather a few more, check the wire machine, call the weather bureau to get the current conditions (they were usually recorded by their staff, so all you had to do was call and write down what the recording said). Legally I had to write down the transmitter readings hourly, but sometimes that slipped by. As soon as I recalled I neglected that duty, I made it up by completing the form, using the appropriate (though likely inaccurate) time the readings should have been done. As each commercial was played, the time of its start and stop was recorded on the log page.
As the end neared a close, I’d select an instrumental song, note its running time, and set it up on a spare turntable. The concept was to start it with the volume at zero when there was that much time before the hourly chime. When the last song was ending, I would fade that cued and “dead-potted” piece up and have a musical “bed” for the close of the hour.
Occasionally there would be phone calls from listeners, wanting to hear specific songs, or asking me to dedicate a tune to someone special. We had an elderly lady who phoned every time she heard an emergency vehicle to tell the man on duty (“Sirens are running!”).
The half hour newscasts were usually written by the news director before leaving for the day. They were basically generic and good to cover until the next morning. The scripts were in the control room to be used every hour. It helped to check the wire every so often so a story was not outdated, especially if there was the possibility there might be new developments. You also needed to check for updated sports scores, since listeners always called to ask for those.
The station was always doing promotional broadcasts and notes about them were in the book or tacked to the wall. Reading them was not ever noted in the log, but they made great “filler” when it seemed there had been too much music and not enough voice.
The later in the show I went, the more creative I would be with musical selections, sometimes trying to create a mood by stringing together special pieces, or by honoring an artist or event. My emotions sometimes got the better of me. I recall one night around 10:45 playing an Italian trumpeter’s performance of “Il Silenzio,” a variation on “Taps.” It choked me up pretty bad when I had to come back on the air. But this was the fun part of the job – it was a chance to be creative, and that’s why anyone goes into any entertainment or creative medium in the first place.
There were no network newscasts at 11:00 PM, so I had to take off from the wire machine a prepared hourly newscast. I’d read that one time, then trash it.
Winding Down Another Day at the Radio Station
After that 11:00 news I began the housekeeping – re-shelving the used albums, throwing away cups and trash, putting cartridges back in their shelves, “stripping the wire machine” (clearing it of all material), hanging material the next day’s newsman would want to have on “pegs,” and making certain the paper would not run out overnight.
In the last half hour, after that last newscast (which was then dutifully placed on the newsman’s desk or mailbox) the final cleanup started. As each album was played, it was re-shelved. The final transmitter readings were taken and a final check of the commercial log made to be certain all the spots had been run as scheduled.
When the clock showed 11:59:00 PM, the last music was faded down and out and a recording was started: “This is Radio Station WXXX, AM and FM, operating on assigned frequencies of 1340 kilocycles and 95.5 megahertz [later than became “kilohertz” and “megahertz”] with a power of 1,000 watts and 50,000 watts. The station is owned and operated by…”
All the legal information was playing while I made the final transmitter entries and stood by the power switch. As the last notes of the “Star Spangled Banner” rang out, I hit the power button, killed the transmitter (made certain it was off), turned off the lights, and headed for the door and home.
Rinse and Repeat – Another Day in the Broadcast Booth
Sunday afternoon was not much different except most of the time there were ball games on, and all I needed to do then was to record the time of the network commercials and state a casual station ID when cued to do so by the sports network.
There was one chore on Sunday I messed up once or twice. The radio network aired an audio version of the Sunday talk show, two versions – one, the full-length interview, running about 55 minutes, and a shorter, 28 minute version for stations not wanting to run the full hour program.
Using the phone lines, they fed the short version later in the afternoon, the idea being for us to record it for later use. Twice in my career there I forgot to record the long version, and thought I would be smart and record the second feed (at the time I didn’t realize it was shortened!) So, twice the guy who followed me on Sunday night had to scramble and fill the time when he aired the condensed broadcast. I think the station complained to the network, claiming they were fed the wrong broadcast; I know I didn’t get called on it.
I’m not going to lie – it was fun as a disc jockey. Being on the radio, no one knew what I looked like, so I never got stopped on the street. And I threw my voice into a lower register (something I wish I could do these days!) so my normal speaking voice didn’t give away who I was either. But knowing there were people out there who had me on was a complete “turn on.” Pretty ego-boosting and not as back-breaking or challenging as work I would later do.
What the listeners never knew was all the behind-the-scenes activity that had to be handled. On the air it sounded smooth – so organized, so planned, so professional. I can tell you from experience, though, there were times when I was diving madly back into the control room, slamming a disc on the turntable and hoping for the best.
Have you ever thought of being an entertainer? Do you know someone in the media? Have they ever shared with you all the unseen work that goes into getting a program on the air?