Tuesday, September 15, 2020

32 years in Broadcasting- "My How Things Have Changed!"

 (From writing I did a few years back, pictures had to be cut and pasted so not the best resolution)

On September 15, 1988, I entered WBCK radio for the first time; to learn Sunday morning operation of the radio console and be able to have my voice on the air a few times each hour introducing programming, and reading weather, maybe gathering some news.  

Back then, which is not even a half of a lifetime ago, our programming was called “full service.” It meant the station had news, sports, music, and live personalities bringing you some insight, some chuckles, or, some  words of wisdom which the audience takes as being more important from you than if it was heard on the street, because it was heard “on the radio.”   To bring that programming to you, there were things you won't see in today's broadcasting world.  Walls of cartridge tapes containing songs that played in endless loops.  There were rules  of how they played, too:  After you play one from the stack, turn it over, until they ALL are, (turned)  then flip 'em all back up! That was usually a weekender's job, but we'd cheat, of course and pick our favorites from the middle of the stack, or wherever they located.   In other parts of the room were found rotating stacks of the same kind of tapes containing station commercials and public service announcements, analog meters that never stopped moving...cassette tapes...and even albums!  The walls had cork glued up on them over the original white 12” acoustic tiles, and in the equipment rack behind the control board there was even a patch-bay which completed the landline phone circuit from a local church to the studios for a Sunday morning broadcast. The control board was big, long, with huge black control knobs,  and when you sat at it, you knew you were staring at the heart of the station. 

 It was a real STUDIO, and felt and looked to me like what every listener thought it should, on the rare chance they got to visit and see their local radio personality. It just had that “right” feel to it...like a building that knows it's purpose.   In the 1980's, radio studios really hadn't come a long way since, say, the 1940's versions, except that the on-air announcer was running his own control board, without an engineer doing the audio mixing.  CD's were new to radio in the late 80's, and some programs were played from them for daily broadcast, but it wasn't unusual to see reel-to-reel tape decks in racks, playing half-hour shows, too. 

The station was mine on Sunday mornings, and after the news-calls to local authorities, I could wander the station room to room to peek, poke, and learn all I could learn, and yes, I did.  I saw the forms that were used to write commercials for proper length, read miles of  news copy written by the pros, and yes, I read things on people's desks behind unlocked and open doors. Never did I use this information for the “bad” but rather to learn more about what happens during the week at the station. I wasn't really sure how I'd ever put this information to use, but even back then, it seemed important to know more than just what was going on in the booth. 

By the 1990's, not much had changed. By the time the radio became my home on AM 970, studios still used tape cartridges, but the control board was a bit more “modern” with slide controls. There was still a studio turntable, but most of the equipment was generally the same. The neat part for me was because this was a night job, I had the same luxury I enjoyed back on Sunday mornings: reading forms, memos, and other papers left in view, plus wandering the station to observe the types of equipment used in the transmitter room, newsroom, and other areas.  Computers were only being used in offices back then to track payroll, print documents and conduct business. The average person was not involved in “I-T” or any kind of computer use. Fax was still the leader in business document communications, and you had a "fax room" for it because it was used so much!  I can recall proudly faxing in assignments to my college professor from WKHM on days that attendance in college seemed “optional.” 

AM 970 was my stomping grounds for real fulltime radio. I had around two or so years of nights along with fill-ins for our midday host Tom Krawzyck, and sometimes afternoons for Chris Kelley or Ken Friend. I learned so much, and it was during this time that I started forming my ideal path on which I thought radio would eventually lead me.  Somehow we never get the full picture when we're in the early stages of a career of what may come to us along the way, but if you work hard, and let things happen...they do.  I'm afraid that my faith in this kind of path for newcomers to broadcasting  is weaker today as I see less interest in the craft,  and less willingness to pay one's dues to any career.  It seems at least in this nation that we're more into “give me, I deserve it” than, “reward me for work well done"....but, I digress. 

While I held the job in Jackson, I applied to a station in Lansing I very much admired, and listened-to!  A well known country station, WITL's call letters stood for quality in country music, in radio, and in everything they did.  If you became part of of that team, you were among the BEST.  I sent a resume and tape, met their Program Director, and landed a regular Saturday night gig...in a studio with technology better than that of WKHM... 

Up the road a few miles, (33 or so) in Lansing, the Program Director at WITL, the late Jay J. McCrae had brought computers into his studios.  Not to playback audio, but to replace all the paper cards and notebooks of PSA's, Liners, and things the announcer would read, so common in most studios.  These are the things announcers read between songs.  His computers at that time scared the hell out of me! This was the early days of  Microsoft Windows, and a person with no computer skills could easily lose  the important on-screen information!  Even the part-timers with weekend shows at WITL read information from those computers, and it was also there that  I was introduced to the 'CD cart deck” which let us deliver CD quality sound on FM without the announcers' assumingly grubby fingers ever touching the actual CD! How cool it was to be around this technology on the weekend after a week of nights on AM 970! I'd never have guessed back then that in my future,  studios would be completely run by computers, and so much more flexible in what we can do with them! 

Today, my ideal studio is a mix of analog audio and digital automation. I think a studio should make you feel “radio” when you walk in. There has to be some kind of “feel” to the studio that makes those who work in it, and guests visiting it feel like they're at a real radio station not just a small studio which is part of corporate America.  WION's studios, for instance, utilize refurbished analog control boards, attached to computers with the latest in digital audio automation and recording. The rooms don't feel sterile, they feel like...radio. 


It may be only my perception of radio having spent nearly the last 3 decades in the business, but, I believe that the energy and thoughts that transpire in the studio translate to the listener at a level much higher than just duplicating the content spoken or played by the announcer. If, for example, the studio is sterile looking and has that look of a “Bones” episode on TV, how can the people working in it feel like they're communicating through a warm medium to people in homes, offices, cars, or waiting rooms?  Radio is a warm medium, and to me, it starts with the studios making the talent comfortable. That includes guests and hosts, both.   WION has a round table in the studio, which, at times comes to life with many local guests, and mirrors the one we had at WKHM many years earlier.  I have to admit, I'd not really thought about the similarity of the two studios in that respect, until now.


Along my path in radio through quite a few stations,  most of the technology remained unchanged overall, and computers didn't seem needed.  We'd already introduced computer playback of our content on WLKI in the 90's, but still had announcers there 24/7.  It seemed odd at first to not have tapes and CD's,  and I can still remember the first meeting when we were introduced to “The Saw” (Software Audio Workshop), and eventually “Cool Edit.”  Yes, we all wondered if the computer was there to replace us, but the station continued live 24/7 for many years, until sold, when the new owner made massive cuts and instituted more multitasking from  those remaining, with the work of “announcing” falling to more voice-tracking recorded on computer servers. 

Rewind, however to a few years after computers entered the studio at WLKI.  That's when I became the Operations Manager of station WEAX at Tri-State University. Here, they had the worst technology you could imagine..a multi-disc CD player plugged into a board, and left unattended. A jukebox.  Totally illegal. No legal ID's, nobody on transmitter control, and later, when taking over as Ops. Manager, I found they had not even kept a public file....but again, I digress.  I got them into computer automation, found an alumnus who donated a few thousand dollars for a real set of control boards, and we were up and running 24/7.  Without computers, the station would  have remained illegal, unmanned, and probably not on the air. With a minimal student staff performing real jobs within our studios, a remote controlled transmitter, and the new technology, the TSU station was brought back to being noticed in the community. Technology was a big part of the revival. 

And that's where we are today.  You, as a listener enjoy your favorite music, or feature show, or news each hour, but chances are, it's got some computer interaction. In the case of WION,  we augment the automation with so much localism in-between songs and events that most listeners don't know we're not sitting in the studio.  We pre-record some shows to meet the schedules of our talent, and, we use technology not to replace human interaction, but to make it possible for us to exist. We're darn proud of our way of doing things, though all it really is, is good execution of the same basics we learned as “green” radio announces, coupled with knowing the capabilities of our computers to help us sound our best.  Sadly, in this day and age of multiple station ownership, there's more errors than applause for most radio stations' on air sound, and more mistakes made, because of people not taking pride in their craft, their jobs, and their stations.  I'd like to think at WION we stand out as an example of modern radio excellence in small town America, and that people notice us because of it.   

But, in closing, don't let me forget to say, our studios still have that comfortable mix of analog warmth (control boards, equipment,) and evidence of human existence in them (personal items, coffee rings on the counter, papers, and things used daily in “living” with radio.)  THAT makes WION unique. It's people.  People and programming working together to serve a small community, and our county.  OH, and so I don't forget, the man in the picture to the right? That's my dad. On the first day we signed on WION and saved it's license.  I never saw him more proud.  He's with me each day in the studio, and on our station website.  I think of him often, and he's a huge part of why I'm now so deep into a career in radio.  Not because he chose it for me, but because he encouraged me along the way.  Thanks, Reg. You were the BEST!

From  the WION Website:

The Rev. Reginald Angus, Episcopal Deacon, Retired. in the "command module" of the station, Autumn 2004 as he visited. Looks "right at home" at the microphone!

"Thanks for the memories, the voice, and your encouragement!"

March 10, 1914-March 19, 2005

Go, In Peace!



Saturday, September 5, 2020

Going Home Again, Memories of a Mill.

 Note:  This was written as noted in August of 2020, but I never published it as a blog. I have added some text to it to honor Elaine Saunders, Dean's wife, who passed away today...remembering how wonderful it was to be adopted by the Saunders' and how much they contributed to my life, and that of my friend Dave who is included in this writing. 

Mixed emotions this August 9, 2020

Today I returned to Addison, the town from which I graduated high school. The town in which I lived when my mom passed away, and the town that I think of as my “original” home town. My family moved there from Wamplers Lake (Brooklyn, MI) area in about 1975, I graduated from high school there,  in 1982.

I got a call yesterday from my friend Ray who still lives in Addison.  He told me the sawmill where I worked as a young man in high school had been sold, and there was a barn sale going on.  Please don’t get the idea I was ever a "good" woodworker, or even a great mill employee.  I was an employee. The Saunders family is a good family, and Dean, the operator of the mill back then was also a teacher at our high school.  I never had him for shop or mechanical drawing, but my best friend Dave knew I wanted a job, and suggested I come to work there, my first job being the emptying of maple sap buckets in preparation for the making of maple syrup.   It must have been an early Easter that year, I can remember working Good Friday and getting sap on my clothes from wind blowing suddenly while collecting and dumping the buckets.

Working at the mill was a year round job. While the mill was not heated in the winter nor cooled in the summer, it was a job!  I was so proud to have a job in high school, and remember sitting in my last period class which was advanced math (I sat up front because I was not a good student of it, the desks arranged after each test with the worst scores in front)…and looking forward to going home and working!   Working meant spending money for tubes, parts for TV sets, buying used TVs to fix, pizza, and just generally having money to spend.  When you think about it, the best financial times you can have are when the roof over your head and the heat, lights, and food on the table are bought by your parents….or in my case my Father.

My work at the mill included those things that I was best qualified to do. I was never the one who could set up a moulder (makes the trim and moulding for your doors and windows)…nor was I good at setting up and operating anything there except maybe the single-sided planer.  I was, however good at getting the boiler up to steam quickly and efficiently, good at being “quality control” while I stacked the moulding, trim, and other orders as they came OUT Of equipment, and at doing as I was told.  I was careful, I showed up on time, seldom took a day off, did as I was instructed, and I guess those qualities along with guidance on each job from my best friend Dave was enough that I was worth the paycheck in the eyes of Mr. Saunders.

But I learned there. Oh, did I learn!  We not only made maple syrup, but in proper season: sorghum, and a few times even apple butter all powered by the steam of the huge boiler.  I once cut sorghum in the field and felt like a migrant worker, I once  changed the teeth in the sawmill circular blade, went along a few times with the owner and Dave to sites where logs were to be picked up, loaded on the large truck, and usually had the job of stacking lumber in the sawmill part of the operation after it went through the edger.  Dave’s job was to take any lumber coming down from the sawmill carriage and rollers, decide the width it would be cut, and run it through the edger, trimming off rough edges for me to then stack the final boards.  The boards were placed on rolling carts, but the carts were not “permanently assembled.” They were two sets of wheels, the weight of a 4x4 on each end being just enough to keep them upright on rails when they weren't loaded, then the increasing weight of the lumber made sure they stayed in an upright position.  A few times, the cart’s wheels would give, and the lumber would tumble….Dave always teased me when that happened, and it held up production in the sawmill, but I actually did get pretty good at keeping the carts well stacked, and knowing where the wider boards and narrower ones would best go to tie-together a load, before it was taken to the upper mill for air drying. 

The wheels we built into carts by loading them with the weight of wood

The “upper” (finish) mill was where wood was dried in the steam powered kiln, and the planing, sanding, edging, making of moulding, and other wood "finish"  operations were done.  There was a huge electrical box on one wall that started up the large and powerful electric motor which then ran much of the equipment via huge line shafts above our heads.  The belts from the line shafts could be as wide as a foot or so, many were smaller…To start the overhead line shaft going, you threw a huge lever toward the wall on a large black (ancient) electrical box, held it there til the speed "felt" right, then pulled the lever from the back or “startup” position through it's rest position to the front  “run” position.  After a few times doing it and watching the bulbs dim in the mill, you had a feeling for how long to keep the lever in startup before getting everything up to speed. 

The "Start Box" for the one motor running the line shafts for the equpment

Today, there's no way high school students could work at a sawmill/finish mill. Too many regulations to protect the kind of employee that would hurt themselves. Dave and I were not that kind. We knew the dangers of each machine, Dean, the owner made sure we did, and he trusted us to work like adults.  It was a prideful thing to have that job. The job paid around $3-something or 4-something per hour back in about 1979, and the hours added up quickly. In the school  year, it was 3-6PM after school. On weekends, Saturday was a work day, often finished by mid afternoon unless it was a big-order day or a sawing day. Sundays we did not work, holidays we did not work, my memory tells me we did work some “snow days” from school, however.  Carharts were the recommended winter wear, heavy boots, and very heavy work gloves. In the summer, jeans, T-shirts, and lots of liquids to drink. What I did learn back then, but at the time may not have appreciated has now become priceless in memory, and still a prideful thing.  How many people today have seen apple butter made in a copper kettle?  Or, been part of collecting maple sap the old fashioned way...and firing the boiler that helped it become syrup....or even know how the trim in their home came to be (beyond going to Menards or Lowes and buying it!)....We made that kind of trim. We sold rough boards, planed boards, and helped make things for customers. In the sawmill, I learned not only how to stack lumber, but how to be efficient, how to keep up the pace with a determined best friend who I think got a kick out of watching me occasionally fall behind, who would then yell, "Stack them boards, and stack 'em FAST!" as they came of the sawmill's edger. 

There were steam operated pumps that refilled the boiler from the return tank....one of the pumps was the well pump itself, and we drank right out of the pipe some very cold, very fresh water on the hottest of days inside the boiler house.  After each “feeding” of the boiler with sawdust, and watching the initial fire grow with the huge air draw it had, you always wet down the area in front of the boiler...and swept back any sawdust that flew from the collection bin, sent through large piping from the upper mill.  We had it drilled in our heads (politely) how to be responsible around equipment that only “adults” should run or be near, yet we not only survived, we learned, we were proud, and we were treated well! 

In the summer, the Saunders family was a part of the event commonly called the Wauseon Steamshow, or properly named, the “Threshers' Reunion.” It meant we had a week of work, but it was now offsite, at the fairgrounds in Wauseon, Ohio.  Saunders' owned a steam tractor, a Port Huron, and took it there each year. It was part of the daily tractor parade. It was the only one on site that had a locomotive generator on it and electrical lighting under it's canopy. During that week in the summer, Dave and I would work the sawmill at the event, and get paid by the Threshers' reunion and by the Saunders!  Dean, our boss supplied many if not all of the logs for sawing and had to haul the wood back to Addison as well.  In essence, we were on display for a crowd that may never have seen a real sawmill (portable in this case) ..let alone one run by a steam tractor.  The flea market was always great, and one year in my memory the family was on vacation, and so Dave was in charge, and we still took part in the Wauseon event. I still try to go to the yearly event if possible, though in 2020, like with many things, it was canceled by the mess our country is in called “Covid-19.” My last trip there was about 3 years ago, and the memories of our years working there are still vivid and cherished.

It's hard for many of my friends of today to believe I ever worked in a place like the mill. It's hard for me sometimes to realize how many years have gone by.  I wouldn't trade the memories for anything.  At the close of each day it was a short walk up Saunders Street to home for me, and about 3 houses farther for Dave. I went home to dinner with my father, Dave went home to his family...and we'd do it all again the next day.  When I worked there, I knew it was indeed WORK. There were things I liked to do more than others, there were things that scared me, and there were things I never was good at doing. I believe that I was allowed to work because there's always the need of the person who can tell when a running machine has a problem...either by the sound of the equipment or a change in what comes out the “finished” end. That was me. I was a gopher, a stand-er at the end of machines, and a stacker of lumber. I was good at stacking at the sawmill after I got the hang of it...and really, the sawmill hours went quickly...though they were probably the most demanding.

I knew when working there that I didn't want to do manual labor my whole life for a vocation....but also knew there was nothing wrong WITH doing it. It was many times a rather heated discussion with my buddy Dave, but it seemed to end well most times. I had no idea and no plan for my life yet, because you have to remember both Dave and I were still in high school.  By the time I graduated, I thought engineering would be my direction, but I was not good at the math. Ironically, my best buddy ended up in engineering his whole life, and I ended up performing on the radio, something I'd never considered in school at all.

It's 40-plus years since I was invited to go to work at the mill. Many years since Dean wrote us paychecks in the upstairs office of the Saunders' home, and we'd proudly cash them and go to Jackson to buy work clothes (which wore out fast)...or stereo equipment, or whatever was on the  mind of a couple of best buddies who in high school were inseparable. Good at arguing, but inseparable.  Dave was adopted by my father, and considered family. Dave flew up from Texas for my father's funeral...which was one of the highest compliments to my father, and to me.  We've fought, we've been like brothers, we've kept in touch more lately than in the intervening years, and I'm grateful so much for the brother-like friendship.

Looping back to the start of this rambling; On the way driving down to Addison from my radio station to visit the sale, the mill, and the US 127 event, many memories came back to me of growing up on Saunders Street, working at the mill, and of my high school years. I was grateful for one last chance to visit this place while it's still as close to what it was as can be expected after years of weathering and not being in operation. I took around 80 pictures. I sat on the same forklift I learned to drive back then.  I walked in front of the boiler I used to fire,  went up the steps of the boiler house, and saw the machinery that paid for my high school fun.  I was nervous along the drive as to how it would feel, now that our former boss, Dean Saunders has passed away...and now that the house my father owned and in which I lived on Saunders Street is in it's second ownership since I locked it for the last time.  How was I going to handle  the experience which I describe the most as “bittersweet.” I knew it was a goodbye to the physical remains of part of my boyhood and growing up. It was the last chance to walk in the walls of the mill and relive some memories, despite some equipment being there only as ghosts.

(Added 9-5--20) It should be noted now, as I edit and publish this piece almost a month from the orignal writing, that I just received word of the passing of Elaine (Saunders), Dean's wife and one of my "adopted" mothers. Elaine's smile is what I will remember most, greeting me at their door, and she was very good at hugs, and making everyone feel like family. She was one of my adopted mothers after my mom passed away as I was literally a few days into high school.  As I complete this addition to the story, I know what I'll remember is Elaine's incredible outpouring of enthusiasm for life, that smile, and evenings I visited she and Dean in their living room for wonderful conversation.   I'm saddened at her passing, as she had recently reconnected with me on Facebook and had some wonderful things to say about my posts...though I've never felt I was important enough to "follow.' Elaine: you are already missed, but remembered fondly.

The Saunders'  and not just their mill were a wonderful and very big part of my growing up in small town America, a time that will not come again for anyone, as our technology-laden, lawsuit-crazy, cover-your-behind world has robbed the young people of today of having the kind of growing up I've described here.  I am SO grateful for my parents' move to Addison, for the people I met there, and the care of the community there for each other.  I'm grateful I had the chance to deliver newspapers to half the town (Dave had the other half)....and for graduating from a school where people really knew each other and each other's families.

80 pictures later, and driving home from my visit to the old mill grounds, I thanked the Lord for my growing up in Addison and what I had learned, and the people who trusted me.  To this day, I'm not sure why Dean kept me as an employee, with my tiny knowledge of wood, and bigger interest in electronics, but he was an honest man, honest boss, and a good human being. He gave me a chance at my first real job after my paper route.  The Saunders family adopted Dave and I, we were welcome anytime at their home, and they became very close. The times HAVE changed. but the friendships and the memories live-on.  Before writing this, I just spent the better part of an hour on the phone with Dave, now in Texas with his family.  I shared the pictures with him, we both had a few virtual tears and memories together, and I want to leave you with one last "event" of the mill that I think is very unique.

Since my father died in 2005, I've had a few coins of his, saved in a jar, and a few sequential bills he liked to save as well. Recently, I had the few coins appraised and had just enough to take on the US 127 garage sale circuit which goes right through the center of my old hometown. I'd sold the coins and taken the money with me on the day of my nostalgic visit to the mill.  Dave and I had spoken on the phone, and decided  that if there was anything from the mill which I thought he'd like to have or re-purpose in his home, he'd like me to let him know.  I called him from the sale, but at the time, he wasn't ready to have me buy anything, (like a wooden pulley or a saw blade)....but...it occurred to me, he was not wanting me to “bother.”  However, it also occurred to me  if I spent my FATHER's money on something for him, he couldn't argue with me or feel like it was a bother, or that it required repayment. So, that's just what I did.  Dave will have a large wooden pulley from somewhere in the mill, and a saw blade from the firewood cut-off saw (or maybe it's from the edger we don't know)...for his home. Gifts from my father, whom we shared,  who not only adopted Dave, but allowed me to work at the mill in the first place. 

So, I bought Dave the large wooden pulley, and a saw blade....It seemed the right thing to do...and tonight on the phone, Dave didn't argue with me since it was Reg's money, not mine.  I'm certain both Reg and Dean are smiling that Dave and I shared this last chapter of our working together.  Reg would be happy to buy Dave this gift and...I was happy to make it happen....and I can't wait to see what my best friend of so many years makes from the pulley we may have seen every day back in our days of working together.

(example of the large wooden pulleys on the overhead line shaft)

He'll have the mementos, I have the memories, the pictures...and so many great stories to tell of working in high school in a place young people now will never appreciate. We both, actually, have wonderful memories.

Thank you, Dean for the work, the teachings, the opportunity, and the trust in me....and thank you Reg, (my father) for the permission to work at the mill while in school, the roof over my head while I did, and the wonderful antique  radio I found on the “trail” this weekend after visiting the mill. And, thank you for buying a last and very fitting gift to Dave, as a final way of (Reg) saying, "Dave, you're part of the family."

And now, I return to my work....behind a microphone...with stories to tell, and this is one of them.