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!



No comments:

Post a Comment