Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Back When We Pushed Buttons

For some years now, I’ve been wondering what was so different about those “good old days” of radio back in the 60s and 70s. (Yeah, I realize I’ve just come out as a Geezer, but there are some things a man simply must do.)

A large part of the difference between Then and Now would be the use of the controlled playlist: here’s today’s song sequence from which you shall not deviate. You will play this one followed by that one followed by the other one—and so on until the next person (if any) comes on duty.

At least that’s the way it was until computerization rendered humans quaintly superfluous. Until sometime in the middle 1980s, DJs actually handled discs—compact discs in this case. We’d pick ‘em from the wall rack according to the playlist, cue ‘em up (meaning we’d insert one into the playback machine and set it to the proper track) and fire ‘em off at the exact moment so as to never let that VU meter drop (aka Dead Air). The process worked the same with vinyl records and turntables, though one had to learn to “lead” the turntable so it wouldn’t “wow up.” (Didn’t we have some lovely terms Back When?)

It was in the early 90s when some nameless Spawn Of Satan figured out that all the music a station played could be recorded into a computer hard drive and played back complete with jingles, promos and commercials without the need for human intervention. Go back and read that part another time or two, for it summarizes the entire decline and fall of Radio. I’ll wait.

“Without the need for human intervention” is what scooped out the soul of Radio and dashed its brains against the bottom line. It’s what enabled Clear Channel (known within the industry as the Evil Empire for several good reasons) to use voice tracking: a practice whereby a DJ in Memphis can also appear on-air in Seattle, Denver, and/or Milwaukee. Instead of hiring three actual humans, Clear Channel just throws a few extra bucks at the guy in Memphis. All glories to the profit margin. Et cetera, ad nauseum, world without end, amen.

Things were radically different in the control room of KAAY—and of a thousand other stations across the country Back When. At the end of a record, we WERE ready with the next one. At the end of a commercial, we WERE ready with the next one. We NEVER let the needle on that VU meter drop. EVER. A human being pushed every button, flipped every switch. There was no such thing as walkaway time. We started and stopped and monitored every blessed thing that went out on the air. We were as important as the electricity that fed the transmitter. When we were on the air, we WERE the station and our listeners knew it. There was a human being talking right to them through that speaker. There was a friend in that little old box. Somebody was alive in there and having a big time!

Fast forward to 2010—O Brave New World where the Radio landscape looks like a Salvador Dali painting full of limp pocket watches draped over the branches of dead trees in the desert. I take some evil consolation in the thought that Spawn Of Satan probably got a thousand-dollar bonus for his computerization idea and ultimately lost his gig to his own brainchild.

Cynically Yours,
David B. Treadway
Doc Holiday VII
Genuine Relic Of A Bygone Age

1 comment:

  1. Hi David,

    During the mid-seventies, I was tutoring in the FCC commercial licensing class at Omega State Institute (Omega School of Broadcasting). The gentleman who was running the audio production class became friends with me. He was trying to get me to volunteer to wire-up a television studio. Each day I would hear him tell one or more students, "I was in radio when it was fun." Something made me think it was still fun in the mid-seventies, and your story verifies my thoughts.

    I was obtaining 45 RPM records for a Chicago oldies station in 1973. Most of what they wanted was semi-obscure, yet they already had a play list. They were often in trouble with corporate because they deviated from that list. The semi-obscure material is what the listeners wanted, and that included me. I wonder what the policy was at KAAY when they were playing oldies?


    Ron Henselman