Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Basement Tapes

At this time of year it's customary to take a look back at the year we just lived through. But since everybody else already does that, and most of this year will be Kardashians and Republican debates, I thought I would take a different path. You see I just unearthed a box of air check tapes in the basement that were buried during our move this year, and nothing is more humbling than air checks from the early days.

In days of old, when one performed a radio show, you put a cassette in a recorder that was typically hooked up to the output of the air monitor. In other words, you recorded yourself on the radio. But the tape only recorded while your microphone was on, so you didn't have to sit through Basia's Time and Tide in order to hear the next DJ break. The tape recorder was usually one of those things designed for office dictation or classroom recording with a little jack that made the tape pause if a switch on the microphone was pressed. Radio engineers would cut the mic off, attach the "remote" wires to a relay connected to the studio console's mic switch, and connect an output from the air monitor or a radio - in some cases a "boom box" was used to simplify all this. What the "remote" wire really did was nothing more than kill the power to the tape recorder, causing the tape to slow down while engaged against the recording head, creating an extreme speed distortion on the recording for a half-second every time the mic was turned off. The result was a tape playback that cut in just seconds before the jock starts talking, you hear the break, and then a second after the next song or commercial starts you get this loud ZWWWORP sound followed by the next DJ break. There's nothing else like it.

(over intro to Simply Red's cover of If You Don't Know Me By Now) "1220 WSUK with tickets to "Teddy Ruxpin On Ice." Keep listening for your chance to be caller number 8 when you hear Teddy Ruxpin speaking right here on 1220 WSUK!" (sung) "If you don't know-- ZWWWORP!"

"Ed Johnson has the latest farm news coming up right after Seals and Crofts on AM Stereo 950!" (sung) "See the-- ZWWWORP!"

The purpose of these tapes was to critique your performance with the program director during a ritual known as the air check session. We would listen to an entire four-hour show telescoped down to about 20 minutes on the tape so he could make comments like, "Don't cluster your essentials," which sounds like something nobody should be doing on the radio anyway. "Don't read the liner cards; say it to me," was another of my favorites, usually because a day later the air staff would get a memo saying, "Read the damn liner cards." Air check sessions were supposed to be private due to the extreme level of humiliation involved, but there was no mistaking what was going on behind that closed door with all those ZWWWORPs.

Most of the recordings were lost due to the tape wearing out, or having an unfortunate conflict of interests with a hammer after a particularly trying air check session. The better cassettes were recycled for entertainment purposes and now hold The Best of Simon and Garfunkel. But a few tapes survived and now sit in archival storage in my basement where they are rediscovered during a hapless search for Christmas decorations. And being the fool that I am, I will pop a few in the player - yes, I still have cassette decks - and listen. And it hurts.

God, I sucked.

But after listening for a few minutes, I come to realize there were a lot of factors working against me in those early days. It was the salad days of MTV, where VJ's could talk about the music in a more informal, one-on-one approach than most Top-40 or rock stations would allow. Working on a top-40 or "Q" format in those days was like booking a clown for your child's birthday party: nobody really does that anymore. The main media influence of the day was David Letterman, and an acerbic delivery and wit did not go over well with a program director of a Music of Your Life format. ("Here's Patty Page. She wants to know How Much is That Doggy in the Window, and can he program my VCR?") I didn't fare much better on a small town full-service format. ("1560 KRAP. Paul Harvey is here... and he won't leave. Somebody please give him a ride home. He's drinking all my beer!") When a station I worked for made the jump to all-talk, my show never really got off the ground. Why bash the liberals? We've just had two terms of Reagan and now Herbert Walker Bush is in the White House. We survived the crash of '87 just fine. Everybody's buying Game Boys. Relax. Yeah, that's not how talk radio works.

And so, listening to those tapes reveals a young performer struggling to find his niche, but it also reveals some of the telltale signs that radio, particularly AM, was headed for trouble. If you ever wonder how radio got to be in the shape it's in today, consider these situations and phrases from my air checks of 1989:

AM Stereo

"Here's the latest from Barry Manilow." (Remember, this is 1989.)

Bruce Springsteen's I'm On Fire, on an AM adult contemporary station.

"Your Trading Post of the Air. Call in with your item to sell at..."

"On tomorrow's Focus On [censored] County, the AIDS epidemic. We'll be talking with members of the gay community and address the misconceptions attached to AIDS and being HIV Positive, and we'll debate what should be taught in our schools regarding sex education, anal sex, oral sex, and the spread of STD's. Call in with your opinions during this frank discussion tomorrow at ten. And now, here's one from Andy Williams."

"It's the Sally Jesse Raphael Show, tonight at eight."

"It's a new era here at WSUK. Today, we switch from tape to CD. We've erased and thrown away all our carts. Here's our first song direct from CD. The Beatles. Yesterday. On WSUK. (sung) Yesterday... all my troubles seemed so fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-"

(panting for breath after running from the car after driving through severe weather at 1AM to get to the station to jump in for the panic stricken teenage board op.) "We interrupt Tom Synder to bring this weather bulletin. The National Weather Service has just issued a Tornado-- ZWWWORP!" (The power goes out.)

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