Monday, September 2, 2013

The Dreaded Seven Words You Can't Say on Radio (Part 3 of Radio Daze)

The third installment of Radio Daze involves my time with Y-95, an Album Oriented Rocker in Rockford, Illinois. I was working Saturday mornings there while pulling a full-time shift in Lake Geneva, about ninety minutes away, so I had to get up around 3 AM on Saturdays in order to get there for my 6 AM show call.

The PD there was heavily into all the latest research techniques, and pretty much pre-selected most of the songs to be played on air, but we did have some latitude on a several cuts per hour.  Since I was from the “progressive radio” school of thought, this really rubbed me the wrong way.  I hated having to play more slick stuff like Billy Joel, Foreigner, and E.L.O. ad nausea—I liked mixing it up more, and getting creative with themes and musical flow.  But, this was a gig to help pay bills and develop more connections within the industry, and hence I tried to grin and bear it.

When I arrived my first day the overnight jock who was on before me was hardly in the mood to hold the new guy’s hand.  He was toast, and really wanted to get home and crash.  So he gave me a cursory overview of reading the transmitter, their logging system, song charts to follow, etc.  I commented to him that they had the exact same board that we had at WMIR, even down to the colors on all the pots (dials for volume).  You see, each microphone, turntable, tape deck, and cart machine had its own sound channel. What was especially interesting (and challenging) was that the entire control room was set up the opposite of what I had been using for close to a year in Lake Geneva.  All the turntables were on the left instead of right, all the carts were to the right instead of left.  And, most amusing  of all (as it would turn out), the microphone levels were opposite of the turntable volume, but, as I said, everything appeared exactly the same.

We are creatures of habit, are we not?  We get used to tying our shoes a certain way every day without even thinking about it.  Just for fun one morning, slow the process way down and actually try to think about what you’re doing as you lace knot your shoes—you’ll suddenly screw it up.  Or think about how you brush your teeth—you open the cabinet the same way (perhaps just missing the tip of your nose by and inch without even realizing it), squirting the toothpaste on in the same motion, and utilizing the same amount of strokes, rinsing technique, etc. day after day.  When you use your car, think how close your head is to banging into the edge of the door opening every time you lunge in and leap out.  One could easily suffer a major concussion if everything was changed by just a few inches.

So, here I was, my rookie day on the Number One station in Rockford.  Saturday mornings are one of the more listened-to day parts in rock radio—lots of people running errands and listening in their cars.  I’m fumbling about trying to keep everything on a good pace, and noticing that the phone lines are almost constantly blinking with requests—something we didn’t often see in a smaller market like southern Wisconsin.  I had to try to answer as many of them as possible, because Armand, the PD there, was going to call in regularly from pay phones (this was way before cells) as he was out and about to give me pointers on how I was sounding—so I couldn’t blow them off.

I was feeling relatively good about things when the transmitter began to beep just a little after 7:00 AM.  We were getting a bit of lightning, especially to the north where the broadcast tower was.  I suddenly noticed that we were flat lining on the amp meter. We were off the air, and I was the only person in the building! The previous jock had pointed quickly to main equipment and vaguely mentioned a few things, but dismissed it all by saying, “Nothing ever goes wrong—don’t worry about this stuff.” 

I frantically called the previous guy, but he must’ve taken his phone off the hook so he could sleep.  I tried calling the chief engineer, but no answer.  Finally, through some reasoned thinking, I tried toggling a few switches, and somehow got the station back on the air (all the while wondering if I would hit the absolute wrong button and crash the system completely).  I’m guessing we were off the air for a total of about five minutes. I got a fair amount of calls, but none from the PD.  He must’ve been in the shower or something. If he wasn’t going to ask, I certainly wasn’t going to tell.

As the next hour went along, I felt like I was getting in a groove, although I was certainly chagrined about the lame music mix they employed.  I really detested some of the songs in the rotation, and found myself almost gritting my teeth as I would announce swill like “Baby Come Back” by Player or “I Wanna Kiss You All Over” by Exile.  Yuck.  Patooie.

Not very long into the nine o’clock hour, when the listenership was really beginning to peak for Saturday mornings, a cart tape player jammed while running a commercial.  A grinding, distorted, drugged-out sounding voice track was agonizingly drawing out words to ten times their normal length.  For several seconds I froze because second nature was for me to deal with everything on the opposite side of the control board.  Finally I gathered which channel to “pot down” and then quickly fumbled to push another one in the secondary slot and crank it up. When I began to pull the first one out, tape was wrapped around an inner head, and began to unravel and tear.  If I didn’t fix this one, I would be down to one machine to operate up to six spots per break.  This would sound horribly choppy—especially because most carts were a bit longer than the actual spot length, and you had let them play out so they could automatically re-loop to the beginning for the next time they were to be aired.

During the next song, I was frantically trying to pull all the creased and spooled tape out of the damaged tape player using my plastic comb, a pencil, and anything else not metal so as to not get an electrical shock.  After several minutes of arguing with the inanimate object, and barking some rather spicy commentary in its direction, I realized I hadn’t cued-up my next record…and “The Grand Illusion” by Styx was beginning its fade-out.  I quickly looked at the index card system for what track I was supposed to play next, but couldn’t find the Fleetwood Mac Rumours album that I had played a cut from just the previous hour—I had already filed it back in the library outside the studio not realizing it was going to come up again so quickly (in my primary life at a progressive radio format it was a cardinal sin to play the same artist, let alone the same song by an artist, in a four hour shift…diversity was paramount). 

Now I was really getting vexed.  No time to race out and locate that record, I thought.  So I grabbed an album from my “DJ’s choice” pile that had some longer cuts on it: the Jethro Tull Bursting Out Live album.  I quickly pulled out disc two, lined-up “Locomotive Breath,” and let it fly just as the last notes of Dennis DeYoung’s keyboards were fading into the nether world.  They had a great sound system in the studio, and I had it cranked. 

I turned my attention back to the cart machine and further berated it.  My ongoing woeful commentary was inclusive (but not limited to) phraseology on the variations and permutations on the depths of Sheol, the Puritan judgment For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge, unwanted pregnancies, God’s eternal sentence to those who choose to live outside His will, the male offspring of a female canine, illegitimate children, the partial vacuum formed with the lips, bovine excrement, equine waste product, bowel movements of nocturnal flying mammals,  and not-so-clinical descriptors of reproductive organs of both genders.  All were liberally peppered with demonstrative pronouns. A goodly amount of this was being articulated with extreme prejudice, and quite vociferously.  

As Martin Barre’s familiar riff was wailing over Ian Anderson’s lament about the downfall of human condition, I noticed out of the corner of my eye that all sixteen lines of the phone system were blinking like a Christmas tree.  On top of trying to be a technical engineer, and electrical repairman, and a radio host, now I was gonna have to be a switchboard operator and figure out quickly which one of these might be my boss calling in about the weird sounding commercial.  To put it mildly, I was losing it.

More indelicate obscenities and accompanying scatological adjectives were hurled in between each hastily answered call while I simultaneously battled with the jammed playback unit.  A couple of the folks were complaining about the quality of the sound on the air—making me think that there still might be transmitter problems.  One wondered if we were jointly broadcasting with some talk station.  I had no idea what the hell they were talking about.  As I hung up each line, it was quickly replaced by a new incoming call.  Was there some sort of contest going on I was unaware of? Why were so many freaking people calling all of sudden?

Then, on about the eighth call, as I had a ruler and a plastic letter opener wedged deep into he recesses of the cart machine’s mouth, the guy on the other end of the line was laughing robustly as he said, “This is the most interesting version of Jethro Tull I’ve ever heard!” 

“How so?  It’s right off their Live album,” I smugly replied.

“Well, it sounds like you’ve got George Carlin’s “The Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television” playing at the same time.”

That’s when it dawned on me in a millisecond…while I was so distracted with the technical malfunction I fell into being a creature of habit, and instead of turning the second turntable up for the new song, I had turned my microphone back on full volume.  But because Y-95 had such an awesome sound system, even when turntables were in “cue” setting, it sounded fantastic.  So the music the listeners were hearing was actually coming out of the in-house speakers and being picked up by the LIVE microphone, which, coincidentally, was absorbing the manic and unmannerly play-by-play of my plight. 

I immediately dropped the phone, lunged at the sound board and reversed all my ill-advised motions, putting the turntable directly into the mix, and “potting down” my open confessional.  Gathering myself, I quickly thanked the chortling caller, got the next song cued-up, and finally ripped the final strands of wayward tape out of the cart machine, quickly testing another commercial tape—in audition mode—and then looked apprehensively at those sixteen flashing phone lines. 

One by one I answered them with an apology about technical difficulties.  Around the tenth line I heard my Program Director’s surprisingly calm voice.  “Mark?” he queried, “Do you have everything under control now?”  He was actually chuckling. 

“I am so, so sorry!” I exclaimed. “I’m guessing this is my first and last day.”

“Listen, it’s happened to all of us at one time or another,” he reasoned.  “I’m just glad you had music playing underneath it all.  If you were right on the microphone, we would probably both be fired and the station would lose its FCC license. But it was buried enough in the mix that it was flowing in and out of Jethro Tull.  Overall, besides that incident, you sound pretty good—keep up the fine work.” 

I was amazed.  I’ll never forget his grace under pressure.  Nor will I soon forget my lack thereof. 

The subsequent week Armand told me he only got a few comments from listeners, all of them rather funny, about the “swearing DJ.”  They all thought it was hilarious. Since they were of a good-natured quality, there were no further implications.  I stayed on there doing weekends for another few months, then took a job in Chicago, which I’ll go into during the final chapter coming soon.  

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