Vinyl Circles

Before we began listening to music as “ones and zeroes”, albums were actually … albums. Flat, grooved platters made of vinyl with a little hole in the middle. The cardboard protector, into which you would slide your album, usually started new inside a cellophane wrapper.

When I began in the business, new albums would arrive from record companies almost daily. Stamped “Promotional Copy Only – Not For Sale”, these nuggets of new music were specifically sent for on-air promotion.

Sometimes the record companies would send multiple copies of the same album or single. You see, vinyl isn’t nearly as nondestructive as “ones and zeroes”. And the record companies wanted to be sure you had all you needed to play their music on the air over and over again.

When I would work on Sunday mornings, our station played religious and public service blocks of programming to help fulfill our quota of Federal Communications Commission (FCC) public service. Once I had these large reel-to-reel tapes cued and playing, I had time for other things: making coffee, cleaning up the studios, writing and producing commercials or promotional announcements for the next day, and–most importantly–previewing some of the new music that arrived that week.

This is how I discovered Van Halen. I put their album on one of the large Gates turntables in the production room and started listening to “Running with the Devil”. Wow! Then “Eruption” segued into their cover of “You Really Got Me”.

I was so excited that I plopped the big, heavy tone arm at the start of each track. There wasn’t a loser among them. And the rest is history.

I enjoyed debuting songs and artists when the cardboard containers arrived. Even if an album was a dud, I could usually find a piece of a track that I could use behind a commercial or a high energy promo.

I still have a vinyl collection, but sadly, I don’t get to listen to it much. I have some of what had been popular when I was in the business as well as more esoteric titles.

These days, I’m much like everyone else. I usually play “ones and zeroes” while I type these posts.

FM (No Static at All)

In The Transition I mentioned that the radio station that just hired a 14-year-old was an AM day-timer. So why the confusing title for this post (thanks to Steely Dan)?

Ever heard of Cable FM? This was a unique way for this small-town AM day-timer to generate revenue after the FCC said it had to sign off the air.

Think about how radio stations (before the Internet) could be viable businesses. Only through advertising. When could those stations attract the most advertisers? Usually between Thanksgiving and Christmas. But when your station has to sign off at 4:45 PM every day during December, how can you squeeze all those commercials into every hour without losing listeners?

Well, this small AM station was innovative enough to offer cable FM, which expanded its reach beyond over-the-air. Not only did this allow the station to broadcast wildly popular high school football and basketball during the evening, it also allowed me to practice my radio skills after the AM signed off, while my family and friends could listen. That gave me additional incentive to do well.

I had a blast. But I wasn’t going to improve without professional help.

That’s why I’ll always be grateful to Curt, Rick and our boss, Jim, for always taking time to help me. Since they did it all (as you must do at a small station), I had the advantage of learning many different skills. I learned a lot just by observing them and listening to them. But they also worked with me, explained all kinds of situations and even assisted with my slight dialect. (If you grew up in this part of Central PA, you would exhibit a touch of Pennsylvania Dutch. My dad’s grandparents didn’t speak English.) I still notice it in family and friends from home, but I practiced and practiced until I sounded like the voice of America rather than the voice of a PA coal-mining town.

I now paid special attention to radio and TV commercials, how the voice talent emphasized certain words and phrases. I listened to on-air talent from any station, their content, their deliveries.

Meanwhile, I would need to attain my FCC 3rd Class Radiotelephone Operator license by passing a test at the courthouse in Philadelphia. In those days, this “ticket” was required to monitor that the broadcast transmitter was operating within regulation. One would maintain a log every hour or two by documenting transmitter readings with signature, time and date.

Next time, we’ll get to one of my favorite parts of working weekends on the air.