“A Range of Change”

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CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

A RANGE OF CHANGE

WTAC was almost the same under Fuqua’s ownership.

There was increased competition in Flint from station WTRX, which had also opted for a “Top 40” approach. WTAC’s powerful signal still assured predominance in the vast surrounding region, even as programming superiority continued metropolitan leadership.

It was good seeing all the old, familiar faces again. The only thing missing was the awesome presence of Gene Milner. Also absent was his friendly assistance and suggestions in programming presentation delivered via shortwave car radio, normally extended several times during a given shift.

Gene had curtailed his car radio communication after doing a play-by-play commentary on a freight train slowly passing through the Flint area. It was 3:00 one morning as Gene broadcast live on WTAC to the surprise and consternation of listeners, one may safely assume.

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Gene, having had the matter brought to his attention the following day and not specifically recalling the incident himself, had issued a memo warning against ever again allowing him such an opportunity in the future. The memo explained that after dark had fallen, Gene might again check-in and ask to be immediately put on-the-air, but that when he did so he was probably with a client and pretending that he was going to broadcast. Whoever was on duty was to go along with the “gag”, but not actually throw the switch.

Charlie had the company car with the shortwave unit now, but would only check-in every once in a while for honest-to-God business purposes. Dell also had a unit installed in his car, but that was primarily since Charlie had one and Bob didn’t wish to be overshadowed. It had become a significant control symbol.

Even Clair Bowser seemed pleased to see me back on the old 7-Midnight shift again and, in honor of my return, put on a clean shirt which he wore through mid-July. The WTAC ‘Hitline” buzzed steadily with a stream of well-wishers I had known before, all heralding my resumption of the “Peter C. Cavanaugh Show”.

I picked up Eileen and the girls at Metro in Detroit and, having been delayed a bit in traffic, was presented with a pathetic sight as I approached the terminal gate where the plane from Syracuse had dislodged its passengers. There was my poor Eileen with two month old Colleen clutched in her arms and almost two-year old Laurie tethered to a six foot leash. This Laurie had stretched to maximum distance and, engaged in a temper tantrum of uproarious proportion, was screaming at the top of her lungs with a decible level which more than drowned out the revving of jet engines only feet away.

The eyes of all were on tiny Miss Cavanaugh, who was giving every indication of being viciously victimized by forces unknown, but with responsibility for her torture easily traceable to the woman with baby at the end of the poor little thing’s harness. We found out later that Laurie had confidentially whispered to her Uncle Paul back in Syracuse as he drove them all to the airport that she was going to “really cry after the plane landed”. She merely followed her pre-determined script. Her weeping instantly ceased when she saw me, although Eileen initiated her own unrestrained tears in expressing disappointment over my tardy arrival and Laurie’s inspired performance.

Peter, I’m sure all these people think I was beating her!”

We moved into a newly constructed second floor apartment with two bedrooms on McKinley Road, only a twenty-minute drive to WTAC.

My assigned work schedule at the station was governed by our NABET contract which required a full forty-hour work week, whether there was actually forty-hours of work to be done or not. There was also an unpaid “lunch hour” thrown in the middle, whether anyone wanted to have lunch or go hungry. The agreement was drafted exactly the same way for announcers as engineers. In reality, it had been written by and for the technical employees who had formed Local 46 years before.

The announcing staff had originally just been invited along for the ride. The on-air radio disc-jockey “stars” and behind the scenes “button pushers” (as we arrogant jocks would label the engineers, especially to their faces) were treated with absolute parity in wages, benefits, scheduling and work rules. Solidarity required abandonment of prideful announcer egos. Not too far in the future, this arrangement would come back to haunt our technician brothers.

The logistics of broadcast operations involved an engineer in the “master control room” running all equipment. The single exception was two little 45 RPM turntables in a small “announcing booth”, which was separated from “master control” by a sound-proof glass window. Communications between announcer and engineer were conducted via intercom.

This arrangement was a throw-back to the early days of radio and I had always found it a complete pain-in-the-ass, having run my own control board from the earliest WNDR days. It was exactly like operating a car from the back of the vehicle with every aspect of motion conveyed through instructions to a surrogate driver up-front.

Announcing booth turntables had been finally and begrudgingly allowed by the union only a few years before, and then only because the rigid time requirements of “Top Forty Radio” had picked up the pace of production to a point where the engineers were starting to experience a tough time keeping things together.

With the average song only two and a half minutes in length, as soon as one announced the artist and title and turned off the microphone, one would then have to hit the off-air intercom button and convey, in precise sequence, the elements required for the next “break”. There might be a half-dozen or more items in the next immediate segment and this went on between every record played.

WTAC Airwaves: “Number #1 again this week on the “WEETAC FAB FORTY”- The Lords of Beatlemania and their “Lady Madonna”!”

WTAC Intercom: “O.K., Clair. Bring the fuckin’ level up. Jesus Christ! I couldn’t even hear the first two notes, goddamn it. Alright. Gimme “Weetac Short Jingle Seven”, “Superior Pontiac Cadillac”, “Weather Break Six”. “Stardust Lounge”, “Promo One”, “Coca- Cola” and “WTAC Hitbound Intro”. I’ve got live tags on “Stardust” and “Coke”. Level up on the next record, too. UP! Thanks.”

Each individual element would be “cued” by announcer hand-signal.

Contributing to “confusions” was a vast generational gap between production partners on a number of levels.

The engineers were all Second World War vets, by then mostly in their late-forties and early-fifties. They had started in radio when Arthur Godfrey, Jack Benny, Fred Allen and Bob Hope had ruled the airwaves and most programming was delivered over network lines. It was before television brought Milton Berle, Jackie Gleason and Sid Caesar into their living rooms at home, but vastly increased their work-load back at the radio station.

In the “old days”, an engineer would merely “patch-in” a network show and then wait a full twenty-eight minutes before any other move on their part was required. They could read magazines, check-out the newspaper, or even catch a brief nap between programs, as long as they theoretically monitored the signal to make sure things were still being broadcast and logged “meter-readings” off the transmitter every three hours or so. Any good technician worth his salt could peacefully fall asleep with the “air monitor” blasting away and wake in an instant if things suddenly became silent.

With the advent of television’s success, “long-form” network radio presentations had all all but disappeared by the late ‘Fifties. Most local stations across the country had opted to fill the void with “music programming”, ushering in the era of the “disc-jockey”.

A gentleman named Todd Storz owned a radio station in Nebraska. He is credited with having sat on a barstool one night in a neighborhood lounge just outside Omaha, watching as a waitress dropped nickle after nickle into a jukebox, playing the same song over and over and over again.

It was Mr. Storz’s revolutionary idea that if people wanted to hear their favorite records played over and over and over again with dependable repetition, why shouldn’t music on his station be scheduled the same way? Why not figure out what, let’s say, the forty most popular songs were every week and just play the hell out of them? Over and over and over again?

As incredible as it now seems, this concept was completely original at the time.

Mr. Storz’s Omaha station soared to the top of the ratings, literally within weeks. KOWH was a killer. The other stations were playing half-hour blocks of Bing Crosby or Wayne King or Guy Lombardo. “Big Band” or “Orchestral Mood Music” comprised the bulk of most station music libraries with an occasional bow to “Country and Western”, or maybe “Broadway Show Tunes” every so often. What was happening in Omaha started to happen all over America.

An often unappreciated consequence of “Top Forty Radio” which proved to be of inestimable value and importance to the birth of “Rock ‘n Roll” can be found in the single, objective criterion chosen for music selection: popularity.

It didn’t matter if the record was Country, Classical, Jazz, Broadway, Rhythm & Blues, Big Band or Rock ‘n Roll. If it was popular based on sales or radio station requests, you played it. With increased popularity, you played it all the more. Period.

Since most of the “popular” music in the late 1950’s tended to be fast, upbeat and energized, radio production surrounding the songs had to keep pace.

Gone were the sonorous, deep, rich voices of baritone announcers slowly measuring and intoning each and every spoken syllable with majestic style and grace.

Gone were programs with such nauseatingly obnoxious, pompously pretentious titles as “Melodies for a Soft Summer Eve” or “Musical Memories for Mother and Me”.

Gone were the five-minute stock market reports, ten-minute weather forecasts and fifteen-minute sports segments.

In came the singing jingles, frenetic contests, echo chambers, wild promotions and frantic, shouting announcing teams with nary a breath taken between time and temp and titles of tunes.

In came the “Secret Word of the Day” and the “Treasure Hunts” and the “Top Ten at Five”.

In came listeners by the drove, sponsors by the score and money by the barrel.

The WTAC engineers were fucked.

The average age of the WTAC air staff was a full two decades younger than that of those who threw the switches and flooded the airwaves with hits of the day. In terms of music apprecation, the two groups were light-years apart. If the older WTAC engineers hated anything worse than having to pay attention to their environment and hustle their butts almost every second of an eight hour shift, it was that GODDAMN MUSIC. A critical aspect of program execution was volume.

Just as a volume control on an individual radio receiver makes it louder when you turn it up or softer when you reverse position, each sound channel on a control board has a separate volume lever or dial. Moments of extreme aesthetic embarrassment regularly occurred when I would excitedly introduce a major rock artist and have the song start at about one-third the sound level as my voice. Although I would be the one hitting the turntable button, that was the entire extent of my technical involvement. The degree of frustration often was extreme.

“Let’s flip those pages and rattle some cages! No Shakespeare near, we got Beatles here!! “PAPERBACK WRITER!!!!”

“Paperback Writer. Paperback Writer. Here’s a story ’bout a man named Lear.”

The engineers would always manage to turn-up the level to an acceptable degree after the fact, but “almost inaudible starts” were agonizingly annoying, particularly since any good disc-jockey would always imagine the totality of a show as it would be heard by a listener. At times, the hardest thing to do became not appearing limp.

It was one of those “little things” that could instantly heat-up into a really big deal.

Clair Bowser actually filed an official union grievance one time after Bob Dell angrily ran into the Master Control Room and forcefully threw a handful of peanuts in Clair’s general direction after just such a technical slight. The peanut shower assault was amiably resolved with a quarter-hearted apology from Bob to Bowser and an equally suspect promise from Clair that he would try to pay more attention to Bob’s instructions in the future. Maybe. If he felt like it.

It was an uncomfortable arrangement at best and the engineers were most reluctant to give up any more turf as far as work rules were concerned, knowing well that to do so would place them on borrowed time. From a practical perspective, they were about as useful in programming execution as balls on a bride, traditionally speaking.

I still wake up several times a year in the middle of the night, cold sweat streaming from every pore, having dreamed again of possibly the worst experience in my entire broadcasting career.

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