One of my favorite radio legends, Dale Dorman read my recent piece on playing the same records as the competition at the same time, and reminded me of another chestnut from my checkered radio career.
For years (decades really) WLS Chicago was a monster Top 40 radio station. Clear channel from Chicago (that meant no other stations on that frequency), you could hear WLS at night almost coast-to-coast. Teens in far away hamlets in Iowa and Arkansas would thrill nightly to the likes of Dick Biondi, Art Roberts, Steve Lundy, and others. I used to hear them in Los Angeles.
So WLS was a station I always wanted to work at.
As fortune would have it, in 1988 my father became the General Manager of WLS. By then I was on staff of CHEERS. But when dad asked if the family would come out to Chicago for Thanksgiving I said, “Yes, under one condition. I want to do one all-night shift on WLS”. He must’ve really wanted to see his grandkids bad because he agreed to that.
So we arrive in Chicago a few days before Thanksgiving and he says I can go on Tuesday night/Wednesday morning. Remember, I had been a disc jockey for a number of years at this point and was quite comfortable in the role.
I arrive at the station at 11:30, enter the studio, and see the memo that my father had posted. It said: “My son Ken will be doing the all-night show from midnight-to-six.” A better way of putting that might have been “Ken Levine will be doing the all-night show from midnight-to-six.” It’s the “my son” part that made it look like “bring your kid to work day”.
At one time WLS had engineers who played all the songs and commercials and jingles. The disc jockeys just talked. Now the disc jockeys also did their own engineering. I prefer that actually; gives me more control.
The jock on duty was surprised to see this new person. He obviously hadn’t read the memo. When he did he said, “Uh, there’s a problem. No one is scheduled to run the board and I have to be somewhere at 12:15. It’s going to take a while to get somebody down here.” Obviously, he thought this was just some lark. The bosses’ kid always wanted to be on the radio so what the hell?
I decided to have a little fun with him. I said, “I don’t need an engineer. My dad said I could do everything myself. “
The jock gulped and with great hesitation said, “O-Kay”.
The control board was very standard. Slide pots, one for the mic, one to bring up network news, one to bring up the phone, and the others for the cartridge machines to play all the music, jingles, promos, commercials, whatnot. You pushed a button to turn on a channel, you raised and lowed the volume with the slide pots. It’s far more complicated today with computers.
Anyway, this was pretty much the conversation:
HIM: Okay, well this is the control board.
ME: Where are the records?
HIM: Records? We don’t play records anymore. All the songs are on carts.
ME: Carts? What’s that?
HIM: (holding one to demonstrate): These. They’re called cartridges.
(I knew full well what cartridges were. Anyone who’s been in the business eleven seconds knew what cartridges were.)
ME: Oh. Cool! Where do they go?
HIM: Uh, in these slots. We have eight cart machines.
ME: Give me a second. I want to take notes.
(By now this poor guy is dying. WLS is a 50,000 watt powerhouse and this rube is going to go on the air… unsupervised?)
ME: (now with pad in hand) Okay. Ready. Carts go in those slots.
HIM: On the board here are numbers corresponding to the cart machines. So if you put something in cart 5, it’s number 5 on the board.
ME: (scrawling) … Number 5 on the board. Got it.
HIM: (biting his lip) You turn the volume up and down with these slide pots.
ME: Volume? Is that how loud it is?
HIM: (ready to kill me and my father) Yes. That’s how loud it is. You press the red button and it goes on the air.
ME: Simple enough. Where’s the microphone?
HIM: Pot 1.
ME: How will I hear the songs?
HIM: You have these headphones.. That’s what they’re for. No disrespect but, have you seen a radio show before?
ME: Sure. It’s just that Dr. Johnny Fever didn’t wear phones and he heard the music.
(Just one of the many inaccuracies of WKRP IN CINCINNATI).
HIM: You need headphones.
(By now it was time for him to sign-off and go to five minutes of ABC network news at :55. He had me sit down.)
HIM: Okay, now at the top of the hour you have to play this jingle.
ME: Which jingle?
HIM: (ready to explode) The one that says “Top of the Hour”.
HIM: What’s your first record?
ME: You mean “cartridge”.
HIM: Yes, what’s your first cartridge.
(I selected it, and inserted it tentatively into the machine.)
HIM: Now what you have to do when the news is over is pot down the news here, play the jingle here, and when it sings “WLS Chicago”, right after you hear Chicago play the …rec, uh “cartridge”.
ME: Let me write this down. News…jingle…cartridge. When do I turn my mic on?
HIM: Once the song starts.
ME: Then I’m pushing two buttons at once.
HIM: You can turn it on earlier… or later. Whenever you want.
ME: Okay, I’ll give it a try.
(Sweat is pouring off this poor guy. The news ends. I turn on the mic, pot down the news, fire the jingle, blast the song and say:
ME: 12:00 in Chicago. My name is Ken Levine. I’ve been on the radio in Bakersfield, San Bernardino, Detroit, New York, San Francisco, San Diego, and Los Angeles. But never at the same time. THIS is WLS!
(And talked right up to the vocal. Once I turned the mic off: )
HIM: You asshole! You’ve done this before!
ME: Yes. Of course. Do you think my father is going to put someone on a 50,000 radio station who’s never done it before?
For the life of me I don’t remember the name of that jock. But I owe him a nice dinner… and maybe a month’s worth of therapy.
And by the way, being on WLS in the middle of the night was just as cool as I always imagined. Maybe more. Today of course, you can hear just about any station anywhere through the internet but it’s not the same thing. Not the same thing at all.