Thursday, January 17, 2013

My short-lived career as a newsman

Here’s another chapter from my misguided radio career:

As a Top 40 disc jockey in the early ‘70s, I often had to fill multiple roles. In addition to humming the hits,  I was also the engineer on duty. I would have to take the transmitter readings every few hours. To qualify for that job I needed an FCC First Class Radio License. This required five weeks in a school in Glendale cramming five years of electronics courses into one month. The truth is if a transmitter ever did shut off we were fucked because I knew shit. But you couldn’t get a job as a DJ in these medium market stations unless you had your “first ticket” as the license was called.

My other job responsibility was being the newsman. Rock stations in San Bernardino and Bakersfield didn’t have “newsrooms.” News was a turn-off. The news would come on and half the audience hit the car button for another station. The only reason there were newscasts in the first place was because the FCC insisted on it.

Most of the time I had the evening or late night shifts. I was more your “teen jock”. Translation: higher voice and mildly inappropriate jokes. So another of my responsibilities was reading a five minute newscast every few hours.

The news came over teletype machines. Two minutes before scheduled newscasts I would quickly scan the copy as  the teletype machine coughed it out, I would grab a few stories, and go back in to the control room and read it cold over the air. This is called “rip and read.” I can only imagine the number of Vietnamese names I butchered. The newscasts had a format that everyone followed and that included signing off with your name. Since I didn’t want to use my disc jockey name I reported the news as Barely Read (a name I stole from fellow jock Tom Maule).

When I finally made it to KYA, San Francisco in 1974 I was assigned the 10 pm-2 am shift. And much to my surprise, I was expected to do a ten minute newscast at 1:20 every morning. Now this station did have a news department but the last man left at midnight.

At the time I was using the air-name Beaver Cleaver. I figured, I couldn’t call myself that when I read the news. That’s hardly dignified. And this was a major market heritage radio station.  So at 1:00 each morning I looked to see who Tom Snyder’s guest was on THE TOMORROW SHOW WITH TOM SNYDER on NBC and that’s who delivered KYA People Power News at 1:20. So it could be Charles Manson, it could be George Will, it could be Soupy Sales. It could be Betsy Palmer.

One night while delivering the news on KYA I got the hiccups. I decided to just keep going as if nothing was wrong. My engineer (yes, we had engineers there) was doubled-over in laughter. Let’s be real -- I made a travesty of the news department.

Fortunately, no one was listening.

My favorite disc jockey-as-newsman story is this: A jock in San Bernardino was reading the news cold. He reported that the president of Bolivia had just died. Then he saw the name, which was a long tongue-twister. No way would he come close to pronouncing it correctly. So instead he said, “the president’s name is being withheld pending notification of his family.”

You gotta love the fun days of radio.

This is Barely Read reporting.


Lyle said...

I worked with a guy named Bill Blough at WMRO in Aurora, Illinois. He had a country western program for which he bought time mid-day and then brokered out ads. Did okay. But Bill was a real down-home ol' country boy.

One day he was reporting on a terrible earthquake that had hit some South American country . . . it was Outer Chows.

The poor country was in "utter chaos."

Will wasn't the sharpest knife in the drawer.

Carol said...

That gave me flashbacks to my college radio days - DJ's did the news but during other DJ's shifts. We did the 'rip and read' thing, but with slightly more prep. I had fun picking stories I wanted to read, all the things that I, pretentious theatre major, thought important.

Best time was when I read a story about this woman in a coma who someone because a abortion/anti-abortion cause, and I editorialised it, and wound up getting into an on-air argument with the DJ who's opinion was opposite of mine. I think the GM had to come in and shut us up.

Good times.

John said...

When I was a freshman writing copy for my college radio station back in the 70s, the girl who normally did the 7 a.m. news had a sore throat, and asked if I wanted to do the five-minute broadcast. Which I jumped at the chance to do ... even though my throat was just as sore as her's. And no doubt drier, since I had the swollen nodes, plus the nervousness of my debut performance.

So when I got to the first story about a ship that was sinking "50 miles off the coast of Hawi..." that was pretty much it for the somber part of the 'cast and the beginning of 4 1/2 minutes of what probably sounded like an 18-year-old either with severe emphysema or broadcasting live after two weeks in Death Valley. Not something I saved a tape of, despite the high comedy aspects of the newscast.

Mike Botula said...

The local station I started at used to pick up most of its newscasts from a sister station on a regional network feed. One morning the deejay at the other station, who had just ripped the necessary three yards of copy off the wire and started reading it cold. As I sat in my studio listening, he came to the end of the main body of news and gave us the line...."and on the lighter side of the news....." What he had failed to see was that the wire service had broken away from its "lighter side" kicker to insert a breaking story. So he proceeded to say..."and on the lighter side of the news.....5 members of a Long Island family have died in a fiery auto crash on the Long Island Expressway." Long pause..."Gee, that wasn't very funny." I had to go straight back to a record I was laughing so hard.

Mike Bell said...

Ken, I don't know if you did this at KERN, but when I was there the overnight news format was recording a five minute ABC Radio broadcast, then reading five minutes of local ripped from the wire, followed by "Earth News" with Lou Irwin played off a disc. I would go into the prod studio before my shift and put the entire thing on tape and run it in the news breaks all night. I figured if an important story broke at three am, it could probably wait until five am when the "real" news guy came in.

Jon J said...

In our tiny market we only needed a First Class ticket engineer on call not on site. Taking transmitter readings only required a Third Class ticket which could be had with about ten minutes study.

Doug R said...

I had similar experiences in 1973 when I was a Saturday night rip and read disc jockey at very small market station in Alaska. Also had to change video tapes (it was also a cable television station - delayed broadcasts of CBS shows taped in Seattle). I was 16 and held a 3rd class license (with no broadcast endorsement), and was alone on the premises. Not certain it was strictly legal but it was fun.

YEKIMI said...

May have mentioned it before but small AM station I was at back in the 70s had a newsman that worked afternoons always came in three sheets to the wind. I mean, so plastered people two floors up were getting drunk off the fumes. Nose glowing like a light bulb, slurring words, dropping stuff all over, a general mess. I was thinking "how in the hell does a guy like this keep his job?" He stumbles into the news studio, waits till the DJ flipped the switch for him and *BAM* off he went, not a slurred word in the entire newscast, crystal clear voice, no one listening would have known he was drunk. Five minutes later he's off air, stumbles off, goes to the bathroom, out the back door and disappears for another 50 minutes till the next newscast was due. Don't even know if the station manager knew he was shitfaced since the SM came in in the morning, grumbled something at anyone nearby, went into his office, shut the door and no one ever saw him till it was quitting time 8 hours later.

Pat Reeder said...

My first job in radio was as DJ at KHBR in Hillsboro, Texas, while putting myself through college. The station also served West, which is a town settled by Czechs. We even had a Czech language polka music show on the weekends called the "American Czech Hour," which oddly enough was 90 minutes long (time apparently moved more slowly in Czechoslovakia back when it was under the thumb of the commies).

While doing the evening air shift, I had to assemble the final newscast and deliver it myself at 9:45. Local obituaries were a major part of it. To me, Czech names looked like lines on an eye chart (the really random ones in tiny type on the bottom), and I was alone in the studio with nobody to ask for pronunciation help. My readings of the names of the dead and all their survivors must've sounded like someone trying to read Esperanto out loud. I routinely got angry calls from listeners ranting, "I knew so-and-so all my life, and from the way you pronounced his name, I wouldn't have even known he was dead!"

I still remember my favorite. I think it was spelled "Rachuig." It turned out to be pronounced "Rockway." I probably remember it because it was one of the very few that actually had vowels.

D. McEwan said...

Oh, that last story about the President of Bolivia is friggin' hilarious, worthy of Ted Baxter.

Johnny Walker said...

There's an urban legend that British satirist Chris Morris released helium into the studio where the news was about to be read. I believe his antics eventually got him fired, whatever the truth of that particular story.

Ned said...

For a spell in the 90s, I had an hour's commute, during which I'd listen to the Michigan State student radio station, Impact 89FM. One of the DJs was a bit of a space case, but spun good tunes, and I enjoyed the show. One morning, he was reading the news, and it was all awful that day. Terrible stuff: vicious crimes, war, and the like. He got halfway into a bit on genocide in Bosnia, and cut himself off with, "Man, this just scalds my 'nads. I can't read this anymore." Back to the music!

Manti Ectiof said...

Sorry to see that you won't be back in the M's booth in '13. Apparently, they're going with a youth movement. And a child shall lead them out of Peoria...But, maybe you and Zach can do some full-contact movie reviews?

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Johnny Walker: maybe that's where THE BIG BANG THEORY got the idea (there's an episode where Sheldon is to appear on NPR, and Krupke fills his office with helium right beforehand).

I never read radio news. But a couple of years after my first appearance on radio as a folk musician, someone I knew told me that when she heard that she thought she had heard the worst radio voice ever.


Steve McLean said...

I too started my radio career at my small hometown station in mid Maine during the 70's while I was in high school. I also mangled many of the names or words in news stories about the Vietnam war but my most faithful listener (Mom) would often call (in her alternate role as PD). "Hi dear. In the next newscast, the word is 'commune-uh-KAY' not 'commune-NEEK'." Click.