Monday, August 21, 2017

"The following is a public service..."

Following up on yesterday's post about having to read news on the radio...

Back in ancient times when there was this thing called “radio,” real human beings were hired to announce on the air 24 hours a day. Disc jockeys were live on the weekends. Even on small town stations. I know. It’s hard to fathom.

Yes, weekend overnight jocks made minimum wage, which back then was like $2.50 an hour, but radio stations could even afford THAT. I can hear you out there – “You’re talking CRAZY talk.”

The money was crap but the experience you got was invaluable. And being on the radio was fun. You played the hits, you goofed around, you stole albums.

But working the all-night shift was a killer. I did it for about three months in enchanting San Bernardino.

There are lots of reasons to want off the 12 a.m.-6 a.m. shift. Lack of sleep is ten of them. But there are more.

The FCC existed at that time to protect the public, not do lobbyists' bidding. Radio station licenses were a privilege that could be revoked at any time. Stations had to continually prove that they were broadcasting in the public’s best interest. Part of that meant a commitment to news and public service. Do you think Top 40 “more music” stations WANTED to break for five-minute newscasts every hour? God no. But they had to. They were serving the community not just squeezing every last advertiser dollar out of it.

Contrast that to today where 95% of the radio stations have automated or syndicated programs and syndicated news. A station that say in Omaha used to have a staff of forty (counting management and engineering), now has a staff of five. And three of them are still making minimum wage. But the good news is you can hear Ryan Seacrest wherever you go.

But even in those halcyon days stations would not employ newsmen to work the all-night shift. So the jock had to do that.  See yesterday's post. 

Usually the full-time disc jockey worked six days a week. For the overnight show that meant Saturday night/Sunday morning. Another mandate from the FCC was that you needed to air a certain number of hours of “public service” programming. These were usually throwaway shows organizations would send to the station. "Join the Peace Corps Show."   Religious programming also counted so some stations were smart enough to charge various church groups for these syndicated preachapaloozas.

And the stations would bury this crap in time slots when nobody listened. That meant early Sunday morning. So for my Saturday night/Sunday morning shift I played music from midnight to three then ran these half-hour public service programs from three until six. I don’t have to tell you how exciting that was. Especially to a sleep-deprived person.

But I dutifully threaded the 7” reel-to-reel tapes and followed the program log, never of course paying any attention to them. But one caught my ear. It was a preacher and I noticed his sermons were decidedly racist. I mentioned this to the program director who basically said, no one is listening and the station is making money. It was not worth creating an issue out of it.

Still, it really rankled me. I had to fill out the program log verifying that the programs on it were aired. This was a legal document and I could go to jail for fraud if I falsified it.

But it occurred to me, I didn’t have to play it at the correct speed. So I slowed that show waaaaaay down. The guy sounded like a moron. Even if someone was out there listening, two minutes of this would have driven him to the push button.

So that’s what I did for three months. Guess how many complaints the station received. That’s right. NONE. And the “Inland Empire” was spared this bigoted moron’s message. There are so many advantages to having a live body on the air.

NOTE:  For those that don't know, whenever I can't find an appropriate photo to go along with the post I feature one of Natalie Wood.  Coming up in a couple of weeks on my podcast I do a whole commentary on my obsession with Natalie Wood (healthy I assure you) and the many questions surrounding her death.  Stay tuned.  Meanwhile, this week is my interview with David Isaacs.  Well worth checking out.  Click on the big gold arrow.  Thanks.


Brian Phillips said...

FRIDAY QUESTION: I noticed on YouTube that there were not one, but THREE different versions of All in the Family's pilot episode. Jean Stapleton and Carroll O'Connor were the constants, but the Mikes, Glorias and Lionels changed.

Did you ever film complete pilots with different casts from the better-known versions? Is this still done to-day or are the runners-up weeded out at the table read?

anthony said...

I love these stories about the radio of my youth. Too many people do not understand how much better the world was and how much more fun the works was. ANd any time you want to run a picture of Natalie Wood, you go ahead.

Jim S said...


Detroit used to have a radio station with the call sign WXYZ. It was part of the Mutual Broadcasting Network in the 1930s and 1940s. It was where such storied radio shows as the Lone Ranger, The Green Hornet and Sgt. Preston of the Yukon were broadcast nationally from.

When WXYZ TV and Radio were sold in the 1990s, FCC rules required that the radio network change its call sign. It is now WXYT. I spoke with someone who works for CBS radio. He wanted to see where the fabled WXYZ broadcast from. He was shown a room with a bunch of equipment that broadcast automated music.

It's now a sports station that used syndicated material. A vital local voice with national reach is gone.

YEKIMI said...

You played the hits, you goofed around, you stole albums.

I NEVER stole an album. I "liberated" or "borrowed" quite a few that were to be tossed or going back to the record library that were destined never to see the light of day again. I guess I should return the ones I "borrowed" but the station no longer exists except as a satellite-fed religious "the world is ending soon, you need to donate ALL your money to me or you'll die a horrible death" station located in a large closet at the transmitting lie, I've seen the picture.

Eric J said...


John Nixon said...

It used to be that as a big part of their license renewal a station was required to include a bid in which they promised to broadcast specific percentages of each of the categories they were required to air within their broadcast week to fulfill the requirements of the FCC. The categories were entertainment, news, public service, public affairs and 'other'. 'Other' was anything outside of the other categories. A station could fulfill their 'other' programming requirement by airing shows like Casey Kasem's American Top 40 or The King Biscuit Flour Hour. They could puff up their news requirement with ABC Network News and Paul Harvey. Also, radio announcers were required to take and pass a test in order to obtain a First Class or Third Class Radio Operator's license, issued by the FCC. It was a proud moment when you finally passed the test and could now apply for a job at a radio station.
Then, during (I'm pretty sure it was) the Reagan years, the radio industry was deregulated. Requirements for fulfilling the categories and having to get an FCC Operator's license were eliminated. So all the programming variety disappeared and pretty much anybody could now apply to become a radio announcer. The news and public affairs people were 'dismissed', American Top 40 disappeared, Paul Harvey faded away and radio became a shell of what it had formerly been.

Andy Rose said...

I got my radio start in the Bible Belt, and my Sunday morning shifts consisted of one local religious program after another, with preachers from different denominations often making a point of contradicting the rival preacher who had just preceded him. (There were no female preachers on the air in my town.) One of the biggest reamings I ever got in my life was from a preacher who called the hotline, furious that I started his recorded sermon one minute later than it was scheduled to air. But I was told that the religious shows were one of only three things our station aired that actually turned a profit. (The others were local sports and the weekday morning show, which was sprinkled with yet more sermonettes.)

Back when TBS was a local station in Atlanta in the mid 70s, they were required to have their own news content. Ted Turner thought the rule was ridiculous, so he just got a wire ticker, hired a radio guy named Bill Tush, gave him five minutes in the middle of the night, and let him to do whatever he wanted as long as WTBS could plausibly call it news. Over time, it devolved into a comedy show.

lyle davis said...

Boy, did you bring back memories!

I entered radio at KBON in Omaha. A guy named Fritz was "on the pole for polio," (telephone pole with a small house at the top platform) . . . while he slept I played on the all night show "Milkman's Matinee."

I had just gotten out of the Army where I had been Entertainment Director for Brooke Army Hospital; stage shows, plays, taking patients on tours, etc. Enjoyed it so much decided to try to get paid for it in civilian life.

Applied at 4pm one day; got a call at 10pm that night, be here at midnight. You're hired. All night show - midnight to 6am and cover news till 8am, on the half hour.

I still remember the first day I got home, bushed, and laid me down to sleep. I kept hearing Fats Domino singing "I wanna walk you home" . . and it seemed like my bed was spinning like a turn table.

I also remember 'the bathroom songs.' Harry Belafonte's Banana Boat song and Marty Robbins "El Paso." Gave you enough time to head down the hall and use the loo.

Yes, and filling out the xmtr log . . . filing the records . . . and trying to stay awake.

Strong memories . . . not really the greatest memories . . . but memories. Long, long time ago. 1959 was when I started. Had 25 years in broadcasting, jocking, news, war correspondent in S. Vietnam (civilian), sales, management and ownership. Now I publish a weekly newspaper.

It's been an interesting, sometimes fun, life.

Thanks for reawakening some memories from so long ago.

lyle e davis
The Paper

MikeN said...

If there were no complaints, then it sounds like you did all that work for nothing.

Unknown said...

For Lyle Davis:

You mentioned " ... a guy named Fritz who was 'on the pole for polio' ... "

Was this by any chance the guy who was revealed to have a wife and family in another city, that he'd disappeared from a few years before he landed in Omaha and started up another family there?

I was still in school in Chicago, but the story got a lot of newspaper space here; my school pals were curiously impressed by this character.

Odd how time flies; I wouldn't have remembered this if not for the "pole for polio" reference, which made the Life magazine feature all those years ago ...

DBenson said...

A 50s Playboy cartoon: A disc jockey is removing necktie as a lady waits on a couch; there's a turntable with record changer stacked high with discs. Disc jockey says into mike, "And now for your listening pleasure, a half hour of uninterrupted music!"

Doug Thompson said...

When I started as a board operator at CHUM radio in Toronto in 1965 (the # 1 Top 40/50 station in Ontario at the time), the ops worked a 5 days week, but all of the DJ's (including the morning man, all worked 6 days). Course, the DJ's made a lot more than us lowly ops.

Doug Thompson said...

When I started as a board operator at CHUM radio in Toronto in 1965 (the # 1 Top 40/50 station in Ontario at the time), the ops worked a 5 day week, but all of the DJ's (including the morning man, all worked 6 days). Course, the DJ's made a lot more than us lowly ops.

Roger Owen Green said...

Hey, I applaud your subterfuge!

Anonymous said...

@Michael Doran,
It was Bill Clinton who screwed us over, though both parties have blood on their hands. But the reality is, as in most cases, it was the rich who screwed all of us, irregardless of political affiliation. The Communication Act of 1996.

It's in this blog's archives, the funniest pee in your pants radio story Ken has ever shared...Rip and read overnight news story about the South American leader who had died.

benson said...

Ooops, should have directed the Clinton comment towards Mr. Nixon.

For Mike Doran,

there was a fellow who had worked nights in some major major markets, including a flame throwing CHR in Chicago in the 80's.

I and virtually the rest of the industry got an unsolicted email back in the mid 90's informing us that this fellow might have committed bigamy...

The email came from a woman who claimed to be wife #2, with detailed information about wife #1, etc.

(There is at least one other major fan of this blog who worked with the fellow mentioned above.)

John Nixon said...

Not deregulation was are my findings....

The 1980 election of Ronald Reagan ushered in an era of radio deregulation.
Under the lead of FCC Chairman Mark Fowler, the agency began a push to deregulate
licensing requirements. The Federal Communications Commission Report and Order (84 FCC 2nd 968), effective April 3, 1981, eliminated advertising and non-entertainment programming guidelines,formal ascertainment, and programming logging requirements.

The next things to go were the Fairness Doctrine and ownership limitations.

Jahn Ghalt said...

NOW ya diddit. You outed yourself.

Don't be surprised if an FCC Moron comes knocking at your door......

The Second Row said...

I remember that "The Great Race" had the hottest pie fight ever. So there's no need to explain a picture of Natalie Wood.

EmKay said...

OMG!! I was a production assistant and weekend overnight board operator back in the early 90's, and I remember having to get a 3rd class license just to push the buttons and do meter reads. Used to play David Allen Coe- You Don't Even Call Me by My Name for a trip to the loo or a quick "eye rest".

MikeKPa. said...

Looking forward to the podcast on Natalie Wood. I can't look at Robert Wagner or Christopher Walken without shaking my head and my fist. Always wondered what her career path would have been had she lived. Broadway was on her radar with "Anastasia."