True-Life Radio Tales

WAMS

Wilmington, Delaware. WAMS served Wilmington, but the studio was at the transmitter on Mt. Cuba outside beautiful Greenville, Delaware, maybe 20 miles from town. It was a neighborhood of mansions with horses and helicopter pads. Our five towers would flash at night as required by the FAA. The neighbors hated it, but the towers predated the neighborhood.

WAMS, an AM on 1380, had what they called a DA-3 pattern, which meant it had three directional signals, depending on what time it was. On Sunday nights, it signed off and another station on the same frequency would broadcast God’s words. This is all highly unusual, and if you were in the wrong place at the wrong time, you couldn’t even get the station. My shift was 7 or 8 until Midnight. At the time I joined, newcomer WFIL in Philadelphia, which blanketed Wilmington, had surged ahead in the ratings by a lot. Many people in the business thought WFIL was one of the top stations in the US. They WERE great. And here I was, going up against MY favorite station, which I had gotten to know, inside and out, doing record hops while in college, as you know if you have read this far.

We had a 100 watt red bulb at eye level in the studio, which would light up if we were off the air, and this included those few seconds between patterns as the engineer adjusted the coverage area per FCC. One evening he came in to work on the switching and told me there’d be many offs and ons while he fought sticky relays. A record would be playing, then we’d go off, then on, then off, then on, etc. After enough times, I thought, I turned everything off in the studio. The light went out, we were back broadcasting, but nothing was coming from the studio. The engineer likely shat.  Finally, after a pause (remember, ‘dead’ air seems like forever if you are involved with it) I turned on the microphone and said, “It’s not us, check your batteries.”

He got me back by taking me for a ride in the country where we were, in a new very hot car (his family was tied into many things, including, I believe, a dealership, and even the station.) We zoomed at very high speeds, on one and half-lane country roads. We were flying and it occurred to me that maybe this guy had a death wish.

I liked Wilmington (Greenville, especially) and Wilmington liked me. My ratings in Wilmington blew WFIL away, but not without a LOT of work. I got us involved in a promotion called “SCHOOL WITH THE BIGGEST HEART” where high schoolers were encouraged to make their school “win.” A penny a vote. I don’t think I realized, as this started, that I would have to go to every high school in the listening (and non listening) area and address the students in person to beg for pennies in assemblies.

Then I would dedicate that night’s show to whichever school I had visited that day. Any stage fright I might have had quickly dissipated.

It’s odd – on the radio you pretend/assume there are listeners because you can’t see them. On stage, there they are. I found that in any crowd, some like you for no reason, some hate you for no reason, and 85% of them don’t care at all.

So I went school to school. We collected about a million pennies ($10,000). WAMS’ general manager was cheap, so there wasn’t really any prize except a plaque from the American Red Cross.

I am sure that making all those appearances got the station and my show some attention. When the ratings came out I beat WFIL 3 to 1 at my time slot: a 30 to 10 share.

I have many snapshots of WAMS to tell you:

One evening, the newsman put on a dress he found in a closet. Ha ha, big joke. But he left it on all night.

Being out in the country, among the large estates, we could open the studio window. Occasionally, when I did, the engineer would be out riding around the parking lot in a power mower. Listeners might have heard him drive by when my microphone was on.

We had three Program Directors in a relatively short time. One of them did afternoons, and he challenged me to a bet which took place on the air. We each chose one of the largest high schools as “our” school for the annual Thanksgiving rivalry. Loser would have to go to the WINNING school, after making fun of them for weeks, and attend classes with the football team. I lost. These boys were PISSED at me. And to top it off, I had to appear at an assembly in front of the whole school. As I walked across the stage, about 1500 kids booed me. I didn’t know what to do, so I thought maybe I’d just stand there and outlast them. I stood and watched my watch as they had at me. Eventually, it died down and I explained it was a promotion and I lost, etc. (more boos). Boos can’t hurt if you have the right attitude, and who could blame them? Oh – almost forgot – I also did the morning announcements so the whole school knew I was on site…and by the end of the day they were ready to have at me.

We had a celebrity softball team, and I’d usually get to play a little, then have to run back for my 7 PM shift. One close game, the Program Director told me I could stay until 8. I couldn’t figure out his priorities. Softball got out of hand – a bunch of salesmen and others would be in the parking lot and field playing catch way before the end of the workday. But it was fun!

I thought we were pretty good until we played a professional 3 person woman’s team. I had spent so many hours as a kid hitting a wiffle ball on a rope tied to a high tree branch, that I felt I could hit anything within range…it would swing back wildly and I could hit any angle…and I could place my hit too. But that woman pitcher threw so hard I couldn’t even see the ball go by!

We got paid poorly plus a small talent fee when commercials we did aired on our show. $0.15 per. A monthly talent fee might be $15.

One night, as we got hit by a wild thunderstorm, our five towers on our hill were getting hit over and over. Flashing was constant. The noise was tremendous! We lost power. The effeminate janitor stood in a “might wet myself” pose and whimpered “I sho hope dat we don die.” The generator kicked in but ran off speed, which meant no 60 cycle electricity. Maybe 45 or 50, so the turntables ran too slow. Then there wasn’t enough current or voltage to throw the relays to start our tape machines. Then the generator ran out of gas. The newsman went out in the station newswagon* for gas to refill the generator. Then a falling tree hit the newswagon at the end of the driveway. Just another night in radio.

* the newswagon or newscruiser had #3 on one side and #4 on the other. Who’d ever see both sides at once? It appeared then, that we had four of them.

Everybody burgled the coke machine, which was one of the old horizontal ones. There was a shim which you’d insert instead of a coin, then pull it out with your ice cold bottle.

The Program Director who hired me did afternoons on the air and he was often out of the studio when a record would run out. You’d hear him running down the hall, into the studio, and he’d simultaneously flip a disc onto an empty turntable, hit start, and toss the tonearm onto it, turn on his microphone, and cover the lack of music by talking until the music did start. This happened so often I am pretty sure that’s why they fired him. Never could figure why he was always doing something else.

We had a mystery speaker in the production room (where commercials and public service was recorded). A nice big Wharfdale. It never worked. Apparently, they moved the station from downtown to the transmitter site very quickly and didn’t document any of the studio wiring! Most amazing was you could talk into the microphone in there, leave the room (tape still recording), then walk back in and speak again and it would sound completely different. Nobody could ever figure this out.

I once led an insurrection against perceived wrongs. I got my colleagues on the air staff stirred up and led them to the general manager’s office to lay out our grievances. By the time I got to the door there was no one behind me. So, I marched in and let the man have it myself. He wasn’t pleased and nothing changed except I learned a lesson.

The WAMATHON WAKEATHON

Sales had this idea – sell a client a deal where the personality would try to stay awake as long as possible and broadcast every 15 minutes or so from the sponsor location. The first one was at a music (equipment) store, a big success. The gdj made it past 100 hours* and lots of all nighter musicians dropped by.

*He then came to one of our softball games. I can report his pupils were the size of points and am pretty sure some speed was involved.

I was assigned the second WAKEATHON. At Northtown Clothing Care Center: A Laundromat. Everything went wrong. The people who showed up (largely the music store hippie types) weren’t there to do laundry. No reasonable person would be excited by this. The client was upset. He offered deals like 5 cents off the first load…at 3AM! I didn’t do drugs – coffee, sure, but not speed. I started to have trouble saying the name of the place and was hallucinating bats flying in the rear of the place (look it up: sleep deprivation does that.) Made it to 56 hours as I recall. Just an awful time. I don’t remember a third WAKEATHON. I am pretty sure the client didn’t pay.

On the air I said pretty much what I wanted while playing the proper music. I would give out tomorrow’s pop quiz answers (that I made up) to various high school classes, etc.

My shift ended at Midnight and since the news guy would leave at 11, I would have to do a five minute newscast at 11:55. Well, one night he wrote “toe” truck instead of “tow” truck and I couldn’t stop laughing. I’d turn off the microphone and try to compose myself but couldn’t. I laughed for three of those five minutes. I saw my job fly away. I could not stop. Finally I closed with, “…this news has been brought to you by the Bank of Delaware – the Bank with a sense of humor.” Maybe nobody was listening. I never got into trouble.

And there were pranks. At 12:05 AM, the all night guy would have to read community notices for a few minutes, which were on 5×7 cards. At the time, there was this terrible murder in town that was in the news constantly. A girl, who the newspaper suggested was a “bar girl” – whatever that was – was murdered, and they found her body dismembered, half of it in a trunk. Naturally, there was a lot of suspense about what was assumed to be another trunk full. Well, I immaturely took the full length picture of the victim that was printed by the paper, cut it in two, pasted it on the community calendar sheets, and buried them maybe 5th and 9th in the stack. Horrible. And darn if the all night guy managed to get through everything with ZERO reaction. But he did get me back. Days later, reading a commercial in the midnight news for Bank of Delaware, I hit the line about “make withdrawals with no penalty,” and a packet of condoms comes flying out of nowhere and hits my copy. In the seriousness of the moment this was the funniest thing ever. Again, the Bank with the Sense of Humor. And again, got away with it.

An associate and I made up some jingles for the personalities; two guys with no music singing out of key. I remember my favorite – “He’s the man with a thousand voices… it’s too bad they all sound the same.”

Our first GM was a fat man. For whatever reason, he’d come up to you in the hall and pretend to kick you in the face, maybe to show his dexterity – he really could get that foot that high. I was always so tempted to just snag the foot as it went by and slowly push back. He’d be down like Frasier. Don’t know what management book contained that stunt of his. There was no HR for decades.

I should mention what it felt like being on the air. First of all, I liked it. My ego liked it. You sit in a smallish room and pretend anyone is listening (first) and then hearing what you say (second.)  Sadly, many are not doing either. But some are. So you assume the audience. You assume what you say counts somehow, especially back when you could be a personality and entertain somehow. I was always nervous on the first day or two, then there was no intimidation factor left. I DID want to do a good job, so I would spend a lot of off air time trying to figure out what to say or do on the air.

You also want things technical to run smoothly. Now it’s all on a computer. It runs everything, and when it’s your turn to talk, there’s a window for that. You can override the computer but it’s easier to let it go, and many do. This led the broadcasters of music stations to begin to “track” their shows – they wouldn’t sit there and hear the songs, just the beginning and end and where they’d talk. That then led to companies using the same person on several stations at once, even in the same city, even at the same time. Back when I was on the air there was a lot of finding and filing music and elements, running what they called “a tight board,” which meant songs played at the exact time the preceding ended, no gaps between anything. The computer does it now, not that there aren’t gremlins.

A station in Minneapolis (number one today) had one of its shows tracked (voice tracked) and for some reason the computer just played what he said. No music, no commercials, just everything he said for four hours in a row.

Why do music stations play the same songs over and over? Because the audience varies, like waves coming onto the beach, after one passes you need to satisfy the next wave. You know the new song by the most popular artist will have high interest, so that – and songs like it – play several to many times a day, depending on how those waves of audience are measured. You might have 10,000 listeners at an instant, but within the next minute, say, 5,674 leave and 3,998 new listeners turn it on. Once you get the audience research math, you can calculate the rate of audience turnover and adjust repeats for each new wave.