The admin for a broadcasting oriented social page I follow recently asked members for old stories and a few hours passed with no response; understand, most stories about broadcasting in the good old days would contain the words ‘bra’ and ‘panties’ and most of the people on the page have matured and have children and grandchildren.
Some are likely Rotarians, Lions or Kiwanians. Taxpayers, property owners and somewhat respectable. One grandfather mentioned something about some stories best remaining in the past. And everyone agreed it was a good thing that phone cameras with slo-mo video capability in every pocket from the mid seventies into the early nineties very fortunately were not around.
The early nineties denote a bookmark in broadcasting when a shift began from individually owned radio, TV and newspapers by local people living in the community, to mega Wall Street nationwide operations where perhaps every radio station licensed to a town might only be owned by one corporation. Where once in a city seven to twenty individual radio stations might compete with one another for audience and advertising revenue share, in the corporate age all those stations could be in a single building with only a fraction of the staff previously required.
Here’s a fairly clean story that’s kind of long and likely not worth the read, there’s no sex, but it points to the nature of just how competitive stations used to be with one another when they all had different owners. Youngsters today in ‘clusters’ really don’t seem to understand how vicious the radio life could be in the good ol’ days. And at all times one had to be on the lookout for the enemies’ hijinks.
Arriving at the high school football game several hours before kickoff to broadcast it as was my usual practice, and starting in the press box I hooked up all our electronic gear including plugging in the phone line (a solid piece of copper wire that through mechanical switches connected the press box miles and miles away to the radio station control board, if you can imagine that) and then my partner and I went down to the field to begin interviewing the coaches and so on with our heavy old bulky microphone plugged into a cassette tape recorder.
In the meanwhile, I’d noticed the competing AM station in my town arrive to call the same game and watched them go up to the press box and begin the motions of wiring up their own rig in the booth next to us.
Being the ‘big station’ in town they had two engineers show to set them up. One of them engineers for reasons I never knew glared at me as we passed on a walkway. He had long hair and a beard and looked like the fat guy in Canned Heat.
In time their guys started down to the field and their engineers left the stadium. It was now getting close to game time, the bands were playing the seats quickly filling up, and we made our way back up to the press box to get settled in and have some hometown buffet, provided by the school’s booster club ladies, before the game.
There was a couple of times my partner suggested we call the station and test the phone line just to be sure everything would work, but it was a long-distance call and I didn’t want to fool with it and have to hear on Monday morning about making extra phone calls from a location when it cost the station.
This was in the age of tersely worded memo’s and getting yelled at after-the-fact.
Finally, seven pm begins to roll up, airtime set for 7:15 and of course kickoff at 7:30, so we turned on the equipment, flipped a switch and waited to hear the Dial Tone through our headsets, but there was nothing. Flipped the switch a time or two again, no dial tone.
I looked under the desk at our phone line and it was all hooked up, the new style RJ11 plug was secure, but the phone man’s stick-on label he left on our box was just a little bit torn and the wire coming out had literally been cut!
Under the desk with my screwdriver, I quickly discovered someone had opened the phone junction box and disconnected our line and then for extra measure snipped the wire coming from the box. Their guys were still at the buffet yucking it up with the locals, because well, they were real famous and well known throughout the state.
Knowing what I had to do I whipped out my Buck knife and found some spare bell wire (our station engineers always put all kinds of spare crap in the suitcases). I took the extra wire, opened their box, disconnected their station then wired us into both stations. I had no clue what would happen but knew I could quickly connect us back to our station if something down there started smoking. I put on my headset and now, I got a really loud dial tone!
We were already beginning our pregame show when out of the corner of my eye I saw them rushing back from the room where the food was and quickly sit down to connect to home, but… they got no Dial Tone. In the age prior to cell phones and even pagers their control room guy probably in a major hair-pulling panic, could not reach them. And both of them, not really knowing the difference between a screwdriver and a hammer were totally puzzled; after all it had all worked perfectly earlier after the engineers set it up.
While I didn’t really know these two guys personally, they were both famous in the market, their AM was the biggest and most highly rated and I can’t imagine to this day how dumb they may have felt hearing me over their on-air monitor. One of them was a pretty big ol’ boy who’d played OL for the Denver Broncos, and I was kind of nervous about what could happen next.
Very often I’d glance over through the glass to see them sitting and quietly staring at their equipment. I didn’t know if they’d suddenly jump us or what. Back in Texas something like all this would have caused a major fistfight and all hell breaking loose, but they sat. Big Boy ate another plate from the buffet.
By halftime they’d sent an engineer who came up to straighten everything out. The engineer was down on the floor and stood up and (not the Canned Heat guy, the other one) asked me what the hell had happened? I said ‘ask your guys’.
Again, I was braced in case he hauled off and started whipping my ass (like would have happened in Texas). He fixed the connections back correctly like in four minutes during a commercial break. My partner, the color guy was handling the whole halftime show, so I was free to eat more from the buffet and be ready for a showdown with these galoots.
But, for the whole first half of the Colorado state quarterfinals me and my guy were on the two biggest AM stations in Denver with one of the biggest games of the year. Actually, I didn’t know we were on theirs, I thought my wiring would work but had no way to be sure, I only knew we were on our own frequency through our on-air headsets. The competition had made the decision in their control room early on to just take our feed, because of course they had a full commercial log full of spots to play too.
It took all the way until Monday afternoon, around 3:30 I recall for our General Manager to find me in the so-called station ‘lounge’.
By that day I’d lived about thirty-two years and in all that time, I’d never actually seen a grown man with a beet red face and tears streaming out of his eyes before, or heard my name screamed as loudly (until some years later in my marriage, from yet another simple misunderstanding) as I did that day.
But it wasn’t in anger, he and the sales managers and the owners had taken the furious call from ‘them’ an hour earlier, and since they’d hung up, they’d all been in his office drinking scotch and laughing like hyenas and literally rolling on the floor.
There’s really no clear moral to the story, I guess simply ‘don’t mess with other people’s stuff’ and don’t be a wuss and know how to set up your own remote broadcast equipment and make it work.
Also learned that Monday afternoon I don’t like the taste of scotch but consumed it steadily toast after toast until nearly midnight.
Written by George