Two Former Radio Broadcasters: “We Started At The End Of An Era”


Anyone who stops by my little place of cyberspace with any regularity knows that I have a fond affection for the way that radio once was packaged for the listening audience.   With a dose of radio broadcasting history under my belt, and a nostalgic feel for the most intimate of mediums, I make no bones about how I feel over the current state of what we now often find on the radio dial.    Due to my interest in radio I follow the news of the broadcast world, and thought I had things in perspective.  But after lunch this past Saturday on the Capital Square with one of my longest-time friends my point of view was sharpened.

Bruce Miller and I go back to the fall of 1981 when upon first hearing his voice I was certain I was sitting next to the future of NPR.  Even today there is still that deep-toned calm, reflective, analytical feel to the stride of his comments, making the delivery of even mundane sentences fun to hear.  It makes me wonder why he is still here talking to me instead of behind a microphone speaking to the masses. 

It was over lunch that we again started wandering back in time while reliving moments that never fail to lift the corners of the mouth, and wipe the years away.  After a long chat on the state of radio today, Bruce summed up our hopes and ideals as young broadcasters back in the 1980’s, contrasting it with the current style of broadcasting today.

“We started at the end of an era.”

The words struck me. 

They were simple words, but yet conveyed a major truth.

When Bruce and I were both kids, in our seperate communities, we each enjoyed taking our radios at night to the place where the best reception could be found, while tuning the dial to get stations in places we had only read about.  If boys in the 1930s lay awake at night wondering where the sound of the train whistle would take the passengers, kids like Bruce and myself were marveling at the invisible signal that transmitted sound.  It may sound geeky by the standards of how kids amsue themselves today, but I feel confident that there is much less charm to be found in a video game than the hiss and pops of an AM radio when trying to get WBZ in Boston on a rainy night in Wisconsin.  For those old enough to remember  it took real dexterity to get the dial tuned…..just so……finally…..there is the station…. among the cluster of others that also rubbed up against the signal.

When we attended broadcasting school our sound studios mimicked the conditions of real radio stations from Lake Charles, Louisiana to Butte, Montana.  Every school studio had access to the record library where a large selection of 45-rpms were stored in alphabetical order.  Each studio had a cart machine to play commercials, and a reel-to-reel tape machine that might be used for news actualities, or commercials.   We even learned how to splice tape…so no one could tell it was spliced!  During our air shifts we had to take the record and place the needle on it, while backing it up one rotation so that when the turntable was turned on there was an instant start to the recorded sound, and no ‘get up to speed sound’.   We learned how to ‘walk up the ramp’, a schtick that still elicits smiles from those who watch me do it, and grin when I nail it on the first syllable of the first word to a song.  After years of doing it on the air it still comes natural.  But sadly too few listeners ever hear it any more in radio land.

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Your blogger back in broadcasting school.  I have no picture of Bruce from those days.  (Bet someone is pleased about that now.)

Back when Bruce and I worked in radio automated stations were a minority in the industry.  The idea that a local disc jockey could be fired so a ‘personality’ sitting in a studio in New York could play to the audience via satellite was a ridiculous notion.  To pretend that could happen, be made public, and the station not care while stating it was a sound business decision, would have been considered pure insanity.

There are those who will say that the bottom line is the final reason for any business transaction.  If it is good for corporate, it is just good. Period.  I disagree.

When the UPI news wire that ran constantly at WDOR rang a bell indicating breaking news,..or two bells…or three….God forbid more…, there was an adrenaline rush that ran through the entire station.  The person nearest the machine ripped the copy and ran to the studio and thrust it in front of the person on-air.  The audience was there with the disc jockey, who broke into a song and alerted those listening with the information they needed to know.  A tornado warning for the county, the death of a Hollywood star, the explosion of a space shuttle.  The intensity of the drama connected the person behind the microphone to the audience. There was a sense in the radio studio of a large family where information was shared with those who were listening, and a bond of ‘we are all in this together.’  We followed up the initial report, if warranted, from the ABC Radio Network with live coverage.

There was a local, real, average, every-day run-of-the-mill man or woman behind the microphone who knew the community, and the needs of the audience.  There was a connection between those on each end of the radio signal.  After all, that was the way radio always was.  And that is the way that radio best serves the public.

So much of radio has lost that charm.  That essential quality. 

As Bruce said perfectly over lunch, “We started at the end of an era.”   

Walking into broadcast studios today is a far cry from the one I worked at in Sturgeon Bay.  The age of digital broadcasting has taken over.  And I know that is progress.  But I also know there is something missing.   No more albums and turntables.  No more cart machines that might eat the tape.  No more splicing reel-to-reel tape.  Granted things are easier and faster with the modern conveniences of better equipment.

But when we lose the human local component to the radio experience in favor of automated and satellite driven stations I know we have lost more than we have gained.

Bruce and I both carry the fondess for the  older era of radio broadcasting with us, and feel lucky for understanding why it was grand.  I only wish that more people could feel the same.

One thought on “Two Former Radio Broadcasters: “We Started At The End Of An Era”

  1. Bruce Miller

    As the once and never “voice of NPR” identified in the above commentary, I don’t claim to have the skills my dear friend would have you believe. But whether I ever had the necessary talent or not, the reason I’m not on the radio today is simply because NOBODY is on the radio today. That is the sad but true point of this whole discussion. In fact, The blogger and I surmise that of the 50 or so students who graduated broadcasting school with us, nary a one is likely still “on the air”. As Bob Dylan sang on one of those scratchy 45 rpm records we played at broadcasting school, “The Times They Are A-Changin'”. Ain’t it the truth.

    To whit, when I first met Deke the extent of his technical skill involved tuning in Larry King on a small AM radio late at night. He thought a CD was the place you go in the school basement when the sirens went off. So I made it my mission to drag the poor fellow kicking and screaming into the 20th century, technologically speaking. Just look at him today! But alas, the student has surpassed the teacher. To be sure, I enjoy watching DVDs and surfing the internet as much as the next baby boomer. But beyond that, I can’t tell you the difference between an Ipod and a pea pod.

    In the end I don’t think technology and innovation are the enemy. Old age is the enemy. Getting stuck too firmly in the comfort zone of our memories is the enemy. I just turned 48 in April. I don’t know that’s old but I do think I’m stuck. I LIKE listing to old 45’s. I LIKE listening to AM radio late at night. Will someone please drag me BACK into the 20th century? I promise I won’t kick and scream.

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