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Friday, July 05, 2013

Automated Radio Stations

Many people have a disgusted view of radio these days. And who can blame them? They lament the lack of personality, the bland repetitive playlists, the high commercial loads per hour and most annoyingly, the "liner cards" (trust me, the jocks more than anyone HATE these. They know you're not stupid and it's embarrassing on both ends.)

Seriously, what the fuck is "Now Playing An Even Better Mix of Continuous Lite Favorites With More Variety and Less Talk....."

How many of you have heard something like that on the radio and screamed back at it "Well DO WE, NOW? DUH!"

(Please remember it's all radio program director ego masturbation and does not represent the opinions of those who are/were forced to say it, strictly verbatim, to keep their jobs.)

Many of us will look back at the radio industry deregulation of the '90s, which lifted ownership caps on how many radio stations one corporation could own in one city from one AM and one FM to 8 total (5 FM and 3 AM stations. Or vice-versa) as the beginning of bland, stale, canned sounding radio. And to some degree, they're right - it just went south on a MASSIVE scale after that. But corporately programmed, bland boring radio been around longer than you think.

When the FM radio band was finally established in the late '40s it had a really slow start. One was most stations were co-owned with major local AM stations and simply simulcasted their AM programming on FM 24/7. Others simulcasted most of the time and would produce nightly programming. And the rest were upstart independents that focused on their music. Mostly classical music and easy listening/show tunes. Always accentuating the "high fidelity" of FM. 

When FM Stereo debuted in 1961, it wasn't much of a game changer at first. Few stations adopted it immediately and it wasn't until the early '70s when most stations did. So apart from a few daring originals, FM was stagnating.

So in 1966, the FCC decided to do something about it. It wasn't in the back pocket of lobbyists at it is today. So it mandated that all AM/FM combo's FM stations have a mandatory minimum of separate programming from their AM stations.

The radio industry was not happy. Many AM/FMs actually didn't even have separate studios for their FM stations. But they had to get something - ANYTHING to fill all this new airtime. This meant hiring people who will work really cheap, which led to the progressive rock era OR.....

Enter the radio automation machine.

It was first invented in the 1950s, but it didn't work very well because the very first ones played 45 RPM records using a jukebox-like mechanism. The selector mechanism that put each record on the platter had to be cleaned and well lubricated. Often. Otherwise, the selector would not properly retract and as the powerful motor moved the player on to the next selection, the selector would ride along, happily SMASHING every record it encountered..... SNAP! SNAP! SNAP!.

Back to the drawing board.

By the late '60s, they had improved to the point of enough stability (or at least less destructiveness) to make them a viable option for most of the bigger FM stations.  
Here's how it worked (in the TM Stereo Rock format):

First, you panic a little.

Next you opened up four boxes of two track reel, one sided  tape and threaded them accordingly. The 100 Series was for currents. These were newer hits were in sets of two songs, back announced with "That was (last song played) and before that (the first song)"

The 100 series reel was also where the announcer lurked.

The 200 Series were the oldest songs in the format. The 300s were recurrents (songs released in the last 7 years that people still like.)  There was also a 400 series for nighttime airplay. It featured more album cuts and newer or "buzz" material, each back announced with not only title and artist, but also album the song came off of.

New music reels were shipped out to replace older reels several times a year. Currents were replaced every two weeks, recurrents four times a year and oldies twice a year.

And these tape reels needed constant changing, so it was usually up to the jocks in the AM studio to rewind them. These reel to reel machines had POWERFUL rewind motors, they were a marvel to watch the tapes rewind so fast. But you had to make sure the reel hubs were on tightly or the reels would wobble off and fly across the room projectile (and they HURT) and replace them in mid-airshift.

This was also the era of the 2-3 minute pop song, which meant they had to work fast - VERY fast (one can only imagine the horror of hearing "White Rabbit" through the hallway AM air monitors approaching it's end and you're still trying to get a tape threaded in the machine and just as Grace Slick starts singing "Feed your head!......Feed your head!", race back to the AM studio to open the mic before the very last note faded out.)

And under NO circumstances were you allowed to break a sweat.

TM Stereo Rock subscribing stations were required to return the outdated reels back to the company (the metal reels themselves were pretty expensive.) But this left a narrower playlist, so stations often held on to older reels to add more variety.

Next, you put the jingles, commercial spots, PSAs, weather and time checks and mandatory hourly station identification on cart tapes.

Carts are essentially similar to 8-Track music tapes. More about them here.
Then, came the fun part - Programming the beast. Each system was different. Some were computerized, some used switches. And when you're done (and hopefully done right), you had something that sounded like this (This isn't TM Stereo Rock, this is the Drake-Chenault Hit Parade.......)

WRAL 101.5 FM, Raleigh, NC (1974)

As the '70s progressed and FM became more dominate, many automated FMs went live and some used the automation for AM programming.

Like many automated radio stations, KISM-FM's jocks often pre-recorded their shows prior to airtime.

But automated radio never went away. In fact, it's status quo. But using computers today. That big wall of tape machines can all be done from a laptop computer today. Very few stations today have live announcers physically playing the music.

1 comment:

  1. The most obnoxious entry in this level of automation is MIKE-FM that announces it's "No announcers, more music" format with an air of vulgar snobbery. The programming is mechanical sounding to a fault.

    Hey Mike, you don't get bonus love points for touting the fact that you put on-air personalities out of work.


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