45% of a Century in Media

January 17, 1977. I was a Hospital Corpsman in the Navy, working in the admissions office of the Naval Hospital at Camp Lejeune, NC. I had about 4-1/2 months left in my enlistment with no intention of staying in for another term.

At this point, it had been just over a year since I passed the FCC test for a Third Class Radiotelephone Operator’s License with Broadcast Endorsement.

You had to have one of these to work on the air and sign the transmitter log.

I had applied at the five radio stations in Jacksonville, NC, by this time and hadn’t gotten as much as a call-back. Until that day.

It was late morning and my office phone rang. On the line, the program director for WJNC/WRCM, an AM/FM combo. The PD asked if I might still be interested in a part-time gig. I said I was. He asked if I could be at the studio in time for a 3-6 p.m. show that afternoon. I said of course I could.

Except, I didn’t know for a fact that I could be there. After the call, I went to see the Chief Petty Officer in charge of Patient Affairs at the hospital. He knew I was a short-timer and had a proper lifer’s resentment for a young punk who wasn’t ready to commit his life to his beloved Navy. However, to give him credit, he gave me permission to leave early.

By 2:45 p.m., I was at the radio station. For the princely sum of $2.45/hr I was hired as a part-time announcer. My very first professional radio gig.

After filling out the tax paperwork, etc., the PD took me into the WRCM studio (the FM country station). He pointed out the intricacies of the broadcast console.

It looked something like this.

The PD told me the dial on the left controlled the microphone. The next one controlled the left-hand turntable. The next one controlled the right-hand turntable. The next one controlled the deck of three cartridge tape players on which commercials and promos were recorded. The one on the far right was the master volume control. To cue up a record, you took the dial for whichever turntable and turned it all the way to the left until you felt the click. Then you could put the needle in the groove and turn the record until sound came out of the cue speaker. You made sure the toggle switch above the dial (we call them “pots”) was switched to the right, to “P” (for “Program”) as opposed to the left to “A” (for “Audition”), then you cranked up the pot to the volume you wanted to have when the record starts. If you intend to talk over the intro, have it turned to 6 or 7 so your voice could be heard over the music. Then, after talking, “pot it up” to 10, while keeping an eye on the VU meter, ensuring that the needle peaked right at the beginning of the red-zone and thus you were not over modulating. To turn on the mic, flip the switch to “P”.

As mentioned previously, commercials, jingles, promos, etc., were recorded onto “cart” and were played from a “cart deck.”

To my left, a box of 45-rpm records divided into categories… current hits, recurrent songs (recently falling off the top 20), Oldies, new songs that may or may not be chart-bound. There was a cardboard poster above the board with a clock showing the rotation for any given hour. The “format wheel.”

And thus ended my official training as a radio show host. It took me longer to type all this than it did to actually experience it.

The PD started the last song of the hour. I took my seat in “the air chair.” He gave me a pat on the shoulder and told me “good luck.” And he was gone.

As the song played, I cued up what would be my first record. I believe it was Linda Ronstadt’s “Blue Bayou.”

The song ended, I clicked on the mic, introduced myself, clicked the switch to start the record, and I was on the air.

I sat back in my chair to catch my breath, to let the enormity of the moment set in. Ever since I was a kid listening to late-night radio on my little AM transistor radio, I had wanted to be a broadcaster. Now I was.

Then the program director came into the room, reached over my shoulder, took Miss Ronstadt out of “cue” (where I had left the dial, ensuring that I could hear the song over the little cue speaker, but it wasn’t going out on the air). He smiled at me, patted me on the shoulder, and left the studio.

And not for the last time, I wondered what the hell business I had pretending that I belonged on the radio.

I’m sure there were more errors committed that afternoon and I thought that my broadcasting dream would end with this one shot in the tiny little cubicle studio of WRCM. But after the show, the PD congratulated me and told me, if I wanted it, I could have a regular weekend 6-midnight show on the AM station, WJNC.

I worked that shift until the end of May. When I got out of the Navy, I got a full-time job at WGUD, Pascagoula, Mississippi (for the whopping sum of $150/wk).

It hardly seems like it was 45 percent of a century ago that I did my first professional show.

Seems like it was much longer ago.