Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Top 40

My first real job was at a top-40 AM radio station in Rockville, Maryland, WINX. WINX ("winks") had been my favorite music station since I moved to Maryland at 13. I was a card-carrying member of their fan club, the WINX Winkers, so I was thrilled to join their staff. Working for a radio station gave me considerable cachet among my high school peers. It was ever so much more glamorous than the Math Team. Adding to my status was the fact that I had grown a beard. This photo is not me, but radio pioneer Heinrich Hertz (1857-1894). In his day, all men had beards; but in mine a beard was a daring fashion statement (my first and last) which made me a pioneer too. It was the summer of '68, and WINX needed a vacation replacement for their transmitter engineer. I was only 16, and didn't even have a driver's license yet, but I did have a First Class Radiotelephone Operator's license from the FCC. My duties were few but federally mandated. Broadcasting was heavily regulated almost since its beginnings, chiefly to keep stations from interfering with each other's signals. Radio waves travel especially far at night, skipping off the dark ionosphere for hundred or thousands of miles. To prevent this, local stations on shared channels like WINX were required to either sign off after dark or transmit with low power in a restricted local pattern. I would arrive at sundown, unlock the transmitter shack, turn on the lights, and throttle back the station's 1,000-watt transmitter to half power. Then I pushed a big black Bakelite button, activating a heavy relay. Kerchunk! The relay re-routed the station's signal from a single omnidirectional daytime tower to a three-tower directional array. Then I would take the logbook clipboard and walk into the summer twilight to visit all three towers where I jotted down the current reading from an ammeter at the base of each tower. After touring the antenna field, I went back to the shack and read a book or phoned my friends. It was essentially an easy babysitting job but paid better. My only chore for the rest of the night was to check every half-hour that the transmitter hadn't strayed from its assigned power level or frequency. Frequency was allowed to vary only 10 cycles per second in either direction from 1600 kilocycles. They aren't called cycles and kilocycles anymore. Hertz and kilohertz had been the official units since the 1930s, but nobody used them much, and I still don't like them, because cycles per second are easier to imagine than hertzes. Isn't it hard enough to understand invisible things? Words that make the invisible visible are to be valued. That is why there is poetry. My shift ended at midnight when the combo man arrived. Combo meant a disk jockey who also had a First Phone ticket and was a qualified transmitter-sitter. Jay drove up in a red Mustang convertible and talked endlessly about drag racing even after my complete disinterest became clear. He ran his six-hour show from the tiny, shabby spare studio in the transmitter shack rather than the big studio in downtown Rockville. I always stayed up all night to watch Jay do his show, because I couldn't drive myself home. A station profile in Billboard says "Jay salutes all who must work at night, such as police, fire departments, hospital staff, and military personnel." I don't remember him saluting anybody. What he did was cue up records, station jingles and commercials, and introduce songs to within an inch of their lives. Top-40 stations today advertise "Less Talk!" but back then, deejays never shut up. They honored a strict taboo against the briefest interval of silence. Even three seconds of silence was considered "dead air," and dead air was unforgivable. It meant you were asleep on the job, or had lingered too long in the bathroom, or worst of all, had nothing to say. Jay ran a tight show. He would even talk during a song's instrumental introduction, up until the very split-second when the singing began. Back then, even the lowliest local deejay was a celebrity. Starstruck girls called Jay all night long to flirt. They generally claimed to be 16, although most eventually confessed to being barely 13. Jay, who was 21 and engaged to be married, had been in the business long enough to lose any interest in Winker jailbait, so he would pass the phone over to me. I don't know how I stayed up all night, but I was young and stupid. At 6:00 am, Jay would switch back to full daytime power, lock up, and give me a ride in the Mustang to downtown Rockville where I could catch a bus for home. *** (My thanks to Alan Hochberg for suggesting this topic by asking whether our generation had any such thing as a musical canon. The answer is yes, and its name is Top 40.)