Saturday, May 07, 2005

SEARCY ’46 – ’56 – Part 18

Chapter Thirteen

Tom Pry

Snap, Crackle .. Hiss? – Part 1: Radio

There is a college professor who, every year, draws up a social profile of the incoming freshman class, which he then distributes to his colleagues as an aid toward knowing what terms of reference are going to work on the callow little darlings. You know, things like “The typical member of the freshman class has never known a world in which home PCs didn’t exist.”

You get the idea: count back 18 years and figure out what was a miracle to us and is commonplace to them. Cell phones, for instance, for all their ubiquity now, are only about 20 years old, but try to imagine a world without them.

That’s why I’ve got to do a little technical explanation of AM radio before talking about it makes much sense to many of you.

AM stands for Amplitude Modulation (FM for Frequency Modulation). AM is really nothing but a highly refined form of static. Marconi’s first radio broadcasts were in Morse Code and, every time you tapped the key, it made a spark as big around as your arm jump from one point to another across a room. That’s how radio started. Then, about 1933, a guy named Edwin H. Armstrong invented FM radio.

FM was everything that AM was not: it would handle the full frequency range of a record (“A what?”), it had no static, it stayed put in terms of the ground a station would cover, and an experimental station in New York City was picked up with full clarity in downtown Boston with no problem …

FM, in fact, had only one drawback: RCA (Radio Corporation of America) held almost none of the patents on it, so “General” David Sarnoff, its legendary head (and former partner of Armstrong), bided his time until a large network of FM stations had been built, and boards of education all over the country had put their own FM stations on the air – and then Sarnoff sicced his attorneys on the FCC for the kind of maneuvering that gives lawyers (and bureaucrats) a bad name, with the net result, with the use of such specious arguments as “sunspot interference,” that EVERY SINGLE PIECE OF FM EQUIPMENT in the country – receivers and transmitters and antennas – became, in one day, totally worthless.

(Armstrong was so shattered that he wrote an “I’m Sorry” note to his wife, and then took a walk out the window of his 13th floor apartment).

This was about the time we were in the 2nd or 3rd grade.

(About the time we were going into high school, Sarnoff did it again, this time to the CBS color television system. The system in use today is an RCA system; NOT the one originally approved by the FCC. We will speak more of this technological battlefield in Part 2).

Right now, suffice it to say we grew up with AM radio, and its technological limitations had a profound effect on what we listened to when.

Now, I have to carry in mind that there are some of our readers who don’t know what “static” is. Kids, it’s electrical noise. You don’t even have to hear it to know it’s disruptive. If you still pick up your TV signal from an antenna, look at your TV next time there’s a lot of lightning going on in a storm. Every time there’s a bolt of lightning, the picture fuzzes up for a brief second: that’s static. The picture on TV is AM, the sound FM, which is why you see the disruption without hearing it.

Now, imagine that fuzzy distortion as sound and you’ve got an idea what we listened to in our youth. I know, I know, the only thing on AM radio these days is news and preachers but, in my generation’s growing up years, that is ALL we had.

Besides static, the other characteristic of AM that controlled a lot of our listening habits is that, at night, the signal travels farther, due to the contraction of the atmosphere in the coolness of the night, lowering that layer of earth’s envelope called the Ionosphere, from which radio signals bounce.

You can logically ask how that would affect us when we were kids. Simple: just about every radio frequency in the U.S. has a batch of radio stations on it. During the day, no problem (other than the always-present static) but, when the sun started setting, AM stations would start interfering with each other. Priority for use of that frequency was determined by who went on the air on it first: if 1300A went on the air in 1934, every 1300 station licensed after that had to protect 1300A’s right of way, either by going directional (meaning it was strong in one or two directions, and non-existent in the direction of the priority station), or by cutting its power, or by going off the air altogether.

(You’ve heard talk of “Clear Channel” stations – the class, not the company, which ain’t ? That’s 13 stations across the nation that, when local sundown hits, have the EXCLUSIVE right to that frequency: everybody else has to get the hell off. The nearest one to us is WWL in New Orleans, the best known WLS in Chicago).

That nest of radio towers down at the I-30/I-40 interchange in Little Rock is what KARN (then KARK) had to resort to in order to cut their power AND go directional at night, thus protecting whatever stations on 920 had gotten on the air before them.

White County didn’t get its first radio station until Carl Dodd put KWCB on the air in 1950 .. on 1300 kilocycles (later called kilohertz). It was a thousand watt daytimer, by definition. In practical terms, that meant it didn’t have much power (there was only one class lower: 250 watts, like KCON in Conway – maximum power in this country was 50,000 watts – except for KDKA in Pittsburgh, which tests its 100,000 watt transmitter once a month) and, worse, as the days get shorter, so does its broadcasting “day.”

A LOT of stations had gotten onto 1300 before KWCB came along. That means our station could sign on at 5 in the morning, but sign-OFF ranged all the way from 5:15pm in the winter to 7:45pm in the summer.

Carl had built a nice little home-style building ‘way out on East Race Street, about where the J.C. Penney shopping strip is now: two studios, plus a control room/studio, a transmitter room, offices … it was nice. It was soundproof, too – until the 1951 tornado came through. While that monster tore down the tower, it didn’t strike the building, but something in the atmospheric drop did funny things to the soundproofing in the building, and it was never quite the same again: you could talk through the walls.

Everyone today is used to a radio station doing a certain type of programming all day long: that’s called “vertical programming.” There was very little of that when we were growing up; most stations, like KWCB (and almost every station in Little Rock) used “horizontal programming,” which is the tidy way of saying that what kind of program you were liable to hear when you tuned in depended on what time you turned the radio on. In the course of the average day, you’d hear the latest hits, the news, the gospel hour, some hillbilly songs: one station trying to meet all the needs of its entire community. TV is essentially horizontal programming.

The non-traditional news was the biggie in this menu. You have no idea how many people got up early in the morning, turning on their radios in the hopes that could pick up enough of KWCB through the static and other-station interference to find out whether the shoe factory or Birdseye or both was working that day, or at 5 in the afternoon to see if Birdseye would need them that night. The lives of entire families were directly affected by what they heard on the radio first thing in the morning. That one service right there totally outweighed the importance of the rest of the entire day’s schedule.

It was an interesting schedule, since you never really knew what – or who – you were liable to hear when you tuned in. Weekends in the fall were bound to feature a college football game, on Memorial Day, it’d be full lap-by-lap live coverage of the Indy 500 (if you’ve never heard it, don’t even TRY to imagine the boredom of a long automobile race on radio) and, later, the Darlington 500 (ditto).

Around early 1954, Carl put a sturdy plywood box, some mike stands and microphones, and a direct line to the KWCB studios in the high school auditorium. I got the key to the lock on the box. This enabled KWCB to do live broadcasts of football pep rallies and other exciting things directly from the school.

It’s strange what you remember from those early radio days. Anita Hart Fuller remembers the Wood-Freeman Lumber commercial, with a saw going in the background until the chunk of wood fell on the floor. Ernest Simpson remembers Peck Maness’ ("Peck's Dog House") homegrown singing commercial, with lyrics and singing by Peck, saxophone by local musical legend “Punky” Caldwell.

EVERYONE in my generation remembers Johnny Argo, if for no other reason than he was the one memorable radio voice to ever grace 1300 locally.

Johnny was a type, what in broadcasting we call a “floater.” I suppose every profession has its Johnny Argos, but he’s the one we remember.

In common with so many of his type, Johnny was much better than you were used to finding on a station the size of KWCB. He had a professional voice and a professional air personality. (In case you haven’t figured it out by now, calling someone a “professional” is the highest form of compliment I’ve got). KWCB, in broadcast terms, was an “entry-level” station, your first broadcasting job, normally. Before and after Johnny, the early afternoon host was a nice middle-aged gentleman named, as I recall Homer, who was actually the station’s Chief Engineer.

The venerable John Paul Capps was a clerk in a government office on the square when Carl Dodd heard his deep voice and offered him a job strictly on the basis of his vocal chords: he had not a whit of broadcasting experience prior to that.

Then here comes Argo: smooth voice that he played like a pipe organ, playing music of interest to us kids, in a smooth, hip manner. That’s about all he did: broadcasting was his life. He’d tape himself during his shift and study the tapes, almost narcissistically, at night. I caught him, more than once, playing back one of his tapes on the air, interjecting comments to himself at appropriate points.

Johnny really had no interests other than the doing “his thing” during his afternoon show. This worked to my benefit, because I could go out there on a Sunday afternoon, and it is from Johnny that I learned the peculiarities of the transmitter and the control board and that new thing, the tape recorder. As long as I didn’t crack open the mic switch, Johnny would let me run the equipment while he did God Only Knows what.

Carl never did know how I learned all that, and wouldn’t ask. Maybe he thought the knowledge came with the license.

With no other life to speak of, Johnny could-and-would be available for other things, as long as they provided an audience. Once, Johnny took several of us down to the V.A. hospital in Little Rock to do a show for the patients. We piled into his nifty, sporty Ford and tooled down 67. Outside Jacksonville, we were passing a house with an old man sitting on the front porch, puffing on his after-supper pipe. To our –- and the old man’s – surprise, Johnny yelled “HI!”, his arm stuck out the window to wave. The old man weakly waved back.

John turned his head to us and said, “It’s going to bother that old man for week wondering who in hell that was.”

Give Johnny an audience ….

Johnny Argo was with us about a year, then moved on to Little Rock. From Little Rock to Hartford, CT, then to Kansas City, KS and, after that, wherever his by-then buddy, Morton Downey, Jr. went.

Johnny’s no longer on this earth: he’s IN it, heaven only where.

But he’s also in our memories, for as long as they last. Thanks for a lot of fun, Johnny.

Needless to say, except when Johnny was on, there was little to interest us teens on KWCB. Daytimes, though, there was an experiment going on in Memphis that we found very, very entertaining. This new thing was called “Top 40” radio. WMPS (“A Plough Incorporated Station” delivered in rotund tones) played the top 40 songs in the country, plus a few up-and-comers from the “Billboard Top 100.” Chatter, although delivered by a brisk, thoroughly professional-sounding announcer, was kept to a minimum. Time, temperature, commercials, and about 45 seconds worth of news headlines were the filler: the rest of the time it was “our” music.

(Plough ultimately decided there was more money to be made in radio than in manufacturing aspirin. They also later invented the Staff Bloodbath. This latter worked/works like this: first, no one works on the air under their real name. They use an “air name” and PLOUGH owns the name. Therefore, a popular announcer couldn’t take his audience with him if he went to another station, and signed a contract to that effect.

(Step two: if a guy thinks he’s worth more money, give it to him. When the budget starts getting strained, hire new jocks, on the sly, and then replace the entire air staff over one weekend. Cruel, but effective, and came into play when Rock & Roll reared its overwhelming head, with all its would-be Alan Freeds. Repeat whenever necessary).

Unfortunately, WMPS went down with the sun … but hope was not lost, because there was always WLAC out of Nashville, and Randy’s Record Shop to give us all that WMPS offered – and more.

Understand, you could count the number of black entertainers on radio on the fingers of one hand: Nat “King” Cole (you remember, Natalie’s dad?), occasionally Arthur Prysock and/or Billy Eckstine, once in a while Ella Fitzgerald. Black instrumentalists fared a little better: Count Basie, Louis Armstrong (as long as he didn’t sing), although it’s problematical how well Canadian Sunset would’ve done had the Powers That Be known that pianist/songwriter Eddie Heywood was black.

In other words, if they sang in a white style, they were socially acceptable. Otherwise, they went on a handful of what were termed “race” stations scattered around the country, low power stations in cities like Memphis with a large colored population (the one in Memphis, like most of them, was white-owned, so guys not on the air sat in front of the station on the curb). It is impossible to overstress this situation. Nat Cole did a live 15-minute TV show about 6:15 three afternoons a week. Had Nelson Riddle’s orchestra backing him up, and was one of the highest rated shows on television. Over its year-long run, know how many sponsors signed up for it?

Zero. He was black. Didn’t matter that he had probably a dozen gold records on the mantelpiece by then, sponsoring a colored on TV was liable to rile up the whites.

Three things cracked this wall in a hurry: Elvis Presley, The Blackboard Jungle, and Randy’s Record Shop, not necessarily in that order.

I still remember sitting in the Rialto Theatre one Sunday afternoon. I’d heard about The Blackboard Jungle, and decided to find out what the commotion was about. I found out in a hurry. The film opened on a black screen … and the strains of Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock.” The record had actually come out a year-or-two earlier, but no one had paid much attention to it. They couldn’t tell if the singer was black or white and, besides, it had this heavy back beat to it, a street rhythm that was more than suspect.

When that tune started in the darkened auditorium, the hair on the back of my neck started up, too. I suspect that was the reaction of most of my peers: suddenly, we had OUR music, not a slightly modified version of that belonging to our parents. (Jo Stafford, Gogi Grant, Kitty Kallen, Nat Cole, Nelson Riddle, Les Baxter .. all started in the 1940s).

Shortly after that, this kid over in Memphis got a contract with Sam Phillips’ Sun Records, and Elvis was off and running. He was Tupelo, MS white, but his singing was a fascinating combination of race and hillbilly (later called “Rockabilly”).

The coup de grace to all this was Randy’s Record Shop. Randy was Randy Wood, owner of a record shop by that name in Gallatin, TN. He sponsored the show, so he could damn well play what he wanted … and he wanted to play artists that we’d never heard of before: Chuck Berry or The Drifters, for instance. (He also founded Dot Records, home of the Hilltoppers and Pat Boone, among others).

More of Our Music.

Randy’s Record Shop did the biggest mail-order record business in the country, not surprising when you realize that white folk owned most of the record stores in our respective towns.

By the spring of 1956, the top 40 was an interesting mix: Les Baxter’s lush Melodia Loca and Nelson Riddle’s equally tranquil Lisbon Antigua, Eydie Gormé’s “Too Close for Comfort”, all sharing space with Roll Over Beethoven and You Ain’t Nothin’ But a Hounddawg.

Listening to the radio could be fun.

On the local scene, pretty much the same. A lady named Spann, strongly connected to Stuttgart’s KWAK, got a license to build an FM station, and had even bought property for it, toward town from KWCK, and put up a sign to that effect. Since FM was pretty much a dead issue, there’s the distinct possibility that this was a money-making scheme. If so, it worked: Carl bought the license and put it away in his desk drawer for quite some few years.


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