News From The Woods - January 29, 2012


By Bob Ketchum

Originally Published January 29, 2012

"Audio Radiance For The Radio Audience"

In a previous life I had a wonderful time in my career as a radio broadcaster. To the uninitiated, that means "disk jockey". Now, to be a DJ in those days you had to have a quick and fertile mind, a gift for gab, and the cojones to be willing to make a complete fool of yourself while broadcasting it to the entire town, area, region, or state…… depending on how powerful the radio station was. Of utmost importance was your voice. Of course, having a deep voice was of paramount importance, but not absolutely necessary. More importantly, one had to be able to enunciate correctly, have above average grammar skills, and be endowed with "colloquial neutrality". That means you should not have any discernable accent, unless you intended to live and work in the same area of the country where you were raised. For example, if you were raised in the Deep South you would have a difficult time finding work in San Francisco, Iowa, or Seattle. Back in those days you also had to have a "Third Class Ticket." More precisely, a license to work in a broadcast station. This Third Class Radio Telephone Operators Permit (broadcast endorsed) could only be obtained by taking a test from the Federal Communication Commission. First, a little history:

"Historically, the first commercial operator licenses were issued by the Department of Commerce and then later by the Federal Radio Commission under the authority of the Radio Act of 1927. When the FCC was created in 1934 it took over this function. The Commission issued First and Second Class Radiotelephone Operator Licenses. In 1953 a Third Class permit was added.

As they developed after World War II, the "First Phone" was required to be chief engineer at a broadcast station, and to work on television transmitters. The "Second Phone" was often held by radio transmitter repair persons, such as in the aviation and maritime industries. The Third Class permit was required for announcers who had to record meter readings or who operated low power radio broadcast stations. Obtaining any of these required passing written examinations. The examination to earn the Second (because it included the entire field of electronics transmission) was generally thought more difficult than the First, which concentrated on television. The Third required a knowledge of broadcast rules.

From 1963 to 1978 an additional technical written test added a "Broadcast Endorsement" to the "Third Phone". This allowed announcers to be the sole operators at some limited power radio stations.

As technology rapidly changed transmitters required less skill to manage. In the spirit of deregulation and to reduce its own personnel and other associated costs, the FCC yield progressively more of its control over broadcasters, and eased licensing requirements. In 1980 the name of the Third Phone was changed to the Marine Radio Operator Permit and was subsequently renewed under that name. In 1982 testing stopped for the First. Shortly afterwards all renewing First and Second Class licenses, were issued as General Radiotelephone Operators Licenses (GROLs). Like all previous commercial licenses, they were issued with renewable five year terms, but in 1985 certificates began to be granted or renewed as lifetime documents. Today, the GROL examinations cover FCC broadcast regulations and communications electronics. Except for the special cases noted above, a license is not longer legally required for work in a broadcast station."

Thank you, Wikipedia. I could not have said it better myself………

In 1967, my father had just passed away, and I was facing the dilemma of a lack of discernable income. Mom was saddled with the responsibility of trying to keep together the real estate venture dad left in her lap unexpectedly, and so I knew I had to really get a job and stop playing around. Up to that point my only "trade" was that I was a young musician. Not much to go on there…….

One morning over breakfast as I was lamenting my situation, my mother said soberly, "Bob you really ought to consider getting into radio". The comment did not really surprise me, as for years she had laughed at all my breakfast table humor and jokes and stories of playing in a band, and many times joked that I'd make a good disk jockey. While the idea appealed to me, I had no clue as to how I might go about this. But this morning, she was prepared. She said "I saw in the Little Rock newspaper that there is a school for broadcasting at Draughon's Business College", and then she showed me the ad she had cut out of the Arkansas Gazette. I scanned the advertisement (visions of local DJ Monte Manchester "spinning platters" at KTLO on his "House Party" teen radio show danced in my head) and decided to give them a call, just for kicks. Fifteen minutes later I had a grasp of the courses they offered, the time it might take, and the cost of enrollment. But I had no idea how I might move to Little Rock and how I'd live there. Mom said she would help me move , get me set up in a place to live, and even pay for the course, providing I could get a job to help with expenses while attending this school.

On one hand I was scared to death at the thought of leaving home and entering the "real world" and living all by myself in a strange new city. On the other hand I was excited about the prospect of becoming a DJ and entertaining an entire radio audience with my wit and wisdom….Such as it was in those days - I was young and stupid and full of myself. Besides, I had just spent two years at a couple of colleges (long story there) and although I lived in dorms I WAS "away from home and on my own", not counting the credit card and occasionally trip home to do laundry and beg for money for gas (and tires) for the Barracuda.

I had JUST been drafted - and summarily rejected as 4F - by the U S Government and so military service (and manual labor thanks to the reasons for my disqualification) was no longer on my radar. I was 20 and had my entire adult life ahead of me. What to do…….

I drove to Little Rock and hit the streets looking for work. With newspaper in hand I checked out the job offers, and by early afternoon I had secured a part-time job as a door-to-door magazine salesman for a subscription company located in a 5-story building in the heart of downtown. Then I spent the rest of the day finding a place to live. I settled on a mobile home rental out on Shackleford Road that did not require a large deposit. I drove back home, arriving after midnight, and collapsed in my bed. The next morning I called and arranged for deposits on electricity and telephone (thanks, Mom), and sent my first months rent to the landlord, explaining that I would come down in a few days and pick up the key. Then I called Draughon's School of Radio and enrolled in the classes that I would need in order to meet their criteria for a broadcasting career. There was a small 500-watt radio station located in the school building. In addition, they required a course in typing and grammar. There were other classrooms for those seeking their 1st and 2nd Class FCC licenses. It was a single building "campus". Fortunately the building was within blocks from my employer's building, so I could literally walk to work from school every day.

I arranged for my classes to be during the morning hours, and by 1 PM I was free to go to work. Upon arrival at the magazine office I would be issued sheets of paper with names and addresses of those people who were sold subscriptions by the "call girls" manning the telephones in the office. I spent the rest of the afternoon and early evening making calls. I was known as a "closer", the guy who followed up each sales call to get the subscriber's earnest money and signature on the contract. It was NOT an easy job, but I was good at it, and in no time I became the company's top closer. I struck up a relationship with their top call girl and eventually we got married, but that's another story.

I hated the typing class, but knew that getting a license did not depend on my typing skills, so I skimmed through it as easy as I could. To this day I still do all my typing with only four fingers. There was a lot of down time between my typing class and the actual "broadcasting class", so I often wandered the halls and went in and out of the classrooms for 1st and 2nd Class engineering. The air was filled with the smell of solder. Wiring and electronics were strewn everywhere on benches as students worked to understand theory and the practical application therein. It was over my head but still interesting, and I made a few friends with the guys there.

At 11AM it came time for "radio class", which was my favorite - and the reason I had enrolled. The instructor was barely older than me and I soon learned he barely knew more about "stuff" than I did! I had spent a great deal of time at home fooling around with tape recorders, record players, and microphones… And I was FAR more knowledgeable of modern music than he was, so in just a couple of weeks I wound up being his "assistant" in the broadcasting operation. I became his star student and he spent a lot of additional time with me, telling me what to expect from the FCC examination which would be coming up in a couple of months. Actually, they gave the FCC exams at the post office every month, so it was just a matter of me thinking I knew enough to take the test. He DID show me what all the dials, meters, and knobs were for on the small transmitter at the school. It was actually right in the same room as the small audio control board. The school's "radio station" consisted of a modest (and very old) Gates broadcast console with four inputs, one turntable, and an ancient reel to reel tape recorder. There was a teletype machine hooked up to the Associated Press (chattering constantly), and two microphones. One was hanging precariously from a broken boom over the console, and the other was in a very small "booth" built right in the same room about six feet from the desk containing the gear. There were a couple of other electronic boxes but we never used them so I didn't bother learning what they might be for. The transmitter was located behind the DJ position and about six feet away. That was it.

At 10:50 AM the instructor and I would crank up the little transmitter. I would read the meters and he would write down the numbers on a broadcast log, making occasional adjustments to the plate voltage. Then the other students would arrive by 11 and we'd have class, which consisted of going over the rules and regulations of the FCC. I didn't have to do much at all. I was blessed with a neutral accent and better than average HS education so I didn't have to spend time working on my grammar or pronunciation. All of the other students struggled with speaking on a microphone "on the air" - stage fright and all - but I was never afflicted with the problem, so I hardly ever had to go into the booth. Most of the time I was running the board while the others did the talking and reading. We didn't do a lot of "spinning disks" simply because other than the basics it did not pertain to the actual upcoming examination. The 3rd Endorsed was ALL about rules and regs. It was kind of like studying for a driver's license.

Three months passed by quickly. I probably could have taken the test sooner, but my job was taking a lot of time and I enjoyed making my own money for once. Not to mention there was that "call girl" that I had struck up a relationship with….. Still, I had rent and utilities and gas for the 'Cuda and "Oh, by the way, Mom" written requests for extra expenses in my letters home. But quite honestly, I knew I had learned all I was going to at Draughon's and it was time, so on the very next exam date I showed up at the post office and sat down in a room full of people taking all three tests. The 3rd Class Endorsed was very mush like an SAT test. Multiple choice, fill in the blanks, and a few true and false questions.

I could not believe the test was so easy. I had been told there were several people who had to take the test every month for 2-3 times before passing it. All you really had to do was study the manual and memorize the answers. I spent the night before the exam with two friends in my mobile home, swilling down quarts of Budweiser and cramming. I think I may have even been a little hung over the next day when I took the test.

Q: What is the broadcast frequency span of FM radio?
A: 88-108 MHz

Q: Who is required to make entries in a required service or maintenance log?
A: The licensed operator on duty responsible for the station operation or maintenance.

Q: What are tower lights for?
A: To warn airplanes of the tower.

Well……. DUH!

The exam had about 100 questions about rules and regulations, communications procedures, and equipment operations. You needed a 75% to pass. I was the very first person to put down my pencil and take the form up to the front desk. That scared me to death! As I stood there feeling the burning gaze of a room full of people on my back, the examiner poured over my test, making a couple of check marks as he went. After what seemed like an eternity, he handed it back to me. I looked down and he had written "97%" in big, red letters on the top of page one. I looked up at him and he was smiling.

I was stunned. He said "Your signed license should arrive in the mail within 30 days". I turned around and walked out of the building and looked up at the blue sky and my world had changed…. Just like that. I never went back to the Draughon's building. I went to my trailer, packed up my stuff in the 'Cuda, and drove straight home. I called my landlord the next day, followed by a call to my now-girlfriend, and then I called my employment and quit my job. On the 26th day, my FCC 3rd Class License (Endorsed) arrived in the mail.

……….NOW, I had to find a job!

One great thing about attending Draughon's was that they had great contacts within the broadcasting community of Arkansas. The school was a member in good standing of the Arkansas Broadcasters Association, and received the official ABA newsletter each month. This newsletter contained articles about members, broadcasters, and radio stations. It also had a "help wanted" section and each month there would be at least a page of ads for stations seeking looking for talent or secretarial help. My instructor, knowing that I would pass my exam, handed me the very latest issue as I left for the test and said "Good luck. You'll need this". I called several stations before finally getting some interest from the owner/manager of a radio station in Pine Bluff who said he liked my voice and would be willing to train a "newbie" to the business. Pine Bluff was close to Little Rock and my girlfriend, and the money seemed right, so I took the job.

I packed up the 'Cuda with the bare essentials, borrowed some more money from mom, and drove to Pine Bluff to set myself up. This was on New Years Eve, of all times…. But my boss told me he expected me there to start work and to go on the air at 10 AM on January 1st, 1968, and I wasn't going to disappoint him. I quickly found an apartment, got the utilities ordered, called mom from a pay phone, and crashed on the carpeted floor of my apartment because I did not have any furniture yet. I set the alarm for 6AM and set it right beside my head. I got up, took a quick shower, and for some unknown reason I had the forethought to attach my reel to reel tape recorder (I always had it with me!) to an alarm box with AC power, set to 10 AM. It would record this momentous occasion for 30 minutes of tape.

I arrived at KOTN radio station, located in the Simmons Bank building, at 8:00 AM. The owner, Mr. Buddy Deane, met me at the front door, and immediately introduced me to the station Program Director, Steve Warren, who proceeded to show me through the operation. Ten minutes later I was seated in Buddy's office and got the rundown on what he expected of me. I did not know anything about him (OR real broadcasting, for that matter), but discovered later that Buddy was himself at one time a broadcast legend, originally from Baltimore. He had retired from DJ work, moved to Arkansas, and set up his own radio station. If you ever saw the movie "Hairspray" you have seen a rough version based on Buddy's life and career. He was the hippest of the hip in those days, and virtually started the "TV Dance Shows" long before Dave Clark. He was the perfect mentor for the beginnings of my own career, only I didn't even know it then. Not only was Buddy hip to music (KAAY always followed his "music tip sheets") but he was an expert marketing genius. I'll never forget when he bought 100 transistor radios and had us up all night screwing sheet metal screws into the radio dials after setting them on 1490 AM (the stations' broadcast frequency). The next morning we turned all of those radios on with the volume full up and he mailed every radio to his best advertisers! Boy, was he popular with the post office…. NOT!

My trial by fire that day happened in a hurry. I had just walked out of Buddy's office when Steve grabbed me and said "You're on in five minutes!" Sixty seconds later I was sitting in the hot seat all by myself with a microphone in front of me and the network news was about to finish in two minutes. Steve pointed up at a drawing on the wall and said "Follow that play clock". It was a segmented pie-chart drawing of a clock face with things written all over it like "Pick Hit Of The Week", "#1", "Oldie", "Twin Spin", "Weather", "Local News", "and "Community Colander". I noticed that right after the news it had "Local Weather". I heard a news outro from the network as Steve handed me a weather forecast over my shoulder and said "You're on!"

H-I-S-S-S-S-S-s-s-s-s-s-s-s-s-s (known as "dead air")……….

Steve reaches over me, turns on the microphone, and points to the forecast in my hand. I stammered through it somehow and sat there. He tapped me on the shoulder and pointed to the play clock again. It said "DISCOVERY!" I sat there. Another tap. This time he handed me a 45 RPM record. It was "Judy In Disguise" by John Fred and the Playboy Band. On the label was a sticky label with the word "DISCOVERY" on it. I turned and placed it on the front turntable and started it up as Steve turned the volume knob to the turntable and…… **BLAM**… I was a DJ.


It is painful today for me to listen to that recording made on my trusty Roberts 720A reel to reel on January 1st, 1968… but at least I have a reminder of my roots.

I worked for Buddy and KOTN for about six months. It was my first experience of the hapless world of the disk jockey, destined to forever roam the planet looking for the next job. I had yet to learn that employment turnover was a hazard in the business. Radio audiences are a fickle lot, and as soon as the "new" wears off, station managers at Top 40 stations look for the "next big thing". It's usually nothing personal, just business. They like to keep things fresh so if you keep a job for longer than a year at one Top 40 station you must be GOOD!

I got the axe at KOTN, and while scouring the latest issue of the ABA newsletter for new employment I got a part-time job working for manager Dub Koenig at KPBA in Pine Bluff, just down the street from KOTN. It was a whole different world there…. Mostly talk radio and a lot of pre-recorded programs……Certainly NOT the fast-paced routine of Top 40. However, I DID learn a bit from Dub, who noticed I loved technical stuff and showed me how to make a reverb unit with the spring from a screen door and some cheap electronics. As a parting gift when I left (in lieu of pay) he gave me a vintage Sony ECM-56P desk microphone which I still have to this day, and use it for voiceovers and even as a vocal mic for singing on occasion.

Thanks to the wonderful ABA newsletter I secured another job right away, travelling all the way up to the northwest corner of the state to work for KAMO in Rogers. The station was owned by Leon MacAuliffe, who was once the steel player for Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. Leon's station manager was also Wills' drummer, Smokey Dacus. I was hired on as News Director and also had a daily slot from 10-4 on the air. That job didn't even last a year. I think I was finally fired for playing too much "hard rock" on the air. As a parting gift (in lieu of severance pay), Leon gave me an E/V 664 shotgun mic which was once used on a Bob Wills recording session. I also still have that mic. - - -and BTW, what IS IT with "parting gifts" of microphones, anyway?????

……….(now WHERE was that latest issue of the ABA newsletter?)

From Rogers I landed a job in Ft. Smith at KFPW working for Jack Freeze, who was at the time the mayor of Ft. Smith. The station was a more modern facility than I had ever worked for, with a beautiful gates Diplomat console, four cart machines, four reel to reels, and two turntables. It was an ABC Network affiliate. We ran several daily network feeds, including the Arthur Godfrey Show, the Earl Nightengale Program, and Paul Harvey. The music format was big band and classic standards of the 40's, 50's and 60's "easy listening" like Herb Alpert, Anita Kerr Singers, and some light jazz. It was right up my alley because of my background in that music (thanks AGAIN, Mom!).

While working at KFPW I kept my eye out for any local entry back into my real love… Top 40. Finally, a spot opened up at local KWHN, a 5,000 watt bi-directional AM station with studios and offices on downtown Garrison Avenue, just two blocks from the river and the Arkansas/Oklahoma state line. It was your basic "block programming" (a little of this, a little of that) but they had an opening for a mid-day man (10AM - 4PM) to play the easier side of Top 40 radio. My prior experience at KOTN came in handy - and station manager Glenn O'Neal appreciated that I did not have a southern accent. I gave my two-week notice to Jack (what ??…... no MICROPHONE!??) and began what was to become the crowning achievement in my radio broadcasting career. Within a year, the owner of KWHN acquired financially failing FM station KMAG, a 100,000 watt stereo giant with transmitter and tower on the tallest mountain in Arkansas, Mount Magazine. The coverage area was immense, and when we began simulcasting (same program over both stations at the same time) over 5,000 watt KWHN I was at the helm of a monster broadcaster in the Southwest. At night, KWHN switched to bi-directional on its four tall towers, and we broadcast an AM signal right into the heart of Texas. My primary coverage area was hitting four different states. Furthermore, I had worked my way up the ladder to music director and had taken the station to a full Top 40 format.

I made solid contacts at all the major record companies and music distributers. The thought of a Southwest broadcaster with 100KW of stereo FM and 5KW directional AM made them salivate visibly, and I began to get hundreds of singles and albums each week. I created a playlist, and was one of the last stand-offs that actually picked records BEFORE they hit nationally. This practice had gradually dried up over the past couple of years as more and more stations joined networks and slowly backed out of the "personality radio" business. At the time, the payola scandal was an ugly mess, and DJ's were demanding huge salaries for their services, so in a way, they ushered in their own demise as station automated programming began to flourish.

We hired on a new mid-day man (to keep it "fresh") and I moved to the sign-off shift (4PM to midnight). It was partly of my own design, as this opened up an entirely new door for me. After the 10PM newscast I played the Top 10 hits to 11 O'Clock. This was a VERY popular program for obvious reasons: I was the most popular DJ in Ft. Smith, and I was playing the top ten hit songs everyone wanted to hear. I could do no wrong. I never let it go to me head, and I was very careful to toe the line with management, so I kept my job for longer than the usual time span. I had started promoting rock and roll concerts in the city and this propelled me into "local star" status. I always personally introduced each big name band that came to town and even opened many concerts with my own band. It was a great time, but what came next was even bigger!

At 11 O'clock, after the Top Ten Countdown, I talked Glenn O'Neal (I now called him "G.O.") into allowing me to broadcast a show of my own design that I called "Album Review". For one hour, right up to station sign off, I would play ONLY album cuts. No one aside from Clyde Clifford, with his popular "Beaker Street" show on 50,000 watt KAAY-AM, was doing this. Furthermore, as the show grew in popularity, I switched from playing the hit song off the album to playing the much more obscure cuts from the popular groups of the time like Deep Purple, Free, Spooky Tooth, Humble Pie, ELP, Z Z Top, and other heavier groups of the day. The mail I received at the station during that time was incredible. Letters covered in glitter and little packages with joints began arriving. Of course I kept all of that to myself and never made any drug references on the air. I kept it all clean but played some ground-breaking music at that time. Eventually, more stations picked up on the idea and within a year a format genre had been created in broadcasting that they called AOR, or Album Oriented Rock. For once I was at the bleeding edge of broadcasting!

It all came crashing down after one fateful night in Tulsa in 1976 when I was accidently shot by an idiot security guard that was fooling with his sidearm as I was setting up the band's gear for a fraternity gig at the Hilton Inn. I was in the hospital in Tulsa for almost 8 weeks, so the station had to hire someone to take my place. By the time I got out, he had worked his way in deep enough that my job had been terminated…... Maybe the $100K hospital bill pay-off by the radio station's insurance policy had something to do with that…..

I lay around Ft. Smith for a while, licking my wounds (literally), and finally landed a part-time job working the graveyard shift at KISR, nursing their automation and occasionally doing a live midnight to 6 AM show for owner Fred Baker, who was a close friend. Things started to sour for me in the Fort, and then I got a job offer to go to work for Sugar Hill Recording Studio in Houston. By then I had several years of apprenticeship as a recording studio engineer and got an offer from Huey Meaux to come to work for him. I was pretty burnt out on broadcasting and I drove to Texas to scope it out. As it turned out, it wasn't quite what I expected and no mention of a full salary had come up in negotiations, so I opted instead to return home to my hometown and start up my own recording studio.

The rest, as they say…. Is history.

It was years before I again sat at a broadcast console. First, I did a show for a year in 1987 with old friend Ray Miller on KKTZ-FM in Mountain Home. But then it got too crazy for management so that fell by the wayside, and Ray even moved on to greener pastures. I went back to KKTZ one more time in 1992, playing my beloved Oldies, but the station changed hands and the new management wanted a "fresh face". I figured I'd had my fun and it all seemed like I was taking two steps backward, so I was glad to quit.

I really miss those "Golden Years" of radio. The excitement of MAKING the hits happen instead of just following a trend cannot be overstated. The spontaneous feeling of timing out the intro to a record and then talking right up to the vocals was an art form unto itself. Making personal appearances at grand openings and doing live remote broadcasts from the old KWHN "bread truck" (converted to a mobile studio complete with mini-console and turntables) and waving to fans as they watched me on the air through the large window in the side of the van….. That's pretty hard to top…. even for today.

Ironically, I am once again doing a radio show, but this time it's a brave new world on the internet. I host a weekly one hour commercial-free broadcast called the "HiTek Redneck Radio Show" and I feature only music I have recorded myself or have had something to do with the production. I have over 500 original songs in the studio library so I won't run out of music any time soon. This week's show will be #98 and my second anniversary is coming up next month. I'm on EVERY Sunday night at 8PM. The cool thing is that my live audience joins me in the website chat room and we talk about old times, the music I am playing, and whatever comes to mind. Occasionally I invite artists into my control room and conduct interviews with them. I am often joined by old friends, the music artists themselves, and even an occasional fan from my old days in radio. And to spice it up a bit I even play a few of my old station promos and DJ bits to reminisce.

For more on my "DJ Days", go HERE !


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