You walked in off of First Avenue in Jamestown, the sky still dark at 5AM, turned your key and tugged on an aluminum door frame that fit a little tight in its jamb, and stepped into a building that dated back to before 1900; on the main floor was White Drug – the first Whites in what is still today a major regional chain.
You walked up eighteen stone stairs to a small landing, turned left, and walked up six more, to a terrazzo-floored hallway. To your left was an insurance office, dark and quiet As you turned right, to your right was a law office of some kind. But you walked straight ahead, toward the rear of the building.
On the right, after the men’s room, was a soundproof aluminum door that led into a room not much bigger than a walk-in closet. We’ll come back to that.
Next to it? Through a couple of large glass windows, a room, jammed with antique electrical and electronic equipment; closest to the window, a large, battleship-gray control console, looking a little like the front of a 1940 Buick; a control panel built literally before World War II, all Bakelite knobs and control keys, a couple of exquisitely-balanced VU meters bouncing their stately way back and forth – very unlike the meters that accompanied the age of cheap stereo gear, all herky-jerky and frenetic. The meters seemed, themselves, to the throwbacks to a slower, more deliberate time.
To the right of the chair were two ancient turntables; to the left, a couple of bins of records. Behind it? Stacks of transmitter controls and reel-to-reel and cassette tape decks, and a couple of “plectrons” – basically 1960’s versions of what we’d call “pagers” in the 1980’s, before even the pager became passe; about the size of a late ’90’s IBM PC, they carried fire calls, for the city and rural fire departments. Each of the town’s volunteer firemen had one at home; the radio stations had ’em too.
Behind the stacks of gear? Stacks of albums. Thousands of them, tucked into wall shelves; stuff that’d be treasures today, sought after by rock and roll vinyl collectors (first-edition Beatles and Stones albums from the sixties), or retro collectors (obscure albums by Dean Martin, Perry Como, and even Lorne Greene); genres that haven’t shared shelf space in decades; modern jazz, forties pop, even copies of Devo and Ramones albums that snuck in there some how. There was no rhyme or reason. It was a huge jumble.
A door at the back led into the “closet” a few paragraphs back – the “newsroom”. A single steel desk and a couple of file cabinets and, to your left, chattering away 24/7, an AP teletype, sitting in a closet, churning through boxes of yellow-y fanfold paper a week; an endless rotation of international headlines, national news, North Dakota and Tri-State news, National and North Dakota/Tri-state scores, and of course weather. Forecasts updated hourly; extended forecasts and 24-hour temperature summaries; occasionally when things were slow, “lites” – funny stories – and, once a day around midnights, “pronouncers”, lists of phonetic pronunciations of names in the news (which were pretty vital, in 1980, as American newsmen learned how to convey news about Sadegh Ghotzbzadeh to the public).
Going to work on a Saturday morning at 5AM, the first job was to turn on the power to the transmitter and its remote controls; the transmitter was a mile and a half away, next to where the James River passed under I94, by the road to the State Hospital. You turned on the big box full of vaccuum tubes – the station was years away from going solid-state – and watched the needles climb into their nominal operating range, noting the readings on the transmitter log.
Then, you went into the newsroom, and gathered up the 100 feet of fanfold copy that had streamed out overnight. You rolled it up, hauled it through the studio, and into a room on the other side, with a table that seated eight people, and a small remote control board with a “1931” date stamp on the back, all brownish-red burled metal and impeccably-balanced bakelite knobs, nursed along year to year by a patient engineering staff and a famously penurious boss. Although you didn’t know what “talk radio” was yet, and neither did anyone else, it was where the station’s owner and the news director hosted a one-hour daily talk show, five days a week, with guests from around town.
You sat down at the table, and started ripping and sorting the wire copy. National news, regional, local, sports and weather – you’d wind up reading a little of each several times over the next ten hours. With a little practice, you could flense 100 feet of wire copy down into neat stacks in a half hour, stack them into newscasts – you’d have full-hour news, weather and sportscasts at 6AM, 7AM and noon – buy a coke from the vending machine next to the boss’ office (across and down the hall), and wait for 5:50AM.
Then, it was time to flip the “Plates” control to “on”; this sent power to the transmitter’s final output stage. It was accompanied by a buzzing, and smell of ozone, as vacuum tubes engaged and power and signal started moving through the wires. You took readings voltage and wattage readings from the output stage and antenna, wrote them on the transmitter log, “signed on” the station with your signature on the log…
…and pulled out tape the tape cartridge that would accompany your signon.
The clock ticked to straight-up 5:55AM. You flipped the key on the main board mike to “on”, and read – or, after a few Saturdays, recited – the sign-on script that had ushered the station on the air seven days a week since 1949.
At this time, radio station KEYJ in Jamestown, North Dakota, begins the broadcast day. KEYJ operates at a frequency of fourteen-hundred kilocycles at one thousand watts daytime and 250 watts at night, by authority of the Federal Communications Commission, and is owned and operated by KEYJ Incorporated of Jamestown, North Dakota.
We invite you to stay tuned to KEYJ for the latest in news, weather, sports, and information. Good morning!
You then punched the “start” button to your tape cartridge machine – a “Cart”, which looked and functioned just like an eight-track tape – which launched the National Anthem. At the end of which, you read the day’s forecast and long-range forecast, which took you to the 6AM newscast from Associated Press Radio.
And your day began.
That was how I spent my Saturday mornings in high school – at a little 1000 watt AM radio station; on the air from 5:55AM to 3PM; hours of news and info at 7, 8 and noon; “Trading Post” (a half-hour swap and shop show) at 10, and usually a taped Class B high school game of some sort or another after 1PM.
KEYJ launched a lot of careers; many of the biggest names in North Dakota radio started at KEYJ. Not just North Dakota, either – Terry Ingstad, known to a couple generations of LA listeners as “Shadoe Stevens”, started there in the sixties; his youngest brother, Dick, a year a head of me in high school and a good friend, showed me the ropes when the boss and longtime owner, Bob Richardson, finally hired me in August of ’79.
KEYJ was sold to a group of slickee boys who tried to run it like a major-market station – including firing all the locals, including me, and changing the call letters to the charmless “KQDJ” – and failed in about a year. More management teams came and went; the station changed hands many times, became a satellite oldies station, moved out of the old office above White Drug to a soulless little shack on the south hill, and finally became an “ESPN Sports” affiliate – like many small stations today, it has no local staff; it’s basically a computer in a closet, like Hillary’s email server, pumping digitally-sequence product and commercials to the transmitter (which is still in the same place, at least).
Like so much of the radio industry, it’s dead to me today.
Claudia Lamb writes about the implosion at once-great KGO in San Francisco – once the WCCO of the West Coast. It illustrates a lot of what has ailed, and ultimately destroyed, most of the radio industry in the past 20 years, taking it from a thriving industry to a drain-circling corpse (outside of certain niche markets, like Spanish, Sports and conservative talk).
Worth a read.