A Taste Of Ozone

In recent years, as the print news business has been slowly unraveling, I’ve read quite a number of nostalgia pieces from “ink stained wretches” lamenting the demises of the papers where they, in effect, grew up. We’ve seen this most recently with the spiralling-in of the City Pages, a vapid lifestyle tabloid in its later years that in its early days spawned some great writers (James Lileks), some journalists (David Brauer, Brian Lambert), one very goodeditor (Steve “Not The Journey Guy” Perry), a generation of “music critics” that further debased an already fairly useless genre of writing, and a lot of laughable, insipid drivel (I won’t name names; if you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you don’t need me to).

I get it. When you get to a certain age, you start to realize that you haven’t had just one life; you’ve had quite a few of them, really. And you try to make sense of them, order them, set them up so that anyone who might be interested in the future knows the story – even if that “anyone” is just you.

I got to thinking about that the other day. This week is the 22nd anniversary of my first day on the radio, back in 1979 [1].

It was at KEYJ, a little 1,000 watt (250 at night) station in Jamestown, North Dakota. It was the #2 station in a two-station market – the competition, the mighty KSJB, with a broadcast radius that covered six states and two provinces, was more a regional thing. But KEYJ was not only absent any delusions of grandeur, but the station intimately knew its niche. While “KS” covered the upper Midwest, with a steady diet of country music in and among a stream of crop reports, regional news and agriculture reporting, KEYJ covered Jamestown and Stutsman County – the news, high school and college sports, city and rural fire calls, reports from the nursing homes, a “swap and shop” show, and a half-hour local talk show. We carried the Twins in the summer, the Jamestown Blue Jays and Jamestown College Jimmies during the school year, and on Saturday afternoons we’d do a “Class B Basketball Game of the Week”, recorded the night before, where the merchants of Ellendale and Kensal and Medina and Ypsilanti would pony up a few bucks in sponsorships to hear their towns kids on the radio.

And some music. Although that was more or less an afterthought – we played middle-of-the-road top forty pop and a lot of “recurrents” from the previous couple decades.

The boss – Bob Richardson, one of the guys who’d put the station on the air in 1953, and who’s still going strong at 90 years old – considered it part of his mission to train local kids who were interested in the craft and technique of doing radio. He always had a couple of high school or college kids on the staff [2]. Not only was it one of the best broadcasting “schools” around, but it was one of the stations new grads from broadcast schools wanted to get into, if they were smart; they, like I, quickly wound up learning how to do literally everything at that station.

No, that’s not me. That’s Dave Howey, who took all the photos in this story when he was the same age I was when I started – the photos are all from 1977-ish, a few years before my time. Dave went on in the business – he’s been dominating morning radio in the Brainerd/Detroit Lakes/Fergus Falls area for the past thirty years or so.

And in August of 1979, it was my turn.

I spent a couple of weeks, starting in late July, shadowing a few of the other guys – Dick Ingstad [3] and John Weisphenning [4], including a day or two spinning records and reading the news and weather. Now it was time for my first solo – on the air, on my own, no training wheels.

It was a pleasant late summer evening in Jamestown when I did my first “solo” couple of hours. I’d be lying if I said I remembered that next six hours especially well – but I remember the first song I ever played on the air. And the second. And actually the third.

It went well enough – I actually got to switch to my regular shift – Saturdays, 5AM to 3PM – the next weekend.

Which led to my ritual, every Saturday morning for the next year and a half or so. Get up at 4:30AM. Hike the four blocks to the station, unlock the doors, start turning on the equipment so it – all ancient tube-driven electronics – could warm up. Most important was the “Remote” – a big, tube-driven stack of amplifiers, rectifiers, and controls that operated the transmitters, two miles away on the south side of town. It’s the sort of stuff you could do on your phone today. Back then – or, really, back in the 1950s, since KEYJ was in effect a museum of the early days of radio – it was a seven foot tall rack of electronics that looked like something from the fire-control plot room from a World War 2 battleship.

This isn’t the remote stack – that’s to the left. This is the pair of ancient reel to reel recorders. That little speaker grill at the top is for a piece of equipment associated with the Emergency Broadcast System, back when it was still called “Conelrad”. That’s how old the gear was/

On a hot day, that studio got downright torpid – there was no air conditioning (other than in the engineering shack, where it was needed); the control room relied on a fan and an open window. On a cold morning, you could hear the tubes struggling harder than I was.

The whole place gave off a scent of ozone. They say smells are among the most powerful memory triggers; ozone does it for me. There was something about the crackle and excitement of being in a radio station, being on the air, that for me is intimately associated with the smell of ozone. If I smell ozone, I get a spring in my step.

Dave Howey’s picture of one of the tubes. From the remote control, or the board, or something else? No idea. But that place was full of ’em.

Spent the next 45 minutes sorting through the 50-odd feet of AP wire copy that had printed on the teletype since signoff, about six hours earlier. Sort out the news, weather, sports and other stuff you’d use for the newscasts – five minutes every hour, plus half-hour blocks of news, weather, sports, and local public affairs stuff at 7AM, 8AM and over the noon hour.

That kept me busy for a good half hour or so.

5:50 AM? The transmitter should be warmed up. Time for standby.

And at 5:55 AM? Hit the sign-on music, read the sign-on script, and it was off to the races.

Dave sent a photo of the control board.

Why, yes, I still know what the controls all do. Those three boxes on the top? “Cart” machines – they played those little rectangular cartridges you see stacked on the right that looked a lot like eight-track tapes (kids, ask your grandparents) because that’s what they were. I have no idea what happened with this board – I think some local collector grabbed saved it from the junkyard. At least, I hope they did. Photo courtesy Dave Howey.

I’ve described it as “looking like the front end of a 1952 Buick”, and compared to modern boards, it kind of does. There is literally not a single piece of digital equipment anywhere in this photo, or anywhere in the room. Or station, anywhere, other than maybe a calculator in the sales office.

How old was it? It was in the studio – above the White Drug on main street in Jamestown – and had been since the station went on the air in ’53. I saw a similar one in a documentary about “black” radio stations in the south from the late ’30s, so “from before the war”, in a year starting with “193…” something, is more likely than not. It felt like old-world craftsmanship; the Bakelite pots had a heft that nothing in a radio station today duplicates; the VU meter, perfectly balanced and looking like something off the Titanic, didn’t herk and jerk up and down like modern meters; perfectly balanced, it swayed majestically, like the much slower time it was built in.

(The “production” board, in the little studio room next door where we produced commercials, the occasional pre-recorded show, and where Bob did the daily half hour talk/interview show, had a “1928” date stamped on the manufacturer’s plate on the side – and it looked and felt like it; it was “Steampunk” twenty years before anyone had heard the term).

This may have been the newest piece of equpment at that station. I think it was from the early ’70s.

I went on to work at much more-modern stations – my next, KDAK in Carrington, had a board from the sixties. When I came “back” to KEYJ (which had become KQDJ), everything was remodeled, with brand new (for the early ’80s) gear, although everything was in the same cramped little space above the drug store.

My career moved on – to KSTP, six years later, with KDWB-AM/FM, WDGY and KFAI to follow in succession. And then it ended.

And when it started again, at AM1280 in 2004, I felt a little bit like Rip van Winkle; there was not a single turntable, reel-to-reel deck, or ever cartridge machine. Even the CD player was largely un-used.

And most jarring, although it took me a while to figure it out?

No smell of ozone. Solid state equipment, much less digital gear, gives off no ozone. Radio stations today smell like…offices.

Don’t get me wrong; the excitement I get from turning on a mike is still there. And I can’t imagine all that ozone was good for the health; radio people seemed to die way too young, from old mens’ diseases, back then.

But I miss that smell, sometimes.


[1] Don’t bother checking my math. I said 22 years, and I meant it.

[2] Many of whom went on to big things. Terry Ingstad – you know him as “Shadoe Stevens”, one of the great LA disc jockeys – started there at 12, and earned a spot in Life Magazine in the process. His youngest brother, Dick, is a morning guy in Louisville today, and was one of my best friends in High School; hanging around with Dick while he did his shifts whetted my appetite enough to want to apply for the job in the first place. Mick Wagner, the great Oregon jazz DJ, Mark Swartzell, Dewey Heggen and many more all started in this old studio.

[3] As noted above, a morning guy in Louisville, who’s had an amazing career.

[4] At the time, John was a student at Moorhead State, majoring in Communications. Last I checked – probably 10 years ago – he’s a communications professor in California.

15 thoughts on “A Taste Of Ozone

  1. Love this piece, Mitch.

    We had some of the same equipment at our college radio station, including two cart machines. The station was only 10 watts at first, but went to 100 and changed frequencies (from 88.1 FM to 90.3 FM) during my time there. A great experience.

  2. Kin – I sure do!

    D: Thanks! I always wished my college had a station. Then I moved to the Cities, inadvertently got in at KSTP, and worked with all these people who’d started on college radio – and I was the guy who’d worked at four commercial stations. A warhorse at 22. It was kinda fun!

  3. [1] Don’t bother checking my math. I said 22 years, and I meant it.

    I’m guessing this statement was meant for me. LOL.

  4. Most important was the “Remote” – a big, tube-driven stack of amplifiers, rectifiers, and controls that operated the transmitters, two miles away on the south side of town.

    I’d actually respect that choice in the 70s. Even in the 80s. It wasn’t until the 90s that power semiconductors became better tubes for the levels of power you’re talking about.

  5. Yep. I think that when the station got remodeled (1981) they kept tube remotes (but they were still MUCH smaller than the old ones). The station moved in the mid-90s, and went all digital, and I assume they upgraded again, but I haven’t been in there in literally 30 years.

  6. I worked in the printing industry. We had Linotype machines putting out lead slugs. When put together. made a paragraph!

    Things have changed everywhere.

    I need a new roof on my barn. Talked to an Amish guy about the job, and gave him my telephone number and address. Two weeks later he called and said he was on his way to my place. I asked him where he was (so I could give him directions), he said “Cumberland (WI), I’ll be at your place by 10:38.”

  7. Pingback: In The Mailbox: 08.10.21 : The Other McCain

  8. Well, it wasn’t necessarily the ozone doing the killing. It likely was proximity to them old transmitting towers and dishes.

    I still run an Audio Research amp directly (well, sort off) into speakers – there is no comparison to solid state amps, tubes are better.

  9. The walk down memory row had me thinking when I was on the mic of KBEM FM back in ’70 (MPLS Voc-Tech). I was the voice of a show largely unheard (except in the school) as we did the final leg work before bringing the station full fledge on-air.

  10. I still run an Audio Research amp directly (well, sort off) into speakers – there is no comparison to solid state amps, tubes are better.

    For some definitions of better.

    From a technical standpoint, no. The semiconductor amps are more accurate. If you want as precise sound replication, tubes fail. (In general. You can find lousy solid state amps made with cheap amps, just as you used to be able to find lousy tube amps.)

    From a listening standpoint, it depends. If you grew up listening to the softer sound of tubes (bandwidth limitations are real), then it will sound more “mellow” and “real”. If you haven’t been accustomed to tubes’ distortion and/or bought into the hype of a tube amp, then no.

    This isn’t to say that putting in Class D amplifiers into sound systems doesn’t yield horrible replication, just that a well designed solid state amplifier will deliver something extremely close to what was fed into it, while a tube based amp can’t do nearly as well.

    In the case of tube amps, it’s much like the transition to CDs. When those came out many critics claimed that they were too brash, with too much treble. They did have higher treble content, yes, but that was due to the medium. The mechanical nature of the needle meant that too much bass amplitude would reduce the needle/head pressure and make the system less sensitive to high frequency inputs, again putting a natural filter on the system and necessitating a particular kind of frequency equalization that vinyl heads came to love. CDs were more accurate in their replication of the original signal, but they were putting out was different than what you had to have with vinyl, so folks found fault with it.

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