One of my first jobs at the mighty WOHO(AM) was that of nighttime disc jockey, doin’ the bits and playin’ the hits! The year was 1973 and our little Class B was the number two station in Toledo, Ohio, according to the now-defunct-but-then-quite-vital C. E. Hooper ratings.
While nationally many stations were still using turntables and playing scratchy 45s, WOHO had moved to an all-cart system for our 40 current hits and 500 golden oldies. This allowed our chief engineer to invent an ingenious automation system.
Each of our five cart machines in the control room was fitted with its own GraLab timer. These were large analog clock-like devices normally used in the film development process but which were perfect for us. Since the exact length of each song was noted on the cart label, we would place a cart into a machine and set its timer to that song length. When the cart started, so did the timer. As the hand on the clock swept around the dial it would give the DJ a visual cue as to when the tune was going to end. But each timer was then further custom-fitted with a magic green button that if pressed, would automatically trigger the next cart machine in sequence when the first timer clicked to zero. For example, when the song in Cart Machine One was through, it could start the song in Cart Machine Two.
It was an unseasonably cold one October night and I was alone at WOHO, stuck on the air from 7 p.m. to midnight. Due to bad planning on my part, by 9 p.m. I was hungry. The Freeway Drive-In was a diner we jocks frequented, certainly not for the high quality of its offerings but rather for its convenient location just a mile from our studio. While I was waiting for a song to end I got out our phonebook, looked up the Freeway and called in my order: a double hamburger with everything, fries and a vanilla shake. I told the waitress who answered the phone that I’d be there in 10 minutes, and that I’d be in a hurry. And here is where the automation system comes into the picture.
I grabbed the two longest oldies we had, “MacArthur Park” by Richard Harris and “American Pie” by Don McLean, and put on my coat. I then set our timers to play two scheduled commercials, a “WOHO golden” jingle and then both of these songs, which I figured would give me 15 minutes to get into my car, drive over to the Freeway, pick up my grub and return.
Let me pause here to say that I was well aware of several infractions of station policy I was about to commit. I was leaving the station and transmitter unattended, vacating my post in the studio, not telling anyone where I was going, and probably several others. I knew also that there was a chance I would not make it back in time. However, youth and stupidity go hand in hand and as I was 22 at the time I proceeded.
I started the first cart and ran out of the front door to the station into the parking lot which by now had a light dusting of snow. Because I was in a blind rush, I did not notice that the big glass door had swung shut behind me and locked. I got into my 1969 red VW Bug and drove at a “high rate of speed.” In short order I pulled up at the Freeway, left my engine running and ran in to get the food. I now had seven minutes to get back to WOHO and start the next song. As I drove, my car radio was set to 1470 to make sure there was still something on the air.
Whew! Home safe with two minutes to spare! I locked my car in the parking lot, grabbed my now-greasy bag of health food off the seat next to me and ran up to the front door which, as you may recall, was now locked. Of course I was not in possession of a key. My heart rate shot up about 30 beats.
Improvising, I made a mad dash around to the back door, which was required to be locked at all times. Fortunately in yet another violation of station policy, it was not. However, the cold weather had caused it to become stuck closed. I roughly unjammed it and ran inside just as Don McLean was fading out. Were I unable to get there in time I knew that the station limiter would kick in and bring up dead air which would quickly produce an ungodly loud hum.
I ran to my seat in front of the board, slammed on the mic and in a breathless voice said “That was ‘American Pie,’ here on the mighty 1470!” As I was intoning this brilliant ad lib I reached blindly for a cart, any cart, and substituted it for one of the carts that had already played. The one I selected turned out to be a public service announcement for hat safety or some goofy thing like that. That bought me 30 seconds to get another song ready.
And as the show rolled on, I continued to “entertain” the masses for another few hours with no one the wiser.
Ken Deutsch is a writer who lives in sunny Sarasota, Fla., and has a book of these tales available, “Up and Down the Dial.”