Every year about this time, my mind drifts back to a little single wide trailer in Escatawpa, Mississippi and the studios of the now defunct WGUD-FM – my first full-time radio job. I worked there thirty-one years ago this summer.
When I got out of the Navy in May 1977 -- my first wife pregnant with our first born -- we moved to the Mississippi Gulf Coast to be near my twin brother Bob and his first wife. For the past five months I had been working part time at WJNC in Jacksonville, N.C. while I counted the days to my discharge as a Navy Hospital Corpsman at Camp Lejeune. It only took a couple weeks before Bob and I lucked into getting hired at WGUD, a new radio station, less than a year old. I worked six days a week, noon to 6pm. Bob worked the 6-midnite shift.
Anyone who is only familiar with current radio technology, with the computerized playlists and music on hard drives would never recognize the conditions we worked with in small town radio in the late 70s. All the music was on 45 rpm or LP albums. And woe be unto the DJ who forgot to change the speed on the turntable from 45 to 33-1/3 when playing an LP, which is something that took me the longest time to remember to do.
These days, your radio stations generally play music right from the hard drive of a computer or a large server. Music scheduling software selects which tunes will be played, in what order, and inserts commercials and public service announcements where the program director wants them.
In 1977, we had two turntables in a studio so we could cue up one record while the other was playing. One would generally find a stack of “carts” on the table next to a “cart player” – these were tape cartridges, resembling old 8-tracks, that contained 30 or 60 second commercials. They were labeled thusly…
1208 Bob’s Quality Meats :30
8/17-tfn Q:…that’s GOOD meat! (music fades)
The label was chock full of valuable information.
1208 – That was the spot number. Spots – commercials – were filed in numerical order on the cart rack. If the log said this spot break had a commercial for Bob’s Quality Meats, Cart #1208, then that was the one you played!
:30 – The spot is 30 seconds long.
8/17-tfn -- The spot starts on August 17 and runs “tfn” – Til Further Notice.
Q: -- The last spoken words on the commercial, with an indication that there is a brief music fade. Otherwise, it would be labeled “Cold”. That way, you knew it stopped suddenly and would be ready to press the button for the next commercial.
I generally had a stack of carts pulled for each hour. Then, as the top of the hour approached, I would pull the carts for the next hour. At the end of the show, it was only polite to have the first hour of carts pulled for your replacement.
These days, it’s all on the computer. At XM Satellite Radio, for instance, the Dalet system is simplicity itself. It runs on autopilot unless the DJ wants to stop it at the end of a song so he can say something.
Back in 1977 you had to time your bathroom breaks to coincide with the length of the song on the turntable. “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” for instance, was perfect if one needed to perform a “Number Two” – provided one didn’t dally. Otherwise you’d need to drag out “The Legend of John Henry’s Hammer” by Johnny Cash – which ran more than 8 minutes. If you needed to do something that took longer than that, you’d just have to wait until after your show.
Every week, we’d get a copy of Billboard Magazine, and we’d check out the Country Music Charts to see what the top songs were around the nation. We’d adjust the rotation accordingly. At this time in 1977, I recall the Number One Country Song was Elvis Presley’s “Way Down.”
I wasn’t much of an Elvis fan, but a hit is a hit and if you don’t play it you have the Elvis fans calling your program director demanding your scalp. So at least once during my six hour show, I’d spin “Way Down” for our dozen or so listeners. I was personally more partial to the more traditional country acts, like Loretta Lynn, Willie Nelson, and a youngster named Kenny Dale who was currently charting with a nice little harmonic number called “Bluest Heartache of the Year.”
It was a hot, muggy August afternoon and the Kenny Dale single was on the turntable. I had just cued up Sonny James and the Tennessee Jailhouse Five with “He’s in the Jailhouse Now” – a tune recorded live at the Tennessee State Prison. The phone rang. On the other end, a woman was crying.
She wanted to know if what she heard about Elvis was true. Was he really dead? I told her I hadn’t heard anything like that, and if it were true I would certainly know about it because we had a news teletype in the next room that would have certainly…
“ding ding ding ding ding!”
From the studio, one could usually hear the alarm bell on the teletype, as long as the bathroom door was open, since that’s where the teletype machine was.
“Stay tuned,” I told the sobbing woman. I hung up and looked at the record that was playing. I could see the song was only about half way through, so I left the tiny studio and went into the bathroom to rip and read the teletype.
(Strategically, the bathroom was a good place for the teletype. For one, there was always something to read. For another, on the occasion where one might find an empty roll of toilet paper and no replacement roll… well…)
After scanning through the National and Mississippi headlines, I saw the reason for the alarm…
BULLETIN (MEMPHIS) ELVIS PRESLEY FOUND DEAD IN GRACELAND MANSION. DETAILS TO MOVE WHEN AVAILABLE.
Uh oh! This was big. Clutching the bulletin, I dashed back into the studio, turned on my microphone and faded out the record that was playing.
With all the solemnity of Walter Cronkite announcing the death of John F. Kennedy, I read the bulletin to my dozen or so listeners. Then I repeated it. Then I started the record that I had cued up earlier. There was a long applause track at the beginning. So, what the listeners heard was…
“Repeating, and this is apparently official from the wires of United Press International, Elvis Presley is dead.”
(Wild applause and cheering.)
After getting over the initial urge to just drop through the floor, I pulled out every Elvis Presley record we had. We were going to go “all Elvis, all the time,” for at least the rest of my shift. I felt I owed him that much, at least.
It lasted for days. A week, at least. Nothing but Elvis, Elvis and more Elvis. And then there was the outbreak of hastily recorded Elvis Tribute songs, including one ostensibly performed by Elvis’ dead twin brother, welcoming him to heaven. Frankly, I was surprised by the depth and width of the national outbreak of mourning for someone who I believed was a washed up entertainer, a bloated parody of himself.
I think I figured it out on the third or fourth day of the spasm of Elvis grief. When someone famous, like Elvis, drops dead – it’s a sudden wake up call about our OWN mortality. If ELVIS can die… who among US is safe? I think that’s why it was such a shock, and why celebrity deaths still continue to captivate us the way they do.
All of which should make us realize how precious life is, our own lives as well, and we shouldn’t waste a day.
When I look at pictures of myself around that time, I barely recognize the guy looking back at me, with his full head of chestnut red hair, the bushy beard, the polyester shirt.
Time flies when you’re having fun. Still, that’s no reason to stop having fun, right?
Causes Bill Schmalfeldt Supports
Parkinson's Disease Research
National Parkinson's Foundation
The Michael J. Fox Foundation