Control Room Antics
When a person listens to the radio, they hear a very smooth presentation which is virtually free from mistakes. The announcer may make a misstatement or pronounce a name wrong occasionally but it is a rarity. Generally, the presentation of the news, sports and weather as well as music goes along very well. There has probably never been a greater disparity in society than what is heard on the radio and what actually goes on in the "holy of holies"...the Control Room. So many things are said behind a closed microphone that should not be said in public that the listeners would be shocked if they knew what really went on. Much of the unheard things are simply fun but a lot of it is not worthy of consumption. I was never one to curse or say disparaging things about people but, my soul, some of the things which were uttered by some of the on-air personalities would have gotten someone in plenty of trouble if the mike had been accidently open.
I had fun in radio. Enjoyed it immensely. I really wanted to go into television but God had different plans for me. I recall one time while I was employed at WTIF radio in Tifton, that there was a person working there that was totally obnoxious. I mean, he was just a social disaster. This guy was always finding ways to try to "trip up" someone who was doing the news or he would be playing tricks on the announcer who was to relieve him on the air by changing switches or volume controls that were usually set to a particular setting. He would tickle a person trying to make them laugh in them middle of the news or he would pour some Coke in their hair. Always something. He would also come into the station at night while I was on the 7pm to 11pm Top Forty show. He would respectfully request some songs to be played in a certain order for him and his girlfriend who were out on a date. I remember one time in particular when he and his girlfriend were double dating and he came by the station and put in his requests. Of course, trying to be nice, I would play them in that exact order letting the audience know that these songs were for so and so. What I didn't know was that he had told those with him that he was my boss and that I had to do what he told me to do or else I would be fired. That kind of guy! One night, a friend of mine who came often to keep me company while I was on the air for four hours was in the control room with me. He chewed tobacco and he would spit the tobacco juice in a coke bottle. Our obnoxious buddy had a bad habit of walking into the control room, grabbing one's partially consumed Coke and taking a swig thereby ruining the drink. Soooo, he walked in that night, grabbed what he thought was a partially consumed Coke and gulped a big mouthful down only to spew it all over the place when he realized that it was my friend's tobacco spit that looked like coke in the bottle. You never saw such gagging and spitting in your life. Served him right! He never seized another Coke bottle and took a quick swig.
I paid this guy back one day. He was on the air in the middle of the afternoon and about to read the news. What he didn't know was that I had gone to the service station next door and bought ice cream in a cup. It cost a dime in those days. It also had a little wooden spoon that came with it. So, I opened that cup of ice cream, sat it on the hood of my car in the hot summer time, and waited for it to melt. Well, when it was almost totally melted with only a small hard ball of ice cream in the middle, I took it inside. When our buddy started reading the news, I took my vengeance out on him. I walked into the studio that faced the control room, showed him the cup of ice cream, smiled and then proceeded into the control room cup in hand. He couldn't stop reading the news. He was locked in to what he was doing. He was helpless! His eyes got as big as saucers. So, I turned the cup of ice cream upside down on his head and squeezed it. The glob of unmelted ice cream sat on top of his head while the rest of it proceeded down the sides of his head and puddled in his lap. Gotcha! He didn't mess with me much after that.
One of the men who worked on air was a real pro. His name was Carl Wendell. For years he had worked with the old Mutual Broadcasting Network and he had one of those professional sounding voices that was unmistakable when heard. His diction was perfect. His articulation was amazing. Golden voice! I was fortunate in that he took me under his wing and taught me how to announce properly. He made me practice in front of a mirror to learn how to sound convincing by talking to someone (myself). Practice, practice, practice he said. He was so authoritative in his voice and demeanor that I was afraid not to do what he instructed me to do. I felt like judgment would descend on me or something if I didn't follow his instructions. Anyway, he proved to be one of my best friends even though he was much older than me. This man was so professional one could not break him up on the air. You could tickle him, make ugly faces or do anything you desired but he would keep on reading in such a way that the listening audience would not know what was going on. It just sounded like a good, steady presentation of the news to the average listener. He was good! The news came in on a teletype from Associated Press. It was printed on yellow newsprint paper which rolled up out of the teletype in a continual stream. A complete newscast would emerge and it could be used that way or edited as our professional friend would do. He would always roll that long piece of newsprint up in a roll and stand in front of a microphone and unroll the news as he read it, letting the news pile up on the floor in front of him. He always stood in the studio facing the control room. One day, the guys decided to break him up at all costs. So, what did they do? He was immune to funny faces and being tickled. He was like stone. What could they do! Well, it seems that they decided to take a cigarette lighter and light the newsprint as it hung down toward the floor as he read. So they did that. They also unbuckled his pants and let them fall down around his ankles. So, here he was...news print lit and burning slowly, pants around his ankles...exposed to anyone who looked into the studio through the big windows which allowed even those in the front waiting room to see the action. For the first time, he looked panicky. As he read he was trying to snuff out the flames with his feet which were restricted by his pants. It was a mess. But, the listeners never knew anything was wrong. This professional went right through it all. He never broke. I honestly don't see how he did it. In the end, though, the guys that set the newsprint on fire put it out rather quickly. It got serious very fast.
My radio career began my last two years in high school. The good thing about it was that everyone on campus knew who I was and they all wanted me to play a request for them at night. I would take the little slips of paper their requests were written on and stuff them in my jacket pocket all day. Then at night I would take them out and play them on the air. I did play a few tricks though. Sometimes I would change a name on a request and make it look like some guy had requested a love song for a girl who wasn't really his girl friend. Mass confusion on campus! One time my sister Libby asked me to play a song for her. She said she didn't care which one it was but just play one for her. So I did! I studied long and hard about what to play for my sister. Well, the big moment came and I told the audience that I had selected this song especially for Libby Harrell and then I played, "Does Your Chewing Gum Loose Its Flavor on the Bedpost Overnight." It's an old Jimmy Dickens song. I'm sure that was not what Libby was thinking about when she said she didn't care which song I played for her. Sibling humor. One needs to be able to laugh at themselves and so I am a fan of self deprecating humor. This is a good example: We were doing a remote broadcast from Belk's Department Store one day. One of my good friends was the Assistant Manager of the store. They had all kinds of merchandise on display anywhere a table could be put and I would walk around and talk to my friend about the bargains live on the air. So we came to a large table of face cloths. Now, when and where I was raised they were not called face cloths. That was uppity. They were called "wash rags." So we were about to go to the station for a commercial and I said to my friend while on air: "We've got to go to commercial now but when we come back I want us to talk about this big table of "wash rags." My friend and I laughed about it and he said: "Bill it might be better if we referred to them as 'face cloths.' That sounds better." He was right although I'm sure most people in South Georgia knew what I was talking about when I told them about the big sale on "wash rags."
Another case of such a "slip up" happened when we were dedicating the new State Employment Office in Tifton. I was at the station on this particular day riding the board and making everything happen as it should. The person on remote at the new Employment Office threw it to me for a commercial and when it was over I said: "We now return you to our man down at the new State Unemployment Office." Our news director, Frank Raley, made his way rather quickly to the control room laughing at me. He said: "I think it would be better if you called it the State Employment Office instead of the Unemployment Office. Of course, here again, all of my life I had heard it referred to as the Unemployment Office. I was just being true to my upbringing! So the Governor was in town to open our new State Unemployment Office. I'm sure he appreciated that!
One of the funniest things I remember was when I worked at WTIF (I later worked at WWGS after I was married.) An announcer, whose name I won't give, was given the task each week of cutting the commercials for a department store in Tifton and South Georgia called Cohen's Department Store. It was a discount clothing store. A lot of people bought their clothes there. We would make the commercials for all 38 Cohen's stores all across Georgia, N. Florida and South Alabama. One night, after we went off the air, this announcer was in the back room making the commercial. It started off with a fire engine sound after which he would say...."It's a fire sale, it's a fire sale!: "It's a fire sale at Cohen's Department Store."...."down in the bargain basement" and then he would proceed with the text of the commercial. We made 38 of these and mailed them out early in the morning hours. The different stores everywhere would receive them and air them the next day. The only thing wrong was that this fellow was drinking beer while recording the commercials. He was pretty high. And, he had two young women in the room with him which he was not suppose to have. Suddenly, while he was in the beginning phrases of the commercial one of the girls cut out the lights. So we have: "It's a fire sale, it's a fire sale!" "It's a fire sale at Cohen's Department Store down in the bargain basement....aww.....blankety blank who cut out the blankey blank lights?! Well, when one made a mistake while cutting a tape, we usually stripped all the bad part off and began again or we returned it to the start of the tape and recorded over it. This guy did neither. He just started right where he left off. With his mind addled by alcohol, he didn't even think about what he was doing. Thirty eight of those commercials were made with the worst kind of cussing at the beginning. They were sent out that night about 2 a.m. and received by the stations for airing the next day.
Carl Wendell, the very professional man mentioned earliser, had a two hour morning show geared for "mothers." It came on at 9 a.m. and it had quite a large listening audience. He came in the next morning and asked me if he could write in a Cohen's commercial on my program. I had been on the air since 5:30 a.m. that morning. I told him that I was just about to begin the news at 8:55 a.m. and that it would be best if he put the first one on his program which started at 9:00 a.m. So, he wrote in the first Cohen's commercial on his show..."Coffee With Carl." Now, this was a high class show. Carl played the best big band music such as Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey . He also played recordings from the best of the quality singers....Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Vic Damone and others. I finished the news and started Carl's theme song. Then, I quickly moved and let him take the announcer's chair. I walked to the front of the studio and was standing there looking out onto Seventh Street when I heard Carl's theme song come on. Talking over the soothing theme song, he said...."Good morning mother! It's time for Coffee With Carl....cup one of session one." "We'll be right back with our first selection right after this message from Cohen's Department Store." The commercial began.....(Sirene wailing) "It's a fire sale, it's a fire sale!" "It's a fire sale at Cohen's Department Store....down in the bargain basement."......aww, blankety blank, who cut out the blankety blank lights? I looked at the secretary and she looked at me in astonishment. I said: "did that thing just say what I think it said?" She said: "it sure did, you heard it right." About that time, Carl Wendell jumped out into the hallway from the control room and said: "Did you hear what that thing just said on my program?" He was livid and should have been. We got with the manager and told him what had happened. He just about fainted. Thirty eight of those things were nearing air time in other stations all across that part of the world. He told us to get a listing of the stations the tape was sent to and call them in a hurry. We did but when we told some of them about the situation they angrily said: "We know about the commercial. We have already aired it!" They had reason to be angry also. Carl Wendell's program on this particular morning was the talk of the town for several weeks.
I think I had one of the very first "talk" programs. I had been asked by the owner of WWGS, Mr. Ralph Edwards, if I would take the 5:30 a.m. to 7 a.m. country music program. Several people had tried it and it never really did very well. It was hard to sell commercials in that program slot. Nobody wanted to spend their advertising monies on that show. It was early in the morning plus no one had really tried to make it work. I told Mr. Edwards that I would try it if he wanted me to and we would just see how it went. I started in the Summer time while the tobacco warehouses were open receiving the farmer's tobacco at night and holding the sales in the daytime beginning at 9:00 a.m. I got the bright idea of opening the mike and just talking to people who might be listening. A bunch of the guys who were working nights in the tobacco warehouses began listening and they would call in wanting me to play certain country songs early in the morning. I developed the conversational aspects of that program and it grew by leaps and bounds. Soon, farmers, who were up and about early with their farm crops, started calling the program to talk to me. I asked about their corn. How high was it? What did the yield look like? How was their peanut crop? How did their cotton look? I learned their names and a little about their farms. I suddenly had farmers over several counties calling in to talk with me between popular country songs. Mr. Edwards was ecstatic. Suddenly the commercials for the program surged. Before long we had no more time left on the program to sell. It was sold out. But, I think it was the conversation with the people that did it. Certainly, talk radio is extremely popular today but I think I hit upon it down in South Georgia in the Summer of 1963 and it went over wonderfully well.
We had some real characters I worked with in radio. I could call some of the names but I will preserve their privacy by not doing so. I'm sure many of them have assumed room temperature but the memories of working with them are vivid and I laugh when I reflect upon our Control Room Antics.
William F. Harrell