Chapter Ten

One requirement of my new job came as a total shock. I had gone to Edmonton and Radio Station CKUA with the impression that the announcer function would have me sauntering into a studio, sinking into a comfortable chair and reading from a script into a microphone.

I thought of the control room as a separate world on the other side of a double-paned picture window, where a lesser radio worker turned your microphone on and off and spun the records you wanted played. At least, that was the way it was done at the two Winnipeg radio stations I’d known before the Spring of 1950.

I quickly discovered that having someone to perform the operator function for you was a luxury at CKUA, as it was at most radio stations in Edmonton and elsewhere. What I had been hired to be was an ‘announcer-operator.’ My instructors made it plain that the two functions – announcing and operating – were to be considered of equal importance, and that I would spend most of my working hours sitting at ‘the board’ – the station’s main control panel – and talking into the microphone hanging just above it.

I was taught to manipulate all of the many switches and knobs scattered across the control panel’s surface, with special attention given to the larger knobs strung out in a line along its full width. These potentiometers or ‘pots’ controlled the volume of whatever we sent out on the air. There was an illuminated meter set just above that procession of ‘pots.’ The ever-active needle housed in that V.U. meter was to command all of my attention; taking my eyes from it for even a moment could mean disaster, as I was soon to learn.

To present a program based on recordings, the CKUA announcer-operator sat facing the control panel and flanked by hulking professional turntables: one on either side. Even before the program went on the air, a strict ritual was observed that depended on the ‘Audition’ function imbedded in each ‘pot’.

With a turntable’s corresponding ‘pot’ set on Audition, the recording’s output could be heard in the studio but not on the air. Flip the toggle switch to its opposite position and what you were playing went directly to the radio audience. Woe to the announce-operator who got the two positions confused!

The letters ‘UA’ in ‘CKUA’ stand for ‘University of Alberta,’ where the station had its start in 1927. Over the years CKUA drifted away from its university roots and more and more towards government control. By 1950, when I showed up, the station was identified on the air as being “owned and operated by Alberta Government Telephones,” a provincial government offspring, once removed.

Two links to the university remained: the station’s license to broadcast, and responsibility for an hour or more of its evening programming. In short order, both of these connections had an adverse effect on CKUA’s popularity.

The broadcasting license granted to the university prohibited commercial content. A radio station without commercials: it sounds like a dream! But CKUA’s programming soon lost out to what Edmonton’s commercial stations were offering. During the daylight hours, CKUA sounded to most of Edmonton like a faint echo of the powerhouse antics available elsewhere on the radio dial. But it was the evening hours that were the hardest on the non-commercial station because of its continuing commitment to the university and its ‘high-brow’ tastes. There were at least two occasions when CKUA’s shrunken audience actually worked in my favor.

The first had me locked in a desperate battle with a tape recorder. The machine in question had just come on the market, designed and advertised for home use. The controls were simplicity itself, and, with its lid clamped shut, the recorder could be carried like a suitcase: a heavy suitcase.

I imagine a professional tape recorder was by then available, but CKUA’s enterprising and thrifty Chief Engineer, Bill Pinko, had adapted this home model to play tapes directly into the station’s equipment.

Bill must have recognized me to be a born fumbler because his instructions concerning this new machine were especially explicit: put the full reel of tape on the left-hand spindle, thread the tape through the playing head on to the empty reel on the right . . .

It was what he said about actually setting the machine in motion that I found so unnerving. Throwing the lever that got the tape moving made a resounding clunk, and brought a steady hum from the motor. Another disconcerting sound came from the ribbon-like tape itself as it slithered through the playing head. In fact, the awful little box was alive with noise; I couldn’t imagine how it could be kept off the air.

“The machine can make all the racket it wants to here in the control room and none of it will get on the air,” Bill soothed. “Just make sure your mike is off before you throw the switch.”

Right! Mike off: machine on. Then, mike off: switch on. Right!

My first night alone with the tape machine, it was to be used to broadcast a recording of a church choir. I set everything up just as Bill had indicated, then turned to my microphone to make a rather shaky introduction. Then – again following Bill’s instructions – I turned off the mike and pounced on the machine to turn it on.

Clunk!

The tape began feeding from the full reel to the empty one on the other side of the playing head. And, just as Bill had promised, the recording of the choir came pouring from the loudspeaker. I had put in on the air! I breathed a sigh of relief – too soon, as it turned out.

The station had set aside a half-hour for the recording, but there was nothing on the tape to indicate its exact duration. What if it was too long or too short? I was told that – in the first instance – I was to ‘fade’ the choir behind me to announce:

“And that brings to a close our choir concert for tonight . . .”

And if the choir’s last selection ended before the half-hour was over, I was to play a suitable record I had taken from the station’s library. It sat, cued and ready, on a nearby turntable.

What could go wrong?

With only a matter of minutes before the allotted half-hour ran out, the choir started into another hymn. I got ready to put ‘Plan A’ into action – fade the tape out and make the announcement – when I noticed another, more serious problem: I was rapidly running out of tape! Almost all of it had passed from one reel to the other. Where once there had been a full reel, the last loop began to unwind and inch towards the playing head.

What happened then came out of the blue: there was another loud clunk! And both reels stopped moving. And as I stared helplessly at them, the tape began rolling in the opposite direction, back to where it had come from! The machine was rewinding the tape, faster and faster, through the playing head, until the control room was filled with a wild, jibbering din.

And it was all going out on the air!

What should I do? Fumble with the machine to turn it off – or concentrate on overpowering the jibbering by playing the recording I had brought from the library? I was frozen in shock: thirty seconds must have passed before I could do anything. Meanwhile, that awful racket was being broadcast all over Edmonton and well into the countryside.

When I came to work the next day, I expected a severe scolding from either Jack or Bill, but neither of them had heard the cacophony I had created. Like most of Edmonton and surrounding area they hadn’t been listening. And when – a week later – I mustered the courage to describe the disaster to Bill he offered an explanation that bordered on an apology:

“I forgot to tell you about that machine’s unique feature,” he mused. “When it’s about to run out of tape, it rewinds automatically.”

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