I Learned About Radio From That
May 4, 2012 by Larry Grinnell
Disclaimer: Most of the names have been omitted for their (and my) protection. Please note, too, that this tale is based on my own observations and recollections of events as they unfolded. They might not always be completely accurate. If they aren’t, my apologies in advance.
And so it begins…
First, a little about my background. I got involved in South Florida radio in high school by joining a Junior Achievement company operating at 1000 watt WFTL AM 1400 in Fort Lauderdale. We produced a one-hour radio show on Saturday mornings, and sold advertising time for it. In the three years I was involved in Junior Achievement, I was the top salesman for Broward County (it helped to have a relatively expensive product–radio advertising) every year.
When I got my driver’s license, I almost immediately bought a car (a 1952 Willys Aero Ace), so I needed a job to make my monthly payments to the bank, and pay the insurance (no free ride for me!). I immediately thought of radio, as I had learned a fair amount about how a radio station works while involved in the Junior Achievement program, though my voice was hardly broadcast-quality, not to mention being handicapped with a pretty severe stutter. Some talk about having a face for radio…well, I have a voice for print. This affliction ultimately guided me toward a more technically-oriented career path.
I studied for and passed the FCC tests, obtaining a 3rd Class Radiotelephone Operator’s License with Broadcast Endorsement. I applied to pretty much every radio station in town, and amazingly was hired by the program director at WAXY FM 105.9–its main offices in Oakland Park (a suburb of Fort lauderdale), to work several nights a week reading and logging the transmitter performance indicators (an FCC rule–to be performed every 30 minutes in those days), changing tapes on the automation system and logging tape recorder, and programming commercials to be played for the next 12 hours. I can still remember what I had to read: Plate Voltage (6400 volts), plate current (1.8 amps), transmitter power output (9.8 kW), frequency (plus/minus 1 kHz from center), and a daily stereo pilot frequency measurement (19 kHz) off of a very primitive McMartin frequency counter. I held that job, eventually working four nights per week from 6PM to 7AM, and getting increasingly greater responsibilities, until, at age 18, I gave up show biz and joined the U.S. Air Force in late 1972.
“Top Gun” WIXX adds an FM outlet, exit WFLM
Radio in South Florida in the late 1960s and early 1970s was heading for big changes. FM was just starting to gain wider acceptance, as was country and western music. Enter the Broward County Broadcasting Corp., and their little WIXX AM 1520 in Oakland Park, Florida. Their slogan was “Top Gun in Broward”. A 1000 watt daytime-only operation, the owner sought to expand his market share by buying a failing FM station, 100,000 watt WFLM 105.9.
WFLM was Fort Lauderdale’s first stereo FM station. It was equipped with an excellent classical and easy listening record library, top-notch equipment including a 10 kilowatt Gates stereo transmitter, a Gates Executive stereo broadcast console, several Ampex 440 10-1/2 inch reel-to-reel tape recorders, 16 inch Gates turntables, and much more, in a great location on the 7th floor of the First Federal Savings and Loan bank building, in the central Fort Lauderdale business district. Unfortunately, WFLM (and FM radio in general) failed to make a financial dent in the 1960s, and was likely purchased at a bargain price, probably about 1967-1968.
One of the first things the new owners did was to return much of the WFLM studio space to the landlord, only keeping the transmitter room, a small storage area, and the original studio and a locked record library. I later found and duplicated the key to that room, which I used as a secure place to store my bottle of cheap scotch (Peter Dawson–the worst–usually mixed with Fresca…hey, I was only 16…oh, and get over it!). Having that key allowed me to build a library of classical, easy listening, and some jazz for myself–the statute of limitations is long passed… Everything else was handled at the WIXX studios in Oakland Park. Next, the callsign changed to WIXX-FM, the stereo generator on the transmitter was shut down (the AM studio was strictly monaural, thus the FM had to be mono), and programming was simulcast with the AM station (the AM studio and transmitter were saddled with ancient equipment manufactured by the defunct company, ITA–and the production room with an even more dismal Sparta mixing board).
WIXX-FM ran from 6AM to midnight, which got around the FCC requirement that simulcasting could occupy no more than 50% of the broadcast day. This went on for several years. I don’t personally know how profitable this operation was, although knowing what I later learned about the AM operations, where a disturbing amount of their advertising revenue was with local restaurants and lounges on a tradeout basis (allowing members of the sales and executive staff to drink their lunch at the station’s expense), there probably wasn’t a whole lot of profit.
WIXX’s owner had a number of other radio stations in the Midwest, and did not spend a great deal of time doing hands-on management of his South Florida operations–that was left to a revolving door of general managers. His 2002 obituary confirmed the observation of leaving management of his stations to his executive staff. We typically only saw him in the winter months.
Big Changes: WIXX AM/FM becomes WEXY & WAXY
By 1970, a new general manager was hired, with the insurmountable task of turning things around. WIXX-AM changed format from country and western to contemporary middle-of-the-road (kind of a soft rock and pop format). The callsign was changed to WEXY, or “sexy WEXY”, as one of their jingles announced. The FM received a much larger facelift. Its callsign was changed to WAXY, an expensive and very cantankerous Broadcast Products AR-1000 automation system was purchased (and moved into the old WFLM studio).
The format switched to the popular adult contemporary Hit Parade syndicated package produced by San Diego’s Drake-Chenault programming team, which was designed for automated radio stations. Ironically, less than a year after WIXX-FM went to that format, at least two FM stations in South Florida changed to a 24 hour country and western format and made (and still make) a small fortune doing so. One of many lost opportunities…
WAXY goes automated for better or worse — mostly worse
The automation worked like this: there were four Scully reel-to-reel tape players. Reels 1, 3, and 4 were loaded with 14 inch reels, permitting about 12 hours of unattended operation until the tapes ran out. Since the main studio was about 5 miles from the FM studio, this was important. Reel 2 was a 10 inch reel, which contained a quantity of current hits. As the tape ended, it automatically rewound itself and cued up to the starting point, through the use of conductive silver painted on the start and end of the tape. When the silver paint passed over special electrical contacts, it triggered the automatic rewind process. It was fascinating to watch. There were also three broadcast tape cartridge players in large drums, called “Carousels”. These held 24 cartridges each, and could be randomly programmed to play commercials when the automation system called upon them. There were additionally two single-play broadcast cartridge players, used for station breaks, and for playing prerecorded public affairs programming on Sunday morning.
The carousels were programmed to play up to three commercials (or public service announcements) at 10, 20, 40, and 50 after the hour. This meant that the station could not play more than 12 minutes of commercials per hour, and could not have more than 72 possible advertisers (24 cartridges per carousel–if you stopped playing public service announcements). Suffice it to say, WAXY never really faced that “high class problem” of needing to play more than 12 minutes of commercials per hour, or having 72 advertisers for that matter!
Another thing…there was no way for the FM station to go “live”, as there wasn’t even a microphone at the location. After the AM and FM stations (WEXY and WAXY) separated their programming, to my knowledge, there was no way to easily resume simulcasting, even if management had wanted to. They did bring in phone lines once to broadcast a major golf tournament, and it wound up being a nightmare to ensure there was someone at the FM site to switch back to automation when the tournament ended each day. It was only done that one time.
WAXY’s Broadcast Products AR-1000 automation system was probably one of the first off the production line, and was horribly bug-ridden. Its worst problem was the rather random way it would “lose its mind”, by either locking up (if something bad had to happen, that was probably the best-case scenario), or by playing every audio source at once. I saw it happen one evening and almost fell out of my chair by the cacophony coming out of the monitor speaker!
The chief engineer was on a first-name basis with the engineers at Broadcast Products, and eventually had to come up with solutions on his own, as they seemed unable to. First, the FCC required station identification at the top and bottom of the hour, plus or minus two minutes. The automation often forgot what time it was, so the chief engineer came up with a crude mechanical-electrical clock with a cam and switch system that sent a reset pulse to the main “brain” two minutes before the top and bottom of the hour. He developed an additional circuit using a time-delay relay that, if it sensed silence for more than 30 seconds, it would also send a master reset command to the automation. The chief engineer determined that the main problem with the so-called brain was overheating (the circuit cards were stacked horizontally, radiating their heat upward to additional cards above), so he dangled a small electric fan with some string directly over the card cage. This reduced the number of crashes to almost nothing. Fortunately, the carousels and single-play cartridge players were very reliable and caused few, if any problems.
Whenever there was dead air, a silence sensor circuit engaged a Sonalert device, a special device designed to emit a piercing shriek when activated. This let the operator know that something was wrong–very important on those typical occasions when the monitor speaker was turned down. While using the telephone, I would often be cut off, and never realized why until the chief engineer noticed the same thing, and discovered the Sonalert device emitted a tone identical to the telephone system disconnect tone. He replaced the Sonalert with another that emitted a slightly different audio tone, and this problem never occurred again.
Trouble at WEXY & WAXY
By 1971, station management realized they were in desperate straits. WEXY was so unloved and unlistened to, that more often than not, it didn’t even appear in the rating books. At one point, the owner threatened to sue the ratings company for not listing WEXY in the rating books. The ratings company gladly shared with station management why they didn’t show up in the ratings: in their process of surveying the Broward County area, they could only find a single (statistically insignificant) listener! Things were only a little better at WAXY.
Management at one point accepted a huge tradeout from Panasonic for commercials. They must have had 500 large desktop radios stored in every nook and cranny of the AM studios, and the same commercial played over WEXY and WAXY at least four times per hour, for at least six months. If you think the management learned something from that experience, you’re wrong. About a year later, they did it again! They even used the very same commercial in heavy rotation for another six months! Eventually, most of the radios were sold to a wholesaler for some needed cash.
Just down the hall from WAXY’s 7th floor downtown facility, were the studios for an upstart daytime only AM radio station, 5000 watt WAVS 1190, which had a news/talk format, with a business orientation, and had dredged up a number of radio and TV has-beens (as well as some terrific people) to host their shows, including a TV pioneer who announced 1950s television prime-time boxing matches, a 1940s-era network radio announcer, and his wife, a former a big band singer with the Larry Clinton Orchestra in the 1940s, and several others, for whom it is better not to say anything at all.
Well, while I was working for WAXY, WAVS took over sponsorship of the local Junior Achievement radio station company (I remained very involved in Junior Achievement), so I was able to attend the weekly meetings while working down the hall (I carried a portable radio with earphone so I could monitor the station’s operations). I only got in trouble once when the chief engineer tried to call me and I wasn’t in the studio to answer the phone. I later got in bigger trouble when I fell asleep so soundly one evening that I didn’t hear the alarm sounding after the automation’s computer locked up–nor did I hear the phone ringing for almost 20 minutes. It was the chief engineer trying to find out what was wrong, and, after I pressed the reset button and got things back on the air, I was advised I needed to “see him” the next morning. Somehow, I wasn’t fired, though I certainly deserved to be.
WAXY brings oldies to S. Florida, while WEXY returns to country roots
Because the Fort Lauderdale market, in the early 1970s, was in the top 50 in the U.S., the subscription fees from Drake-Chenault for the Hit Parade tape series were pretty expensive–especially considering how few listeners (and advertisers!) the station had because, you see, the pricing was based upon the size of the market the radio station served, and not the number of people who actually listened. To save needed cash for the station, the AM/FM general manager worked with their truly brilliant and unappreciated chief engineer to create an all new automated tape series of oldies rock from the 1950s and 1960s–a great deal of which was culled from the chief engineer’s personal record collection. The station purchased any remaining records required for this project. Since the chief engineer had obtained much of the studio equipment from the old WFLM studios, and had it set up in his living room as an incredible stereo system on steroids, it was possible for him to quickly and easily put together about 50 10-1/2 inch reel-to-reel tapes for a reasonable music mix, and get it on the air.
While this was going on, the AM station, having lost the rest of its core audience with its move to easy listening in 1970, switched back to country and western in 1971 (at about the same time the FM went to oldies). They brought back some of their former disk jockeys in a desperate effort to attract listeners from the WIXX days, but it was too little, too late, and while billing and listenership did increase, it remained a sunrise/sunset operation until, several owners later, it finally went to a 24 hour broadcasting schedule using directional antennas.
Back at WAXY, they slowly began building a loyal listenership. Ad revenues began increasing. Unfortunately, there was no money for promotional activities. One major missed opportunity, in my humble opinion, was not co-sponsoring a major oldies concert in Miami (in the primary coverage area) that brought many popular acts of the 50s to South Florida.
Goodbye Solid Gold, and hello Modern Good Music
I think WAXY ran the oldies format for six to nine months, when a new general manager was hired. I’ve forgotten his name–perhaps for the best. He decreed that the average age of an advertiser was 50 years old, and the average 50 year old person did not want to listen to oldies rock and roll (fast-forward about 30 years and ask the average advertiser what he likes to listen to…), so directed the long-suffering chief engineer to quickly create yet another new format, of adult contemporary music (pop and easy listening hits of the 50s through the 70s), calling it “Modern Good Music” (they couldn’t afford to subscribe to a ready-made series, and couldn’t afford the investment in studio equipment and personnel to take the station “live” again).
Modern Good Music hit the airwaves in early-mid 1972 to resounding silence. What few listeners they had cultivated with the oldies format quickly abandoned this new format. New listeners did begin to discover the “new” WAXY, but again, too little, too late. It’s actually too bad, as it was a well-designed mix of classic and current hits that more closely matched the old Drake-Chenault “Hitparade” series than did the Solid Gold format.
Unfortunately, the music mix degraded as station management asked me, after firing the chief engineer (see below), to transfer the tapes to 14 inch reels, so that the FM site could be completely unattended during the day. A 4-deck automation system running 10-1/2 inch reels required a tape change every six hours. Moving to 14 inch reels doubled that time to 12 hours.
RKO to the rescue (?)
Enter RKO-General… RKO-General, then owner of many well-known broadcast outlets, including WOR in New York, and owner of General Tires, was acquiring new broadcast properties, and saw great profit potential in the emerging South Florida radio market. They made an offer to the owner of WAXY for somewhere around a million dollars (fast-forward to the sale of Miami’s classical format WTMI for $100 million in the late 1990s…).
Problem was, RKO-General had some difficulties with the Justice Dept., due to some campaign contribution irregularities and attendant perjury (if memory serves). There may have been some irregularities surrounding the then owner of WEXY and WAXY too, which only served to further delay FCC approval of the sale, but I don’t exactly remember what the issues were, and it would be unfair (and perhaps libelous) to conjecture. Now you know why I am not naming names!
Once the sale was in process (it took almost a year for FCC approval), no additional money was spent on WAXY, short of barely keeping it on the air. The chief engineer, billing the “usurious” (according to the station owner) rate of about $100 per month on a contract basis, was let go, and a new combination chief engineer/announcer was brought in from the owner’s Indiana station. I don’t think he lasted long–more a case of homesickness than anything, I think. I received a raise to the princely sum of $2.20/hr (a 10% raise from the then minimum wage of $2.00/hr!) to be responsible, at age 17, for tape change and FM site operator schedules (evening shift).
We did have one glitch under my watch, when one of our operators, an orthodox Jew, neglected to tell me that he could not work on the high holy days, and left the station unattended. We didn’t realize until the next morning when all the tapes ran out and there was a whole lot of silence and except for the occasional station ID jingle! I had a long discussion with the program director on that one! Looking back, I’m amazed I wasn’t fired for soooooo many reasons.
Some of the people at WEXY & WAXY and winding down
Among the more colorful individuals at WEXY at the time was one of the AM station’s many program directors, who had, you might say, a bit of a drinking problem (about a quart of scotch a day). He was the morning man, and his hands shook so much that his wife usually came in with him to cue up the first three records before sign-on, and left with the words, “you’re on your own now”, and somehow he managed to finish his shift with minimal damage to equipment or the records. I maintained a friendship with him for many years afterward. He was also instrumental in arranging for my first carnal experience–with his girlfriend! Yes, another tale for another time…maybe.
Another colorful character was the station’s top salesman. He was also a world-class drinker, and tended to bring in bars, lounges, and restaurants as clients, usually on a tradeout basis–exchanging advertising time for goods and services at the client’s business establishment. In the case of this salesman, the goods were usually alcohol.
I often stopped by the WEXY studio after my long overnight shift, just to observe the “morning men” and learn how good and talented people (in spite of all I have said, there were a many wonderful people who worked for WEXY) organized and ran a radio show. Some were South Florida radio pioneers, and others were just passing through.
A few months before I left the station, I worked as a board engineer for a fellow who purchased an hour of time each week on WEXY for Greek language broadcasting. The show was “Athenian Melodies”, and was hosted by a local Greek community leader. The time I had spent at the board after sign-off “playing DJ” paid off, as this went off without a hitch–quite unlike my Christmas Day disaster.
Christmas Day, 1971, I was asked to pull an airshift for the first time. I didn’t need to talk (thank goodness), just play Christmas music, commercials, station Ids, and get into the network news broadcast at 5 minutes before the hour. It started OK, but then the phone calls started coming and coming, and for the next three to four hours, I missed more cues than I got. Between dead air, and missing commercials, getting into the network news late, and all the rest, it was a complete train wreck. In hindsight, I would have either not answered the phone, or put the individuals off. I just figured it was Christmas day and they were lonely (why else would they be calling an announcer-less radio station on Christmas day?), so I didn’t have the heart to just hang up on them.
Larry gives up show biz and RKO moves in
I can remember some air personalities who also sold advertising time to boost their meager paychecks. One of the announcers got me into my first of two dalliances with Amway. Believe me, WEXY/WAXY was a broadcasting bottom-feeder of the worst order. It was the perfect place for me to get show business and broadcasting out of my system for good. I finally threw in the towel late in 1972, and joined the Air Force. While home on leave six months later, I tuned in to WAXY, a few days after the sale to RKO-General went through, and heard a muffled sound from my speaker. I found out a few days later that the previous chief engineer was called back to help the new owners survey the equipment (believe me–RKO bought a frequency for their million dollars, and nothing more–everything else was shot), and claimed the gap in the tape head of the “tape 2” player was so large, he could cut his finger on the gap (as the tape passes over the head, it wears down the metal face due to the tape’s iron oxide coating–think of it like a short-term version of the Colorado River cutting the Grand Canyon).
A short time later, RKO moved into new studios, sold or scrapped what was left of the equipment (the transmitter is still in service, as far as I know, at a local church radio station), and went to an automated oldies format, only later bringing back some of the well known disk jockeys of the 1960s from Miami stations WQAM and WFUN. It was after the station was transferred to RKO that it was discovered why WAXY’s signal was so poor, in spite of having an excellent transmitter site in downtown Fort Lauderdale: the antenna array on the mast was improperly cabled, placing the upper eight antenna bays out of phase with the bottom two, thereby canceling a good deal of the signal before it even left the mast. This condition had probably existed since the station first went on the air in the early 1960s. RKO had the transmitter moved to one of the antenna farms in southwestern Broward County soon after taking over, and moved the studios to another downtown Fort Lauderdale location.
That’s not even all… A year or two later, after several senior leaders of RKO-General were convicted of campaign contribution irregularities (if memory serves), the FCC decided RKO-General was not fit to hold radio and TV broadcasting licenses, so their massive broadcasting empire was sold off, piecemeal, to whomever could afford it. While I don’t know how much money they got for WAXY, I think I can safely assume that it was substantially more than the $1 million they paid for it just a few years previously.
Where are they now?
The WAXY callsign is now being used by South Miami’s AM 790 (formerly WFUN), and is again playing oldies. The 105.9 MHz spot on the FM dial is now Clear Channel’s WBGG; yet another rock and roll station sounding like just so many others in the cookie cutter corporate environment that is now so much a part of the South Florida radio scene.
And how about WEXY? Well, they continued with a country and western format for a few years. One of my best friends at WEXY wound up returning there as chief engineer before moving on to an interesting job as chief engineer of a pirate radio station, anchored off the coast of England (Laser558). Sadly, he died far too young, sometime in the mid-1980s after contracting the HIV virus.
After going through a few owners, WEXY moved to a block-format (where individuals purchase blocks of time for their preferred programming). They are still around, still struggling with a combination of religious and ethnic programming.