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Radio Workshop

As I noted in my previous two blog entries, WBZ, and WBZ control room, three weeks ago (Halloween, October 31), Margie and I participated in a tour of the WBZ studios on Soldiers Field Road in Boston, Massachusetts. This tour was an activity sponsored by the Wayland Council on Aging. My last two entries dealt with the television side of our visit: watching the presentation of the noon newscast.

WBZ owns an AM radio station as well, on the air in the Boston area at 1030 kHz. It's a very powerful station, radiating 50 kilowatts from a highly directional antenna in Hull, Massachusetts. Thus it can be heard at great distances, particularly at night, when conditions for propagation of the AM frequencies are favorable. Anthony Silva took us in to a radio studio, where Mary Blake was on the air at the time. Here he is showing us the operation:

Anthony Silva showing us a WBZ radio studio in operation

Mary is in the soundproofed room behind the window, although she can't be seen in the photo. She seemed to be controlling the entire show herself. Although Anthony was in the engineer's position, he was just conducting our tour - there didn't seem to be an engineer actively involved. From the various monitors, some of which were touch-screens (we were cautioned not to touch them), Anthony could call up a schedule of the program segments (including ads), scripts, and other information.

The operation called to mind an elective course I took in the Fifties at Great Neck North High School, called Radio Workshop. We learned how to produce radio dramas, of the sort that had been popular in my youth, but which, with the advent of television, were already on the way out. The school had a suite which was used for this, with a soundproofed studio, and a control room separated from it by triple glass.

In those days, there were no digital media. All our pre-recorded material was on records, and we learned techniques for dealing with them. Note 1  A script might call for particular music to be played, perhaps as an introductory theme song, or as background music. Or, for that matter, we had records of sound effects - creaking doors, footsteps, crashes, and so on. There were usually multiple songs or sound effects on a single disk, each on its own "cut". Note 2

If you dropped the stylus into the gap at the start of a cut, there would first be a noise as the needle hit the vinyl, and then a small click as the needle fell into the groove. Then some time would elapse before the selection on that cut started to play. That was not an acceptable way to play a cut. Whatever music or sound we were getting from the record, we needed to be able to start it precisely when needed.

Preparing to do this is called "cueing up" a record, and the technique we were taught was called "slip-cueing". In ordinary use, records are placed directly onto a turntable, which often has a non-slip rubber surface. On our turntables, however, this surface was covered by a disc of felt, a soft fabric, and then the record was placed on top of the felt. This meant that the radio engineer could stop the record's rotation with a finger on its edge. The turntable and the felt would keep rotating, but the record could be stopped, sliding on the felt.

The engineer, by moving the record back and forth, could then locate the exact spot on the record's the spiral groove at which the sound started. The record could then be backed up a bit from that point, and held until the sound was needed. To start it playing, the engineer needed only to release the disc, which would immediately begin rotating, and quickly come up to speed. Only then would the stylus hit the recorded section of the groove, and the selection would begin to play. Note 3

It was decidedly an error if the recorded portion of the record arrived at the stylus before the disk had fully come up to speed. So it's rather amusing to me these days to see disk jockeys deliberately moving records back and forth under the stylus in order to produce interesting effects.

Our sound effects record had quite a few useful selections, among them the spectacular (but seldom used) "Man breaking up a piano with an axe". But we also learned how to produce our own sound effects. Crunching cellophane near a microphone produced a sound like a crackling wood fire. A miniature door, perhaps half a meter high, with an actual doorknob and latch in it, produced the sounds of a door slamming, or closing, or being knocked on (the toy door didn't lead anywhere - it just stood on a table on a stand). A small tray of gravel could be used to make the sound of footsteps on a path. And so on.

In the modern WBZ studio, on-air radio personality Mary Blake, behind the glass in the picture above, was reading scripts scrolling across the screen of a computer monitor. No such thing even existed in the Fifties, of course. Standing at our microphones, we read our scripts from paper. The pages of the scripts were not stapled together, because turning the page of a stapled script would have produced sounds that would have been picked up by our microphones. Instead, when we were done with a page, we would simply let it slide to the floor. It might make a slight sound when hitting the floor, but by then it was far from the mic, and besides, the microphones were quite directional.

In Radio Workshop, if I'm recalling correctly, we all got chances to be both actors behind the microphones, and radio engineers. In the latter role, we learned how to use the console to mix audio sources and control their volumes, cue the actors and cue up records, track program timing, and generally direct a show. As a rule, we created radio dramas, which were sometimes piped in to study hall classrooms to provide us with a real audience. Nothing we did was actually broadcast on the air.

3 VU meters on the control panelAlthough computer monitors and keyboards could not have been a part of our studio in the fifties, there was one component of the WBZ control panel that was entirely familiar. The picture to the left is an enlargement of the three "VU meters" I noticed on the WBZ panel.

These meters are used to display the volume level of an audio signal. They can be seen at the left side of the photo at the start of this entry. The image to the left is fuzzy because it's an enlargement of only a small portion of that picture.

We were taught to adjust the volume of our audio signals so the needle spent most of its time just below the red zone on the dial, although brief incursions into that zone were normal. I imagine that audio engineers got quite used to using VU meters to adjust their signal amplitudes. I suspect that's why they still appear on the WBZ control panel, in an otherwise heavily computerized studio, about fifty-five years after I first learned how to use them in my Radio Workshop course. Note 4

The radio dramas we presented were like the ones that had been commonplace in my youth in the late 1940s - shows like "The Lone Ranger", which was first aired by WXYZ in Detroit in January, 1933, nine years before I was born. We didn't get our first television set until 1952, but by then, TV was already beginning to supplant radio dramas. I've already had a few words to say about the disappearance of radio drama in my earlier blog entry My brain on Ovaltine (towards the bottom). The last new episode of The Lone Ranger was broadcast in September, 1954. Note 5

Our visit to the modern WBZ-radio studio brought back wonderful memories of the days of my high school Radio Workshop course, and recalled an era of radio dramas that the arrival of television brought to an end.

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© 2013 Lawrence J. Krakauer   Click here to send me e-mail.
Originally posted November 21, 2013

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Footnotes (click [return to text] to go back to the footnote link)

Note 1:   For posterity: a "record" (I think it's short for "recording") was a flat glass or vinyl disc with a long spiral groove on each side. Sound was recorded in each groove by impressing a transverse analog of the sound pressure wave into the sides of the groove. These were tracked by a small, sharp stylus, and electronically amplified. This was an extension of the original "phonograph" technology developed by Thomas Alva Edison, except his groove spiraled around a cylinder, and he didn't have the benefit of electronic amplification.

Early records were glass, and rotated at 78 revolutions per minute ("RPM"). But by my youth, the technology had improved, yielding the vinyl "Long Playing" record, with closer grooves, rotating at 33⅓ RPM.

At its outer edge, the thin groove spiraled in rather rapidly, leaving a mostly smooth flat ring along the edge. If you put the stylus down anywhere on this smooth ring, it would eventually drop into the groove, remaining in the groove for the duration of the play. Once in the main section of the record, the groove would spiral in more slowly, so each turn around the spiral would lie almost against the one to its outside. At the end of the recording, another rapid spiral-in led to a circular holding groove.

In the more modern music CDs ("Compact Disks") and CD-ROMs ("Compact Disk - Read Only Memory"), there is also a single continuous spiral, although it is encoded digitally, and is read optically instead of with a mechanical stylus. But on CDs and CD-ROMs, the spiral starts near the center, and moves towards the outside.   [return to text]

Note 2:   The word "cut" refers to the recorded sections of a disk - a cut might typically hold a single song or other audio selection. There were generally gaps between cuts, in which the spiral groove, with no sound engraved into it, spiraled in more rapidly, leaving a visible annular flat area wide enough for the stylus to be easily placed down on it. That's what enabled you to locate a desired cut on your record.  [return to text]

Note 3:   In describing how to cue up a record, I glossed over quite a few details. First, the radio engineer threw a switch that mixed the turntable's output into his headphones (but didn't put it out onto the radio broadcast). With the disk rotating, he or she then put the stylus down in the gap in front of the desired cut, and waited for the music or sound effect to start. At that point, the disc was quickly stopped with a finger, and rotated backwards, so the sound would be heard in reverse.

After a bit of backward rotation, the sound would stop - at that point, the stylus would be just in front of the recorded section of the record's groove. The engineer would then continue rotating the record backward for about an eighth of a turn, and hold it there. The turntable's output, silent as long as the record was held still, could then be mixed into the on-air signal, awaiting the cue.

When the cut (music, sound effect, or whatever) was called for, the engineer needed only to release the disc. The felt would quickly drag the record up to speed. If done properly, enough blank (silent) groove would have been left in front of the recording to allow the disc to be up to full speed before the sound started playing.   [return to text]

Note 4:   If you want to learn more about VU meters, here's a decent Wikipedia article on the subject.   [return to text]

Note 5:   Click the next link for more information about The Lone Ranger. Links on that page will actually allow you to listen to the old episodes, if you want to get a feeling for what old-time radio drama was like - there are a total of 1375 of them! And if you click on SHOWS in the top navigation bar of that page, you can listen to thousands of other old radio shows of various types.

Listening to one of the Lone Ranger episodes, I was rather astonished to find that the theme music it opened with, the "William Tell Overture" by Giacomo Rossini, was played for a full minute and 38 seconds before fading out to allow the program to start! I don't think a modern audience would have the patience for this. They'd probably sit still for only a couple of seconds before grabbing the remote and clicking off to something else.

And to my generation, that music was always just the Lone Ranger theme - we were surprised to find it had another name.  [return to text]

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