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Tuesday, April 5, 2016

In the Beginning...

It was an unforgettable moment.  March 31, 1981.  It was the first time I walked in to the WARM building in Avoca.
former WARM Building, March 2016
I was there for a job interview.  The station was looking for someone to work 1 AM to 9 AM on Sunday mornings.  Remember, there were no computers back then.  WARM needed someone to play the religion and public affairs tapes.  I wanted it.

I can still see those big glass doors with the shiny gold metal trim.  The big WARM logo painted on.  The list of other stations owned by the same company beneath.  The receptionist asked me to take a seat on the uncomfortable, worn couch in the lobby.  What a lobby it was.  There were awards and plaques on just about every spare inch of space.  A window looked into the control room.  Jim Gannon was on the air.  It was the week before he was moved to evenings.

Eventually, program director Ron Allen summoned me.  We chatted briefly.  He told me what the job entailed.  There was another guy who applied.  There was no tour.  Ron didn't give me the warm fuzzies, but that was Ron.  The interview was rather cold and matter of fact.  I have to admit a great intimidation factor.  Ron and WARM were legends.

I got a call the next day, April 1.  Ron couldn't decide between the two applicants, so he decided to hire us both.  We would work alternating weeks.  As it turned out, the other guy stayed for less than a month, so the job was eventually all mine.

$4.00 an hour.  Minimum wage in 1981 was $ 3.35.  I thought it was a fortune.

The job came during my sophomore year at Marywood College.  I remember telling an upperclassman, Jim Loftus, what I would be doing.  Jim put his hand on my shoulder and said the magic words:  "You are now a paid professional."  I've uttered the same line to countless college kids and interns over the years.  By the way, Jim has enjoyed a stellar career in major market broadcast sales and management.

My first shift was 35 years ago today.  I didn't fly solo.  The guy I was replacing, Joe Klapatch, showed me the ropes.  I stayed the full eight hours.  The other guy didn't.  Joe remains a friend to this day.  I was so timid and shy that I didn't put in to be paid for training day.  Susquehanna Broadcasting, you owe me $ 32.00.  I'm kidding.  I can use the money, but Susquehanna Broadcasting no longer exists.  It sold off its stations long ago.

When I did get that first check, it was quite a shock.  Yikes!  The federal, state, and local governments all took a bite.  As we say in the business, I was left with "hoagie money."  I was happy to have it.  Yes, I was the tiniest of cogs in the big WARM machine.  Thrilled is an understatement.

Once I became immersed in the operation, some things really jumped out.  It was 1981.  The studios looked straight out of the 60's.  Old equipment.  No new technology.  Big, clunky reel to reel tape machines.  Ancient cartridge machines.  Tired wall coverings.  Worn carpet.  Peeling laminates on the counters.  Tiny bathroom.  Yellowed ceiling tiles.  Drafty windows.  Manual typewriters in the newsroom.  Beat up office chairs that were new when the station moved in during the mid 60's.  It was clean.  Orderly.  Organized.  And very, very old.

And, we were cramped.  We literally worked back to back in the newsroom.  The news director had a desk in a back room, near an air handler.  There was no place for the DJ's to prep their shows.  Harry had a desk of his own.  The rest of the guys had to share the lone second desk.  The lunch area had a rickety kitchen table and chairs.  Some of the sales offices were the size of closets.  WARM eventually took over the entire first floor and part of the second.  We simply ran out of room.

All that really counts is what comes out of the speaker, and for years, what came out of that shabby old station set records.  Eventually, in the mid/late 80's, the place did get a much needed facelift.

We didn't have electronic locks, key pads, badges, and chips back in those days.  I remember how thrilled I was when I got my key to the WARM Building.  Confession:  I still have the key.  I would assume (and hope) the locks have been changed.

The line up when I started:  Harry West in the morning, followed by Vince Sweeney.  Steve St. John had noon to 3.  Tim Karlson was 3 to 7 PM.  Jim Gannon handled evenings.  RJ Harkins came on at midnight.  Jerry Heller, Ray Magwyre, Kitch Loftus, Terry McNulty, Susan Jellig and Brian Roche were the news department-- an unheard of number in a market this size.  Except for my Sunday morning religion and public affairs hours, WARM was live, all the time.  That's unheard of today.  Most stations give up on live voices after 5 PM.

As for me, good times and bad at the Mighty 590.  I could have, and should have been a better employee and co-worker.  Youthful inexperience.  I tried hard.

My philosophy is to take what little they give you, and do it the best you can.  Things will eventually take care of themselves and you'll move up.  My tapes were stored in a production room cabinet.  I made sure that cabinet was always clean and organized.  My logs were perfect.   I back timed my shows and public service announcements to hit the tone on top of the hour.  I showed up well before my scheduled start.  My transmitter readings were always on time.

Speaking of the transmitter, I will never forget my one moment of major terror.  We had to take transmitter readings every three hours back in the day.  We eventually put in an automated reader and printer.  My plate voltage was drifting high, and I didn't realize it, until I had to switch from night time coverage pattern to day time.  The system sensed a problem and shut down.  We were off the air.  The area's number one radio station was silent, and it was my fault!  I called everyone.  No one could talk me down.  We did have an engineer who showed up around daybreak Sunday mornings to do studio maintenance, clean the tape heads, etc.  He got us back on and explained where I went wrong.  I never made that mistake again.

Fast forward several years.  Nick Seneca was doing afternoon drive.  He knocked the station off the air while going from day time to night time patterns.  I was in the newsroom at the time and ran across the hall to get us back on the air.  Nick had my problem, except in reverse.  Luckily, I remembered how the engineer fixed my mistake-- shut everything off, knock down the plate voltage, and reset.  Boom!  Done!  A smug, self congratulatory smile was on my face for the rest of the day.

Management could have been a little better.  I had to flirt with another station to get additional part time hours.  I had to flirt with another station in order to get full time status.  At least, I received counter-offers.  Others were not as lucky.

The station used to sign off from midnight to 5 AM Monday mornings.  Transmitter maintenance was the excuse.  It didn't have to be done every week, so I convinced management to stay on the air, and it gave us more time for public affairs.  It also gave me a slightly larger paycheck.

I can't believe the energy I had back then.  There were days I'd work at WARM until 5 AM, take a nap, go to college in the morning, take a college radio station shift in the afternoon, and be back at WARM to do some evening news.

I'll give WARM management credit for getting vacation time, as a part timer.  It's the first and last time I saw a company do that.

I understand the Christmas parties were nice.  I never attended one.  There used to be a summer outing.  I passed on those, too.

As time went on, I moved up in the ranks.  I eventually got on the air.  My job was "swing man."  I was a DJ when they needed one.  I did news when we were short handed.  There was a shift to full time news, and that made me very happy.

For the most part, I look back on my 10.5 years very fondly.  We took news to a new level-- aggressive coverage of trials, fires, flooding, snow storms, elections, etc....  The news department was really cooking for a while.  If it was happening, you heard it on WARM, and we left everyone else in town in the dust.  Plenty of awards.

We had some great people on the staff during my time.  Sadly, some have left us.  Others have moved away.  I'm still in touch with John Hancock and Vince Sweeney.  In fact, Vince was the first guy I really got to know at WARM.  He followed me on Sunday mornings.  I wish I was in touch with a few more.

All good things must come to an end.  Upper management hired a series of bunglers to run the place.   They made some of the worst programming mistakes known to man, and it was criminal.  If you remember the Mutual Broadcasting System days, you know what I'm talking about.   Listeners drifted away, and never came back.  The staff was cut.  Less news.  More canned talk.  Yakking for the sake of yakking, even if there was nothing to say.  I got moved to mornings.  Being one of Harry West's news people was a great honor, and working "morning drive" is radio's prime time.  However, I was never really comfortable with it.  AM radio was struggling.  The handwriting was on the wall.  The end wasn't near, but I could see it approaching.  WARM picked up and FM station and it was moved in to our building.  We weren't a priority.  We were an afterthought.  We really needed some attention and TLC.  We got squat.  Oh, we did receive some hand me down vehicles and equipment from other stations in the chain.  What we really needed was freshness.  Ideas.  Promotion.  Advertisement.  Talent.  Direction.

I took a part time TV job in March of 1990.  A full time positioned opened up that fall.  I passed.  Another full time position became available in September of 1991, and I jumped at it.  I think my last WARM newscast was 9 AM, September 6, 1981.  I walked out the door, anxious for a new challenge.

Even though it was far from great when I was there, I was fortunate to have been a small part of WARM history.  I'll share a few more photos and stories in the days to come.