Midnight Rock & Roll – Adventures on the Night Shift

Since I did the TV overnight shift for one of my ebooks, I thought an archaeological reconstruction of an overnight shift on AFRTS-Radio would make a nice balance: This is a shift I would have worked at EBS (European Broadcasting Squadron) Hellenikon in 1984ish, and is part one of two.

My daughter has already been asleep for several hours. She is used to being carried downstairs, wrapped in a blanket and strapped into the car seat in the back of the orange Volvo sedan for the short ride to the sitters, over in Sourmena. Her friend Sara, whose mother is our babysitter, is already in bed. In the morning, Sara’s mother will take them both to preschool, and I will collect Blondie from school. We’ll have the afternoon and early evening for ourselves. Blondie curls up, thumb in mouth, fast asleep as soon as I have tucked her into the bed she will share with Sara. I say good night to Sara’s parents, and drive down hill towards Hellenikon. It’s 9:30 at night; by Greek standards it’s the best part of the evening, especially in summer. The shops have just closed, but the restaurants are doing a booming business, and traffic is heavy on Vouliagmeni, the main boulevard between downtown Athens, out to Glyphada and the coastal road south to the temple at Sounion.

Hellenikon Airbase is a narrow strip trickling downhill to the airport runway, a single road zigzagging from the entry gate, all the way down to the MAC terminal and weather station, at the bottom by the ramps to the flightline. A professional baseball pitcher could probably fling a baseball entirely across it at any point.

The entrance gate is on Vouligmeni, set back a little way from the traffic, and heavy concrete balks, the size of trash dumpsters force vehicle traffic to zigzag slowly, in a single lane. The base is regularly targeted by protestors, and threats of violence. Those threats are delivered upon often enough to make the Security Police, as well as the rest of us, very, very wary.
I show my ID card to the SP, and continue down the hill, past CBPO, and the short road towards the car wash and BX gas station. All the base is to the left or right of the road, which splits into a one-way loop halfway down the hill, below the Chapel and the BX complex.

Across from the chapel are the old radio station building, and the Post office; further downhill are the barracks buildings for single airmen, the hospital. The new radio station building is behind the post office and the Rec Center, backed up nearly to the perimeter fence. I swing into the parking lot and run in to see if there is mail in my box: Letters and magazines, and goodie, a pink cardboard slip, meaning there is a package for me to pick up at the window sometime the next day, but until then duty calls.

The new building replaced a tiny structure the size of a three-car garage, into which was wedged with fiendish ingenuity two studios, a radio library, a work area for the engineers, a teletype room, a small office/work area, with an even smaller one for the station manager, and a lavatory not appreciably larger than the station managers office. In the old days, there were not chairs enough to seat the entire staff at one time, or the space to put them all if there had been. For the last eight months, we have been reveling in the generous space afforded by the new building: two lavish stories, three studios, and a huge high-ceilinged work area with a curving stairway against the wall. Security lights keep the outside nearly as bright as daylight; I have never had a moment of worry, working alone at night. There is a telephone extension in a metal box by the door: I use it to call up to the studio for the swing shift guy to let me in, and wait until he comes down the stairs.
“Anything much going on?”
“Nope… the voiceline’s dropping in and out, I called Comm already. Same old, same old, trouble at Mt. Vergine, it’s fixed when it’s fixed. I’ve left you two newscasts. Can you voice a couple of lines for a spot? Just leave the tape on the desk with the script.”
“No problem. I’ll take over now, if you want to split.”
The previous operations supervisor, a man not long departed from the unit (to the profound relief of most of the junior broadcasters) had insisted that the only voices used for produced spots be those of the assigned military staff. As I am the only woman assigned to the unit, anyone wanting to use a female voice for a spot must use mine. Frankly, if I weren’t me, I’d have been sick to death of the sound of my own voice.

The big work area downstairs is too far away from the studios to be used during the overnight, and the overhead lights are off. I drop my purse on the desk that the junior broadcasters all share and head upstairs to the lights and music, and the ever-running teletype.

The radio programs are sent to us on 14 inch disks, so many 55-minute daily programs, a handful of half hour and 25-minute programs, all to be aired Monday through Friday. Only 27 minutes of materiel can be recorded per side, and we are all preternaturally aware of the necessity to drop whatever we might be doing, and run into the on-air studio at 32 minutes past the hour to start the turntable with the second part of the program. On weekends, we have American Top 40, and a couple of other weekly countdown shows, which runs to two, three or four hours, and some specialty music programs, which will air only once a week. Some of them present a mystery to us; such as why is an hour of big-band swing music included in the weekly package, when serious devotees of big-band swing would have taken their pension and retired to the States twenty years ago. The continuance of a particularly insipid easy-listening music program is another mystery as well; it seems that the host is such a nice guy, and has been coming into the Programming Center for decades to do his show, that no one can quite bring themselves to tell him that his services are no longer necessary. We air it at three in the morning. (It will finally fade out of the programming package in 1990, and I hear a complaint at that time from a person who misses it.). The hosts of the regular programs are stateside DJs whose best days were some time previous, if they even had any best days: Charlie Tuna and Roland Bynum, Roger Carroll, Rick Dees, Gene Price, Wolfman Jack, who skates for three decades on the thin ice of bad taste, always on the verge of being thrown out of the weekly package, not achieving banishment for another year or so. All of it is organized in a wooden rack in the on-air studio, seven shelves, one for each day: two records for each program, each in a white paper shuck with a circular cut out in the center so the label on each side can be read: “Charlie Tuna- Tu – Pt 1” and so on.

A few minutes before 10PM, I am in the studio, reviewing the logs; one for the day that will end in two hours, the other for the wee hours of the next day. Besides listing the programs to be aired hourly, with five minutes of news at the top of every hour, it specifies the spots I must insert into my three-hours of AOR, and lists a handful of news and information features which I must record and review for later airing.
We have a single audio feed, routed half-way around the world, through wires and satellite, and sometimes by the sound of it, through tin cans and lengths of string which provides us with four 5-minute long radio newscasts from the top of the hour to half-past, ABC, CBS, NBC and UPI. News features are fed starting at half-past: this line is routed into all the studios, but it is never, ever aired live, because of the peculiar situation we are in. All fed newscasts and features must be pre-recorded and reviewed for host nation sensitivities.

The on-air studio duplicates the two production studios: a pair of turntables on either side, a single mike in on-air, two and additional hookups in production, three cart machines, two reel-to-reel ¼” machines, all routed into the control board. There are two buttons, on and off for all sources, and a slider pot to set audio levels. This is a newer board than the ancient Gates than I trained on in tech school, with large knobs to set the levels. The mike pots are always on the left. The program wraps and I let the closing music run until 9:59:30. I had set my own mike level slightly above 15, as I have rather a soft voice. The ID cart and the newscast cart are slammed into the cart decks and the pots run up to slightly below 15; I prefer a hot board, all levels pre-set.

Fire off the ID cart, fade it out a few seconds short of the hour, and open my mike for a time hack, hit the news cart. When I lift the tone arm off the just-finished program I see there is a paperclip carefully balanced on it, an inch or so out from the spindle. Lately, the program records have arrived with warps in them sufficient to keep the needle skipping all over the place. Adding a weight such as a dime or a paperclip in order to keep the phonograph needle in the record groove is not something we are supposed to do. Our engineers can readjust the weight… but there are no engineers here at 11 PM or in the wee hours, and I can just imagine what they would say upon being called out to come down to the station to adjust the tone arm for a couple of warped records. Best just to use your own initiative, the dime or the paperclip and let the PD know to message the Program Center that they have an on-going little quality control problem.

The newscast ends, I take the audio slider down, and hit the TT1 “on” switch. “Roland Bynum” is on the air. I take Pt 2 out of the shuck and hold it up so I can look at it sideways. This also has a definite warp.
The audio slider can be run all the way down, and then past a little bump, which puts it into the “cue mode”. I can listen to the source, but it’s not on the air. I set the needle in the groove and play it until I hear the very first audio. I stop the record player and gently rotate the record back to the first scrap of sound, and then one-quarter turn farther back. Other DJs can hold the record steady with a finger against the edge while they rock the on-off switch with their thumb. It’s called slip-cuing, which puts the record on-air without the “whaooo!” sound of the record player getting up to speed. I’ve never been able to do that, as my hands are too small. As I gently put the paperclip on the tone-arm, the phone rings, flashing a bulb on and off over the window with a view of the Attic mountains.
“EBS, Hellenikon, Sgt. Hayes.” It’s an older Greek man, one of our regulars.
“Can you tell me the score for the Cleveland Indians, pliss?”
He lived in Cleveland before retiring home to Athens, but his love of the Indians is undying.

“Sure, just a minute.” I am blowing my chance to snag a couple of more newscasts to carry me over my live show, but Cleveland Georgios is a gentleman and does not waste time like some of the other regular callers, of which more later. I check over the roll of Teletype paper that is piling up on the floor since the swing guy cleared it. “14-10, their favor.”
“Tenk you, Kallinichta.”

Working in broadcasting means you learn to work quickly, efficiently, and to prioritize. I have one newscast left, and getting the Indians score for Cleveland Georgios meant I missed the chance to snag a newscast or two. I can grab a couple at the next hour, but right now I have to pull together three hours of album oriented rock and roll. I can take requests, but it’s not like a lot of people have phones. Mostly it’s the duty guys in the Comm center, and in the Security Police office. For the next forty minutes I am working in the library, among the shelves of records in plain white and brown Kraft-paper shucks, consulting Radio & Record’s various lists with especial attention to the one for rock albums, and the record library files.

When the movie Good Morning, Vietnam comes out, one of the ways military broadcasters knew it was a crock was because the records were all wrong. From the beginning, AFRTS stations did not depend on commercially available albums, but on special issues, manufactured especially for us at the programming center, with a very distinctive AFRTS label in the center. Some are abbreviated albums; some are compilations of hit singles. They are treated like Tippy-Top Secret documents. The library is always in the secure area of the station, and we are forbidden on pain of death, dismemberment, boiling in oil and dishonorable discharge — whatever comes first—to copy them. Occasionally, broadcasters have also been forced to explain, with a certain degree of tact, to senior officers that no, our library is not like the base library, and no, they may not check out our records for their use.

I’ll need to snag a couple of newscasts, and review them while I am in my live radio show, so the first hour will be where I play my favorite AOR game- that is, seeing how few cuts an hour I can play, and including Iron Butterfly’s 20 minute opus is cheating. If I lead off with the title cut from Frankie Goes To Hollywood(14 minutes) and throw in some Dire Straits in concert (eight to ten minutes, easy), I can get away with four selections in an hour. My programming philosophy is, as I explained to a very young, very awed caller one night, based on two things: the AOR chart in Radio and Record, and not pissing me off too much. I know that I have done a good job, when I finish my three-hour show with a mild headache. I don’t really care for AOR, but I am not being paid to like it: I’m being paid to play it for people who like it, and to keep the dozen or so of them listening at this hour somewhat awake and functioning. Dire Straits is a treat for me, though, I like Mark Knophler’s stuff. I work out some stuff for the next two hours, and pull the records.

The plain paper shucks are numbered sequentially: record #1 in the AFRTS library was struck sometime in the 1940ies, but I have never myself seen any issues before #650 or so. Those were 16” discs, from the 1950ies, in the library at AFRTS-Sondrestrom, and so scratched and worn as to be practically unairable, having been thrown out the windows of the original station there when it burned down. We are in five-digit territory now, as far as issues go: as I pull records for my show, I pull the record next to it out about three inches, to mark where I will need to reshelf them after the show.
The swing shift guy has already pulled all the carted spots for my show: it’s a traditional courtesy. I will pull the spots for the morning guy before I leave. I bulk-erase four of the 5.5-minute carts we use for newscasts, and route the voiceline feed into the on-air, in the audition channel. I will try and record a new AP newscast as my last recorded newscast is playing. At ten minutes to eleven, the studio phone light flashes: it’s the Comm center, asking me how the signal sounds now.
“Like crap, but just usable.”
“We’re doing what we can.” The Comm center duty NCO is one of those nighttime friends that I have never actually met. I made the mistake of inviting one of his predecessors over for dinner one night, when we realized we lived within a block of each other. A perfectly jolly friendship over the telephone did not survive a face to face meeting, but then it could have been the mushrooms-and-tofu-in-red-wine sauce. (Blondie and I were in a vegetarian phase.)
“Well, do something more. Sacrifice a sheep. Sacrifice a virgin. Sacrifice a virgin sheep, maybe.”
He laughs, and promises an improvement, eventually. We could have a worse problem, and often do. Once, for about six hours, we got cross talk from some colonel’s private office line at Norton AFB.

(To be continued.)

8 thoughts on “Midnight Rock & Roll – Adventures on the Night Shift”

  1. Fascinating inside baseball. I can’t remember ever listening to military radio, of course, most of the time we were at sea, and always in this hemisphere.

  2. Did you ever do on-air DJ or newsreader or interview stuff? Or was it all working as tech to keep the prerecorded material up and running?

  3. I would’ve been that guy complaining about the big bands getting cancelled.
    ‘Damnit, I need my Benny Goodman at 3 AM on Tuesdays!’

  4. Oh, yes – Mike – I was on-air doing a live show all the time. And reading the news live was also an option, when the line feed got too bad. I didn’t do so much local interviews when in Athens, because I was on the overnight or swing shift most of the time. On my last overseas at Yongsan, I did a daily local radio news show.

  5. The night shift definitely has a rhythm all it’s own. After 45 years I can’t remember in Germany ever hearing the AFN – I’m sure it was there – although they had a TV station. There must have been a radio station.

    I preferred Radio Louxembourg, which had such a powerful signal you could hear it from one end of Europe to the other.

    Interesting what you mentioned about the music albums made for AFN only.

    Blondi definitely grew up different from most of her contemporaries.

    Did you ever consider staying in radio once discharged?

  6. I did work part-time for about ten years at the local classical station, but then they went automated and let all the part-timers go. I also did a bit of voice-over work, which I really liked, because there wasn’t the pressure of live radio involved.

    Funny thing – you know how everyone who went to college has a nightmare about finals, or finding yourself taking a final where you realize that you never took the class, or somehow spaced everything? My nightmare is “The radio station that doesn’t work.” The board is jacked up, can’t find the music, the library is in another building, can’t find the log, stuff doesn’t work … and I have to go live in five minutes, two minutes, thirty seconds …

  7. Before I joined the Army I worked as the ‘assistant engineer in charge of keeping the cows away from the antenna’ at a small country station in Oregon. Replaced our old Gates board with a new one that was bad from the factory, repaired cart machines with scrap bolts and washers, did remotes from cattle auctions. Small radio was interesting, I recognized most of the characters from ‘WKRP in Cincinnati’ when it came out.

  8. So did we all, Martin – so did we all. And we were all fearfully disappointed in Good Morning, Vietnam – because there were so many weirder, and funnier people and circumstances they could have played off of. The classic story about that is that the real-life Adrian Cronauer was once asked how accurate the movie was; and he supposedly answered, “Well – there was a Vietnam War, and there is an Armed Forces Radio & Television Service…”

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