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Recalling a misguided youth spinning vinyl

By Larry French • Dec 10, 2017 at 12:00 AM

Long before 8-track and audio cassette tapes, CDs and MP3 downloads, there were vinyl records.

With the revival of vinyl records in the market place, plus having been a radio announcer during my somewhat misguided youth, let’s harken back for a moment to the early 1960s and the control room of KCLA-AM  — 1400 on your radio dial — 1000 watts strong broadcasting from Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and spin a few memories.

While disc jockeys were the trendsetters of early radio, working in a more tranquil atmosphere we preferred to call ourselves announcers.

Either way, it didn’t matter. We were all spinning vinyl.

Music, of course, was the cornerstone of most radio stations in the 1960s, not the mind-numbing talk shows of today. But it wasn’t all about spinning records. There were also rules, regulations and formats to follow.

KCLA was on the air daily from 5 a.m. until 10:30 p.m.

News was read three times a day — 30-minute segments beginning at 7 a.m., noon and 6 p.m. — allowing radio to compete with early television. World, national, state and local news, along with agriculture, weather and sports were the norm.

News was gathered from The Associated Press teletype machine that ironically typed in both directions. A bell-like alarm sounded signifying bulletins, which depending on their importance were immediately read — twice. Of course, this was the era of “real” news — both good and bad — and long before the AP began editorializing the content.

The daily control log was followed religiously making certain our advertisers were guaranteed at least some return on their investments.

Dead air was not allowed, which meant learning how to cue records and tape machines accordingly.

The clock on the wall was always correct. Why? According to tf.nist.gov: “The radio-controlled clock was automatically synchronized by a time code transmitted by a radio transmitter connected to a standard time such as the atomic clock.”

To say the station ran like clockwork would be an understatement.

Our FCC licenses were conspicuously posted as required by federal regulations, too.

On Saturdays during college football season, KCLA would broadcast the Arkansas Razorback games live, which necessitated listening to the play-by-play because every hour and half-hour in accordance with FCC regulations, “We pause thirty-seconds for station identification. This is the Arkansas Razorback Radio Network.”

Thirty seconds meant exactly that. Not 29 or 31 seconds, all the while remembering — no dead air.

And because it was the Cold War era, there were the required interruptions from Conelrad.

“Had this been an actual alert you would have been instructed to tune to 640 or 1240 AM on your radio dial.”

Fortunately, those instructions never came.

Like most radio stations of the era though, music was the mainstay of KCLA, too.

Monday through Saturday we spun country music from 5 a.m. to 10:30 a m., followed by popular music from the big band era that included Count Basie, Stan Kenton, Harry James, Nelson Riddle and Henry Mancini.

Popular singers of the day, such as Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Doris Day, Johnny Mathis, Pat Boone, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme′, Andy Williams, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, also received equal airtime.

Not so popular — but owner-obligatory — were the likes of Mantavoni and his Orchestra, 101 Strings and The Ray Conniff Singers.

Sundays until noon included gospel and Christian music, and depending on the Sunday of the month, a church service of different denominations aired. Afterward, we returned to our regular broadcast format.

Occasionally, though, and usually after 8 p.m. on Friday or Saturday, we tried to get away with music that wasn’t on the official play list by spinning a few 45 rpms, including “Good Golly Miss Molly” by Little Richard, “The House of the Rising Sun” by The Animals and “California Sun” by The Rivieras.

Of course, the phone would immediately ring with one of the owners on the line wanting to know why “that song” was being played. Our standard answer was always a listener (fake name) from (a fake area) requested the song, which always worked because the owners loved their audiences.

One rule remained constant though — no matter who called in the request — never play anything by The Beatles. We were, however, able to give limited airtime to some early Elvis tunes.

I remember finding an abbreviated recording of Ravel’s “Bolero” among the archived 45 rpms and giving it 8 minutes of airtime. Oddly, that record mysteriously disappeared the next day.

I didn’t inquire.

And, yes, “The Star-Spangled Banner” ended every broadcast day.

Even if I wasn’t as well-known as Wolfman Jack, Clyde Clifford or Cousin Brucie, I did acquire a listening audience.

Sadly, KCLA, no longer exists. The call sign was retired by the FCC, the building was demolished and the tower taken down.

The memories though — like a good melody — still spin on.

Larry French lives in Butler. He is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists, National Society of Newspaper Columnists and teaches composition and literature at East Tennessee State University. You may reach him at frenchl@etsu.edu.

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