Reliving old demo tapes 
“970 WKHM” Jackson, Michigan
By Bob Burnham

The 1980s pretty much saw the end of the first phase of my broadcast career.

As I gradually sift through the remnants of those years, a flood of memories always comes back if the tapes are still playable.

This article is not necessarily about the tape itself, but the memories it brought back.

I worked afternoon drive at WKHM-AM in Jackson, Michigan.  It was a “full service” station with CBS network news, and the sister station to the rocker on FM, WJXQ or Q-106 (which later moved its license to Lansing).  

As much as I can remember, back then, former WDRQ Detroit jock, Jim Ryan was the P.D. for both stations and the AM soon shifted to a satellite-fed news-talk format, but it was “full service” when I was there and I was replaced by a satellite-fed program.    Full service back then meant live talent, a little music, a lot of personality, and short features.  But people like me were not cheap to have on staff at a struggling AM.  Automation technology except for huge mechanical monsters -- that were a nightmare when they malfunctioned – had not arrived or were not desired at this station at that time.

In recent years, I did not think any tapes remained of my WKHM shows, but surprise!  This demo produced in mid-1982 consisted entirely of aircheck excerpts from that station alone.

I even did my own sponsored sports segment on this tape (which was part of the aircheck).  There were no interactive listener bits on this tape and I don’t remember doing any at this station.  

Painting a picture of the studio, I just remember these huge seven foot wire cart carousels in the corner of the studio where all the music and spot libraries were located.  The studio and equipment was fairly nice.  It was a slide-pot board (NOT rotary).  

The AM talent had to take transmitter readings for both the AM and FM, even tho there were always live jocks on the FM.  That always seemed to me to be unfair because the AM log was always much busier than the FM, at least for the daytime hours.  But the FM was the money-maker and the AM was struggling.  So let us higher-priced guys do extra work for the “kids” on the FM rocker.

The AM carried some long form style network programs like CBS Radio Mystery Theater, but for the most part, it was local live talent and music "all night long."   

The two stations were independently owned at that time by the Patten Broadcasting Company, and the building was located toward the back end of a residential area.  The AM site is still there so far as I know.  You had to drive through the city of Jackson to reach the station.  The AM transmitter and towers were on the same site as both the AM and FM studios at that time.

The demo tape itself was nothing special hearing it today, except I noticed I had a “pace” or a patter that was identical to what I used in at WAAM in Ann Arbor.  The music format (Adult Contemporary) was similar as well.  

It is hard to explain what that style was like, how we developed it and after a while, what made it so much fun.  People I worked with and in some cases, trained in the Ann Arbor days were names like Jeff DeFran and Ken Kal were part of some of that “fun” and obviously like me, turned some form of radio into lifelong careers. 

I didn’t really spend enough time on the air in Jackson (at least up to that point)  to develop any friendships at the station. Mike Vaughn was on the FM (formerly of WDRQ), but I didn’t really get to know anyone else.  I plugged “Lynn Essex with music all night long” on WKHM, but sorry Lynn, I don’t remember much about you.  I was still living in Ann Arbor at the time and listened to your show on the way home and that was about it.

For the most part, with that format, you could be yourself and work in your own bits.  That was as long as you wrapped it around everything that was in the log, didn’t forget to take required transmitter reads (required every 3 hours back then), worked in all the live and network news and sports, didn’t miss any sponsor tags, and made sure to plug other features on the station or whomever was on after you.  That plus play lots of music and knew it well enough to nail every post (manually back then usually without count-down clocks), and usually talked over both the ending and the intro of each song.

That was what (as I called my show on this tape) the “Bob Marshall Atrocity” was all about. I was also “The World Famous Bob Marshall” which was a joke in itself, because these were regional radio stations which meant they covered the county and not much beyond and up to that point, had not yet tinkered with syndicating myself or others.  Yet those stations had a substantial and very loyal local audience many years before the internet. 

I had a style that was a compromise between fast-paced like “hit-radio” CKLW-style and WJR style of THAT era. I was not an overly-hyped fake-sounding jock.  What was on the tape sounds pretty natural, but upbeat. Like I said it’s hard to explain, but all of us on the station sounded that way – and similar but “different.”  It’s a style you can’t really teach.  You can only learn it by listening to others and developing your own version, but it is mostly extinct today.

It WAS INDEED personality radio and whatever was on my mind that day whether they were in the news or just observations driving to work – they would go on the radio that day.  If you were a “sponge” to everything going on (and I do mean everything), you didn’t have to do as much show prep.  Sometimes, I’d just get lazy and just “wing it” but sometimes it’s those shows that are the ones that represent your best work, because it’s you being YOU.    Yet there are days when NOTHING would be going on, or your mood was a little down.  Show prep in that case, IS a lifesaver and sometimes listener calls responding to that would also turn the show around.

In my case, I had a bit of an alternate radio persona going on, but regular listeners soon figured out I was a regular guy underneath that patter and wouldn’t hesitate to call me up.  I never did a remote for WKHM, but I did many for WAAM, both as the Air Talent and as the Engineer on-site.   And in Jackson, I took many transmitter readings for those guys on the “FM side.”

Before the Jackson days, my most memorable remote was the 4th of July fireworks at the Ann Arbor Airport, from “Rollin’ Radio,” a fully equipped studio built in the back on a GMC motor home.  The back end where the talent sat was all glass with a full sized audio console, the technology of the time, cart machines, etc.  The chair was bolted to the floor.  I remember that very well because it was a little uncomfortable, but we would spend a week in Rollin’ Radio for events like the Ann Arbor Art Fair.

But having fireworks explode in the sky overhead and people come by and say things like, ‘Wow, that’s Bob Marshall in there!” like it was some kind of big deal.  I’d have to step outside and meet some of them as kind of a local mini-celebrity.  At least one other person from the station was on hand.

It really wasn’t a big deal to me at the time, but it actually was.  It was my life at that moment, like it was in Jackson and elsewhere.  The fact I can recall so many details, especially hearing old tapes (after so many years have passed) in itself is significant.  Who doesn’t like “fame” even if it didn’t include fortune much beyond an extra $50 Talent Fee when we were on-site  (That fee was cut in half by the time I ended up getting laid off).

Today, I have much more work to do and much more to accomplish.  I won’t be doing the “Bob Marshall Show” tonight or next week, but you never know.

The tape included sort of a “saying goodbye” which P.D.’s always frown upon and usually take the talent off the air before they can, but I was lucky. 

“Thank you Jackson for being good to me.  Perhaps again our paths will cross. Stick around for Lynn Essex with music all night long right after the news…”

That’s it!  
If management was listening, they didn’t complain.  I had learned long ago to always behave as a professional.  It wasn’t “just a job.”
Dynamic Range in Radio, Audio and Life
What is It?

(First glance under development 8/17/07)

By Bob Burnham

Every so often I’ll dig out and share an article that has been in development but hasn’t been published officially anywhere yet.  This posting is the start of a very long piece.  I have spent a lifetime studying the work of those audio people smarter than me and listening to audio of all types.  This piece is my attempt to digest what I have grasped over the years and put it into an easier-to-digest form.

In this article, I have gone to some pains to make what could be to some a boring and deep topic at least a little more understandable and less boring to most people.

When to beginning broadcasters it SEEMS like we’re a little TOO nit-picky running good “levels” in the studio, this discussion will hopefully add some insight and some verification that there is actually some wisdom behind our pre-occupation.

At one time, not even a teenager yet, I wondered why songs coming out of a home stereo never sounded quite the same (or as “good”) as they sounded on the radio.  As I would soon discover, radio stations limit their dynamic range before feeding it into their transmitter.  It is done for several reasons which will be outlined momentarily, but for whatever reasons, it actually made the music SEEM to sound better.  The transients that might otherwise be distorted anyway, were squashed.  The bass that might otherwise interfere with clarity were controlled, the characteristics of the drum sounds and air talent voices were modified in such a way that made them seem more powerful. What was that mystique?  It was AUDIO compression and sometimes the audible side-effects which maybe we shouldn’t like, but we do.

As humans, we all prefer our day-to-day activities to proceed as smoothly as possible, with as little conflict or obstacles as possible.  When we travel, we prefer our flights leave as scheduled, our connecting flights synch up as scheduled and our hotel room to be ready when we arrive.  When we go to a restaurant, we don’t want to get into an accident on the way, for a table to be available when we arrive, our server to greet us and bring our food on a timely basis and for it to be of reasonable quality.  Hopefully they will accept our payment without incident that seems fair and reasonable for what was received.

We want our lives to progress in a constant flow with no rough edges, sort of like the waveform of a standard FM broadcast.  What happens within that restricted range of modulation that is within the realm of “acceptable.”?  (For the non-techies the waveform looks like a straight pipe with a bunch of “squiggies” inside). That’s probably what we would truly prefer, but it doesn’t always work that way.   

This is because life itself could probably be described as analog.  We’re not bits and bytes, and life may be more like the waveform of a standard AM broadcast.  We each live in our own little module of existence that constantly changes.  We interact, create more of us, or “things” or thoughts or modify the things around us. 

As analog creatures, we also create analog sounds, which for various reasons, we deem to be valuable enough to transport, modify, save or distribute.  The accurate transmission of those sounds so as to maximize the effectiveness of the listening experience is at the core of what this article is about.  It could also be why we can actually be emotionally affected by the way a radio station SOUNDS.  That is if that sound is close to or even resembles what our idea of great sound is.  Maybe the content is part of that reaction as well.    
In terms of sound, dynamic range is the difference between the softest sounds and the loudest sounds.

In broadcasting, it is necessary to limit the dynamic range to make it easier to listen to in a typical listening environment, to stay legal, have a “presence” on the dial and be competitive. If someone is punching across the dial and yours is significantly lower in volume than the competition, you will not be the station where they stop.  In a casual setting, this boils down to audio levels that are consistent.

You would think in a digital world, where dynamic range should be everything and classical and jazz music purists who don’t want the dramatic portions of their music damaged, a simple protective peak limiter should get the job done.  In reality, IT WOULD get the “job” done, but the station would NOT be competitive.

Back in the studio, someone who is just learning the fundamentals of broadcasting is told to make sure levels never exceed a certain point on the metering, but always averages ABOVE a certain level.  When the song ends, the voice should not “blast” the metering into “the red.”  This would be uncomfortable to listen to, aside from the fact it is considered “unprofessional.” Further, if the peaks go beyond the digital threshold, a truly harsh burst of distortion would be the result.

Historically, in the earliest days of broadcasting going back to the 1920s, there was actually an engineer who sat in master control at a radio station whose primarily job was to “ride gain” and make sure the transmitter was not over-modulated.  Using his best guess, his job was to ANTICIPATE what was coming next and be ready to compensate for that modulation peak that potentially, could actually damage the transmitter.

Various devices were developed in later decades that automatically took care of that and eliminated the job of just “riding gain” and can even “look ahead.” Such equipment will actually react much faster than a human.  Most of these devices, however, do work (and sound) much better if they are fed what’s known as a “good level.”  In a sense, digital processing is even more forgiving (as long as one doesn’t get to close to their absolute peak), but the garbage-in garbage-out mentality is still a good one:  If it sounds bad going in, it will sound equally bad coming out.  

In a practical Production environment, the “On-Air” grade of processing is not used nor is it even desired.  For that matter, your basic low cost wide-band processor is usually not use in a Production environment, either.

 In other words, one should get the basics down first.  Don’t rely on technology to fix carelessness or sloppy board work!

As already noted, in the Production studio, consistency of levels is, in fact, the key. In the music industry, not only consistency, but balance (both tonal and mixture of vocal and instruments) AND overall loudness (at the final mastering stage) becomes a factor.

Again, “limited” dynamic range boils down to the quietest sounds are made louder, and the loudest sounds are made quieter. You can’t understand audio compression without grasping this concept first. Also, don’t confuse DATA compression (such as what is used for mp3 music files) with AUDIO compression. 

There are various reasons as to why AUDIO compression could be called a good thing in certain applications.   Listening environment is a factor.  

When driving a car, natural road noise means when listening, you would have to crank up your radio during quiet passages. Except you may have noticed that you DON’T have to when listening to radio because radio stations limit their dynamic range – at least the popular music stations.  A classical, jazz or public radio station will probably be more conservative with their processing. With certain musical applications, limiting dynamic range is considered a very bad thing.  There can easily be too much of a so-called good thing.  Music loses its impact when over-processed.

On the plus side, in the analog world of AM broadcasting, a station will have greater effective coverage with a higher average modulation level.  This is because as the distance from the transmitter increases, so does the noise.  A station with higher (i.e. LOUDER) modulation will be more listenable at greater distances because the listener will not have to turn the volume up on their receiver as high as on a poorly modulated station.  When listening to a weaker AM station, when a listener has to turn the volume up, they also turn the volume up on BACKGROUND noise that is inherent to standard analog AM broadcasting.

The general public is not tolerant of a noisy, scratchy listening experience, and you won’t find many people listening to shortwave radio or distant AM stations these days.  But maintaining higher average modulation is still a consideration for lower power broadcasters operating on the AM band today.

© 2007 Robert R. Burnham

Bob Burnham is a broadcast engineer in the Detroit area.  He is rea