To others in the car it’s just plain annoying - but to an old radio guy there is a nostalgic romance in listening through the static to hear the show on a far away AM radio station. It requires focus.
You have to turn your head just a little and lean your ear toward the speaker. Where others hear noise, we hear a radio program. We continue to listen because it takes us back to the good old days, bringing a warm and fuzzy feeling.
I was on I-35 southbound for Ottumwa on a Monday morning. I tuned the AM dial to 1040, where Van and Bonnie were doing their morning show. A show that is iconic to central Iowa. Soon, Bob Quinn came on with the farm and market reports. Van. Bonnie. Bob. These legendary radio names put me on a fast track down memory lane.
I thought about the days when I was a young boy. No matter where we were, Dad would tune into “News Radio 78 - WBBM Chicago.” I asked him, “How can you hear the man through all that static.” “Hush!” Dad would say, “I’m trying to hear this.” Without a doubt, he is the one who taught me this art. Ah, those were the good ole days!
I started thinking about Dad’s radio stations in Port Washington, Wisconsin. WGLB AM and FM. I was there the day they were installing their new ITC Cart machines. It was the latest technology for recorded commercials.
It was a cartridge that looked like an 8-Track tape, except it only had one channel. The “cart” as it was called, only had 70 seconds of tape, for a 60 second commercial - 40 seconds for a 30 second commercial, and so on.
The machine left an electronic mark on the tape, which would cause the tape to stop at the very beginning of the recorded message. It was “self cueing.”
Once I started working at the radio station, Dad would often remind us younger broadcasters how easy we had it. “When I was your age, we had three-inch reel to reel tapes for playing commercials and we only had two reel to reel players. When you played a commercial set, you had thirty seconds to rewind one tape, load a new reel and cue up the next commercial. We didn’t tolerate dead air. You just had to do it.” You could feel a warmth in his eyes as he reminisced. “Those were the good old days.” He said as he walked away.
Dad retired November 8th, 1989. For his final morning show I arranged for a variety of special guests to join him on the air via telephone. One of those guests was Ben Hardman. Ben was Dad’s broadcast instructor from a school called Institute of the Airways, which went on to become Brown Institute and today is Brown College in St. Paul, Minnesota. Dad graduated in 1947 as their 55th student.
The two of them, an instructor and his student, talked of the old days. Ben said, “You kids had it so easy with your reel to reel machines. When I was your age, Dan, our commercials were recorded on an actual strand of steel wire. They were such a booger to use. But ah, those were the good old days.”
Another guest on that morning show was Vic Landau. Vic had worked with Dad for many years at many different stations. In 1989 he was still working for WHO in Des Moines. That caused me to resume listening to the morning show with Van and Bonnie.
I again drifted off, thinking about my friend Tracy Songer. We went to high school together. After high school, I went to work for my dad at his radio stations, KLEE and KOTM. Years later, Tracy went to work for KISS-FM, the competition. Still, we always remained friends.
Tracy has a son, Emery, who is the same age as my daughter Delaney. The two were in the same elementary class and always seemed to be the last two standing in a spelling bee, math quiz, or a history bowl.
Delaney would call me after school. “Guess what, Dad?” “What’s that, Sweetie?” I asked. “I beat Emery Songer in the spelling bee today.” She proudly announced. “That’s awesome, Delaney! What was the final word...”
On days when she didn’t call me, I would ask her, “How did your math game go today?” She would sigh, “He won...” “Well, you’ll get him next time.” I would reassure her. Thinking of those days made me smile. Tracy and I were friendly competitors in radio, why shouldn’t our kids be the same in the classroom?
Emery went on to pursue a career in radio. I remember listening to him on sportscasts and play-by-play, thinking, “No way can such a young guy sound so good - as good as the seasoned pros!” Emery was doing well.
I was really proud for my friend Tracy the day he announced on Facebook that his son, Emery, landed the position of Producer for the Van and Bonnie show. That’s not an easy position to get - he clearly had to earn it! I was equally proud of my friend’s son for his hard work!
I thought about how much radio has evolved and changed over the years. In my days of radio I saw the compact disc replace the vinyl records. I saw the computer replace the cart machine, and many other changes. I wish Emery could have known the good old days.
I pondered more and began to question: what were the good old days?
For Ben, they were strands of wire. My Dad saw the good old days on reel to reel tapes. I knew them as days of the cart machine. Emery... What will the good old days be for Emery?
I have no idea what the next generation of recording devices will be, but I am sure of this; Someday, Emery will tell a young broadcaster, “When I was your age, we had to play our commercials from a computer screen! Those were the good old days!” Yes. That’s what he’ll tell them.
The next time you look at a young person and wish they could have experienced the good old days, smile, and remember: these ARE their good old days. These are Emery’s good old days. It will take many, many years before he can realize it.
Along with my wandering thoughts, I was still listening to WHO Radio, hoping maybe Van or Bonnie would say to their producer, “Hey, Emery, what do you think?” And I would get to hear my friend’s kid on the radio.
An announcer finished his sportscast and gave a plug, “This morning’s sports have been brought to you by the Ely Minnesota Chamber of Commerce...”
Ely, Minnesota? Hey! That’s just 60 miles up the road from my house!
It is a small world, getting smaller - and today will soon be one of the good old days!
a broadcaster, pilot, writer, and our Guest Columnist!