An Anniversary

In the spring of 1968, I was working at WLAC in Nashville. WLAC is a clear channel AM station that covers 28 states and a large swath of the Caribbean islands at night. During the day, the station was programmed for an upper middle-class local audience in Nashville and referred to itself as “News Radio 1510.” At night, it was the number one R&B station in the country and called itself “Blues Radio 1510.” To make the transition from one format to the other, there was a block of programs that ran from 6 to 8 pm. It started with a local newscast and a series of news, sports, and commentary programs from CBS that ran from 6:00 to 6:35. They were followed by taped programs beginning with a financial infomercial followed by a right-wing political broadcast, a religious program, and a southern gospel music program. Then, the R&B DJs (John R, Hoss Allen, and Gene Nobles) hit the air from 8 pm to 4 am.

My news shift ran from 4 to 10:30 pm. From 6 until almost 8, I was usually the only person at the station’s studios other that the guard at the front door. I did the local newscast from the operator’s position in Master Control and ran the console to bring in the CBS programs, play the recorded local commercials, do station breaks, and play the taped programming.

For many years, CBS radio used a cuing system that consisted of brief chirps transmitted during pauses in programs. Those chirps operated display equipment at the network affiliates used to signal what was happening next. In the ’60s, the display was rather crude—an illuminated stepper wheel numbered 0 through 9. One kind of chirp caused the wheel to increment one position upward. Another kind of chirp reset the wheel to 0. At WLAC, the Netalert box was set up in a rack behind the master control operator. We couldn’t see it, but we could just barely hear the device increment. It wasn’t quite loud enough for our mic to pick it up. 5 seconds before a program started, the box would step to a 1 (program cue), and at the end of a program the box would step to 2 (end cue) and then reset to 0. Occasionally, the box would step to 3 for a news bulletin.

So here’s what happened on the evening of 4 April, 1968.

6:28:49 CBS: … Phil Rizzuto, CBS Sports [second netalert chirp, reset chirp]

6:28:50 RECORDED COMMERCIAL: Star Chrysler/Plymouth

6:29:50 LIVE: This is News Radio 1510, WLAC, the broadcasting service of the Life and Casualty Insurance …

6:29:55 CBS: [netalert chrip]

6:29:55 LIVE: …  Company, in Nashville, Tennessee. Stay tuned for the Minority Report from CBS at 6:30.

6:30:00 CBS: Dead air

6:30:15 CBS: [second and third chirps]

6:30:25 CBS: This is Douglas Edwards, CBS News New York. Civil Rights Leader Martin Luther King, Jr., has been shot in Memphis, Tennessee.

That night, a 20-year-old white kid working as the newscaster on an R&B station with 2,000,000 listeners learned the importance of getting the story right.

6 thoughts on “An Anniversary

  1. A sad anniversary and one that sticks in my mind … this was on the first day of my membership in the Civil Air Patrol. We were immediately called up for messenger duty in Detroit due to fears of riots.

  2. Imagine, all those people listening to you. And not even “your people”. Working for someone who is not even a relative, and yet you resisted the urge to run your mouth about your politics during the station breaks and get yourself fired. That is impressive self control.

  3. Only 15 seconds of dead air? You’ll never make it in transient web-channel-only broadcasting what with your wanted content and professional delivery.

    • 15 seconds? Long enough for an “Oh, Sh….” moment. Do I have the pot turned up?!? I think so, looks like it. Then boom.


  4. I wasn’t listening to you that night, but I was others. I was attending U of IL in Champaign and working various night jobs like donut maker. I would frequently listen to the St Louis Cardinals or St Louis Blues on KMOX (50,000 red-hot clear channel watts) and then around 11 or midnight switch over to WLAC for the R&B. I also occasionally listened to the Gospel music, having grown up in that tradition. Funny the connections that pop up.
    I remember hearing the news about King but can’t recall where I heard it. I do remember exactly where I was when Bobby Kennedy was shot. I was night manager at Bromley Hall, a private residence hall, and was watching the California returns and saw it happen as the cameras followed him.

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