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 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.