I was the king of the control room! “We’ve been listening to 101 Strings playing a beautiful rendition of ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ from South Pacific. Stay tuned for today’s weather coming up after these announcements.” What an ego trip! Sitting in front of the suspended microphone, I was flipping switches and turning “pots” to move from the mic to the turntables (yeah, vinyl even), to the cart machine with it’s stack of PSAs (public service announcements) lined up for each scheduled break of the afternoon. I just knew there were thousands of avid fans glued to their radios at home and in their cars. They had to be riveted by my voice and style. Casey Kasem had nothing on me!
It was 1972 and I was volunteering at a little Christian FM radio station which was broadcast throughout south Texas and northern Mexico. The management was so desperate for weekend workers that they allowed this fifteen-year old geek to sit at the controls and spin easy listening records, along with reading the news from the old teletype. That’s right…A teletype, exactly like the one in “Good Morning, Vietnam”, only without the red lines drawn through the stories. It was a dream come true for this nerdy, musician type. I sat there, a faceless voice, and didn’t worry at all about anyone teasing me about being skinny, or wearing unfashionable glasses, or even noticing an acne problem. It was me and the equipment, being transmitted sans visuals into the homes and vehicles of listeners all around the area. This, I could get used to!
My work had its boring side too, since I had also obtained a provisional license to run the transmitter which was in the big warehouse-like area just outside the control room. Actually, my duties were limited to taking readings of the meters every hour and making minor adjustments to the ancient dials if any levels were amiss. I usually did this for a few hours on Saturday afternoon, just after my stint at the control board. Sometime during those hours, the broadcast would switch to the Spanish language until later in the evening.
Did I say it was boring? Well, that was generally true, but one evening I was reminded that, like the Boy Scouts, I needed to “Be Prepared.” No, there wasn’t a disaster with the equipment; I was ready for that eventuality. It seems that it’s always the things for which we don’t plan that cause us the most problems. As the Spanish language announcer talked to his audience in the next room, I passed the time in an activity I always enjoyed. I had brought a book of piano transcriptions with me and I sat down at the wonderful Yamaha piano in the big studio which was used for broadcasting large groups and live music programs. As the Spanish words droned on through the tiny monitor on the wall, I turned to a familiar page and began to play. My skill level was not stupendous, but as my late Father-In-Law used to put it, I enjoyed playing “for my own amazement” from time to time. I went through one song and began on the next.
Happily engrossed in the music, I didn’t notice that the droning voice had stopped, nor did I see the red “on-air” light shining on the wall for several minutes. When I finally became aware of the changes, I glanced through the big soundproof plate glass into the control room, to see the announcer smiling at me and pointing to the microphone beside the piano. I was on air! A near-perfect rendition of “It Is Well With My Soul” became unrecognizable for a few seconds as the stage-fright hit me. Then realizing that he wasn’t going to relent and turn off the mic, I settled in and ably finished the last few pages of the transcription I had been practicing, but was now performing. When I finished, I took my hands off the keys and raised one up to my throat, bringing it across in the universal signal to “cut” the broadcast. The announcer shook his head in refusal, so I was forced to begin another arrangement. It went pretty well, with just a minor glitch as I turned a reticent page. As the notes died out from the second song, I once again signaled the man to turn off the microphone. This time, I refused to put my hands on the keys again and he was forced to return to his monologue to avoid any more dead air. The red light was extinguished as I heard the voice in the monitor saying something about the “station engineer, performing on the piano in Studio C” and then I moved away from the piano. My first and last live piano performance on the radio was over that quickly.
As I look back, I remembering being angry…and proud. I would never have agreed to be in that position if he had asked, but I was pleased that I was able to finish well. It wasn’t a radio-worthy performance, but it certainly wasn’t a disaster. It’s funny – the conflicting thoughts that go through your head after such an incident. “I hope no one heard me.” “I hope all my friends were listening.” “That was the stupidest thing! Why in the world would he do that to me?” “That was kind of neat! I did okay!” When I got home, my Mom told me she had heard the incident. I could tell she was proud of me. As usual, the praise went to my head, but she counterbalanced that quickly as she said, “It would have been nicer if you had quit chewing your gum so loudly while the microphone was on.” Then I remembered…the mic had been set up for a vocalist at the piano and was not aimed right at the instrument. It picked up the notes just fine, but it did a better job of amplifying the smacking of my Dentyne gum, which kept rhythm the whole time.
I’ve heard the saying all my life: “The devil is in the details”, meaning that it’s the details that trip us up. We get the main thing right, but the little things we forget about cause the problems. What might have been a memorable performance in its triumph, was simply turned into another life lesson about keeping my mind on the whole job, not just the flashy, impressive parts. Actually, I’ve learned that the original saying was “God is in the detail” and it has been turned around only in later years. I like the original better. It reminds us in a positive way that all of what we do is important to Him. Every minute detail has the potential to bear fruit, has promise of producing a positive result.
In spite of the gum smacking, I still fancy that I did okay for a fifteen-year old. I like to think that I would do better now. That said, I’m not sitting at a piano anywhere near a microphone, especially not in a radio studio. I really don’t want to find out if I’m right or wrong.
“It’s the little details that are vital. Little things make big things happen.”
(John Wooden~American basketball player and coach~1910-2010)