Those Oldies But
Goodies Remind Me Of You... Collecting Airchecks
Few baby boomers survived the rite of passage from childhood to adolescence without joining the rock and roll generation. From coast to coast, teenagers cultivated allegiance to one or more local Top 40 stations and the unseen voices who popped in between their favorite records.
Even if 45 r.p.m. singles could be had for half a buck in those days, kid's budgets didn't tend to be too deep so those with access to a tape recorder built up their music libraries by taping their favorite songs off the air. Knowingly or not, they entered the wonderful world of airchecks.
Airchecks are recordings of radio stations. They can be made by the casual listener, off air, or by deejays, in the studio, for the purpose of producing job-hunting audition tapes. They are highly collectible for their music and historic content as well as for radio aficionados who like to recall how their childhood's sounded.
One might think airchecks developed concurrently with magnetic recording tape after World War II, but the term "air check" was part of the broadcasting lexicon well before 1930. Sound engineers often made A-B comparisons between the studio output, or "line check," and the actual sound heard by listeners, the "air check."
Radio's exact birthdate has been hotly debated for decades but for our purposes, commercial broadcasting began in Pittsburgh with KDKA's broadcast of election results on November 2, 1920.
The recording of sound predates broadcasting by better than 40 years. Whether he intended it or not, Thomas Alva Edison launched an industry when he recited "Mary Had A Little Lamb" onto a tinfoil cylinder on December 6, 1877. For ten years he focused his life's work on other inventions. Then, with no precise notion of the future he was creating, the inventor experimented with wax, and later amberol (translucent fossil resin) cylinders.
No one remembers the Spanish American War for the recording of "Taps" made at the grave of Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders on San Juan Hill (June 24, 1898), but it happened. In fact, before the 20th century arrived, any number of events had been preserved on wax. Emile Berliner, inventor of the disc record, spoke the Lord's Prayer in 1888. Many stars of the era performed operatic numbers into Edison's device. The U.S. Marine Band was preserved in wax by 1895, and John Phillip Sousa's immortal "Stars and Stripes Forever" was also preserved for all time.
While all of these recordings exist in private collections today, none are airchecks because they were not recorded expressly for over-the-air broadcast.
In the late 1920s, companies sprang up across America for the purpose of recording music and programs which could be sold, or syndicated, to a number of local stations in distant cities. For example, a San Francisco firm called MacGregor & Sollie, Inc., produced the "Cecil and Sally Eps" radio program. It was mailed on large electrical transcription discs (ETs) to many radio stations which could plug Cecil and Sally into their local schedule at a convenient time. WKAV in Laconia, New Hampshire was one such subscriber; in 1931 WKAV was under contract to pay MacGregor & Sollie $17.50 for each episode over a 26 week run.
Westinghouse spent much of the 1930s distributing its World Broadcasting System transcriptions to stations. WBS discs were pressed on red acetate or vinyl and were usually musical programs in specific categories like jazz, classical and Negro spirituals.
While such transcription discs are interesting to listen to, they are not technically airchecks because they were recorded first and broadcast second.
Airchecks are mostly associated with deejay shows. Even the origin of the disc jockey is the subject of contentious debate. Some sources claim Chicago listeners were enjoying a daily, three hour record show on WCRW as early as 1926; the host of "The Josephine Show", was supposedly the wife of station owner Clinton R. White.
By 1932, Al Jarvis was hosting a daily record show, "The World's Largest Make-Believe Ballroom," on KFWB in Los Angeles. Clearly Jarvis played recorded music and introduced it as such. But most authorities agree Martin Block gave the disc jockey a solid identity beginning February 3, 1935.
A staff announcer at New York's WNEW, which was airing live coverage of the trial of accused Lindbergh-baby kidnaper, Bruno Richard Hauptmann, Block was told to fill time when the jury retired. He reportedly ran to a nearby music store and bought a handful of Clyde McCoy phonograph records. Back in the studio, he spun the discs and spoke between them in a unique way as if McCoy was performing live in a dance hall. Borrowing a good idea from Jarvis, Block called the program "Make Believe Ballroom".
During radio's golden years, the bulk of programming originated from NBC and CBS, and later the Mutual and ABC networks. Based in New York, they had access to top name entertainers which local stations could rarely attract. Many aircheck collectors specialize in network programs --everything from "The Lone Ranger" to "Suspense" to "Amos and Andy" and "Fibber McGee and Molly." Many of these network programs were recorded in advance of airing, while some were recorded to disc as they aired live for network archive purposes. Consequently, a great many "old time radio programs" from the network heyday exist, though not all can be considered airchecks. True airchecks contain local station identifications or commercials before and after the network show and are generally accepted to be a recording of material as it was broadcast.
Most of this recording was done on aluminum (and later glass) discs coated with acetate. The trouble was that repeated playings of ETs--just like your old 33 1/3 r.p.m. albums--resulted in scratchiness and loss of fidelity each time the stylus dug deeper into the audio grooves.
Clearly some other method of recording was necessary; it was Jack Mullin who proved the value of recording tape.
Mullin was stationed in Europe with the U.S. Army Signal Corps during World War II. As the German army retreated, he was among the troops to uncover the technology German radio stations had developed. During the war German scientists perfected a method of applying direct electrical current to achieve remarkably good high frequency bias in their recordings. They used plastic tape coated with iron oxide and named their machine the Magnetophon. The reels of tape ran past the recording head at 30 inches per second (ips) - a tremendous velocity. Each reel ran for only 22 minutes, but the combination of high frequency bias, uniform oxide coating and wide surface area over which the sound was recorded produced marvelous quality recordings.
Mullin was ordered to pack and ship the confiscated recording machines and spools of tape back to the United States. After the war he was pressed into service recording voice and music for films. At the same time, Alexander M. Poniatoff was trying to improve the fidelity of the sound recording process. Adding the letters "EX" (for excellence) to his own initials, Ampex was born. This company made its name manufacturing high quality recording devices and magnetic tape.
Bing Crosby was a major radio star. By 1947, he was tired of the grind of his weekly "Philco Radio Time" on ABC. Mullin and Poniatoff convinced Crosby he could enjoy more time on the golf course, while meeting the network's demands, by taping his programs. Mullin predicted "a whole new approach to radio programming was commencing." Bing Crosby Enterprises purchased the first dozen Ampex tape recorders and the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company quickly went into the business of producing Scotch brand recording tape.
The following year, Capitol and Decca Records embraced tape rather than the traditional method of live recording onto lacquer discs. In 1950, RCA Records entered the game with the introduction of the single spin 45 r.p.m. record. Eight years later, Columbia Records pioneered stereophonic albums, offering two channels of audio on mono-compatible records. As rock and roll music caught on, eventually taking over most airwaves through the early 1960s, the audio industry found a new lease on life. Tape offered both the broadcast and music industries the ability to pre-record, edit and assemble material. Consumers still had records to play at home, but they were all mastered on recording tape.
Tape recording offered one utility not available in lacquer disc recording--the ability to edit. As early as the 1930s, guitarist Les Paul experimented with "sound on sound" techniques, later developing multitrack recording which allocated individual tracks of a tape for different musical parts. He was also the inventor of 8-track tapes which offered recorded music for automobiles as an alternative to listening to the radio.
In the 1950s, television eroded radio audiences by siphoning off all the big stars (like Milton Berle, Red Skelton, Jack Benny and Amos and Andy). Increasingly, local stations began airing music exclusively--many of them rock and roll.
Prior to tape, the standard practice in getting a radio job was to travel to a prospective station and perform a live (off air) audition. As an engineer cut a transcription disc, the nervous candidate would read some news copy, deliver a commercial and do some ad libbing.
As tape recorders became routine equipment at radio stations, however, deejays could go into a studio in comfortable surroundings, record their best stuff then edit out any fluffs before sending the polished product to a program director. The audition tape was born!
It was quickly evident that a well-edited demo tape could make a deejay sound a lot better than he really was, so many program directors required job hopefuls to submit an actual show as it aired. It was not uncommon for stations to aircheck their competitor's best DJs and send the tapes to friends in distant markets in hopes of getting him out of town!
Some advertising agencies began requiring radio stations to provide airchecks in order to verify the commercials they bought were actually aired. Companies like Chicago's Air Check Services sprang up to make tape, disc or kinescope records of radio and television programs in a particular market. This particular company was very active in the early 1960s and recorded a large number of thirty minute or hour-long airchecks of rock and roll stations. Much of the collection eventually ended up at Tom Konard's Aircheck Factory in Wild Rose, Wisconsin and are a wonderful way to hear how giants of the broadcast industry sounded. Incidentally, Konard's archive is one of the biggest and best documented on the collector's circuit.
As a service to the broadcast industry, companies like Pepper, based in Memphis, compiled a series of edited airchecks called "Airplay International." Each hour-long tape might include edited examples of eight or ten radio stations and subscribers could hear what other stations were doing for promotions, as well as which up and coming hit records they were playing.
In the late 70s and early 80s, certain record companies--notably MCA--issued vinyl pressings of airchecks for distribution to the broadcast industry.
In 1971 and 1972, Mike Suttle produced a pair of highly-sought albums, "Bootleg Top 40, Volumes I and II." The first was issued by SSS International Records, a division of Shelby Singleton Corporation. Twenty five of these tightly-scoped aircheck collections were given away on-air at WKBW in Buffalo in a week-long tribute to America's deejays. Volume II was issued by Cabin Hill Productions. Each "Bootleg Top 40" album featured about 50 deejays from across America and Canada in two to three minute segments on continuous-band LPs. It's unclear exactly how many copies were pressed and some radio veterans feel they were issued for promotional distribution at various radio trade shows.
Aircheck collectors learn early to distinguish between telescoped and non-telescoped airchecks. Radio programmers already knew what the music sounded like--they were primarily interested in hearing the deejays, jingles and contests. So editing out most of a Top 40 tune, or telescoping it, could reduce an hour into seven or eight minutes of deejay chatter, jingles and promos. Commercials are often scoped as well, to reduce the tape to just the essence of a given station's on-air personality. Those collectors who are interested in music within the context of the station presentation are, therefore, partial to non-telescoped (unedited) airchecks.
Researchers frequently unearth airchecks recorded off the air by music fans. They are distinctive because the music is intact while the deejays and station-related material are unceremoniously hacked out. These are very pleasing for music fans and mightily frustrating for radio aficionados.
The true collector likes to be able to document the date of a particular broadcast. This is accomplished in many ways, most of which include good old fashioned detective work. Most serious collectors keep a copy of Joel Whitburn's "Top Pop" books, or other music references, handy when listening to old airchecks. When a tape of Dan Ingram proclaims, "Here's the number one song on WABC's Silver Dollar Survey this week," it is easy to consult the reference guide and determine The Ronettes' "Be My Baby" topped the national charts in August, 1963. Collectors with access to WABC's weekly New York city music surveys can pinpoint that song at WABC's top spot during the week ending September 28, 1963.
Elsewhere in the aircheck, Ingram might deliver a weather forecast which helps pinpoint the day of the week. If he says "it'll be clear tonight and sunny on Wednesday," the listener can be pretty positive the tape was recorded on Tuesday, September 24, 1963.
Collectors must be wary, however, of records like the Youngbloods' "Get Together" (RCA 9264 and 9752). It was released the first time in September, 1967, but didn't become a hit until its second release in June, 1969.
Music surveys, incidentally, are also highly collectible. Some collectors specialize in surveys from particular stations, while others like to collect a variety of surveys from different stations within a given year. Some collectors prefer to collect surveys from all the stations within a given chain (for example, WMPS Memphis, WCOP Boston, WJJD Chicago, WCAO Baltimore and WPLO Atlanta were all owned by Plough, Inc. in 1961); those charts are likely to be similar especially if the company had one central music director.
The surveys were usually printed weekly and distributed free at record shops; today mint condition surveys command prices of several dollars.
As radio's music inventory has increased and station formats have specialized, it has become difficult to determine precise dates. A 1990s oldies station, for instance, probably plays the Ronettes record several times a week. It becomes necessary to assess other program elements to determine the precise date of the aircheck.
For example, Bob Laine of CHUM in Toronto, says on one aircheck that "Buzz Aldrin is, at this moment, crawling from the command module to the LEM where he will be--by himself--for about an hour then joined by Neil Armstrong." It is easy to figure out that the Apollo 11 crew is about to set foot on the moon, so the aircheck must be from Sunday, July 20, 1969. Laine plays the next golden oldie on "this million dollar weekend," confirming the date.
Newscasts on untelescoped airchecks are extremely helpful in identifying the major stories of a particular era. When reporter Mike Millard describes that afternoon's assassination of American Nazi party leader George Lincoln Rockwell in Arlington, Virginia, it is clear that the accompanying aircheck of Don Berns on WDRC FM in Hartford was recorded Friday, August 25, 1967.
Most public libraries maintain collections of old newspapers on microfilm. Clever calculations of music and sports scores, commercials (are they advertising a special Mother's Day sale?), and newscast content make it possible for collectors to do some digging for exact airdates. The Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature can be extremely helpful in pinning down dates.
Individual deejays own career paths provide ample clues on dates. Joey Reynolds, for instance, has graced the airwaves at more than two dozen stations for almost four decades. His overnight talk show can be heard today on a network of almost one hundred stations, courtesy of WOR in New York.
Call letters can also be used to pinpoint the date of an aircheck. In New York, for example, the frequency 98.7 MHz was occupied by WOR FM until October 23, 1972; WXLO FM until the "Kiss" format began July 31, 1981, and today is known as WRKS. Boston's 103.3 MHz was WEEI FM for four decades. For most of that time it simply simulcast WEEI AM, but it pioneered soft rock from the late sixties until March 1983, then became hot-hits WHTT. In June 1986 it assumed the call letters, WMRQ with a slant on album rock. In October 1987 it became oldies WODS.
Another sub-set of aircheck collectors are jingle freaks. These folks are most interested in the musical identifications sung for radio stations. Jingles have been part of pop radio since Bill Meeks and his Dallas musicians began recording station ID songs for KLIF in 1947. Meeks' company, PAMS, was the leader for many years, issuing new ID packages several times a year. Each new series reflected musical tastes of the day and added to a radio station's distinctive sound. An aircheck featuring PAMS Series #27 (Jet Set) must have been recorded after early 1964 when the package debuted on WABC in New York.
Other major players in the jingle field were Commercial Recording Corporation (CRC) in the 1950s and early 60s; the Anita Kerr Singers (remember "W-L-S, very Chi-cago" in 1960?); and the Richard Ullman companies. While some jingles were recorded in New York like packages by Roy Ross Enterprises, Inc., and Johnson-Siday, the center of the jingle industry has always been Dallas. For the past 26 years, many of today's jingles have been produced at JAM Creative Productions in Dallas.
Listeners vacationing in distant cities are often surprised to hear jingles just like their favorite Top 40 stations back home. That's because most jingle series are syndicated. Stations have their call letters and customized lyrics sung to prerecorded instrumental beds and the same package can be on the air in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Tulsa, Memphis, Detroit, New York and Boston at the same time. That was the case with the infamous Drake jingles sung by the Johnny Mann Singers (KHJ, KFRC, KAKC, WHBQ, CKLW, WOR FM and WRKO and dozens of others).
Bill Drake was born Philip Yarbrough. He launched his radio career in his native Georgia and by 1961 was developing a high-energy Top 40 format in San Francisco. Reflecting on radio of that era, he told Newsweek Magazine (March 9, 1970, page 85) that "music itself came last - after the commercials, contests, jingles, air horns and gongs." By limiting useless chatter and focusing on records, Drake perfected the "More Music" approach. RKO General Corporation gave him free reign at KHJ in Los Angeles in 1965, where "Boss Radio" crystallized. Drake's concepts were put to work at other RKO stations which featured a third less commercials than most rock stations, and "20/20 News" at twenty and forty minutes past the hour to insure Drake stations were playing music when their competitors broke for five minutes of news at the traditional top of the hour.
By 1968, two dozen FM stations around the country were airing Drake's prerecorded formats, "Hit Parade" and "Solid Gold," which were distinctive by the virtual absence of deejays.
Unique because of their short length, acapella style and recognizable sound, Drake jingles swept America and can still be heard on many of today's oldies stations. While many Drake format deejays were highly entertaining celebrities, they were generally restricted in the amount of talking they did. It is often very difficult to specifically date Drake airchecks because they were made during "Parade of Hits" or "Million Dollar" weekends. That meant all the music played was oldies and with limited talk markers, there is little to differentiate one timeframe from another.
Determining the value of a given aircheck, like most collectibles, is highly subjective. Emotional appeal is a very important factor when collectors trade or buy. An aircheck of Dan Donavon at WMEX in Boston may be somewhat interesting to someone who grew up in Beantown in the mid sixties. But it may be the missing link for a serious aircheck collector who knows there were actually seven different deejays who used the name at that station. Very few collectors--perhaps none--have airchecks of all seven.
Growing up in Cleveland in the 1960s meant listening to WHK, KYW, WKYC, WIXY or WGAR. If life's path took a fan to the west coast, he or she might be willing to pay more to re-live their early years in Cleveland than they would to hear a current aircheck from an L.A. station they can tune in every day.
Ultimately, audio quality plays a key role in determining how valuable an aircheck is. In an ideal world, the best aircheck is one recorded at a radio station on professional equipment. This includes airchecks recorded on so-called "skimmer tapes." These are cassette machines hard-wired to a microphone and the tape records everything going over the air only when the deejay has the mic open. Less valuable are tapes recorded off the air by amateurs, especially airchecks of distant stations filled with background noise or static. Many collectors use consumer-grade cassette machines to make dubs for other collectors, unaware that each subsequent copy is sure to cause a generation of audio loss.
While most aircheck collecting is done informally through a loose network of friends connected by the U.S. Postal Service, there are several companies which sell airchecks. One of the oldest is George Junak's California Aircheck which issues several new tapes each month. They are usually tightly scoped collections of several different deejays or markets in a given time period. California Aircheck also offers a series of Classic Airchecks, featuring older (and hard to find) tapes from the 1960s.
Tim Benko's Windy City Airchecks specializes in providing high-quality current airchecks of stations in the Chicago market. (Ed's note: Tim passed away just before Christmas, 1998)
Robb Wexler has built National Aircheck as a service provider to the broadcast industry. He will travel to specific markets and tape particular stations under contract to a company which may be about to purchase a station and wants to know what the competition is doing.
Art Vuolo created the first Video Air-Chex and visits stations to produce video versions of airchecks. Many collectors find it especially interesting to see what goes on behind the microphone, out of view of radio listeners.
My own company, Man from Mars Productions, functions like a library where customers can review a database of more than 3700 radio shows and pick the ones they are interested in hearing. Our database is available on the Internet at: http://www.manfrommars.com.
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