November 21, 2009

Wonderduck's Tales From The Radio Biz

In the previous post I mentioned that, free music notwithstanding, radio was never going to make me rich, but it was the greatest job I've ever had.  There are two distinct reasons for that. 

The first reason is, hey, it's radio!  Everybody listens to the radio, everybody knows what it is, everybody has an idea of what goes into it, and most people think it's a "cool" job.  "You really get paid to do that?" was a common theme when it came up in conversation.  Never mind that shows like WKRP in Cincinnati or Midnight Caller show only the fun part of the job (though Midnight Caller did it better than any show I've seen, they still got some stuff wrong), and not the show-prep, people think (or thought, at least) that Radio was a glamourous job.

The second reason, though, is the stories that everybody who works in the biz for any amount of time accumulates.  And that's what this post (and perhaps others down the road) will talk discuss.  What type of stories?  Well, pour yourself a cuppajoe, tune in WDUK radio, and listen to The Wonderduck.  And remember, all of these are true...

It was 1988, and I was working my usual Saturday night shift at the time, board operator for a recorded-on-vinyl national program, Cruisin' America with Cousin Brucie.  While it was a canned show, I still read a brief news and weather update at the top of the hour.  The newsroom was right next to the studio, with a small window set into the wall between the two for no good reason that I could ever discern; during the day, the news guy actually came into the studio to read the news, and at night the news staff went home.

Now, to understand what's about to occur, you need to know that I was the only person in the station at the time.  The sister station to mine went off-air at nightfall, so they had gone home, and I was three hours into my shift.  Since my show was canned, I had the door to both the studio and the newsroom open, in case some breaking news came down the teletype from either UPI or the National Weather Service.  Yes, teletype: computers weren't common yet, and the internet didn't exist at all.  All our news and weather came through the UPI teletype.  Important news was announced by a ringing bell and the chatter of the 'type.

So, I'm sitting in the booth reading something as Cousin Brucie turned and turned.  My news and weather update was five minutes in the past, and I could relax until the next commercial break.  Then, from the newsroom, came the peal of the bell and the rattling of the teletype.  Unconcerned, I walked over, ripped off the report and took a look.

******FLASH NEWS******
The city of Duckford, Illinois, population 125000, was destroyed tonight by a mile-wide tornado.  More to follow...

A moment later, the bell rang again:
******FLASH NEWS******
The city of Duckford, Illinois, population 125000, was destroyed tonight by a mile-wide tornado.  The tornado moved from northwest to southeast, cutting directly through the second largest city in the state.  Thousands are feared dead.  The National Weather Service in Chicago, Illinois, reported the funnel cloud was moving at 40 miles an hour, and may have been a F5 in power, the strongest possible.  More to follow...

Hm.  Really?  After checking on the state of the show, I strolled out of the station.  Clear sky above.  Walking to the parking lot, I could see the usual glow of the city lights (the station was about a mile east of the limit of Duckford, and there weren't any buildings within a couple of miles).  Returning to the booth, I ran the commercial break, then called Momzerduck at the Old Home Pond.  No problems at all,  just a light breeze.

Chuckling, I pinned the printout to the bulletin board in the newsroom and returned to the studio... at which point the phone "rang" (actually, it lighted up.  As you can figure, a ringing phone in a radio booth doesn't work well).  It was the news room of WBBM-AM in Chicago, asking if the FLASH NEWS report was real.  I confirmed that, indeed, it was real and that I was actually dead, we laughed, and wondered just what the folks manning the master teletype at UPI were smoking that night.  And that's where it ended.

Except WGN Radio, 50KW blowtorch that covers most of the US and Canada at night, ran the story.  My grandmother in New Mexico heard it and called Momzerduck in a panic.  Whoops.

So that's the night I was on the board when Duckford was destroyed.  Funny, I don't feel dead...

UPDATE:  Forgot to mention that we late found out what really occurred.  The National Weather Service office in Kansas City was running a test of their systems by sending test messages out via their network.  The test messages, which I covered above, were supposed to have a special header that would send them out, but prevent the teletypes across the country from printing them.  Somehow, the messages were sent out without that header, resulting in the destruction of Duckford.  In later conversations with friends of mine at other, larger,  Duckford radio stations, they were getting phone calls all night from media outlets across the country, asking if it was the straight dope.  I still wonder how many people were fired because of this snafu...

Posted by: Wonderduck at 03:34 PM | Comments (3) | Add Comment
Post contains 928 words, total size 7 kb.

1 ...layers of fact checkers and editors...

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at November 21, 2009 09:29 PM (+rSRq)

2 The local NPR affiliate here actually read over the air the "Bill Gates has bought the Vatican" story some years ago. They got remarkably far along before a neuron fired.

Posted by: The Brickmuppet at November 21, 2009 10:30 PM (V5zw/)

3 That reminds me of a weird intel message that we got when I was in the Air Force:  Apparently, the troops at higher HQ liked to run practical jokes on their new analysts to see how gullible they were.  One day they told a brand new 2nd Lt that female Israeli fighter pilots had just landed on an Egyptian airfield, opened their canopies so they toss flower petals as a gesture of peace, then flew off back towards Israel. 

Normally, if the new analyst fell for the gag, he/she would rush off to the shift supervisor to be laughed at.  However, this newbie thought the news was urgent enough to send out over the airwaves to all Air Force bases immediately, without checking with the supervisor first.  Needless to say, the message was followed by a disclaimer less than an hour after it went out.

All of the enlisted intel troops at my base got a chuckle out of the initial message - until our officer in charge believed it, and we had to talk her out of briefing it to the base commander...

Posted by: Siergen at November 22, 2009 01:00 PM (TJQ10)

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