13 February 2009

In memory of a long-departed rocker

Found this on YouTube. A daytime-only AM station pulls no punches in telling how it feels about having to sign off at sunset......

The station was WTAK-AM 1000 in Huntsville, Alabama. And this sign-off aired each night between roughly 1981 and 1993, when 'TAK finally got itself an FM station. Political correctness be damned!!

'TAK, some of you might know, started life as Big 10, WVOV "The Voice of the Valley." (1968-1979) It was where, for this six-year-old in 1971, the radio bug officially bit, when my grandmother took me by the station and I got to peek into the control room window from the lobby, watching the jock do his thing.

WVOV had such a big sound, and with it Huntsville, Alabama was treated to one of the best-engineered AM stations ever. It signed on in the Fall of 1968, part of a latter-day rush of stations to the AM dial.

Many of us 'radio geeks' practice some form of broadcast idolatry, focusing on one or more stations which, to our ears, represented music radio's perfect mix. For me, it's always been Birmingham's legendary WSGN - The Big 610 (1955-1984) ... but WVOV, in its own way to me, trumps 'SGN. Honestly, if I were to find any 1970-71 era recordings of WVOV, I'd probably melt on the spot. Verily I would.

WVOV as a top-40 beacon didn't make it to see 1980 ... it flipped to a country format beginning in 1979, and a year or so later reemerged as adult contemporary WTAK -- "Take 10." By '83 it was an oldies station, staying true to the old 'VOV sound. Then by 1985 it was to a weird mix of top-40 and urban contemporary. Finally, by the end of 1987 and what appeared to be a freefall, the powers that be threw caution to the wind, and - in the spirit of "what do we have to lose" - rolled the dice and flipped an AM daytimer (!) to ...... album rock! (or, in industry lingo, AOR = Album-Oriented Rock).

Paydirt! WTAK -- I remind you, an AM DAYTIMER -- suddenly found itself flirting with the top of Huntsville's Arbitron. Far and away #1 in 18-34 males. "The Valley's Home of Rock & Roll"

And you wanna know what was the coolest thing about it all? Whomever was engineer at WTAK (and I'm not sure if he was a WVOV holdover) maintained that great, clean, ballsy audio chain. Classic rock sounded great through that signal. The opening notes of Deep Purple's "Space Truckin'" positively shined on that station. Not to mention anything by Hendrix (especially "The Wind Cries Mary").

I visited 'TAK once while up in Huntsville in 1990, when they were at the top of their game as an AM rocker (Radio & Records around this time did a feature article on them), and running such sweepers as "T-A-K .... The best damn music through ONE SPEAKER!" and my favorite: "T-A-K ... We're stuck on AM because we can't get our owners to buy us a REAL station!"

The board was the same ... it was an RCA, the same one installed in 1968. And while looking through some of the cartridge tapes, I came across the 1969 hit "No Time" by The Guess Who. (Go figure - they were still playing a lot of the old carts alongside their CD players)

Well, that cart looked like it'd been there awhile; the label had that 'halo' effect typewritten things get from age. I picked it up and I saw handwritten on the top: "WVOV"

Holy shit. I remember hearing that song on WVOV when I was 4 years old. And there I was, holding the very cart I was listening to years upon years earlier. I learned that day it was possible for goosebumps on top of goosebumps to sprout goosebumps of their own.

In the Summer of 1993, WTAK finally bought a "real" FM signal, and migrated the AOR format over there, where they sacrificed its 10,000-watt powerhouse signal in favor of 24/7 operation. And the thrill was gone. Today, WTAK is a "classic rock" signal, now owned by Clear Channel. (I needn't say anything further).

AM 1000 today? It's a black gospel station. And they haven't maintained their plant as faithfully and meticulously as past engineers did. Last Fall, when I was up there, I heard a terribly overmodulated thin sound coming over my radio on AM 1000. Sad.

I'd wager that my '70s-born friends in the audience never actively listened to AM. My generation, after all, came of age as the dominance of AM was killed by the rise of FM.

And I'll some of you never heard AM the way it really sounds, from a well-maintained and well-designed transmitter through a radio with a well-made not-skimped-on AM tuner section. Yes, FM does have a higher-end threshold than AM ... but not THAT much higher, it just seems that way with the POS afterthought jokes which pass for AM radios made since the '80s.

But to anyone who appreciates the art of bass, it's advantage: AM. The lower ranges have a much fuller-throated "oomph" on that band.

That's it. And now I'm signing off. Ciao for niao.

--Talmadge "Mechanically Reproduced" Gleck

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