WTMA Control Room Q & A with John Burwell
This page was last updated Monday, February 15, 2021

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Additional Info from Kirk Varner

After seeing the photos of WTMA's Control Room in the early 70s, we asked former WTMA DJ John Burwell how everything was laid out.

Q: Did WTMA have remote starts for the turntables and cart decks?

The WTMA Control Room in 1973

JB: Oh yes. Look to the above left of the headphones. That's the button panel. Top row, from left to right: Front Turntable Start & Stop and Back Turntable Start & Stop. On the second row there are buttons to start the Top Cart, the Middle Cart, and the Bottom Cart.

Q: I can see where how the current music was selected (the 45s-on-a- peg system). What about the oldies? What were the guidelines to selecting them?

JB: Depends on what year you're talking. In 1974 & '75, we requested the oldies we wanted to play and they were pulled from the library in a room inside the PD's office (Yes, we did do show prep.) That's why you see a stack in that picture over by the telephone. (That picture had to have been taken when Booby Nash was on the air. He smoked Winstons.)

On the weekends and overnight, the PD would leave out the oldies he wanted played. There was a rack for them on the wall behind the jock.

Kirk Varner does some grunt work in the WTMA music library

Once a week, Kirk Varner would re-file all the oldies we used in the previous week. That's what you see him doing in that picture of him wearing the boxers on the outside of his pants.

Some oldies were restricted in hours of play (3 p.m. to midnight, 7 p.m. to midnight, 6 a.m.-3:00 p.m. only... that sort of thing. Restrictions would be written on a label. For instance, you would NOT have heard Rare Earth's "I Just Want To Celebrate" at 8 a.m. And you would not have heard "Am I That Easy To Forget" by Engelbert Humperdinck at 8 p.m.

Another interesting bit of programming: No songs with negative lyrics were allowed before 10 a.m. This would have included songs like "Indian Reservation" by Paul Revere and "Alone Again Naturally" by Gilbert O'Sullivan. No negative waves in the morning!

One more - we were not allowed to play two female artists back to back, and we could not play two soul songs back to back. We spent a considerable amount of time "mixing" the right music for the chosen hour.

Q: When did WTMA go to carted music?

JB: In 1976, WTMA engineer Charlie McHan carted all our oldies, because some were getting too cue-burned to use, and back then "oldies" weren't being sold in stores or on the Internet. Charlie bought a cart winder and cart parts, and I wound all the carts - about 300 of them. He recorded them.

After he carted them, we began to store them in a rack behind the jock. Since we had become time and temp, the PD chose the oldies we could play. No options, no requests.

When Bob McLain came, he put everything available for us to play in the racks, and we got to pick what we wanted. (It was back to show prep.)

Steve Russell in 1973 cueing up a hit on the back turntable

Q: Do you remember when you got the two ITC triple deckers in the control room to replace the three standalone cart decks?

JB: I think we went to the ITCs in 1978. I'm pretty sure about that. I know it was before Charlie left.

Q: Do you remember how everything came through the board?

JB: Looking at the Gatesway console's bottom row of knobs, from left to right, I'll number them this way: 1-5, (now we're in the center where the VU was) and then 6-10 (10 is on the far right).

1. Studio Monitor (the pot was usually turned all the way to the right)

2. Top Cart (when we got the six-stack it was for decks 1 and 3)

3. Middle Cart (on the six-stack, decks 2 and 5)

4. Bottom Cart (six-stack = decks 4 and 6)

5. Microphone

6. Turntable 1 (When the pot was turned all the way to the left, it clicked and you could hear the turntable output over the cue speaker which was behind that card you see in the center at the picture at the top of this page.)

7. Turntable 2 (It worked the same way as the pot for Turntable 1; as a matter of fact, all the pots on the right side of the board had cue channels.)

8. Newsroom

9. Tape 1 (reel-to-reel deck)

10. Tape 2 (reel-to-reel deck)

Former WTMA DJ Kirk Varner adds more details about WTMA's control room and on-air operations.

I loved the WTMA Control Room Q & A with John Burwell, and thought you might be interested in some more details as I recall them:

As John Burwell details, there were three cart start buttons below the turntable start and stop buttons. You manually fired each cart and record; that was until Charles McHan rigged up the simple automation system that allowed the use of end-of-message cue tones to fire the next cart in the stack. It would run from top to bottom and back to the top until it found an open deck with no cart to play. That would trigger a separate cart deck over in the racks (which Charlie had salvaged from the WPXI automation) and it held the one shotgun jingle cart that played at the end of each stop set. That would in turn fire whichever turntable that had its "key" thrown (that is the switch above the round knob or volume control "pot" on the console.) The "jock-o-matic" as it was dubbed may sound a bit kludge-like here, but it made the jock's life so much better, and cemented Charlie's status as an engineering genius as far as those who worked in this control room were concerned.

John Burwell comments: I had forgotten all about the automatic features of the Jock-o-Matic, because during the day we never EVER used it like he described. We would let it fire off the commercials, but coming out of the last spot was all me, every time. For the day jocks, the shotgun went in rotation with the rest of the spots in the three stack.

(For you jingle fans, the TMA shotgun jingle was an edited-down fast tempo cut from the TM "Phase II" jingle package. PD J.J. Scott spent hours editing it down from the original track that contained the extra three note sting after the call letters that led into the singers delivering acapella logos like "Golden" or "Hitbound" -- because there was no mix-out on the master reel without the end sting!)

There was one more remote switch on the console that bears mentioning. It is hard to see here, it was underneath the center white index card clipped below the VU meter. It was a red button that engaged the infamous "accent reverb". You pushed it to sound really dramatic, usually at the top of the hour time check rolling out of the top-of-the-hour Stager/Legal ID.

Speaking of cards on the console, you'll see that there are three sets of cards perched on the front of the Gatesway audio console. The index card on the left hand side above pots 2-3-4 was the PSA stack. We normally had about a dozen PSA liners that were read once a half hour circa 1973. In the center of the console -- below the single VU meter in the center of the board -- were one or two cards with the current promotion or contest liners we were pushing hard. They were in a magnetic clip that stuck to the cue speaker opening. Finally, the long card to the right of center, above the turntable pots was a plastic covered card that was our weather format. We used a grease pencil to fill it in from the old-style teletype machine that was hooked up to the National Weather Service wire just outside of this main air studio.

Kirk Varner telling a listener that their request will be on next -- uh, sure

In the studio photo with me on the air, you can see a few more cards on the console. These were additional liners or things that we were supposed to push during each hour. The light-switch looking "keys" over the pots at the right end of the board (numbers 9 & 10) that held up the weather card were used to select a few additional remote inputs to the board, which included the Mutual radio network feed. While 'TMA didn't usually run Mutual's top of hour newscasts, I believe we did a few newscasts on the overnight shift from time to time and we usually ran spots from the Mutual network in the off-hours.

Sitting on the desk in front of the console is a pair of old style ceramic driver headphones that most of us wore when we were on the air. My hearing has never really recovered from these things. They could be cranked up loud enough to make your ears bleed and wouldn't feedback on the air. Plus, they sounded like the station sounded on a typical AM radio. I think Gery London was the first person who started using other headphones, Koss 4AAs if I recall correctly.

About the records on the pegs over the console: The playlist system was pretty simple. From the farthest right peg to left was basically the rotation. Far right were "A" records, basically the Top Ten that we turned over about every 90 minutes or so on the main format clock. Unplayed 45s were face up on the top peg; played ones went face down on the bottom peg. Thus when you pulled the last one from the top peg, you just took the bottom stack off, flipped it over and put them back on the upper peg ready to be started in order again.

Moving to the left, one peg at a time were "B" records, basically the 10-20 records from the top 30 playlist. Then to the left were the "C" records, the final ten or so from 20 to 30 on the list. Next up was the "D" peg which were the hitbounds, which got the slowest rotation of one per hour. (We really did focus on playing the hits.) The last peg on the left was the "recurrents", a larger stack of those songs that had just moved off the chart, but weren't yet in the oldies library. The oldies were kept in separate green cardboard "sleeves" to try to keep them playable as they made their way from the music library off the PD's office, to and from the air studio. You can see those in the stack on the left, over the wall mount-style phone that was mounted just under the desktop on at the jock's left knee.

Records got two white rectangular stickers, positioned at the "3 o'clock" and "9 o'clock" positions on their center labels. One label featured the records current letter status "A, B, C...", which would be changed to the year of the record when it went into the "golden" category. Another label contained the ramp-up time to the vocal post in seconds, with the total record time below that, and then whether the record ended cold or faded out. We also put white labels on the "B" side of the 45s to prevent a jock working quickly from throwing the wrong side of the 45 on the turntable. You can see one of those clearly on the record on the lower peg on the far left side. When "B" sides got a little more interesting, musically speaking, some overnight and weekend jocks (whose names shall go unmentioned here to protect the innocent) would pull off these white labels and try to get a little adventurous with the playlist. At some point, frustrated PD's began actually "scratching" the B sides to make them completely unplayable. As John mentions, you couldn't play two female or black artists back-to-back in the format, and that was the only time you could play a record out of rotation from the pegs to prevent violating those cardinal rules of the format.

Click here to see more about WTMA's Music Rotation and Record Labeling

The turntables at TMA were these gigantic RCA studio models that were unique for a couple of reasons. They had permanent impressions and spindles (the part in the middle that went in the hole at the center of the record) for 45s, but you could also play the bigger 12-inch "LP-style" albums as well. The only albums that were played in this era were the weekly discs that Casey Kasem's "American Top 40" arrived on from Watermark productions each week. (Remember this was long before CDs had been invented or satellite delivery became common for this kind of thing.) John mentions that the discs that became "oldies" were victims of "cue burn" from their use on these turntables. The tone arms, as you can see, were massive and tracked the discs very heavy. In fact there was a note admonishing us to cue up records only once each time we played them.

John Burwell comments: Under Charlie's command we ran state-of-the art Stantons tracking at 3/4 gram in those tone arms. Cue burn was cause by poor vinyl, not our tone arms. Capitol and RCA would last forever. Motown, Buddah, Arista and especially Bell wore out quickly. You could get about 2 days out of a Bell before cue burn. Columbia always had small scratches and pops, straight out of the sleeve.

One thing that always stuck with me is that the studio microphone at 'TMA was a Electro-Voice model RE-15. You can see it in the shock mount at the end of the Luxo arm coming out from between the cart machine stack and the left end of the console. Why this was a little strange is that this wasn't a gigantic studio microphone like an RCA 77-DX (a model seen in the older photos from the TMA control room in the 1960s over the Dock Street theatre), or a big German make like a Neumann, Sennheiser or AKG. This was a microphone used for handheld applications, but here it was as the instrument that we used to put our voices on the air. It just struck me as a little "small" for the big sound it put out. It had a little foam windscreen that you can see in the photo. Given the number of smokers in the jock ranks at TMA, this thing could smell to high heaven and was a germ magnet. It was a great matter of personal preference if you worked with the windscreen on or off, or even got your own windscreen in an effort to preserve your health. I personally give the thing credit for keeping me from ever starting to be a smoker, since I figured that if this small piece of foam could get this wrecked by smoke, my lungs didn't stand a chance.

You can't see in these photos, but there was a big window that was visible above the records on the peg board. It looked out onto to the big 5KW transmitter that put out WTMA's primary daytime signal. (Above you can see an early version of this setup on the front of the Top 30 survey that Bob Riley is featured on.) As Jerry Smith correctly notes elsewhere, the station used a classic Westinghouse transmitter that really did sound way better than the Gates transmitters that would later replace it. I can't begin to tell you why, but the station always had an amazing sound that really did sound so much better than anything else on the AM dial until WCSC was revitalized by C.J. Jones and company years later.

Above that front studio window was a classic style studio wall clock, the 12-inch round black-numbers-on-white circle kind seen in most studios of the day. Next to the clock was a small poster that told us what time the station would need to go to the nighttime directional pattern, and that would change each month of the year. To the jock's right hand, above the turntables was another window that looked onto the three other transmitters, a smaller 1KW unit for WTMA and two FM transmitters for WPXI. (You can see this view a bit in the above photo of Booby Nash.) Above this right side wall window was the biggest single studio speaker I have ever seen. It could blast enough glorious monophonic sound to rattle the whole rear portion of the WTMA building.

I note all of these details because this one room was truly amazing as far as I was concerned as a baby teenage DJ. It was big, by radio studio standards. Kind of like a bigger living room in a smallish-50's era tract house, compared to the bedroom sized studios in many stations. But I remember the room as even bigger than it really was, because it was where all the magic happened. You would walk in, sit down and control this amazing radio juggernaut that was truly "The Mighty TMA".


Are you a former WTMA employee or listener with a story to share?
We'd love to hear from you! E-mail John Quincy.


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