The Kirk Varner WTMA Story
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On June 6, 2004 we received this excellent piece from former WTMA announcer Kirk Varner (weekends 1973-1975)

Reading the words of John Burwell and Jerry Smith here took me back to my own years of growing up in Charleston and eventually ending up behind the microphone and spinning the hits at WTMA. What may be different about my memories are that they are from the perspective of a teenager who had been bitten by the radio "bug" and got to scratch his itch inside one of the South's greatest Top 40 stations in the midst of its prime.

Growing up a child in 60s, WTMA was a fixture in the Lowcountry. In my earliest memories of being introduced to the music of the 60s, I remember going with my mother to the Fox Music store in the Pinehaven Shopping Center to get a 45 of the Beatles' "Hello Goodbye." Of course, I had first heard the song on the car radio, tuned to 1250 kilohertz, being spun by one of "the TMA Good Guys."


Young WTMA "Good Guy" Kirk Varner

As the years moved into the 70s, I moved from child to teenager and like any teenager, the radio became the soundtrack of my life. It is hard for my own teenage daughter to understand now that music then had nothing to do with MP3s or CDs. Heavens, it wasn't even in stereo most of the time. No, music until my teenage life came from either an AM radio pumping out WTMA or from a 7-inch plastic disc spinning at 45 revolutions per minute on the a Silvertone portable record player that proudly featured the latest technology of the day: a ceramic needle and a "full fidelity transistorized amplifier."

My path at North Charleston High School had been typically uneventful until one day when my guidance counselor, Mr. Rivers pretty much shamed me into entering the local VFW post's "Voice of Democracy" contest. After writing what I thought was a pretty lame essay, I was told that as a finalist, I had to go to the local radio station to record my essay for the public to hear. The local radio station in this case, was WNCG. Which was actually the only station licensed to North Charleston. It was then a 500-watt daytimer on 910am that featured a middle of the road format. I remember thinking on the way to the studio that I was on the way to the equivalent of the morgue, because WNCG was programmed for "old people." (In an interesting twist, WNCG later became WTMZ, and a sister AM station to WTMA now.)
 

Download a Kirk Varner 1973 WTMA Aircheck
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Download a Kirk Varner 1974 WTMA Aircheck
(MP3 Format - 8:28 - 2980 KB)

Another Kirk Varner 1974 WTMA Aircheck
(MP3 Format - 17:33 - 6171 KB)

Anyone who loves or has loved working in a radio station knows what happened next. The intoxicating aroma of burnt coffee and stale cigarette smoke, permanently embedded into acoustic tiles that lined the walls and ceiling of a small, windowed room, crowded with radio studio equipment, simply seduced me. I was hooked for life in about five minutes.

I made myself a pest at the small studio and offices at WNCG and its nearly unknown sister FM station, WKTM. FM then was still only found on the large stereo consoles like the one my grandparents had, was still a rarely visited spot on the dial. Oddly, my grandparents liked WKTM because it had featured a "Beautiful Music" format, which translated loosely to "music for even older people" to me. But I could forgive my grandparents their musical preferences, because their house was a few blocks away from the WNCG/WKTM facility, located within walking distance, appropriately enough--on Ohear Avenue. WKTM soon moved from music for dentist's offices to become Charleston's first FM country station.

Since it became obvious to anyone that I was spending pretty much every waking moment trying to figure out a way to get into a radio station -- any radio station -- my high school guidance counselor again intervened and pointed me to the local Junior Achievement program that was going to have a "company" sponsored by WNCG radio. I spent the rest of the 1971-72 school year in a high speed blur of being in JA and living for our time in the WNCG studio preparing the weekly radio show produced and sold by our JA "company."

The reason you need to know all of these perhaps-not-so-fascinating details, is that it was Junior Achievement, and local program director Al Veeck who led me to that fateful afternoon in 1972, when I would be sitting in the office of WTMA General Manager, John Trenton applying for a job. Somehow Veeck had found out that 'TMA needed someone to work part-time on weekends. I didn't know what the work was, but I was fully prepared to convince Mr. Trenton that he should let me pay him for the privilege.

It is important to understand that John Trenton was not just the GM of WTMA. He had been the morning drive talent that led off the amazing group of men who were "The TMA Good Guys." Trenton eyed me pretty unconvinced at first, and I figured that I was as good as headed out the door when he asked in that great voice of his "Do you have a third class FCC license?" To which I replied that I did. And he seemed slightly mollified. I swallowed hard and as he began to tell me that they could use a little help on weekends spinning religious programming and three hours of "American Top 40." But he didn't get much further, because I had to interrupt him and own up to the fact that while I did indeed have a Third Class Radiotelephone operator's license, freshly issued by the Federal Communications Commission field office in Savannah, Georgia, I did not have the all important "Part 9 Broadcast Endorsement" that would allow me to operate the transmitters of WTMA. I had failed that part of the FCC exam by one stupid question!

I am not that religious a man, which now seems a little odd, given that the marshside home of WTMA on the Ashley River must have truly been near some "Holy Water" in the "Holy City" (as Charleston is known) given the number of 'TMA on-air types who have ended up in the ministry! But at this particular moment in my life, I do believe there was a divine intervention, because John Trenton sighed and said that if I could convince the Chief Engineer to sign my application for a Restricted Provisional FCC Permit (that would allow me to temporarily operate the transmitter without the required 3rd Phone with Broadcast Endorsement) I could work at WTMA.

That led me to walk down the long and bending hall from the front office at Number One Radio Park to the back building that held the Chief Engineer's office. As I neared the office door, I could see part of four transmitters that were facing the large windows that wrapped around two sides of the control room where a studio speaker was blasting away, just louder than the blowers coming off the humming transmitters.

Before I could peek into the air studio, I had come across the door to the Chief Engineer's office. I knocked, and was invited to enter with a half-shouted "yeah." Bill Dudley proceeded to eye me even more skeptically than John Trenton had, if that was even possible. I knew I was fidgeting a lot in my chair, when Mr. Dudley asked if I had someplace else I had to be. I stammered out an unconvincing no, and he went on to make me twist for minutes that seemed like years while deciding whether or not I would be allowed to keep watch over the transmitters that were roaring away just a few feet from us.

After a few more minutes of agony for me, and probably a little fun for him, Dudley threw open a file cabinet drawer, fished out the form that was required and scrawled his signature there upon. Handing it to me, he warned that I better not screw up and that I better get my "real" license in short order. I got a quick tour of what my responsibilities would be, including being allowed into that wonderful studio, where I got an introduction to the gear I would be operating-the same gear that was at the very moment being operated by the one and only "Uncle Booby" Nash.

Mr. Nash was not thrilled to have guests in the studio, even if they were the chief engineer and some wet-behind-the-ears kid who was introduced as new part-time help. If memory serves, he gave me a quick welcome and then asked if I would make sure to empty all the garbage cans in the studio as the last janitor had been a bit sloppy on that score. Before I could correct his impression of what I was going to be doing, Bill Dudley had led me out the door. I was told to show up that Sunday morning at 6am to begin work.

And thus my broadcasting career began.

I would spend most of the next two and a half years trying to finish my high school education while simultaneously trying to start my radio education. After a few months of speaking a total of about five words on the air each hour of Sunday morning from 6am to Noon (those words being "WTMA…Charleston. It's ___ o'clock."), a few times when somebody didn't pay their bill or deliver their tape, I was allowed to spin records for a half hour at 5 or 6am, and begin to develop a little bit of confidence as a newbie jock. I must not have completely sucked, because eventually program director J. J. Scott gave me more hours of work-later on the same day, when I would be allowed to come back and spin the Sunday night replay of "American Top 40 with Casey Kasem" from 7 to 10pm, followed by some news and public affairs taped programming and then signing off the station for "technical maintenance" at midnight or a little later in some cases.


Kirk "Records Isn't My Middle Name" Varner in the WTMA Music Vault

In fact, when the sign-off cart (which was already ancient when I arrived) fell apart one night when I put it in a cart deck, I proceeded to do the sign-off announcement live. This became a highlight of my long workday and led to the one time that I nearly got fired from the station.

As John Burwell mentioned, there was a great reverb box at TMA. (You can actually see a little bit of it just behind John's head in the 1976 picture on his page here.) It was in the air chain to a small degree all the time. But there was a special red button in the middle of the Gatesway air console that allowed the on-air jock to do the special top of the hour effect where rolling off the legal ID which would deliver the "WTMA (pause) Charleston" sig, to be followed by the jock delivering the time check such as "Ten O'clock!" with red button pushed. This engaged the "accent reverb" and turned even a 16 year old kid into a huge voice. Of course if it was great for two seconds…it would be great for a longer period, right? So yes, one night I delivered the entire sign-off with the red button pushed in. Over the bed of "Also Sprach Zarathustra" no less. I was called on the carpet by Program Director J.J. Scott for that one.

I learned from everyone I came into contact with at "the nifty 1250" as it had been known decades before. Of course, I am sure I was something of an annoyance to those pros who really made TMA cook each day, but for the most part, they all imparted practical knowledge and some wisdom to me along the way. By the time I hit my senior year in high school (late 1973-early 1974), I was pulling regular air shifts from 7pm to Midnight on Saturday and Sunday nights (though Casey Kasem still got three hours of the Sunday night shift, straight from his weekly 12-inch vinyl LPs!)

As both John Burwell and Jerry Scott have noted here, WTMA in the early 70s wasn't a technological showplace. The equipment was a little older, but it all worked well and the sound that cooked out of the station was impressive. TMA fired up a 5 kilowatt non-directional daytime signal, from the 400-foot stick at the end of the catwalk that ran from the backdoor out into the Ashley River marsh. At night, the station would pump most of its 1KW directional pattern towards the Atlantic Ocean. Then, for a short time each morning, the station would do a "Pre-Sunrise Authority" switch to 500 watts until local sunrise would allow us to run back up to the big 5KW signal. Throwing the switches that would make the changes between the two transmitters always gave me a little pause. The loud "thunks" that the relays made and the electrical sense that they threw off were a little too reminiscent of Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory in one of those early black and white films.

Up the long hall from the air studio and the transmitters ringing the windows, towards the newer front portion of the building, was the back door that we entered and exited during the "not-regular-business hours". Right next to that was the most technologically advanced room of the plant. The automation that ran our sister FM station, WPXI.


Kirk in the WTMA Control Room in 1975

WPXI had been WTMA-FM, a full-time simulcast of the AM money-maker. The legal ID I mentioned before was originally done as "WTMA, WTMA-FM…Charleston!" The stations studios were over the historic Dock Street Theatre in downtown Charleston until circa 1970. When FM started to show some potential, TMA-FM went Beautiful Music as WPXI, "Stereo 95-Pixie." Though John Burwell remembers it differently, my recollection was that it was actually the Schulke Radio Productions "Beautiful Music" format that aired from the Sono-Mag or SMC automation system. It spun on five different 15-inch Scully reel-to-reel tape decks, three "Carousels" that played the commercials, and a "Time Clock Announcer" that used two giant "C" series NAB audio carts to contain the Odd and Even announcements for each minute of the day. Driving all of this was an actual computer "brain" that executed the start of each event, and was programmed by manually entering commands into a LED/keypad display or by using punched paper tape from an old fashioned Teletype or TWX machine. (Does anybody remember those?) There is a picture of the PXI automation over on the Pictures pages on this site. If you look behind the attractive young lady reclining in front of it, you'll see five full racks of the gear.

By the time I started at WTMA, former midday man Ted Bell was the Operations Manager and staff of one for WPXI. WTMA jocks were responsible for keeping the big tape decks loaded with the 15-inch reels of Schulke's music for dentist offices and the like on nights and weekends. Four reels would alternate over a few hours and when they all ran out, a fifth backup reel would begin playing. When this happened a green light would go on in the racks back in WTMA's studio, next to a red light for the hotline phone and another lamp for the EBS receiver. This green light meant that it was time to reload the tapes for WPXI before too long passed. That was never an easy feat because WTMA was an all manual operation, meaning that every cart, every record got started or "fired" as we would say by a jock's fingers in real time. This was true until resident engineering genius Charles McHan later rigged up the "Jock-O-Matic" which would chain together the three cart machines and play each in succession followed by TMA's legendary jingle (the Phase II Shotgun from TM Productions) and then start the record-all with only one button push!

But back in the completely manual world of WTMA until 1975, and given the songs of the day, you would have between two and a half to four minutes in a given song to sprint down the hall and unload the reels, slap up new ones, thread the machines and cue them up to the beginning of the music. To change all four machines took a couple of records if you were good, and if anything went awry you would hear the song on WTMA fading out as you were sprinting back to the studio to start the next event there. I admit that a time or two, there were brief seconds of dead air when I didn't run fast enough.

By 1975, as John Burwell excellently details in his memories, WPXI became "Super 95 Soul" and the same automation cranked out a non-stop jam of what we delicately called in the South "Blue-eyed Soul", meaning music by black artists that equally appealed to white listeners. Proving that everything old can be new again, this would have been along the lines of this decade's short lived "Jammin Oldies" craze.

In 1974, WTMA's then morning man and program director Lee Richards took me under his wing and asked me to "produce" the inside of a double-album of "greatest hits" that the station was having made up as a giveaway promotion. I took a Polaroid camera and burned up pack after pack of film making up a yearbook-like photo montage that became the inside of the "WTMA'S GREATEST" double album. Many of the photos from that project are seen on page 4 of the pictures pages here on this site.

My graduation from North Charleston High came in June of 1974. After attending the ceremony on a Saturday afternoon, I gave my parents a hug and pulled off my cap and gown, got into my car and headed over "West of the Ashley" as folks would say and turned down Orange Grove Road to make a quick stop at McDonald's and then to drive to the end of Orange Grove, to the cul-de-sac that was the real "Number One Radio Park". (There was no number two or any other number, in case you were wondering.) I went to work the night of my graduation and pulled my regular six hour air shift on Saturday night. When I finished up at midnight, I went out to my car and opened a bottle of Cold Duck and drank some in a paper cup while listening to the station and watching the red light strobes flashing on the mismatched two towers that I thought of as "Mutt" and "Jeff".

Later that Summer of '74, I talked my way into my first full-time job with the newly starting cable TV company in North Charleston, as its first production employee. But I kept up my weekend gig at WTMA until 1975, when I pretty much realized that WAPE or WLS wasn't going to be calling with an offer to make it to the big time, and that my future wasn't behind the microphone, but maybe rather behind the cameras in television.

Of course the fact that I am writing about what happened some 30 years ago is more than just a little unnerving. Along the way, I ended up working for nearly every radio station on a freelance basis after TMA while trying to get my college education going. That never really worked out, but because I had hit the books and learned enough to get my FCC First Class Radiotelephone License, I began working may way up and through every commercial television station in the Lowcountry (all three of them!) in 1976.

After moving away to New York in 1980 and moving back to Charleston in 1982, I left Charleston for good in 1983 for a job as a newscast producer in Hartford, Connecticut. Like most broadcast careers, radio or television, I moved around in the Northeast a good bit, but eventually came back to Connecticut as VP & News Director for WTNH in Hartford/New Haven in 2002.

My folks and my sister still live in the land novelist Pat Conroy has made famous in his books, and where the azaleas still bloom every Spring. Of course, the radio dial now sounds nothing like it did when AM ruled, and WTMA was king of Charleston radio, with a sound that really did rival anything else in the South, if not the country.

But whenever I go back to Charleston now for a visit, and if I drive past the turn for Orange Grove Road or see the towers along the Ashley River, I can't help but think about some of the greatest times of my young life, first listening to and then actually working at one of the greatest Top 40 radio stations ever, the Mighty T-M-A.

Thanks for letting me share my little piece of the legendary 65 years of history at 1250 on your AM dial in the South Carolina Lowcountry.

Kirk Varner
New Haven, CT
June 2004
kv@kirkv.com

______________________

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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