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
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.)
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
New Haven, CT
Are you a former WTMA
employee or listener with a story to share?
We'd love to hear from you!