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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Mark VII might as well have been the Mark of the Beast

Lorraine Hart wrote an original post on the passing of Sir Arthur C. Clarke and made reference to the "Mark V computer system" that he wrote about decades ago. That post dredged up a long-forgotten memory for me from 1977.

I had first moved to Tacoma in October of 1976 when hired by the radio stations owned by The News Tribune. Back then, the paper was still called the Tacoma News Tribune and it owned not only the newspaper, but the two local radio stations (AM and FM) and a local television station (Channel 11).

The radio stations' staff included some phenomenally creative and terrifically talented people on-air, in sales, management, and engineering departments, as well.

Prior to relocating to Tacoma, I had only been here one time in the past. Moving here was a wonderfully, blissfully happy time, a new beginning for me and for my children as we moved here when my husband and I separated prior to divorce.

The radio station staff instantly became our new, extended family. It seemed that Tacoma had opened not only her doors, but her arms opened wide and welcomed us in. We felt loved and accepted and never more at home anywhere than here.

My new, extended family included John Hayden, Stan Orchard, Bill Dudley, who is now with Smooth Jazz 94.7 "The Wave" (Los Angeles), Carl Sawyer whose moniker was "Tacoma's Favorite Uncle" and Carl's wife Sheila Sawyer, Jim Allmendinger, John Allgood, Steve Query, Dave Ogelvey, Jerry Beffa, Louis E. Davis, Willie Ray Curry, Sherry Baumgardner, Elwood T. Gunnerson, Ted Rose, Cal Vandegrift, Darlene DeFrees, Bill Fugate, Jon Crossland, Benita Porter, Bob Zerbel, Bill Coleman (a.k.a Bill Cole), and others.

KTNT-AM "Entertainment 14" and KNBQ-FM "Q-97 FM" installed the first automation system of its kind in our broadcast studios at South 11th and Grant, in Tacoma.

The automation system was branded as the "Mark VII."

Perhaps some of the people I worked with at that time were greater visionaries than I was.

No, I'm not referring to the visionary who paved the way for the installation of the Mark VII.

I'm referring to those on the air staff who recognized the Mark VII for what it really was: the beginning of the end for all of us who loved live radio, who had radio broadcasting careers in our genetic makeup, who lived and breathed radio, and for whom radio was simply in our blood.

The Mark VII might as well have had the Mark of the Beast.

Being the first automation system, it had some serious flaws. One such flaw was that each individual song we played was first recorded onto an individual tape cartridge (similar in appearance and size to an 8-track tape) and each of those cartridges or 'carts' as we referred to them were loaded into the automation system and the machinery then rotated the revolving racks around into position to play the songs, one by one, each in sequence, in its proper turn and order. That was the end of our gently placing a needle in a tone arm onto a record and carefully cueing it up so that it would start instantly when we flipped the power switch to "ON" for the turntable.

The automation system featured revolving units for the music cartridges. (See photo supplied)

The Mark VII featured two huge vertical cabinets that contained the carts with the music, and in between those two cabinets was another unit that held all the carts that had every commercial and public service announcement recorded.

The unit that held all of the commercials had a playback head behind every slot. Those carts never had to move. The Mark VII system was programmed to play everything in sequence, whether it was music or a commercial. But those playback heads behind every commercial cart ensured that nothing could go wrong. (Right! Wink, wink!!)

Occasionally, more than one of the commercials would play at a time, over the top of another one; sometimes all of them would play at once; sometimes none of them would play.

In contrast though the racks that held the music cartridges rotated to move each cart into position where the playback head was. Thus, while a cart that had been loaded into one side of the machine was playing its song on-the-air, the rack on the other side would rotate around to put the next song into position in front of the playback head so that when the other song finished playing, the next song (from the other rack) would begin playing at once creating seamless programming -- just like having a real, live, human being there at the controls...

When it works!

Sadly, for the Mark VII, it didn't work well and it didn't work often.

The on-air staff was left to make occasional live announcements as if they were still doing a 'show' of their own, but the damnation of automation made us look and sound like fools. It made us feel that like incompetent bozos.

A song would play. The next one was to begin, but...the Mark VII would have failed to align the cartridge with the playback head and the most dreaded thing of all would happen (the most dreaded by any and every radio or television host)...DEAD AIR!!!

The long expanses of dead air made us look and sound like we were asleep at the switch.

The frustration and humiliation level boiled over.

Not only was the advent of automation ushering in the eventual end of an era and the end of our careers as radio personalities who once did and loved doing live radio shows, but it was humiliating us on our way out. It was almost as if it -- the automation system had a life indeed of its very own -- and was laughing a derisive evil laugh and sneering, "Don't let the door hit you on your way out!"

Being a prototype, the Mark VII's programming was not sophisticated enough at that point in time to recognize that when it proceeded to the next 'event' in the programming sequence, if it did not go off as intended, the Mark VII did not know to automatically advance to the next event in the sequence.

A cart would jam in the machine on one of the music playback sides and there we'd be: held hostage, on-the-air with nothing going out onto the air! Excruciating, helpless silence.

Dead air!!!

The ego-deflating horror of every on-air person eventually led to a revolt against the onslaught of the highly touted wonders of the new, labor-saving (read that "job killing") technology of automation.

A couple of guys from our on-air staff, who shall remain nameless, couldn't take the frustration and humiliation any longer: enraged, "mad as hell...and not going to take it anymore" they pummeled the machinery, exacting their revenge, and effectively beat it to death.

But it wouldn't die!

It was like a scene from The Sorcerer's Apprentice! It's fractured fragments sprang up into a thousand more automation systems and those into a million more and those into a gazillion more.

But a worse fate befell the Universe of Radio Listeners when the demise of the Mark VII only led to the development of more sophisticated automation systems as time went on and ultimately to what we have today -- the airwaves devoid of almost all live, local radio shows and in their place satellite radio stations playing pre-recorded and syndicated programming that bears little resemblance to the art form of live radio that flowed through our veins and out onto the boundless airwaves in what seems like another lifetime, in a different place, long ago and far away. Nearly forgotten...

RIP...Mark VII!


Stephanie Frieze said...

We are a family of radio enthusiasts including a stack of tapes of old time radio shows. Thank you for the look at local radio history. I understand that there is a radio museum in Seattle.

Lorraine Hart said...

Just need to make the correction...the post was vhuwhu's...I only commented.

Thanks for interesting info!

Lorraine Hart said...

Funny isn't it...automation was supposed to give us more leisure time initially. Now everyone has less time than ever for just have disappeared...and the frustration level when trying to find some human customer service drives us all mad.

I think we need to make "The Tacoma Home Companion," radio show right here. You can host and I'll bring the music...anyone game?

Kim Thompson said...

What I think we need is more local talk radio. The Blog Squad could have a weekly gabfest. I wonder if the Bates station (KBTC) would have some interest? Not a bad thought!

Kim Thompson said...

Oopps... I referred to the Bates Television station by the TNT. Hmm... a South Sound blogger gab fest, televised....That would be pretty cool!

Lorraine Hart said...

I look much younger on the radio!

EmeraldPrincessOnline said...

...and I unquestionably have a face for radio.

Kim Thompson said...

TV, radio whatever. It would all be cool!!!!!