10,000 Watts of Gospel Radio
It's another story from my small-town radio days, and probably the most memorable.
Note: Some names have been changed in this post, mostly because I have simply forgotten them.
Anyone who has ever worked in small-town radio knows that the rules are different on Sunday. No matter what format a station embraces, be it pop, easy listening, country or talk, the normal programming procedures are often thrown out the window when the second day of the weekend comes.
When I was in college in Texas, I worked at the only station in my one-horse town. Every announcer at the radio station had to take turns doing the Sunday morning shift. It was mandatory if we wanted to continue to earn our minimum-wage salaries the station paid us.
This was in a day when the Federal Communications Commission had strict requirements for every locally owned radio station, and one of those requirements mandated a certain number of hours each week dedicated to religious programming. At my station, we strove to cram it all into one six-hour period on Sunday morning.
Make no mistake—this was not simple public service programming. It was one of the most lucrative six hours in the station’s weekly schedule, and management took it seriously. The radio station allowed local churches and ministries to broadcast whatever they saw fit on our air during that time, just as long as their checks didn’t bounce. For churches, it was a way to reach the community; for the station, it was manna from heaven.
For our announcing staff, it was the work shift from hell.
From 6 am until noon every Sunday morning we aired on the AM channel a mixture of taped and live programming from local congregations, ranging from the loud and boisterous to the meditative and sleep inducing. Most of the programs sounded like they had been recorded with a ten-dollar microphone from the back of the room. On the FM side of our station we did not bother to sell program time, but rather aired professionally produced religious programs. These came to us from well-funded national ministries that could hire national-quality voices using state-of-the-art production equipment. These FM programs were polished and compelling, but the AM programs were what brought in the bucks.
What made the Sunday shift impossible was that the programs, on both the AM and FM sides of the dial, changed every hour. This required the staff member who happened to draw the short straw that month to be in two separate studios at the same time at the top of each hour. The task was to stop the previous reel-to-reel tape and then roll the new one. Two studios, two sets of tapes, but only one operator. The only way to get around being in two places at once was to “fudge” the start times of the programs by a minute or so.
At 6 am we began the program on the AM side, then dashed over to the FM studio and pushed “play” on the first program there. Fortunately, the professionally produced programs on the FM side were timed to the second, each exactly 60 minutes long. The local programs on the AM side however, were, shall we say, “less produced.” A program that was allotted an hour of airtime might be anywhere between 55 and 65 minutes in actual length. So we were never certain which program might end first, the AM tape or the FM tape.
I had my own technique to deal with this: As each new hour approached, I positioned myself halfway between both studios with the doors to each wide open and all the speakers at full volume. That way I could hear when a program was ending. When I heard theme music playing or a preacher beginning to sign off, I would gravitate toward that studio to start the next program. If both shows ended at the same time, I had to choose which side would endure several seconds of silence or what we called “dead air,” while I ran into one studio, started its tape, and then raced into the other to start the program there. As I was a bit of a perfectionist, allowing even a second or two of dead air felt like a failure to me. And I felt like a failure a lot on that shift.
All the Sunday morning programs were on audiotape except one. A local church aired its service live on our station every Sunday at 10 am, and those at the church who were in charge of that program were sticklers for time. That was actually a good thing, because we knew they would always start and end when the second hand hit twelve. Unfortunately, the church that aired the program that preceded the live church service every week was not as disciplined. Almost always we would have to suddenly and awkwardly bail out of the previous pastor's taped sermon to bring in the live feed of the local church service.
The first week that I did the dreaded Sunday morning shift, I knew nothing of this. I kept waiting for the 9:00 preacher to sign off, but he kept talking past his allotted time. I prided myself on creating smooth transitions, so I couldn’t bring myself to simply cut the preacher off in mid-sentence in order to start the live service at the top of the hour.
I soon learned that was a big mistake. At one minute past the hour, my phone started ringing. I transitioned to the live feed of the local church service “in progress,” then answered the phone. On the other end of the line was the church’s administrator.
“Why the delay in starting our program this morning?” the man demanded tersely.
“I was trying to make a smooth transition from one program to the other," I answered brightly. "I thought that under the circumstances, it went rather well."
“You listen to me, young man. We care nothing about your 'transitions.' What is on the air before us is of no concern. We paid to have our program start at 10:00 and you can be sure that I will take this up with your General Manager on Monday morning.”
I don’t remember the name of the church, but I don’t think it included the word “Grace” as part of it. I chalked the incident up as another failure. But I was never late with the live feed again, and I never heard a word from the boss.
There was only one warning the Program Director gave me about the Sunday morning shift, and he was adamant about it. “At about 7:30, you need to go make sure the front door to the station is locked,” he told me gravely. "I don’t need to tell you why, but just make sure you do it.”
With all the other instructions floating around in my head, I, of course, forgot that one. But I did find out why the Program Director was so stern in his warning.
At half past seven that next Sunday morning I was feeling pretty satisfied about how the shift had gone up to that point when a tall thin man dressed in black and carrying a massive Bible walked up the stairs and into the studio. He gave me a big toothy gold-capped smile and extended his hand. “The Most Right Reverend Isaiah Williams,” he introduced himself in a deep velvety drawl. “I’m senior pastor at The Church of Abundant Deliverance and House of Prayer. So happy to make your acquaintance.”
“It’s nice to meet you too, sir,” I said haltingly. “What can I do for you?”
“You keep your seat, young man. I’m just here to help God spread his word across this city with your fifty thousand watts of wonder-working power.”
I didn’t have the heart to tell him we were only a ten thousand watt station.
The pastor continued. “You just go about your business, son. I won’t be a bother, no bother at all.” As I found out, his interpretation of what those words meant was different from mine.
At 8:00 I rolled the tape for The Church of Abundant Deliverance and House of Prayer’s Sunday morning hour. That’s when the Most Right Reverend Williams promptly came alive.
“Glory to God!” He suddenly shouted in a volume that made me jump. “Praises be to the Almighty!” I said nothing as we both listened to the tape of a sermon he had recorded at an earlier service at his church.
Softly, slowly and deliberately at first, the Reverend’s recorded voice gradually built in volume and intensity. I had to admit that Pastor Williams was a gifted preacher, and the sermon soon had his congregation on fire, punctuating his increasingly rhythmic cadence with shouts of “Yes Lord!” and “Preach on!” All the while, the Pastor Williams in my studio listened intently with eyes closed and head tilted up, his silent lips constantly moving.
Gradually though, the Right Reverend became more animated, throwing his arms into the air with shouts of “Do it, Lord! Do Your work! Let Your word go forth to every home, every man, every woman and child within the sound of my voice!” He began to pound his gigantic Bible, slowly approaching the reel-to-reel tape machine that was playing his program.
I wasn’t ready for what came next. The Pastor reached out and slapped the machine with the palm of his hand, causing the tape to warble. “Be heard, Lord!” he bellowed. “Thy word is truth! Send forth Your truth!” He hit the tape machine again, then once more, as his recorded voice alternately sped up and slowed down, sounding like a hyperventilating chipmunk one second and an inebriated Darth Vader the next.
“Reverend Williams!” I cried, “you’re going to break the machine!” I didn’t know whether to physically intervene or back away. He showed no sign of hearing my protests and instead took little leaps into the air with his hands over his head. To my relief he turned away from the tape machine, but then headed toward a metal panel of dials and lights on the opposite wall. Laying his hands on the panel as if to either draw strength from it or add potency to it, he prayed, “Transmit your power through this country, Lord! Let this transmitter reach a nation hungry for You!”
I had no doubt that God would honor the pastor's conviction, but in truth, our transmitter and tower were in a field twenty miles from there, and our scant signal reached approximately 0.001 percent of the nation.
This phenomenon went on for the remainder of the hour until finally the program ended, and Reverend Williams fell to his knees onto the studio’s thin and aged coffee-stained carpet. Like at the top of every hour, I bounded into action, speedily starting the 9:00 tapes in both studios before sitting back down, momentarily winded from the quick run to the other studio, and generally fatigued from the previous hour-long ordeal.
Slowly Pastor Williams rose to his feet, brushed off his knees and then put a fatherly hand on my shoulder. “God bless you, young man,” he said softly. “I’ve been watching. You do an excellent job here and I do so appreciate your good work. Your performance is a gift to me and to your employer, and you do us both a great honor. Keep it up.” Then he strode down the stairs and out the door.
I was stunned. It was the only time anyone had, or ever would, say such sincere and encouraging words to me about that menial, thankless, and low-paying assignment. Feeling warm and revitalized, I smiled to myself in appreciation of his appreciation.
But the following Sunday at 7:30 am, I locked the front door.
© Nick Walker 2018
Okay, I was 21 years old at the time and probably didn't handle this the way I should have. How would you have handled it? Please scroll down to comment below.