The Sun Years, Part I: Fear And Loathing Of A Comrex

In the two months after my exodus from WTAN, I wandered through the halls of radio in Pinellas County, such as they were.  I worked for a telemarketing company that raised funds for a ball the Pinellas County Sheriff’s office threw, and lasted a total of one night at it.  It wasn’t a place for a 19 year old kid with nervous habits.  After that, I worked for my girlfriend’s cleaning service, cleaning various buildings in northern Pinellas County.  Problem was: I never was a very good cleaner.  I’m a much better pack rat.

It began to look like my radio career was over at the ripe old age of 19.  Then, I got a call from Steve Wiegner, then the operations director for the Sun Radio Network.  I knew a little bit about Sun Radio at the time, but not a lot.  I heard their network shows late at night on 760 WEND when I worked at WTAN.  Also, in the summer of 1990, I had to serve jury duty for the Pinellas County court system, and one of the people who also served was a board operator for Sun/WEND.  What I didn’t know is I’d not only be working at Sun Radio, but at WEND, and a satellite only network they had at the time, North America One.  So needless to say, I thought I had hit the jackpot.

Early in my stay there, I would work a Monday and Tuesday afternoon shift from 12pm to 6pm as a board operator, then do a WEND shift from noon to 6pm Friday, then come back and do the same thing from midnight to 8am on Friday and Saturday nights.  I was also on call to work more shifts subject to other board operators being sick or taking vacations.

As I learned my craft, I had to overcome obstacles, as we all do in life.  The most significant one for me early on was mastery of a telephone hybrid device called a Comrex.  In the days before DSL and super-duper computers, a Comrex worked like this: if the host of a show couldn’t come into Feather Sound in Clearwater, we could make he or she sound like he was in the booth next door.  The board operator would be responsible for calling two or three phone numbers.  One or two of the numbers (called A1 and A2 lines) were used to give the host a high quality air line.  The remaining line, a Q line, was used to feed the host information as he or she needed it, like who is calling in, the time left to a commercial break, and so forth.

Mastering the Comrex was an absolute bitch for me at first, because I was doing the work of what could and would easily be done by two people if I worked in the northeast United States and/or for a union.  From the time an outgoing show ended to the time the next one began, I had nine minutes and ten seconds.  In that time, I had a lot of balls in the air…and things to do, too.  I had to get two commercial breaks on and off the air.  Set up two reel to reel machines, one to record, one as backup in case the Comrex had a failure, causing the host to go off the air without warning.  I also had to get the Comrex lines set up, and call up any guests the host wanted set up for interviews.  Finally, I had to make sure the UPI News got on and off the air OK, and have a carted backup ready to go if THAT failed.

On top of all that, I had to “throw a tone” at exactly two minutes into the UPI newscast.  Tone throwing was all done manually at Sun, and triggered automation at Sun Radio affiliates across the country.  There were three types of tones, all to be performed at various points of the air by the board operator: a 25 MHz tone triggered a two minute commercial break, a 35 MHz tone triggered a 10 second station ID, and a 25/35 MHz tone gave stations the option to take a commercial break of the length of their choosing, if I remember right.

The first show I ever worked at Sun as a producer without training for it was “Wings” by Paul Vehorn.  Paul wasn’t very well liked by the other board operators for some reason, but he always treated me fairly.  Paul’s show was much akin to the format Larry King mastered in his salad days, and that Art Bell and George Noory mastered on Coast To Coast AM.  Put a guest on, ask questions the guest can answer gracefully, put callers on, shuffle them on and off, playing an audio traffic cop of sorts, and get as many on as humanly possible before the hour ended, usually at 57 minutes and 43 seconds into the hour, waiting seven seconds for turn off the…you guessed it…seven second delay, used to delete anyone saying any of the seven dirty words that can’t be aired.

If a caller said one of those words (for example: say I got a crank caller who decided to yell F**K YOU at a host), the procedure was to turn off the caller’s volume and hit a DUMP button.  That deleted the previous seven seconds, causing the show as aired in real time and the show as heard over the air to be doing such simultaneously.  Within a couple of minutes, the pitch of the voices as heard on the radio was slowed down to the point where the seven second delay to be built back up to its normal length.

But as the hours went by, I knew a date with destiny was forthcoming.  It was time to see if I had mastered the use of the Comrex system.

Early on, that answer was no…an emphatic no.  Everything that could go wrong with the show DID.  Not only did I not get the next host online, Max Stewart, I had failed to get the tape online.  At WTAN, I had little experience with reel to reel tape, and the challenge overwhelmed me.  Minutes of dead air go by, and I’m beginning to have an epic meltdown in that studio, cursing at myself rather loudly for no one to hear that could help me.  I eventually either get a tape or Max on the air, thank God, by about the 25 minute into the hour mark.  Had anyone of note heard that clusterfuck, 19 years of age or no 19, I would have been shit canned.

But by the grace of God, no one did.  The next night, a Saturday night in December of 1990, I tried it again, and everything went surprisingly well.  Never had a problem I couldn’t handle after that.  Max Stewart, who hosted the Morning Farm and Consumer Hour up until about 1992 on Sun, was very kind to me, and in all honesty, I should have been kinder to him as his weekend producer.  Max was very good friends with his weekday producer, and I guess I was sort of the odd (young) man out.

The year of 1990 had ended, and 1991 had began.  The growing pains I went through at Sun were over and done with, but Sun’s revolving door of hosts was about to spin like crazy.  More on that next time.

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