Radio Daze: WAQY and the IHOP
This is somewhat ‘inside’ but funny nonetheless.
FM radio has the ability to broadcast more than one stream of programming at a time. (Now with HD radio it’s several more but I digress.) This technology is called multiplexing and uses a sideband or subcarrier of the FM signal to carry the information. It robs the main signal of a certain percentage of it’s available modulation but can be quite profitable when sold to the right client.
WAQY had sold it’s sideband to the MUZAK service in the area. MUZAK is, according to their website:
Muzak was established in 1934 to provide music to businesses, creating a new industry focused on enhancing the customer experience, and for more than 75 years, Muzak has been the industry leader in providing commercial media solutions.
Basically MUZAK was what we used to disdainfully call “Elevator” music. It was background pablum for the masses to listen to in dentist’s waiting rooms and in department stores. I am surprised to see it still survives. Looking at the website they seem to have branched out a bit into all sorts of music-tough to tell but I have to imagine they have gone to web deliverable products.
MUZAK systems were often installed in big stores, and they doubled as a PA system.
But, back in the late 70’s they used FM subcarriers. It was good solid technology at the time (sort of..more in a moment) and could be picked up on an FM radio tuned to that subcarrier, so it was easy to get to the customer.
Outside of the WACKY 102 control room, next to the WTYM automation was a tall equipment rack with two of the biggest reel to reel tape machines I had ever seen.
Normal reel to reel machines can take up to 10 1/2″ inch reels. These were 15 or 20 inches in diameter. They carried the slushy music and it was our duty to make sure they were loaded and working. Ha!
First of all there was no guideline on this. The rack had two of these hulking monsters and the idea was that it would play a song from one deck, a cue tone (inaudible-NOT-more to come) would play at the end of the song, stop the deck and start the other deck up. It worked, until it didn’t.
We were supposed to change the reels daily, and clean the heads. It got done as time permitted. Rarely. The tape was super thin, the decks were slow to rewind and the whole mess was a nightmare. Plus, no one seemed to care. Tapes were ruined, bootstrapped and then roughly edited. Whole reels would be loaded backwards, best case the muzak was muffled, worse case it would play those songs BACKWARDS. The rack unit had NO facility to monitor the output so it was anybody’s guess what was being broadcast.
I discovered, quite by accident, that one of the MUZAK clients was the local IHOP (International House Of Pancakes). I made my discovery while eating lunch there one day. I heard a song play, then there was this horrendous loud burst of static and then another song would begin. It did it all the time I was there. I mean it was LOUD. Waitresses were dropping trays. Old people were fainting. It was horrible to say the least but no one complained. It must have been like that for who knows how long.
I went back to WAQY and asked our crackerjack engineer, Ken Jones (R.I.P) about it. He investigated and discovered that the tone sense was malfunctioning and instead of muting the tone it was amplifying it so much that it turned into the static I heard while trying to enjoy my Chocolate Chip pancakes at the IHOP.
Ken and I both kept mum about it. He fixed it and I went back to IHOP and all was well. Who knows how long it had been doing that, and how long it would have done it if I hadn’t gone to lunch?