Tuning into a West Coast robot sound 

20 June 2024 tbs.pm/81706


Cover of Radio Month

From Radio Month for February 1982

KSFX is an FM rock station in downtown San Francisco – the self-proclaimed “Best Rock Station in the Bay.”

Its much larger partner KGO is an AM news station, also in San Francisco, and both are owned by the ABC network, although ABC is shortly to offer KSFX for sale since it currently makes no profit: its three per cent average audience is not bad for a music station, but it is only an abnormally high evening audience which keeps the figures up, and daytime revenue is poor.

Like other American music stations, KSFX actually plays few records on air. Instead, music is played from cartridges, which don’t jump or get scratched. Nor do people steal them, and if the cart does break there’s still a barely-played disc locked away in the record store from which to take another copy. There are disadvantages – quality, versatility and storage – but because of the working environment these are easily outweighed by the convenience.

At KSFX two copies of each playlist track are carted in the station’s production studio, where a typewriter-style keyboard enables a track identification to be added (as a 4kHz PSK tone) to the cart cue track. Commercials carts get the same treatment, so that code readers on the studio cart machines (linked into the station computer) can produce lists of music played for copyright purposes and commercials checklists for the traffic department.

In addition, between midnight and 6.00 am the station is automated. Six machines with three stacks of 12 carts each play in music, ads and voice links on instructions from a computer that can be programmed seven days in advance. There are no time-checks and the voice links are generic only, with no reference to particular tracks. Commercials are played into the format from the traffic computer, and the music is derived from a combination of playlist and “extras.”

The format is reset each hour by the computer, and there are a number of failsafe measures. The computer steps into the next track automatically if it finds any cart not loaded or after three seconds’ silence. The computer will not return to a failed cart during the night, and if it detects any fault at all it will sound an alarm at sister station KGO, where engineers can decide what action to take.

The decision to automate night time transmission was taken on purely financial grounds. To employ three people overnight would now cost around $90,000 a year [$295,000 in today’s money, allowing for inflation – Ed]. The machine put in five years ago cost $100,000 [$325,000].

During the day, the station makes full use of its large on-air studio, production suite and small news studio. The large consoles are Canadian (McCurdy) with Technics record decks, Scully tape decks and ITC single-stack cartridge machines.

Unusually, KSFX’s DJs do not self-op. In the original station design a glass panel separated DJ and operator, but this was removed to improve communication without changes being made to the equipment. The operator’s speakers are still live when the studio mic comes on, and neither DJ nor operator bothers with headphones, with the result that occasional howlround occurs if the operator is overenthusiastic with the faders.

The KSFX operators are also the engineers. All seven of them hold FCC Class 1 licences (comprehensive technical knowledge, including TV, with some design capability) and earn well in excess of $20,000 [$65,000] a year. They are supervised by a chief engineer who, because of union rules, isn’t allowed to touch any of the equipment.

A small news team collates and reads items from the AP and UPI teleprinter services, and takes audio feeds from the ABC network via KGO, but no reporting is undertaken.

The station rents lines to its transmitter at Mount Sutro, the highest point in the San Francisco area. With an 8kW transmitter at 1,500 ft, coverage is enormous, and the signal reaches as far as Sacramento, 80 miles away.

KLOK is an AM station operating from a purpose-built studio complex in San Jose, with transmitting masts in the front garden. Power output is 50kW during the day (5kW at night) and the station can be heard easily in San Francisco, 35 miles away. The transmitted bandwidth is 10kHz, and apart from the fact that transmissions are in mono there is little audible difference between KLOK and most FM stations in terms of quality.

KLOK’s management also owns two music stations just south of Los Angeles.

The station’s music base – all oldies until recently, although the odd chart record now gets played as well – is available in the main studio on a few hundred carts, and is updated about once a month.

The station’s large foyer looks into the long side of the main showcase studio. The decor is most pleasing, and to add to the effect the entire studio lighting turns from white to red whenever the mics are live. Other pretty lights are operated by sensors on the cartridge cue tracks, and flash on to show when only ten seconds of music (or two of commercials) remain.

The desk is a custom-built Ward-Beck (again Canadian), with a separate fader for each slot on the triplestack cartridge machine used for commercials alongside the six single-stack players for music (all ITC).

The station’s philosophy is to spend as much as necessary on good reliable equipment and therefore cut down on maintenance. The group employs only one engineer, who spent two years rebuilding the station when he arrived and now spends one or two days each week looking after the Los Angeles stations. He’s also planning to start a small design business in his spare time, runs a nearby station (KEZR) when his counterpart there is on holiday, and seemed to have no difficulty finding half a day spare to show me round.

A small production studio looks after carting, and acts as an on-air standby, and a 16-track suite takes in a large percentage of the commercials business in the San Jose area. A small self-op news studio completes the set up, and two reporters man the news-gathering area, reading hourly from the news studio and also finding time to go out and report on local stories.

The commercial log is produced on a 10 Mbit computer using a standard software package.


A Heath Robinson-style drawing

Illustration: Pauline Koganovitch


Down the coast, Los Angeles has two all-news AM stations. One of them is KNX, a part of the CBS network which shares a large building in Hollywood with rock station KNX FM and Channel 2 television KNXT.

KNX picks up about ten per cent of the Los Angeles audience with a 50,000 watt transmitter atop Mount Wilson in the north of its area, and the chief engineer found it quite incredible that Piccadilly could reach three times his audience with 600 watts from a ground level site.

The station runs from a main operator-driven control room looking down into the news reading studio. Whenever the studio mics are live, a continuous cart of teleprinter and newsroom effects starts up automatically to create a “busy” atmosphere on air.

Similarly, KNX boasts the best traffic information service in LA, and operates a small studio where all useful services (police, CB, other radio stations and their helicopters, public service vehicles and so on) are monitored continuously. When the traffic studio mic goes live, all these sources are brought up to full level to create the effect of a busy communications centre.

The 42 KNX reporters use portable Sony cassette recorders for interviews, and edit back at the studios. A full-time operator dubs the cassettes to tape for editing and re-dubs the edited tapes to cart for studio playback. With the cassette recorders costing only around $300 [$975] each, KNX finds this system (with one machine per reporter) a lot more economical than providing a batch of Uhers – and the Sony’s are lighter as well.

A large amount of material is available to KNX from other CBS stations round the country, routed nationwide on a system of four-wire music lines. Where live actuality is required, the reporters use five watt hand-held radio mics, covered by three receiving sites around the city. An automatic voting system picks out the best signal for routing to the console, and receiver switching is almost silent, so can be allowed to occur during transmission.

KNX’s output is typical of US news stations, which differ from British stations chiefly in the quality of reportage. There is little or no depth to any news story on American radio. Most music stations have few, if any, newsmen and although they recognise the need to carry lots of news in the morning, they normally just rip-and-read the UPI teleprinter service. Most stations carry exactly the same stories in the same order.

The national network news service stations put out more stories, but, possibly because America is a big country and there are always enough newsworthy events, even these are not covered in any detail.

Two floors above KNX in the CBS building is a small room containing three racks of cartridge machines and a computer. This is KNX-FM, a totally-automated rock station running 24 hours a day with two presenters each doing 12 hour shows throughout the week.

The system was installed in 1973, but it is still the most sophisticated in America, despite certain absurdities in the computer software. The shortcomings will not be corrected however – the contract to provide the equipment bankrupted the firm which supplied it, and in any case the defects are not noticeable on air.

The racks can be loaded with carts and instructions for up to seven days of programming, and the computer takes care of everything. The two presenters work full-time for the station, but have other jobs: recording the links takes an average of 20 minutes a day for each of them.

The system updates the format to time every 20 minutes or so, and at two minutes before the hour dumps all the music remaining in that hour, except where expressly included (since the DJ is about to announce it), and then plays the legally-required station ident before continuing into the next hour.

Each day, topical features and music are loaded onto large spool tape players, also part of the system.

These are played in by the computer as required, giving low frequency tone signals for cueing. For both tapes and carts, cue-tones can be used on music outros to start back-announcements, and vocal carts feed into an automatic ducker and dip the music, giving the programming a very tight sound.

Two large carts carry odd and even minute time-checks recorded by the DJ (the sequence on the “even” cart might be: “Its 10.22 right now… OK, its 10.24 … 26 minutes past ten now…” and so on) and the carts alternately advance each clock minute so that a correct time-check is always available when called up by the computer.

As a failsafe, seven seconds of dead air sounds an alarm and selects the next programmed cart, and three such events cause an emergency cart to be broadcast instead.

The sound on air is indistinguishable from most other FM rock stations. Indeed, of the 30-odd music stations I have heard, all use the same basic presentation format of two records back-to-back, followed by a back-announce, commercials, station ident and intro to the next two records (some of the heavier rock stations play three records at a time instead of two).

And whatever the pros and cons of automation, it doesn’t seem to affect audiences. KNX-FM attracts between two and three per cent of the Los Angeles audience – as do most other music stations.


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