Classic Mornings

Please Stand By…


They were still using those words when I began working in radio. That was more than a few years ago.

For some, it was the most important item in the on-air “first aid” kit. Whenever there was a program interruption caused by any sort of equipment malfunction, the phrase was supposed to cover anything from “We’re experiencing momentary technical difficulties and looking into the matter” to “There are people running around in the hallways, shouting and trying to figure out what in the world is going on!” Sometimes the phrase “beyond our control” was included in an on-air announcement. If it wasn’t, I certainly was thinking it.

In television, they could show those three little words for long periods of time. Viewers would get the message. They may not have been happy about it. But they would get the message, nevertheless.

In radio it’s different. You can’t just say the phrase over and over. Oh, you could. They do that sort of thing on the telephone when you’re on hold. But that’s not good radio. A better way of dealing with the problem, even without saying the three little words, is to just put on a piece of music.

That solution has been a part of radio for a long time. I was reminded of that recently when one of our engineers brought us a small stack of recordings that had gathered decades worth of dust at our transmitter building. A label on one of the recordings reads: “For Emergency Programming. Property of AM Transmitter. Station WILL. University of Illinois.”

These are not CDs or “long playing” 33 1/3 rpm vinyl records. There are plenty of those in the Friends of WILL Library. They’re 78 rpm vinyl recordings. There’s no equipment at the station that can play those recordings. Nor is there any such equipment at the transmitter. In fact, there’s no playback equipment at the transmitter and hasn’t been for as long as anyone can remember. So, this was a bit of history that suddenly was suggested by these remnants of an earlier time in WILL Radio.

Now I should explain that there always has been “emergency programming” music in radio control rooms to play during periods of technical difficulty. Those of us hosting classical music programs generally have quite a stack of recordings close by. It’s easy enough just to play another track or selection. And the on-air studio is only a dozen strides away from the record library itself.

I can’t even imagine that music originated from the transmitter site. For well over a half century, “emergency programming” music has come from a studio or master control. So, I’m left to imagine what it was like for an engineer to just play those records. Because they were 78s, they wouldn’t play for long periods of time. One of the works in the stack is Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 29 (also known as the “Hammerklavier”) featuring the Austrian pianist Artur Schnabel. It consisted of five double-sided 78 rpm records. If the situation required a lengthy amount of emergency programming, the record on the turntable platter would have to be switched nine times to present the complete sonata. And it would be unavoidable to have moments of silence or “dead air” in between the sides.

Nobody said anything about microphones at the transmitter building. Otherwise, I would have wondered whether engineers waited for those rare opportunities of celebrity whenever there was a malfunction.

I remember years ago when emergency programming music was granted a human persona, even a music host persona. It was fun to refer to “Classical Phil”. That name never appeared in any public material. It was strictly an in-house name. I can just imagine one of those Hollywood radio era comedies in which a newspaper reporter overhears a conversation about a radio host named Classical Phil, encourages listeners to request that the station introduce the celebrity and ends up setting off a mad scramble by the station manager to come up with a real-life “Phil.”

If nothing else, let Classical Phil remind you of radio’s efforts to stay with listeners even during technologically trying times. We don’t always succeed. There are times when we’ve not been able to explain why suddenly we’re not on the air. These days, the show continues online and we attempt to pass the message along online as well. Unfortunately, those listening on radios remain “in the dark,” As you might guess, some listeners do call us whenever “Phil” becomes “speechless.” During those times we indeed hope that you’ll stand by.

I’m guessing that you will, if your support during the fiscal year that ended on June 30 is an indication. Once again, we surpassed our fundraising goal thanks to your contributions. We’re grateful for your generosity. And having stood by, please stay tuned!