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Thursday, August 22, 2013

This Was Not A Test

One of my favorite voiceover stories involved a guy who did imaging for rock stations all over the country in the 1980s from his studio in Chicago. He had an incredibly deep voice and ballsy delivery that fit perfectly with what we were doing at WHCN, the rock station in Hartford where I was the morning guy. I can't remember his real name, but we called him Joe Balls. 

When we first hired Joe, Program Director Dan Hayden asked a couple of us to help him come up with a bunch of stuff for him to do. The deal was that he'd record anything we wanted for a basic flat fee, as long as it fit on 10 double-spaced typewritten pages. So we sat down in Dan's office and came up with intros for every show, every feature, every newscast, every weekend special, every promotion we had planned. We brainstormed for an hour and when we had exhausted every idea, we had only filled nine pages.

Then someone suggested having Joe record the weekly EBS test announcement.

Today, those tests (now called EAS alerts) only take a few seconds of airtime and consist of a few quick bursts of electronic modem handshake sounds and not much more. But 30 years ago, the EBS test took up a full minute. Everyone complained about it, but since every station had to air the test every week, by law, there was no competitive disadvantage to it -- although it did bring our rowdy rock station to a screeching halt. 

The EBS test started with an announcer saying:
This is a test. For the next 60 seconds, this station is conducting a test of the Emergency Broadcast System. This is only a test.
Then we'd have to manually play the Attention Signal, an annoying-as-hell tone that lasted approximately 22 seconds, followed by the closing announcement:
This has been a test of the Emergency Broadcast System. The broadcasters of your area have developed this system to keep you informed in the event of an emergency. If this had been an actual emergency, the Attention Signal you just heard would be followed by official information, news, or instructions. This station serves the [Hartford, Connecticut] area. This concludes this test of the Emergency Broadcast System.
The FCC was pretty strict about how stations could present the EBS Test. They wanted it done straight and serious, and most stations did. At one point, there was a singing version that some stations played, but the FCC fairly quickly made that illegal. The government made it clear that, if we were all going to die, fun would be outlawed.

We thought having Joe record the EBS announcement would satisfy the demands of the FCC, but still fit in with WHCN's rock and roll image, so Dan typed it up on that tenth page and sent it to him. A week later -- this was in the pre-digital days -- we received a reel of tape from Joe with the stuff he'd recorded for us. As we hoped, all of the promos and intros sounded great. We laughed and cheered as we listened to it the first time in the production studio.

But when we heard his ballsy voice reciting the EBS test announcement, no one said a word. Even after it was over, there was a long pause. Joe had really kicked it into high gear and pushed his voice to the limit on this one, making it sound like the most dramatic thing he'd ever read.

Finally, Dan said, "That's the scariest thing I've ever heard. If we put that on the air, our audience will think a nuclear attack is underway. No, we can not put that on the air!" Everyone nodded, and Dan made us all solemnly promise that Joe's EBS test would never find its way into the main studio, where it might "accidentally" be played on the air. We all agreed immediately, but as soon as we left, I told Tom, the production director, "Make me a copy of that!" Irv (the afternoon guy) and Phil (the night guy) both chimed in, "Me, too!" We all burst out laughing.

The next day, in my mailbox, there was a box with a five-inch reel of tape inside. I knew from the message on the outside that it contained a copy of Joe's EBS test.

On the label, Tom had typed, "To be played only in the event of Armageddon."