On a cold February afternoon in 1979, I drove the 5 miles from my high school to WSSA, a 5000 watt radio station located south of Atlanta. After interning for a month, I was about to sit behind the microphone for my first on-air shift. I would be working “afternoon drive,” meaning I would be the disc jockey to bring people home from their jobs. The format was country music. Because we were a small station, I would be my own producer. Just me, a microphone, two turntables, a cart machine that played commercials, a phone, and a big clock. To me, this was the big time and I was 16 years old.
I had the plan in my head. I would begin my show with Kenny Rogers singing The Gambler then seamlessly segue to Emmylou Harris singing Two More Bottles of Wine. The other songs I would play are a blur now but I just remember I had a plan. I had all my friends and family tuning in to listen to my debut. I was about to be a star. This was a really big day.
Let me pause the story to give you a lesson in how radio worked in the late 70’s. We actually played 45 rpm records. We had the current top 100 songs in the country in the studio to the left of the turntables and then every song from the last 20 years were archived one room over in our music library. As the DJ, I would choose the record and put it on the turntable. I would then turn the volume pod that controlled that turntable all the way to the left until it clicked. That would put the sound only in the studio and not on the air. Then I would put the needle on the record and turn the record with my hand until I heard the first sound coming through the “studio only” speaker. I would then spin the record by hand back ½ a turn. Next, I would take the volume pod out of the queue position and turn it up. When I was ready for the song to play, I would push the button that started the turntable and all of Atlanta would hear my song. I hope you got that. Turn the pod down till it clicked putting the music only in the studio but not on the air. Turn the pod up out of the queue position and the sound would be broadcast to the listening audience.
So, at 3:00 PM with all my friends and family listening, I began my first show. “This is Ray Waters, and I’m ready to take you home Atlanta. We’ve got some great music lined up to play for you this afternoon. The Statler Brothers, Dolly Parton, Ronnie Milsap, Crystal Gayle, Willie and Waylon and a whole lot more. Let’s get this hour started with the sweet sounds of Kenny Rogers singing The Gambler.” I hit the switch and the music began. It was beautiful. I was doing it. I was a professional radio announcer. I was only a teenager but I was sitting in the DJ chair bringing the music to Atlanta. I was going to be amazing.
Suddenly all the lights lit up on the phone lines in the booth. This was huge. People must love this. Every line was ringing and I’d only been on the air a few minutes. I answered the studio line, “Good afternoon, how can I help you?”
The first caller said, “There’s no music on my radio.”
I said, “Ok, sounds like you have a problem, I hope you get that radio fixed my friend.” Then the second caller said the same thing. I thought this is strange. Two callers both not hearing the music on my show. Then it hit me. I had set the song up and hit play but I had never turned the volume pod from the queued position to the broadcast position. I was playing my Kenny Rogers song only to me, not to all of Atlanta. I quickly turned the pod to its proper position. Music was finally playing across the airwaves like it was supposed to. Because of my embarrassment, I just put one song on after another and I didn’t say a word for the next 15-20 minutes. I got over it, but it was not the start I had dreamed of.
My first radio day taught me a valuable lesson. Almost no one is great at anything on their first day. You have to be bad at something before you get better – then better before you get good – then good before you get great. I got much better in radio. I stayed with it until I was reasonable good at the craft. I had other interests that soon dominated my life so, I did not stick with it to see if I could ever be great at it. But that’s ok. I learned greatness was never an option on the first day. I learned you can get better from your mistakes. I don’t think I ever forgot to turn the volume pod up again. And I learned that music is a wonderful thing, if the people it’s intended for can actually hear it. 🙂 Now go out there and live your big life today.