Monday, December 05, 2016

Ethel Waters on WGV-AM

 Ethel Waters was an American blues, jazz and gospel vocalist; active between 1919 and 1959. She died on September 1, 1977, aged 80 from cancer. Three of her recordings were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame post-mortem and you know all three of them: Stormy Weather, Am I Blue, and Dinah. Her all-too-late accolades were the result of her career peaking in an era when it was much harder to be black and in the music biz. Nonetheless there is an apocryphal radio first in her career. The much-respected jazz book Riding on a Blue Note by Gary Giddins even refers to this early black radio first in passing: 

"The Black Swan [record label] house pianist was Fletcher Henderson... Henderson organized a band to accompany her on a tour of the South, where they became the first blacks heard on the radio."

The context her is an early Ethel Waters tour. She had done her first recordings for Black Swan in 1921. She recorded with Black Swan from 1921 through 1923. Then in early 1924, Paramount records bought the label. (She stayed with paramount only one year before signing to Columbia in 1925.) This quick succession makes dates difficult.  Collectively record geeks have solved much of this for us here, and here].

From this discography we know that she recorded 14 sides (multiple takes) recorded in four sessions, one in May of 1921, then three in 1922, one in June another in July and a final session in December of 1922. So it is generally believed this occurred while she was still active on Black swan. But she made no recordings for them in 1923 (though the 1922 recordings were pressed) and none in 1924. So the 1921 and 1922 dates are generally more reliable.

WGV-AM was first licensed on March 21st, 1922. The station was owned by the Interstate Electric Co.  Some sources state that it was "operated" by the New Orleans Item newspaper. But that didn't begin printing until 1924 so the relationship may have begun later. Note, a maritime station also used those calls in Galveston, TX starting around 1914. More here. But the station is known to have been broadcasting before it was licensed. According to C. Joseph Pusater in his book Enterprise in Radio our WGV had already been on air over a year before it had a license. So in early January 1921, Dorr Simmons, a factory manager for the Interstate Electric Co. began broadcasting phonograph music on his experimental station.

Sad side note: Dorr Simmons continued to work in radio for a decade. But his career ended abruptly in November of 1932. He was an engineer at KTBS in Shreveport, LA and "came in contact with a section of the transmitter carrying 5,200 volts." Multiple newspapers mentioned his death. One even specified that he touched a radio amplifier while installing new equipment. He was 44 years old.

I would assume Ethel Waters and Fletcher Henderson played on WGV after they did their first recording sessions for Swan in May of 1921, and no later than their recording session in December of 1922. The FRC had only been assigning licenses since October of 1920 so it was not unusual that a station not yet have a call sign. Their appearance on radio was very early in the history of black radio. But with the uncertain date it is hard to definitively say it is the first.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Amazon is listening to your radio

As the IOT (internet of things) expands it's corporate mission to ruin everything, we expected certain changes: needless expense, personal discomfort, technical difficulties and perhaps some comedy. But comedy came early. It's true, but it's not on purpose really.

Amazon has this "Smart House" product called the "Echo". If you're not familiar with the smart home product genre, imagine that your house cost more to run every month, and was more crippled in a blackout than it is now.  Imagine that instead of adjusting the thermostat now with one finger you could waste also electricity, and spend months trying to make your thermostat "smart" with computer integration that never quite works. Echo is one of those products.

The Echo is voice activated. (Stop me if you can see where this is going.) The Echo can't tell the difference between a voice on the radio, on the Television, you or your children. So any voice on any medium can potentially adjust not just your thermostat, but your lights, coffee machine, or even your new media. Rachel Martin,on KWBU reported [LINK] that the Echo had managed to interact with the devices in the homes of several listeners:
“Roy Hagar wrote in to say our story prompted his Alexa to reset his thermostat to 70 degrees. It was difficult for Jeff Finan to hear the story because his radio was right next to his Echo speaker, and when Alex heard her name, she started playing an NPR News summary. Marc-Paul Lee said his unit started going crazy too.”
There are numerous reports on the Echo on forms about the Echo having quotidian conversations with the radio or television. This usually begins as the universal assistant "Alexa" says "I don't  understand." The device can turn itself on with a "wake word" even if that word is in radio dialogue. If that wake word is used on the radio... that's when the fun starts. The default word is "Echo" of course. After that the use of common command words or temperature settings can rearrange everything.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Crazy Dr. Jerry Carroll

The adjective "Crazy" can mean mentally ill or mentally deranged, especially if manifested in a wild or aggressive way. But it can also just mean extremely enthusiastic. Both of these apply in the story of Eddie Antar, and DJ Jerry Carroll. If you were of the age in the 1980s, you may recall a series of radio and television ads featuring Crazy Eddie.  If you don't remember the name perhaps you remember the tagline "...His prices are INSAAAAAANE!!!!"  If not... here's a refresher.

The word "insane" is key here. In normal usage it just means mentally ill. But in modern parlance it can mean that as non-literal insult. But it can also mean irresponsible, unreasonable or very foolish, as in to apply irrational judgement. This can informally describe scenarios that are merely irresponsible, wacky or wild. I credit Crazy Eddie, the actor with propagating that last use case into popular parlance. True to form, Eddie was actually New York radio disc jockey: Jerry Carroll.

The chain of electronics stores is long gone today, but the real Crazy Eddie, Eddie Antar, started the business in 1971 in Brooklyn, NY with his brother Sam. Their connection to Jerry was happenstance, but it made Carroll into the defacto face of the business.  In 1972, The Antar's bought airtime on 101.9 WPIX in New York. They went cheap and went for a live read.  The DJ was "Dr. Jerry" Carroll, who ad libbed the shop's slogan into a primal scream "...His prices are INSAAAAAANE!"  Eddie Antar loved it; he called the station and told Carroll to use that delivery every time. Carroll obliged and continued the style as they launched TV spots in the 1980s.

At its peak there were 43 Crazy Eddie stores earning more than $300 million in annual sales. Then came the fall. Eddie was very naughty. He was indicted for tax fraud, overstating income, bogus asset valuations,  stock dumping, overstating insurance claims, debit memo fraud and the topper... money laundering. More here. Eddie fled the country and had to be extradited from Israel to stand trial. The board of directors revolted and the whole Antar family was cut out of the business. In 1989, the company declared bankruptcy and was liquidated.
In 1998, the grandchildren of Eddie, Allen, and Mitchell Antar revived the chain with a shop in Wayne, New Jersey, and as an online Internet venture, The revived company retained the slogan "his prices are insane" and re-hired Jerry Carroll! But the storefront didn't prosper and in 1999 it closed.

Fresh from prison, Eddie returned to the company in 2001 which then was only an online store. Jerry Carroll was hired a third time to do its advertising.  But somewhere between 2004 and 2004 it sank for good. The Crazy Eddie trademark was bought by the Trident Growth Fund. In July 2006, Trident attempted to auction the brand and the domain name on eBay, but had no takers.

The rise and fall of Crazy Eddie overshadows the rest of Jerry Carroll's radio career. Before the Antars, Carroll was "Dr. Jerry" and was "prescribing your rock ’n’ roll!” on WPIX.  Born in 1947, Carroll was a young DJ at 26 when he met the Antars. More here.  There is an apocryphal story of a WNYU student DJ also named Jerry Carroll who co-hosted a record hop with Bob Lewis from WABC-AM back in 1966. I like to think it's the same Jerry Carroll. Regardless Carroll was on WPIX thru at least 1977 when he switched to afternoons after hosting the nightly show "Disco 102." He had previously been on WVIP, and WRNW, so the WABC story, fits nicely.

Monday, November 21, 2016

The Lottery

Shirley Jackson only wrote 6 novels in her 30 year career as a writer. She manged in that time to write the archetypal Haunted House story, The Haunting of Hill House (1959.) It was praised by Steven King, and probably was the best work in that genre since Charles Dickens own Haunted House Story [LINK] in 1859. But her novels are not what she is known for. She's remembered as a master of the short story.

In 1948 she published her most famous work The Lottery in the New Yorker. This one short story was so bit it now has it's own Wikipedia article [LINK].  The story describes a fictional American small town which observes a lottery in which one towns-person is elected to be stoned to death. This is believed to to ensure a good harvest. The story is rife with strong metaphors and commentary about blind obedience, scapegoats, ignorant traditions, mob psychology, and rural Americans. The response to the story was overwhelming. Hundreds of readers canceled subscriptions, and Jackson got hate mail all summer. The story was banned in South Africa.

Because of it's popularity and/or notoriety The Lottery has also been adapted into a number of formats, including a ballet in 1953, three short films (1969, 2007, and 2008) and   three different TV movies: one in 1951, another in 1960 and again in 1996. In 2016 Jackson's grandson, Miles Hyman had the story interpreted again as a graphic novel [LINK] What interests us of course is it's first radio broadcast in 1951. It was an episode of the anthology series NBC Presents: Short Story. This was a high quality series that also broadcast works based on short stories by  Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Steinbeck among others.

The series premiered February 21st, 1951. NBC's radio adaptation of The Lottery was broadcast March 14th, 1951.  So this episode would have aired in week three of season one.  That season ran until July 13th. A second season ran starting that November and running thru March of 1952. A third, more abbreviated final series ran from April 11 to May 30 in 1952. In season two, the program had been tied to a project between Brooklyn College and NBC called the College by Radio plan. The College by Radio plan fizzled and did some damage to the program.

Interpreting the story for a 15 minute radio play was extensive. The original New Yorker short story was barely two pages long: 3,299 words in all. Writer Ernest Kinoy expanded the narrative with additional scenes in characters' homes. He also did a surprisingly good job writing original dialogue in new scenes for the major characters. He also added one major character which might offend some purists.  The character John Gunderson is a schoolteacher who publicly objects to the lottery.

In 1965, Ms. Jackson died of heart failure she was only 48. In 1961 Jackson had received the Edgar Allan Poe Award.  She left behind a bibliography of 6 novels, 2 memoirs, 4 children's' books, and innumerable short stories, many of which populate 4 very worthwhile collections: The Lottery and Other Stories, The Magic of Shirley Jackson, Come Along with Me, and Just an Ordinary Day.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Fernsehturm Stuttgart Radiosender

German words agglomerate.  Hence the existence of the book Schottenfreude. "Fernsehturm" is the German word for television tower. "Fernsehen" means television, as in the noun, the electronic device. To break that down further, "sehen" means to see.  The word "fern" means remote; as in at a distance. So You can string that together pretty sensibly "fern-sehen-term" or "remote - seeing - tower."    But "turm" was the root that meant tower or steeple.

To further cloud this waters for those of use who speak a largely non-agglomerating language, "Fernmeldeturm" is the correct word, only if it's part of a building. The noun "meldung" means "information, report or an announcement.  So they added the "building" root when it was just a tower and then further added the "information" after the tower was on a building. Tricky language. Also sometimes makes things difficult to research.

This is added to the formal name of any radio tower that has a name like a prefix ex. Fernsehturm Berlin which is the tallest structure in Germany at 368 meters tall  (including antenna). It was built between 1965 and 1969 so it's coming up on it's 50th Birthday. Another example would be Fernsehturm Stuttgart which is the first telecommunications tower in the world constructed from reinforced concrete. Stuttgart is older having been placed in service by February of 1956. But today it only broadcasts several public FM radio stations. So despite the lack of "remote seeing devices" they still refer to it as a Fernsehturm. Transmission of the ARD TV network's analogue service stopped in 2006. Those television services moved to nearby Fernmeldeturm Stuttgart.

So I deduced that since the German word for radio is radio.. that radio tower should be then a radioturm. The answer is... sort of. Radioturm is not a popular word. It's used only in specific contexts, mostly much older radio constructions. Ex. Radioturm Schuchow, Radioturm mit Sirene, Shabolovka Radioturm, and the Shukhov radioturm which I wrote about previously.