My first job, and really the only time I have ever worked for someone else, was in radio broadcasting. While in high school, I started working as an engineer, on weekends, at WPEN, an AM/FM station in Philadelphia. The station was founded in 1926 and the studios where I worked were built by RCA in 1947. Little had changed by the time I started there in 1966. The AM transmitter site was several miles to the west of the city. It was one of the first directional AM stations in the country, and that site was built in 1936.
Back then, radio stations were operated by engineers, who were the de facto producers of the radio program. The “air talent” did not have any equipment in the studio except a microphone. The engineer made the program flow by operating the microphone, turntables, tape machines, and radio network sources. At least that was how radio worked in major cities.
Back then, radio stations and recording studios were very similar, both in equipment and facilities, and in the creative dynamic. I was fortunate that WPEN was still practicing “old-time radio” when I was there. The station had 13 engineers, 11 studios and control rooms, and carried two national radio networks. The largest studio occupied the entire first floor of the building and was set up for a live audience. About ten years before I started working there, that studio was where the predecessor of American Bandstand originated, before it moved to TV. Now it was the home to a live-audience talk show at night, which featured top names in politics and entertainment.
During the broadcast day, programming originated from five different studios, plus there were several well-equipped production studios/control rooms used for recording commercials and other program elements. One production studio had a disc-cutting lathe, which is where I first learned how to cut lacquer discs.
There were people working there that went back to the station’s inception in 1926, and I tried to learn as much as I could from these people who invented broadcasting.
I learned about working with talented people, both on staff and as guests, and how to make an audio experience flow naturally to provide the best experience for the listener. I also learned about equipment maintenance, and how to construct reliable equipment in-house.
This job also provided me with the income necessary to start my own recording studio, which had always been my primary goal. But working in radio back then was exciting, too. In this episode, I talk about what I learned at WPEN, and how that experience helped me learn the craft of recording.