Everyone over the age of 40 who survived it remembers the infamous Blizzard of â€™77, and stories abound about the experience. There are also slightly younger people whose story is that they were born during that Blizzard. This is not such a story, but rather a story of a conception that occurred during that late January event almost forty years ago. Relax, this is not an X-rated tale, rather a tale of a singular incident in broadcast history, specifically in Buffalo broadcast history. It began during the height of the storm. . .
With the wind howling, and blowing over a Lake Erie covered with several feet of loose snow on its frozen surface at upwards of 50 miles an hour, it didnâ€™t take long for most of Western New York to become paralyzed by snow in drifts covering the area and bringing almost everything to a slippery and frigid halt. At every radio and TV station in the area, telephone calls began pouring in regarding schools that were releasing students early, activities that would not take place, and businesses that were closing. In addition there were calls regarding appeals for volunteers with vehicles that could be used to supply emergency transportation for those in medical need. These were not the normal lot of SUVs, because, SUVs were not around in any significant numbers back then and the term SUV had not yet entered our lexicon. Except for larger pick up trucks with four wheel drive, practically the only things that could get around were snowmobiles and snowplows. In typical fashion, Western New Yorkers rallied to these calls to the extent possible, much to their credit easing misery and saving lives.
On Elmwood avenue in north Buffalo, chaos was reigning, as staff members all over the building were put to the task of answering WBENâ€™s avalanche of storm related phone calls. The process in place (as in other radio stations) was for that bevy of staff members to write down the information and deliver it to the control room for quick broadcast. Never before had there been this huge quantity of information to disseminate, and it became a nightmare for the DJâ€™s and news announcers to try to keep up and to keep track of it all. Think of many hundreds of pieces of paper of various colors and sizes written in as many as fifteen different handwritings, and carrying all sorts of normally unrelated information (schools, businesses, activities, emergencies, (even BOWLING LEAGUES), but all with information of vital importance to the public.
Earlier this month, I chuckled as one local TV station bragged of having efficiently handled almost 200 closing announcements during the recent Blizzard of 2014. The 1977 grandfather event resulted in literally several thousand such announcements, but quite unlike this year, the 1977 batch was not handled in any manner that approached efficiency. The industry was quite frankly unprepared for an event of this magnitude and we were just as frankly overwhelmed. Order for the Broadcast industry was not restored for days. Nonetheless, a herculean effort was put forth by Buffaloâ€™s radio and TV stations to do the best they could to help the listeners, the citizens of the area, and that effort is to be lauded.
At the time, WBENâ€™s Program Director was Dave Hammond. I had met Dave a few years before either he or I worked at WBEN, while he was the PD at WBNS in Columbus Ohio, and knew him to be competent and somewhat of a visionary. In return he knew me as a sales engineer for a radio automation company, and someone who was experimenting with the brand new technology of what were called microcomputers. We met again when I began working at WBEN in the fall of 1976, and he immediately collaborated with Chief Engineer Jerry Klabunde to purchase one of the early computing machines, an Altair 8800, and charge me with writing a program to automatically choose and schedule music for the disk jockey shows that were a 24-hour a day offering on the station at that time. At a previous job, I had been involved with creating an automated tour of the Hall Of Presidents at the National Wax Museum in Washington, DC, and my partner and I used the Altair 8800 to accomplish the tasks of lighting, audio, and even the animation of a wax figure of Ben Franklin that was the â€˜tour guideâ€™ for the attraction. Along the way I had become quite familiar with this marvelous machine. The Altair, historically regarded as the very first personal computer available, was delivered to WBEN in December of 1976 and I began the music scheduling project.
Keep in mind that while the Altair was introduced about two years earlier, in 1976 the microcomputer industry was very much in its infancy, and there were almost no classes, courses or even books to refer to. Application software was practically non-existent. Programmers were all experimenters like myself, and had little to go on other than the scant information supplied with the computer. In Altairâ€™s case, that was four pages of typewritten information on the almost 256 machine language instructions for the machine. Writing code in machine language is an extremely tedious process. For instance, outputting a single character to a printing device might require fifteen or twenty machine language instructions alone. This is how our original software was written. It would take several lifetimes to write any of todayâ€™s wonderful applications using this method, but some help was to be forthcoming. Higher level languages, called assemblers were developed that somewhat streamlined the process, and by 1976 a small startup company had taken a college-driven high level langrage project called Dartmouth BASIC (Beginnerâ€™s All purpose Sympolic Instruction Code), and developed it for use specifically on the Altair 8800. We purchased a copy of this from the company called Microsoft, and now we were ready to get the music selection program underway.
Dave Hammond, though, was always thinking ahead. Immediately after the Blizzard, he took me to lunch for the purpose of discussing his idea to see if the process of handling emergency calls for snow or any other threatening event could benefit from using our new computer. Almost immediately, the idea gelled in my mind, and he told me to see what I could come up with. Over the next several months much of my time was spent on this project and by summer we had a program in place. The hardware was simply the Altair 8800 with a Teletype ASR33 terminal connected locally and a ten-line telephone at a desk. The software installed (it took about 10 minutes to be loaded from punched paper tape each time you wanted to use it) was the nationâ€™s first Emergency Closing program, written in Microsoft BASIC, and loaded along with the Microsoft BASIC interpreter to run it. It was admittedly almost laughably crude by todayâ€™s standards of computing, but this was then . . . and then it proved to be quite functional. With only two people to handle the phone calls and the inputting of the data, the program would compile lists sorted by categories such as Major Schools, other schools (pre schools, day cares, etc.) Businesses, General Activities, and, yes, even BOWLING LEAGUES! Within each list, the information was listed alphabetically and the printed lists, updated frequently were supplied to the on-air talent in a single readable type font. The first test was during a snow event in early December of 1977. Granted that the snow storm was no rival for the Blizzaard, but the system proved workable and met all expectations. The most amazing thing was how calmly this could be accomplished.
Experienced operators could handle 2 or 3 calls each minute, sometimes more. Life was good and computers had suddenly become a part of the operations side of broadcasting. Being at the time co-owned with WBEN-TV (now WIVB), we supplied the printed lists to them as well. Within a year or so, both WGR and WKBW had their own programs working on this task also.
Over the years, we took advantage of newer technology in hardware and developmental software to upgrade the operation, improving the original software and eventually writing a completely new version in 1987. This version could handle 6 to 10 calls each minute in the hands of a single capable operator. These hardware and software improvements over the years resulted in faster computers, disk storage, adding printers in both the AM and FM control rooms, providing immediate information on incoming calls to the on-air staff as well as the frequently compiled lists, and also provided means of updating the lists as the emergency progressed, deleting outdated information, adding information to existing items, adding new clients on the fly, etc.
Having computerized our newsroom around 1990, the supplier of that newsroom software finally decided in 1996 to have a go at incorporating an emergency closing system into the newsroom package. This was a very good idea, and program management decided to go with it and retire our proprietary system. However while preparing the data transfer, WBEN staff discovered the new system could only handle 200 clients. At that time, we had about 1200 listings in our system, and I am happy to say I had never put a limit on the number of listings we could handle. I had just left WBEN early that year, but got a call from Kevin Keenan, who was then Program Director and a good friend, telling me they were going to re-institute the â€˜oldâ€™ system until the new system could be made to handle the load. This eventually did happen. Iâ€™m not totally familiar with that system but it seemed to incorporate pretty much the same flexibility as our own old system, with the added advantage of being incorporated into the newsroom computer system.
Nonetheless, January, 1977 saw the conception and birth of the use of computers on the operations side of radio (mini computers had been used for several years in the financial end). I did eventually write a music scheduling program during Jim McLaughlinâ€™s time as PD, and we used our computers for quite a few other purposes in operations including the programming of Rock 102â€™s automation system. (one computer programming another!!) Before the Internet, we provided a Bulletin Board with station news and playlists for our listeners who had computers and dial-up modems. WBEN was also among the very first to have developed a website for the infant World Wide Web. In the winter of 1976-77 though, none of us, no matter how visionary, could foresee the ubiquitous proliferation of microcomputers throughout all facets of the broadcast industry, and that proliferation happening well within a lifetime. First financial, then operations, then sales, and finally management â€“ that was the progression at least at WBEN. Management last, you say? Heck, I donâ€™t think Larry Levite has used a computer to this day!