Round and Round With the First TTOs
Back in the days of radio’s infancy, every station used live musicians on the air. Technology changed all that, but the average listener isn’t aware of what happened during the transition. Here in St. Louis, all the stations had to make some changes in hiring, thanks to a man named Petrillo.
James Caesar Petrillo was elected president in 1922 of the American Musicians’ Union and then became president of the American Federation of Musicians in 1940. Within months of this second election, the nation went to war, but that didn’t stop himHis battle with broadcasters had begun in the mid-1920s. In an effort to discourage the frequent use of records by radio stations (a practice that meant no money for the musicians who recorded them), Petrillo pressured the stations to hire in-house musical groups. He later took a challenge to court saying the playing of recorded music on the radio violated copyrights, but that was thrown out by judge Learned Hand in 1940.
Cost cutting became a way of life for everyone during the war, and radio stations cut back on the use of their live musicians, occasionally bringing in amateur groups to perform. Petrillo put pressure on the stations and a new national contract was negotiated requiring the stations to keep a minimum number of hired musicians and pay the professional musicians even when amateurs were used.
This practice caught the eye of the federal government, and the F.C.C. passed the Lea Act, making it illegal “to threaten or compel a broadcaster to employ more persons than it needed…and pay for services not performed.” But as the war wound down, stations began introducing disc jockeys into their program mix, and that meant there was less need for musicians.
Here in St. Louis, a couple well-known singer/musicians made the transition with ease. Skeets Yaney and Roy Queen both got their own disc jockey shows. But most of the radio musicians were relative unknowns, especially those who didn’t sing. Petrillo had already laid the groundwork for their futures by pressuring stations to hire their former musicians to handle the technical end of record playing, making them platter spinners.
For many years, union radio stations had separate staffers, usually former studio musicians, who did nothing but set records on turntables, put the needle on the record, cue the record to the proper musical starting point, and activate the turntable when the announcer signaled.
As disc jockeys flourished, stations began to tout not only their personalities but also the depth of their record libraries. An article in the June 16, 1949 issue of the Globe-Democrat described KWK’s record library as “one of the most complete in the nation,” containing “11,000 single records and 700 albums.” Five people worked in the station’s music library, previewing every new record received to check “for any lyrics that might be offensive to listeners.” And since recording tape was not widely used at that time, commercials were also recorded on acetate discs. These were also filed and maintained by the record library staff.
The lower expense of a disc jockey playing records soon meant there was no need for live musicians on station payrolls, but a few stayed in various jobs at St. Louis stations well into the 1970s.
(Reprinted with permission of the St. Louis Journalism Review. Originally published 3/05)