Automation Systems

Radio Automation Systems are nothing new under the sun. As Marconi tapped out his famous S, he was likely thinking “We should get a machine to do this…”

Broadcast stations have been installing different types of automation since the mid-1950s and early 1960s.  It was touted as a way to free up announcers so they could do more important things.

While cleaning out an old studio/transmitter building and getting things ready for demolition, I found a stash of old product brochures for various automation systems from the 60s, 70s, and 80s.  It looks like the previous owner used to go to the NAB every year.  How many radio guys got their start on the overnight shift changing out reels?  I know a few.

Gates automation system brochure, circa 1965
Gates automation system brochure, circa 1965

The Gates Radio Corporation had a fairly standard reel-to-reel system in three different configurations.  These systems were pretty pricey in their day.  According to the 1966 price list:

  • The Automate 244 cost $7,275.00 ($58,837.00 in 2020)
  • The Automate 484 cost $12,210.00 ($102,946.00 in 2020)
  • The Automate 1007 cost $17,150.00 ($138,799.00 in 2020)

Those are for stereo systems, mono systems cost about $500.00 less.  Each one of those systems ran one station.

Gates Automate 244 events thumb wheel
Gates Automate 244 events thumb wheel

The larger the system, the more events it could trigger.  I have never run into one of these in the wild.

Long-form satellite shows began to surface in the early 1980s. Things like all news formats and overnight talk shows.  I have had nightmares where everyone walks around saying “This is Larry King, you’re on…” while UFOs fly overhead and next-door neighbor, Jim Hightower, buries PCBs in his backyard not more than 200 feet from his house.

Broadcast Electronics Control 16 radio automation system
Broadcast Electronics Control 16 radio automation system

Broadcast Electronics had the Control 16 system in the 1980s that ran off of a very basic computer system that could handle 3,000 events with the standard RAM configuration and up to 9,999 events with additional RAM.  This was ideal for multiple program sources; music on reel machines, satellite syndicated talk or music formats, etc.  No longer were these machines simply running the overnights.

Schaffer 901 radio automation system
Schafer 90x radio automation system

Schafer is perhaps the most known analog tape automation, at least to me.  I know of several of these systems that were in operation through the mid 1990s.  By this time, long-form satellite music formats had become the rage.  However, there were still a few stations using reel-to-reel music services.

I particularly like this flyer from IGM:

IGM (International Good Music) brochure, circa 1971
IGM (International Good Music) brochure, circa 1971

By the mid-1990s, these tired old dinosaurs were being removed.  Still, the mechanics of the operation were a thing to behold.  It was nice because you could hear the relays snap shut after decoding a 25/35 Hz tone or one of the Mutual Radio be-doops.  The cart-o-matic would chug through the break until the liner fired and then back to the bird.  If there were any issues, one simply needed to stand there and watch which part of the machine malfunctioned.

Schaffer logging system
Schafer logging system

Computer-based systems like Computer Concepts DCS, Arrakis Digilink, and Audio Vault came along, which got rid of the analog tape.  Instead, they stored audio on hard drives.  In those early systems hard drive space was a premium, so usually, at least 3:1 compression was needed to fit all the commercials onto the drive space available.

My first brush with Audio Vault was in 1994 at WGY in Schenectady, NY.   It was a pretty good system if you could understand the .ini files.  As the BE tech support guys used to say “You can program it to turn the coffee pot on if you wanted to.”

Nowadays, what used to be a studio location is more akin to a content distribution node.  This rack combines music and commercials stored locally on hard drives with out-of-town voice tracks and serves as the program source for eleven radio stations.

Radio Automation, 2020 style
Radio Automation, 2020 style

It works remarkably well, as long as the windows operating system stays functional.

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16 thoughts on “Automation Systems”

  1. One of the first jobs I had in radio was babysitting at bastardized version of the Gates 1007 in Hawkinsville Georgia. Two 55 cart machines, 8 carousels, SP-10 controller and the first contact I had with voice tracking. When it ran, it was a site to behold….but let a bolt of lighting strike nearby and it was shit on ice!

  2. Have you considered sending these along to the fellow who runs American Radio History? These might be great additions to his online collection.

  3. Hi Paul,

    Back in my college days, (Mid 1970s) I got my 3rd. class radiotelephone license with broadcast endorsement. Tom Durfey accompanied me to NYC to take the FCC exam and then hired me to do the night news shift at his Hyde Park radio stations WHVW AM and FM. The AM was daytime only but I covered the news desk until midnight when I would sign the FM off. 97-7 Stereo had a ‘Beautiful Music’ format that ran on a homebrew automation equipped with several open-reel tape decks and carousel cart machines. No computer was needed. Everything was sequenced by 20 Hz. tones and a matrix of steering diodes in the form of pins inserted into a small rectangular block. I had to mount new music reels and record news programs on carts as needed. The man you presently work for was chief engineer at the time. I remember Tom Shovan (program director) often took great pleasure standing in front of the racks and rubbing his belly against the tape reel playing on-air until it made the music drag. Tom liked giving me words of wisdom such as ‘don’t get any on you’. It wasn’t until years later, I realized Tom was the person making all those prank phone calls during my shift. I’m glad I was always polite. But I digress.

    My primary responsibility was gathering news and typing up stories for Ted Jones to read when he signed the AM on the air the following morning. Mike Bennett (now at WHUD) was my immediate supervisor and news director. My secondary responsibility was to rip and read teletype copy live on the FM for 30 minutes. Sometimes when I felt like showing off, I could turn my head toward the left microphone and make a 20HZ raspberry sound with my tongue at the end of the newscast which would usually trigger the next automation event. Pushing the button for the 20HZ oscillator just wasn’t as much fun.

    After a few years, the chief and I went to work for the competing station on Pendell Road. Before they demolished the original building, I had the opportunity to clean some obsolete gear out of the attic. One of the gems was a complete Programmatic RE1-A automation with ten and fourteen inch rack-mount tape transports. These are still occupying two racks in my basement. One deck was for music and the other for announcements.

    During the 1970s, the AM pop format was the money maker and the FM beautiful music format was not taken too seriously by management as I’ve already stated. Johnny Donovan (Sarge) got his start on this AM station and it was probably his great voice and production skills that got him noticed in the NYC market. The chief along with Sandy Michaels and Neal Steele had fun playing practical jokes like stuffing snowballs down my shirt or setting my wire copy on fire while I was doing my live read. After seeing this blog, I just had to go downstairs to see if the RE1-A was still there.

  4. IGM also made claim to coffee pot operations in it’s EC/SC manuals.
    And you’ll need it when that Instacart latched in a half-dozen carts, all on-air at once, with you pressing STEP then STOP to kill them one by one.

    The real innovations seemed to be in finding new way to shred carts.
    The gates 55’s did it in guillotine fashion while the Carousels perfected the circular crunch.
    IGM GoCarts on the other hand, the plastic trays would self destruct but the cart itself would live.
    Unless it was sticky on the sides with layers of finger goo. Then everything latched up solid.

    Hard disk audio is boringly reliable.

  5. My first full-time job was also the first automation job. SMC DP-1, with a 20-source switcher, 8 Carousels, a two-deck player, backfill cart deck, two Scully 270’s and a Revox A-77. And the teletype/punch tape/cue track encoder. It was a hand-me-down from the Mother Ship station and was over a decade old when I arrived. It was cantankerous enough by then that no one wanted to play ads from it, so the station went to live-assist mode, and the DP-1 played the music reels (Musicworks country format), network join, and promos/wx/liners. Later I jury-rigged six-pack CD players interfaced to a TM Century chassis in place of the reel decks.

    It had a 2048-event magnetic-core memory, all built on TTL logic chips. No backup battery. The remote control head for this was static-sensitive, and the station’s board was a Ramko DC-8 touchpad console…with a properly-placed finger full of static electricity, you could make all channels hot on the Ramko, plus start all automation decks rolling with all 20 switcher sources hot! Good times…

  6. Lordy! The Gates SC-48 with two of the Gates 55 towers for the music, two carousels for the spots programmed with a bank of 25 position sliding Cherry switches and single play cart machines for voice track, ID, News and weather.

    An IGM-500 (did IGM really stand for I Got Modifications) with the Del O’Ray Show and Consie’s Carousel from IGM on 14 inch reels.

    A Schafer 800 with four carousels, two single plays and four reel machines plus enough stepping switches to satisfy a small telco central office. At the top of each hour the reset sounded much like a machine gun.

    A SMC DP-1 that you had to figure away to get Saturday, Sunday and Monday plus what was left to run on Friday into 2048 events of memory.

    An ABC (Automated Broadcast Controls?) that seemed to have a mind of its own and would frequently loose it.

    Things were more mechanical that electronic back then. The systems were fun to watch.

  7. Good grief, Paul. You certainly opened a can of worms here, didn’t you? I think this topic deserves more chapters. All of us now old-timers have their stories. Here’s mine: My first station, the notoriously cheap owners decided to automate the 1kw FM. Being notoriously cheap, the system was a cobbled together, used rig I swear was sold to us by Mr. Haney off the back of his truck and Drake-Chenault reels. The only new item was an ABC16 controller, which was the only unit that actually worked most of the time, but only to start alarming when every other piece of gear in the racks failed, which was constantly. (I still hear that alarm in my sleep.), three poorly maintained ITC 750 R2R decks, an even more poorly maintained Revox A77, two very ornery SMC 350 Carousels controlled by a VERY used IGM 700 MOS programmer, a time-announce deck (comments are best left unspoken about that other than I happily took a 5 lb. sledge-hammer to it pretty early on) and a few off-brand single-play cart machines. It didn’t take long before we discovered that the carousels should be completely abandoned, taken out and shot and instead began using large C-size 32-minute carts to make a daily spot-reel played out of one of the single-player decks. Long story short, they were fine to work on… when they worked. The advertised 12-hour walk-away time was more like 2 hours before that damned alarm would go off for some reason. For those that are interested, there is a Facebook group called something like “Analog Radio Automation.” Nice vendor photos, Paul. Again, let’s see a Part 2.

  8. One of my first jobs in radio was for a cluster of stations in Arizona, where I was never sure what the owner’s goal was – he didn’t seem to particularly love radio and I’m not even sure he was trying to make money. He certainly wasn’t trying to spend any either. All three stations ran off of Arrakis Digilink, but the “new” station in the cluster had a different setup, which was a computer that controlled another computer. It was weird — spots, liners, and voice tracks were on the computer that had the display while the music was on this other rack mounted computer. It had a keypad to manually fire off a file number, but was mainly controlled by the other computer.

    The other two stations had the same computer, but instead of it controlling another computer it controlled two dozen 6-disc CD changers. Basically, everything was on CD and the cart numbers were where the disc was. So, if it was 110409, that meant CD player #11, disc 04, track 09.

    This system had a lot of quirks. For example, if for some reason a CD didn’t fire on time or skipped, the timing would be off — but the computer controlling it had no idea, so either a) it would play part of the next track on the CD or b) fire off the next element and you’d have two things playing at once (a sweeper / commercial/ VT / or another CD). If you had the wrong time in the computer, say 4:12 play time instead of 4:21, same issue. At least once a week it’d skip the track you wanted and play the one after it / or before it.

    We also had to burn our own CDs for the system, so it was also a pain keeping track of how you updated discs – you had to make sure that gold and currents / recurrents were still the same track when you burned the new disc and that you replaced whatever songs on that disc with the new music in the proper track.

    The most nightmarish part of the system was if it rebooted — which considering the age of the controlling computer, happened frequently. When it started up again, every CD player would click and load the cartridges, which made a hell of a noise, and 9 out of ten times it would hit play on every player all at once, which meant hitting stop on every single player and then hit play on the controlling computer, which may or may not play the right album. If this happened you’d have to go to that player and manually play the CD/track — the system would cue up tracks a song ahead and keep them on pause until the timer triggered that player.

    All of the CD changers were in the studio, so there was always lots of noise. Once in a while a guest or clumsy intern would bump into one of the racks on the floor or set something down too hard on the counter.

  9. Thanks for all the comments! I will see if I can find a nice home for all these product brochures, it would be nice if they can be saved. I have several for older transmitters, which I may put together for another post.

    Regarding automation systems themselves; the earlier computer hard drive systems also had their quirks, but nothing as dramatic as a cart-o-matic munching away at carts the way that Chuck describes.

    We also had some fun with patch panels and board ops…

  10. Recently, I read about an anlogue Tape System developed by STUDER from Switzerland in the 1980s (called CAMOS). One of these machines was installed at the public service broadcaster SDR in Germany. They used special tapes in cadridges (co-called UNISETTEs, looking like a mixture of a VHS tape and a compact cassette).

    What really surpised me was the fact that they used 3 tape machines, tapes with barcodes, laser scanners and a transportation mechanism which could unload a tape from the storage bay, put it into the playing device and store it back after playing.

    This machine was basically able to do all the stuff that early harddisk based systems could also do. For anyone who is interested in this system, search for STUDER CAMOS, SEKAMOS or read the book “Die sprechenden Maschinen: Studer-Revox – Das Lebenswerk des Audiopioniers Willi Studer”, which is unfortunately only in German, but good to read.

  11. It does not surprise me that Studer had a tape based automation system. Many stations used Studer reel to reel tape machines and there are likely a few of them still kicking around out there.

  12. The Studer system sounds like a thing I saw when interning at WSVN TV. There was a gigantic automated tape library for commercials – think of something like you describe with barcodes and readers and a pick and place system to yank them from storage to a Betacam SP deck… Coolest thing in the world to watch.

    Supposedly some stations used this for their news broadcasts, but this place seemed to have so much “just in time” editing happening that the process of getting a package from editor to air was someone running the tape downstairs to a small machine room with VTRs under control of the technical director. Someone would run in, grab a headset, announce what they had, be told which VTR to slap the tape in and then they’d cue it up. Many times I saw this process happen less than a minute before the tape rolled. Lots of respect for those folks, amazing teamwork.

  13. Thanks, all this bring back memories and a few nightmares.

    The first radio automation I ever got to play with was a Shaefer 903 at WGNY/WFMN, Newburgh, NY. That system was notable for having survived a tower collapse. The collapsing tower tore the STL & processing racks out of the floor. The AM DJ sensed something was wrong when she saw the entire Shaefer system moving down the hallway, towed by its audio cables as the collapsing tower dragged everything behind it in a domino effect. The system fell over on its side, but once righted, continued to work.

    My second automation experience was at WFLY, where we had a rare system made by Control Design which had a pegboard type sequencer which fired carts and music on workhorse Scully reel-to-reels. We sold that museum piece to a station in Bellefonte, PA.
    My last experience with radio automation was at WQPO in Harrisonburg, VA where we had an IGM controller and carousels which was nothing but trouble.

    I really don’t miss those beasts at all, but I’m content to revisit my memories. Call me a dinosaur, but I left radio just before PC’s made inroads, and CD’s were still eyed with some suspicion. I also missed all the fun with automated satellite formats.

  14. I did something many of you did, but probably no one can do anymore. I got my start as a teenager at a small-town AM station in Louisiana.
    We ran daytime-only on an IGM 500 with 3 Carousels for spots, 2 Carousels for current music, and a Scully reel-to-reel deck for oldies. We had the time announcer with dual carts (which never worked very well), 3 single-cart decks for IDs and such, and a network switcher to join ABC Entertainment Network news. (We added an FM, which ran on a Schafer 800 system with all an Ampex 350 for spots and several Revox A77’s for music.) When we dropped ABC and joined a state news network, we needed to join the net and also insert local spots based on DTMF. So I, at age 15, gutted the no-longer-useful network switcher and used the chassis to build a new device that could control both the IGM and the Schafer to have both systems hit the news, insert a local spot, and restart automation sequencing afterwards. I learned a lot about relay logic and “Raysistors” in building that puppy. It worked beautifully for a long time.
    We ran the stations for 17 hours a day with a total staff of about 4 or 5. For many years we recorded our own music and programmed it all locally, although eventually we broke down and purchased a packaged offering.

  15. I ran an AM Top 40 live at 9 years old as a substitute, ran it a shift after school and weekends when I was 10. Also ran and babysat an FM automation by Gates Radio Company, 1973-1975. Began with SRP beautiful music, then switched to Bonneville Beautiful Music. Gates Automate system was relay driven, third hand. Named Mother F’er. Temperamental even on good days. Ran 3 Scully 270 reproducers, IGM Instacart carousels, Gates Criterion Stereo record/reproducers, a Scully 280 record/reproducer. Not bad for a physically challenged special needs kiddo assistant engineer/operator with a First Phone and a Restricted when he was on air. Upgraded (and factory trained in Quincy) on the then new Harris Stereo 90 when the old Gates system went FUBAR. Got snowed in, and trained on every Harris Broadcast product then available. Got to fly First Class, eat in ritzy restaurants, and also enjoy mocktails with grown men in Training. Likely the youngest person ever to factory train at Harris as a pre-teenager. But once they knew my skillset, I was accepted. Great week of no special education school too. Got to see the new Stereo 90 our station ordered get built and tested too. Harris 55 we named, “Peter, Peter, Cartridge Eater!!! Feather the brakes on the Scully 270 machines before stop. Lest they barf tape over the studio floor. Not approved by OSHA, dangerous equipment operated and maintained by youth.

  16. I may be crazy but the Gates 484 system looks very familiar. I could swear it was used at KTWN-FM in Anoka, MN in the late 1970s when I worked there part-time. I remember Dave the program director pointing it out to me when he gave me the station tour. “It frees up our studio for production four hours every afternoon,” he said, proudly.

    “Oh, really? That’s great,” I said. “And what sort of production do you do?”

    Without a trace of irony, Dave said “We make automation tapes.”

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