I still have a hard time calling the internet “The Internet.” Frequently, I call it “the wire.”
I still catch myself saying, “I saw a story about that on the wire.”
The “wire” referred to a literal wire. The wire was a phone line. For many of my 25 years in broadcasting, the wire was how stories reached the radio station and, in turn, the masses.
For a subscription fee, The Associated Press, United Press International and other services transmitted breaking news, weather, sports and other information to radio, newspapers and television stations across the country. The AP is still in business.
Most news outlets had at least one wire service, and in my experience the most widely used was the AP.
The data was transmitted from the wire service down a phone line to the media outlet and into an AP machine. Like big typewriters, they had inked ribbons that printed on paper that fed through the bottom. The paper folded inside a big box.
The machines were large, clunky, prone to eating the paper and weighed as much as a Buick. They were also slow, at least compared to today’s standards.
In the late 1980s, dot matrix printers became more practical, faster and cheaper to maintain. So the old AP machines became obsolete.
I remember the station manager asking the AP repairman what we were supposed to do with the old AP machine after it was replaced.
The AP guy said, “That’s your problem.”
Most of the machines I knew of wound up in a Dumpster.
I remember thinking what a shame that was. I’d been in the business about five years at the time and even during my short tenure I’d personally ripped stories from the wire that are now in the history books.
I was on the air the night John Lennon was murdered, Dec. 8, 1980.
The AP alarm went off (it was a light that came on in the control room — the AP machine was in a separate room) and I got up and walked to the machine to see:
■ Bulletin-Bulletin-BulletinJohn Lennon is dead.
That’s all that it said. More information wouldn’t come until a bit later.
I broke the news on air and the switchboard lit up. I spent the rest of the night taking requests and playing his music.
In 1986, a normal midday show became wall-to-wall reporting after the AP alarm went off.
■ Bulletin-Bulletin-BulletinThe Space Shuttle Challenger has exploded.
Other news stories that are part of history also came across the wire; too many to count or recall.
I was scrolling through Facebook one day and surprised to see one of the old AP machines for sale. I was even more surprised it had survived.
I contacted the lady in Hot Springs, Arkansas, to find out more.
She shared her father had passed away and he also had been a radio announcer. He and I had been close in age. The difference between the two of us was that, related to the radio business, he had kept anything and everything he could. I had not.
He not only kept the AP machine when the station threw it out, he kept news stories from the machine (wire copy, as we called it) that dated back to the 1960s. They included JFK’s assassination and the breakup of The Beatles.
She said most of the wire copy went with the machine. We agreed on a price and my wife and I joined she and her husband for lunch in Texarkana. Afterward, we loaded the AP machine into the back of our Prius.
The car sank a bit.
I closed the trunk lid and off we went toward home.
“What are you going to do with that thing?” my wife asked.
“Display it in my recording studio,” I answered.
But the real question was, display it to whom? I’m about the only one who ever goes in there. The AP machine needed to live somewhere else. Somewhere it could be seen and understood for the value it had.
A few years ago, I had donated my antique radio collection to The Texas Broadcast Museum in Kilgore. My friend Chuck Conrad, who is still in radio, built that museum from scratch. He was the first person I thought of.
So, I called him.
“Chuck, do you have an AP machine in the museum?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said. “But I could always use another one.”
Chuck and I quickly made a deal over the phone.
I delivered it to him on a Friday. We shook hands and as I was leaving Chuck told me how much he enjoyed my newspaper column.
I thanked him. Not only for saying nice things about the column but for being the guy who took on the task of making sure the tools of the trade used by broadcasters over the past 75 years are assembled in one place for all to see.
And I encourage you to go see it.
The museum is open to the public and tickets are affordable. You can get more information at texasbroadcastmuseum.com
While you’re there, look for my old AP machine. It’s where it belongs.