The WQHT Top Of Hour Story: Loud and Proud From The Top, Top, Top of the World Trade Center
Interview with Rick Allen who created WQHT-New York’s iconic Top Of Hour ID that ran for years and years in the 1980’s and into the 90’s on the anniversary of the World Trade Center Attack.
First the innocent and happy thoughts: Even though I’ve tried and tried, I can’t for the life of me remember the exact date but for some strange reason I can still remember almost every detail of the night I put that ID together. I think it was somewhere around the summer of 1987. We had just finished a recording session with Chuck Riley who, along with Eric Edwards, was the voice of Hot 103. Joel Salkowitz was WQHT’s Program Director. He asked for a new “top of the hour” ID using those new voice tracks. He made it clear he wanted something special.
I remember taking the tape of the raw voice tracks home to my project studio at my home in Douglaston,Queens. I had this little first floor apartment with stairs down to the basement. I had set up my studio in that windowless damp basement. It was cutting edge at the time, but when you consider the digital gear we work with today, it’s OK to laugh at what we thought was state of the art back then. I had a Commodore 64 computer and a 5 inch floppy drive running a copy of one of the firstMIDIsequencing programs. It controlled a Prophet 2000 sampler. There was an analog ARP Odyssey synthesizer, Juno 106 and Mini-Moog to create the effects. It was all recorded onto quarter inch tape at 15ips without the benefit of noise reduction.
I walked into the studio that night to the creative pressure of producing audio that could stand out in a radio market that included guys like Scott Shannon and JR Nelson over at Z100 (Can you believe this was before Dave Fox started at Z100). I remember I found a little bit of courage from downing a couple of Bacardi and Cokes. Then I looked at the script. It was the line “Top of theWorldTradeCenter” that got me thinking. It created a mental image of the broadcast signal rising all the way up the enormous height of the twin towers. I began to search for the right effect to create just that mental image with audio and production. One step at a time it began to come together. I loaded the voice tracks into the sampler and started experimenting. With Chuck’s voice belting out “Top of the World Trade Center” spread across the notes of the keyboard, I pictured the station’s signal rising up One World Trade Center, all the way to the top of the antenna rising from its roof and started hitting keys, one after another, rising up the scale. Chuck’s voice rose in pitch with each note. That was it… the beginning of the whole concept. In the final version, the word “top” keeps rising in pitch as it repeats. As the pitch rises the volume fades out. Underneath it you can hear Chuck at his original pitch, repeating “top” on another track. That track then finishes the phrase “top of theWorldTradeCenter.”
The next morning I took the final mix into the station and Joel came in the production studio to listen. It just so happened that Terry Greiger, Emmis’ corporate chief engineer, was in town from LA working on some gear in my studio that morning. The ID boomed out of the speakers, but before Joel could say a word, Terry blurted out, “That thing is way over-produced. It’ll burnout in a day.” Fortunately Joel didn’t thin so and it made it on the air. To this day, Terry and I always start our conversations with Terry asking, “What are you up to?” And I always answer, “Nothing. Just sitting here over-producing.”
I don’t remember how many years that ID ran but it was somewhere around 6 years in various forms on the station. When Emmis switched WQHT’s signal from 103.5 to 97.1 in 1988, the transmitter site changed from the WorldTradeCenterto the EmpireStateBuilding. The ID changed with it, but it was those twin towers downtown that originally inspired the concept of the ID that night in the basement studio. For so many years it was a blast for me to hear it copied on stations all over the country. Right up until 911, one of my favorite script variations came from Scott Mahalick in the early 90’s. He asked me to produce one for a station that went, “From the top top top of a really tall tower with red blinking lights on top so planes don’t crash into it.” It’s sad that the humor in his script forever changed, like the lives of so many Americans, the morning of September 11th. That morning, both of the original “towers” that were the spark that helped create that ID fell, thousands of innocent lives were lost and I was terribly angry that misguided hatred from religious fanatics had the power to get inside my head and steal the smile that Scott’s humorous version had always invoked. A script that included the words “really tall tower” and “planes crashing” just wasn’t funny anymore.
My business and studios were in Scottsdale, Arizonain 1996, so I watched in horror from the other side of the country as the events of September 11th unfolded that morning on TV. I sat and stared blankly as the story unfolded on the national news. My disbelief morphed to anger, then to fear for all my friends back inNew York. It wasn’t until days later that I saw a picture showing rubble and an American flag defiantly flying from the remains of the antenna that used to transmit broadcast that ID to millions and millions of Americans from 110 stories aboveNew York. That antenna was now a lonely twisted tale of survival rising out of the rubble. I thought about the destruction and about that old radio station ID. It suddenly struck me that the radio signal beaming out over the tri-state from the “Top Top Top of theWorldTradeCenter” had been silenced.
It hit me hard then as it does now. I grieve for the loss of life. I grieve for those who lost loved ones. I struggle to understand how anyone, in the name of their God, could cause harm to other human beings. But I also began leave some of the anger behind. I began to feel differently when I thought of the towers. Now I no longer think only of the loss and destruction. I am now reminded that those towers are a symbol of freedom for millions and one night back around 1987 they were my creative inspiration for a radio station ID.
About Rick Allen
Rick Allen is a sound designer with experience in film, TV and radio and a credit list of radio stations and programs in the U.S. and abroad.
He is the creator of Absolute Imaging. A new imaging and production library launched by Envision Radio Networks. The collection starts at 13,000 cuts and the company promises to add more on a consistent basis. Some tracks are standalone and others are blocks to build from, according to a release. The collection is Web-based and designed to be searched.
Visit Absolute Imaging at http://www.myabsoluteimaging.com