A Look Back - EXTRA
How We Covered Elections 50 Years Ago
By Wally Peel
How We Covered Elections
50 Years Ago
Computers have brought about almost un-imaginable advances in how we cover election night, and what you see on the air.
Nationally, results are almost instantaneous. In some cases, races are called within minutes of the polls closing. Locally, we usually have some pretty significant numbers to report on Beartooth News at 10. For those wanting results earlier, we provide coverage on our website.
Impressive Computer generated graphics help us tell the story.
But it wasn’t always this way. Let’s go back in time to ELECTION CENTRAL in the early 60’s.
Upstairs, with ink pen in hand, our staff artist is carefully writing the names of candidates on strips of white poster board about three quarters of an inch wide.
In the front office, our Manager is working on staff assignments for election night, while the ladies are mimeographing the various forms we will be needing. For those unfamiliar, the Mimeograph was the predecessor of today’s copy machines. It was stencil and ink technology at its finest, and yes…it Did have a HAND CRANK.
They also made up stacks and stacks of these.
Any idea what they are?
In the back, the engineers were working on a big board, upon which election returns would be posted.
All this in preparation for the big night...ELECTION NIGHT
At about 7PM folks start arriving for what promises to be a long night. In addition to staff, we are joined by a large number of volunteers from the Helena Citizens Band Radio Club. They have a very significant role in our coverage.
Each CB Club member was paired up with a person from the station. They were then assigned a Precinct. These teams arrived at their destinations just before the polls closed.
Back at the station the moment was near. At exactly 8PM the red light on the camera came on.
The floor director gave the cue…and the announcer said…
“Good evening. Welcome to Channel 12’s Election Central.”
He was standing in front of a large board filled with the names of candidates all neatly printed on three quarter inch wide strips of poster board. Next to each name there was a nail. .
In the newsroom the rhythmic chatter of the teletypes seemed more pronounced as we watched impatiently for numbers.
To hear the sound of an old Newsroom teletype, click on the image to the right.
KBLL Radio had already reported some National results as it began its coverage with NBC News at the top of the hour.
In the TV Studio the announcer continued to talk about the election. He had no script. It was all Ad-lib. Onto the set, a second announcer appeared. For the first announcer, who was running out of things to talk about, that was like the arrival of the Cavalry. The two talked briefly, then the first announcer let the new announcer take over for awhile.
Out in the office they were waiting. Waiting for numbers. The silence was almost painful.
In the field, an election official opened the back of a voting machine. She reached in, pulled a lever, and the huge machine came to life. It rattled and clanked…banged and clattered, and suddenly numbers began to appear in small windows next to all the levers in front. Round and round the tumblers went. The numbers climbed higher and higher. When it had tallied all the votes, our team was allowed to copy down the results.
Once all the numbers had been copied from the first machine, the CB’er went to the car to call in the results. The staff member moved on to the next machine and began copying the results from it. We couldn’t help but smile as we watched the competition frantically looking for a phone. The help of the CB Club was exclusively ours. The donation we had made to their Club probably had a lot to do with that.
Back at the station the long silence was broken. Everyone stopped to listen as the CB Base crackled, and the very first results came in loud and clear. The news spread from one end of the Quonset hut to the other. WE’VE GOT NUMBERS. The numbers are coming in!!
What happened next was a flurry of activity that would go non-stop for the rest of the evening.
The results from the CB Radio were copied to pre made forms. Those forms were passed on to the next person who copied all the numbers individually onto pieces of paper about 2 inches high and four inches wide. Each paper had a hole at the top. (See the picture above.)
When this task was complete, another lady took the tally sheet and all the papers with numbers on them back to the studio. The announcers, who were standing several feet in front of the election board, continued to talk. The woman stepped behind them and began hanging the numbers on the nails next to each candidate’s name. When finished, she left without saying a word.
“We have our first numbers” one announcer proclaimed.
Up front, another announcer takes over in Radio Control. The announcer he replaces goes down the hall to the TV studio, and walks onto the set. The announcer who started our TV coverage finally gets to take a break. When he finishes his break he will take a turn doing Radio coverage. Four announcers follow this rotation pattern all night long.
By now more results are coming in. CB traffic is heavy. The office erupts into what might appear to others to be organized chaos. Everyone is focused on their assigned task. The new numbers that come in are added to those we’ve already reported . In some cases, partial results that were reported earlier must be subtracted from the updated totals. The updated numbers are prepared and hung on the nails in the studio. One person is keeping track of all this. She is sure to have a headache before the night is over.
As the evening progresses, many visitors stop by. The Governor…a U. S. Senator…and several of the candidates whose names are on our board. Some have been invited, while others just dropped in. They are all likely to be interviewed during our coverage. We welcome a lot of viewers as well. Folks who just wanted a firsthand look at all the activity. At times, people are standing five deep across the back of the studio.
Teams in the field return to the station, take a short break, and are then given new assignments. Some go back to precincts for hand count ballots while others are dispatched to outlying areas.
By 11PM most of the results are in. There are some races yet to be decided, and we’re determined to stay on the air until we get the final numbers. We’ve been on the air for three hours. That doesn’t seem like a lot of time, but for the announcers, it has been an eternity. In the early 60’s, election coverage was either commercial free, or any mentions of sponsors were done live. There haven’t been any breaks. No time to contemplate new ways of rephrasing the things they have been saying for the past couple of hours. The heat from the studio lights is becoming almost unbearable.
Another hour goes by. Only a handful of votes have been added to the board. In the office the flurry of activity has ended. Once again it’s quiet. They’re all waiting. Waiting for numbers.
KBLL Radio is still on the air. The announcer is spinning records. He occasionally opens the mike to let the listeners know that Election Coverage continues. The announcers in the studio aren’t as lucky. They’re still on camera, and they have to keep talking despite the fact that they ran out of things to say some time ago. To keep things going, one might ask the other…”Did you know that President McKinley had a Parrot?” “Why no,” the other might reply, “Could it talk?” “Didn’t talk much, but it could whistle Yankee Doodle!”
It’s one o’clock in the morning. Nothing new to report. On the radio the music keeps playing while on TV the talking continues. “Did you know that William Howard Taft once got stuck in the White House bathtub?” You’re kidding!“No, it really happened. He had to be rescued by aides.”
At about 1:20AM the last few votes came in. The numbers are hung on the board and with fresh enthusiasm the announcers report the final results. They recap the evenings events…express appreciation to all who participated in the evenings coverage…thank the viewers for watching, and say Goodnight.
The red light on the camera goes off.
It’s truly been a red white and blue evening, but those glorious colors were only in our hearts. The viewers didn’t see them because we were broadcasting in black and white.
As we gather in the hallway, the engineers are finishing their work, shutting things down. We hear the distinct clicking of relays as the studio lights go out one by one.
Neckties are loosened, suit jackets are coming off…a clear sign that the evening is over.
We’re all tired, but our boss Doug has to be exhausted. His day started at sign-on.
As tired as he was, Doug appears in the hallway and shouts out to the crew, "Breakfast everyone! It's on me."
We all take him up on his offer to buy breakfast at the 4B’s, where the conversation no doubt will be how much fun the night was, and how soon we get to do it again.