This article originally appeared in Radio
World in April of 2002. It is reposted here as part of our coverage of the recent
death of Paul Schafer.
LAS VEGAS This week’s NAB2002 marks the 50th
consecutive annual NAB convention Paul Schafer has attended.
But this one is special for
another reason: Schafer is receiving the NAB Radio Engineering Achievement
Award at the Technology Luncheon.
The award, given to industry leaders for
significant contributions to the advancement of broadcast engineering,
recognizes Schafer for six decades of broadcast experience, including his work
in the development of on-air automation systems and remote-control equipment
Schafer, 76, is president of Schafer International, a broadcast
equipment distributor. The Bonita, Calif., company does most of its business in
Mexico, selling audio gear to radio and television stations.
His friends in broadcasting say
Schafer’s influence has been felt throughout the industry thanks to his
technical innovations. Others decry automation, saying it helped to spur the
end of unique local radio programming and led to fewer on-air jobs and the rise
of sparsely manned or unattended stations that use automated programming.
Schafer devised a
remote-control system allowing for unattended transmitters in 1953 when the FCC
relaxed the rules requiring engineers to be stationed at transmitter sites
around the clock.
Next, when asked to design an automation
system for a California broadcaster, he constructed a system of record players
and reel-to-reel tape decks that would prove to be a forerunner to today’s
PC-based radio automation systems.
observers would agree that the Schafer Automation System forever changed the
way radio operators run their stations.
“His systems were well-built with first class
parts. His concepts, now in computer form, are the foundation of many radio
stations today,” said Andy Laird, vice president of radio engineering for the
Radio Journal Broadcast Group and a member of the NAB award nominating
say that I’m honored to receive this award would be a masterpiece of
understatement,” Schafer said. “Especially for doing something that has been
fun and interesting for 60 years.”
The first Schafer Automation System,
installed at KGEE(AM) in Bakersfield, Calif., in 1956 was dubbed the “blue-wire
job” because all of the wiring in it was blue, Schafer said.
“The owner wanted to program his
station all night long without a person being there. I used a couple of Seeburg
record player changers to play 45s and several Ampex reel decks for commercials
and we were in business,” Schafer said.
Originally, commercials had to be dubbed
sequentially to play back in the right order. Before long, Schafer, with the
help of Chief Engineer Jim Harford, designed a better system. The “spotter”
used Ampex reel-to-reel tape decks that could fast forward and rewind to count
windows cut from the tape in order to locate specific commercials.
“We removed about an
inch of the oxide from the tape every minute. The ‘windows’ were then counted
by the automation system as they passed between a lamp and a photocell to find
the right commercial to play,” Schafer said.
NO MUSIC FADES
The Schafer Automation System used a series
of relays and stepping switches and a clock that allowed programmers to
back-time music to join network newscasts without having to fade the music.
Schafer said the
automation system consisted of two racks: one held the “brains,” another
contained three tape reel-to-reel decks. The Seeburg record player changers
held 100 records each.
Programming the system was limited at the beginning. The front control
panel consisted of a series of diode pins to allow programmers to change a
sequence or repeat it, Schafer said.
“They could set up a pattern by screwing
diode pins into any of the many holes in the clock. Typically this would be
each 15 or 30 minutes to play station breaks,” Schafer said.
In the original Schafer Automation
System, the switching from one event to the next was triggered by silence.
“Whenever silence was
sensed the system would step to the next event. There would be the occasional
record with a pause that would give us fits, of course,” Schafer said.
To remedy that
problem, Schafer introduced a system using a 25 Hz tone at or near the end of
an event on reel-to-reel tape. The tones, which were inaudible to listeners,
allowed for overlapping of events and made the system sound better, he said.
“The system used
stepping switches, like the ones telephone companies used at the time. After
the tone or silence, the next element was triggered, which was determined by
the setting of switches on the front panel,” Schafer said.
Eventually, Schafer’s automation system used
Viking cartridge decks and then Sono Mag Corp. carousels for commercial
playback. Ultimately, broadcasters dubbed music onto reels, which improved the
reliability of the automation system and meant the 45s no longer wore out,
“For about the first five years after we introduced automation to the
radio industry, we were the only ones producing anything of the kind. We sold
direct and through Gates, Collins, RCS and IGM,” Schafer said.
To help spread the word of his
innovation, Schafer had three motor homes traveling the country demonstrating
Schafer Automation Systems to radio broadcasters. “The idea was so new, it was
the only way to get the idea of automation across,” he said.
In early 1959, Schafer purchased a
radio station of his own to help demonstrate how efficiently a station could be
run with automation. The station, KDOT(AM) in Reno, Nev., operated with a staff
manager did the selling, the engineer was also the announcer and one office
manager ran things in fine fashion,” he said.
sold more than 1,000 versions of its automation design, including the Schafer
Model 800, probably the most reliable of them all, Schafer said. In fact, some
are still in operation at radio stations in Mexico, he said.
APPLIED MAGNETICS TO CETEC
Schafer sold Schafer Electronics in 1968,
about the time the company was beginning to work on a computer-driven
automation system. Applied Magnetics owned the company for a few years before
selling to Cetec Automation.
Not one for retirement, Schafer started his
current company, Schafer International, in 1969. In 1986 he founded Schafer
Digital, where he worked on a new design for a PC-based automation and traffic
system. He sold a few systems and then sold the company, he said.
Schafer’s background is steeped in broadcast
engineering and goes back to his hometown of Hammond, Ind., where he learned to
fix radios as a teen at a repair shop.
“I was building
crystal sets and generally fascinated with making radios work and listening to
them. Radio was very, very young at the time,” Schafer said.
Schafer received his first FCC
operator’s license in 1942 and went to work for his hometown radio station
WJOB(AM). He was delighted to bring home $35 a week playing 78 rpm records and
16-inch transcription discs.
The following year, Schafer went to work for
WOWO(AM) in Fort Wayne, Ind. The 50 kW station served as a good training ground
for a young engineer.
“I learned how to change the big water-cooled tubes in the transmitter
that took up two complete floors of a very large building. Very fun,” he said.
After a stint in the
U.S. Army Signal Corps during World War II, Schafer returned to WANE(AM) in
Fort Wayne where he worked on the air, sold commercial time and fixed the
became a combo operator of sorts. Times were tight and stations couldn’t afford
an engineer and announcer. I was an engineer sitting between two turntables and
with a microphone in front of me,” he said.
After WANE was sold, Schafer moved south to
Norfolk, Va., to be chief engineer and assistant manager of WNOR(AM).
Schafer set out for
California in 1951 and landed a job with NBC Hollywood, then home to some of
the biggest radio shows off the day, as a summer vacation relief engineer.
“Bob Hope, Dinah
Shore, Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin. I think those were the last of the golden
years of radio. It was fantastic,” Schafer said.
It was while at NBC that Schafer became aware
of a new FCC ruling allowing for radio stations that were nondirectional and 15
kW or less to operate transmitters unattended by remote control. With the help
of fellow NBC engineer Bill Amidon, Schafer ordered several phone lines
installed between his garage and Amidon’s basement.
“The key was you had to be able to meter and
simultaneously you had to be able to raise and lower and turn things on or off.
The logical way to do it was with a stepping switch,” Schafer said.
Using an old rotary
phone, Schafer incorporated relays to raise or lower a specific element after a
number was dialed.
“You could dial up number one for plate voltage, maybe two was plate
current and maybe three was antenna current. A little meter would show the
reading. Then we would have the relays set up to do the function,” Schafer
The Schafer remote control system marked the
birth of Schafer Electronics in 1953. After working out the bugs the first
remote control unit was installed at KROW(AM) in Oakland, Calif., Schafer said.
It wasn’t until 1957
that the FCC amended the rules to allow for the remote control of all broadcast
transmitters, thanks in part to NAB field tests filed in 1955 using Schafer’s
Besides building remote-control equipment and automation systems,
Schafer was instrumental in assisting the FCC in field tests demonstrating the
worthiness of FM in 1965.
“Prose Walker was director of engineering for
NAB and wanted to show the world that the United States’ proposed standard for
broadcasting FM should be adopted by the world. He thought it would help if we
could feed a stereo signal to a satellite and get it back,” Schafer said.
Schafer used several
Ampex portable recorders in the middle of the Mojave Desert near Barstow,
Calif., to record music and chronicle the tests. The recordings later were
played for international engineering groups throughout Europe.
There are those in
broadcasting who complain that the automation system Schafer developed more
than 45 years ago has lead to today’s widespread use of voice tracking, which
has cost jobs and created a shortage of young talent.
“What you hear on the air in most markets
today can be attributed to Mr. Schafer … automation that plays the same
mindless drool from a satellite or hard drive,” said Jay Swafford, a former
on-air personality and program director in several markets, including
“Nowhere have I found that Mr. Schafer’s invention added to the
listen-ability of radio, just the enhancement of the bottom line for the
“Kids have no idea how much fun radio used to be when personality got a
chance to shine through the airwaves,” Swafford said, who is an audio
technician at WTVF-TV in Nashville.
Schafer said he heard many of the same
complaints when his automation system became popular.
“In the early days of automation, each
station produced what their automation system could assemble. Some of the
less-creative air talent created material that was far from the best. I guess
it will always be that way,” Schafer said.
foresees even more changes for the broadcast industry thanks to advances in
“Great minds will continue to find ways to enhance programming,
automation and other aspects of broadcasting,” he said.
Schafer, the father of five grown children,
lives in Bonita, Calif. One of his sons, Rob, followed him in broadcast
engineering and is currently acting director of technical operations for CBS-TV
Newspath in New York.
QUOTES FROM COLLEAGUES
I worked closely with
Paul when the FCC tested FM stereo in the California desert in the 1960s. He
prepared all of the audio for the tests and was essential in proving that FM
stereo was practical and should be accepted by the world as the standard. He is a great audio
man and really understood stereo. I consider him to be greatly talented and a
real authority on all things audio.
— Harold Kassens
Retired FCC Deputy
Broadcast Bureau Chief
Paul for over 40 years and always look forward to seeing him at the NAB shows. He deserves to be
recognized for his automation systems and what they meant to small stations.
Automation offered them an affordable means to operate their FM stations when
they couldn’t simulcast anymore. He also did a lot of great work with remote control
equipment for transmitters.
— Mike Dorrough
Dorrough Electronics Inc.
and past NAB Engineering
I worked for Paul for
10 years at Schafer Electronics and thought he was a neat guy and fun to work
with. He always
had great ideas and was a real innovator. He was also a super salesman. He just
had a knack for seeing a need and then developing products that broadcasters
wanted to buy.
— Bob Levinson
Former Director of Manufacturing