broadcast engineers, we sometimes see ourselves as part of an
equation with two variables: The hardware (what we install and keep
running) and the software (what the program director tells us we have
to put on the air).
Bruce Vaughan poses with his new radio service shop test equipment,
circa 1948. Courtesy Liz Lester Design
there have to be two more elements in the equation or the concept of
broadcasting doesn’t work. These are the audience we’re trying to
reach and the receivers through which they listen to us.
years, a lot has been written about the first two parts of the
broadcasting equation, and even the third variable has gotten
considerable ink in terms of audience studies. However, save for a
few “service” columns in a couple of radio/TV magazines that have
been out of business for decades now, not much has been written from
the perspective of the serviceman.
this “throwaway economy” that we live in, it’s become cheaper
and more convenient to consign a broken radio or TV set to the
landfill and head out to the big box store to purchase a replacement.
decades ago, though, when the typical consumer’s radio quit
playing, he or she headed down to Ron’s Radio Shop or maybe the
service desk at Allen’s Appliances and waited until someone worked
some magic and brought the set back to life. A few dollars changed
hands and the receiver was just as good as new.
unfortunately, the service profession, which at one time probably
numbered in the tens or maybe hundreds of thousands of men and women
has trickled down to almost nothing. It has become more
cost-effective to replace a set than to repair it (and the latter
isn’t even an option unless you can find someone with the necessary
skills, time, patience, service information and access to replacement
autobiography by the late Bruce Vaughan allows us to view the
consumer service side of the broadcasting industry through the eyes
of a former serviceman, long-time Arkansas repairman and broadcasting
was born in a rural Arkansas community near Springdale at just about
the same time as broadcasting came into being in the early 1920s, and
was smitten at an early age by the magic and power of this new form
“Surviving Technology,” Vaughan recalls being introduced to radio
during a visit by his mother to the home of one of the community’s
society matrons. The year was 1925 and the radio set in that home was
the first in the small town. Vaughan was only three, but that memory
remained with him for a lifetime and influenced his path over the
next nine decades or so.
seminal moment in Vaughan’s life occurred during a visit in the
early 1930s to kinfolks living in the “big city” (comparatively)
of Muskogee, Okla.
was about 10 years old and totally hooked on radio. When he learned
that one of the town’s wealthiest families had launched a radio
station, he prevailed upon a cousin to arrange a tour. The ensuing
visit remained with Vaughan for the rest of his life and is captured
in his book — even down to the elevator ride (his first) necessary
to ascend to the station, KBIX, located atop Muskogee’s Bixby
the glass wall we could see a small studio about 12 x 12 feet with a
grand piano in one corner of the little room. The only other
furnishings were three folding chairs and two microphones.
interesting by far was the radio transmitting room […]A
young man, neatly dressed in a white shirt and tie was sitting in
front of two racks of equipment […] He was reading the local news
and weather report.
sat watching the young man read the news I thought of the words
traveling out from the radio station in all directions — for maybe
fifty miles or more. I wondered how many people were sitting at home
listening to the very same words I was hearing.
talked I noticed he kept glancing at the meters on one rack and I
could see them move in cadence with his voice. Red and green pilot
bulbs glowed from several different sources. This was strictly
big-time radio […] I must have admired the gear for at least five
minutes — I don’t think I ever saw anything so beautiful.
knew then that he would be pursuing a career in the medium. This
turned out, however, not to be in broadcast engineering. After high
school, he enrolled in engineering studies at the University of
Arkansas, but his student days were cut short with the outbreak of
World War II. He volunteered for military duty, spending most of the
next four years in maintaining military communications equipment.
Vaughan did re-enter college after his military stint, but soon
decided that it was not for him and set up a radio service business
in the small town of Springdale, Ark.
until his retirement, Vaughan worked as a repairman in what he termed
the “Golden Age” of consumer electronics.
I did not realize it at the time, I was among the fortunate few who
would witness, at very close range, the death of radio’s golden
age, the coming of television and the invention of the transistor. In
1946, tape recorders, LP records, pocket radios, stereo, video
recorders and computers were only dreams in the minds of a limited
number of inventors and scientists. Few today realize the social and
economic changes wrought by the explosion of technology in the field
of electronics. A ringside seat where one could not only observe but
also participate in all this emerging technology was worth more than
gold — in retrospect, a lot more.
Vaughan’s excellent memory, the readers of his book are able to
share his experiences and witness the growth of the consumer side of
the broadcasting business, as it morphs into what we know today. He
shares both the good and the bad sides of radio servicing — the
tricks customers sometimes played to get a “free ride,” the
business arrangements and associated craziness necessary to get and
keep a franchise to sell certain manufacturers’ big-ticket-home
electronics items, and more.
also describes his own tactics for dealing with difficult customers.
One if these involved installing a loop antenna that was concealed
beneath the checkout counter in his shop and connected to a large,
long wire outdoor antenna. The induced signal made the radios he
repaired and sold perform much better than would otherwise be
expected. (He notes that he never revealed this secret to anyone
before the publication of his book.)
especially interesting chapter in his book is titled “The Lull
Before the Storm.” It describes his experiences as an early
television adopter, beginning in 1948 when the nearest television
stations were in St. Louis and Dallas — each nearly 300 miles from
Vaughan’s location in northwest Arkansas.
sensing that television would eventually be accepted by the public,
Vaughan was quick to learn all he could about this new type of
broadcasting, to the point of purchasing what he believed to be the
third television set in all of Arkansas. He also made the first
retail TV set sale in the state.
“technology” in Vaughan’s book is not limited solely to
broadcasting, of course. He also spends devotes some time to
describing the early private telephone companies that sprang up in
rural Arkansas, and the rise of the electric power generating and
supply business. The first systems were strictly “power on demand,”
with electricity only available during the evening hours, something
that now seems incredible in our 21st century, 24-hour-news-cycle
years, Vaughan was an ardent amateur radio operator too, and he
chronicles a lot of his memories in this area, especially his passion
for regenerative receivers. (The book is dedicated to the memory of
Edwin H. Armstrong, the originator of the regenerative circuit.)
Anyone who has ever played with “regen” circuits knows that a
certain amount of black magic is involved in creating a stable and
describes going through scores of circuit iterations before he
finally wound up with a receiver that lived up to his expectations.
The schematic of this “ultimate” regenerative set is included in
the book, as are suggestions for constructing it.
addition to possessing an excellent memory and being adept at
electronics, Vaughan was clearly a great storyteller. His writing
skills are impressive and the photography is compelling. (He won a
number of awards in this area and was the first Arkansan to be made a
Fellow of the Photographic Society of America.) The book is printed
on heavy, high-quality paper that nicely compliments the shots
“Surviving Technology” will transport you back to a time when
life was simpler and more fun, at least in my opinion. Vaughan’s
book is a treasure trove — something that you will likely read more
than once and savor with each rereading. I highly recommend it.
Technology” was Vaughan’s fifth published book. He was working on
a sixth when death claimed him in January at the age of 91. The
working title of the unfinished book was “Screw the Grim Reaper.”
Information on all of Vaughan’s books were included in “Surviving
Technology,” including this (at the time) work in progress. Sadly,
it will never be finished.
Technology,” published by Farmhouse Books, is available through the
Vaughan’s family website and also at the Electric Radio magazine
O’Neal is technology editor of RW sister publication TV Technology.
He has written in Radio World about the technical contributions of
radio figures like Jack DeWitt, Mary Day Lee and Reginald A.
on this or any story to firstname.lastname@example.org.