Viva Las NAB: 38 Years and Counting
     

The author’s reel-to-reel tape machine: Not quite an antique, but getting there.
The NAB first took its annual broadcasting convention across the continental divide to Las Vegas on April 6, 1975, though the association fathers weren’t ready to bet the farm on the new location until 1991.

The convention left town six times after its first visit: In 1976 and ’77 to Chicago and Washington, respectively; to Dallas three times, in the 1980s; and to Atlanta, in 1990.

After that final trip back east, the NAB packed up the show tent and decamped for the west. The weather was great, the convention center was big (seemingly bigger every year) and, as a bonus, there were the 50 cent shrimp cocktails at the Four Queens.

As The Show once again approaches, I have begun to think about the changes that have occurred since that first trip west 38 years ago.

The convention

Broadcasting Magazine reported in March 1975 that preregistration for the convention was a whopping 3,166, and that the NAB predicted a record-breaking 5,500 members of the broadcasting industry to attend (they got just shy of that).

This year, the “Fast Facts” page on the NAB website says organizers are expecting north of 91,000. No matter what you hear in the trenches about broadcasting being a dying medium, that’s still a lot of folks.

The 1975 version of the LVCC had two medium-sized halls and a “rotunda” between them, which from the air looked like a giant aluminum wok turned upside down; 203 exhibitors showed off their wares and services, and the whole thing was in, up and out in three days.

The wok is long gone. The floor is now four halls (really five, given that the South Hall has upper and lower levels), with 1.5 million square feet of floor space and more than 1,500 exhibitors.

The fun kicks off on Saturday and runs until 2 p.m. the following Thursday. It’s enough walking to wear the treads off anyone’s Nikes.

One of the biggest changes since 1975 is in the mix of exhibitors. Hundreds of companies that did not exist in 1975 are now front and center. Take Microsoft, for instance. Big deal now, right? On April 6, 1975, the company was two days old and had two employees: Bill Gates and Paul Allen.

By comparison, the companies commanding the largest exhibit spaces in Las Vegas in 1975 were RCA (#1) and Ampex (#2). Both have been gone for years. For the most part, exhibitor changes have been a direct result of technological changes and the ability (or lack of it) of companies to adapt.

Technology

Fidelipac was a well-known exhibitor at the 1975 show. (Any reader under 30 will be saying, “Who?”) Fidelipac made tape cartridges (to which younger readers might now be saying “What?”).

These little clear plastic cases with gray undersides held endless loops of 1/4-inch audiotape wound around a spool. All of this, of course, is gone, except in stations (like mine, I confess) where machines and tapes gather dust in storage rooms because the engineer or owner just cannot part with the stuff.

The big transmitter news in 1975 came from Harris, which announced the very first all-solid-state 1 kW AM transmitter, the MW-1.

I was about 10 in the early 1960s when the first germanium transistor became widely available; those devices were fragile in the extreme. Heat (and by that I mean anything beyond shirt-sleeve temperature), static electricity, mechanical shock, almost anything would destroy those first-generation devices. Even if they did somehow survive being breathed on, they could only handle a fraction of a watt of power.

Given all that, the MW-1 was a big development in 1975. Harris Broadcast, I am happy to report, is alive and well, now under new management, and will be a prominent exhibitor again this year.

In 1975, most broadcast engineers had little knowledge or understanding of digital computers. Mainframes were still the primary computing platform, DEC was only five years into making its PDP-11 minicomputer (which powered a fair number of station traffic systems and a few video editing systems in 1975) and the IBM PC (with Gates’ and Allen’s DOS operating system) was still six years in the future.

CD players were seven years away. The only way to play back quality audio was by magnetic tape or vinyl disc.

Everything was mechanical. Capstans, pinch-rollers, belts, motors, brake shoes, solenoids, idler wheels, tension arms ... everything was clunking and ratcheting along all the time.Routine wear and tear kept station maintenance engineers extremely busy; when I look back, it seems astonishing that any of it worked at all.

Regulation

The regulatory news in 1975 was the FCC’s adoption of the cross-ownership rule, which said that radio and television stations could not be co-owned with newspapers in the same market.

This was to guard against too much “concentration of media” (no one realizing that an obscure 1969 paper proposing what would eventually become the Internet would upend media concentration to a far greater extent).

Cross-ownership restrictions, coupled with the “7/7/7 rule” — no company could own more than seven AM, seven FM and seven TV stations — kept even the biggest media conglomerates fairly small. The restriction evolved into the “12/12/12 rule” and finally went away altogether.

One part of the FCC/broadcaster relationship has stayed the same: Tension over indecent and obscene programming is as visceral today as it was then.

In an FCC Q&A forum at the convention in 1975, General Counsel Ashton Hardy and Complaints and Compliance Chief William Ray mused on the commission’s position on that topic. Mr. Hardy at one point referred to the then-controversial George Carlin “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” record, saying that no matter if it aired at 2 p.m. or 2 a.m., “If it has no serious social value, and I think it did not, this record would be prohibited.”

(I highlighted the middle part of this quote, taken from a published report in Broadcasting of April 14, 1975, because, of course, this has been, and remains the problem: One person’s obscenity is another person’s comedy.)

The FM/AM flip

In 1975, there were hundreds of vacant FM allocations, many of them in major markets, just waiting for someone to come along and figure out how to make money with them. AM radio was not just dominant; it was overwhelmingly dominant.

The numbers tell the story of what happened next.

There were 4,434 AM stations on the air at the beginning of 1975, with only 2,648 commercial FMs. Many FM stations would have been in the red had it not been for the Subsidiary Communications Authority provision of the rules, which allowed FM stations to transmit a secondary programming service via SCA: Muzak.

But the wind was changing.

FM stations were signing on at the rate of more than a hundred a year. AM, about half that. By 1993, the FM station count finally surpassed the AM (4,959 to 4,945) according to the FCC, and the disparity has only grown.

At the end of last year, the score was FM, 6,580; AM, 4,745. Adding in low-power and non-commercial FM stations tilts the tally even further. The AM tally meanwhile is down from its peak in the early 1990s.

And, of course, Vegas

Las Vegas in 1975 was a blip compared to today — 140,000 people in 1975, give or take a few thousand. A bit more than 1.5 million now. The biggest hotel in 1975 was the Las Vegas Hilton (biggest in the world when it opened as the International Hotel six years earlier).

Vegas has continued the building binge and now has more than 124,000 rooms (62,000 on The Strip alone, but most of the legacy hotel/casinos are gone, replaced by mega-resorts). The Thunderbird, Stardust, Frontier, El Rancho, Sands, Dunes, Silver Slipper, Desert Inn, Landmark … all gone the way of Howard Hughes, who had bought most of them between 1967 and 1970.

Hughes was a big Las Vegas guy, even after he left town in the dark of night in 1970 for the Bahamas. In addition to all of the casinos, he owned KLAS(TV), more Nevada land than the BLM and the North Las Vegas airport.

Other changes?The monorail, elevated pedestrian crosswalks, not to mention Steve Wynn … all new since 1975.

So there it is. A short list of changes that have transpired in the 38 years since the annual NAB Convention hit town. Who knows what the next 38 years will bring to our industry? Or to Vegas? We’ll just have to, as they say on the radio, “Stay tuned.”

Many of the facts and figures came from magazines archived on the website www.americanradiohistory.com.I am indebted to David Gleason for his fine work in establishing and maintaining that resource.

Share your own favorite Vegas NAB memories. Email radioworld@nbmedia.com, attention Letters, or post a comment below.


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