Bill Ashley is one of those fellows who signs his e-mails “73” instead of “Best regards.”
You might see a guy using shorthand like that and think, “Oh, OK, I know the sort Bill Ashley is: technical, meticulous to the point of nitpicky, a storyteller, a radio buff. He’s a character. He makes awful puns and swoops in on the donuts. He’s probably always going on to his family about op-amps or how much radio has changed and about why WTOP moved its tower site somewhere in 1967.”
There you go, stereotyping those radio engineers and ham types.
Still you’d be right.
(click thumbnail)Bill Ashley receives a going-away present: a cartridge in a bare tree, the punch line to one of his favorite stories. Bob Eburg makes the presentation.Collins and Beasley
Ashley retired from his sales position at Bradley Broadcast & Pro Audio recently. I share the news because he has touched many people through his careers as engineer, equipment salesman and manufacturer, including me.
Bill started in radio at WPAQ(AM) in Mount Airy, N.C., a town that would become famous as Mayberry RFD. He worked for and learned from the late Ralph Epperson, whom Bill describes as a gifted engineer and a legend for his knowledge of mountain string music indigenous to the Southern Appalachian highlands.
“Ralph was the first of his family to go into broadcasting, but not the last. Youngest brother Stuart is the founder of Salem Communications; and a cousin, George Beasley, started Beasley Broadcast Group,” Bill said.
“After high school, I moved to Atlanta and worked for a while doing what was then called ‘Top 40’ radio at WAKE. My interests, though, were always more on the technical side.” So he went to work in 1962 for WDBM in Statesville, N.C., half-owned by a consulting engineer from Nashville and half by a sales rep for Collins Radio Co.
“The station was a dream: it was a living catalog of Collins products,” he recalled.
(click thumbnail)Family members and Bradley co-workers salute Ashley on his last day in the office.“After a couple of years honing my engineering skills, I was lured away by George Beasley. The next four years were spent planning, building and caring for George’s expanding station group.
“Then in 1968 I decided that I wanted to come to the Washington area and try to work my way into the consulting side of broadcasting, since I really enjoyed doing AM frequency searches and allocation studies.”
He took a job at pioneer all-news station WAVA and wound up liking it so much that he stayed even into its rock years of the early 1980s. Then it was on to Mutual Radio Network, where he transferred from the network to satellite side and wound up manager of field engineering after the network was sold to Westwood One.
“When the satellite division starting to come apart in 1987, I called my old friend Art Reed” — who had worked for Ashley at WAVA and now was running equipment dealer Bradley Broadcast — “and asked him if he’d let me sell for a few months until I could find a more stable engineering job.”
Twenty years and seven months later, Ashley retired from that job.
Bradley Broadcast — or as Bill must have quipped once a day, “Broadly Bradcast” — saluted him with a party. Owner David Matthews, General Manager Art Reed, Marketing Manager Joellen Reed, past and present co-workers, family and clients took part.
Matthews presented Bill with a plaque naming him a “certified radio god” in the art and science of “all things broadcast” (with a minor in highly annoying puns).
Bill told me he had many feelings after the years at Bradley and more than 50 in the business.
“Broadcasting has been such an integral part of my life since I was a teenager, I simply cannot even imagine doing anything else.”
Many people have befriended him, he said, including industry leaders on both the station and manufacturing sides.
“One memory I must pass on is the time you and I were sharing a hotel room at the Radio Show in Los Angeles and you couldn’t sleep because of my snoring.”
I had blocked that one out, apparently.
My memory of Bill in the office was him on the phone, pawning onto clients the same five or six puns and worn jokes with which he berated us daily in the hall. You usually could hear him spinning some long tale or shaggy dog story. His customers loved it. When something struck him as funny, you could hear him giggling — there’s no other word for it — several offices away.
He also knew his stuff, was willing to impart it and generated a lot of loyalty from engineers who sensed they had a peer on the other end of the line.
Not every caller was pleasant. One from New York called wanting to return a Marantz cassette recorder.
“She claimed that I’d told her she could sync it to her 16 mm film camera. First of all, I had never told her that. Second, she didn’t even buy the machine from us.”
That is life as an equipment salesman.
“When I told her I couldn’t take back a machine we hadn’t sold her, she got very unpleasant, calling me all sorts of unprintable names. Must have been a full moon that day.”
Bill would tell me about how the Washington area had changed since he moved here. If I wanted to know what had occupied the site of the Pentagon before it was built, he’d be the one to tell me.
I remember once during a heated sales meeting he raised his voice at me. I was stunned. You just didn’t hear that from him. He hollered, “Just let me finish!” With another person I might have taken offense. But he was right; in my eagerness I had interrupted him, and hearing that helped me learn to listen better, something I thought I’d already figured out.
NPR’s Director of Engineering Technology Bud Aiello met Ashley in the 1970s and attended the retirement party.
“Throughout all of these years I must say first Bill was always a gentleman,” Aiello told me. “He was always willing to help you if needed — or not, sometimes!
“In the later years he was very good at assessing your situation and helping you to select the correct equipment for your project.”
In 1974, when Congress was studying the possibility of instituting winter Daylight Saving Time in response to an energy crisis, Ashley testified before the House Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce about the effect that winter daylight saving time would have on daytime AM broadcasters.
No photo survives, but I like to think that he worked a pun or two in there to entertain the politicos.
Even if you haven’t done business with Ashley, you might use one of his products, which bear the brand Excalibur Electronics.
The company was started in 1976 by the late Dr. Robert L. Holland of George Washington University, Ashley and their spouses.
Excalibur makes what Bill calls “little accessory-type gadgets whose quantities are too small to interest larger manufacturers, giving us a nice little niche.” On-air phone calls at Bonneville’s WTOP are routed through an Excalibur HA-1 Hybrid Adapter. For a number of years, the music and fireworks at the National 4th of July celebration on the Mall were synchronized through Excalibur HC-1 Handi-Couplers.
“A matter of pride for us is knowing that 24 Handi-Couplers were purchased a few years back by the White House Military Office for use by White House Communications.”
Bud Aiello says he’s never had an Excalibur device fail.
It’s Ashley’s goal to do volunteer work for his church and get in more bicycling and hiking. He may try his hand helping Habitat for Humanity or The Wright Experience, which built replicas of the Wright brothers’ airplanes.
“I’ve had two offers so far to buy Excalibur, but I plan to hold onto it for another year or two just so I can still have a presence in broadcasting.”
And reminding me of others I know who might sign with “73,” Bill also says he will probably drop in and visit radio stations during his vacations (no doubt driving his family bonkers).
His last day at Bradley was “Leap Day,” Feb. 29. It somehow seems fitting for this fellow with the ticklish funny bone and quiet warmth.