Your editor, just starting his professional broadcast career. Is it new? Is it old, but shiny? The latter refers to Radio World Engineering Extra, the former to your new tech editor (it’s possibly the other way around, but I digress).
Much has been written in this publication about Michael LeClair’s tenure, and it’s appropriate to pile on and heap kudos to him for his 10 years’ building and guiding RWEE into an area of Radio World where it’s acceptable to step back from the day-to-day and contemplate big, fun thoughts.
I plan to continue the RWEE tradition of excellence, and will … with your helpful suggestions, your comments and your stories.
HOW DID YOU GET INTO THIS BUSINESS, ANYWAY?
I’ve always been enamored with sound. As a toddler, I recall holding down the damper pedal of the family piano and gently pressing as many keys as my pudgy arms could manage. It was enthralling to hear the mix of all the tonalities, phasing in and out, creating chaos and beauty, then eventually fading away. “Where does the sound go?” I asked, but my mom couldn’t answer. “It just goes away,” she’d say.
In the school cafeteria in first grade, I noticed if you made a rocket engine noise (Mercury Redstone) with your mouth, the sound changed as your face got closer or farther away from the Formica cafeteria table. I tried to share this discovery with my classmate Kay Parker, who only smiled sweetly and said, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” So much for sharing audio science with another 6-year-old.
A year later, someone gave me a crystal radio. It was a plastic beige box, with a short wire and an alligator clip to connect an antenna, and a single, hardwired earpiece. I immediately climbed a backyard tree to clamber onto our garage roof and clipped the antenna wire onto the lightning rod. Slowly turning the dial, I heard the sound of Columbus, Ohio’s, 5,000-watt public AM station as clear as a bell! No batteries, and free audio entertainment for the cost of some mysterious electronic components. I asked my brother how it worked. “You just tune the knob and hear the station,” he said. He was in high school and knew about these things.
He and I shared a bedroom with a 1930s Zenith six-tube, black dial console radio; this was the centerpiece of our room. It was grandfather Rarey’s first electric appliance when his farm was electrified in 1934, and had been handed down to my dad. My dad said his father made up a wire antenna about 100 feet long between the farmhouse and one of the out buildings. He told me when he was 13, he would stay up at night, listening to the radio, spellbound by the stations he could pick up from all around the world.
The Zenith radio was also a weather predictor; on hot, muggy August afternoons, the crackle of a distant thunderstorm on the AM band meant a darkening sky and a good storm approaching the flat Central Ohio area. My brother preferred to listen to the local AM rock station “the new WCOL,” and I listened to the shortwave signals: WWV (“from Fort Collins, Colorado, 80302,” the voice intoned); mysterious shortwave stations transmitting audio that sounded like castanets or a buzz saw. I also preferred to fall asleep at night to the sound of a distant and powerful AM station like the sophisticated WJR (Jay Roberts’ “Night Flight 76”) … or just listen to the AM signals phase in and out between active channels.
When I was 13, I bought a Webcor reel-to-reel tape recorder at a neighbor’s auction. This further encouraged a lifelong love of broadcasting. At age 14, I earned a 3rd Class Radiotelephone license with Broadcast Endorsement by reading and rereading, and rereading again the FCC study guides from the Government Printing Office. The radio stations in my hometown of Columbus were gracious about letting me visit their operation as I learned more — but no one wanted to hire a 14-year-old radio guy!
In my career, I’ve known people who were lucky enough to grow up in a small town with a radio station and start out at that age; the president of NPR, Jarl Mohn, is one such a go-getter. He told me he did odd jobs to save up the tuition to take a study course, and earned his First Class Radiotelephone license at age 15 — so he could work at the station in his town.
By the end of high school, I had produced an album for a high school classmate (live to two-track, woo-hoo!), produced custom jingles for the high school’s morning announcements (four kids singing a capella), studied the production prowess of local Columbus DJs Bob Pondillo and Bob Connors, and admired Bob Tischler’s engineering on “The National Lampoon Radio Hour.” But I was still not a disc jockey.
When I started college, I immediately applied to work as student staff at Ohio University’s public stations WOUB AM/FM/TV and remained there until graduation, eventually earning the princely student staff rate of $2.35 per hour. I did a little bit of everything, from cleaning and adjusting the azimuth of the station’s cart machines to applying Davon oil to the Collins console’s rotary pots. My engineering mentor, John Humphrey, was full of sage advice: “Well Rich, you want to get into radio engineering? We have a lot of studio windows that need cleaning.” Three years later, my engineering mentor Dave Penn gave me free rein — no budget — to redesign and rebuild the FM studios and terminal room facilities for full-time stereo.
I noticed then that superior audio production and certain music had the effect of raising goosebumps and producing a distinct, pleasurable tingling sensation. This became my reliable indicator of audio of the highest quality and texture. I’ve learned recently this perceptual response is called Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR), and I’m guessing that a significant number of broadcast professionals experience it too.
GO NORTHWEST, YOUNG MAN
I started with NPR after OU graduation as bureau engineer at the NPR Bureau in Chicago, and was grateful NPR would have me. During those years, the Chicago Bureau had a perfect storm of outstanding writers and producers: Scott Simon, Jon “Smokey” Baer, Jacki Lyden, John Hockenberry, satirist Warren Leming, among others.
After five great years in Chicago, I migrated to NPR Washington to rejoin the technician pool. As an NPR broadcast/recording tech, one got field recording assignments to accompany a producer and host to remote, exotic places. My favorite sound gathering was recording the muezzin crying out the Call to Prayer at Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, for an NPR series “Geography of Heaven.” Just thinking of that muezzin’s clear sweet voice brings back goosebumps (the ASMR again).
In 2009, a rare opportunity opened to join NPR Labs. Unlike the hectic day-to-day broadcast operations of the company, the Labs work required research, thought and preparation to bring a novel solution to the project at hand. It is a revitalizing environment because one is expected to step back, think into the future, visualize the best plan for success, and then execute the plan, which was new territory for me.
The small team led by Mike Starling created useful PSD apps for public stations; created accessible technologies that brought radio programming to deaf/hard-of-hearing consumers through highly accurate, real-time captioning and transcription; and created interactive coverage maps of every U.S. public FM and TV station with demographics and made them freely available.
It created a prototype accessible HD Radio receiver that automatically records radio reading services’ programs for blind/low vision consumers; and it designed and implemented the demonstration of a national, accessible alerting infrastructure for deaf/hard-of-hearing consumers complete with a brand-new accessible FM RDS receiver, among other projects.
The experience made one appreciate what working for Bell Labs and CBS Labs must have been like, and how the pioneering work was not comprehended fully nor funded sufficiently by its parent company.
Truly exceptional situations are never static, and in 2014, NPR reorganized and reduced the Labs staffing starting at the top, leaving me the opportunity to seek out a new life and boldly go into my next great gigs, of which editing this publication for you is one.
Perhaps RWEE can be like a Labs of sorts for you, the reader: a respite from the hectic day-to-day operations that gives you a chance to read, ponder and visualize the future — and maybe, just maybe, trigger an ASMR response once in a while.
Write to Rich Rarey firstname.lastname@example.org.