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Six-Week Wonders

RW Readers share First Phone memories

These letters were written in response to Jim Withers’ article in the Sept. 10 issue “One Didn’t Make You the Other” about taking the test for the First Class Radiotelephone Operator License.

Arnal Cook is at the far right wearing a flight suit. As a Navy helicopter pilot, he says he was allowed the beard at the time. I had my FCC First Class while still in college; I took it into the Navy with me.

As a Navy pilot, my call sign was “Marconi,” for “all that radio knowledge.” But when they put the aircraft carrier into dry dock for an 18-month overhaul, there just weren’t a whole lot of submarines to be worried about finding from the Anti-Submarine Warfare Center. While we all had other duties assigned, my workload was completed before the end of every day.

A chance encounter at the county fair with the local AM broadcaster and suddenly I found myself being recommended as the new contract chief engineer at KITZ(AM) in Bremerton, Wash. Navy-first, understood; but, at $25 an hour in 1989 for a part-time job of personal fun, why not?

My immediate chore was to prioritize station deficiencies. First among them was the safety-of-life issue of hard wiring around the AC mains input fuses to the backup transmitter. There was a wall-mounted industrial switch box, but no AC circuit breakers from the mains! “Nobody touches this transmitter until it is repaired,” I instructed.

Before I got there, a contract tech (inspector/builder) had identified this same issue as #1; other matches with my list cemented my hiring without much of an interview. The wiring was quickly and easily corrected and new fuses installed. Replacement fuses were taped just above those fuse holders, and other spares loaded into the parts drawers. An insulated fuse removal pry bar, with notch filed in one end, was also taped with the replacement fuses inside the backup transmitter’s door. One night’s use to verify it all still worked (process to turn on, frequency check, audio levels and modulation checks). A few other fixes and all was good to go for my time as CHENG.

Simple “0.1 hour of work” every morning driving in to the ship-in-dry-dock by tuning up KITZ and checking 1) transmitter and programming was still on the air, 2) audio quality, and sometimes 3) day/night power shift when it coincided with the 0600 drive time.

Sure enough, one windy pre-dawn winter drive was met with station silence/static.

Dropping 25 cents into a pier phone booth (before cell phones) to call the DJ. “Do you know you are off the air?”

“No, man, I’m on the air just fine.”

“Is your console switch in monitor or off-air?” (I should have hard-wired that switch to off-air!) Silence. Then more silence when he moved it to, obviously, off-air. I walked him through the backup transmitter activation, warmup, antenna switch and audio switch-over. I had him back on the air and still made Navy morning muster in time.

It would be the windy afternoon before I could get there for the checks and repairs. While my head and shoulders were deep inside the commercial transmitter for repairs, the station general manager was giving a tour to a local government official, giving the standard values we provided to then and the county, values in an emergency, then — click!, boom! — the lights flashed brighter, dimmer, then back on and then, the backup transmitter went hard off the air.

The windstorm outside had caused a mains phase imbalance and several circuit breakers and fuses popped. Now we were double-off the air, main and backup transmitters. The lights quickly settled down to normal.

Backup transmitter door open. All lights off, indicating those main’s fuses had blown. Step to the wall box, switch off. VOM set to 250 VAC, no voltage before or after the fuses (any high-voltage caps holding a charge on the other side?). Ohm meter showed two open cartridge fuses on the 240 V input. Chicken stick applied, just in case. Plastic tool right there to pop out the fuses. VOM to 250 VAC to confirm no voltage. (Electronics is fun, but electricity scares the living bejesus out of me! Respectfully.) Fuses taken off the panel, packages unceremoniously ripped open, inserted into the cold ends, notched side of the insulated tool to push into the hot side. VOM check — first voltage, then for 0 ohms — checked good. Transmitter switch to standby, AC wall box switched on.

Backup transmitter glows. Check the antenna switch still to “backup.” Hmmmm, 30 seconds to warm up? That should do it. Standby to transmit, and we are back on the air. Total time off the air, only about 3 minutes, including the warm-up!

Station manager gives me a wink, a nod and a veteran’s salute. I taped two new cartridge fuses inside the backup transmitter door to replace what I had used, and the tool. Closed the door.

Now, back to that pesky main transmitter. Found its problem, repaired with parts on hand. Back to the main transmitter, and to normal.

Station manager called me into his office. “I’ve never given a raise for less time before, but it seems warranted. Just 3 minutes off the air? I wouldn’t have believed it if I didn’t see it all myself. More importantly, our [local government] guest commented on how well we managed our down time and how quickly we got back on the air. I’m sure we will continue to get their support.”

Sometimes, being prepared works out just right.

Arnal Cook
Antenna Test Engineer
Marysville, Ohio

In 1972, I was hired to be chief engineer and build an FM in upstate New York, so off I went to Brown Institute in Minneapolis. I learned a bit, actually, and took the test for First and Radar Endorsement. While there I worked as night manager for Arby’s on West Lake Drive. Being in Minneapolis in the summer was great.

Even greater was heading back to New York ready to be a chief engineer.

Timothy Braddock
Assistant Chief Engineer
Emmis Communications
New York

I had gotten my Third Class in 1976 and went to St. Louis in August 1977 to take the test just to see what it was like and managed to walk out with a Second Class, missing the First by four TV-related questions I knew absolutely nothing about.

Studied up on that and got the First in Chicago in January ’78.

Mark Mueller
Mueller Broadcast Design
La Grange, Ill.

I got my Second in 1965, followed by the First in 1978, but not through a six-week wonder course. Independent study and three years as an Air Force electronics instructor helped. I still didn’t really know what it took to become a real engineer but have had the chance to learn over the years. 

Now, at 70, I’m the chief engineer for the eight Lotus stations in Las Vegas, chapter chair and certification chair for SBE Chapter 128 in Las Vegas. I hold a Life certification as a Certified Professional Broadcast Engineer from the SBE where I am a senior member. It also helped me get my Amateur Extra.

That First phone was the ticket (pun intended) that let me move up in radio. Mine never expired, but was replaced by the lifetime General in 1985.

The First hangs in the frame behind it on my wall. Thanks for the memories.

Bill Croghan, CPBE WBØKSW
Chief Engineer
Lotus Broadcasting
Las Vegas

I remember the First Phone vividly. I passed my test when I was 16 or 17 years old in 1959 after taking a correspondence course from the old Grantham School of Radio. My first job was in a one-horse station in Texas where I had to do all the switching, projection, etc. and log the AM, FM and TV transmitters as well!

In those days, we were always having to fix something… almost everything had tubes; transistors were newfangled. We were constantly sweating it, hoping nothing would go wrong at an inopportune moment. Nowadays, if something goes wrong with a piece of equipment, my impression is that they just throw it out. This was well before local stations had videotape so everything was live or film. I helped install an RCA VTR, serial number 00002, in 1961. It was five racks of equipment six feet tall. I went on to get a BSEE and did some summer work for KRLD(TV) in Dallas and with CBS News in Houston covering space shots in the mid-’60s.

Things were always hectic in the control room in the local stations. I remember one night I was working with a soldering iron on a vidicon camera, and I accidentally blew the fuse on the film chain right before the station break! So the film projectors went down along with the slides, and we missed the entire break. We went to black for the entire time until we rejoined the network. The manager called up, and of course, was furious. I told him what happened but I’m not sure he believed me. I think he thought we had all gone to sleep in the control room. Boy, was I embarrassed. But things like that were not uncommon 50 or 60 years ago.

I remember the license wall, too. At my first station, there were only four of us, including the chief engineer, who was about 24 years old and a genius. Now I guess you don’t have to know anything to run a broadcast station. But we had more fun! Best job I ever had.

Morris S. Arnold
Little Rock, Ark.