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Autobiography Captures Era Gone By

Bruce Vaughan’s ‘Surviving Technology’ is a treasure trove of radio history

A young Bruce Vaughan poses with his new radio service shop test equipment, circa 1948. Courtesy Liz Lester Design As 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).

Actually, 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.

Over the 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.

True, in 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.

A few 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.

Today, 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 parts).

An 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 devotee.

Vaughan 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 of communication.

In “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.

Another 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.

Vaughan 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 Hotel:

Through 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.

More 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.

As I 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.

As he 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.

Vaughan 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.

From 1946 until his retirement, Vaughan worked as a repairman in what he termed the “Golden Age” of consumer electronics.

Though 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.

Thanks to 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.

Vaughan 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.)

An 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.

Wisely 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.

The “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 world.

For many 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 reliable set.

Vaughan 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.

In 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 included here.

Reading “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.

“Surviving 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.

“Surviving Technology,” published by Farmhouse Books, is available through the Vaughan’s family website and also at the Electric Radio magazine Website.

James 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. Fessenden.

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