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Bill Sacks Dies; Was Audio Innovator

Colleagues are remembering the late engineer

Bill Sacks in a 2007 Radio World photo by Jim Peck

Bill Sacks has died. He was an engineer, a consultant, a manufacturer and a hardware hot-rodder. A colleague described him as “a genius and nice guy, a combination rarely found,” and this is typical of the many remarks we’ve received so far about Sacks.

Among other contributions to the industry he also played a part in the early years here at Radio World.

According to a GoFundMe page created by his wife Kim, Sacks had been ill with cancer diagnosed after a recent fall. (You can find that page here.)

Sacks was a former broadcast chief engineer who went to work for Carl T. Jones Associates as a consulting engineer and founded Straight Wire Audio Inc., or SWA, in 1979. That year he also became the first audio editor of Radio World; longtime readers will remember his columns.

He worked as an SBE chapter chairman and did product design work for Henry Engineering. He also launched a business refurbishing classic analog Optimod processors, having been a longtime friend of Bob Orban. Many readers will have met him at industry trade shows over the years.

Colleagues have been sharing recollections about Sacks via social media and emails.

David Bailik offered the quote that opens this story. Fred Willard called Sacks “a magnificent gentleman.” Joseph Davis of Chesapeake RF Consultants told Radio World that Bill Sacks “was brilliant, an entrepreneur [who] loved talking about his ideas, and helping others.” Davis said he learned a lot from Sacks via his Radio World columns and later in person. (Davis provided the photo shown below, from an SBE Chapter 37 meeting at the WMAL(AM) transmitter site in 2007; Sacks is at far left.)

Longtime engineering colleague Mark Durenberger, another contributor from Radio World’s earliest days, remembered “the time we were at the Madison Wisconsin Engineering Conference and ‘Crazy Billy’ plugged a 50-watt broadcast exciter into the hotel cable system to back-feed some program or other. Likely blew out every balun in the system … At a NRBA New Orleans, Billy had just ‘tuned’ an FM station with some processing scheme or other and was running around the hotel with a Walkman, breaking into conversations and asking people to listen. Manic? Oh my… He was very smart and he never let off in pursuit of sonic excellence as he saw it.”

Hank Landsberg of Henry Engineering had known Sacks since the early 1980s. “I was always impressed with his exceptional passion for his profession and his dedication to perfection,” he told us. “Bill was never a ‘it’s good enough’ kind of guy — he was an idealist, spending whatever time it took to make a product as close to perfection as humanly possible. And as a personal friend too, he was honest and ethical beyond question. I was thrilled for him when he met and married Kim. She brought love and joy into his life; they both should have had more years together.”

Richard Rudman recalled an email that he received from Sacks in 2010 in response to a query about rebuilding a client’s Orban 9100. That email, Rudman wrote, “not only says a lot about the rigorous lengths Bill went to on rebuilding Orban processors, but is also his tribute to the greatness of the Orban 9100 processor, his reliance on Kim for business details and his support for the mind pool that led many of us into broadcast engineering, ham radio.” (Sample from Sacks: “We return all replaced parts on request, or they become free parts for local Ham radio operators.”)

Tom Ray recalled needing help with Straight Wire Audio phono preamps while working as a young chief. Great guy. You generally don’t forget kindness shown you early in your career. Bill was one of the best.”

Ed Bukont called Sacks “an executive chef with audio. It didn’t matter what ingredients you had he was going to find a way to make it perfect sauce every time. … I only learned in the last few years how many companies were using his talents in the background on product development and improvement.”

Dana Puopolo recalled the basement in Arlington, Va., that housed Straight Wire Audio “at the bottom of a LONG stairway. Bill liked that because he could crank his audio up. … We had SWA stuff all over WLKW(AM/FM) in Providence, R.I., and they really helped make the station sound GREAT. … His passion for audio was palpable.”

Bob Orban recalled, “Bill had a restlessly inquisitive mind; he was always eager to learn more about tech, and in fact, was studying C++ audio plug-ins in his sickbed.” Orban recalls him as a talented analog circuit designer. “He and I had many conversations about this over the years, where I both taught him and learned from him. Bill’s association with Orban goes all the way back to his days in sound reinforcement, when he used Optimod 8000s to process the audio that fed in-ear monitors for an A-list group of performers. Later, he developed modifications and improvements to the analog signal path of the classic Optimod 8100, 9000 and 9100, and was in the business of refurbishing these models for many years, even to the point of manufacturing new modules to replace ones that had failed in these older units.” He also helped sell Orban’s newer digital models. Above all, Orban told us, “Bill was a lively, fun guy – a real ‘mensch.’”

Kirk Harnack invited Bill and Kim Sacks to his podcast “This Week in Radio Tech” in 2010. “I was giddy, delighted to have them on the show. Fond memories of Bill, and a pleasure to work with Kim on the SBE Board of Directors.” (See the archived episode here.)

Marty Sacks, no relation, “had the good fortune to share a last name with Bill as well as buy a lot of SWA gear for facilities I built back in the day. I still have a Magnavox CD player I bought from him. Some of us remember he modified some of these to create one of the first on-air CD player that would cue to audio. He touched a lot of folks in our business.” Charles Wooten wrote, “Those SWA cards for the ITC cart machines were the bomb !! Probably installed 30 of them at various stations.” Bob Mayben met Sacks after purchasing 12 of the SWA cards for his ITC premium line cart machines in the 1980’s. “You would have thought I was the only to-do on his list! We talked for at least half an hour, long after my question was answered (a jumper or something like that) about radio, equipment and radio people. A great engineering talent.”

Mike Erickson: “His whole mission was to make audio better and less complicated and that in turn helped to make so many radio stations stations sound great. Frank Foti on Sacks’ enthusiasm: “Sure, his focus was electronics, audio, and broadcasting, but he would stop by – at NAB – and open a discussion about trains, hobbies, and enjoyed making a good connection.” Elaine Jones: “I always thought of him as “Radio’s Einstein”!

And Skip Pizzi remembered, “One Halloween night in the early 1970s, I was working a remote for WGTB-FM (Georgetown University’s station at the time) at Orpheus Records on M Street in downtown Georgetown. While spinning discs on the air from a little makeshift studio we’d set up in the storefront window of the shop, and with the station blaring from the store’s prodigious speakers, a young curly-haired man came up to me and asked, ‘How can I get into radio? I know how to fix stuff, and want to help.’ The rest, as they say, is (audio) history.”

Pizzi also related a story that while Sacks was CE at a Class-A FM station in Bethesda, Md., that “the mysterious, occasional dips in the plate voltage on the transmitter atop the mid-rise apartment building housing the station were time-related to whenever someone pushed the button to call for the building’s elevator. After a little more sleuthing Bill found that (long before he had taken the job) someone had wired the transmitter’s mains input to the building’s elevator power. The station had gone years without paying for electricity to run its 3 kW transmitter.”