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Confessions of a Retired Field Inspector

John Reiser recalls the days of knocking on station doors for Fox Charlie Charlie

“I’m the first man they look for and the last they want to meet. It’s a chancy job, and it makes a man watchful … and a little lonely.”

A teenaged John Reiser stands outside his first place of radio employment, station WATT in Cadillac, Mich. Those words were part of Marshal Matt Dillon’s opening soliloquy in the radio version of “Gunsmoke” but could well apply to any of the hundreds of individuals who’ve served as FCC field inspectors.

No matter how “clean” your station might be, you have a panic response when that federal official unexpectedly shows up for a “visit.” It’s akin to seeing a blue light flashing in your rearview mirror even though you’ve done nothing wrong and the officer just wants you to get out of the way so he can pursue someone else.

John Reiser was among those who reviewed station logs and public files, counted spare tubes and tower lights, measured operating frequencies and percentages of modulation, and even carefully scrutinized transmitter meters for signs of a sticky movement.

For 11 years — 1961 to 1972 — his very appearance in the station parking lot could raise the blood pressure of station managers and operators.

Reiser retired from the commission in 2000 after almost 40 years of service. Even before retirement, though, he was no longer one of the most feared people in town, because he had stopped knocking on those doors. Now he looks back on his inspecting days with a measure of detachment and doesn’t hesitate to relate what life was like on the other side of the citation book.

“The most enjoyable aspect of my work was meeting and working with some of our nation’s most talented engineers, who have contributed so much to all aspects of broadcasting and broadcast equipment and standards development,” he said.

He was first a broadcaster, getting his start while in high school at 250-watt WATT(AM) in his hometown of Cadillac, Mich.

“I helped form a radio club to produce programs broadcast each week, and I helped with remote broadcasts of school sporting events and music groups.”

He obtained the coveted FCC “first phone” license in high school; after graduating he attended Purdue University and worked at the school’s station, WBAA(AM). Reiser returned to his home state to enroll at the University of Michigan, eventually receiving an EE degree from that institution. While attending classes, he worked at that school’s FM operation, WUOM, and remained on its staff after graduation before eventually seeking employment with the FCC.

His first assignment was with the Detroit field office. In the ensuing years, he inspected virtually all of the stations in Ohio, most of those in eastern Kentucky, two-thirds of the stations in upstate New York, and all of those in western Pennsylvania. While the majority of facilities were “clean” and above-board, others were not.

“We did have stations that pulled some strange shenanigans,” said Reiser.

“I inspected one station that was operating with a chief operator who had a forged first class operator’s license. He had taken the license of another operator and inserted the portion with his name that had been cut out of his third class license.

This is what the monitoring vehicles used by one of the FCC’s field offices in the early 1970s looked like.

Shown is the equipment package installed in one of the monitoring vehicles. “In talking with the fellow it was obvious that he didn’t know much. I recorded the number and checked with commission records. It was a falsified license. Since this was forgery of a federal document, he had to go before a U.S. attorney who decided whether to prosecute or not. The FCC put the operator on a ‘barred’ list, meaning that he would never be able to get a license after that.”

Reiser said the station also racked up a lot of other violations, because the counterfeit first phone operator was “quite incompetent.”

This station was neither the first nor last where Reiser found things worthy of citation. A few of his more memorable revelations, some illegal, others just memorable:

• A station that operated a “numbers” racket along with its religious format programming. Frequent citations of certain biblical chapters and verses were made throughout the day, along with promises of “financial blessings” to listeners.

• A television station that was operating a full 6 MHz off-frequency.

• A small-town station that actually built its own tower — 150 feet in height and 18 inches on a side.

• A church-owned station that had been licensed in the late 1920s and was still using its original homebrew transmitter well into the 1960s. Its license included a special provision to allow it to go silent from noon until 1 p.m. for lunch.

• A station that opted for a low-end tower paint job (it was a tradeout) and wound up with a “school bus orange” and white paint scheme instead of the requisite “aviation orange” and white pattern.

• A small-market Pennsylvania station that had constructed its own FM stereo generator, which worked fine and passed proof of performance tests.

• An phone line STL that was somehow picking up NAA, the U.S. Navy’s very low frequency/high-power station in Cutler, Maine, and mixing the slow-speed code transmissions with the station’s regular programming.

• A “bribe” of sorts that was offered when word got out that Reiser and another field engineer were inspecting stations in a large Midwestern market. The suspected owner of one of the stations sent a couple of “lady companions” to the hotel where Reiser and another inspector were staying. Of course, attempted bribery of federal officials is a big no-no, be it money or services offered.

Reiser admits to feeling a bit sorry for some of the broadcast operations and personnel that were the subject of his inspections (and citations).

“In some cases after completing the inspection, I’d go back and help neutralize the transmitter or refer them to someone who could help out,” said Reiser.

In addition to obvious technical deficiencies, Reiser encountered more than his share of difficulties in connection with inspecting AM stations with directional arrays.

“We frequently ran into situations where monitoring points were no longer available. In once case, one point turned to out to be in the middle of a new Sears store. Sometimes I found vary vague identification for the points. One of the descriptions mentioned a point with cattle grazing nearby and a bush with red flowers.”

Reiser also recalled a directional gone horribly wrong.

“I inspected a new station and found it was having extreme difficulty in meeting the required null measurements. It was a three-tower array and it had been constructed exactly 30 degrees off-axis. I found this out when I went out after dark and sighted the North Star. It seems that the surveyor was wrong in his measurements.

“They ended up having to move one of the towers and I understand that the cost of this bankrupted the surveyor.”

Asked about situations where the operator on duty was lax in keeping his or her operating logs current, Reiser acknowledged that he had encountered this but usually only once during any given market visit.

“Once one station in an area was inspected, the word usually got around very quickly that the FCC was inspecting stations,” Reiser said. “So you didn’t find too many logs falsified at these other stations.”

“Probably the most frequent violation that I found was the inability to raise or lower power by remote control—either the motor was frozen or the coupling between the motor and the rheostat it drove had come loose.”

Reiser recounted an unusual assignment that didn’t involve radio or TV; it took place in the wilds of eastern Kentucky. Commercial airline pilots had been reporting a loss of ground-to-air communications while flying over a certain area. Reiser was sent to investigate and determined the approximate location of an interference source by triangulation.

As it was a small community and his presence was somewhat out of the ordinary, he thought it might be a good idea to check in with the local sheriff before proceeding. After informing the peace officer about his mission, both gentlemen traveled to the source of the interference.

Once there, Reiser identified it as a homebrew “translator” intended to retransmit TV signals into one of the “hollers,” where terrain blocked a good signal. The unit was oscillating and creating interference up and down the VHF spectrum. When Reiser informed the sheriff that it had to be shut down, the officer insisted on doing it himself — with the aid of a service revolver.

According to Reiser, the officer did such a good job that there was no way that particular “translator” could ever be brought back to life.

After retirement from the FCC, John Reiser has continued to ply his audio engineering skills. He stays busy doing location recording of musical performances and other events. He’s seen here mixing house sound at last year’s the IEEE Broadcast Technology Symposium. Promising to keep an eye on the situation in case someone decided to construct another such device, the sheriff took Reiser back to his office and insisted on toasting their victory with some of Kentucky’s special homebrew high-test beverage.

An Ohio inspection tour took Reiser to Cincinnati’s legendary WLW(AM). R.J. Rockwell, its equally legendary director of engineering, was still in charge, and the station was using Rockwell’s ultra low distortion one-of-a-kind “Cathanode” 50,000 watt transmitter. WLW billed itself then as the “nation’s highest fidelity station.”

Unfortunately for Rockwell, the inspection produced some unwanted results.

“I inspected the transmitter and noticed that several of the internal components were supported by heavy strings. There were several things that weren’t done in a workmanlike manner. I also cited the station for using a meter without the required number of scale divisions.”

Reiser put away his citation book for good early in 1972 and headed for Washington to head up the FCC’s Field Engineering Operator and Licensing Branch. He later moved to a special position in the commission’s Broadcast Bureay during Richard Wiley’s reign as FCC chairman. Reiser recalls this period as especially rewarding.

“Richard Wiley formed a ‘re-regulation’ task force around 1974 or ’75. Administratively we were under the Broadcast Bureau, but we were actually reporting to the chairman. That was a very interesting job. We had carte blanche to go through all of the broadcast rules — reviewing them and proposing to eliminate, rewrite or consolidate them where there were conflicts.

“All of the technical rules calling for good engineering practices were in separate sections for AM, FM and TV,” he continued. “We consolidated … many of the rules that were common to all types of stations. One of the sections that we eliminated was the one on ‘facsimile’ broadcasting.”

This was a classification intended to allow printed material like newspapers to be sent via radio transmission to a consumer’s home on a facsimile receiver.

“Since there were no stations that were operating as facsimile stations, we put out a notice that we were going to delete all the rules for facsimile, and we eliminated them. … We also modernized the rules to allow digital metering so that phase monitors could have digital readouts instead of analog meters and use current transformers.”

The task force also created an alphabetical index of the rules by subject that was incorporated into the regulations. “People had been complaining that they couldn’t find a specific rule and were calling the commission to ask where the rule for this or that was. We also indexed all of the written policies dealing with policies that were not in the rules.

“For example, where did the requirement [reside] that said you couldn’t manufacture and market a receiver to the general public that had an SCA demodulator? That came from a letter that the office of the chief engineer … that said they would not approve the marketing of receivers under Part 15 certification that had such a demodulator, as they considered SCA as a private communications service and there was not need to market this to the public.

“There were a lot of other policies and public notices that had been issued by the commission over time, so we listed those by source and made them available for reference.”

The task force remained in operation for about five years.

“One of the things that we worked on was precision phase monitors for directional arrays,” said Reiser. “Also the change in the operator rules — operator licensing requirements were also changed at that time. Automatic transmitter control systems were allowed.”

This was around the time when the commission dropped the “first phone” operator license requirement.

“James McKinney was chief of the Mass Media Bureau,” said Reiser. “He was strongly in favor of eliminating the first class operator licensing requirements. It was quite controversial at the time.”

This affected several classes of stations. Prior to the change, television stations, high-powered radio stations and directional AMs had to have a first phone operator at the transmitting facility. The revised rules also provided for remote control of such facilities.

A change for which Reiser’s task force was responsible was elimination of the particularly onerous requirement to take transmitter readings every half hour.

Another archaic subset of rules involved mandatory program log notations and announcements indicating live vs. recorded commercial announcements and an on-air statement that “some portions of the programming heard on this station are recorded.” These too were dropped.

As part of this work, Reiser made numerous presentations to state broadcasting groups and SBE meetings. He recalls relaying objections from engineering personnel back to Washington about the dropping of the first phone requirement. Reiser believes that he came close to being pelted with rotten fruit during an SBE Engineering Workshop at Ohio State University.

How could field inspectors have such broad knowledge in all areas of broadcasting?

“We did some serious on-the-job training; and I was fortunate enough to go to NAB conventions and pick up knowledge there,” said Reiser. “The fellow that worked on the [FCC] TV truck was well experienced, and I learned a lot about television from him. We also did a lot of bench measurements on a test transmitter to gain this sort of experience.”

Oh, about that TV station that was operating 6 MHz off-frequency:

“This was in the Youngstown, Ohio market. When we tried to measure their frequency off-air, we couldn’t find it. The station was also having trouble with its filterplexer too — it was tuned to the edge of its range.”

It seems that the station had purchased a new frequency counter and in setting up the transmitter had inadvertently picked the operating frequency of an adjacent channel and set things up with the new digital frequency monitor.

“They were right on frequency, but operating on the wrong channel. They told me they had bought a new counter, the same brand as used by the FCC, to make sure they were on frequency.”

This was in the early 1960s, when virtually all UHF TV sets had continuous tuners without detents, so there were no viewer complaints.

Reiser later was assigned to the Engineering Branch of the Policy and Rules Division to work on general broadcast rulemaking projects. He represented the FCC at industry conferences and meetings held by an alphabet soup of organizations: NAB, SMPTE, EIA, SBE, AFCCE, IEEE.

In 1986 he was asked to chair U.S. preparatory groups for the International Telecommunication Union Study Groups on broadcasting; and when the FCC established the International Bureau, he transferred there, working until retirement in 2000.

Now Reiser enjoys ham radio, doing on-location recording of musical programs, participating in community events and supporting activities of the IEEE’s Broadcast Technology Society, including handling house audio at that organization’s annual Broadcast Symposium. He was the 2003 recipient of the NAB’s Lifetime Radio Engineering Achievement Award and a 1991 Governor’s Award from the Audio Engineering Society. He is a Fellow member of both the SBE and Radio Club of America.

James O’Neal is technology editor of RW sister publication TV Technology.