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There I Was at the Greek Festival …

Recollections from more than 30 years of radio remotes

Radio World asked for remote stories in its Sept. 8 article “There I Was, at the County Fair.” Here are some I managed to accumulate during more than 30 years in radio. The names are fictitious.

During the mid-’70s I was employed by a “he who pays, plays” brokered ethnic station in the Chicago market. One of the best parts of the job was when the Greek Orthodox churches held their spring festivals, from which we ran remotes.

One of my favorites was from a church located only a few hundred feet from the transmitter site of a 50 kW AM. One year, upon setting up and checking the line with the station, it seemed the nearby powerhouse was just banging through. My location was under a tent in the middle of the parking lot; grasping for straws, I connected the earth ground from my Shure M67 to one of the copper tent pegs (how’s that for luck?). Wonder of wonders, the interference was gone; the show could go on.

iStockphoto/alengo As soon as I got the signal from the station, I cued the talent, who proceeded with his usual opening of “Hello, maaaan!” Hot puppies! We were on the air.

However, no sooner had I begun to relax than some kid came up and yanked the ground wire. Suddenly Bobby Papadakis was replaced by “I Love the Blues and the Boogie Woogie.” We now were simulcasting another station’s programming.

Fortunately, the engineer at our studio was on the ball and immediately wowed into a bouzouki instrumental.

Choking back the desire to throttle the kid (it probably would have made for bad PR), I darned near killed myself jumping over our table, hoping I’d land somewhere near the tent peg. Fortune and gravity were with me; I landed on target, where I reconnected the ground and continued with the broadcast.

‘G … 47 …’

Same place, different year, I was in the process of setting up under the tent when a strong horizontal wind lifted one end of the tent, which proceeded to fold up. I was able to dig our gear out from under the fallen tent, but there was no way it could be raised again before air time.

I wasn’t going to let such a small thing ruin the program, though, so I gathered up gear and talent and headed down into the church’s kitchen, where I commandeered the phone. I unscrewed the handset’s transmitter cover, did a quick clip-clip across the contacts and the show went on as scheduled — with a Bingo game going on in Greek in the background.

Around the same time I moonlighted (with my employer’s blessing) for a short time at a small 5 kW in the burbs that just loved covering local high school sports, a task made easier with a vintage Marti RPU 40. This worked well, particularly when the remote announcer hung his hat on a hat rack instead just dumping it on the little UHF portable loop antenna.

As I’m sure anyone who’s had to coordinate local band usage knows, feelings can be bruised when a guy wants to use “his” frequency for program pickup at the exact time another is using “his” frequency to order his crew dinner. This is a perfectly good use of the frequencies, coming under the “operational communications” clause in everyone’s tickets.

I’ve always believed in the fly-catching abilities of honey compared with the same qualities of vinegar. I waited as long as I dared, then I placed the call, which went something like this:

“NBC, NBC, this is WGSB in Geneva, and we require this frequency for program pick-up. Will you kindly relinquish the frequency, sir?”

To which I got this immediate answer:

“Certainly, sir. Glad to do it. NBC out.”

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all ops were as nice as the guy from NBC?

Hot air talent

My next move was to Las Vegas, where every weekend in the mid-1980s we ran a remote from the sports book in one of the major Strip casinos. It was a simple show, using one combo headset/mic for each of the talent plus one for me, all plugged into an M67. The cans with mic were all Telex; and like nearly everyone else, we used big colorful Nerf foam balls for blast filters.

This approach worked well, too, at least until our odds wizard put on his phones, then decided he wanted to relight his stubby, well-chewed cigar butt, which couldn’t have been more than one inch long.

I guess his eyes couldn’t quite cross tightly enough to allow him to see what he was doing. When his turn to give me a level came, his time almost came as well. Instead of lighting his little cigar butt, he had set fire to the Nerf ball. I don’t mean he just singed it a bit. Nope! Ol’ Jack had a five-inch flame going.

In the early 1990s in northern Illinois, I worked for a station that used remotes to promote itself and its DJs. One fine Saturday, our morning man was slated to do a remote from a local shopping center. It should have been a no-brainer; the hookup was via Marti and the talent only needed to do live cut-ins.

I think he’d done maybe two when I received a phone call at home from the jock about static on the remote signal. I asked if he was using the Marti RPT 30; he said yes. I asked if he was on Channel 1. Yup, he was. Was he using the yagi antenna? Was it pointed toward the station? Yup again.

The shopping center was a mile from my house, so I managed to get there before the next break. The remote was taking place from inside the mall using an RPT 2, linked to the van and then back to the station.

I found the station van but saw no yagi. I thought he must have switched over to the roof-mounted whip. But when I looked through the van window, I could see the coax switch, with the yagi selected. Curious.

I found our DJ in the mall and asked him to pry himself away from his adoring fans and step out to the van. There, I asked him where the yagi was. He said, “There it is,” and sure enough, there it was; what’s more, it was pointing in roughly the direction of the station. Only problem: “There” was on the mount used for storing the antenna inside the van.

I thought this was a teachable moment, so I put my arm over his shoulder and said, “Jack, the whole idea is to put the antenna on the pneumatic mast up in the air outside the van.”

He knitted his brows in intense concentration; then, with a sudden sense of realization and his eyes wide open, he said “Oh!” as if he’d just worked out all the questions of the universe.

One more

By the end of the 1990s it had occurred to me that I was simply getting too damn old to run around on all these remotes. I found myself working very happily as an RPU tech with Marti Electronics.

A Seattle station decided they were going to do their remote from an operating streetcar. Evidently they had 110 VAC available, and they were planning on using an RPT 30 into a 5/8-wavelength whip.

The streetcar itself ran on roughly 9 squillion volts, picked up through the pantograph from an overhead cable. Realizing this, the folks at the station made copious measurements and doubtless checked with the company that owned and operated the trolley car and made every other such check they could think of to be absolutely certain that there would at all times be sufficient clearance between the overhead power lines and the tip of their antenna.

Well, they got almost all the information. In standard running, the antenna’s tip was safely removed from the overhead lines, and that part of the remote worked just dandy. But their best-laid plans were about to go “aft agley” because no one had taken into consideration what would happen when the streetcar entered a tunnel.

I don’t have the exact dimensions; suffice to say the antenna made contact and all 9 squillion volts hurried down the coax. It was most unfortunate. For a while there they were having a nice little remote.

When the transmitter arrived at Marti in Cleburne, Texas, I thought I might as well start looking at the output filter box, where the jolt had hit. Every coil in the box had been vaporized, leaving the inside of the box coated with the thickest layer of black gunk I’d ever seen.

Well, I like a challenge, so I had a ball with this one. Actually, as I recall, that was just about the only problem, because once the output filter box had been turned into a small, empty bat cave, the charge had flowed harmlessly over the chassis and exited through the ground pin on the AC plug — although the guy I talked to did admit to feeling a little tingle through his hand mike.

It wasn’t long after being moved with Marti to Quincy, Ill., that I came down with a case of Parkinson’s Disease. That pretty much put an end to my radio engineering career; but as they say, they can take the guy out of radio, but they can’t take radio out of the guy.

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