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The Case of the Mystery Ringing

One engineer remembers his quest for a quiet network line

John Holt’s article on “The Radio Network Sound” reminded me of my trials with network service in the hinterlands.

Credit: iStockphoto/PLAINVIEW When NPR inaugurated its network service in 1972, WGGL(FM) in Houghton, Mich., was a charter member. As the station manager, I was thrilled when I received a phone call from NPR’s engineering department saying that they were ordering up a Class A line for us.

My enthusiasm was dampened when a subsequent call informed me that all that AT&T Long Lines could deliver was a Class C line, for the time being. The specifications for a Class C line were 200–3,500 Hz, barely better than the frequency response of an acoustic 78 RPM record.

It turned out that “for the time being” meant until the inauguration of the new satellite feed in 1980.

From day one, the line was characterized by a ringing on the trailing edge of the sound. Over the course of several years, I would call our local AT&T tech support; an obliging George Thurner would listen to my complaints, run a test of the line and report back that the line met all of its specifications.

A few years passed. One day the ringing was worse than normal. I called George to register my frustration. “Read,” George said, “we’ve tested the line repeatedly from Houghton to Marquette, and it always meets its specs.”

“Marquette?!” I asked with a rising inflection in my voice. “You mean you haven’t tested the line beyond Marquette?” Marquette was only 100 miles away; that left another 1,000 miles of line to go bad.

“WNMU in Marquette uses the same line as you from Marquette back to Washington, and they’ve never reported a problem, so there’s no sense in testing it beyond that point.”

As I hung up the phone, I had to admit that George had a point. At the same time, a gnawing doubt coupled with a growing question troubled me: Could the line, in fact, be bad beyond Marquette?

Finally I posed the question to Jim Lienau, our engineer. Jim had a bachelor’s of science degree in electrical engineering from our university, and he was worth his weight in gold as an engineer. I trusted his judgement.


“Jim, how would you like to take a ride to Marquette?” I then explained my theory: AT&T had repeatedly tested the line as far as Marquette and could never find a problem but at the same time the line always sounded crappy. Since WNMU shared engineers with the university’s TV station, it stood to reason that they had checked the line, and while one would expect that they would find a problem, how else could we explain our line’s problem? It had to be bad on the other side of Marquette.

The only way to find out would be for us to go there with equipment in hand and do our own test. We could call and ask them to do the test, but assuming that they were doing that on a regular basis, as good engineering practice dictated, they were either missing something or … my theory was dead wrong and the line was fine beyond Marquette.

Jim agreed to the proposal.

First we checked the NPR schedule to identify when they would be running a frequency test. On the appointed day, we set off on the two hour drive to Marquette. Our plan was to arrive about a half hour early — time enough to explain our mission and set up our test equipment.

As we stood at the door to the WNMU studios, my resolve wavered. What if the line tested fine? I would be exceedingly embarrassed. Mentally, I practiced my very best “Mea culpa!” At the same time, we had come too far and I had waited too long to solve the problem of the ringing network line.

I don’t know what the good folks at WNMU thought when they heard our request, but they graciously agreed. With the equipment in place, I stood nervously with tiny beads of perspiration on my forehead as Jim began to take his readings.

When it was over, you could have heard a pin drop. I gulped, almost afraid to hear the result.

“The line doesn’t meet specifications,” Jim said quietly.

I could hardly believe my ears! My hunch had been right.

Only then did a WNMU engineer volunteer, “We’ve never run a frequency test of the line. It always sounded so good, that we assumed it met specs.”

That made perfect sense. As a Class A line, the slight imperfections were scarcely noticeable. But when converted to a Class C line, it created the ringing that we were hearing.

As we left, I had one more request: “Please call your local AT&T tech support and report that your line doesn’t meet specifications.” Then we headed home to wait.

Two days later I received a call from George. “We found a bad amplifier in Escanaba.” Escanaba — just 50 miles on the other side of Marquette.

I walked to our control room and put the network line in cue, and after all of those years, the ringing was gone. It was, in fact, a dead ringer.

Radio World welcomes your stories about the time you solved a problem or overcame a technical obstacle. Email Emily Reigart at[email protected].