Radio

Radio was one of my earliest electronic interests.

When I was a young kid, I don’t know exactly how young but maybe first or second grade, I visited relatives in Spokane. I don’t even remember which relatives.

There was someone close to my age and his older brother had a small low powered AM transmitter, what the F.C.C. would call a Part 15 device, which means it is a transmitter complying with F.C.C. part 15 rules which are designed to restrict range severely, generally less than 300 feet. It had a microphone attached and he could speak in it and his voice would come out of a radio.

I was totally captivated by this. I wanted to talk into it and hear my voice come out the radio but he wouldn’t let us touch it. I don’t remember if these brothers were cousins, friends of cousins, or just what the relationship was, it was that long ago. But the one that was my age, I convinced him that I could turn a record player into a transmitter like his brother had and so we proceeded to disassemble a record player there, but I was unable to re-assemble it into anything useful, transmitter or record player.

When I was young, I also contracted pneumonia, and it was sufficiently bad that I was hospitalized for some time. Most of the time I was alone in the hospital. I remember getting shots in the butt every six hours or so. Back then, penicillin was about the only antibiotic available so if you got a bad bacterial infection they just used a lot of it.

They had me breathing through an apparatus that brought oxygen through ice. I’m not sure if the ice was supposed to cool or humidify the air or just what. I was really too young to understand what was happening. I did understand that most of the time I was alone and that was very difficult.

Someone brought me a small transistor pocket radio to keep me company. I had a battle with the hospital staff over it because anytime I would turn it up loud enough to actually hear it someone else would complain of the noise. I craved hearing someone because I felt so utterly alone. Finally, someone brought me an earphone, one of those things you stick in your ear and plug into a radio and can hear without everyone else hearing. These were similar to ear buds you can get today except hard plastic instead of soft foam and the quality was far worse and it was for only one ear.

After I got out of the hospital, I still had the radio and would often fall asleep to it. I liked what used to be called “Top-40″ stations, so called because they mostly played a rotation of the top 40 most popular songs that week, but they would throw in an occasional oldie, and other forms of entertainment, and of course commercials.

KJR channel 95, now a sports radio station, was Top-40 back then and was my favorite. After that, KOL, and later KING adopted Top-40 formats.

In 4th grade, one of my cousins, who secretly was trying to kill me, wanted to get me interested in electricity so made me a light board, basically a piece of plywood with two standard base light bulbs, knife switches, an a 117 volt line cord to power it.

First he wired it up as a parallel circuit so each switch controlled one of the light sockets. That was only so interesting. Then he wired it up as a series circuit with the two light bulbs in series and the knife switches across the light bulbs and demonstrated how with both switches open the bulbs would glow dim but when one switch was closed, the bulb across the other would get bright. He warned me not to close both switches at once. Then, I was allowed to take this light board home with me, a gift.

Well, you know I had to know what would happen if I closed both switches, so when at home, in the living room on the carpet, I did so. There was a bright blue flash, a loud bang, and then everything was dark.

My father, after replacing the fuse, decided that this was unsafe and so we went to the hardware store were we bought very small sockets designed for screw-base flashlight bulbs, some small bulbs to fit them designed for 1-1/2 volts, and an “ignition” type battery (these were a large single cell with wire terminals that used to be use to start model airplane engines. The glow plugs of that era were designed for 1-1/2 volts rather than the higher voltages todays variety operate on.) The light board was then converted to this new low voltage system not using house current and thus incapable of blowing fuses.

Of course I still wanted to understand this thing that happens when both switches are closed and so did the same thing again with this battery setup. Those old ignition batteries were capable of non-trivial fault currents, and what happened was the wiring immediately burnt all the insulation off and then glowed orange-red and then eventually melted.

This was enough to get me interested and so I started reading books on the subject of electricity and electronics. I can remember one of the first titles was, “Boys First Book of Electricity”. Yes, I know it seems awfully sexist now, implying that electricity was one of those things that only guys should have an interest in, but this was the 60′s and the book was old even then.

I grasped the concepts readily, even more complex things like circuits involving resistors, capacitors, inductors, and even transistors. My parents bought me this broadcaster kit thing which was a little tiny wireless transmitter and microphone in a plastic case but it did not have more than about ten foot of range.

A family friend bought some old table radios at Goodwill for me to play with. I managed to re-wire one so that the local oscillator became a power oscillator fed into an antenna and the audio portion got converted into a modulator. This was my first home brew transmitter and it had enough range to reach a few of our close neighbors, and I would go over to their house and tune in “my” radio station (which was usually repeating a commercial station at that time).

I continued to play with similar low power transmitters like this into Jr. High school where I met some new friends, Scott Shangle, Jim Dolan, and a few others. By this time I had converted a ham radio transmitter, a DX-40, to operate on the AM band, had put together a make-shift studio, and was, for a few hours of the day, operating a bootleg station.

They too were operating a bootleg station. They had modified an Apellco marine transmitter to do duty in the AM band. We used to take long walks to check out the range of our bootleg stations.

In 9th grade, I was permitted to go across the street to the high school for a radio class. The high school had an FM station, KNHC, at the time it was 320 watts but even at that low power it had a very good signal, actually better I think then it was before they got their power increase to 1500 watts.

I met many people there, Evan Green, Dan House, Arny Ringstad, Dan Toey, Keith Jackson, Dale Mortimer, Mike Dennison, Brian Swadner. Also, an old friend that I had known in elementary school moved back into the neighborhood, Jim Hepworth. These were all people in KNHC and there were many more whose names aren’t coming to me right now.

Of these, I didn’t know Keith or Dale very well but they were On-Air personalities at KNHC that I very much liked their style at the time.

I came to meet others that shared this interest as well, Bruce Girard had received my bootleg station, hooked a volt-meter onto the AGC line of his car radio and tracked me down. Funny someone privately doing so with such crude equipment yet we managed to escape the F.C.C.

Bruce had also been playing with pirate radio a bit, he had a small transmitter maybe a couple of watts, but owing to his location near the high school which was very low and wet providing an excellent ground plane, his signal got out well and I could receive it good at my house several miles away.

Then I picked up a weak FM signal on my Sony Earth Orbiter radio. The FM part of this receiver was excellent and if there was a signal to be had it would get it. This signal was very weak however, did not even register on the S-meter at all, still it achieved full quieting.

I could tell by the audio quality, which was horrid, that it wasn’t a legitimate operation. But the programming was wild. Crazy skits, lots of production work. What they didn’t put into their technical setup they did put into creating interesting programming. They gave their phone number out over the air and I called, and after a bit convinced them to let me come out and see their setup. I met Jeff Madison there.

He had this military transmitter that functioned in the FM band, it was originally intended for narrow-band voice, hence the bad audio quality, and a welding rod jammed in the antenna jack for an antenna.

I had borrowed an unused Gates tube limiter from high school, but later acquired a Langevin compressor / limiter from KXA radio. KXA 770 was an old radio station, and to the best of my knowledge one of the last in the country to switch from a long-wire horizontally polarized antenna to a vertical tower. The KXA setup was cool, two towers at either corner of a building downtown with a long-wire antenna suspended between them and the feeder from the middle came down to the roof. They were only 500 watts at the time but still had a very good signal.

Anyway, I acquired this limiter, a piece of used equipment there, for $15. It was vastly superior to the Gates limiter we had borrowed, so I let Jeff use that limiter for his FM station (until the school required it’s return). Evan and I modified his transmitter to provide wide-band, full audio spectrum with FM pre-emphasis, modulation. One of the grid resistors was burnt out in his transmitter, we repaired that which brought it to the full designed power. We built a dipole antenna and a coaxial balun to feed it and put it up on the roof.

With these modifications, now instead of not reading on the S-meter at my house, it pegged it, and it sounded good.

Jeff, had previously gotten busted by the F.C.C. for operating an AM station without a license. He had climbed up a high voltage line power tower and ran a wire down from up high on the tower for his antenna. His station operated on 1570, and at the time there was an oldies station on 1590, KUUU. The engineer for KUUU happened to live in the area and received interference from Jeff’s bootleg station and complained to the F.C.C. which lead to his bust. They didn’t do anything though beyond tell him he couldn’t broadcast on AM without a license (hence his ordering the FM transmitter).

We all were involved with the operation of each others stations to some degree. I will elaborate more on these things later. Right now mostly I wanted to give some background.

American Graffiti came out in 1973. We also had a cousin living with us for a while and she liked to listen to KUUU which was an oldies format. KUUU and that film introduced me to “Oldies” which at that time was mostly 50′s and early 60′s genre of music.

The movie also introduced me to Wolfman Jack:
Wolfman Banner

I loved his personality and was thrilled to find out that at the time he was actually still on the air. He was carried by CFUN, an AM station on 1410 out of Vancouver BC that used to have a good signal down here. Later when they changed formats, I found out that he also broadcast out of a mexican station, XPRS, which I understand was actually XEPRS but for whatever reason they never said the “E” in the call letters.

This station was on 1090 Khz, the same frequency as KING AM, a 50 Kw station in Seattle, but KING AM would go off the air late at night for maintenance and I could receive XPRS also at one time call letters XERB, operating out of Tijuana, then and Wolfman would be on. Later, I found out about a type of antenna called a “box loop”, and built one. This antenna was extremely directional allowing me to “null out” KING and receive XPRS even when KING was on the air.

Now the thing that is weird, is by all historical accounts, April of 1972 was the last time Wolfman Jack was on Mexican radio, and it was with call letters XERB. When the Mexican authorities changed the law not allowing paid religion which was 80% of their revenues, the call letters were changed to XePRS because Wolfman Jack owned the XERB call letters. Yet, I heard Wolfman on XePRS later than this. When I heard him they would do dual formats, playing mexican music and spanish programming at one time, and Wolfman with oldies at another. I can not find this documented anywhere.

Woflman did radio the way I feel AM radio SHOULD be done. There was NO dead air, they used reverb to give the broadcast a sense of fullness and power. The transmitter was modulated to the max at all times. Always there was music, even when the announcer talked there was music. They involved the audience to a very great degree. CFUN at the time also ran their station this way, even when they were originating programming locally.

If there is anything I miss from that era, it was that type of radio. Sadly, Wolfman Jack died in 1995 at the age of 56 or 57 (depending upon sources) from a heart attack.

Even more sadly, the radio format had largely died much before that. One of the things that really did it in was Disco, it was just impossible to do high energy radio with Disco. The late 1970′s was heavily polluted with Disco, even KISW, rock of the ages, mixed an occasional Disco song in the late 70′s.

Another thing that did it in was automation. Why actually pay an air personality if you can get a machine to just chug away playing music and commercials all day and all night? Well, the obvious reason is program quality, but that doesn’t seem to count for much these days.

The final blow was the relaxation of broadcast station ownership rules. It used to be that a single owner was allowed to own at most one of each, AM station, FM station, and Television station in a given market, and was allowed at most six markets. This meant at most, any one entity could not own more than six AM stations, six FM stations, and six TV stations. Then, it seems around the late 70′s or early 80′s, broadcast ownership laws were somewhat relaxed and we began to see broadcasting corporations with a few dozen stations. Then the 1996 Communications Act eliminated restrictions on national ownership altogether.

Now you’ve got megabroadcasting corporations, like Clear Channel Communications owing some 1200 stations, or Infinity Broadcasting which was owned by Viacom but merged with CBS Radio, which has around 220 stations.

These mega-broadcasting corporations have pretty much eliminated local broadcasting and audience interaction. And they’re overwhelmingly conservative. Conservative talk radio pretty much owns most of the AM market here and it’s boring beyond description. Most music has moved to FM, which seems like a natural evolution owing to the higher sound quality provided by FM, but even then it’s mostly low energy and boring, nothing like Wolfman Jack’s or CFUN‘s old energy level.

Anyway there is a lot more I’ve got to say and tell but right now I need to take care of other things. I’d love to hear your comments and if you have any pointers to resources on the web drop me a note and I will share them.

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