I have previously related to a limited degree my participation in and experience with pirate radio stations I and other friends operated during my junior high and high school years.
I also actually had some legal experiences. There are things both have in common and I’d like to relate some of those things and what it is about radio that I find so intriguing.
I obtained my First Class Radiotelephone Operators License in my junior year of high school. How I came to obtain it at that time, or at least what the big motivator was, is kind of funny. In retrospect, I owe a lot to the instructors in my radio class, both helped me in their own very different ways.
We had a radio station (KNHC) at my high school (Nathan Hale), and I was actually allowed to come over and attend radio and electronics classes there while I was still in junior high school. This was possible because my junior high school (Jane Addams) was directly across the street from the high school, so it was physically workable.
I graduated from Nathan Hale in 1977, and I am happy to say that KNHC is still on the air almost thirty years later, however, I am not sure where it’s future lies as I have learned that the Seattle School District plans to shut down Nathan Hale in the near future.
There were two instructors that taught the radio and electronics class at Nathan Hale, one of them was the station licensee. I owe a lot to both because they both helped me very much but in their own very different ways.
One of the instructors was Gene Arnold, formerly in the navy, a lot of his electronics background was acquired in the navy and so his teaching methods reflected that to some degree, for example, we learned the resistor color code which is:
black 0, brown 1, red 2, orange 3, yellow 4, green 5, blue 6, violet 7, gray 8, white 9
A tool Mr. Arnold related to us to learn this color code was one used in the navy and one that probably would not have been approved by the school district but which was none the less effective was the line, “Bad boys rape our young girls but violet gives willingly.”
If you notice the first letter of each word in that sentence corresponds with the first letter of each color in the color code.
Mr. Arnold did not exemplify what I think of as military, he had a very kind gentle relaxed manner. He drove a blue 1955 T-bird that he had bought from the factory new and it was immaculate. He taught mostly through lecture and made the math and concepts involved very easy to understand.
Then there was Larry Adams, the licensee of the KNHC. The story as I heard it was that they had put together a small 1-watt or so AM transmitter at the school and operated it as a radio station. They were visited by the F.C.C. who encouraged him to pursue a legal station and thus KNHC FM came into existence, originally as a ten watt educational class FM station.
My impression of Larry Adams was that he was in many ways the complete opposite of Mr. Arnold, not at all relaxed, very wired and uptight. To be honest, at the time I thought he was a complete asshole, only after my junior year of high school did I realize what a genuinely caring person he was and how much he did for me without my realizing it.
And this brings me to the story. With Mr. Arnold, we students could get away with quite a lot without any serious repercussions. Larry, by contrast, was very much into safety, doing things the right way, and generally demanded responsible behavior. My behavior at that point in my life was anything but responsible so this did make for considerable friction between us (and many other students as well).
The school had work benches that were originally supplied with low voltage DC power via a large rectifier and battery bank network. Even though this power was fused, it was deemed unsafe because the huge fault current available had a strong potential for causing fires, etc, and so the fuses were all pulled on this power source and instead we had portable power supplies that we used.
We also got a lot of surplus junk there, including some telephone company cable which had a few thousand pair of about #24 gauge wire with a plastic insulation.
One day during lunch we were bored, so myself and a number of my friends took about three foot long pieces of this wire, wound little coils out of it, stuck it in the power plug in the benches, then stuck foil in the fuse holders to complete the circuit. This would have the effect of pretty much instantly vaporizing the wire and its insulation creating large quantities of smoke.
We all found this highly entertaining and so continued to do so until from the ceiling of the entire class room to about two feet down was solid smoke, you could not see the ceiling. There were no smoke alarms at that time.
Back at that time smoking was also popular, I didn’t smoke but most of my friends did, and it was not allowed inside the school, but it was allowed in smoking areas outside of the entrances. Many students however would not want to go outside so they would light up in the rest rooms or class rooms when no teachers were present.
Mr. Adams returned from lunch, walked into the class but did not look up at the ceiling, took a couple of sniffs of the air, and asked if someone had been smoking. Of coarse everyone denied it. Only then did he look up and realize the ceiling was not visible. At that point myself and a number of my friends were ejected from radio class, at the time we were told permanently, but we were let back in the following day.
At the time, I had only my Third Class Radiotelephone Operators License. This license gave sufficient privileges to act as an on-air personality, though I never did have a radio show there being more interested in the engineering aspects, but it did not allow actually doing engineering work. However, prior to this incident, Mr. Adams did allow me to work on equipment.
After the incident, he wouldn’t allow me to touch anything and would tell me I could not because I didn’t have my First Class Radiotelephone Operators license that was legally required to do so. Determined not to allow him to use that as an excuse to keep me away from things I picked up a copy of the First Class Radio Telephone license study manual, studied the material, and in a couple of months time went down to the F.C.C. office, took the test, and passed. Went straight from a third class to first class license bypassing the second class altogether (there was no requirement to get a second class license as an intermediary, it was just the normal path most people took).
I expected Mr. Adams would be irritated by my receiving my license, instead it was very well received, and it was only then that I realized he knew I needed some motivation and supplied it. He wasn’t being an asshole at all, he was motivating me to do what was in my best interest.
Obtaining the license though also represented a problem, it made the operation of a bootleg radio station much more dangerous for two reasons. First, I could no longer claim ignorance of the law since knowledge of the laws was a requirement for passing the test. Second, if I had been caught, there was a strong potential for my license to be revoked.
Never the less, I continued to operate my pirate station for about another year, I was just a lot more paranoid. My operation of the station as a pirate station did terminate shortly after this when my antenna broke and the transmitter final played frequency multiplier and caused interference with the 80 meter amateur radio band. This resulted in a letter from the F.C.C. field office chief engineer at the time, R.C. Dietch, informing me they had received complaints and to cease the cause of the interference immediately. Strangely, it said nothing of the illegal operation of a station without a license though there is absolutely no way they couldn’t have been aware of it. Not wanting to lose my license I stopped operating the station as a pirate station.
I did however experiment with carrier current radio, this is where an RF signal is injected in the power lines and radios plugged into the line or near it can pick up the signal. Normally, carrier current propagation does not extend past the first power transformer, however, City Light has a practice of wiring the secondaries of the transformers together allowing the signals to propagate a considerable distance.
Overall though we found this mode of operation to be unacceptable because it actually caused much more interference than open air radiation of the signal did. There were many non-linear devices on the power line such as light dimmers, off-the-line power supplies, etc, that would mix the RF signal with the 60 Hz AC power causing severe buzz in the signal at many locations. Also, these same non-linear devices would create harmonics of the fundamental frequency resulting in out of band interference.
Then I experimented with trying to get the absolute maximum range out of a part 15 legal transmitter. I did this by building a home brew transmitter with 100 mw input to the RF final stage, a very large modulation capability, and this fed into a 10 foot British joystick antenna, the transmitter being located immediately between the ground and the base of the antenna so that ground lead length did not detract from the maximum permissible antenna length. Because this type of antenna is resonant, it is much more efficient than a ten foot piece of wire would be. With this arrangement, my signal was actually receivable on a sensitive receiver up to about two miles away.
I was not satisfied with this range and so pretty much gave up at broadcasting my own signal at that point.
I did participate in a radio show at KCMU (the student station at the UW) prior to them changing formats, and then later at KBCS (the Bellevue Community College student station), which was also ended in part by a format stage but also by a wacko blind DJ there that told management that we were overmodulating the transmitter. KBCS at that point did not have limiters, the output of the board fed directly into the transmitter. There was a big red light on the board that came on if the modulation was over 100%. That and the VU meter were used to manually keep the modulation within limits. It was, however, impossible to predict spikes in music, etc, that would occasionally drive modulation over that value.
Anyway, both of these were a lot of fun. Both had a feeling of being very alive and organic. We made it a point to involve the audience heavily and this did seem to be popular with the audience but at times we’d go a bit over the edge and get management upset.
Later, a friend of mine who I shared those shows with, landed a job as general manager of a small AM station and hired me to do engineering and program director work, an odd combination. We put together a format that was very much like the “New Wave” stations that came later on FM, but with very heavy audience participation. When he was hired, the station was losing money, within two months we had turned it around and made it profitable, but in spite of now being able to make payments the bank foreclosed and the station was sold and our involvement in it ended.
Never the less, it was enough of a run to find that this very organic approach of heavily involving the audience and having a strong human element in the programming was very workable. Another element of the format is that we went to great lengths to never have dead air, always have music, and to have a very high audio density. If it could be made to work on a 500 watt AM station, it could have worked much better on a larger station. Unfortunately, we never got the opportunity to do that.
This is something I would like to do. It’s my feeling that this would work even better today because so many stations have gone to automation or corporate faceless networks that such a station would really stand out and be welcomed by the audience. Back then we had to do things very much by hand, interviews were edited by cutting and splicing tape, etc. Todays technology would make this much easier.
I would like to relate a couple of subjective experiences. Having had experience with both AM and FM, AM at that last station and my pirate stations, FM at KNHC, KCMU, and KBCS, I have to say there is something different about AM. I can’t say exactly what it is but even though the audio quality is inferior to FM, it seems more alive.
I think in part this might be due to the fact that AM can propagate great distances at night, and that the signal gradually got weaker but seemed to keep going where FM could never propagate great distances and it was very much different in terms of signal propagation. FM you could get a good strong signal, move ten feet and get nothing.
But there was also something different about how FM affected music in most cases. FM signals sounded very “flat” to me, even though the frequency response and signal to noise ratio was much better than AM, music on FM just sounded unnatural on most commercial stations.
One thing I came to learn later on is that this did not seem to be a problem with monophonic FM transmission. I wonder if it might have had something to do with the sharp filters required to rapidly roll off frequencies above 15 Khz on stereo transmissions. Whatever it was, music to me never sounded right on FM with the exception of those stations that were not transmitting in stereo.
I suspect though that the explanation might not be as simple as that. This is a wild thought but I’ve had the feeling that AM signals are in some sense interdimensional and that the signal, once radiated, continues on forever. Technically, both AM and FM signals are absorbed by various mechanisms and limited in range, but AM feels to me like it actually is not, it just goes on and on and becomes ever more nebulous.
If I had the opportunity to do it again there is another element that I’d like to add and that is live music and events. Financially, we did not have the opportunity to do that. Back then, remote broadcasts were difficult and expensive because you’d have to have special broadcast lines installed, or an expensive microwave link.
With the advent of digital audio it is now possible to transmit broadcast quality audio over an ISDN line or moderate speed digital link and with the Internet being so ubiquitous the connectivity is easy to obtain cheaply.
I hope you’ll forgive my ramblings, thinking of long delay echo got me to thinking about my pirate experience and then by extension everything else related to radio. I miss my involvement in radio, it was a lot of fun.