Don’s Bad Day

(Pictured: If know what these are, you may have what it takes to be a broadcast engineer.)

A friend posting on Facebook the other day told a quick story about a broadcast engineer she’d once known—and that was all it took to get me thinking about some of the broadcast engineers I have known.

My first paying job was in Dubuque, which was a large-enough operation to have three engineers. The chief was a very nice man and extremely helpful. But he wore a tie and spent a lot of time in meetings, so if you needed something done, you went to the assistant chief, a quiet man with a shambling gait and a wry sense of humor. He would periodically come into the main studio where the transmitter controls were and perform adjustments to make sure everything was operating within FCC parameters. When he was finished he’d say, “That’s close enough for government work.”

The third engineer was a guy I nearly killed one day.

When a station’s studios are in one physical location and its transmitters are in another, there’s a studio-to-transmitter link (STL). In days of yore, it was a wired link or a telephone line; today, it can be a digital connection via a T1 line. In Dubuque, it was a broadcast link, and one hot summer afternoon circa 1982, it died. The only engineer on duty that day was the third one, Don, who’d been at the station since God was a boy and had been promised a job for as long as he wanted to work. He had been working in the engineers’ shop downstairs when something shorted out on the bench and fried the STL. It wouldn’t be a quick fix.

I was on the air at the time. I could see that the transmitter across the river in East Dubuque, Illinois, was still operating, but nothing I was doing in the studio was getting there. Don came upstairs and explained what had happened. The protocol in the case of a catastrophic failure was this: box up a bunch of carts containing music and commercials, unhook the studio cart machines, put everything in the van, and go across the river to the transmitter site and use the emergency studio there until repairs could be made.

The 22-year-old dipshit I was back then would not have taken this calmly. I am sure that I fumed as Don slowly unwired the cart machines. And I may have urged him to hurry, perhaps gently, but perhaps not. I loaded up the music and commercial carts and anything else I thought we’d need over there, grabbed the keys to the van, and raced out to the parking lot. Don eventually came tottering out with the cart machines, and we started for the transmitter site.

Traffic was heavy, and it was clearly going to take longer than the usual five minutes to get there. As I navigated the van and cursed the drivers in front of me, I noticed that Don, in the passenger seat next to me, was breathing heavily and did not look well at all.

“You OK, Don?” “Yeah, I’m fine,” he said, obviously not fine. “I’m just a little winded.” “You gonna make it?” I asked. “Yeah, I’m fine.”

We eventually got to the transmitter site and into the ancient emergency studio, a relic of the 1940s, an old control board with dials and buttons made of Bakelite plastic, equipped with giant transcription turntables. We brushed off the dead flies and set to work, Don slowly wiring up the cart machines, then going out to where the transmitter was and doing the necessary voodoo to get the emergency studio live. I watched his labors with great concern hoping he wouldn’t drop dead on me, and that if he did, he’d do it after the studio was operational.

Long story short: we got the station back on the air from the transmitter, and Don didn’t die until 2011.

Radio types amongst the readership, some of whom are broadcast engineers, are hereby encouraged to share engineer stories in the comments. I bet yours are much better than mine.

7 responses

  1. Cart machines ain’t light!

  2. Don also built the carrier-current transmitters that broadcast KLOR to the dorms on the Loras College campus. I remember bringing an old and busted one to him for repair, and his eyes lit up like it was Christmas morning. He got to repair something that he’d built himself, 20 years before! Thanks for not killing him that day.

  3. I have more engineer stories than there are grains of sand on the beach. I have been the chief engineer’s best friend, and the chief engineer’s worst nightmare. In my foolish youth, pre-radio, I was a licensed ham (amateur radio) operator, and before I escaped from small-town-America high school, the possessor of a RadioTelephone First Class Operator License (with Radar Endorsement). Ask me about PPI, ASI, or MTO radars some time. As a young broadcaster I had not yet learned the lesson that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and thought I was far more capable than the guy who drew the CE’s paycheck to make adjustments to the audio processing chain, tweak the transmitter, pull maintenance on the studio equipment – you name it, I could mess with it, to the constant annoyance of the chief. In my 30’s (and after being fired from some truly fine radio stations) I came to realize that maybe the chief really did know more about this stuff than I did, and I began to cultivate closer relationships – collaborative relationships – with the various chiefs I worked with, on heady topics like loudness versus fidelity, and the finer points of tuning a first-generation Orban Optimod.

    Of all the stories I could tell about electronic things I screwed up in my early days, my most vivid memory of establishing a relationship with a chief engineer was at an AM/FM combo in the Fox Valley (WI) where I’d been lured to take the Operations Manager job for a fairly substantial increase in the salary I was being paid down the road a few miles at a competing station. The CE of the new operation had heard many horror stories about my misadventures from the chief of the competing operation – a venerable gentleman who’d literally (and figuratively) earned his stripes in the U.S. Navy as some sort of senior radioman. Like so many other engineers who’d transitioned into commercial radio from the armed services, he was known as “Sparks”.

    When it was leaked that I was about to switch employers, the chief of the “new” stations went to the GM and said he had heard the (reliable) gossip (probably from “Sparks”) that I was about to join the staff in some senior management position, and he knew of my reputation for being an engineer’s headache-inducer. He wanted the GM to make it clear to me that meddling of any sort would not be tolerated. Mind you, I knew who this engineer was – but had never met him. Like your story about Dubuque, Jim, this was a three-man department, but they were all young men. The stations did about 10 remotes a week – sales and sports – and one of the guys was “the remote engineer” who set everything up and maintained all the remote equipment.

    The GM of the “new” stations told me about the engineer’s concerns, and was open to collaborating with me on a plan to put me in the good graces of the chief right away. My first day on the new job, I ran into a man – a young man, about my age -in the studio hallway of the station, carrying a slide-wire Wheatstone Bridge. I knew it had to be the chief. I said “oh, look – a bridge – let’s make it a toll bridge and see if we can make some money off it!” He sort of chuckled and we formally met. I told him I was aware of his concerns about my tendency to meddle in the engineering domain and said I was pretty much cured of that, and that I was turning over a new leaf here and promised that “the new me” would never alter a setting or mess with anything, and that if I had concerns or suggestions after getting to know the lay of the land at the new stations, I’d ask him to meet with me to discuss it -and that if he agreed to such meetings, his paycheck would be $50 a week fatter. (This was the deal I’d worked out with the GM ahead of time. A $2600 a year raise was significant in the mid-70’s.) I also told the chief that I’d promised the GM that if he (the chief) ever caught me changing a setting or meddling in his bailiwick without prior consultation, all he had to do was go to “the old man” and tell him specifically what had happened, and the GM would slide a hundred bucks from my paycheck over to the chief’s paycheck.

    Never happened. We got along famously. He was even willing to discuss Optimod settings!

    (Sorry I rambled so……your post really struck a note…..)

  4. I love you blog but have never posted. You hit a nerve and I relate this story:

    I have spent 20+ years off and on as an on air person. However, my technical skills are downright poor. It’s just not me. Therefore, very early on I realized that it was in my best interest to cultivate a good relationship with the CE. He/she (yes, there was a she along the way) knew WAY more than I did. Say hello when they walk in…then leave ’em alone. Whatever they are doing to the transmitter is something you will never truly understand. If I was offered a million dollars I could never understand!

    It was my first job and I was eager to do everything right. Management had hired an engineer named Steve (Last name escapes me for the moment). The first few times he came in to check things, we seemed to get along.

    One night I get a phone call. It’s Steve, “Wadda ya want in your coffee?…I’m at Dunkin’ Donuts”, he says.

    “Decaf cream and sugar” I reply, thinking it’s all a nice gesture from him for a rookie, studio-bound newscaster.

    Thereafter he brought me coffee with each visit. One day I asked him why he did this each time.

    “Oh, it’s hush coffee…I figure if I bring you coffee every week, you won’t tell the owner I’m (bleeping up) the transmitter!”

    The memory of that still makes me smile…

  5. At least you didn’t cut the lines to the transmitter or the tower. ;)

  6. Having been one of those kids who had their own basement radio station, the towers had always been as intriguing to me as the tunes, and the engineers always wore white hats.

    The station’s tower came down in the middle of my Sunday afternoon shift on WJON, but the CE didn’t need to be called, as it was brought down on purpose. The CE had discovered that the station could effectively double its nighttime power legally by replacing the original 200-foot, 1/4-wave tower with a more-efficient, 465-foot, 5/8-wave lightning rod. I shut off the transmitter at the appointed time, the guy wires were snipped and the old tower was yanked down. The plan was to string a length of old guy wire from the old tower base to the building to use as a temporary longwire antenna while its successor was going up a hundred or two feet away, but the guy couldn’t handle the full 1,000-watt load, due to arcing over an insulator in the wire. Between the forced power reduction and inefficient makeshift antenna, the station’s 250-watt night signal barely made it past downtown.

    The nifty new tower was up and running in a couple days, and it certainly was more efficient, with daytime power having to be permanently throttled back to 487 watts in order to avoid exceeding the previous 1,000-watt coverage footprint. All 250 watts were available at night to produce a roughly 500-watt equivalent signal, which translated to maybe another mile of coverage on the mega-congested graveyard channel, depending on the pollen count. Management was expecting twice the coverage, not realizing that would have required four times the power (and *that* would come five years later, when the FCC granted blanket nighttime power increases from 250 to 1,000 watts on the six graveyard channels.) The ultimate result of all that expensive new steel? With the higher noise floor of hundreds of co-channel stations now running four times the power at night, WJON, like many similar Class C AM stations, actually has less usable nighttime coverage than it had running a quarter of the wattage in 1978 on the original tower. But holy cats, that new broadband tower made the high frequencies come alive during music programming. On a decent radio, it was like listening to FM.

    At another time and place, the station went off the air, and while I was trying to raise the standby transmitter, the hotline rang. I thought it would be the AM CE, but what I heard was an automated status code number. I couldn’t get the station back on the air and called the CE and told him about the code number. His exact words are still etched in my memory:

    “Call the Credit River Fire Department and tell them there’s a fire at the WDGY transmitter site.”

    I did as instructed and waited. And waited. Credit River?? I’d never even heard of the township before the nine-tower transmitter site had been moved another twelve or fifteen miles closer to Des Moines the previous year, and it took the CE what seemed like an eternity to get there from the studios in St. Paul. The potential conflagration turned out to have been nothing more than a failed fan motor bearing, which shut down the Harris MW-50 and triggered the smoke alarm. But man, that helpless sound of nothing but static and fearing the worst was just awful.

  7. […] radio days: about the mad scientists in the engineering department in Macomb, and about the day I nearly killed an engineer in Dubuque. My Dubuque radio past came back in an unusual way this past spring when my 1982 face […]

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