The Mad Scientists

(Another broadcast engineer story.)

I have mentioned here a time or two the general manager/chief engineer of the stations in Macomb, Illinois, when I was there in the mid 80s. Bob Wille (pronounced “willie”) was a very nice man, as devoted to his stations and his community as any broadcaster I’ve ever known—and a bit of a mad scientist. If there was something he felt he needed that did not exist, he’d invent it.

My favorite example was his time-and-temperature machine. Back in the day, many automated radio stations had a function that would periodically announce the time. It involved two giant tape cartridges, one with the even time numbers (2:22, 2:24, and so on) and one with the odd ones (2:21, 2:23, etc.). Every now and then you’d program it to play between a couple of other elements, thereby telling your listeners what time it was. For his automated FM station, Bob rigged up a secondary gizmo that would also announce the temperature. He put a special cartridge machine in the AM studio and recorded up a bunch of carts announcing temperatures, from 10 below to 100 above. Because the AM studio was staffed for much of the day, it became the jock’s job to plug in the proper cart as the temperature fluctuated throughout the day, so that whenever the time cart played on the FM, it would be followed by the temperature. It sounded clunky on the air, but it was damned ingenious.

Thirty years ago, a lot of radio stations still created their program logs manually. Bob had written a computer program for ours, and if it was determined that we needed a particular function or a particular report, he would modify the program to create it. Modern broadcast scheduling software can do a lot, but for tech support, nothing compares to having the dude who wrote the thing on the payroll.

Another of Bob’s inventions was more prosaic. Tape decks have to be cleaned every now and then, usually with alcohol and Q-tips. You could buy special extra-long Q-tips that would reach into the depths of cart machines, depths unreachable by standard Q-tips, but the long ones were expensive. So Bob took a piece of wooden dowel and hollowed out one end of it so you could stick a regular Q-tip into it. We quickly nicknamed it the “Wille Wand,” and one slow day we produced an advertisement for it. It included a testimonial from a happy user who said, “I had oxide buildup on my tape machines, and I also suffered from impacted ear wax. But now that I have the amazing Wille Wand, all my heads are doing just fine.”

Because Bob was a natural tinkerer, he had an affinity for other natural tinkerers. (Game recognize game, as the kids say.) And that’s how he came to hire a 15-year-old assistant engineer. The kid was the son of a family friend, apparently. One story we heard was this: the family got a home computer, which in 1986 was an expensive, exotic purchase. In the wee hours one morning, the dad heard a noise downstairs, and went down to find the 15-year-old and a friend with the guts of the computer spread out around them on the living room floor. “We wanted to see how it worked,” the kid said—and after they put it back together, it worked just fine.

So Bob hired the kid, to my great skepticism. But I soon learned that he was really good at stuff. It was mostly routine maintenance—rewiring headphones, winding new carts, cleaning and adjusting tape machines and turntables—but they were jobs that Bob didn’t always have time for, so it was good to have somebody doing them, and doing them right.

The kid’s last name was Fess, and it wasn’t long before I started calling him “the Fabulous Fess,” because he was. And because I left the stations at the end of 1986, I never knew what became of him. So I googled around a little bit the other morning, and as best I can tell, he’s still living in central Illinois, in his mid 40s now—and he’s got at least one patent to his credit. Which does not surprise me at all.

4 responses

  1. Another great story from the pen of JB Bartlett. Thanks.

  2. Yes! Thanks for telling this story! It may not flip the switches of those who read your blog for your great music reporting, but it warms this old broadcaster’s heart.

  3. […] my former general manager, there were several other posts touching on my early 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 […]

  4. I was the news director at WKAI in 75-76, right after college. Bob was great to work with, and I loved my time there.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: