Sunday, February 5, 2012

Shocking Moments in Broadcasting

When I was a teenager, I was always messing with something electronic in my room. It was so bad that Mom wouldn’t go in there when I had some contraption laid out on my bed or on the floor. I had everything from amplifiers to a “razor blade” radio at one time or another. Her fear of being shocked instilled a pretty strong respect for electricity in me. I hated being shocked and that happened every so often. It took me a while to understand how under certain conditions, touching a case in one of the old AC/DC radios could give you a tingle. That was back in the day before electrical outlets were polarized so that the “hot” side of the power plug could not be connected to the case.

One would expect that working in radio and television would expose a person to the potential of being shocked and there were occasions where that old familiar tingle would make me go all aquiver again. It didn’t matter if you were an on the air person or a station engineer. I remember dropping a page of public service copy on the floor of the WUSC control room. It fell under the table that held the left turntable. As I squatted down to pick it up, I accidentally placed my fingers into the exposed underside of the pre-amplifier and got a pretty good shock. As I jumped up, I banged my head on the RCA 44 D microphone that hung on a boom over the desk. Fortunately I did not bounce the needle off the record that was playing so I had minute to recover before having to announce the next song.

While working with television monitors, it was not to uncommon to get zapped from the high voltages used to create the images on the picture tubes. Sometimes that happened even after we carefully discharged the circuits by grounding them out. I will never forget the snap-snap sound in the electronic maintenance shop when there was a lot of monitor maintenance going on. Along with the noise, there was the unmistakable smell of ozone that was produced by the high voltage. Another thing about the old picture tube televisions and monitors was that they operated at a frequency of 19 kilocycles, or kilohertz as they call it today. This was just in the upper edge of my hearing range back in the day. If one of the monitors wasn’t working right, I could hear its oscillator working at a slightly different frequency from the others. I could stand with my back to the monitor bank and tell if they were all working correctly. Can’t do that today, there are no more oscillators nor will my ears hear that high a frequency any more.

Remote broadcasts were a source for other “charged up” experiences. Because three-pronged plugs were not universally installed in all the venues, many of the extension cords had the ground prong, the round one under the two flat prongs, clipped off so they could be plugged into two pronged sockets. If the polarity was wrong, the microphone stands and control could be charged. Most of the time you would not know but if you were grounded and touched one of them, it would bite you. That was usually “house current” and could be painful. In fact there were cases all over the country where disk jockeys and members of bands were killed when this happened. Eventually laws were passed and government agencies formed to address the safety issues and this risk while not eliminated was greatly reduced. But not until I had some electrifying moments out in the field.

No matter how many laws are passed or agencies created to enforce them, you can’t legislate against stupidity. But I’ll come back to that in a minute. Directional AM radio stations had a device called a “phasor,” just like Star Trek but this was not a weapon, it was a splitter that took the signal coming out of the transmitter and distributed it to the multiple towers in a directional AM station. When I was the chief engineer at WIS radio, we had a room sized phasor. It was in a steel frame and consisted of coils that looked like big slinkys and capacitors that were big enclosed tubes with steel plates on either end. When thunderstorms rolled overhead, the elements of the phasor would become charged and little arcs of electricity would dance from one place to another in the frame. It was pretty awesome to turn off the lights and watch the display.

Now we come to my “stupid” story, and it is on me. There was a reading that we had to take from a meter on the phasor once a day, called the common point current. In order to take this reading, the operator had to remove a shorting bar to put the meter into the circuit. This shorting bar consisted of a quarter inch steel plate, three inches long and two inches deep. There was an insulated handle on one edge of the plate so we would not be shocked when we removed the shorting bar. One night, a friend who worked on the TV side of the company was visiting as I was taking the readings and I was describing to her what I was doing and looking at her instead of watching what I was doing. I put my finger past the insulated handle and onto the bare bar. By doing so, I shorted out the 5,000 watt transmitter. Wow, that was the worst shock I ever got. It was years before the scar on my finger from that one went away. The scar in my memory is still fresh as ever. Oh MY!

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