Sunday, May 29, 2016

The Shocking Truth About Broadcasting

There is that old song by Nazareth, “Love Hurts” and I am living proof of the truth of that. As a young teenager, I developed a strong relationship with electronics, especially audio gear and anything that transmitted or received radio signals. It was back in those early days that I discovered that if you plugged a radio with AC/DC chassis, the most common type of the day into the wall incorrectly, you could get shocked by just touching the metal box that hid all the wires and components from view. After getting my first “love bite” from a radio I was playing with, I had that all figured out as I put together more and more complicated contraptions,

It was a while before electricity got me again. I’ll never forget it. I was doing a mid afternoon show on WUSC – AM sometime in ’64 when I dropped a 45 RPM record on the floor underneath the table that held turntable #1. As I stuck my head under the table I accidentally placed my left hand into the open chassis of the turntable preamplifier that was attached to the table leg. I don’t know what hurt worse, the sting to my fingers or the back of my head as I reared up howling and hit the bottom of the table. Now, you younger folks are thinking, why was there not a cover on that preamplifier? These were the days long before OSHA and the workplace was still wild and wooly with all kinds of dangers lurking about for the unwary, and I was definitely unwary.

Left: A Gates "Level Devil" Somehow I got through my WCOS years without getting kissed by electrons. But those years were not completely without incident. The station’s spring reverberation unit was on the floor just to the outside of the console table’s right legs. Again, a 45 RPM record was the culprit. I dropped one as I reached over to the left turntable. I stretched upper body to the left and back and my feet to the front and right. Sure enough as I grabbed the record off the floor, I gave the reverb unit a swift kick. The results were like the sound of Armageddon as the springs bounced around in their frame. I know I gave that old Gates “Level Devil” a run for the money as it struggled to keep the modulation below 100%.

During the early 70s, our master control room and adjoining engineering area at WIS-TV were on the second floor snuggled up to the legs of the 400 foot downtown tower. This led to some interesting events. During thunderstorms, as lightning hit the tower which was the tallest structure downtown, quite often we would get St. Elmo’s fire around the all metal switcher console and the monitors on the shelf in front of it all. That made life interesting for the master control operators as they “switched” local commercials and station IDs on the air between the network shows. One particularly stormy night, I was replacing some transistors on a component board on the workbench that was lined up between one of the tower legs and the power distribution box. I heard a low humming over near the tower and glanced up to see a ball of lightning that had formed there. Ball lightning is fairly uncommon and that was one of three instances in my life where I witnessed it in person. The thing about ball lightning is that it seeks a ground to use to discharge itself. Just my luck, the ground it was seeking was the power panel at the other end of the bench. As it started drifting towards me along the bench, I kicked my bar stool on wheels in order to give the lighting ball as big a path as I could. Slowly it drifted, humming merrily to itself. Soon it noticed that poor defenseless circuit board on the table. KaBoom! It blew out every transistor, resistor and capacitor on that little board and then jumped directly to the power box, tripping every single breaker in it. It took us 5 minutes to reset the breakers, turn everything back on and get us back on the air.

We never did repair that circuit board. It was quicker and cheaper to replace it. I kept it in my workbox as a souvenir.

So, the first two stories I told you today are about my personal dumb-outs around electronic circuits. The last one is also about not paying attention.

It was the first month after I was promoted from Television staff engineer to the Chief Engineer of WIS Radio. Note: we were called engineers back then despite the fact that none of us at the time had our engineering degrees. Today, they are called broadcast technicians, even those of us who now have engineering degrees.

It was sunset on a bright clear day, and I was being visited by a friend from the staff of WIS Television who had never seen the radio station several miles away in all the time she worked for our company. This gave me a chance to demonstrate the things we had to do to change the station’s pattern to the nighttime tower array. I let her push the button that made the switch, then we walked out to the three tower bases where I took the “phase and current” readings. Back at the station, I logged the readings and compared them to the remote readings from the tower sensors. There was one last thing to do; take the common point current reading. This was done by removing the shorting shunt at the bottom of the meter to put it into the circuit. Normally, the entire 5,000 watts of the station flows through the shunt to protect the meter which is needed only a few seconds of each day to make the daily reading.

I was explaining how careful one had to be, because of the proximity to the live conductor between the transmitter itself and the phasor unit that divides the signal up and sends it to the towers. I was looking at her while reaching for the insulated handle. Unfortunately I grabbed the edge of the metal shunt as well as the handle. I can tell you that I lit up like a Christmas Tree! “Yeeeeeoooowwww!” I yelled as I jerked away from the phasor and threw the shorting shunt across the phasor room. It took me a few seconds to regain my composure, read the meter and CAREFULLY reinsert the shunt. “Are you all right” she asked as we both looked at the red dot on the end of my second finger of my left hand. I thought, “So much for being the cool guy who faced danger every day to keep us all on the air.” A week later, a cone of cauterized flesh about a sixteenth of an inch in diameter and a quarter of an inch deep fell out of my finger. It took almost a year for the hole to fill with new flesh.

That was the last time I felt the nibble of “Mother electron”. The last time I became one with my radio or television station. I had learned my lesson. Today, I have a healthy respect for the powers that swarm around me. I leave the up close and personal work to those who are younger than me and are still immortal. I’ll just stand back and be the safety man, watching to make sure all is OK. But I still reserve the right to tell “war stories” whenever technicians and engineers gather about in the glow of a cherry red final tube pumping out the tunes from the hallways of our memories. Oh MY!

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