Sunday, June 11, 2017

Reading Those Meters

Say what you will about Facebook, it does bring birds of a feather together. I am in several groups that are centered on radio. This week someone started a thread “Be honest.... ___ percent of the time I faked transmitter readings.” There were a lot of responses to the question and to my surprise about half of the responses were that they at least occasionally faked them. I will state from the start here that I am a major nerd and I never faked a reading, not even once. I may have been late, but never faked them.

Left: Legendary DJ/News Announcer Mike Rast taking transmitter meter readings at WCOS. When I talk about transmitter meter readings with my millennial DJ friends they look at me as if I had two heads. “Meter readings, what the heck are those?” You see, we live in an age that does not have the joy of meter readings. It all started a few years ago with “automatic transmitters” that basically ran themselves, even in the case of AM transmitters, raising and lowering power at the dawn and dusk all without the touch of a human hand. They had no idea what a Third Class Radiotelephone Operator License was much less a First Class License. If you had a “First Class” you were “the man” and could operate any station in the land, no matter what the power of the station was. It was a sad day for me, when the FCC discontinued the higher classes in favor of the “General Class” License. Gone were all the hard hours of studying electronics and transmitter systems, all the hard work lost in a bureaucratic flurry of deregulation. There was a small compensation; they returned my First Class certificate with the word “Cancelled” stamped on it.

These days, one no longer needs to have a license at all to operate most broadcast radio transmitters. All the DJ needs is to know how to turn on or off the transmitter, or at least where the operator’s manual is that tells them how to do that.

Back in the day, we all heard the war stories about the FCC inspector visits, where they would walk into the control room in the middle of your show and demand to see the transmitter log. He would look at your readings and perform some calculations in the ever present notebook that was stored behind the pocket protector in the pocket of his plaid shirt. Hey, this was way before the day of the handheld scientific calculator. He would then tell you whether or not your readings checked out. And if they didn’t, the consequences were dire and in some cases, career changing. There was even one story about an inspector ripping a license off the wall where all licenses were posted by law, and ripping it to shreds in front of the slack jawed, pale face of the now ex DJ. I doubt that ever happened for real, but that urban myth was enough to keep me on the straight and narrow.

The other thing that kept me on the straight and narrow was what we called the “Chief Engineer” now called the “Chief Operator” in deference to the National Society of Professional Engineers. Once a week, he would review all the transmitter logs, perform his own calculations and have a word of prayer with the hapless DJ or two whose readings he deemed as fake. One dead giveaway was if the readings were the same for hours on end. That just did not occur in the natural world; fluctuations in voltage from the power company would cause changes in the voltages and currents in the final tubes. When the voltage lowered you had to adjust the current slightly to keep it in the assigned operating range. They also caused minor temperature changes in the crystal ovens that changed the frequency of the transmitter minutely. When I became a “Chief Engineer” all these fudged readings stood out very nicely.

Then there is the fun of power change time. This usually meant switching from the daytime to the nighttime transmitter. In the case of directional AM stations that could also be switching additional towers into or out of the tower array. Just in case you are thinking “Yikes!” it wasn’t too bad. Using the most common remote control systems, five minutes before the power change the operator turned on the filaments of the transmitter you were about to start using. At the moment of truth, you threw the switch to the plate voltage of that transmitter and the remote control took care of everything else. Some radio stations had more steps. For example, the night transmitter for WAPE in Jacksonville was west of the city controlled by remote control. The daytime transmitter was at the station in Orange Park. To make matters worse, you could not start the daytime transmitter at a full 50,000 watts of power. You had to start it at 25,000 watts and then 15 – 20 minutes later raise the power to 50,000 watts.

OK, being a nerd, I always made power changes at the assigned time, but being a crazy DJ, I was always looking for having fun with that process. At WCOS our day time power was four times our night power and that meant fun in the early morning for me. One of my favorite “tricks” was to time the record I was playing so the power change occurred in the “break” of a song. “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” by The Four Seasons is a good example. About a minute before the end of the song, there is a slow fade, then a one second break followed by a “kicking” drum solo and the real end of the song. Another was to time the power change to occur a moment before a dynamic song opening. “Fire” by The Crazy World of Arthur Brown was one of these. The song opens with Brown screaming at the top of his lungs; “I am the god of hell fire and I bring you – Fire!” I had a lot of fun with that one.

In 2009, I was contracting with a local company as a project manager. I was sitting in my boss’s office chatting with him about radio and he told a story about his being startled in 1968 one morning at 6 AM by “Fire” blasting out of the radio he had left on all night. I asked him what station he was listening to at the time and he said it was WCOS. I cracked up and told him I was the guilty party responsible for that one. He said that he should have known.

These days, I can’t get the old DJ/Engineer combo out of my blood. When I walk into the control room at WUSC-FM, I always make a set of transmitter readings before my show. I don’t log them and I don’t have to do them. I also switch the control room monitor to “Air” and listen to the transmitter for a few moments. It is part of my pre-show routine along with taking a picture of my “Rockin’ Socks” for Facebook. All done; it’s Showtime. Oh MY!

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