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First-Hand:A Passion for Radio

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Submitted by A. James Ebel

My interest in radio began in the mid-20s when I purchased a Radiola III Regenerative Receiver-DX listening became my hobby. In 1928, I visited radio station WMT in Waterloo, Iowa, my hometown. I was interested in seeing the studio operation; the control board; the big 33-113 rpm electrical transcription players; and the transmitter, which was co-located in the control room.

The transmitter used a 250-watt Hartley Oscillator with Reising modulation. It fed a multi-wire flat-top "T" antenna stretching from the top of the Waterloo Morning Tribune building (the location of the station) and an adjacent building. Since there was no frequency control on the Hartley Oscillator, the station's frequency would vary slightly when high winds caused the antenna to swing.

I visited this station regularly because of my intense interest. I would probably have been thrown out as a "pest" (I was a young high school kid) had it not been for the interest that Paul Palmer, an engineer on duty, took. He would even let me come into the control room when things were quiet, and explain how each piece of equipment worked. He also loaned me a copy of the Radio Manual written by George Sterling, who, at that time, was head of the FCC Field Bureau.

The Manual contained all of the information one needed to pass the examination for a Commercial Radio Operator's License. I studied this Manual diligently with a lot of help from Paul Palmer whenever I "got stuck." In April, 1930, I took my Commercial Radio Operator's examination, which at that time was a multiple question essay-type examination calling for explanations of radio technology in general, radio receiver technology, radio transmitter and antenna technology, and the rules and regulations of the Federal Radio Commission. It took me over four hours to complete the examination. I had to draw a diagram of a tuned radio frequency broadcast receiver, and the circuit diagram of a 5000-watt broadcast transmitter. These diagrams were memorized from the Sterling Radio Manual.

In May, 1930 (I had just turned seventeen), I received the good news that I passed the Commercial Radio Operator's examination, and received my first Commercial Radio Operator's Certificate. I have maintained my Radio Operator's License ever since . In June, 1930, I was able to get my first broadcast job at Radio Station KFJB in Marshalltown, Iowa. The vacancy came about because the chief engineer who had designed and built one ofthe first crystal-controlled broadcast transmitters in the midwest, was killed while doing night maintenance on the transmitter. He had been making adjustments on the antenna and the counterpoise in wet weather. When he came in to make an adjustment on the transmitter, which was in an open rack with no protective circuits, he made contact with 600 volts of battery C-bias, which was fatal. Actually the transmitter was not turned on, but the high voltage bias was in the rack. (A number of engineers were killed in those days at batteryoperated stations because batteries are quiet and it is difficult to tell when they are turned on).

The assistant engineer at KFJB, Sid S. Davis (they called him 11Steamship11 Davis),became Chief Engineer, and I filled the other engineering position. The station had only two operating engineers. I also became the announcer when an announcer didn1t show up for the seven a.m. “SIGN ON.”

When I returned to high school for my senior year, I obtained a part-time job handling remotes: pipe organ programs from a local theater, and dance remotes from a local ballroom when big bands such as Duke Ellington came to town. I also ran the controls on Fran Allison1s first radio appearances on WMT in Waterloo. Fran Allison, later became Aunt Fanny on Don McNeill1s Breakfast Club, and Fran in “KUKLA, FRAN and OLLIE” in the early days of television.

I graduated from high school in 1931. In the summer of 1931, I received a job at KGDE inFergus Falls, Minnesota. Because this was in the depth of the depression, and advertising revenues were hard to come by, the station had only three employees: the boss, Mr. C. L. Jeren, his wife and yours truly. The station was on the air from seven in the morning until nine at night. I was on duty seven days a week, except that I had an hour off for lunch and an hour off for dinner, during which time Mr. Jeren took over.The operator was also the announcer, who played records, and did commercials by adJibbing ut of the newspaper. In late August, 1932, Mr. Jeren could no longer afford my sixty dollar a month salary, so I decided it was now time to return home to go to go to college. (Actually, this was my father's decision.)

I graduated from the University of Iowa in January of 1937 with a bachelor's degree. I decided to get an advanced degree in engineering. I selected Purdue University because I could get part-time work at WBAA, the Purdue University radio station. After moving to West Lafayette, enrolling in Purdue, and setting up housekeeping with my wife, a new daughter, and two university student renters, another opportunity came my way: the University of Illinois (U of I) needed a chief engineer for their radio station. They (U of I) were planning to build a directional antenna at a new transmitter site and decided from reading my article in Electronics that I was the ideal man for the position. They insisted that I come to Champaign-Urbana, Illinois for an interview on the university campus. They asked me what it would take for me to come to Illinois. I made a "ridiculous" request because I really didn't want to move.

They accepted this "ridiculous" salary request. I found out later that I could have gotten two hundred and fifty dollars a month more if I had asked for it. Moving, after only one month at Purdue, was traumatic but well worth the effort. Radio station WILL, at the University of Illinois, was a 1000-watt daytime station with a "T" antenna between two towers on the campus. The transmitter was in the studio building. Construction had already begun on the twotower directional antenna system which had been designed by Jansky and Bailey. It was necessary to design the antenna phasing system, the feeder system to the towers, and the tuning units at the base of each tower. It was also necessary to buy a new 5000-watt transmitter, which was a RCA 5-D High Level Modulated transmitter.

When it came time to tune up the antenna system, I ran into problems. I had never tuned one up before, my antenna work had all been Theoretical up to that point. I didn't realize the havoc mutual impedance between two towers could wreak in the tuning process. When you tuned one tower to get the impedance matched, you tuned that tower alone. And then when you tuned the other tower alone, it seemed that everything would be all set-not so-the mutual impedance between the two towers threw everything off. Any change while tuning one tower affected the tuning of the other. It was like trying to pick up a glob of mercury. After hours of sneaking up on the calculated values little by little at both towers, the design operating parameters were achieved. The null measurements were surprisingly close even though the pattern didn't have a deep null. Field measurements for "proof of performance" worked out satisfactorily, largely due to the experience I had gained while working with Glen Gillette.

In the fall of 1938, I enrolled for graduate study at the University of Illinois to obtain a Master of Science in electrical engineering. As I expected, a lot of under-graduate engineering courses had to be made up, such as the course in electrical machines (motors and generators); a course on AC measurements; and a number of nonelectronic courses. I was also in charge of the engineering operations of WILL, so the number of courses I could take per semester were limited. I finally received my masters in October, 1943.

In the operation of WILL, we used male students on a part-time basis to handle the duties of our engineering staff. When World War II broke out in 1942, it became obvious that there was going to be a need for many young men to be trained in military electronics. For the operation of radio station, WILL, practically the entire staff had to either be women or men (4-F in the draft).

The women learned control room operations easily. And because of a natural manual dexterity, they were able to outperform some of the men we had when it came to intricate switching, record playing, and gain control operation. We were fortunate to find several women with First Class Operator's Licenses, and were able to train several moreso the operation at WILL went forward unimpaired during the war. In 1933, Colonel Edwin H. Armstrong had developed wide-band frequency modulation for broadcasting. I heard Colonel Armstrong explain the development of FM at an I.R.E. convention, and also observed a demonstration of the fantastic performance of this system eliminating noise and providing high fidelity audio transmission.

The Zenith Radio Corporation had one of the first FM radio stations operating in Chicago. So, in order to receive this signal, I built a Yagi antenna on top of the auditorium on the campus of the University of Illinois. For those who wanted to hear this fantastic new type of radio broadcasting, a trip up a narrow stairway to the attic of the auditorium was necessary.

The station had an irregular schedule because it was used mostly for demonstration purposes. After receiving my Master of Science in Electrical Engineering in 1943, I was appointed Assistant Professor of Electrical Engineering, teaching one course on the theory of thermionic vacuum tubes. (They don't use those much any more, do they?) I also started a consulting business on the side, filing applications for a number of FM and AM stations in the midwest, and designing new studios for several stations.

One of my consulting clients was the Peoria Broadcasting Company, which operated radio stations in Peoria and Tuscola, Illinois. In 1946 they asked me to come to work for them as their chief engineer. I really didn't want to leave the university because I liked the many engineering opportunities I had there. These included the approval of consulting, and the many perks one has as a member of an university staff. However, when they offered me double the salary I was receiving at the university, my wife and I decided we should accept the offer. (We had three children who were going to be attending college someday.) This turned out to be a good move, because I received many opportunities to participate in broadcast industry activities solely as the result of this move.

The company immediately had a number of projects for me. One was to design adirectional antenna for station WMBD so that it could operate at 5000-watt full-time. With its existing non-directional antenna, it had to reduce power to 1000-watt at night. I had also convinced the management that FM was a coming thing and so an application was filed for FM. There was also the possibility of television in the far distant future, so consideration for the accommodation of television was to be part of the new transmitter location design. At the same time, the station in Tuscola, Illinois-a very small community-was to be moved to Decatur. Studies were to be made for a new frequency for full-time operation in Decatur.

The initial design for the directional antenna system in Peoria called for two 5/8 wavetowers with nulls to protect other co-channel stations at night. One 5/8 wave tower would handle a FM antenna with a quarter wave transmission line isolation. The other would handle the television antenna, if television ever became practical. (That's what we actually thought in those days.)

Other co-channel stations objected to the two-tower design, as did the Engineering Department of the FCC at a hearing in Washington. Wilson Wearn, the Commission's Hearing Engineer at that time, cross-examined me critically because he felt that the two-tower Array would not provide proper skywaveprotection to co-channel stations. As the result of this critical questioning by Wilson Wearn for the FCC, the WMBD Legal Counsel Horace Lohnes, decided that we should withdraw the application and come back with a four-tower Array that the FCC would approve.

(Later Wilson W earn as Chairman of the NBC Satellite Committee, became a member of the network Affiliates Satellite Committee, which I chaired. He also became President of NAB, supporting me financially in W ARC [World Administrative Radio Conferences] activities, and a very close friend. I must admit that I had no idea of such a future friendship when he torpedoed my two-tower design.)

A four-tower Array was designed with onetall tower for daytime AM and FM, and television, and three additional quarter-wave towers. The Commission approved this design and a construction permit was issued. The Array was built along with a new transmitter building to house the 5-kw AM; and a high power FM transmitter. Again, when starting to tune up this Array, I ran into substantial difficulties.

Although there were phase meters andtower current meters in this tuning system designed and built by Raytheon, the builder of the 5-kw transmitter, it was still impossible to get the nulls in the right direction with the correct field intensity. I assumed that the use of one tall 5/8 wave supporting tower, along with three quarter-wave self-supporting towers, was giving me a different current distribution than I had planned on in this design.

After working all night for over a month, I came up with a compromise pattern which I thought offered proper protection to the other co-channel stations, even though it looked different on a polar diagram than the calculated pattern. I took these measurements to Washington and went over them with Commission Engineers who weren't real happy with them, but grudgingly agreed to accept them-so the new transmitter location was licensed.

After the station had operated for approximately six months, the Commission called my manager and said there was something seriously wrong with this directional antenna system because it was not constructed according to the licensed design. The consulting engineer for a co-channel station, in working on a design for her client, noticed the error. My directional antenna design, in the form of a rectangular box, called for a spacing on the long side of the box of three hundred and forty-five feet. The plans submitted with the Proof of Performance showed a spacing of three hundred and fifty-four feet. Somehow (when the specifications were drawn up for construction) the forty-five had been inverted to become fiftyfour, creating a nine foot error in spacing.

Needless to say, my manager was very upset with this development. After a number of conferences with the station's legal counsel, it was decided to hire the consulting firm of Lohnes and Culver to rectify the problem. I worked with them on measuring the current distribution on the 5/8 wave tower, actually doing the climbing myself. Ground current distributions were also measured. With this information, and using the tower spacing that was actually built, they came up with a pattern which would meet all requirements. The tuning for this pattern became very simple, and was quickly approved. I have to thank Charles Caley, Station Vice President and General Manager, for sticking with me in this "my darkest hour."

In 1946, WMBD filed for a full-power FM station. The other radio stations in Peoria also filed, so there were more applications than there were channels assigned to Peoria. Therefore it became necessary to have a hearing. The hearing was held in Peoria, and was hotly contested. WMBD did receive a grant for a FM station, eventually. In order to get a FM signal on the air, we applied to the FCC in 194 7 for experimental operation with 250-watt (125 L..t;;~avtv.:>Vertical/125 Horizontal) to study the effect of polarization on reception. The principal to be determined was whether circular or horizontal polarization was best in the average community.

The FM station went on the air with full power late in 194 7, initially with "elevator music" because AM and FM were not allowed to duplicate, and because the networks didn't want their programs on FM. Up to the time I left WMBD in 1954 to go to television station KOLN in Lincoln, Nebraska, under the same ownership, WMBD had not made a dime on their FM operations. A while back, when I came across this memorandum, I called the WMBD radio station manager who told me that FM now was far superior to AM-superior in quality and superior in earning capacity.

WMBD had a grant for Channel 8 television before the FCC went into a "TV freeze." Because of some uncertainty about the future of television, the station's legal counsel suggested that during the "freeze" WMBD turn in its construction permit since there would be no problem getting a permit after the "freeze" was lifted. This turned out to be a gigantic mistake. Because after the "freeze" was lifted, all of the radio stations in Peoria applied for Channel 8, which led to a long and bitter hearing.

I was put in charge of developing the hearing materials for our station. To prepare for this I spent a substantial amount of time visiting nearby television operations in Rock Island, Illinois and Chicago, Illinois. I also visited the Dumont factory and the RCA factory. In order to be better prepared, we purchased a complete set of studio equipment from Dumont cameras, film chain, monitors, and so forth.

We demonstrated closed circuit television in department stores in Peoria and a number of smaller communities. It was felt the ability we had gained this way would put us in good stead at the hearing (it didn't mean a thing). The book of exhibits showing the past operation of the radio station and the proposed future operation of the television station was over two inches thick. The hearing in Washington took over six weeks, and the record of the hearing testimony made a stack of books over three feet high.

The initial decision went to one of the other applicants who promised more in the way of programs than we had. We tried to be practical in the Peoria market. The winning applicant came up with proposals that exceeded what was being done in Chicago television, and the Commission bought it. After a number of appeals were filed, the Commission decided to make Peoria an all UHF market and gave everybody a station. Channel 8 went to the Moline-Davenport-Rock Island market.

While waiting for a decision from the FCC, Mr. Fetzer, a part owner of WMBD, purchased KOLN-TV in Lincoln, Nebraska. The Manager of KOLN-TV decided not to stay with the station. So on January 1, 1954, I was asked to go to Lincoln to manage on an interim basis, and to supervise as an engineer, the construction of a new television transmitter site. (When the station was purchased, the transmitter was at the studio site. The new transmitter site was to be twenty miles west of Lincoln.) Somehow the ownership never found a manager to replace me as Interim Manager, so I became General Manager and later Vice President and General Manager, and then President and General Manager.

Because Mr. Fetzer was a recognized television industry leader, and because of my past industry activities, I was appointed to the TASO Study Committee, the AMST Engineering Committee, and the NAB Engineering committee. In 1964, I was elected a member of the CBS Affiliates Board. In 1968 when satellite interconnection between networks and their stations was initially proposed, the Board decided to set up a Satellite Study Committee so that the Affiliates would know as much about satellite use as the networks. As the only member of the Affiliates Board with an engineering degree, I was named Chairman of the new Satellite Committee, which I chaired continuously through 1989. When Satellite committees were organized by NBC and ABC, I was named Chairman of the Combined Satellite Committees.

Our Satellite Committee immediately visited with Hughes, with NASA, with COMSAT, and every other source of satellite information we could put our hands on. When the delegation for the 1971 Space WARC was being set up, the Combined Networks Affiliates Associations arranged for my appointment to the delegation. I attended the Space WARC in 1971; the Broadcasting WARC in 1977; the General WARC in 1979; the North American Regional RARC in 1983; and the 1988 W ARC on the use of the Geostationary Orbit. My purpose at all of these international conferences was to represent the interests of the broadcasting industry-which included provision of spectrum allocations in the "C" band for station interconnection with their networks; provision for space in the Ku band for station interconnection with their networks; space in the Ku band for satellite newsgathering; and satellite remote broadcasting. We were also interested in protecting the concept of "localism" in the American system of broadcasting, which direct-to- home satellite broadcasting would not protect.

I became a member of the President's Frequency Management Advisory Council, representing broadcasting, in 1971, and have been a member continuously since that date. I was a member of the UHF Test Advisory Committee set up by the FCC; a member of the Satellite 2 Orbital Spacing Advisory Committee of the FCC; member of the NAB DBS Task Force; member of the NAB HDTV Task Force; and a member of a number of other subcommittees on HDTV.