Site du Radio & Television Museum, situé à Bowie au Maryland:
Radio Pierces the Great Blackout
by George C. Sitts
Broadcast Engineering, December 1965
When the power died in the Northeast the evening of November 9, 1965, radio stations in the affected area either made or lost their reputations as reliable news sources in a crisis. It was a difficult test, and those stations that passed did so because their engineers were prepared.
We chose the New York City area for a closer look at the engineer's role in that crisis principally because more people and stations there were affected for more hours than in any other area.
As the power dip occurred, stations found themselves in a variety of situations - power at the transmitter but none at the studio, no power at either transmitter or studio, loss of STL lines, loss of remote control, a multitude of engineers, or no engineer around. All affected stations were off the air briefly, leaving the broadcast band rather quiet; then they gradually came to life again. Within one minute, carriers that were off began to return, and those stations equipped with automatic switchover began to program. Within five minutes, other stations popped on, and within the hour most of the stations that were going to make it at all were in operation.
WCBS was a prime example of preparedness. With studios on the 16th floor of a new building and a remotely controlled transmitter, the station had auxiliary diesel generators with automatic switchover to produce operating power for two studios, control rooms, input equipment, newsroom, and some lights. In addition, there was a second generator to power elevators. The transmitter was equipped with a diesel generator to switch over automatically and operate the auxiliary 10-kw transmitter; besides this, WCBS had recently installed a 175-kw generator capable of operating the 50-kw main transmitter, but without automatic operation. As power lines died, the auxiliary generators kicked on at the studio, and the 10-kw rig came on at the transmitter site. The engineers checked the STL phone line, found it okay (they had a standby STL ready), and turned the operation over to the programming people.
A transmitter engineer on his way home saw the lights go out, realized the problem, and immediately returned to the transmitter. By 10 P. M., the 50-kw rig was operating on the new generator. Chief Engineer Robert Mayberry told Broadcast Engineering the station remained on auxiliary power until 6:15 the following evening, long after power had been restored, to ease the starting load on the Consolidated Edison system.
Chief embarrassment of WCBS was that the station's two mobile cruisers were stranded on the upper level of a storage garage with electrically operated elevators; they were useless during the blackout.
WABC, according to chief engineer Julius Barnathan, was off the air for 15 minutes, the time it took to get the emergency generator going at the transmitter site. The station utilized another gasoline generator to power the radio studio. The STL phone line was dead, but engineers discovered the business phone to the transmitter worked. A call was made from studio to transmitter to open the line; then the console and transmitter input equipment were connected to the phone terminals, putting the station back in operation.
WINS, the city's all-news outlet, lost studio facilities for two minutes as lights when out. An engineer at the transmitter in New Jersey, where power held, played prerecorded fill tape until contact was reestablished. At the studios, engineers connected a battery-operated remote amplifier to the STL phone line, only to discover the line was out of service. However, before an alternate line could be established, the original line returned and held through the evening.
WINS, being an all-news operation, had more reporters on the street when the problem occurred than other stations. As soon as programming began, chief engineer Hal Brokaw reports, his engineers turned to the problem of coupling battery-operated tape recorders to incoming phone lines for beeper reports. This alleviated the necessity for reporters to return to the studio and climb 19 floors to air their reports.
WOR Radio was typical of the nonnetwork metropolitan stations partially affected by the power drop. With a transmitter in Carteret, New Jersey (an unaffected area), a studio in Manhattan, and a remote-control-point in the Empire State Building manned by WOR-TV engineers, the station was off the air for a quarter-hour. According to WOR director of engineering Orville J. Sather, as soon as the power went off, engineers at the remote-control point hooked two batteries to a small inverter to power the remote-control unit.
At the studio, a gasoline generator failed to start. A battery-operated remote-broadcast amplifier was put into service, but the STL phone line to the transmitter was out of service (a telephone-company booster amplifier had lost power). After some hurried patching and connecting, engineers managed to get a line to the transmitter via DC intercom lines to the Empire State control point and then to the transmitter via a spare set of lines in the remote-control circuitry.
Broadcasting began with the announcing staff using candles and flashlights in the studio. WOR was blessed with a traffic-report helicopter in the air and a mobile unit on the street at the time. The receivers for these remote units were located at the Empire State Building, and because the shortage of power at that site prevented use of the cue transmitter, it was necessary to give on-the-air cues to the units, a which times the Empire State engineers would patch them directly to the transmitter.
Shortly, the gasoline generator at the studio was repaired and activated, restoring lights and limited studio power. This luxury lasted until about midnight it became apparent the unit would soon be out of gas. With gas-pump and elevator service out (WOR studios are on the 24th floor), the problem could have been serious; but a businessman in New Jersey, hearing of their plight on the air, drove in with seven gallons of gas and carried the fuel up all 24 flights.
WNEW was more fortunate. Chief engineer Max Weiner reports two of his maintenance men were about to leave the transmitter when the failure occurred. Again the transmitter was in a safe area, but the fail-safe feature of the remote-control unit kicked the carrier off the air. The men immediately restored the carrier locally and programmed music from a turntable at the transmitter. The station was again fortunate because the STL phone line held up. Thus, getting back in business for the night was only a matter of getting one of their battery-operated remote-broadcast amplifiers connected to the line, and gathering candles and flashlights.
Personnel of WMCA, seeing the lights begin to dim and hearing the turntables change speed, threw the remote-control equipment to an emergency supply, preventing any carrier break. Engineers then switched their operation to a standby studio equipped with a battery-operated console and two turntables powered by an inverter. The staff began operation with three 75-watt lamps, but reduced illumination to one lamp to save battery power when it became apparent the power outage would continue.
The station remained on emergency power for 12 hours. Teletype service was out - as it was in all stations - but news was brought in by telephone reports and by roving reports with portable tape recorders. Many of the staff members stayed throughout he night, subsisting on sandwiches, coffee, soft drinks, and cakes brought up to the 13th-floor studio by faithful listeners.
Among the city's other stations:
WLIB and other daytimers were approaching scheduled sign-off time and thus remained dark for the duration of the failure.
WHOM, a principally Spanish-language operation, used battery equipment to operate studio facilities until their 2 A. M. sign-off.
WQXR, with no emergency power provisions, spent the night silent - the station's first power failure in 25 years.
The morning after the blackout was a time for station managers and engineers to analyze the night's operations. As a result, some studios and transmitters are now being equipped with improved power-generating equipment and backup STL relays. But in most cases, relatively smooth emergency measures illustrated the careful planning by a handful of engineers for just such a night.
August 20 1995
PIONEER PROFILES - Premier column
WHO'S ON FIRST?
by Barry Mishkind
TUCSON, Arizona] This fall marks the 75th anniversary of the beginning of broadcasting. Or does it? Whenever broadcasters get together to discuss the beginnings of the industry, it soon seems to sound something like the famous Abbott and Costello routine. Trying to figure out "Who's on first?" often turns into a frustrating, even maddening attempt to put a label on a moving target.
Was KDKA's appearance in November, 1920 that of the first broadcast station? The question really is difficult to answer, even as one tries to define "broadcast." Was it operation on a regular schedule? A daily schedule? Was it continuous operation from some early date? Designed to be heard by the general public? Licensed by the US government?
Depending upon the criteria, many stations have strong claims for being first. And like Lou Costello, you may find a straight answer is somewhat elusive. Some of the contenders go way back.
Under one definition, broadcasting might even be said to have started in the 1880s, when the Budapest Cable Company began sending out scheduled entertainment programs via telephone lines. They hired people with "specially loud voices" to read out the news. Of course, RF wasn't involved, but it was "broadcast" in the sense of programming going out to a variety of locations.
KCBS, originally "San Jose Calling", FN, 6XE, 6FX, SJN, then KQW, was built by Charles David Herrold in 1909 in San Jose, California. Broadcasts of music from Herrold's School of Radio could be be heard every Wednesday evening. Lee de Forest proclaimed Herrold's station as "the oldest broadcasting station in the whole world."
KCBS calls itself "the longest continuously broadcasting station in the world," by a factor of at least a decade, there were, however, transmissions of music via radio by the Belgian Post Office beginning in the same time period.
WHA, originally 9XM, Madison Wisconsin was constructed by Earle Terry. The University of Wisconsin claims WHA "the Oldest Station in the Nation ... in existence longer than any other." It certainly rivals KCBS.
WWJ, originally 8MK, began operation on August 20, 1920. The next night it broadcast the results of an election. The station was owned and operated by the Detroit News. It promoted itself as "WWJ Radio One, Where it All Began, August 20, 1920."
And then there is KDKA, originally 8XK. Built by Dr. Frank Conrad of Westinghouse in 1916, it began playing music after the wartime ban on entertainment was lifted. (Actually, ALL non-governmental stations were ordered off the air until the end of WWI. 8XK was one of the few stations transmitting from time to time to test military radio equipment manufactured by Westinghouse.)
This fall, you are sure to read many articles about KDKA in all sorts of publications. What is not in debate is that the Department of Commerce started issuing licenses for what would become the broadcast band as we know it in 1920. Experimental station 8XK in Pittsburgh, which was to become KDKA, was granted the first "Limited Commercial" license. During a delay in reception of the license, the station proceeded to broadcast the election returns on 330 meters (909 kHz) on November 2, 1920 under Special Amateur license 8ZZ.
The broadcast itself was hardly unique, a number of other stations did election returns that very same night, and even previously. However, the fledgling KDKA was different in that it inaugurated a regular daily schedule of transmissions. The parent company Westinghouse, even had plans to start more stations if KDKA proved successful.
However, the full story of what happened in those days is less than crystal clear. It is evident that few, including the government, really had any clue as to the future of the new "wireless" medium. An assortment of stations in seven catagories (Public Service, Limited Commercial, Experimental, Technical and Training School, General Amateur, Special Amateur, and Restricted) had already transmitted everything from earlier election returns to music to dramatic readings.
And a whole range there were, indeed. Early stations included Experimentals such as de Forest's "High Bridge" station, 2XG in New York City, and the "California Theater" station, 6XC in San Francisco, American Radio and Research Corporation's 1XE in Medford Hillside, Massachusetts, Technical and Training School station 9YY at the University of Nebraska, and General Amateur 8MK from the Detroit News.
The term "broadcasting" found its way into government publications in 1921. On December 1, 1921 two wavelengths were formally set aside for a special service category within the "Limited Commercial" class of stations. The regulations read: "Licences of this class are required for all transmitting stations used for broadcasting news, concerts, lectures, and like matter."
Getting a license in those early days was much less formal than it was after 1927 when the Federal Radio Commission was put into place. Basically, anyone filing a request with any of the nine regional Radio Inspectors of the Department of Commerce (DOC) Bureau of Navigation was given a license, as a matter of registration. In fact, some of these early "grants" were never even built.
In 1927 a familiar phrase was introduced, licensing stations to serve the public "convenience, interest, or necessity," and more concrete requirements were set out for new stations.
"Who's on first?" It doesn't really matter. Broadcasting started. And, as we will see, there is plenty of interesting broadcast history to go around. From one licensed station in 1920 to over 11,000 today, broadcasting has truly become a major factor in the development of society in this century.
Over the coming months, Pioneer Profiles goal is to shine some light on the men and stations that broadcast back before anyone worried about much more than keeping a cranky transmitter on the air.