April 11, 2005
THE LURE OF THE ETHEREAL ABYSS
"Who am I anyway? Am I my resume?"
Those words were written back in the early 1970's by lyricist
Edward Kleban for the musical "A Chorus Line." For
those of you who have never seen the stage version (as opposed
to the motion picture), "A Chorus Line" is the story
of a group of Broadway chorus singer-dancers enduring a rather
grueling audition for a scant few parts in an unnamed musical.
One of these is a character named "Paul" and all
he knows is that to "be alive" is to "dance"
for others. As the show progresses, we learn that from the
time he was a young kid, "to perform" is where he
his dedicated his life.
The reason I bring this up is that the rhetorical questions
that "Paul" asks of himself in "A Chorus Line"
could also have been a question asked by many broadcast engineers.
For they to are a rather select group of people, who in many
instances have dedicated their lives to what happens on the
other side of the control room glass.
So the rather rhetorical question? What used to make a kid
want to become a broadcast engineer? Even more important,
why in this day and age where satellites, fiber optics and
the Internet can provide instantaneous world-wide distribution
of programming, is it that some youngsters still want to follow
this road? I cannot speak anyone other than myself, but in
my case it was truly the allure of the "ethereal abyss."
As you know from previous columns, I was born in 1942 and
raised in Brooklyn, New York. Back then we lived in the Bensonhurst
area on West 8th Street, between Avenue "O" and
Avenue "P." It was a neighborhood that was in many
respects a city within a city. Within a few blocks one could
purchase anything from a quart of milk to a pair of pants
to a radio or a phonograph. You made your purchases from family
operated businesses some already in their second generation.
There were no retailing giants like Wal-Mart or Target. You
purchased everything from a neighbor who was also many times
In historical terms, the 1940's and early 1950's was also
the dawning of the modern communications revolution. Radio
had been around since the early '20s and now a new form of
radio was emerging: Radio with pictures. It was called "television,"
and one fall afternoon in 1948, my father and I walked over
to a store called Super Radio Sales on 70th Street and Bay
Parkway. There, he plunked down about $500 and bought an RCA
10 "630" tabletop television set.
But it wasn't that purchase that affected me as much as what
else happened that day. While we were there, the store owner
a ham radio operator named "Bill" -- who
was also the "radio repairman" -- called me over
to his work bench to show me the innards of a television set.
He also warned me not to touch anything less I bight be bitten
by the "volts and amps running through all of those wires."
I was only five or six -- but on that day I was taught the
"electronics truism." The one that says: "If
you know what you are doing, keep one hand in your pocket.
If you do not know what you are doing keep both hands in your
pockets." I have lived by it ever since.
"Bill" could see I was interested, and took the
time to "Elmer" me through the way a TV set worked.
The term "Elmer" is one given to a person involved
in electronics and communications who goes out of his or her
way to share his/her knowledge with others -- particularly
with the young.
I was fascinated -- and hooked on this magic box that could
make pictures from invisible signals traveling the ethereal
abyss (although I had no concept of how it happened). But
I had to know more about how it worked. I had to know where
the pictures came from. I had to find out how the signals
carrying sound and pictures got from "some far-off place"
to the RCA television set and to the Emerson radios in my
By the time I was 10, I knew how it worked. I had read every
book in the library regarding the technical end of radio and
television. At 12, I was under the after-school tutelage of
another "Elmer" -- the late Saul "Jommie"
Rosenthal (WA2MSX) of Rose Radio and Photo, on Bay Parkway.
He taught me the fundamentals of electricity and electronics.
He showed me how to bring a dead radio to life and how to
rid a high fidelity amplifier of dreaded hum and noise. Thanks
to Jommie, by the time I was 13 I had built a complete high
fidelity record playing system -- mainly with cast-off 'radio
parts' found in the back of his store. (Oh how I shudder every
time I think of the number of vintage Stromberg-Carlson and
Philco radios I cannibalized for parts. Especially when I
dare to glance at what even as-is non-working specimens are
bringing these days on eBAY.)
But I digress. By 14, I was 'fixing TVs' for my neighbors
-- for free -- except for the cost of parts. And, I was doing
this much to the chagrin of the established repair shops.
As a result, the several of these neighborhood businesses
offered me part time work -- which I gladly accepted -- so
I could "learn more."
In both Seth Low Junior High School and Lafayette High School
I had a good
part-time business repairing radios and TV sets for my fellow
students and members of the faculty. I also had the reputation
of being the person on the "AV Squad" to call when
something went wrong with a sound projector. Remember those
Bell & Howell, Victor and Ampro 16 mm machines that were
wheeled in to show instructional motion pictures in your class?
I was one of the guys who could thread them, operate them
and even repair one on the fly.
As I noted in my last column, Lafayette holds a very place
in my heart because it was where I began to learn that there
was more to life than "reading, writing and arithmetic."
It was the time and place where I began to appreciate the
social and artistic aspects of life. And less I forget, it
was here I met some people who would help convince me to add
a ham radio call-sign as a suffix to my name. I became ham
radio operator WA2HVK in 1959.
After Lafayette I did do a short stint at New York City Community
College of Applied Arts and Sciences but in less than a college
year I dropped out. For me, in that time and place, there
was really not much to learn. Many times I found myself sitting
in the very back of the classroom, bored to tears, and trying
not to nod off. More times than not I would be "doodling"
some (for that era) esoteric circuit, oblivious to what the
instructor was saying. I was also rather adept at "covering
my tracks" by simply asking for a "repeat"
of any question asked of me and providing the correct answer.
Or at least a guess that was close enough to suffice.
While there was more personal freedom at NYCCC, it was truly
a "technical school" with little in the way of a
social infrastructure. At least none that was of interest
to me. So, one early spring day, on my way to class, I passed
a trash bin, dropped my books there-in, exited stage left
and at the tender age of "almost 19" I entered the
world of commerce. Translated: I got my first full time job
at a store called RuPat Television Service on 89th Street
and 3rd Avenue in the Bay Ridge area of Brooklyn.
Rather than regale you with all aspects of my torrid employment
past, suffice to say that this interest in radio, television
and electronics lead not only to my getting my Amateur Radio
license. It also took me to jobs big and small including a
number fixing consumer electronics for General Electric and
later Sears, interspersed with employment a various radio
and television stations. All of this wandering eventually
lead me out here to Los Angeles, and in 1980 to KTTV Metromedia
11. In the middle 1980's we became part of Fox and known as
Fox 11. Three years ago the company added UPN 13 to the mix.
And this is where I have spent the last two and a half decades
of my adult career.
Would I be here if dad had not gone to Super Radio to get
an "RCA 630" TV set? I really do not know. What
I do know is that electronics, ham radio, and broadcast television
and radio, have been a part of my life ever since. Such is
the allure of the "ethereal abyss."
OK, NOW WHAT'S YOUR STORY?
OK. Now you know a bit about me. How about you? How about
sharing the story of how you got into Broadcast Engineering
with our readers? If you have a bit of time to write it and
send it to firstname.lastname@example.org Ill print it with your
by-line in an upcoming installment of this column.
For now 73 until we meet again on the "other
side of the control room glass."