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April 11, 2005
January 2004
Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
October 2004
Weekly Features
The Other Side of the Control Room Glass
Bill Pasternak, (ham radio call letters WA6ITF), is an oddity in our profession: a Broadcast Engineer who can write outside of the realm of technical publications. He works as a Broadcast Engineer with KTTV Fox 11 / UPN 13 Television in Los Angeles and private Broadcast Consultant specializing in the design of video post production facilities. He is the co-founder and Managing Editor of the all-volunteer Amateur Radio Newsline(tm) bulletin service and Creator/ Administrator of the annual “ARNewsline(tm) Young Ham of the Year Award” program. He is the author of three books, production staff member to several educational films and videos including Co-Producer of the award winning “Amateur Radio Today,” authored the “Looking West” column for 73 Amateur Radio Today Magazine for 26 years, currently writes the monthly “VHF, FM and Repeater” column for Worldradio Magazine, is a contributing writer to several broadcast trade publications and is a frequent contributor to CQ Magazine. He is a member of the ARRL, Radio Club of America and Quarter Century Wireless Association as well as a founding member of the Hollywood Hills QRP Contest Club. Bill is the only person ever chosen to be recipient of both the prestigious Dayton Amateur Radio Association’s “Specific Achievement” (1981) and “Radio Amateur of the Year” (1989) awards. He also was presented the ARRL National Certificate of Merit (1995) in recognition of his contributions to the “furtherance of the goals of the Amateur Radio Service.” Bill and his wife Sharon (KD6EPW) reside in Santa Clarita California with their two “puppy people” and can be reached by e-mail to or

August 1, 2005


The recent return to flight of the United States space shuttle fleet evoked
a strange thought in my mind. Two words: “Scanner Radio.”

Yes, I know it sounds strange that I associate one with the other, but hear
me out for a few paragraphs. I promise that you will understand, and
possibly be enlightened a bit.

To Scan or Not To Scan:

In the news business we have come to take scanners almost for
granted. Ever since the first crystal controlled units bearing the
Bearcat? and Lafayette Radio brands hit store shelves in the 1960’s,
newsrooms worldwide have availed themselves of the technology that permits
one receiver to monitor numerous public service frequencies in rapid
succession. True, the earliest units were limited in the number of
channels (3 to 10) and required a custom frequency determining element
called a crystal for each channel. Nevertheless, being able to package so
much monitoring capability into such a small box quickly took the scanner
radio from “curiously” to “necessity” for every Assignment Desk.

But it was not until the middle 1970’s that a small company named Tennelec
tuned the scanner world on its head and dragged many newsrooms with it when
it released the very first synthesized scanners. Suddenly, the need to buy
custom ground crystals was coming to an end. True the Tennelec scanner
required the user to familiarize himself with the art of Binary Coded
Decimal frequency “encoding” using 16 front panel switches, but once you
got the hang of it the process was not all that difficult. Soon the
Tennelec MCP-1 was replacing the first generation of crystal controlled

Then, rather abruptly, Tennelec went out of business. No matter (except to
Tennelec) because its crystal-less innovation soon gave birth to a plethora
of similar designs by companies like SBE and Regency and Electra. And a
few short years later, both Electra Bearcat and Radio Shack again turned
the scanner market topsy-turvy with the introduction of the first direct
keyboard frequency entry units like the Electra BC100. Newsrooms had to
have them. News Directors demanded them. General Managers OK’d the
purchases and we “techies” got to put them into service. And the rest, as
they say, is history.

Who Is That Man With The Baton?

But long before the first crystal controlled scanner came to the market
there was a known need for such a device. Indeed, the very first patent
for a scanning radio was issued by the U.S. Patent Office in 1950 to a
musician and electronic tinkerer named Raymond Scott. If that name sort
of rings a bell with you, it means two things. First that you are at leas
as old as I and that you can remember the orchestra leader on the NBC
Saturday night TV show “Your Hit Parade.”

Raymond Scott was that man. And when he was not at “30 Rockefeller”
leading the “Hit Parade” orchestra he could be found in his home lab
cooking up gear that was way ahead of the technology curve of that
era. That includes his invention of a device called the “Clavivox” which
ushered in the synthesized music revolution. But for the purpose of this
article its important to note that Scott developed and patented “?an
automatic scanning radio, which tunes in on stations around the country and
changes frequency by itself at any given interval.” This feature enabled
Raymond Scott to catch most of the nation's disc-jockey shows in a brief
span and find out if it was his songs hat were being played. (See

On The Beach:

It was not until the early days of the “Space Race” that news people gave a
serious look at a receiver that could scan, stop on a busy frequency, alert
a human being to come over and listen and then resume scanning. At least
that’s what my close friend and mentor, the late Roy Neal, told me one
afternoon as the two of us were seated on a Delta L-1-1011 headed home from
Cape Canaveral following two weeks on the road taping a documentary.

As Roy explained it, in the early days of covering launches from the
“Cape,” the government tried to keep the press corps well away from the
actual launch facility. So reporters and their crews staked out on the
nearby beach with binoculars and whatever radio gear they had that they
thought to be compatible with the launch facility.

The only way reporters could be fairly certain that a launch was imminent
was when the NASA launch radio system came on the air. But nobody could be
quite certain where in the VHF Public Service Band (152 to 173 MHz) NASA
launch controllers would show up. In fact, it was this problem that lead
Roy and his technical crew to invent the world's very first "Public Service
Band" scanner radio (as opposed to Raymond Scott’s “Broadcast Bad” unit.)

Scanners Get The News:

I may have told a part of this story before so I won't go into all the
technical details. That said, keep in mind that this was the 1950s. All
electronic gear used tubes. Transistors were on the horizon, but integrated
circuit chips and microprocessors were only dreams of a distant future.

The mainstay Public Service band receiver back then was the mechanically
tuned Hallicrafters S-81 "Civic Patrol" unit. It was low sensitivity
tabletop receiver with a minimum user interface and no modern conveniences
like programmable channels and squelch controls that are common today. No,
this baby only had a tuning knob and a volume control. And as anyone who
ever used one will attest, it threw a “hissy-fit” of white noise between
stations. Enough noise so that those skilled in its use were quick to warn
“nubies” to listen only in short stretches or keep a bottle of Aspirin

But I digress. Back to our narrative.

Also during that era, many upscale automobiles featured an automatic
station finder called "signal seeking." You touched a button or bar, gears
began to grind, and the radio dial scale would move up and down the AM
broadcast band, stopping on stations it heard. If you did not like that
one, push the button again, and it found another.

So, using knowledge garnered from his years as a radio amateur, Roy
reasoned that there had to be a way to make the S-81 auto-tune the band and
stop on a signal, just like car radios were doing. That's just what he
did, coming up with a highly modified S-81 that now had noise free
"squelched" operation and would stop on any signal it heard. The only
signals in the band in that geographic area were those of the NASA
controllers. When they came on the air it meant a launch was imminent.
Needless to say, this gave NBC Network News a decided advantage over the

Deja Vous:

So for me, as I watched the space ship Discovery blast off on its mission
to the International Space Station my mind taken back to that afternoon at
33,000 feet, sipping a glass of wine and hearing the story of how public
service scanner radios came to be. More important, how what we take for
granted, had its humble beginnings just off the sands of Coco Beach.

Bill Pasternk.