The Broadcasters' Desktop Resource

Engineering Follies – Focus on the Engineer

(Got a story? – please share it with us!)

Sometimes you get out there troubleshooting and run into something that really is almost hard to believe. Yes, sometimes even the engineer can be the problem (There have always been some silly/cranky/brain dead engineers out there, too). So, engineers tell some stories on ourselves.

In fact, how some stations stayed on the air can be a mystery!

Exhibit 9:
Waaaayyy back in 1956 as I began my broadcasting career at KWGS-FM Tulsa University, we had a Saturday football game to broadcast. The Western Electric xmttr crashed about 2 hours before game time.

I got there before Claude Hill, the CE arrived. I had my ham license for several years and knew a few things about troubleshooting. When the CE arrived, I notified him that we were blowing fuses. He started checking for shorts.

While Claude was on the floor in back of the rig looking around, a perplexed announcer came running into the xmttr room all flustered and excited that he might not get on the air for the game. He asked about 6 rapid fire questions to which I answered, “the grid leak drip pan overflowed and Claude and I were in the process of cleaning it up” I told him to go to the stadium, set up the gear, and we should be back up by game time. He split.

That’s when I heard the strangest noises coming from the rear of the xmttr. Claude was convulsing in total gut busting laughter. Moments later I found where a HV DC wire had shorted to the chassis. A little black tape and waxed lacing cord fixed it and we were back on well before game time. Not bragging, but that was one of my best ever responses.

Contributed by: Bob Gorgance

Exhibit 8:

To this day, I still remember a little adventure during my first solo board-op shift in college radio, even though it was 32 years ago.

I was an hour into the shift, and it was time to take meter readings. I switched the old analog Gates remote control metering unit from displaying power to displaying plate voltage, and immediately heard the rush of white noise on our off air monitor. I couldn’t restart the transmitter, which appeared to be totally dead, and I couldn’t understand how I had killed the transmitter simply by switching the remote meter from power to plate voltage. As I contemplated my future in broadcasting with thoughts of being forever remembered as the guy who had destroyed our transmitter, we got the GM to go over to the transmitter site to figure out what had happened.

Our transmitter was on the top floor of a dorm building which was vacant at the moment because it was the break between the fall and spring terms, and some genius in the university’s physical plant department decided that they could save the university a little money but shutting down the electrical feed to the vacant dorm building (You’d think the large antenna on the roof might have been a clue that something up there just might need power).

And of course, when they shut down the electricity, they could not have timed it more perfectly to the exact moment that I switched the meter if we had rehearsed it for weeks to get it in perfect sync.

From a post by: Mike Kluger

Exhibit 7:

Years ago in Ketchikan an FCC inspector showed up and flashed his badge at the only person in the station, a young part time employee. The inspector asked for the key to the transmitter room which was locked.

“O sir, the manager said to never let anybody into that room.” Well, the inspector did get the key after explaining the facts of life to the young man. The inspector was immediately made suspicious when year after year of transmitter logs showed the exact same numbers. He deftly turned off the plates and the meters stayed the same! Using the official FCC tweaker he popped off the meter covers and found out that the needles had been glued in place at their pivots! He then noticed that only the lamps were illuminated on the transmitter, no blower noise etc.

Further investigation led to the next room where the illegal five kW transmitter resided.

The station was sold shortly thereafter.

Submitted by: Chuck Lakaytis


Exhibit 6:

When I was CE at WCHA, Chambersburg, PA., we had a homemade remote control unit that had three meters, each with separate calibration pots. Each morning I would dutifully record the readings at the transmitter site and set the calibration pots at the studio.

Eventually, however, one of the pots was up all the way and could not adjust its respective meter anymore. It was then that I removed the panel to find out what needed to be fixed. What I found was that the meters all connected to a single 9-volt battery through a calibration pot. The battery was turned on and off using a DPST switch on the front panel. The other pole of the switch went to the remote-control phone line.

At the transmitter, the remote-control phone line was connected in series with the plate-relay coil, which used 220 volts!

There was 220 volts on the telephone line and no actual metering! When I brought this to the attention of the owner/manager, he said; “Just change the battery!”

Eventually we did get a remote-control unit, but only after the last blood was drained out of all the rocks in Pennsylvania.

Submitted by: Richard B. Johnson

Exhibit 5:

I got a call from a client station indicating that they were off the air, and went on to explain that “the lines are down”.

That phrase is common from non-technical folks who have seen one too many Westerns where the frontier town was isolated by the telegraph lines becoming inoperative. So those folks tend to apply that phrase to any technical problem.

So, I figured they meant the network satellite. I said “well, put in a CD and play some music.”

An awkward silence followed; the lady was clearly baffled by my response. She repeated “but, the lines are down!”

I said really calmly: “never mind; I’m not that far from the site; I’ll go check it out.” She said “okay,” but with a tone that was clear she was questioning my sanity.

Imagine my surprise as I rounded the corner and saw that indeed the “lines” were “down” – the guy wires … and the 400′ tower crumpled in a mess among them.

Fortunately, not a soul was injured; the tower had fallen like a tree in a windstorm due to an error a week or two earlier by a tower crew during a reguying process. A neighbor stood and watched it fall, and it landed ten feet from her while she was frozen in fear, unable to run.

Submitted by: Ken Hoehn

Exhibit 4:

In my early career as the “electronic janitor,” for a station in Pennsylvania, I noted that the meter readings could no longer be calibrated on the home-brew remote control panel. I could calibrate the plate current and the plate voltage. However, the antenna current, that normally read near full-scale could no longer be calibrated. I started to investigate.

It turns out that the “remote control” unit consisted of a DPDT toggle switch, three meters, three potentiometers, and a nine-volt “transistor radio” battery.

The battery was getting low.

Even better (!), the transmitter ON/OFF was provided by connecting the physical-pair phone line in series with the 120-volt coil of the plate relay.

Submitted by: Richard B. Johnson

Exhibit 3:

That reminds me of a story told by an FCC field engineer in Alaska.

He was inspecting a 5 kilowatt station and noticed that all the meter readings were the same for months and months. Suspecting wrongdoing he pushed the “plate off” switch on the transmitter. The meters did not move.

It developed that whiole the five kW transmitter had the panel lights on and the blower running, the high voltage had been disconnected. He popped the meter covers off and discovered that the movements had been scotch-taped in place.

He then became even more suspicious and noticed a lock door with a transmission line coming out of the wall and running through another wall to the ATC. He asked for the key to the door. The afternoon
high school DJ told him that the boss told him to never never let anybody into that room – a matter of electrical safety according to the boss.

Well, the inspector got the key and discovered a 10 KW transmitter in operation, a lot more then the license.

The station was sold within 60 days. I understand the FCC made that arrangement.

Submitted by: Chuck Lakaytis

Exhibit 2:

This reminds me of the first TV station I worked for. The transmitter site and master control were co-located which had its good and bad points. This is a bad point.

We were on a remote when we were to called by the master control operator that we kept going off the air. So I secured whatever I was taking care of and let my supervisor/general manager know that I was leaving. Just before I pulled out the master control operator said everything was ok and not to bother coming up to the TX site.

After a few questions I found out that the MCO had reset all of the limits on the analog meters to their maximum so the transmitter would not go off. He would not turn off the transmitter, he would just reset the meter limits. So up I went anyway to see what all was messed up.

I do not remember anymore exactly what was wrong but it was related to a tube overload of some sort, and a fairly simple repair took care of things. My supervisor wanted to reprimand the MCO for changing the meters. Instead we got in trouble with the owner who was the guy’s grandfather because we “did not train him well enough – and keeping the transmitter on the air was the right thing to do.” His grandmother also thought we were a little too rough on him.

Yes we were in constant trouble when it came to this guy.

Submitted by: David Arendt

Exhibit 1:

Y’all are reminding me of things I thought were long forgotten. Way back in history I got a part time gig at a station in Hammond, Indiana.

Back in the day when we had to calibrate the remote metering the engineer stopped by the transmitter and called the on air jock to “get-r-done.” The jock informed the engineer that he was doing his show, and didn’t have time for the check.

The engineer reached over, hit plate OFF, and said: “yes, you are off and now have the time.”

Submitted by: Gary Glaenzer