My History in Radio

-- by: Larry Coyle, K1QW


I was no more than six years old when I first took a look inside our family radio to see where the voices and music came from. I was fascinated but totally baffled by all the wires and glowing tubes, and my attention soon turned to other things like baseball and roller skating with my friends on the streets of the city. But the seed had been planted, and my interest in radio sprouted to the extent that only a dozen years later, I was a full-fledged ham radio operator. I was also one of the youngest broadcast engineers around, with technical responsibility for one of the local AM outlets -- one of the stations I used to listen to when I was staring into the back of that family radio set.

Part I: My Early Years

My interest in radio and all things electronic really took hold when I discovered that the big family radio in our living room had a short wave band. When I heard foreign radio broadcasts from other continents, I was entranced. And then when I stumbled on the amateur radio bands, where ordinary people were talking back and forth around the country and around the world, I was really hooked on radio. It didn't matter that most of the time they were talking about mundane things like cars or gardening, or else about technical matters which I didn't understand. I spent hours listening to their smooth southern drawls, or their twangy Yankee accents as they projected their voices around the world. They seemed like gods to me. I decided I wanted to be part of that.

The next developments involved a magazine article explaining what ham radio was all about and the gift of a crystal radio kit from a relative. In those days, magazines like "Popular Mechanics" and "Radio-Electronics" occasionally published articles on building simple one- and two-tube radio receivers, so I became a voracious reader about radio and electronics. I picked up a few basic principles and built a one-tube radio powered by a 6-volt and a 45-volt battery (Yes, kids, you really could get 45-volt batteries then!) on which I could pick up local AM broadcast stations. I would listen late at night when I was supposed to be asleep in bed -- a little forbidden pleasure which only added to the mystery and romance of what was happening inside those little glowing glass tubes.

Also, I started learning Morse code, using a battery-powered buzzer and a key that I made myself out of scrap metal.

I would listen on the family radio to hams sending code, but it came across as just thumps and hissing sounds. By this time I had enough knowledge to be dangerous, and I discovered that if I opened up the radio (when my parents weren't around) I could identify the IF amplifier tubes. I attached a short piece of insulated wire to the plate of one tube and another to the grid. Twisting the wires together made a small capacitor. The feedback caused the IF stage to break into oscillation. Great! This resulted in a strong beat note on every station that was received, and I could copy code with ease.

This greatly surprised my father when he went to tune in one of the baseball games that he loved to listen to. He figured out pretty quickly who was behind this, and I was ordered to put the radio back like it was and get rid of those whistles! Now that I think back on it, he didn't seem all that upset. Maybe he was secretly pleased that his son seemed to be mastering a somewhat arcane body of knowledge. We finally got a small table model radio for listening to ball games and news, and I was granted full use of the old radio for short wave listening.

The word spread among my family and friends that I was a kid who was interested in electronics. This was in the 1950's, and "electronics" meant "radio" to most people. So, from time to time, I would be given an old radio from somebody's trash. These were usually pre-World War II items dating back to the 1930's, in nice wooden cabinets with Bakelite panels and coils wound with green insulated wire and multiple knobs and dials, each one tuning a single variable capacitor. It must have been a real project to tune into a radio station. I never got one of these dinosaurs to operate, but I did get exposed to the technology (although I don't think we used that word then) of the very early days of radio.

I finally learned enough to get my ham license when I was about 15 years old. In those days, you had to take the test at the FCC field office. The closest one to me was in Boston, about 50 miles away. My mother had to drive me there, since I was too young to drive. While she went shopping for clothes at Filene's Basement, I high-tailed it up to the sixteenth floor of the old Custom House tower to take my test. This was before the Novice or Technician class licenses were created, so the entry level ham ticket was General class, with a 13 words-per-minute code test. Needless to say, this was pretty intimidating for a young kid, but I did manage to pass both the written and code tests.

Part II: My Entry into Commercial Radio

When I found a study guide to Commercial Radio Licenses in the town's public library, I decided I could probably qualify for a Second Class Radiotelephone license with a bit of studying. So, eventually, there was another trip to the FCC field office in Boston, and I had my commercial license. I don't really remember why I wanted to get my "Second Telephone" license -- maybe I had a premonition of what was coming, and how a very distant relative (who I never met, before or since) would affect my career.

This relative was named Bill Hennessey and he was the son of a cousin of my mother. He was a few years older than I and had graduated from college and taken a job somewhere out of state. He was a ham radio operator and had been a very active member of the local radio club. Everyone knew him there and when I walked into a club meeting and mentioned my "cousin" they all smiled on me and welcomed me in with open arms. I inferred from this and the many stories they told that Billy Hennessey was smart, personable and extremely well liked.

But this was not the only spill-over benefit. Bill had also been an engineer at a local AM broadcast station and after he left there his mother told my mother that maybe I should go and apply for his job. She passed on to me some of his old books on broadcast studio engineering practices and even got her son to call his old boss at the radio station and put in a good word for me, even though we had never met.

When I walked in to the station office and asked about the engineering job, it was like a replay of the radio club meeting. They all knew my cousin and said what a wonderful guy he was and of course since Bill Hennessey was my cousin I must be OK, so I could have the job. (Well, it probably wasn't quite that easy, but that's the way I remember it.) The chief engineer laid down the proviso that I get my First Class Commercial Radiotelephone License. "No problem!" I said, and arranged yet another trip to the FCC Boston office.

By now, they were getting to know me pretty well on the sixteenth floor of the Custom House, and the FCC examiner, who also knew my uncle Ray who lived in the Boston area, gave me a book to study while I was waiting for my exam appointment. So I spent an hour sitting in the sunshine in Custom House Square in Boston, enjoying the warm weather and the aroma of Boston Harbor while I did some last-minute brushing up on FCC regulations. After I handed in my exam, he wished me luck and said if I passed, the license would be mailed to me in a few weeks.

As time went by and no license showed up I began to worry that my self-confidence had been misplaced, and I might lose my new job. As it turned out, my uncle who knew the FCC examiner was also something of a prankster, and he had somehow arranged for the license to be sent not to me, but to my high school principal. (I was still a junior in high school.) At one of the school assemblies, my name was called out and, totally mystified, I walked up to the stage, where the principal presented me with the license and made a little (OK, maybe not so little) speech while I just stood there in speechless amazement.

My uncle later sent me a note apologizing for his "dirty trick" but I'm sure that, fifty miles away in Boston, he was chuckling to himself at my discomfort and befuddlement.

I still cannot imagine how he arranged this little episode, but it illustrates how easy-going was the attitude at that time regarding government regulations and red tape. No doubt this kind of shenanigan would be nearly impossible in today's up-tight society. Maybe along the way we've lost the ability to step outside the bureaucratic boundaries and loosen the restrictions that allow us to enjoy ourselves and have a little fun with life. My uncle Ray would be appalled!

So, my job was safe and I worked at that radio station for a good five years. It was a wonderful job for a young ham. This was in the days when the vacuum tube was still king, and our kilowatt transmitter was the size of a large refrigerator. It was like a glorified, professionally manufactured ham rig! I sometimes had the opening shift, and would arrive before anyone else in the pre-dawn darkness to start the process of bringing the equipment up to start the broadcast day. I loved working around the power output tubes the size of milk bottles, and the mercury-vapor rectifiers with their other-worldly, purple glow. I loved the whole process of waiting for the filaments to warm up and checking all the meters and starting the transmitter log before pushing the button on the big contactor to bring the transmitter on the air. It gave me a feeling of being involved in something important and a bit mysterious: sending radio waves out over the city and beyond to all the thousands of homes and cars waiting to receive them.

Five years later, I graduated from college with a degree in electrical engineering and, like my "cousin" Bill Hennessey, I left my home town and went out into the world.

I never returned to the broadcasting industry, but while I was there, I learned a lot about the radio business, technical and non-technical. I was involved in the production of remote broadcasts, studio operations, transmitter maintenance, and I was even assigned some announcing duties, when no one else was available. But I learned the most about people, since I had to deal with a hyperactive station owner, egotistical on-air "talent" who took that label much too seriously and an array of the colorful personalities that even a small radio station seems to attract.