December 25, 2018

FTV: New Year, New Tech


    If you are of a certain age, you probably remember when they used to predict what life would be like in the year 2000.  The list of ‘gee whiz’ things would invariably include flying cars, personal jetpacks, or both. Nobody was predicting wristwatch communication devices (that was a little too Dick Tracey for most people to wrap their minds around) but Gene Roddenberry certainly nailed the hand held communicator thing in late his 1960s Star Trek series.  Phones have come along way since the flip open device phase of cell phones (that resembled Star Trek communicators), but then again, Star Trek was set in the 23rd Century, not the 21st Century.  If one checks out our website at and selects the ‘watch live’ icon (scroll down from the main page to find it), one can monitor how many times our DJs use their personal communications devices in the studio to a) play music, b) take pictures,  c) talk to someone, or d) watch something. At times, it may seem like they are doing all four things simultaneously. When yours truly took over as the station manager in 1997, there wasn’t even a regular phone in the studio which was only slightly more disappointing than not having a personal jetpack to scoot back and forth between home and studio during my lunch break.  With another flip of the old calendar carrying us closer to the 23rd Century, it seems like a good time to look at how technology has changed and altered how we do things around the WOAS FM studio in this, the 40th year of our existence.

    When the station went on the air in December of 1978, just about all of the equipment gathered by Tom Lee was used (as in ‘second hand’).  Lee, the visionary librarian for the Ontonagon Area Schools and our first General Manager, thought it would be nice to have a radio station based in town.  He managed to stretch the grant money he found for the station by getting inexpensive surplus equipment. Some of it was donated as was just about all of the labor involved in getting WOAS on the air (and remember, this was a few years before our current commercial station WUPY (first called WONT) came to be).  Even though the equipment had mileage on it, Lee supplied the station with the usual complement of radio stuff circa 1978. This included dual mounted turntables for spinning records, a large metal equipment bay that held both the studio transmitter and reel to reel tape machines, and a telephone (yes, we had a phone in the beginning).

    Another radio station standby then was the ‘cart machine’.  ‘Cart’ here is short for ‘cartridge’ as in ‘8 track cartridge’.  These were used for PSAs and short form materials that the DJ would plug into their broadcasts.  The studio mixing board was a big wedge shaped thing with a row of large black rotary dials that controlled the flow of signals from the things connected to the broadcast board.  The room was outfitted with several metal cabinets and shelves for tools, albums, and other equipment as well as a large wall rack for the carts. The kitchen like cabinet used for storage was topped with slots holding the 45 rpm records, and a large wooden shelf of cube like cells for storing albums occupied one corner of the studio.  Eventually, Lee expanded the media class into TV broadcasting as well. The room at the south end of the library (now the tech director’s room) was converted into a TV control center and for a time they were able to broadcast events via the local cable system. Changes in the local cable provider may have taken away this avenue for broadcasting school events, but I wonder if GM Lee ever envisioned people ‘watching radio’?  We will discuss this more a little further along in our journey through this timeline of technology.

    By the time the Community Schools program under the direction of Mike ‘Zenith’ Bennett took control of WOAS in the 1980s, the original equipment was beginning to fail at an alarming rate.  Bennett was able to use his grant writing expertise to infuse enough capital (and yes, more donations) to replace most of the critical studio equipment. The transmitter and broadcast board were still in good enough shape, so he concentrated on remodeling the studio environment to accommodate the technological changes that were afoot.  The biggest change was in the realm of cassette tapes. These were being touted as ‘the future of recorded music’ when the station was founded, but the original studio layout did not include any cassette players in the signal chain. GM Bennett had the woodshop classes replace the original turntable set up with more counter space to allow for a newer turntable and a dual cassette tape player.  Cassette tapes were beginning to replace many of the Public Service Announcement (PSA) functions previously performed with the carts, so eventually the cart machines were phased out of the studio all together. The reel-to-reel tape machines were still in use, but less and less programing was being distributed in that format. The decline in useful programing on reel-to-reel eventually led to them being discontinued as well.

    Cassettes were cheaper to mail than albums so much of our music began arriving in that form.  Bennett was also responsible for integrating the next ‘big thing’ in broadcasting, that of course being CDs.  When Mike installed the first CD player at the station, he could see the demise of vinyl and envisioned cassettes and CDs as being the future of and maybe even the zenith of broadcasting technology.  On this point, ‘Zenith’ Bennett would prove to be at least half right.

    The station’s operations didn’t change much into the mid 1990s.  At the time the Community Schools program in Michigan folded and Bennett was forced to follow a new job opportunity out of the area, he as exploring a way to up the station’s broadcast radius with a translator attached to a tower at the top of the Porkies ski area.  This concept intrigued Mike a lot, but in the end, the project proved to be out of our reach for a host of reasons. The biggest stumbling block ended up being the cost of the equipment needed to transfer the WOAS signal to a higher distribution point. Before Mike finished his association with the Ontonagon Area Schools, he was the elementary school principal.  Though his office was just down the street at the old Ontonagon school building, the demands on his time became so great that he was not able to spend as much time with the station as he would have liked. I always appreciated Mike’s can do spirit and encouragement in our endeavours even when he could no longer physically work with the station.

    During the transition year before he left and I became the GM, we had a skeleton crew of students who wanted to be in radio even though there was no longer a media class per se.  As a ‘placeholder’ for Mike during his last year here, I had time to observe what was lacking or failing and develop a mental game plan as to what needed to be done. My first official year as the GM, we were still running with a skeleton crew while plotting what needed to happen if WOAS-FM was going to remain on the air.  During this time of marching in place, technology continued to move forward and by the time we had the money in place to renovate the station, we also had some former WOAS volunteers with the skills needed to help us to take the next step technologically speaking.

    The equipment that Mike had replaced in his tenure was now beginning to show wear and tear so part of the plan was to replace all the studio pieces.  Unfortunately, the two big carry over items that were not replaced during Mike’s tenure (the broadcast board and transmitter) were also now in line to be upgraded.  As I think about it now, Mike had replaced the broadcast board with another pre-owned unit he had bartered from a contact in the radio biz, but it was having a serious case of what golfers call ‘the yips’ – sometimes it worked fine, other times it was a little off, and on bad days it would create little wisps of smoke that made themselves known via their burned wire smell.  

    The 1997-98 studio renovations gave us an opportunity to clear out twenty years worth of accumulated stuff.  We had to empty both studios so the crew recarpeting the library could also do our studios that are located in two former library study rooms.  This was the perfect opportunity to put back only the stuff that we knew we would actually use. Two large steel cabinets that formerly held albums, broken equipment and junk were no longer needed.  Neither was the large office desk that had served mostly as a mail collection dump (as in two feet deep at the time I started sorting things out). We could not find a viable place to recycle the albums so rather than have them taking up room in our small studio or the landfill, we donated all of them to St. Vinnie’s.  The custodial staff grabbed the empty cabinets and someone who tinkered with electronics nabbed the seven foot metal rack that used to house the reel-to-reel players and transmitter. Broken equipment ended up in the dumpster. With a good deal of floor space cleared, we were able to rearrange the other storage units. A new transmitter rack was constructed on the top of a built in storage shelf to put it out of harm’s way.  The old cart machines were also now in the landfill, so we took down the old cart rack and replaced it with two custom made CD racks to clean up the broadcast area. The old 45 rpm record slots were converted to CD storage and the old LP cubes became storage space for our growing collection of music related magazines. Shelving from the old school building library was salvaged and used to line one whole wall to use as storage space for CDs and equipment.

    In the mid-1990s, the old school phone system was replaced but someone did not get the memo about the radio station needing a phone.  For some reason, they had installed a phone in the chemistry glassware storage room where it soon became a nuisance when students found they could use it when no one was monitoring the chem room.  With the principal’s permission, I spent a couple of hours rerouting the phone line from the western end of the front hallway, through the library and into the radio lab. If you ever wondered why our extension is the same as the chemistry glassware store room number (113), wonder no more.

    With space cleared and the new broadcast board and transmitter in place, we reconfigured the DJ’s work area to include three multi-disk CD players, a dual cassette player for broadcasting, a dual cassette player for recording our programming off air, a stereo radio receiver to monitor our outgoing broadcasts and two sets of studio monitor speakers (one pair in the studio and the other set in the production studio).  The transmitter rack now included the station power supply, a distribution amp for the DJ’s headphones and an Emergency Broadcast receiver through which we receive EMS alerts from an EMS hub station in Ironwood. With this rack mounted on top of shelves in a corner of the studio, it eliminated the need for the gigantic metal tower that had formerly sat on the studio floor.

    Earlier, I mentioned Mike Bennett had been ‘half right’ about cassettes and CDs being the wave of the future for radio broadcasting, cassettes being the half he overestimated.  There are some in the audio community who believe the technology to make CDs was available long before it was put into commercial use. The feeling is that electronics companies pushed cassettes as the ‘next big thing’ as a cash grab knowing full well that they would have a limited run but would be around long enough to let them sell audiophiles new equipment twice.  In our experience, we found that CDs soon became the distribution method preferred by most record labels and music on cassette quickly became a thing of the past.

    This was not a big problem for us because cassettes were fussy to use on the air as finding the breaks between tracks was a dicey procedure at times.  If a long enough quiet space was not added between songs, the fast-forward/seek function wouldn’t work. In the old days, finding the beginning of a 45 rpm or album track was an acquired skill that seasoned DJs took pride in.  A good DJ made finding the beginning of a song look easier than it really is. CDs allow one to ‘point and click’ to select a track so it simplifies the process a lot for inexperienced DJs. Nobody had a crystal ball back then to foresee the resurgence of vinyl records, but we put a good turntable in our production studio just in case and I am glad we did.  Add the turntable to a cassette player, CD player and a CD burner in the production area and we entered the new millennium feeling like we were on top of the technology thing.

    In Part II of New Year, New Tech, we will catch up on the last twenty years of technological doings at ‘Your Sound Choice’, WOAS-FM 88.5.   

Top Piece Video:  Ace Frehley’s new album Spaceman will be on the airwaves in the new year – his Without You I Am Nothing applies very nicely to how WOAS-FM feels about out listeners and donors!  Happy New Year!