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Communicating in the '70s
Written January 19, 2012


When the temperature goes down, the mercury in an old-fashioned thermometer contracts, and the column becomes shorter.

The same thing happens to communication cables.  Suppose the temperature falls 50 degrees between October and December.  If two amplifiers in a cable TV system are connected by half a mile of cable, the 50-degree temperature drop will shorten the cable by more than a foot.  A copper center conductor will shrink by 14.7 inches and an aluminum outer conductor by 19.5.

Therefore, the crews who hang the cables on poles allow some slack, usually in the form of U-shaped “expansion loops” in the cable.  When the temperature drops, these loops will get pulled straight before the cable shrinks enough to completely separate from the amplifier.

However, the cable system where I got my first job in 1970 was a new one.  The installation crews had not always allowed enough slack.  Several times that winter, the cable feeding large parts of the city became disconnected.  We had to explain to our new customers why their service kept going out.

That cable system was located in Marion, Ohio.  The name of the company was Marion CATV. 

CATV stands for Community Antenna TeleVision.  Our “community antenna” was a 500-foot-tall tower, painted red and white, located north of 310 West Fairground Street.  

Partway up, there were aerials aimed south to receive TV stations from Columbus (40 miles away).  At the very top there were other aerials, aimed northwest and northeast to pick up Toledo (80 miles) and even Cleveland (100 miles).  Nowadays, most receiving is done by satellite dishes next to the “head end” building at the base of the tower.  But in 1970, the usual way a cable system received television signals was “off the air” from broadcast stations.

However, there was one other signal that made its way to the head end — our local channel, TV-3.   That was delivered via a “backhaul” cable from our downtown office and studio at 196 South Main Street.

Inside the head end building, an electronic module called a Channel Commander II — using vacuum tubes, not transistors — processed the signal from each of the 11 antennas and the backhaul.  The 12 channels were then combined, and cables branched out from the head end to cover the city.

Our backhaul cable was not immune to the problem of low-temperature shrinkage.  One cold morning, TV-3 was off the air, and we couldn’t start the Sally Flowers Show on time.  As the director, I knew our technicians were working on the problem.  Sally was in the studio, ready to go.  But there was nothing but “snow” on channel 3.

Suddenly the picture cleared, and we saw our usual time and temperature dials, scanned by a contraption in the corner of the studio.  “Stand by!” I shouted, and within 15 seconds Sally was playing her theme song.  The cable technicians later complained that I should have waited a bit.  They said I shouldn’t have started the show until they called in an “all clear” on their two-way radio.  Even though the signal had been re-established, it might have gone out again before they got everything buttoned up.  But it didn’t. 

The cables and amplifiers often required attention, but fortunately we didn’t have to worry about the poles upon which they were mounted.  We leased space on existing telephone poles.

Our cable TV company often crossed paths with the phone company, General Telephone.   But the communication industry has changed a lot in the past 40 years.

For example, do you know how GTE transferred data between its local and regional offices back then?  A guy came around in a car every day to pick up the computer printouts and drive them wherever they needed to go.  One of those couriers later came to work for us as an engineer.  Nowadays, of course, the data would be transmitted electronically.

Back then, the phone company didn’t allow you to connect any outside equipment to your phone line unless you went through a special interface device that they rented to you.  Before we could broadcast calls from our viewers, we had to have GTE come in and install a green Western Electric box on the wall of our control room.

On the Marion Today show, Judy Rock or Sandy Park would answer one of two lines on a desktop phone in the studio, write down the caller's name and number for legal purposes, then warn the caller that “Tommy’s going to put you on the air.”  That was my cue to fade up the audio output from the green box.  We had no seven-second delay, so sometimes the viewer’s TV caused a feedback squeal, and sometimes there was noise (static) on the line.

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Here’s Judy taking a call on Thursday morning, May 3, 1973.  The topic was Watergate; three nights before, an embattled President Richard Nixon had gone on TV to announce the resignation of his aides Haldeman and Ehrlichman.  Our caller also mentions allegations of earlier dirty tricks targeting Edmund Muskie, who had once been the leading contender for the 1972 Democratic nomination to challenge Nixon.

Sometimes we actually took a camera out of the studio.  We once rigged up a special hookup from the corner of State and Center Streets, 300 yards away, to allow us to televise a U.S. Open Drum & Bugle Corps parade.  But as a rule, there was only one other location from which we were equipped to originate a live telecast.  That was the Coliseum at the county fairground, the scene of most of the community's big events.

The Coliseum was not far from our head end, but our backhaul cable didn't go past it.  Therefore, when we wanted to televise live, our friends at General Telephone set up a transmitter at the Coliseum and a receiver at the head end that allowed them to send a TV signal over ordinary phone lines between those two points.  Besides the video and audio, there was even enough bandwidth for a low-quality voice channel, in order that the two points could talk to each other.

I recall that the day before one show, two GTE technicians tested the circuit with the help of our engineer Jude Clifford.  I was at the Coliseum with a camera.  Cliff was at the head end, a thousand yards to the west, looking at a threatening sky.  I heard him say something like “There’s a wum wum wumming.”  “What was that?” I asked.  He repeated, “There’s a big wum wumming.”  I still didn’t understand.  “Spell it,” I requested.  He replied, “R-A-I-N!”

Also sometimes leaving their studio were the folks at the local radio station, WMRN.  They didn't have to worry about video, of course.  When they wanted to broadcast from another town, they simply rented a telephone line.

But for remotes originating within the immediate Marion area, there was a cheaper, higher-quality solution:  a Marti unit.  This was a VHF transmitter and antenna, set up at the remote site to beam the audio to a matching antenna and receiver back at the radio station.

Unfortunately, this arrangement lacked any return communications channel to discuss the big wum wumming.  The transmitter could only transmit, not receive. 

A Marti incorporating a four-input audio mixer is shown above in a Facebook photo posted in 2016 by Clifford Dice, who was our chief engineer at Marion CATV in 1970.  “Nice old Marti remote system,” he remarked.  “We had one of these for WVXG in Mt. Gilead; used at the fair one year.  Transmitted at 455.9250 back to the station building.  The chief engineer was a great mentor.  I really enjoyed learning broadcast tech stuff, which now I can use in my Broadcast Engineering School.”

How could the remote engineer confirm that his signal was reaching the station properly?  If there was no land-line telephone nearby, all the engineer could do was listen to the station on his transistor radio while transmitting, “Do I sound okay?  One beep for yes, two for no.”  Back at the station, another engineer would answer by momentarily interrupting the program with one or two bursts of tone.  Of course, all the station’s listeners could hear these random beeps, but they presumably ignored them.

One May, Marion CATV televised three remotes in a single week, as I described in this letter.  There was the Harding High School prom at the Coliseum on Saturday.  There was the school's commencement ceremony the following Thursday.   Between those two events, we took Marion Today out of the studio and originated it from the Coliseum on Tuesday morning.  We interviewed circus folks setting up for their performance that night.  At one point they talked Judy into riding an elephant.  She wasn’t up there very long until the elephant bowed his head, dumping her unceremoniously onto the ground.  I think the elephant’s trainer put him up to it.

The commencement was scheduled for two days later, on May 25, 1972.  But because this year was the 100th such ceremony, it had been relocated to Harding Stadium.  We had no way to televise live from there.  So we set up our videotape equipment on the football field to record the event for playback the following night.

WMRN had no such technical restrictions.  As we were setting up, a disk jockey was there too, preparing the Marti unit to broadcast the ceremony live on the radio.   He turned it on and asked the station how they were receiving him, but he got no response.  No beeps at all.  He fiddled with the controls and tried again and again without success.

I sized up the situation.  His antenna was properly aimed toward the station, but about ten yards in front of the antenna stood one of the football goalposts.  As a former physics major, it didn’t take much imagination for me to surmise that those big metal poles were intercepting most of the radio waves from his transmitter and sending them right into the ground.  I suggested that he might want to move his antenna several yards to the right.  Without acknowledgment, he did so, and immediately he started receiving beeps.  I was proud of myself.

Forty years later, of course, communications are much easier.  But if we had been able to coordinate those Seventies shows with cell phones, would they have been as exciting?



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