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Wireless Wizardry

1960-1963

The Attractions of Amateur Radio

We moved to a different house in 1960, where the prior owner had left a short-wave antenna on the roof with a wire dangling into the dining room. Intrigued, I begged my Mom to buy a crystal radio kit I’d seen in a store window. Connecting to the antenna, I could hear local radio stations.

Then a neighbor across the street erected an enormous antenna on his roof, and I started picking up a much louder signal which I realized was coming from him. I shyly knocked on his door and showed him my crystal set. After a thoughtful puff on his pipe, he invited me in to see his own radio equipment. He let me spin the glowing receiver dial and I heard voices from all over the world. Then he activated his transmitter, made a contact, and handed me the microphone so I could say hello to someone far away. I was instantly spellbound by this wireless wizardry (and admittedly, I still am). 

I’d found my first mentor, Fred Mey, K7JFY. He explained how I’d have to learn Morse Code and radio theory to get a license, and off we went. Here I am in July 1960 proudly displaying my novice class call sign, KN7OLZ (aka the Old Lonesome Zombie):

School was not nearly as interesting to me as radio, and I was ravenous to gain more technical knowledge. Luckily, I could reach the Tucson Public Library downtown on my bicycle, and they had a complete collection of the amateur radio magazine, QST, in their stacks. I had the librarian bring me a few years of issues at a time, starting around 1930. So I learned radio technology in the same chronologic sequence that it had been developed. I also practiced Morse Code to gain speed. By the time I was 13, I had gained sufficient technical knowledge and code-reading speed to pass the test for the highest amateur license level, called Extra Class.

World’s Youngest Jewish Spanish DJ

1965-1970

After achieving the most advanced Amateur Radio license at age 13, I studied two more years to pass the FCC First Class Commercial Radio license exam. With this in hand, I applied to local radio stations for a job as a transmitter engineer.

Tucson’s rock station KTKT was my first choice, but they hesitated since I was only 15 and it might violate child labor laws. I kept trying until I reached KXEW-AM, a 100% Spanish-language station. My Dad had to take me there to apply, since I was too still too young for a driver’s license. The intrigued station manager, Ernesto Portillo, said he could overlook that issue if I’d take $1/hour to cover weekends (I had to be in school during the weekdays). I had my first job!

I stuck to the room initially, but the Spanish-language immersion and the party atmosphere at the station (after all, it was called Radio Fiesta) was infectious. I observed how the announcers operated the studio console to seamlessly mix music, commercials, and patter into an engaging program. One Sunday morning I turned on the transmitter but the DJ didn’t show up. I played some records while I called Ernesto and asked what to do. He said, “well, start announcing, muchacho!” So I did! Later I got my own teenage Spanish rock-and-roll show. It didn’t last long, but I still claim the Guinness record for having been the “World’s Youngest Jewish Spanish DJ“.

You never forget your first kiss car

1960 Chrysler 300F

1965-1969

1960 Chrysler 300F

Through my teenage years, there was no date I anticipated more than October 16, 1965. It wasn’t a birthday, but the day I’d become eligible for an Arizona driver’s learning permit. I started shopping for cars months in advance, and I wanted a unique car that nobody else at school would have.

A few weeks before the magic date, I spotted a Chrysler 300F, incongruously parked in a British sports car dealer’s used lot. I knew this model, a limited production series Chrysler had been building with the goal of winning some races. With a 413 cubic inch V-8, long “cross-ram” intake manifolds that gave a supercharging effect, and dual 4-barrel carburetors, it had won the Daytona speed record in 1960. Inside were swiveling bucket seats and a hemispheric instrument panel that glowed like a spaceship. At only $600, I wanted it more than anything in the world, even though I couldn’t yet drive it home myself.

Naturally, I had to customize it further. It didn’t need more power or speed, so I focused on the interior and electronics. Of course it needed a 2-way radio, and for music a cartridge tape player and a reverb box. The reverb gave an auditorium ambience to the music, but as a side effect it injected a large “sproinggg” sound if you hit a big bump. There was also a minor mishap when I removed the stock radio. Wrestling it out from behind the dash, it shorted out a fuse block and set the wiring on fire. The car was still drivable, but when you stepped on the brake, the horn blew. It was an embarrassing trip to the dealer to get all that repaired.

As other students started adding sound systems to their cars, I had to kick things up a notch: add a bar! Well, sort of. I added a plastic tank in the trunk and ran a hose to a Sears sink spigot mounted on the center console. Turn the faucet, out could come water, soda, whatever I had loaded in the tank. I added a Dixie cup dispenser to the seatback and the decadent ambience was complete.

Adventures in Audio and Engineering

1967-1971

From ’67 to ’71 I was attending the University of Arizona toward a BS in Electrical Engineering. My interest in ham radio had faded, replaced by a fascination with sound and audio engineering, and somehow I found time to work several side jobs while still in college.

KXEW-AM had landed an FCC license to add an FM signal. They promoted me to Chief Engineer and had me supervise the purchase and installation of a 5 kW FM transmitter and a second broadcasting studio. This was great fun for an 18-year-old nerd! To avoid the expense of adding a second full-time DJ, we installed one of the early “automated” radio studios, with reel-to-reel tape recorders and robotic drums of tape cartridges. With PCs not yet developed, this ran on banks of telephone stepping relays and was programmed with a telephone dial. You can probably guess that this Rube Goldberg contraption did not survive for long.

It was around this time that ICs (integrated circuits, or “silicon chips” to the layman) became available to hobbyists and experimenters. I wanted to try building a circuit with both analog and digital ICs, so I designed and built a compact automated studio console for KXEW’s remote broadcasts. This was my first “professional” electronic project. Operational amplifier ICs served to mix audio from a microphone, two turntables, and two cassette playback decks. Digital logic ICs automatically started and stopped the turntables and decks when you pushed a single button.

To protect the setup in mobile use, I also built a custom, padded “roadie” case from plywood. Now I can see that this project was the precursor of two of my lifelong hobbies, electronics and woodworking.

Around this time, I learned that a new recording studio had opened up in Tucson. I dropped in on a whim to see if they had any openings. Forster Cayce, owner of Copper State Recording Studios, was always looking for technical help, so he graciously gave me the grand tour. His studio had a brush with greatness, doing early sessions with Alyce Cooper and Linda Ronstadt, but I never met anyone famous. I mainly cleaned and aligned the massive Ampex multitrack recorders, and occasionally helped with roadie duties. But I eagerly absorbed lots of new knowledge about sound and recording. And I took advantage of their commercial discounts to customize my home stereo with massive studio-quality Altec speakers. As I entered my final year of college, I thought I was headed for a career in audio engineering. I was wrong.