End of an Era ... Beginning of Another?
The author is a veteran radio owner, engineer and contributor to Radio World.
In 1967, with my framed FCC First Class Radiotelephone License practically hung around my neck on display, I reported for my first day of work at WGEM(AM-FM-TV) in Quincy, Ill.
Crossing over the Mississippi River on the “Old Bridge,” as everyone called it, I turned onto Hampshire Street. There at 123 Hampshire, one block up from the river’s edge, was an old three-story brick building. As I passed, I could see a faded sign painted on the side proclaiming it to be the “Gates Radio Company.”
This was hallowed ground for any broadcast engineer, matched perhaps only by the original RCA building in Camden, N.J.
A view of the Gates
plant from the late 1940s. Photo courtesy of Bob Mayben.
Although founder Parker Gates sold the company to Harris Intertype Co. in 1957 (which pretty quickly dropped the “Intertype” from its name; and what is Intertype anyway?), the company made Gates consoles and Gates transmitters and Gates turntables well into the 1980s.
I admit it might have taken me longer than most to make the transition from Gates to Harris. Maybe that was because of my stint working in Quincy.
Gates himself never moved — he would die in Quincy in 1986 — so several engineers with whom I worked knew him.
To me, Quincy meant Gates, and vice versa. I was practically family. The BC250 at my first radio job, all the way through the FM-5G at the first FM station I bought in 1989, were Gates. Even though their logos shared the proud name with Harris Intertype, they were all Gates transmitters to me. Not until 1997 and 102.3 in Corpus Christi would I would catch up; the FM-20H3 there was a Harris.
WGEM, though, had an unwritten rule: If Gates made it, we’d use it.
This worked out well for all concerned. The company could (and did) use the station as a convenient beta test site; the station got the latest and greatest of everything Gates.
I well remember turning off the M-6095 tube-type FM exciter in favor of the brand-new TE-3, which was astonishingly small (by 1968 standards) and foolproof. Power “on,” AFC switch “on,” and rock n’ roll!
We also had gotten one of the first Gates Sta-Levels. These were remarkably agile AGCs that quickly convinced an entire generation of disk jockeys there was no harm in “burying the needle” in order to squeeze every last drop of sound out of the transmitter and into the ether.
Over the years thousands (maybe tens of thousands) of broadcast engineers learned tricks of the trade on Gates/Harris equipment. I suspect not many radio engineers over 40 haven’t adjusted the “monkey bars” inside the PA cavity of a Harris FM transmitter. And any jock old enough to have actually spun records, surely did so on a Gates CB-11 turntable. With driver motors as powerful as the starter motor on my ’56 Chevy, a CB-11 could endure the most brutal back cueing.
Some stations used circular metal weights on top of the record itself, since the limiting factor in getting the disc up to speed wasn’t the turntable but the slippage of the disc on the felt. No problem ... you could turn pottery on a CB-11 and it wouldn’t slow down.
The turntables often fed a Gates console — a Yard (supposedly named because it was that wide) or, for the big boys, a Diplomat. It had round faders, as opposed to slide pots; and operators did better with wheeled chairs behind that one because it was a long reach from the mic on Fader 1 to network news on Fader 10.
Parker Gates was a radio guy, but Harris took the company into all lines of broadcasting. In 1991, after a Marine Corps F-4 took a bite out of our tower at KDFW(TV) in Dallas, we rebuilt the entire transmitting facility and bought a Harris Platinum solid-state transmitter.
For a guy who’d grown up twisting and turning knobs on Harris, RCA and even GE TV transmitters, this was a scary thing — a controller with a few buttons, and 45 drawers with green (and very, very occasionally, red) LEDs. The “First Phone” finally was superfluous. My 10-year-old son could run a Platinum.
Along the way, Harris, like GE, RCA and Ampex before it, made a few missteps (anyone remember Harris studio cameras?). But it embraced HDTV aggressively, including systems for multicasting and distributed transmission systems. The company remains, of course, a major player in radio. So when the announcement came on Tuesday May 1 that the company plans to sell its broadcast business, I was stunned.
“The decision to divest Broadcast Communications resulted from a thorough review of our business portfolio, which determined that the business is no longer aligned with the company’s long-term strategy,” stated William M. Brown, president and chief executive officer.
The company’s radio and TV transmitters, audio consoles, cart machines and turntables broadcast news and entertainment — some as far as before the Communications Act of 1934. I found it sad to hear the decision put in such analytical terms. But Harris had a good run. We can only hope the next owner of this historic broadcast company will continue in its tradition — and the tradition of Parker Gates.
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The Last Watch (2004)