the first man they look for and the last they want to meet. It’s a
chancy job, and it makes a man watchful … and a little lonely.”
words were part of Marshal Matt Dillon’s opening soliloquy in the
radio version of “Gunsmoke” but could well apply to any of the
hundreds of individuals who’ve served as FCC field inspectors.
John Reiser stands outside his first place of radio employment,
station WATT in Cadillac, Mich.
how “clean” your station might be, you have a panic response when
that federal official unexpectedly shows up for a “visit.” It’s
akin to seeing a blue light flashing in your rearview mirror even
though you’ve done nothing wrong and the officer just wants you to
get out of the way so he can pursue someone else.
Reiser was among those who reviewed station logs and public files,
counted spare tubes and tower lights, measured operating frequencies
and percentages of modulation, and even carefully scrutinized
transmitter meters for signs of a sticky movement.
years — 1961 to 1972 — his very appearance in the station parking
lot could raise the blood pressure of station managers and operators.
retired from the commission in 2000 after almost 40 years of service.
Even before retirement, though, he was no longer one of the most
feared people in town, because he had stopped knocking on those
doors. Now he looks back on his inspecting days with a measure of
detachment and doesn’t hesitate to relate what life was like on the
other side of the citation book.
most enjoyable aspect of my work was meeting and working with some of
our nation’s most talented engineers, who have contributed so much
to all aspects of broadcasting and broadcast equipment and standards
development,” he said.
first a broadcaster, getting his start while in high school at
250-watt WATT(AM) in his hometown of Cadillac, Mich.
helped form a radio club to produce programs broadcast each week, and
I helped with remote broadcasts of school sporting events and music
obtained the coveted FCC “first phone” license in high school;
after graduating he attended Purdue University and worked at the
school’s station, WBAA(AM). Reiser returned to his home state to
enroll at the University of Michigan, eventually receiving an EE
degree from that institution. While attending classes, he worked at
that school’s FM operation, WUOM, and remained on its staff after
graduation before eventually seeking employment with the FCC.
assignment was with the Detroit field office. In the ensuing years,
he inspected virtually all of the stations in Ohio, most of those in
eastern Kentucky, two-thirds of the stations in upstate New York, and
all of those in western Pennsylvania. While the majority of
facilities were “clean” and above-board, others were not.
YOUR OWN ‘FIRST PHONE’
have stations that pulled some strange shenanigans,” said Reiser.
inspected one station that was operating with a chief operator who
had a forged first class operator’s license. He had taken the
license of another operator and inserted the portion with his name
that had been cut out of his third class license.
talking with the fellow it was obvious that he didn’t know much. I
recorded the number and checked with commission records. It was a
falsified license. Since this was forgery of a federal document, he
had to go before a U.S. attorney who decided whether to prosecute or
not. The FCC put the operator on a ‘barred’ list, meaning that he
would never be able to get a license after that.”
what the monitoring vehicles used by one of the FCC’s field offices
in the early 1970s looked like.
the equipment package installed in one of the monitoring vehicles.
said the station also racked up a lot of other violations, because
the counterfeit first phone operator was “quite incompetent.”
station was neither the first nor last where Reiser found things
worthy of citation. A few of his more memorable revelations, some
illegal, others just memorable:
station that operated a “numbers” racket along with its religious
format programming. Frequent citations of certain biblical chapters
and verses were made throughout the day, along with promises of
“financial blessings” to listeners.
television station that was operating a full 6 MHz off-frequency.
small-town station that actually built its own tower — 150 feet in
height and 18 inches on a side.
church-owned station that had been licensed in the late 1920s and was
still using its original homebrew transmitter well into the 1960s.
Its license included a special provision to allow it to go silent
from noon until 1 p.m. for lunch.
station that opted for a low-end tower paint job (it was a tradeout)
and wound up with a “school bus orange” and white paint scheme
instead of the requisite “aviation orange” and white pattern.
small-market Pennsylvania station that had constructed its own FM
stereo generator, which worked fine and passed proof of performance
phone line STL that was somehow picking up NAA, the U.S. Navy’s
very low frequency/high-power station in Cutler, Maine, and mixing
the slow-speed code transmissions with the station’s regular
“bribe” of sorts that was offered when word got out that Reiser
and another field engineer were inspecting stations in a large
Midwestern market. The suspected owner of one of the stations sent a
couple of “lady companions” to the hotel where Reiser and another
inspector were staying. Of course, attempted bribery of federal
officials is a big no-no, be it money or services offered.
admits to feeling a bit sorry for some of the broadcast operations
and personnel that were the subject of his inspections (and
some cases after completing the inspection, I’d go back and help
neutralize the transmitter or refer them to someone who could help
out,” said Reiser.
BECAME OF THAT MONITORING POINT, ANYWAY?
addition to obvious technical deficiencies, Reiser encountered more
than his share of difficulties in connection with inspecting AM
stations with directional arrays.
frequently ran into situations where monitoring points were no longer
available. In once case, one point turned to out to be in the middle
of a new Sears store. Sometimes I found vary vague identification for
the points. One of the descriptions mentioned a point with cattle
grazing nearby and a bush with red flowers.”
also recalled a directional gone horribly wrong.
inspected a new station and found it was having extreme difficulty in
meeting the required null measurements. It was a three-tower array
and it had been constructed exactly 30 degrees off-axis. I found this
out when I went out after dark and sighted the North Star. It seems
that the surveyor was wrong in his measurements.
ended up having to move one of the towers and I understand that the
cost of this bankrupted the surveyor.”
WHO’S IN TOWN TODAY!’
about situations where the operator on duty was lax in keeping his or
her operating logs current, Reiser acknowledged that he had
encountered this but usually only once during any given market visit.
one station in an area was inspected, the word usually got around
very quickly that the FCC was inspecting stations,” Reiser said.
“So you didn’t find too many logs falsified at these other
the most frequent violation that I found was the inability to raise
or lower power by remote control—either the motor was frozen or the
coupling between the motor and the rheostat it drove had come loose.”
recounted an unusual assignment that didn’t involve radio or TV; it
took place in the wilds of eastern Kentucky. Commercial airline
pilots had been reporting a loss of ground-to-air communications
while flying over a certain area. Reiser was sent to investigate and
determined the approximate location of an interference source by
As it was
a small community and his presence was somewhat out of the ordinary,
he thought it might be a good idea to check in with the local sheriff
before proceeding. After informing the peace officer about his
mission, both gentlemen traveled to the source of the interference.
there, Reiser identified it as a homebrew “translator” intended
to retransmit TV signals into one of the “hollers,” where terrain
blocked a good signal. The unit was oscillating and creating
interference up and down the VHF spectrum. When Reiser informed the
sheriff that it had to be shut down, the officer insisted on doing it
himself — with the aid of a service revolver.
to Reiser, the officer did such a good job that there was no way that
particular “translator” could ever be brought back to life.
to keep an eye on the situation in case someone decided to construct
another such device, the sheriff took Reiser back to his office and
insisted on toasting their victory with some of Kentucky’s special
homebrew high-test beverage.
retirement from the FCC, John Reiser has continued to ply his audio
engineering skills. He stays busy doing location recording of musical
performances and other events. He’s seen here mixing house sound at
last year’s the IEEE Broadcast Technology Symposium.
inspection tour took Reiser to Cincinnati’s legendary WLW(AM). R.J.
Rockwell, its equally legendary director of engineering, was still in
charge, and the station was using Rockwell’s ultra low distortion
one-of-a-kind “Cathanode” 50,000 watt transmitter. WLW billed
itself then as the “nation’s highest fidelity station.”
for Rockwell, the inspection produced some unwanted results.
inspected the transmitter and noticed that several of the internal
components were supported by heavy strings. There were several things
that weren’t done in a workmanlike manner. I also cited the station
for using a meter without the required number of scale divisions.”
away his citation book for good early in 1972 and headed for
Washington to head up the FCC’s Field Engineering Operator and
Licensing Branch. He later moved to a special position in the
commission’s Broadcast Bureay during Richard Wiley’s reign as FCC
chairman. Reiser recalls this period as especially rewarding.
Wiley formed a ‘re-regulation’ task force around 1974 or ’75.
Administratively we were under the Broadcast Bureau, but we were
actually reporting to the chairman. That was a very interesting job.
We had carte blanche to go through all of the broadcast rules —
reviewing them and proposing to eliminate, rewrite or consolidate
them where there were conflicts.
the technical rules calling for good engineering practices were in
separate sections for AM, FM and TV,” he continued. “We
consolidated … many of the rules that were common to all types of
stations. One of the sections that we eliminated was the one on
This was a
classification intended to allow printed material like newspapers to
be sent via radio transmission to a consumer’s home on a facsimile
there were no stations that were operating as facsimile stations, we
put out a notice that we were going to delete all the rules for
facsimile, and we eliminated them. … We also modernized the rules
to allow digital metering so that phase monitors could have digital
readouts instead of analog meters and use current transformers.”
force also created an alphabetical index of the rules by subject that
was incorporated into the regulations. “People had been complaining
that they couldn’t find a specific rule and were calling the
commission to ask where the rule for this or that was. We also
indexed all of the written policies dealing with policies that were
not in the rules.
example, where did the requirement [reside] that said you couldn’t
manufacture and market a receiver to the general public that had an
SCA demodulator? That came from a letter that the office of the chief
engineer … that said they would not approve the marketing of
receivers under Part 15 certification that had such a demodulator, as
they considered SCA as a private communications service and there was
not need to market this to the public.
were a lot of other policies and public notices that had been issued
by the commission over time, so we listed those by source and made
them available for reference.”
force remained in operation for about five years.
the things that we worked on was precision phase monitors for
directional arrays,” said Reiser. “Also the change in the
operator rules — operator licensing requirements were also changed
at that time. Automatic transmitter control systems were allowed.”
around the time when the commission dropped the “first phone”
operator license requirement.
McKinney was chief of the Mass Media Bureau,” said Reiser. “He
was strongly in favor of eliminating the first class operator
licensing requirements. It was quite controversial at the time.”
affected several classes of stations. Prior to the change, television
stations, high-powered radio stations and directional AMs had to have
a first phone operator at the transmitting facility. The revised
rules also provided for remote control of such facilities.
for which Reiser’s task force was responsible was elimination of
the particularly onerous requirement to take transmitter readings
every half hour.
archaic subset of rules involved mandatory program log notations and
announcements indicating live vs. recorded commercial announcements
and an on-air statement that “some portions of the programming
heard on this station are recorded.” These too were dropped.
As part of
this work, Reiser made numerous presentations to state broadcasting
groups and SBE meetings. He recalls relaying objections from
engineering personnel back to Washington about the dropping of the
first phone requirement. Reiser believes that he came close to being
pelted with rotten fruit during an SBE Engineering Workshop at Ohio
field inspectors have such broad knowledge in all areas of
some serious on-the-job training; and I was fortunate enough to go to
NAB conventions and pick up knowledge there,” said Reiser. “The
fellow that worked on the [FCC] TV truck was well experienced, and I
learned a lot about television from him. We also did a lot of bench
measurements on a test transmitter to gain this sort of experience.”
that TV station that was operating 6 MHz off-frequency:
was in the Youngstown, Ohio market. When we tried to measure their
frequency off-air, we couldn’t find it. The station was also having
trouble with its filterplexer too — it was tuned to the edge of its
that the station had purchased a new frequency counter and in setting
up the transmitter had inadvertently picked the operating frequency
of an adjacent channel and set things up with the new digital
were right on frequency, but operating on the wrong channel. They
told me they had bought a new counter, the same brand as used by the
FCC, to make sure they were on frequency.”
in the early 1960s, when virtually all UHF TV sets had continuous
tuners without detents, so there were no viewer complaints.
later was assigned to the Engineering Branch of the Policy and Rules
Division to work on general broadcast rulemaking projects. He
represented the FCC at industry conferences and meetings held by an
alphabet soup of organizations: NAB, SMPTE, EIA, SBE, AFCCE, IEEE.
he was asked to chair U.S. preparatory groups for the International
Telecommunication Union Study Groups on broadcasting; and when the
FCC established the International Bureau, he transferred there,
working until retirement in 2000.
enjoys ham radio, doing on-location recording of musical programs,
participating in community events and supporting activities of the
IEEE’s Broadcast Technology Society, including handling house audio
at that organization’s annual Broadcast Symposium. He was the 2003
recipient of the NAB’s Lifetime Radio Engineering Achievement Award
and a 1991 Governor’s Award from the Audio Engineering Society. He
is a Fellow member of both the SBE and Radio Club of America.
O’Neal is technology editor of RW sister publication TV Technology.