Radio Pierces the Great Blackout
by George C. Sitts
Broadcast Engineering, December 1965
When the power died in the Northeast the evening of November 9, 1965, radio stations in the affected area either made or lost their reputations as reliable news sources in a crisis. It was a difficult test, and those stations that passed did so because their engineers were prepared.
We chose the New York City area for a closer look at the engineer's role in that crisis principally because more people and stations there were affected for more hours than in any other area.
As the power dip occurred, stations found themselves in a variety of situations - power at the transmitter but none at the studio, no power at either transmitter or studio, loss of STL lines, loss of remote control, a multitude of engineers, or no engineer around. All affected stations were off the air briefly, leaving the broadcast band rather quiet; then they gradually came to life again. Within one minute, carriers that were off began to return, and those stations equipped with automatic switchover began to program. Within five minutes, other stations popped on, and within the hour most of the stations that were going to make it at all were in operation.
WCBS was a prime example of preparedness. With studios on the 16th floor of a new building and a remotely controlled transmitter, the station had auxiliary diesel generators with automatic switchover to produce operating power for two studios, control rooms, input equipment, newsroom, and some lights. In addition, there was a second generator to power elevators. The transmitter was equipped with a diesel generator to switch over automatically and operate the auxiliary 10-kw transmitter; besides this, WCBS had recently installed a 175-kw generator capable of operating the 50-kw main transmitter, but without automatic operation. As power lines died, the auxiliary generators kicked on at the studio, and the 10-kw rig came on at the transmitter site. The engineers checked the STL phone line, found it okay (they had a standby STL ready), and turned the operation over to the programming people.
A transmitter engineer on his way home saw the lights go out, realized the problem, and immediately returned to the transmitter. By 10 P. M., the 50-kw rig was operating on the new generator. Chief Engineer Robert Mayberry told Broadcast Engineering the station remained on auxiliary power until 6:15 the following evening, long after power had been restored, to ease the starting load on the Consolidated Edison system.
Chief embarrassment of WCBS was that the station's two mobile cruisers were stranded on the upper level of a storage garage with electrically operated elevators; they were useless during the blackout.
WABC, according to chief engineer Julius Barnathan, was off the air for 15 minutes, the time it took to get the emergency generator going at the transmitter site. The station utilized another gasoline generator to power the radio studio. The STL phone line was dead, but engineers discovered the business phone to the transmitter worked. A call was made from studio to transmitter to open the line; then the console and transmitter input equipment were connected to the phone terminals, putting the station back in operation.
WINS, the city's all-news outlet, lost studio facilities for two minutes as lights when out. An engineer at the transmitter in New Jersey, where power held, played prerecorded fill tape until contact was reestablished. At the studios, engineers connected a battery-operated remote amplifier to the STL phone line, only to discover the line was out of service. However, before an alternate line could be established, the original line returned and held through the evening.
WINS, being an all-news operation, had more reporters on the street when the problem occurred than other stations. As soon as programming began, chief engineer Hal Brokaw reports, his engineers turned to the problem of coupling battery-operated tape recorders to incoming phone lines for beeper reports. This alleviated the necessity for reporters to return to the studio and climb 19 floors to air their reports.
WOR Radio was typical of the nonnetwork metropolitan stations partially affected by the power drop. With a transmitter in Carteret, New Jersey (an unaffected area), a studio in Manhattan, and a remote-control-point in the Empire State Building manned by WOR-TV engineers, the station was off the air for a quarter-hour. According to WOR director of engineering Orville J. Sather, as soon as the power went off, engineers at the remote-control point hooked two batteries to a small inverter to power the remote-control unit.
At the studio, a gasoline generator failed to start. A battery-operated remote-broadcast amplifier was put into service, but the STL phone line to the transmitter was out of service (a telephone-company booster amplifier had lost power). After some hurried patching and connecting, engineers managed to get a line to the transmitter via DC intercom lines to the Empire State control point and then to the transmitter via a spare set of lines in the remote-control circuitry.
Broadcasting began with the announcing staff using candles and flashlights in the studio. WOR was blessed with a traffic-report helicopter in the air and a mobile unit on the street at the time. The receivers for these remote units were located at the Empire State Building, and because the shortage of power at that site prevented use of the cue transmitter, it was necessary to give on-the-air cues to the units, a which times the Empire State engineers would patch them directly to the transmitter.
Shortly, the gasoline generator at the studio was repaired and activated, restoring lights and limited studio power. This luxury lasted until about midnight it became apparent the unit would soon be out of gas. With gas-pump and elevator service out (WOR studios are on the 24th floor), the problem could have been serious; but a businessman in New Jersey, hearing of their plight on the air, drove in with seven gallons of gas and carried the fuel up all 24 flights.
WNEW was more fortunate. Chief engineer Max Weiner reports two of his maintenance men were about to leave the transmitter when the failure occurred. Again the transmitter was in a safe area, but the fail-safe feature of the remote-control unit kicked the carrier off the air. The men immediately restored the carrier locally and programmed music from a turntable at the transmitter. The station was again fortunate because the STL phone line held up. Thus, getting back in business for the night was only a matter of getting one of their battery-operated remote-broadcast amplifiers connected to the line, and gathering candles and flashlights.
Personnel of WMCA, seeing the lights begin to dim and hearing the turntables change speed, threw the remote-control equipment to an emergency supply, preventing any carrier break. Engineers then switched their operation to a standby studio equipped with a battery-operated console and two turntables powered by an inverter. The staff began operation with three 75-watt lamps, but reduced illumination to one lamp to save battery power when it became apparent the power outage would continue.
The station remained on emergency power for 12 hours. Teletype service was out - as it was in all stations - but news was brought in by telephone reports and by roving reports with portable tape recorders. Many of the staff members stayed throughout he night, subsisting on sandwiches, coffee, soft drinks, and cakes brought up to the 13th-floor studio by faithful listeners.
Among the city's other stations:
WLIB and other daytimers were approaching scheduled sign-off time and thus remained dark for the duration of the failure.
WHOM, a principally Spanish-language operation, used battery equipment to operate studio facilities until their 2 A. M. sign-off.
WQXR, with no emergency power provisions, spent the night silent - the station's first power failure in 25 years.
The morning after the blackout was a time for station managers and engineers to analyze the night's operations. As a result, some studios and transmitters are now being equipped with improved power-generating equipment and backup STL relays. But in most cases, relatively smooth emergency measures illustrated the careful planning by a handful of engineers for just such a night.