Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The AAS Takeover of WVBR

The book Cornell '69: Liberalism and the Crisis of the American University by Donald Alexander Downs bears the following passage describing the 6:00 AM storming of a college radio station.
"At 6:15 a.m. students, one brandishing a club, took over WVBR, the radio station in the Straight, so that [Edward] Whitfield could announce the takeover to the community. The captors remained for a few minutes, leaving when they were informed that they were committing a federal crime. After "truly extraordinary" efforts, WVBR managed to reestablish broadcasting from a location downtown."
The event is described in a number of other books Cornell: A History, 1940–2015 by Glenn Altschuler and Harlem vs. Columbia University by Stefan Bradley to name a couple. What is not said above, but did happen is that Ed Whitfield  took the microphone and announced "We interrupt your regular broadcast for a relevant political message..."  He follows that with a tirade against the racist attitudes of Cornell University. More here.

After seizing the Straight the AAS (Afro-American Society) tried to defend a large building. But it was built into a slope and had entrances on multiple levels. Weapons entered the building as did fraternity members intending to repel them. About 75 members of the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) blocked the outside of the building with a picket line. At the same time volunteers, Sherrifs, and the National guard were organizing to take back the building by force. The Cornell administration eventually negotiated a truce. The AAS walked out of the building with rifles shotguns and even bandoliers. The photos of the scene won a Pulitzer prize. Images here.

WVBR played only a small role in the whole escapade, but interestingly was the only Federal crime committed in the incident. No one was charged, and even the AAS student members were not punished. The entire event had been triggered by the Student-Faculty Board reprimanding members of the AAS lobbying for changes to the Afro-American Studies program. WVBR was already 34 years old at the time of the protest. The station moved from a cable FM service to FM radio in 1957, so by 1969 it already was (and still is) a highly organized broadcaster. Strangely this was not the only time the station was raided and taken over but I'll cover that prior event in another post.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

TranscriptionTranscription Mystery Disc #244

This is a metal-core, 6.5-Inch acetate recording on a brand of blank I've never heard of before: Sherman Clay. The company was founded in San Francisco in 1853, as as A. A. Rosenberg, and renamed Sherman Clay when partners Leander Sherman and Clement Clay bought him out in 1879. the company then sold Organs, pianos, and other musical instruments. In 2013, Sherman Clay announced it was going out of business on May 31, 2013 after 142 years. More here.

Louise & Bill Murphy

In the middle of that company's lifespan, this recording was made by Louise and Bill Murphy. The disc is clearly dated to February 16th, 1950.  They were in San Francisco and it's unclear if it's a vacation or a new home for them. The recording is a letter to Bill's parents and Louise sings a quick rendition of My Sunshine. They planned to go to Lake Tahoe the following day. Bill mumbles a bit,and then Louise says she'd like to come home.

Monday, December 15, 2014

First Check by Radio

On April 20th 1926 a check was sent by radio for the first time ever. So don't go feeling smug just because you can check your bank balance on your iPhone. This check was sent 88 years ago without the aid of TCIP, CDMA, lithium-ion batteries, or even solid state electronics. For this feat we can thank the utterly obscure Richard Howland Ranger. He is usually the man credited with inventing the fax a.k.a. the wireless photoradiogram, or the the transoceanic radio facsimile.  That's him in leaning left in the center.

Captain Richard H. Rager was an electrical engineer born in 1889 in Indianapolis, IN. He was a member of the U.S. Signal corps in WWI, and served again in WWII. He graduated from MIT in 1923. He had all the credentials of a boy genius. That image I cropped below is from the famous Einstein group photo at RCA here. He fit in with that line up of brilliant inventors.

So back to that check. In 1924 he sent a photograph of President Calvin Coolidge from New York to London. It was the first radio facsimile. The RCA book Radio Facsimile published in 1938 covers this in great detail but the first name on page one is Richard H. Ranger. Now bear in mind the fax already existed, Alexander Bain patented his Electric Printing Telegraph in 1843. Ranger had to convert this to a broadcast-able code that could be received and reconstructed over wireless. He summarized the image as 65 dots per square inch, that's about the same as news print of that era.

So two years after the first "test" broadcast of President Coolidge's mug they were ready to try a bit of online banking. The president of RCA, Gen. James G. Harbord wrote a check to RCA for $1,000.00. Within 20 minutes they confirmed receipt of all messages by Morse code. The chairman of the board of Directors of RCA Owen D. Young sent greetings  to Vice President Charles G. Dawes. A newspaper article of the day noted that the check would be honored if there were no "legal impediments."

Ranger also had a number of other really notable inventions. He invented the Rangertone, an early electronic organ in 1932. The organ was marketed directly by his company Rangertone Inc. on Verona Ave. in Newark, NJ.  He also invented the NBC chime machine which generated those three tones we all know so well. He was inducted into the New Jersey Inventors Hall of Fame in 1997. He died in 1962.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Number Stations

Youtube user "egrabow440" posted an extended version of his college senior project Numbers stations continue to fascinate and entertain. These two videos make up the best 20 minutes I've heard on the subject since the Coronet Project. More here.

Behind The Static 2: Longer, Creepier, Uncut (Numbers Stations)  PART 1

Behind The Static 2: Longer, Creepier, Uncut (Numbers Stations)  PART2

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Norwegian Hillbillies and Norske Favorites

Norwegian Hillbillies... there is a phrase I don't get to say very often. In the U.S, there were not a lot of Norwegian-born accordion virtuoso bandleaders.  That was really a Minnesota thing back in the 1930s. Back before 1920, the two most famous were probably Thorstein Skarning and Ted Johnson. Johnson led a dance band that I don't find that interesting—but Skarning, he was a Norwegian Hillbilly. You can hear a little bit bit of that action here.

Any why not really, there was French Canadian Country music, and artists in Norway like hank Malvin were still cutting country 45s in the 1970s. Skarning grew up in Drammen, Norway and emigrated to America prior to 1917 with his wife Anna. By 1918 he was recording for Victor Records, Columbia and Brunswick. But they were recording waltzes, and marches. Country music as we know it didn't exist yet. That particular combination of  folk music and western ballads would slowly arise over the next decade mostly in the South East. In Minnesota, Skarning was so far ahead of the curve he was an anachronism. More here.

Skarning's Entertainers set list wasn't much different but in addition to those dry marches and drab waltzes were also classical music, polkas and an indigenous Norwegian folk genre called hygdedans. When they did stray into classical music— usual Greig or Mozart it was more-or-less lost on his popular audience. But look at that picture: the corn stalks, overalls, hay, straw hats and farm animals... they look like a county band, like a bunch of hillbillies. This exaggerated rural affectation went on to become de rigueur of country bands for the next half century. You could argue that it's still relevant today. You can see more pictures in the book
Norwegians in Minnesota by Jon Gjerd. (This co-mingling of polka and hillbilly was re-named "polkabilly" by folklorist Roby Cogswell in the 1990s.)

Thorstein Skarning and the Norwegian Hillbillies played on 1140 WDGY-AM three times a week back in 1938. By then the band was more countrified, and named Skarning and his Norwegian Hillbillies. There were a lot more polkabillies and "Norske" favorites around the region now as well: The Swiss Hillbillies, Olaf The Swede, the Little Swiss Miss Yodeler, and many others. (The book Polkabilly by James Leary really expounds on this list.) The elder Skarning died in Fargo, ND in 1939 but his son Thorstein B. Skarning took over as band leader. His daughters, Lou and Irene later played the Sunset Valley Barn Dance on KSTP-AM in the 1950s.   

WDGY went through changes too, it moved to a new home at 1130 kHz in 1941. In 1977 they flipped to a country music format that everyone saw coming since 1930.  The calls were dropped in 1991 when they flipped to KFAN-AM News talk and 630 AM picked up the calls.  It was only in 2008 when 630 flipped calls to WREY-AM with a Regional Mexican format that the now heritage WDGY calls landed on 740 AM replacing WMIN. More here.