Wednesday, October 19, 2011

INTERVIEW: Paul Freirich

I originally interviewed Paul Freirich (W3HFA) about his mother who played the part of Aunt Sammy on WBZA. But he had his own career in radio from 1962-1967. He just the sort of fellow that gets over-looked. Thankfully his memory is razor sharp... much more so than mine actually. He knows names, places, dates times —everything. It was kind of amazing really. He's retired now, but still is an active ham and announces for the Olney Big Band.

When you went into radio did you feel like it was a family tradition?
No, absolutely not. In fact I wasn't really very cognizant of my mother being in radio at the time although she had told me about it.

When did you start at WNCN?
I was only there from July to October 1962. Originally I was hired part time by the then Chief Engineer, Martin Gersten. Marty didn't have any money in the budget for an assistant so he paid me what he could out of the transmitter maintenance budget which was pretty damn thin. We'd work only after midnight because there were no commercials then and if we had to take the station off the air for a while we wouldn't cost the station any money as long as we were back on the air by six am. Transmitter was on the top of the Hotel Pierre, 5th Ave and 61st St. A posh, staid old hotel that we scandalized by dragging bags of tools meters and wire across their expensive oriental carpet in the lobby getting the key to the transmitter room from the front desk.

Which WNCN were you at? Was it 104.3 New York?
Yes, It was WNCN New York 104.3. That was supposed to be the flagship station of the Concert Network, WNCN New York, WBCN Boston, WHCN Hartford and WXCN Providence RI. I was once told there was supposed to be another station out on Long Island [WRIV Riverhead] but I could never find any evidence of that one. At that time our station break ID was "At 104.3 on your FM dial, this is WNCN, New York's Most interesting station". At that time I think we were the only FM station in New York that was still in mono.

What else can you tell me about WNCN?
We literally had to rebuild the main transmitter. It was a 15kw unit and the standby was 3kw. The main transmitter was a wreck and we had the standby on the air, just barely. There was a vacuum operated switch to change over the antenna from the main to the standby transmitter. Only problem? The vacuum pump didn't work and the antenna switch was held over to the standby by a broom handle jammed, not too well, in place.

There was so much wrong with the main it was a basket case. The final amplifier tubes could run at anywhere from 5000 to 6250 volts DC and the voltage change was accomplished by pushing raise or lower buttons. They controlled multi-deck switches driven by a dc motor at the base of the transmitter housing and a vertical rod the length of the unit. The problem was that one or more of the switch decks had arced over and welded themselves in place so the motor couldn't turn. I wound up taking the whole assembly out of the transmitter and one by one taking each switch deck apart, breaking loose the stuck contacts, filing them clean and reassembling the whole package. That took me three nights while Marty was coping with other problems.

The neutralizing capacitors in the final amplifier section had arced over so many times that there were globs of molten copper hanging down from the plates. The transmitter had been built by Radio Engineering Laboratories who were still in business in Queens. The next morning I called them to inquire about getting new neutralizing caps for the transmitter. When I gave them the model and serial number of the unit they laughed and laughed. "We haven't made anything like that old beast in over 15 years. We have no spare parts for it at all." I spent a couple of wonderful late nights sitting on the floor of the transmitter room with a piece of sheet copper, aviation tinsnips and a propane torch and I was able to mainly rebuild those neutralizing capacitors.

We were getting very close to putting the main transmitter back on the air when I was awakened by a frantic call from the Station Manager. Could I come right in and talk to him? I was still half asleep, having gotten in after 5am after another night with the main but I groggily got up and took the subway over to Manhattan. The station manager (I can't remember his name at the moment) verified my FCC First Class Radiotelephone License and asked me if I'd come to work full time as Chief Engineer. It turns out that Marty Gersten had come down with Mono and had to quit and in those days by FCC regs you had to have a First Class ticket on the wall to operate a station on the air. I needed the job and the money was good.........until paychecks started bouncing...........and so until the Navy claimed me I was the Chief Engineer of WNCN-FM. I finally got the main transmitter back on the air and reversed the broom handle to get the antenna back over to the main. Things were so tight that I actually called other stations that I knew replaced their transmitter tubes on a regular basis and begged for their pullouts so I could have some spare tubes in the drawer. I also took over the program "Hi-Fi Workbench" from Marty.

Then I had to re-wire the studio and control room. Somebody, I like to think it was the guy before Marty, had rewired the control room and studio and had left no wiring diagram. It took me several hours just to get the "On AIR" light outside the control room and studio to light up whenever the control room mic went live.

We had a live remote broadcast from a food show at an international supermarket at a food convention at the Convention Center. The problem with that is that we didn't have a portable board to take out in the field. I figured a way to get an extra mic input into a tape deck and stuffed a line preamp in it enough to get program material back to the studio over a Class A phone line. The only draw back of that is that we could only play the first cut on a tape (7" reel to reel) because I had absolutely no way of cuing up a tape to an interior cut. There's no way that should have worked but it did and we got two days of remote programming out of it.

One night about 3am, during a thunderstorm, I got awakened by a call from our night announcer. The transmitter was off the air. Muttering all kinds of imprecations under my breath I got dressed, walked four locks to my car in the rain (do you remember alternate side of the street parking in New York?) and drove over to the Pierre. When I got up to the transmitter room, a window had blown open behind the main during the thunderstorm and there was about an inch of water on the floor with the final amp set for the 5750 volt position. I got a wooden broom handle and managed to trip the main circuit breaker, then I had to sweep all that water out of the transmitter room with an old broom which was all I could find. Once out in the corridor all that water went cascading down the stairs which were right next to the transmitter room. It took me a half hour to sweep all the water out and another half hour to warm up the transmitter tubes again before I could punch it up on the air again.

Who did you work with at WNCN?
I remember two of the people I enjoyed working with at WNCN, Chris Borgen, who later went over to WCBS and Frank Walkdecker. I don't know what happened to Frank but he had a beautiful deep mellifluous voice.  We had a program at 8am on Saturday, "Hello Germany with Irwin Hall and Jeanette van Delden". They played all kinds of German music and spoke a mixture of German and English on the program. Irwin was the drummer in the band and Jeanette the vocalist at the Lorelei, a German bar up in Yorktown on the upper east side. They worked until 3 am so there was no way they were coming in a 8 on Saturday to do a live show.

The studio was actually an overgrown news booth on one side of the control room and the record control room was on the opposite side of the studio with the turntables in it. The tape machines, Ampex 10" reel to reels were actually in the control room. There was no talk-back between the record control room and the studio and no remote control of the Ampexes so I was all hair teeth and eyeballs trying to get the show recorded. They were nice people but Irwin and Jeanette were absolutely lousy on-air talent with lots of goofs, "Er -ums" and "Paul could ve start dat ofer again?" What I finally did was for a 55 minute show I'd record about 65 to 70 minutes of program and then with a manual tape splicer, a couple of straight edge razor blades I would physically edit out all the fluffs and errors.

What other stations did you work at?
"The Lucky 13 spot on your dial, WEEE, Rensselaer, New York". 1300khz 1000 watt daylight only, Licensed in the town of Rensselaer our studio and transmitter was actually on Smultz Road in Glenmont, NY, just south of Albany. I was weekend man, noon to sign-off, comboing on the board and reading the transmitter meters every half hour because of my First Phone but it only lasted for a couple of months. For a lousy $1.60 an hour I just couldn't justify giving up my weekends.

Did your college have a radio station?

WRPI at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. Originally a carrier current AM station heard only in the dorms and for a block or two around the campus, an FM station went out of business in the Capitol District and donated their transmitter to Rensselaer. WRPI 91.5 is still on the air. I did not work there.

You didn't do any radio in College?
Wait a Minute, I did work in radio there. I went to school in Athens. The Navy had a school down there. As a matter of fact there was a local station right there, the Navy Supply Corp school. There was a local station there 1340 WGAU-AM and the navy school had a half hour show one night a week, the "Navy Showcase." I only found out about it after I'd been there a month. Somebody found out I was a ham and the CIO put me over there as the host of Navy Showcase for 5 months. That was in 1963.

After you returned from the Navy did you go back to radio?
No. I decided I enjoyed making a living. But my my wife and I were very active in community theater.