Stereo Television: Origins

By Jack Caldwell

Screen Shot 2016-03-05 at 11.44.13 AM“OK RCA, if you build a stereo television transmitter and TV sets, we will prove to you that you need to.”

I can take no credit for this. Credit goes to Hartford Gunn, the visionary in whose shadow many of us have built our careers.

He believed, and I concurred, that, back in the late 1960’s, the absence of stereo sound for television was not a feature WGBH management, staff, listeners, or viewers would wish to endure for a very long time. Indeed, WGBH-FM was already attracting listeners who cared about the quality of sound. Why just radio? Why not television?

“Why not” became a buzzphrase that Hartford passed on to me … and I have embraced it ever since.

Back then, all TV sets had mono sound.

All TV transmitters transmitted mono sound.

TV set makers and transmitter manufacturers pointed fingers at each other. If the transmitters only delivered mono sound, why build TV sets that could deliver stereo … and vice versa?

So, Hartford, with me in tow, went to Hollywood to observe and learn — in a few days — how the recording of stereo was being accomplished in the film and LP recording businesses. (I did my thesis research on AMPEX — another story of how the video recorder came into being)

When we returned to Boston, I reorganized part of our engineering department to create a sound department. Bill Busick, engineering leader for WGBH FM was a reluctant player in this new undefined pursuit to establish WGBH as the leader in sound production for any media. Tom Keller was the EIC (Engineer-in-Charge) and welcomed the challenge.

Why wait to follow? Get out and forge new ground. That was WGBH. That is WGBH. We had two TV stations, a film department, and a radio station. Where would this pursuit of stereo sound for television take us? We didn’t know. We had bright people on staff, and Boston was rich with talented new companies that were focused on sound. KLH was founded by Henry Kloss in the late 1950’s. He came in to help. As did others.

24NETI came to WGBH from Ann Arbor where the-then NET (National Educational Television network) had the largest videotape duplication center in the world. I managed the national distribution to all public (then educational TV stations) of all kinescope, film and videotapes. And I managed the duplication of all film and kinescopes.

There were various processes to put sound on film products. And key producers of video programs would often come to Ann Arbor to edit sound and pictures. So, I had some background in putting sound with pictures for television distribution. But I was not the engineer/tech guru. That was Howard Town. He and I were the two VPs of NET, based in New York, that oversaw the Ann Arbor based duplication and distribution center. (On any given day we had 10,000 program units bicycling through the system)

Shortly after I left to join WGBH, my old buddy and colleague Howard Town left NET for AMPEX. (Back then, an AMPEX quarter inch tape recorder was the best there was.) Howard’s assignment was to develop a 24-track audio recorder using two-inch tape. All the “mechanics” for the VCR were in place. Why not use the concept for audio — where multiple tracks could be edited down to mono, stereo and four-track composites for the recording industry?

Naturally, Tom Keller, WGBH chief engineer, Howard Town, and myself (and Bill Busick, I think) started a conversation about syncing the AMPEX device (finally, I believe, named an MM1000) with a two-inch VCR. That took us to New York to talk to the folks who used the Selsyn Interlock system for syncing sound and pictures for motion pictures. Was there something we could learn?

While the technology development was underway, the creation of program material — and ultimate delivery of same — was front and center. The Boston Pops quickly became the lead contender for the experiment.

With all of “players” working as a team, we reached out to England to purchase a Neve audio board. We bought a truck to house it as a mobile sound recording facility. And we arranged with Howard Town at AMPEX to acquire an early MM1000. Serial number two, I believe, and that, too, went into the truck with the Neve board.

Someone, probably Bill Cosel and Hartford, worked with the Pops, Fiedler, the union and stage hands, et. al., to allow us to put cameras and lights and staging on the stage of the Pops. I remember Fran Mahard creating flats that would help us with the sound and the pictures. Back then, the lights were bright and hot. We needed the musicians to wear blue tucks instead of black, and we had to dig up the street in front of Symphony Hall to put in special transformers to handle the power we needed for lighting.

Yes, we had our big mobile television truck already in hand. Think Tennis.

A genius gentleman — Bill Pierce — produced the mix. We saved a track for mono TV, two tracks for stereo, a rehearsal track or two, and the rest of the 24 tracks were dedicated to the various sections of the orchestra. I’m sure Bill Cosel has a lot of memory and details to fill in.

After a concert by the Pops, the video came back separately (with a mono track) and the sound came back to WGBH in the sound truck. In post production, even a single note could be corrected — and was. The sound was edited to perfection. Then the video was edited to match. Now, remember, back then, editing video was done with a razor blade and a very expensive “splicer” where the cut two-inch tape was joined with aluminum adhesive tape. And the splice mark pulse was revealed by applying stainless steel “dust” in an alcohol base to the tape. (That’s another story!)

With some trial and error, we learned that we could place the video tape on machine A and the take up reel on machine B — some 20 feet or so to the right — in order to get the MM1000 and the VCR in sync. I don’t remember what it was we developed to sync the VCR and MM1000. It was a “black box.”

The broadcast, finally, was mono to channel 2 and stereo to WGBH FM. Viewers were taught to put their stereo speakers on each side of their TV set, turn off the TV sound and turn up their stereo FM amps. And the press in Boston was encouraged to watch and listen. They did … and they liked it. The new clippings were then delivered to RCA — who made both TV sets and transmitters. They “got it.” And, you know the rest of the story.

Hartford Gunn was the one who dreamed about what isn’t happening — and could or should be — and then made it happen. And that took a team of folks who had no experience of failure. Indeed, all we had was the thrill of inventing a then better “tomorrow” in the evolution of our chosen career of television.

Among the manny lessons taught to me by Hartford — from almost my first day at WGBH — was a critically important message on leadership. The first principle was, without reservation, to have no interest in WGBH being a follower or a second place player. Then, secure the most advanced technology the world has to offer, let the world know you have it, and the most talented will beat down your door to gain access to it. Hire the most creative who come forth, give them objectives and goals to be met, give them the necessary financial resources, give them encouragement and mentoring, — and get the hell out of the way!

Why is WGBH what it is today? Look around WGBH, then and now, and consider pioneering stories like this one. That’s why.

Do you have other memories of stereo television at WGBH? If so, send them to jay.collier@thecompass.com or post below.

Help us catalog WGBH “firsts” in national public media

Dear WGBH Alumni:

PBS is putting together a list of significant national “firsts” for PBS and public media. We already have a timeline covering WGBH from 1946 to 1978, and many entries include national innovations. Now, we’re looking for your recommendations and verifications for more!

Please remember, the following are not yet verified, so add your recommendations, corrections, and confirmations in the comments box at the bottom of this post.

Recommendations (to be verified)

  • 1958: WGBH acquired  an  VR-1000A and became the first NET member to use videotape recording techniques. (More.)
  • 1960: WGBH produced A.R. Gurney’s first TV drama, Love Letters. The only recording was destroyed in the fire.
  • 1963: WGBH received its first Academy Award for Robert Frost: A Lover’s Quarrel with the World Fred Barzyk reports that it was the first and only Academy Award to ever be given to an educational television station.
  • 1966: Julia Child was the first educational television personality to receive an Emmy Award.
  • 1968: Martin Luther King’s death almost caused a city wide riot, except for WGBH and city government broadcasting a James Brown concert. Watch the video here: James Brown in the Boston Garden – April 5th, 1968
  • 1968: WGBH produced the first double-channel TV show, What’s Happening Mr. Silver? Viewers were asked to put two TVs six feet apart, tune one to Ch. 2 and the other Ch. 44. Six months after the first broadcast, WNET WNDT (Ch. 13) and a commercial station (Ch. 9) were the only other stations to do the same thing.
  • 1972: PBS pioneers the development of captioning, making television programs accessible to deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers.
  • 1972: Nam June Paik, renowned video artist, creates the worlds first video synthesizer. During the broadcast of one of his works, Paik blew out the WGBH transmitter. It is now on display in a German Museum.
  • 1974: NOVA, the first weekly science documentary series, joined the PBS lineup.
  • The Chicken that Ate Columbus
  • 1980: WGBH Workshop and QUBE, the largest interactive service in the country, produced a live interactive drama, The Chicken that Ate Columbus.” From David Atwood: QUBE was launched in 1977, I joined them as Manager of Production and Operations in the fall of 1980 in time (as I remember) to be there for “The Chicken that Ate Columbus.”
  • 1980: This Old House, the first home-improvement program on U.S. television, tackled its first fixer-upper
  • 1987: Created the first digital audio broadcast.
  • 1990: PBS makes television accessible to blind and visually impaired audiences through the launch of the Descriptive Video Service (DVS).
  • 1994-95: Created the first audio streaming server (featured Frontline Waco: The Inside Story) and the concept of the web as the companion to the TV program.
  • 1998: PBS Digital Week features the first national broadcast of a high-definition and enhanced digital program, Ken Burns’s Frank Lloyd Wright.
  • 1998: PBS becomes the first national broadcaster to distribute high-definition (HD) programming to member stations for broadcast.
  • 1999: Created the first live radio and television streams and established a presence on Apple’s QuickTime TV.

Undated recommendations

  • Henry Morgenthau’s Negro and the American Promise is first to have an all black discussion on race in America. Featuring James Baldwin, Malcolm X, and Dr. King, the interview made the front page of the New York Times when broadcast, and was later made into a book.
  • Catch 44 was WGBH’s first public access series.  Although only broadcast locally, it made the front page of the WSJ and the BBC emulated it, calling their series “Open Night.”
  • The first environmental documentary was Austin Hoyt’s “Multiply and Subdue the Earth” on PBL.
  • Vietnam, a Television History, was the first long-form doc coverage of the Vietnam War.
  • The first coverage of tennis on TV was WGBH’s coverage of Longwood.
  • ZOOM was the first show created by kids (they supplied the content), for kids (who sent up to 30,000 letters per week).
  • Did Al Potter and Greg Harney do the first trans-atlantic broadcast for ETV?
  • The Victory Garden was the first series to follow the planting and growing of a garden in real time.
  • This Old House was the inspiration for the commercial sitcom Home Improvement.
  • WGBH was the first broadcast station to air stereo sound on their FM station which was in sync with he BSO concert on Ch. 2. This engineering feat was then taught to other PBS stations by our engineers.
  • Was NOVA the first PBS station to produce an IMAX film?

In protest, jazz-style funeral for Eric Jackson’s show

From the Boston Globe7/6/2012

Eric Jackson hosted his last weeknight show on WGBH-FM (89.7) Thursday night, and thanks to local saxophonist Ken Field, he went out with a funeral.

Field, who hosts a show on WMBR-FM (88.1), led a New Orleans-style funeral outside the WGBH building in Brighton to protest the station’s recent cuts in jazz coverage.

Jackson, a jazz radio host in Boston for 30 years, will now be on the air on weekends only. WGBH cut Steve Schwartz’s Friday program from the schedule altogether.

From YouTube

Jazz Funeral for WGBH, 2012 July 05

Microphone maestro

Ron Della ChiesaRon Della Chiesa, 73, voice of the BSO, sounds off on musicians from Beethoven to Lady Gaga

Over your 50 years in radio, which job has been your favorite? My MusicAmerica show at WGBH.  Starting in 1978, it ran for 18 years. I played an eclectic blend of music, incorporating live interviews with people like Dizzy Gillespie and Andre Previn. I could never have done that show in a commercial setting.

Who was your best interview? Tony Bennett, about his painting, philosophy, the business. He’s a renaissance man. Continue reading

Eric Jackson marks 30 years at WGBH

If you had your radio dialed to 89.7 FM most any weeknight over the past three decades, you probably heard the mellifluous baritone of Eric Jackson intone that signature phrase. This week Jackson, 61, celebrates 30 years hosting his jazz program, “Eric in the Evening” (changed a couple of years ago to “Jazz on WGBH With Eric Jackson’’), with events tomorrow and Friday at Scullers and Arlington’s Regent Theatre, respectively.

Turmoil in the air waves

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series Public Radio Rivalry

Public radio not only wants taxpayer dollars to back it up. One local station manager also wants a monopoly….

Any business would be happy if its rivals disappeared. But those wishes run up against an economic reality called capitalism. Competition is its core underpinning. It leads to fierce fights everywhere, especially in the world of Boston media….

Some listeners are apparently gravitating to WBUR’s new rival because WGBH is offering more local programming, including talk shows. That’s not a bad development. It illustrates how starved the Boston area audience is for serious, news-driven conversation about important local issues. Competition only helps their cause.

WGBH changes sting public radio rival

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series Public Radio Rivalry

WBUR-FM 90.9 has long been a Boston Goliath, with a news-and-talk schedule that’s been a model for public radio nationwide.

But now it appears that thousands of listeners are leaving WBUR and tuning into WGBH-FM 89.7, which last year replaced music programs with news and talk shows very much like WBUR’s — sometimes running the same National Public Radio shows at the same time. …

Since January 2010, when WGBH changed formats, to this past January, the WGBH audience grew by 16,000 listeners, or 6 percent, to 269,000 people, according to the Arbitron ratings service.

James Spruill, 73, actor, teacher, “Say Brother” host

A few months after launching the New African Company, a groundbreaking black theater troupe in Boston, James Spruill sat in the living room of Globe theater critic Kevin Kelly nursing a gin and tonic, amber-tinted glasses on his face, a cigarette in his hand.

“There must be a black theater for the black community, our own voices in our own playwrights, and the more black rage the better,’’ Mr. Spruill told Kelly in October 1968, speaking in a resonant, stage-trained voice which was as restrained as the words were fierce.

“Black people,’’ he added quietly, “refuse to go around not being recognized any more.’’

With New African Company, which performed everywhere from resplendent venues to abandoned buildings, he brought plays highlighting the black experience to white audiences and professional acting to black audiences who might never venture into Boston’s Theater District….

Mr. Spruill, an influential theater teacher at Boston University for 30 years and an actor who shared the stage with the likes of Morgan Freeman and Al Pacino, died Dec. 31 in his son’s Roxbury home of pancreatic cancer. He was 73 and in retirement resided in Winchester, N.H., fulfilling a longtime wish to live in a log cabin on 40 acres….

In 1968, the year he founded the New African Company, he began serving as a host of WGBH radio’s “Say Brother,’’ which became “Basic Black.’’

Folk shows its love for Dick Pleasants

Shortly after stepping up to the microphone, nearly every performer peered into the crowd, staring down at the edge of the stage. Some of them winked, others gestured with a hand or mouthed a thank-you. Jonatha Brooke expressed her gratitude quietly, as if it were a private moment.

“I love you, Dick.’’

“I love you, Jonatha,’’ came the faint response from the third row.

That would be Dick Pleasants, the beloved radio host whose 40 years on the local airwaves — first on the Cape, then at WGBH, and now at WUMB, among other stations — were being celebrated at Sanders Theatre Friday night. Seated dead center with a single crutch just in front of him (Pleasants was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2003), he was finally stepping into the spotlight that he’s shone on others for so long.

WBUR launches ad campaign to compete with WGBH

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Public Radio Rivalry

“A series of new TV ads … are part of ’s new marketing campaign aimed at differentiating itself at a time when it faces fierce competition from WGBH (89.7 and 99.5), another NPR broadcaster. Analysts say the aggressive advertising campaign, which includes TV ads and billboards along Interstate 93 and the Massachusetts Turnpike, is a rarity for public radio….

“Indeed, the two public broadcasters have been engaged in a battle — for listeners and donors — since last December when WGBH reinvented 89.7 FM to a full-time, news-talk format and began running syndicated NPR programs that WBUR carries. WGBH also launched two news-talk shows: ‘The Emily Rooney Show’ and’The Callie Crossley Show.’ In response, WBUR expanded its weekly local news magazine show, ‘Radio Boston,’ to a daily program last May.

“WBUR still leads in Boston public radio. In November, the station ranked 11th in Boston with a 3.9 percent share of listeners, according to Arbitron. But WGBH is expanding its share of the market: The station ranked 20th last month with a 1.1 percent share of listeners — up from 24th in October.”