The KCHU Pranksters

The KCHU Pranksters were a different group of people from Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters, but they had much in common with Kesey's group, or shall we say, they evolved from it. They had all been involved with the Hippie scene and like Kesey's Pranksters, they were into bohemian happenings of a Dada nature. This was not always intentional, but when things went wrong, the Pranksters would figure out a clever way to make a mockery out of the whole situation.

The Pranksters main outlet of their creativity was KCHU, a brand new alternative community access radio station run by the community and supported by the listeners. The station was run by about 100 volunteers and an unpaid staff, most of whom were in their mid 20's.

The idea for building the station was conceived four years before it went on the air. It was Dennis Gross who first came up with the idea, and he turned to Lorenzo Milam for help, since Lorenzo had successfully started several other similar stations. The first three years were spent going through the usual legal wrangling with the FCC that one goes through once the application for a station license is sent in. After the application had ricocheted around the various FCC offices for three years, a construction permit was issued, and Lorenzo and friends were able to start building the station.

Although Dennis was a straight-forward type guy, Lorenzo was a tad bit...shall we say...eccentric, and that may be putting it mildly. Probably the best way to describe him is kind of a lone bohemian, since he didn't seem to fit into any of the bohemian movements, even though he was about Beat Generation age. He was gay, had an abrasive personality which made his shows more interesting, and had polio and had to use crutches.

He was also an intellectual type, who read articles out of the New Yorker to the listeners of his show, did a lot of writing, including the program guide for the station and several self-published books mostly about his experiences while doing the radio station work. He had recently written a book about starting alternative radio stations, called Sex and Broadcasting. He came to Dallas with his friends, Larry Bolef, who became the Chief Engineer of the station, and Patrick, who helped him with the layout of the program guide.

The program guide was really a trip, because it was more underground newspaper than a program guide. It came out once a month, had the KCHU logo on the front cover and some interesting artwork, which some San Francisco poster artist must of done. The centerfold of the guide was the actual program listings. The guides also contained a list of the volunteers at the station and the first page usually had a rap about the station, but the rest of the guide was mainly poetry and artwork. It contained few ads, which was strange for a radio station trying to pay the bills, but as I say, they're all bohemians here, and the last thing they have on their mind is money.

Now back to the Pranksters...None of them knew each other before becoming involved with the station. Like most of the volunteers, they were all in their mid 20's, and they were fully attuned to the Haight-Ashbury way of life, although some had more experience than others. All of them came from middle class backgrounds, which they dropped out of to live their way of life. One by one, the Pranksters found their way to the unlikely way station known as KCHU, Dallas, only to discover a whole new medium with which they could express themselves, and what they found was a better stage to do their street theater.

The first of the Pranksters was Colin Pringle, who joined the station a week before it went on the air. He had been involved in the Haight-Ashbury ever since he wound up in the middle of the wake for Chocolate George in Golden Gate Park during the so-called Summer of Love. He had dark brown jesus christ length Hippie Hair and beard and wore a leather headband and round wire rimmed eyeglasses. He was into the engineering and production side of things. Prior to discovering the station, he had built a sound system and done sound engineering work for several rock bands. He had recently finished a course in broadcast engineering and gotten his first FCC license.

The station was in a huge three-story Victorian house that looked like it belonged in San Francisco. The neighborhood was on the outskirts of an area which had been the Dallas equivalent to San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district. Across the street from the station was a run down housing project, but next to the station was a very expensive restaurant called the Old Warsaw, with valet parking and the whole bit.

The first floor of the station contained business offices for the station and a large room that was rented out as a art gallery. An artist Colin had known through the Unitarian Church, Gabrial Liberman, had something to do with this gallery. Although he was potential Prankster material, he was also a loner and never got into the mix, as Colin put it, but more on that later. Actually, I don't think he became very involved in the radio station, although he might have had a show at one time.

The top floor of the station was rented by the Tenants Union, who had a tenants rights show on the station. The second floor housed the actual radio station. On the left side of the hall was the master control room, which was huge compared to the cramped quarters of most radio stations. This room also contained the record archives and an audition turntable to preview the records on. The FCC licenses were posted above the fireplace with care, just in case that the FCC should soon be there.

The control room also had the usual control room equipment, like the 10 channel UREI audio mixing console, three Technics direct drive turntables (one of which the resident cat kept mistaking for a litter box, much to the D.J.'s disgust), four microphones and sets of headphones for the people on the air, two Otari studio tape machines, a wooden rack containing, a cassette machine, three cart machines, a patch bay used to re-route signals between all the equipment which only Larry, Colin, and a few others knew how to use, and a rack for all the carts (about 100). The carts were endless loop tape cartridges, like the early four track car stereo tapes, except they were three track (two audio tracks and one control track) and they ran at twice the speed. They were mainly used for material under 10 minutes in length, such as promos for shows, and other types of announcements, especially fund raising skits.

Above the console sat the remote control panel that controlled the transmitter and tape machines, and there were clipboards on each side of the console for the program logs and pledge forms, and a funky brass clock on the wall that was always a little fast or slow, and on the console table was a lamp that Colin had taped a sign to the shade that said, "Answer phone when lamp flashes," and one of the other Pranksters had added, "Answer lamp when phone rings." Of course the phone never rang because everyone would hear it over the air, and that was the reason for Colin's lamp.

As I said, KCHU's control room was very impressive, compared to the cramped quarters most stations have. It was probably bigger than most people's living rooms and the equipment was also impressive. All of it was brand new, state of the art studio equipment. The turntables were wired so they would automatically start when you took the console fader out of cue position. This completely eliminated the need to start them manually and made cueing the records much easier.

One more room was next to the control room and that was the news room, which never got built and was mainly used for typing up scripts and other copy. When the station first went on the air, it had a Teletype machine, but nobody liked the wire service and it soon got repossessed because nobody paid the bills. Colin had built the mixing console for the news room but the room never got wired. One reason was because the station had a hard time finding a full time news person willing to work for free.

This room also had an old Ditto machine that the Pranksters used a lot. They used it to run off broadsides to the volunteers to let them know what needed to be done around the station and for other announcements. The spirit pump on the machine was broken but Colin figured out how to manually pour alcohol into the spirit distributor. When Colin couldn't be found in the engineering room, chances were he was typing up something in the news room.

At the end of the hall was the Men's room and the engineering room, where Larry and Colin were in control. This was the room of absolute control over the entire station. The station licenses were posted there and it was the primary transmitter control point, as far as the FCC was concerned.

To the right of the engineering room was the circuitry room, which was the nerve center for the entire station. The telephone switchgear was located here, as were all the terminal blocks that tied the whole station's equipment together.

To the right of the hall was the production control room, production studio and tape archives. The archives mostly belonged to Lorenzo Milam, except for the Prankster Archives, which Colin maintained.

Only two other areas of the station to go. The first is the basement. The heating and air conditioning equipment was down there, plus the equalizers for the remote broadcasts. Colin had a strict rule that this was the only area of the station where marijuana smoking was allowed and even discouraged it there because the station license was at stake. However, if it was a cold day...

Prior to becoming KCHU, the building had been a night club, called The Haunted House, or something equally strange. The main remodeling that had to be done to change the building into a radio station was constructing the production control room and production studio. These rooms had to be sound proofed and a double window was installed between the two rooms.

Another thing that had to be built was the station's 50 foot tower for the studio to transmitter link (STL). At the top of this tower was a microwave dish, which beamed the program audio and transmitter control signals from the studio to the transmitter, which was in the boonies, about 15 miles away.

When Colin first arrived at the station, the place was a mess. The equipment in the control room was only half installed, and none of the production room equipment had been installed. Needless to say, the people at the station were more than happy to have Colin to show up and offer to help get the equipment up and running.

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Copyright © 1995-1998,
Colin Pringle