Starting up the Station

Everyone was madly working to get the station up and running for the big day when the FCC gave the final authorization to push the Button that would switch on the 7200 volt plate current in the transmitter and throw its 100,000 watt carrier onto the airwaves for the first time in history. The frequency had never been used before in Dallas.

The station was a madhouse the Friday it went on the air. The control room audio console was in a million pieces and Larry, the Chief Engineer was madly trying to get everything wired and put together. Others were trying to get the phone system installed. Colin had another important task. A remote broadcast was going to be aired from a jazz club called the Recovery Room and Colin was going to go over there and set up the equipment and engineer the remote. So he gets a cardboard box and gathers up microphones, the remote console, cables of every type, the lineman's phone, headphones, beat up radio to monitor the broadcast, duct tape and toolbox and he puts all the stuff in the box and heads on out for the Recovery Room.

Well, 7:00 PM came, the Button was pushed and 90.9 FM was no longer static. The remote broadcast went great, and so did everything else until the next day, when Colin got a call informing him that two out three turntables were down in the control room, which meant that the DJ. couldn't go from one turntable to another, but would have to leave a gap of dead air as he cued up each record.

By the next Monday, the problem with the turntables was fixed and all three of them ware working flawlessly. The biggest problem now was that the power amplifiers for the studio monitors kept shutting down.

The station continued to flounder for the next few weeks while Larry and Colin installed the rest of the equipment and got the bugs out of it. The next priority was getting the production control room up and running. This was a high priority because without it, carts could not be cut, nor could any other production be done. Also, the remote control panels had to be built. These allowed remote control and monitoring of the transmitter from the audio console, and also allowed remote control of the tape and cart machines.

Getting all the equipment installed at the station took the first six months the station was on the air, which was really just a dry run for a real radio station. Since almost everyone at the station had little or no broadcast experience, the first shows broadcast sounded really rough, even so bad they were laughable. Records would constantly mis-cue, or be played at the wrong speed, people would forget to turn the microphone off when a record was playing, and that kind of thing.

Sometimes, the blunders were much more serious. One person finished his show, the last show of the day, signed off, went home, but overlooked one important task. He had failed to shut the transmitter down... so all through the night there was this dead, unmodulated carrier sitting at 90.9 FM and the electric meter just keeps grinding away, adding to the station's bills.

Even Colin, the great engineer had trouble at first. His first show was such a disaster that he erased the tape he had made of it. He even had to shut the transmitter down in the middle of his shift to correct a subcarrier problem. Another time, a tape miscued when he started the wrong tape machine by mistake and another station's call sign went over the air. His third show had to be aborted because of an emergency at the transmitter. Right before his shift, an alarm had sounded indicating that the tower lights were out, so he reports it the FAA, grabs a toolbox and heads for the transmitter in the boonies...

Getting used to the equipment was one thing, but getting used to the format of the station was another. The idea of the station was to sound unique and to avoid the commercial disk jockey sound. The station also wanted to avoid carrying the same material that other stations were playing. This was a great philosophy, but difficult to pull off in practice. Doing so requires deprogramming oneself from years of listening to commercial radio and this takes time. Another problem with this concept is it scares many listeners off, who are used to mainstream bland type programming. The bohemians in radioland love it but usually have no money to contribute to the station.

The hassle of money was probably the biggest bummer that KCHU had to contend with. Running the station cost about 200 dollars a day. This included equipment payments, rent, phone bills, electricity, postage and that kind of thing. None of the staff got paid, except the station had gotten Colin and a few others CETA grants. Starving artists and college students at the station probably outnumbered those who had outside jobs.

The only income the station had was from pledges from its listeners. Unlike NPR or PBS, it got few grants from big business. Because of the large number of bohemians involved with the station, fund raising was not one of KCHU's strong points. At one time, the station had debated the idea of throwing people off the air who were not able to raise a certain quota of cash for the station. The idea was rejected because everyone soon realized that the people who did the best and most original shows also did the worst pledge drives and vise versa. Ah, bohemians and money just simply do not mix...

When the station first went on the air, only the control room, engineering room and transmitter were barely operational. There were many bugs in the system that had to be worked out. One problem was the power amplifiers that drove the studio speakers kept running hot and shutting down. Larry found that the problem was caused by stray radio frequency signals causing the amplifiers to operate constantly at full power, even though the audio was at normal level. After several of the amplifiers blew output transistors, Larry figured out that he could add an input transformer, which would isolate the rf from the amplifiers.

Getting the amplifier problem solved took several months. Colin had to make the input modifications and replace blown transistors. Some of the amplifiers hadn't been built yet and Colin was also working on that. He was also working on a PA system for the station that involved the amplifiers, so you could hear what was going over the air anywhere in the station. While Colin worked on the amplifiers, Larry was wiring the production room and installing the equipment.

Once the major problems were solved, the various frills could be added, like the ON THE AIR lights, cue speakers, the phone patch (so that phone callers could be put on the air) and the paging system, which was one of Colin's unique ideas that Larry didn't like.

Besides installing the equipment, Larry and Colin were in charge of making sure the station met it's legal obligations to the FCC. Larry didn't seem too concerned about this, so Colin got stuck with most of this job. He had to make sure there was always someone around with an FCC license when the station was on the air, and he also had to see to it that Logs were correctly taken.

There were two types of logs. The operating logs were no big deal. All you had to do was sign on and off the log, and take the transmitter meter readings every three hours. The program logs were the bitch, because you have to write down everything that is broadcast, which isn't easy when you're operating the console, cueing up records and answering the phone. Oddly enough, most people kept better program logs than operating logs, and Colin usually ended up having to take them.

The station had been on the air about a month when Pete became Program Director. The first Program Director found the job more than he can handle. When Pete saw how badly the logs had stacked up, he was beginning to wonder if he could handle the job. He asked Colin for help, since he was the expert in such matters.

It's a hot Indian summer afternoon and Colin and Pete have all the logs spread out on the control room floor and are trying to get them in some sort of logical order. Someone had opened one of the control room windows, and Otari, the house cat (named after the studio tape machines) was sitting on the window sill. Much cursing and swearing is going on over missing logs and over people failing to sign off the logs.

The person on the air tells everyone to be quiet because he is about to make an announcement. Suddenly without warning, the window slams down on Otari's tail and the cat lets out one hell of a scream. Colin is so startled he drops all the logs he had carefully sorted. The cat was only about two feet from the live microphone, and all the VU meters on the console are pegged. Colin notices this and runs into the engineering room to reset the automatic gain control. Pete releases Otari from the window, who cuts out of the control room like a bat out of hell, scattering even more carefully sorted logs.

"Boy Colin, I think we sure picked the wrong day to review the logs."

"Yeah man, there seems to be all sorts of bad vibrations going on in the control room today."

Colin tapes a note to the console that says, "Be nice to the cat. He's all freaked out from the window slamming shut on his tail."

From the beginning, the station had a problem with crazies invading the station at odd hours of the night, so the station holds a meeting and concludes that security needs to be beefed up at the front door, man. Television cameras? No they are too expensive, man. Lets go with electric lock and intercom. Lorenzo and Colin finally agree that while securing the door with such protection will degrade the aesthetic atmosphere of the station, indeed give it the atmosphere of a prison, even that would be an improvement over the events of the last few weeks... And especially the recent biker problems...So the intercom and electric strike plate go up...

So far, Colin has been the only Prankster involved with the station. The next Prankster to join the KCHU crew was Steve. He was an artist, who had an art studio somewhere, and he was given the air shift following Colin's Friday night 1-3 AM shift. All the bohemians were given late night shifts because the management just knew that there would be trouble and thought that easily offended people and the FCC were less likely to be listening in the wee hours of the night. Steve's show was the perfect follow-up to Colin's Haight-Ashbury rock show.

The third Prankster to show up on the scene was Clarke. He showed up one day wanting to do something useful, so Colin took him down to a remote broadcast at the New York Ballroom to train him how to set up and engineer one. Clarke took a liking to Colin almost immediately and the two not only became good friends, but also became the central core of the KCHU Pranksters.

Another important Prankster was Cryspian (not his real name, but the Hippie name everyone called him by). He was a good friend of Clarke, who had told him about the station. So Cryspian is listening to the station one Friday night, Colin comes on with his rap about the Haight-Ashbury and Hippie music, and Cryspian hauls ass to the station to meet this strange cat...

Meanwhile... Colin is rapping on the air when the door buzzer goes off... Gruuuuuunt...

"Like hang on to your radios, a sec. I need to stop and check out some cat who's buzzing at the front door..." Over intercom: "Like who is it?"

"It's Cryspian. Clarke told me about the station and your show."

"When you hear the buzzer go off, pull the door open."

"But then where do I go?"

"Go up the stairs and take the first door on the left. That's like the control room, where I am."

The buzzer sounds, Cryspian enters and the door slams shut behind him, KABLAM. That door was really a problem. Colin had put a sign on it that said, "Please don't let the door slam. It's hard on the electric lock (and our ears)" but Cryspian hadn't seen the sign because it was on the inside of the door.

Cryspian walks into the control room with Hippie Hair and beard as long as Colin's but blond instead of brown. He has a record called Joesph Byrd and the Field Hippies. He brought it because Colin had just played another Joesph Byrd album. They rap about the station and the usual bohemian stuff until Steve shows up for his shift... Gruuuuuunt...

The buzzer goes off and yes, it is Steve all right, but when Colin hits the button to unlock the door, nothing happens...period. No buzzer sounds and Steve can't budge the door, man. Colin: (over the air) "We seem to be experiencing technical difficulties with the front door, so we are going to have a nice little emergency fill while I try to get the door open, so Steve can do his show. It's like stuck." Cryspian's record goes onto the turntable and Colin runs downstairs to try to get the goddamn door open.

So Colin pushes while Steve pulls and the door still won't budge. "What we need is a goddamn battering ram," Colin yells to Steve, "Hang on while I get a crowbar or something from the engineering room." But he notices that a wire going to the electric lock has come loose, so he twists it back together and he yells up the stairs, "Cryspian, could you hit the button that unlocks the door." This time the buzzer goes off and with great effort they finally get the blasted door open...

After the first couple months of getting the hang of being on the air and overcoming problems with the equipment, Colin was able to concentrate on the content of his show, rather than fighting the equipment. His first few shows had been really rough because he had been knocked off the air several times because of problems with the transmitter remote control.

Once he got the equipment problems behind him, his biggest challenge was tracking down all the obscure record albums he needed for his show, but he had the help of the other Pranksters like Cryspian and several of his other friends. One of them who he knew from LRY was Julie. She came up with some really obscure albums, one of them by the band, The Great Society, that Grace Slick was in before she joined the Jefferson Airplane. That album was so obscure that the Hippie historian Charles Perry didn't even know about it.

Julie would bring Colin albums and he would tape them for the Archives, and Cryspian would bring Colin albums and he would tape them for the Archives. He ended up having to buy tape by the case, he was using so much. The station couldn't afford to buy much recording tape, so all of the Pranksters had to buy their own tape at first, which was a drag.

Although she was Prankster material for sure, Julie didn't spend much time at the station, but she did sit in on at least one of Colin's shows. Her main contribution was to the Archives, which in turn, contributed to Colin's show. Although Colin never could figure out how to convince her to say a few words over the air, the records she came up with would have never made it on the air waves if it hadn't been for her.

The last Prankster to be added to the close-knit group was Shaw. Shaw was a cat from San Francisco, who did plumbing and maintenance type work. He and Colin had a strained relationship because Shaw's show preceded Colin's and Shaw would carry on in the control room talking to people on the telephone while Colin was trying to read material over the air. Clarke once got on Shaw's case for doing this, but nevertheless, Shaw finally made it into the mix.

The mix... Kesey's thing was the bus; you were either on the bus or off the bus, which meant you were either into the group consciousness or not into the group consciousness. Because he was an audio engineer, Colin's thing was the mix, which is the composite output you get out of the audio mixing console. Like a good audio mix, group consciousness needed to blend well together with nothing clashing. Shaw clashed at first, but finally got into the mix...

There were two things that made the Pranksters such a close-knit group. The first was their work at the station. When the Pranksters took on a project, each of them had a certain job to do. Colin took care of all the technical matters, such getting the right equipment and seeing to it that it was set up properly. He knew from experience what would work and what wouldn't. Clarke took care of public relations, publicizing Prankster happenings, hiring halls, borrowing equipment, and that kind of thing. Cryspian took care of lighting and visual effects, and all the other gaffer stuff. Steve was into the aesthetics of it all, while Shaw took care of such matters of a physical nature, like chairs and stage sets and scaffolding. You might call him the Key Grip and set construction person.

The second thing that tied the Pranksters together was their Bohemian roots and especially...the LSD experience. All of the Pranksters were acid experts, who had all first passed the Acid Test years ago. Colin had to pass it in April, 1970 when he got dosed from the electric Kool-Aid at Lee Park..."Lord knows how I hung on to sanity that day, or anyone else who got the Kool-Aid, for that matter. I had just split half a tab of acid with someone when some friend of mine brought me a cup of Kool-Aid, which I thought was the usual Kool-Aid they served every Sunday. It wasn't. That electric Kool-Aid just about blew the Doors of Perception right off the freaking jambs, but somehow I managed to pass the Acid Test."...All of the Pranksters had been through the ritual for bringing someone back from a bad trip and knew the script by heart: "Slow your breathing down...take long deep breaths...don't fight it...let the experience happen...go with the flow...let go of the branch...let go of the fear, let it move away from you like a bubble in water..." Yes, the Pranksters had all been through all that many, many times.

Of course, it was the LSD experience that kept the Pranksters so...attuned. Whenever the group creativity bottomed out or the Pranksters needed to figure out how to save the station from some new calamity, and they couldn't figure out some new interesting project for the station to become involved in, they would all enter the kairos together and flash...some new fantasy would move forward in the Group Mind. This unusual psychological state somehow seemed to synch all the Pranksters together, so they all acted as one, the All-One.

The current fantasy is the term the Pranksters used to refer to their latest project, a holdover from Kesey's Pranksters. Sometimes, the current fantasy was something that had to be done for the survival of the getting all the volunteers to go down to the FCC and pass the test for their licenses. The reason Colin called this a fantasy is because most of the volunteers at the station were not technically minded, and getting them all to study for the test and pass it seemed like an impossible task. But it had to be done, so Colin started teaching FCC license class at the station once a week.

Another example of this was the fantasy that everyone would take perfect logs. Of course they didn't, so the Pranksters had to spend hours "reviewing the logs," as Colin and Pete had done. This not only involved getting them in proper order and trying to find missing logs, but it also involved tracking down volunteers and making them correct their logs, and since there were over a hundred volunteers, many of who did not have phones, the fantasy of finding them all was also next to impossible.

Other times, the current fantasy would be some outrageous bohemian happening that the Pranksters dreamed up to promote the station or as a fund raiser for the station. Or it might be some new show, skit or prank that the Pranksters thought would be a riot to air, like Madeline Murry Ohair. That prank darn near destroyed the station and Colin's career... but that's getting ahead of the story...

As the Pranksters gained experience with the art (and mechanics) of broadcasting, each new current fantasy became even more off the wall than the last...and this brings us to...

...the fantasy fo the remote broadcasts...

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Copyright © 1995,
Colin Pringle