Monday, 16 December 2019

Rumbled by a Robot

Preparing offshore Radio Paradijs  (14.04.1981)

It was a beautiful Tuesday in April 1981 when hundreds of hungry guests silently filed into the large breakfast room at the Rivièra Hotel in Las Vegas. In spite of the slight morning chill, clear skies promised another swelteringly hot desert day. The low murmur of conversation in the great hall made the sense of expectation all the more palpable in the air. Most people in the room had flown in from all over to attend the yearly Trade Show of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) at the famous Convention Center. A notice on the large promotion tower outside the Riviera welcomed the NAB members to town and also announced that Barry Manilow would be opening his show in a few days’ time.

Although residing at the much more modest Savoy Motel I attended the breakfast meeting in the luxury Riviera having been invited by Broadcast Electronics’ sales representative Paul Kudurshian and Peter K. Onnigian, the CEO of Jampro, the company supplying our floating radio station with its FM antenna bays. Suddenly, my toast barely buttered, the PA system sprang to life. An urgent voice advised everyone to go back to their hotel room and switch on the television set as the Columbia was closing in on Edwards Air Force Base. What followed was a not so orderly stampede to the elevators in the lobby. Our little group made it to Peter’s room with only a handful of minutes to spare. The first ever Space Shuttle was about to touch down. The screen showed the faint ghostlike unsteady image of the incoming spacecraft hardly visible against the blue morning sky. As I observed when motoring down from San Franciso the day before, thousands of Winnebagos had descended on the military base in the Mojave Desert. Their owners assured themselves a ring side view near the dry lake bed runway. Next, there was cheering all around when finally, seconds after the main body, also the nose wheel of the craft touched the ground and the mission, taking the astronauts 36 times around the globe, had been well and truly accomplished.

When the hotel guests returned boisterously to the Riviera breakfast room, it was patently obvious to even the most distracted observer that the successful landing of Columbia had given America its confidence back. That confidence had been thoroughly lost a decade before during the war of attrition in Vietnam. Attrition means the calculated death of countless young men and women of different races and places in a wearisome endless war until one of the opponents finally gives up. America had been forced to give up. But now, by the looks of it, the country felt back on top. The space shuttle had made America great again...

Later the same day, our meeting coordinating the delivery of broadcasting equipment for the future Radio Paradijs concluded, I was unexpectedly given the opportunity to visit the NAB Trade Show. Accompanied by Paul Kudurshian a courtesy shuttle bus took us to the Convention Center at nearby Paradise (how apt!). I was able to get into the members-only venue because Peter Onnigian (1921-2015), who had been a patron of the organisation for many decades, gave me his NAB badge to pin up. No sooner had I entered the lobby of the exhibition center than I heard a metallic voice call out “Welcome Peter”. I paid no attention to it until the message was repeated and I saw a primitive robot rolling itself in my direction. Only then I noticed that the creature’s glass bowl head contained a camera and realised that the contraption, having read my name badge, was actually talking to me. Luckily the robot never found out that I was an interloper who couldn’t afford the NAB’s forbiddingly high annual membership fee.
The exhibition was a veritable world of wonders for me. Stepping into the hall there were two television screens in which one could see oneself. On the second screen there was a slight delay. It was then that I realised that the picture was being beamed up and back down with the help of an orbiting satellite. To enable this, two low-loaders with the ground station and large satellite dishes were parked to the side of the Convention Center.

Purely by coincidence that afternoon I also met the manager of Ecos del Torbes, the Latin station from Venezuela in the 60 m band, that I used to listen to at night as a young boy. A little later Paul Kudursian introduced me to one of the Continental engineers who helped the original radio Caroline on the air in 1964. Subsequently I stood face to face with a 30kw Broadcast Electronics FM transmitter, built in Quincy Ilinois. The very transmitter, I was assured, that in a few weeks, was to be shipped to Dublin for installation on board the Magda Maria of our Radio Paradijs. Unobserved I walked to the back of the transmitter and drew a small sign on it with a yellow marker pen. Much later, upon receipt of the equipment in Ireland, Ben Bode confirmed that indeed there was a small yellow marking on the back of the transmitter. I couldn’t check it myself since in July 1981, when the broadcasting gear arrived in Dublin, I was busy setting up the land-based subsidiary of Paradijs in Italy. Never a dull moment.