Thursday, August 27, 2009

Bigger'n Six Cadillacs

May much praise now be heaped upon Dave Montgomery ("Lee Roy truly is my middle name") for writing in about the RCA BTA-50F transmitter at KAAY! I wish everyone who remembers the station so fondly could stand beside that beast for a little while and watch her work. And it would only be for a little while, because the energy coming off of her was unimaginable.

"You wanna go to the transmitter?" Phil North asked me one evening in June of 1971, toward the end of his 8:00-11:00 PM show. He called Clyde Clifford on the Army surplus field telephone that ran down the backup phone loop to the site to let him know we were coming. We jumped into Phil's '68 Camaro SS (you know the model: blue with the white panels on the hood and the rear deck) and tore out for Wrightsville.

When we got within two miles of the 145th Street exit on what is now I-530, the tower lights came into view and I started getting tingly. Clyde had unlocked the front gate for us and we were mighty careful to lock it behind us. We went in the front entrance, up the steps of a two-story brick building that looked like a fallout shelter--which, in fact, it was.

I asked Phil about what seemed to be a bullet hole in the front door. "Oh, that's from the riots." I'm guessing he meant the racial unrest of 1965. I was too excited to ask for details, but I didn't need any when I saw that Clyde had a .45 pistol holstered on the control desk to his right. Pat Walsh kept a loaded shotgun over the studio door at 1425 West 7th Street, ("don't touch it, don't even LOOK at it") so it wasn't too odd that there'd be guns at the transmitter.

Phil introduced me to Clyde and I suppose I must have looked like a gape-jawed yokel from the sticks (which I was) because all I could do was STARE at that transmitter! It was ten or twelve feet tall and took up a whole WALL of a very big room. It was roaring and glowing like Hell's Locomotive. It was ginormous and it was ALIVE! The "final" tubes were as big around as my waist and they stood nearly chest high (I'm 6' 4") in their mounts. The heat coming off them was such that each one had a (copper?) pipe blowing air on it to keep it from burning up. Clyde told me that it pulled 80,000 watts at zero percent modulation.

To help you imagine the size of an RCA BTA-50F, most of the 1,000-watt transmitters at the time weren't much bigger than a refrigerator. If you stepped up to 5,000 watts, they'd be about the size of two-and-a-half refrigerators. In my state of complete dumbfound-itude, I reckoned that you could stack six Cadillacs inside that RCA (3 wide X 2 high) and still have about enough room to raise the hoods on the top ones!

Clyde showed us the interior of the beast ("Don't touch anything and keep one hand in your pocket"), but when he took us around behind it where the RF went out to the towers, I couldn't endure it. The hair on my arms began to stand up and there seemed to be a voice in my head saying "GET OUT."

This was the night that Phil took me out under the towers (you could hear the audio quite clearly from the three tuning shacks) and showed me little Glaspie's tombstone. After that, I was quite ready to go home!

The word is overused these days, tossed about by young'uns who do not grasp its true meaning, but it fits that transmitter: AWESOME.

David B.Treadway


  1. I'll bet this is an experience all of us would like to have had. This is truly a great story. I can imagine what it was like to have all of the hair on your arms stand straight up.

    Ron Henselman

  2. Hi, Ron!

    Looking back after nearly forty years, I can't be certain if it was the RF that made that hair stand up, or the intimidation factor of being near that much electricity and heat. And there is a third possibility: the transmitter that some of us called Big Mama was (is!)a living being.

    Whatever the case, I was extremely fortunate--Blessed is a better word--to have been the kid who got to work with Legends at the beginning of his career. I wouldn't trade my times at KAAY for gold!