Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Bury My Heart At Wrightsville‏

(Picture compliments of Jerry Sims, "Sonny Martin II")

It's hard to look at the KAAY transmitter site now. It hurts like watching your Mama die. "Ruins" is too strong a word, but not by much. If you ever listened to my station, if you ever did love it, if it was your constant teenage confidant, you have to know about the sorry shape that its heart is in. I struggle to convey the decay.

We had seen recent pictures of the site. They were taken from beyond the fence and they revealed traces of the neglect we would find when we were so graciously allowed in. When I saw the tall grass everywhere in the pictures, it didn't have any connection at ALL with the way Felix McDonald kept that property. What his cows didn't graze down was laid low by a high-wheel Yazoo Master Mower at least every other week. The high grass was just the beginning.

Our little convoy--Bud and Jerry Sims (Sonny Martin II) in Jerry's SUV, my son Matt and me leading in my pickup--rolled through the gate just after noon. It had taken four wrong turns to get us there and I wish I had never uttered the phrase "I know exactly where we're going." Time has this humbling way of erasing landmarks.

That two-story brick building from 1952 was meant to stand a hundred years. It was supposed to stay intact enough when the Russians nuked us so that KAAY could remain on the air. And now it's going to be demolished because it's falling apart. There's water damage on the inside and there are trees growing on the roof! I simply cannot get my mind around the way it looks now--because I remember how it was when Felix was Chief Engineer.

The wood panels on the lower-story garage doors are warped and buckled and split from lack of paint. There's junk scattered everywhere on that lower floor. Parts dating to the time of KTHS are laid about haphazardly. Shelves that hold hundreds of reels of tape are falling down--one nearly got me later when I stupidly moved a two-by-four. I saw a literal avalanche of tape cartridge shells covered by cobwebs in one corner. You cannot walk two paces without having to step over something else that looks like it was just tossed aside and left to molder.

We initially did not spend much time downstairs because I wanted the boys to see Big Mama--my pet name for the fabled RCA BTA 50-F transmitter upstairs. There are things in this world that will just not fit into a photograph; you've got to go stand next to them to see how grand they are. Pyramids and canyons and the West of Ireland and 50,000-watt RCA vacuum tube transmitters from Camden, New Jersey, in the early 1950s. Big old things like that, some of which will kill you if you touch 'em wrong.

Paint flakes stirred like a snowstorm as we climbed the stairs. (Paint flakes in the House of Felix! How bad would it have killed you misers to spring for a new coat of paint every five years or so?) The fear of lead in the particles was quickly shoved aside by the gallows grin that the prospect of PCBs in the transformers brought. It was WAY too late to worry about the small stuff.

My soul shriveled when I saw the RCA. There were cracks and jagged shards in the enameled front that Felix had once used Simoniz paste wax upon. I swear, she was WRINKLED! Did you ever see somebody put into a nursing home and just…LEFT? The transmitter didn't look like she'd had the least bit of love since April 3, 1985. (Yes, that would've been the Last Day; we ran her like a racehorse for better than seventeen hours that day and she never broke a sweat. At midnight, Felix literally had to knock her loose from the antenna array.)

I put my hands on her, I snuggled my face up to her. I am just this side of tears to try telling you about the love between me and such a supposedly inanimate object. That transmitter recognized me. She knew who I was. She CARRIED me--and Phil and Clyde and Jerry and Sonny and George and Jonnie and Wayne and everybody else at 1425 West Seventh Street--to a chunk of the Western Hemisphere all the way from Canada to Cuba, and all the way LIVE.

And now they're going to tear her down and junk her. Young Frank The Engineer was pretty casual about telling me they (and I may never speak or write the name of the company again) plan to bulldoze the building and put up a new one. They won't be keeping the RCA because she's too big. That little tidbit has left me numb to where I can't even muster any outrage: it threw me right past anger into despair. Let me see if I've got this. It looks like the company didn't spend a dollar to maintain the building--but now they'll be laying out the megabucks to demolish and rebuild?

A good few of my compatriots are in a cold sweat over what will happen to the thousands of miles of tape, papers and memorabilia in the building. Thank God, there's a group working to get items of historical import into museums and archives. More power to them; everything we couldn't store at 1425 West Seventh or 2400 Cottondale Lane "went to the transmitter," as we termed the process. One or two loads a week were hauled and stacked over the years. (And you can bet that everything was put in its place 'cause Felix didn't take no clutter!) The task of removing and sorting the important stuff is going to be mind-boggling.

Sentimental old fool that I am becoming, the imminent loss of the RCA has me running through the stages of grief like an Ampex 350 on fast forward/rewind. At this point, it looks like she cannot be preserved whole because nobody has the room to take her. Not even the Smithsonian Institution, and they hung a blue whale from the ceiling. Damn the very eyes of whoever has let it come to this!

In a just world, I'd have a barn big enough to hold Big Mama. I'd be rich enough that my power bill wouldn't even be a nuisance. I'd run her into a dummy load on weekends so that the faithful could see her the way I did: lit up and ROARING.

Oh well. Just about enough time left to spin that Jamie Brockett tune that was such a favorite on Beaker Street. You know the one. It's got the chorus that goes:

"It was midnight on the sea,

The band was playing "Nearer, My God, To Thee."

Fare thee well, Titanic,

Fare thee well."

David B. Treadway
Doc Holiday VII
The Last PD


  1. Hollis W. DuncanJune 7, 2011 at 4:52 PM

    Smart landlords always keep the roof in good shape.

    During my brief tenure at Chief Engineer of KAAY (1982-83), the RCA transmitter was connected but we never had the occasion to fire it up. I would have been reluctant to try it without Felix there. I planned to exercise the old transmitter from time to time, but internal politics at Multimedia (another name that should never again be written or spoken) never gave me the time. I was confident that the RCA would run if we called on it and as your Last Day story shows, it did.

    Sadly, these old transmitters use electricity like you cannot believe. Modern transmitters (even the Harris MW-50B) are much more advanced and use much less power. On the other hand, even a carefully-tuned 50B never sounded nearly as good as the old RCA.

  2. David, old friend...

    Many thanks for your words & thoughts. I too feel the pain of our mutual loss. Sadly, no one before us thought about preserving and protecting our joined history.

    That's what spurred me on a couple of years ago when I decided to put my personal website together: I have all of this "history" with SO many people that I thought my Archives needed to be made public and preserved so that all could see it.

    Thanks again, brother!


  3. I was fortunate enough to take a tour of the facility with Felix in 1997 or '98. The place was still in good condition and Felix even fired up the filaments on the RCA for us, I was urging him to put her on air, but he just smiled. It was a real treat to be there, all the memorabilia from KTHS, the bomb shelter/studio, the reverb chamber-aka-huge piece of sheet metal. My only regret was not bringing a camera, the trip was spur of the moment. Felix was a wonderful host. He showed us the names scratched into connectors-I believe-on those big rectifiers. When a former engineer from his day passed on, Felix remembered them by scratching their name into the metal as a memorial. He paused and said "I guess I'm the last one." He sure took wonderful care of her-she still looked grand when we visited.

    Just a few years later, he and my former boss road tripped to Kansas City to tear down the old RCA from WHB so KAAY would have spare parts. That was surely before the conglomerate who's name shall not be mentioned purchased KAAY.

    It's hard to believe a company would let such history fall to neglect. Shameful, in fact.
    Thanks for the website and pictures. God Bless.

  4. Eric D,

    Thank you SO MUCH for the comment and the valuable information that Big Mama was in good shape so recently!

    That bit about Felix remembering the engineers by putting their names on the rectifiers is priceless; it's going into my mental scrapbook of a truly great man. You were fortunate to get that smile out of him. Yes, he is the last one and we'll not see the likes of him again!

    David B. Treadway

  5. David I was very touched by your posting, and I can understand your frustration over how the owners have let the site go to hell. I absolutely cannot believe how such corporate fools would let the condition of the plant deteriorate so badly. Even the dumbest bean counter should recognize the value of maintaining an asset now, rather than pay out the nose for restoration or disposal later. But it seems like these guys just milked the station for all the money that religious formats generate and obviously didn't care about basic upkeep.

    So, what's to be done with such a giant noble monster? Either part it out like an old car, find a museum/caretaker, or destroy it? One year ago I visited one of my first radio employers, WFLI in Chattanooga TN, which had a 1960's vintage 50kw GE transmitter. It sat there no longer in use, a true museum piece. One of the engineers mentioned how disposing of it might be complicated or costly due to the mercury and/or other hazardous substances in the transmitter and the need to comply with waste regulations. Would that be a consideration in what's to be done with the KAAY xmtr?

  6. Greg, thanks for your kind words! I am apparently losing a dear old friend and there's nothing I can do. It must be like the time when the big steam locomotives were being pulled from service and cut up for scrap.

    From talking to the company men during our trip to Wrightsville on 19 April, I got the impression that not much had been decided beyond tearing down the building and getting rid of the RCA.

    As to hazardous materials, I know little--except that I seem to remember the issue of PCBs in the transformers etc being dealt with years ago.

    There WILL be updates posted whenever we learn something new. Thanks again for your comments!


  7. I really need to get to bed. But I had to catch up on posts over here, and this post is the equivalent of a "driveway moment." DBT, reading your account of "Big Mama" took my breath away. Literally. I feel sick that it's been allowed to come to this.

    Big Mama. I cannot think of a more fitting name for that BTA 50F.

    I was too young to experience it in the day. My loss. All I have to go by are the airchecks.

    The environmental angle never occurred to me, either. For all the times the EPA gets cursed, perhaps it'll be one time such rules will be a governor's pardon. To force a renovation of the existing shack instead of knocking her down. Eh, who knows. I'm rambling and really need to get to bed!!

    Thanks to ALL for this loving documentation.


  8. David -- The only bit of good news is that this COULD be put on the backburner with the sale of said unnamed company to even bigger unnamed company. I would bet that Big Mother K might have some more time at the current building and site if new company doesn't want to spend the money to do all the work it will take.

  9. Wow Tread! What a wonderful story from the good old days. Yes, at 43 I'm still a young 'un in your eyes. I so wish I could think of an idea of someplace to display that massive piece of Arkansas History. As a history bluff and a radio junkie, my heart is just breaking. However, I did find one little chuckle in the photo...were you wearing matching socks? :) Love you dearly Treadway and thanks for all the knowledge you tried to pass on to that silly 23 year old girl I once was allllll those years ago. Love you Bud!


  10. Dear Russell and Anon-In-The-Middle and Tracey,

    Thank you all for the kind words. If I could be granted one wish, it would be that you all could have been with me and Phil North on that June night in 1971 when Clyde Clifford first showed me the RCA in operation. It was like petting a T. Rex and living to tell the story!

    (Tracey, I am mellowing out in my old age. My socks are now different shades of Wal-Mart black.)