My career in broadcasting began with WEBJ in the Bronx, operated by the Third Avenue Railroad. This was an opportunity for me to put my hands on things electrical which were totally new to me, in dimension as well as function. It was big radio tubes, microphones, and amplifiers, the functions of which I understood but I itched to dig into the bottom of things. I spent my days in the radio store, like a squirrel, stacking up the goodies which will make up my first radio.
This was 1923 and radio stations by and large were mere toys, some novelty for a few businesses large enough to make the investment expecting no return, satisfied with yelling.” This is WEBJ, the Third Ave. Railroad.” A wavelength was obtained from Mr. Herbert Hoover of the Department of Commerce and it was “on the air.”
There were many such stations. Even Gimble Brothers boasted a transmitter in the department store with call letters WGBS. The Park Central Hotel signed on with WPCH. But time took its toll on these small stations as interest waned and direct advertising was not yet legal. But Mr. Cornell and I knew that WEBJ was destined for greatness but we needed to make changes. Several months passed in which we were constantly probing the aesthetics in radio transmission – music is music, speech is speech but how it is transmitted makes all the difference between a true or near true reproduction of sound.
As WEBJ worked its way to the sound everyone enjoyed, I visited a family in Bay Shore, Long Island, my future bride’s family to be exact. They had a small storage battery operated radio and Bay Shore boasted a radio station, WRST which sounded so bad that people called it WORST, a tin horn sound at best. I went to the station and not mastering diplomatic manners, I blurted out to the guy who ran it that his signal sounded awful. I sort of suggested that it could be improved if he would only do so and so and with my leave of WEBJ I began my new position at WRST, tearing down the transmitting equipment.
After we went on the air again, we sounded really good and the people liked it. I played the piano some, sang some, ran records, did announcing, swept the studio, and oiled the little generators. I was the works. Months went by and all was routine now, a little singing, some anecdotes and descriptions of my home, Turkey for which I received lots of fine mail but one day brrrrrring, the telephone rings and the man on the other end asks if I was the young man who built WRST. I said I rebuilt it and he continued by asking me if I could hear WICC from Bay Shore? Sorry says I, not too well but he said he could hear us just fine.
Although WICC had more power than we did, the man nevertheless asked why we couldn’t hear WICC. I boldly answered because you don’t have me over there. After a bit of silence I was invited to visit the station in Bridgeport with the possibility of taking charge of engineering at 50 bucks a week. And I did. WICC had every possibility to become a big time station but it needed a lot of work and a lot of money. While sitting in the transmitter room atop Sport Hill, a limousine drove into the driveway under those two tall radio towers. A near bald man, well dressed with a moustache got out of that chauffeur driven automobile asking, “Are you Garo Ray? Yes sir, says I and he goes on to tell me that he was John Shephard, the new owner of WICC and the president of the Yankee Network, a newly organized chain of radio stations extending from Maine to Connecticut.
So, this was it, I had a new boss. I built WICC a brand new transmitter and things were humming as well as a tuned tuning fork. By and by, I received an invitation to join the engineering forces of Chance-Vought, builders of the new Corsair F4, the navy fighter plane. I was given one of the hundred drafting boards to make drawings for the electronics but being an avid pipe smoker and not willing to quit nor wanting to leave the job, I was given my own office, a small, concrete building where I was contented and ground out drawings for the ship.
I came home one day to find another invitation marked URGENT. It was an invitation from the Army of the United States Signal Corps to volunteer. I was 40 by that time and I would receive an automatic commission. I took the bait, going to recruiting headquarters and was soon given my rank of Captain. I was on my way to Fort Monmouth. There was a point where I had second thoughts about my decision and when I was ushered into the Officers’ Basic Military Training, a stern man, sitting behind a desk added to this thought.
You see, without turning his head toward his lieutenant, he told him to tell me I was out of uniform. I am now in near panic. I know I have a shirt, wool, my silver railroad ties, a lot of them on my collar points, my shoulders and I have a tie. How can I be out of uniform? The two officers left and I am now alone in this dimly lit room when in comes another Major. Golly, I know that man, he is Sal Petrillo of New Haven. The smile on his face as he saw me illuminated that room beyond belief. Is it really true that someone knows me here, someone smiles!
Sal was delighted to see me and we talked of this and that. It came around to my being out of uniform and he looked at me, my getup and explained that in that Fort, you are not properly dressed when you have bars on your tunic and bars on your shirt too. That was all it was…I was out of uniform because of my Captain’s bars. Who would have thunk it?
I would eventually fit into life in the Army at Squire Lab, a multi-million dollar laboratory with a nice office, a secretary and 200 civil service engineers but the rigors of training had their way and I found myself at Walter Reed Hospital where it was found that I had damaged my heart from those field exercises. On one of my furloughs home, my doorbell rings and before I knew it, I had an agreement to build a radio station in New Haven in a partnership. Still in the army, I needed to wait for my medical discharge. Seems that this new agreement came with a partner, Patrick Goode, who was a friend of President Roosevelt. My new partners are now in a frenzy to get going with them chafing at the bit. Pat calls me and says, “Call up the chief, give him my respects and tell him I want you to come home.” Chief who says I? Roosevelt of course and he urges me to do it.
So I do as I am told, calling the White House asking to talk to the Chief. I explain what Pat said but he had already called and Steve Early told me I would be picked up in the morning. That morning I am waiting for this transportation and the director says he knows I want them to expedite my discharge but as I am walking out, saluting as I went, he calls me back in a stern voice. “Sit down Ray. Tell me, who do you know in the White House?” My answer was “no one personally.”
I made quick work to put WNHC on the air and put out a shingle to practice my consultation engineering before the FCC. While WNHC was a success story, television in New York was the rage with Kukla, Fran and Ollie and Howdy Doody on “prime” time. My partners asked me to come up with a television station in New Haven but we did not have the million dollars needed for such a venture. The design was easy, the FCC approved but the money was not available….it was deemed a big risk. We found the answer.
Allen B. DuMont, inventor and manufacturer of television transmitters was the answer! He had a station in New York on Channel 5…WABD. WCBS, WNBC and WABC were dumping weak signals into New England. So we met with Mr. DuMont with a proposition. You give us what we need for our television station and we will carry your signal from New Haven to New England. Done deal.
With FCC approval for broadcasting we had no studio ready but we had two cameras at the transmitter building on Chapel Street. I pushed the final button to get the signal airborne and I now had a lion by the tail. We had no one trained for on air programming so we put up the test pattern for awhile, I played the piano, panned to the clock on the wall, then to the cars and people on the street below, back to the clock and me until our 4 hour window of broadcasting was completed.
You now know WNHC, my finest 4 hours as WTNH, TV.
The writing of the article is in collaboration with my father’s stories, Garo W. Ray, Doctor of Engineering.