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Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Max Headroom TV Pirate

It was an ordinary Sunday night in Chicago in late November of 1987. Folks were unwinding to enjoy their evening in front of the TV and all was going according to plan.

Some people had the WGN-TV 9:00pm newscast on. But during the sports segment, the WGN-TV signal was suddenly interrupted by a strange signal. Someone in a Max Headroom mask with a new sheet of corrugated steel rocking behind him, mimicking one of the video effects of the Max Headroom show had appeared on the video carrier. But the signal had no audio.

Quick thinking engineers at WGN knew exactly what the problem was. Somebody was hijacking their microwave studio-transmitter link (STL) signal, which relays a wireless signal from the TV studio to their transmitter, which sends the signal out for public broadcast on the Hancock Building in downtown Chicago. They quickly changed their STL signal frequency which eliminated the interference.

However on the viewer end, there was nothing they could do. Fussing around with the antenna or fine tuning their TVs did nothing because their reception was actually just fine. It was WGN-TV's own microwave uplink signal that was being taken over. Their reception of WGN-TV's broadcast signal itself wasn't the problem. But all reception, whether by antenna or cable was affected by it, as cable subscribers received the final stage feed - the same that was going out over the air.

Needless to say, it was a surprise to viewers. Who thought someone was messing with their TVs or someone at WGN-TV was goofing off. But not nearly as surprised as the WGN engineers. This was not supposed to happen. At all.  

First, it's very hard to get this kind of equipment. STLs aren't sold at Radio Shack or even your most sophisticated consumer electronics supplier. They are strictly for broadcasters. Only professional broadcasting engineers can get them and specifically for the TV and radio stations they work for.

Second, they produce signals at very high frequencies far out of the range of consumer level electronic goods. And the STL signal frequencies are unknown to the general public. Only professional broadcasting engineers know them. So the person doing this must either have either been an a disgruntled engineer or have had high level training in broadcast TV engineering.

It didn't end there.

Two hours later, the Max Headroom pirate was back. This time during an episode of Dr. Who on public TV station WTTW (Ch. 11). This time there was barely discernible audio.

WTTW engineers however were completely taken by surprise and the pirate transmission on WTTW lasted for 90 seconds.

However not before the Max Headroom character went on a bizarre rant, which ended with the person in the Max Headroom mask bent over and exposed his butt, which was spanked by someone in a maid outfit before the pirate signal cut out on it's own and the WTTW signal returned. WTTW also transmitted from the Sears Tower, rather than the Hancock building like WGN-TV, which only added to the confusion amongst local broadcasting engineers.

However, this isn't the first time something like this happened. A year and a half earlier in April of 1986, a disgruntled satellite dealer named John MacDougall hijacked an HBO satellite feed for the East Coast with a static message over a colour bar test pattern with no audio.

MacDougall was moonlighting at a satellite uplink facility in Ocala, Florida, giving him access to transmitting satellite dishes. He was protesting HBO's decision to scramble their C-Band satellite feeds, requiring satellite viewers to pay for expensive descrambler boxes and a monthly subscription fee, which outraged thousands of satellite TV viewers who spent several thousand dollars on their C-Band satellite dish systems to avoid paying for pay TV services.

Bear in mind this was in 1986 and we're not talking about the Dish or DirecTV type of satellite. Those cable alternative satellite dishes wouldn't appear for another decade. Second, these were C-Band satellite dishes, as pictured. Which are still used for open international broadcasting, radio stations and a few subscription channels. But Dish and DirecTV use a different band and proprietary system than C-Band for their home subscribers. Most domestic subscription as well as many basic channels now use scrambling.
However, MacDougall was caught because he made several mistakes. First, it was far easier to triangulate where the interfering signal was coming from, as there were only two places in the Eastern half of North America that could uplink a signal to HBO's satellite. Second the character generator for MacDougall's message was the only one used for his location. Since the exact time of the incident was well recorded, it was as simple as narrowing it down to the person who was on duty at the satellite uplink when it occurred.

MacDougall paid a $5,000 fine and was placed on a year of probation. He still sells satellite TV equipment.

Both stories made international headlines. And made broadcast engineers far more vigilant in protecting their uplink signals, satellite or STL (which both are digital and far more sophisticated today than anything they were in the 1980s.)

The Max Headroom hijacker however never attempted another broadcast intrusion. And to this day has never been caught.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

"Close To You" The Clams (1974)

This, like "Why Daddy" Ronnie Dove, has to be amongst the strangest records to ever bear any involvement from Motown Records.

This is a novelty version of the Carpenters classic "Close To You" - done in Spike Jones style

Turn it up....

The flip side has another Spike Jones treatment, this time To Roberta Flack.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Soup Starter

Original Swift Soup Starter can
Soup Starter (originally called Homemade Soup Starter) was a base mix for homemade soup that came out in 1981.

It was essentially dehydrated vegetables, shell macaroni and dry soup stock (the carrot slices were always strangely warped in impossible shapes, like a vinyl record left out in the sun all day long and they never really re-hydrated no matter how long you simmered it.) And it was pretty salty. But it wasn't bad and did make the kitchen smell good when you made it.

It was first made by Swift, then Beatrice (after Beatrice acquired Swift)

After Beatrice was acquired by private equity firm KKR in 1990, the brand was spun off to Borden and it's Wyler's subsidiary. Wyler's also made Soup Starter's biggest competitor, Mrs. Grass soups and the brand began disappearing. By 1995, Wyler's was a Heinz product and Soup Starter has all but vanished in most parts of the country.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

"Running" Chubby Checker (1982)

You're probably listening to this and thinking "Hey wait a minute, this isn't a song you can twist to!"

And that's what Chubby Checker was aiming for on his 1982 comeback LP The Change Has Come. To prove he wasn't just a one trick act and he could be a modern Adult Contemporary pop singer as well as as the master of an all time dance classic.

But there's no escaping The Twist and the only single from this LP, "Running" stalled at #92 on the charts. It just wasn't the Chubby Checker we know and love. And Chubby returned to twisting....

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Long Wave Radio Band

Atlantic 252 was one of the first attempts to make a commercial pop station on LW radio and they actually became very successful in the 1990s with five million listeners. Listenership declined as local copycat stations on AM/FM and fewer radios capable of receiving long wave radio were available. After several format changes and a failed attempt at sports talk, 252 kHz now relays RTÉ Radio 1 for Irish communities in the UK and Europe.
The longwave (or LW) radio band is one you've probably never heard of if you live in the Western Hemisphere.

LW radio is mostly used in Europe and some countries in Asia. Long wave radio signals work similarly to AM. The signals cover a vastly wider area during daylight hours than standard AM because LW transmission relies mostly on ground waves, rather than skywaves (like standard AM and shortwave.) And because of their extremely long range, there are only a handful of countries in Europe with LW stations

The LW radio broadcast band is from 153 to 279 kHz, MUCH lower than the frequencies of a standard AM radio, which runs from 530 to 1710 kHz.

If you need a further breakdown, 1000 kHz AM is 1 MHz. The FM radio band begins at 88.1 MHz.

Yes, LW is really as far down as you should wisely go on the radio dial.

But the advantage of LW is it has an incredibly long range covering hundreds, even thousands of miles during daylight hours with a steadier, non-fading signal.

But LW in Europe today is regarded like AM in the Americas, a radio band for older people who remember it and it's use and listenership has severely declined in favour of higher fidelity FM and digital signals. But it is still fairly popular, especially for older British and European people living or commuting around the continent. It's also less affected by terrain than AM and especially FM and high frequency digital signals. It's also possible to drive from Spain to Austria and never lose the signal.

And I know what you're going to ask; Why didn't we have LW radio in this hemisphere?

Well, there's no easy explanation for that. Many factors come into play, but mostly it was the fact that LW was simply never allocated internationally as a specific broadcast band in the Western Hemisphere. Another is there are only 15 channels in the LW band and 107 channels on AM, later to 117 in the late 1980s with the expansion of the AM radio dial from 1600 to 1700 kHz.

Yet another is the LW signals are so vast, they would interfere with each other. And finally, they're more susceptible to electronic interference than even AM.  

However, that doesn't mean we weren't trying to use it.

In the 1970s and '80s, there was a planned civil defense radio network in the US called Public Emergency Radio. The network would broadcast on 167, 179 and 191 kHz.

The flagship station of this network was WGU-20 on 179 kHz out of Chase, Maryland.

WGU-20 was a service of a branch of the forerunner to today's FEMA called Defense Civil Preparedness Agency called DIDS. DIDS stood for Decision Information Distribution System, which was a network of Low Frequency broadcast and feeder stations, DIDS was supposed to deliver audio messages directly to the public within 30 seconds after activation. In case of attack, DIDS was supposed to save 10- 17 million additional lives in its initial deployment (by 1979), and as many as 27 million more if developed further.
Signing on in 1973, the purpose of WGU-20 and it's planned sister stations was to broadcast news and information to Americans in the event of a nuclear war. The station was always in test mode, 24/7.

However, listening to WGU-20 wasn't much fun. There was no music, no sports or casual talk on WGU-20 throughout it's life. No wacky morning zoos or outrageous contests either. WGU-20 only aired it's station ID, time checks and weather reports for the mid-Atlantic coast  

And here's what it sounded like:

The advantage of using an LW signal rather than standard AM or FM signal was because as I mentioned earlier, LW signals travel through the ground rather than the sky. And that's where most of us (hypothetically) would be in a nuclear war - underground. In bomb shelters.

Second, radio direction guided missiles would have more difficulty homing in LW signals because they don't rely on sky waves. Besides, since radio towers are above ground, they would likely be destroyed or unusable due to radioactive contamination.

Thus WGU-20's ominous unofficial nickname, "The Last Radio Station".

And LW stations have the same purpose in other countries. In The Letters of Last Resort, which are the considered the final acts of Her Majesty's Government in the event the UK is destroyed in a nuclear war and the Prime Minister and second in command are killed. One of the protocols given to UK nuclear submarine commanders is to listen for BBC Radio 4 on it's 198 kHz LW frequency. Because LW signals not only travel well underground, but underwater as well.

If there is no signal and all other protocols for verifying the worst have been followed and the UK is no more, the commander may retaliate with his/her submarine's nuclear weapons, not retaliate, join a commonwealth country like Canada or Australia or an allied nuclear power like the US or France. The exact orders can vary and change with each new Prime Minister.

And while LW is disappearing from modern European radios, it's worth noting how important it still is; UK submarines on patrol were reported to have briefly gone on nuclear alert in 2004 when BBC Radio 4's LW signal mysteriously went off the air for 15 minutes.

But while WGU-20 made it to the air, the other planned LW stations in the network did not.

First, we were pretty satisfied with the Emergency Broadcast System. Which is now called the Emergency Alert System, of which those ear splitting digital data bursts have replaced the once annoying, but comparatively easier on the ears 1 kHz audio tone.

Second, manufacturers balked at the idea of including LW tuning components in newer radios, which would add to the expense of manufacturing and ultimately serve no real purpose.

And third, with political pressure in the government cutback happy 1980s and the collapse of the Eastern Bloc in 1989 and 1990, there was really no need for such a network  

WGU-20's final broadcast was in 1990.

However, if you're curious to hear what LW radio sounds like, there's a tunable WebSDR in Peterborough, UK you can use to sample the European LW dial.

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Christine Chubbuck Story

From the looks of Christine Chubbuck, you'd think she had everything. She was a successful female TV news reporter at a time when women in broadcast news reporting were still fairly rare. She was young (29), attractive, talented, smart and ambitious. She had all the qualities needed to make it in broadcast media.

But there was a dark side to her. A side few people saw and most ignored.

Christine Chubbuck grew up in an upscale suburb of Cleveland. She was often described as very moody. She could be very nice one day, the next - look out! "She had no greys in her life" Greg Chubbuck, Christine's brother said about her. "Everything was black and white. Things were either wonderful or terrible. Chrissy just didn't have a compromise button"

Today, we call that bipolar disorder. But in the 1960s and '70s with mental health education and treatment still in the dark ages, nobody had a name for it. It was looked at as a character flaw on the person itself rather than a condition that could be treated. But her alarming and visceral mood swings were enough for her family to seek help from psychologists.

Christine attended an all-girls high school (where she formed a tongue-in-cheek group called "The Dateless Wonder Club"), and went on to Miami University in Oxford, OH to study theatrical art. Then to Boston University where she earned a degree in broadcasting in 1965.

She worked for several public TV stations before coming to Sarasota, FL and joining WXLT-TV Ch. 40.

Initially hired as a reporter, Christine moved up to host a daily morning community affairs program called Suncoast Digest. The program was ahead of it's time in the fact it addressed segments of the local community typically ignored by most media, such as alcoholics and drug users in a manner that wasn't in a negative or condescending light. That there was hope for these individuals and showcased the groups and agencies trying to help them.

Christine took her position seriously and began making a name for herself. But she was still unhappy with her life. She struggled with her depression and attempted suicide in 1970.

She rarely dated anyone and yearned for a relationship. Christine even lamented to co-workers in 1974 that she was approaching her 30th birthday and she was still a virgin. Compounding that was she had an ovary removed the year before and doctors told her if she did not conceive in the next few years, she probably never would.

But Christine could never accept compliments and even got defensive over receiving them. She was constantly self deprecating herself. Her lack of self-esteem made it hard for her to socialize, even in a beach resort town like Sarasota.

She had a crush on a fellow reporter at WXLT and baked him a cake on his birthday. But discovered he was already in a relationship with someone else at the station, whom she was close friends with. Her friend had also recently recently been hired by a station in Baltimore, a much larger market than Sarasota. Christine had been hoping a station in nearby Tampa would notice her and give her the break she was looking for professionally. But nothing materialized.

She also resented the push in broadcast TV towards crime oriented news stories. The infamous "If it bleeds, it leads" policy in local TV news was quickly becoming established across America in the mid-1970s.

Ratings research indicated that with news stories about homicide and violent crime being shown first on a local TV news program, it tended to keep viewers watching for the remainder of the program and also increased viewership of local TV commercials during the newscast. Which encouraged current advertisers to continue sponsoring the newscast and attracted new ones, increasing a station's profitability.    

Christine didn't like this trend, which she called "blood and guts TV". But she realized she couldn't change it.

She surprised her news director at WXLT by asking to do a news piece on suicide and he approved. Christine then went to the Sarasota County sheriff's office and asked a deputy about the most efficient ways one would commit suicide. The deputy made a suggestion; A .38 calibre revolver with wadcutter target bullets aimed at the back of the head.

The morning of July 15, 1974 began like any other at the station. But Christine had asked to open Suncoast Digest with a news report, something that surprised co-workers as she vocally resented doing news reporting in the current environment. But WXLT management allowed her to do this.

She opened with three national news stories, then a local news story. As an operator in master control cut away to a film clip of the local story, the film jammed and the camera operator cut back to Christine, who unfazed, said;

"In keeping with Channel 40's policy in bringing you the latest in 'blood and guts' and in living colour, you are going to see another first - attempted suicide"

Christine Chubbuck then pulled a .38 calibre revolver and shot herself in the back of the head, exactly per the deputy's recommended method.

The shocked technical operator in the master control room quickly faded to black and ran to the studio. The news director also rushed in, both thinking it was some sick prank until they saw Chubbuck's twitching body slumped over the news desk.

Horrified viewers began calling WXLT and the station quickly resumed operation, using a few public service announcement clips and a movie. The WXLT news director found the script of her program on the news desk, including a script written in third-person to be read by a staff member who took over the broadcast. The station briefly ran reruns of Gentle Ben in place of Chubbuck's show. The Chubbuck family also sought and received the 2" Quad videotape of Chubbuck's final broadcast to prevent any further airings.

The tragic story of Christine Chubbuck's on air suicide shocked the nation for several weeks. And became the inspiration behind Paddy Chayefsky's script in the 1976 movie Network. Greg Chubbuck also spoke to E! Network about the suicide for the first time in 2007.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

"The Frito Twist" Euel Box (PAMS Recording, 1962)

Yours in a specially marked bag of Frito's corn chips in 1962 (The Year of The Twist).....

Friday, November 07, 2014

Lotus Flower Seed Pod Scam


Your friend posts this on Facebook and shocked and horrified, you just click on it, just to see if there is really some nefarious thing "they won't tell you".

And I have to just smack my head. In the age of Photoshop, it's no wonder these phishing scams (that's what they are folks) get spread so easy.

Come on!

Do you honestly think if any cosmetic product company put out a product that actually caused THAT, that it would have NOT made WORLD headlines?

What happens when you click on that "video" is keystroke recording software is downloaded and installed on your computer, recording passwords and personal information

From the same cretins who brought you the "One Weird Trick" scam, what you're looking at is the Lotus Flower Seed Pod Scam.

That's right, a lotus flower seed pod (and Photoshop.)

No weird chemicals, no space parasites, no government conspiracies. Just pure, unadulterated bullshit for an easily manipulated and gullible public that still believes if they saw it on the internet, it must be true.

So next time someone you know shares something like this, call them out on it and stop the phishing scams.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Hang On Sloopy

You probably have heard this song many times on the radio and have utterly no clue what this song is about.

You're not the only one. In fact, almost everyone who's ever heard this song has scratched their heads wondering what this song is about.

For example, here's the opening lyrics:

Hang on, Sloopy
Sloopy, hang on
Hang on, Sloopy
Sloopy, hang on

Sloopy lives in a very bad part of town
And everybody, yeah, tries to put my Sloopy down
Sloopy, I don't care what your daddy do
'Cause you know, Sloopy, girl, I'm in love with you....



Now wait a minute. OK, the song is about a poor girl who "lives in a very bad part of town"

But Sloopy?

Was it a typo? And she was really Sleepy? Or Sloppy? Or even a vague reference to Snoopy, the Peanuts comic dog? Or even Soupy, as in the comedian Soupy Sales?

But even if it was, the song would still be way off. Certainly not the most charming way to seduce a poor girl in even the very worst part of town (try it and see.)


There aren't any girls whatsoever I can recall even nicknamed "Sloopy". And even fewer who would put up with a guy who would call her that without filing a court order.

Why Sloopy?

So it was finally time to get answers once and for all.

Dorothy Sloop...also known as Dottie Sloop, was an American jazz pianist. She was born in Steubenville, Ohio and went by the nickname "Sloopy". During her performing years, she was best known as a pianist with a number of all (or mostly) female jazz bands in the New Orleans area, primarily from the 1930s through the 1950s.

She recorded an album, "Sloopy Time" Featuring Dixie and Sloopy, in 1957 with Yvonne "Dixie" Fasnacht, a jazz vocalist and clarinetist.

The LP was released on Golden Crest Records. Golden Crest released many albums from C and D List stars as well as countless high school choral and marching band records in the 1950s to the 1970s. It ended as a classical label before folding in 1982.
"Dixie" Fasnacht operated a bar called Dixie's Bar of Music on Bourbon Street in New Orleans. It was there that Dorothy's acquaintance and co-writer of "Hang On Sloopy" Bert Berns-Russell found the inspiration for the song. During problems with the sound equipment and a crowd getting rowdy, he heard a regular call out to her "Hang on, Sloopy!"

However, The McCoys weren't the first to record this song. It was originally recorded by The Vibrations in 1964 and titled "My Girl Sloopy". It's been performed by hundreds of rock acts, under both titles.

The Vibrations' version charted in the Top 30. After The McCoys version topped the charts, The Ohio State University Marching Band adopted "Hang On Sloopy" as it's theme song (Dorothy Sloop was also an OSU alum.)

Years later Sloopy earned a master's in English from the University of Florida, and taught special needs children in St. Petersburg. After retiring, Sloopy moved to Pass Christian, Miss., near her daughter Jane in Biloxi. A 1983 newspaper interview said her "saloon days" were over, but she still played gigs on occasion.

Dorothy "Sloopy" Sloop died in 1998. She never earned a penny in royalties from "Hang On Sloopy" and never sought out publicity from the song. Tragically, her personal memorabilia were destroyed in Hurricane Katrina.

More On "Hang On Sloopy"

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

"Up Up and Away" Rajput & The Sepoy Mutiny (1968)

In the late 1960s, to bolster your hippie credentials, one needed an album of South Asian sitar music.

But alas, Ravi Shankar records (as well as good pot) were hard to find in Heartland America. So leave it to Design Records, a subsidiary of the budget record label giant Pickwick Records and the biggest purveyor of pure cheese this side of Kraft Foods in the 1960s to fill that niche.

Often played by Fred Norris of The Howard Stern Show when discussing or introducing a guest of South Asian heritage, this track has also appeared on the out of print Incredibly Strange Music Vol. 1 compilation CD.

Like most of Design's product, it had no musician credits, liner notes or session information.

The back cover was a typical stock back cover for most Design albums, extolling the virtues of Design's catalog, with the helpful mention "The record you hold in your hands, made to standards as critical as any set in the industry, consists of pure vinyl."
"Let the rules go hang" never really made it into the hippie vernacular.

Monday, November 03, 2014

Christmas Music Radio Stations

It begins this time every year....

Certain radio stations across America and Canada begin dropping their usually Adult Contemporary, Religious or Oldies formats for all Christmas music. 

On the surface, the reason is simple enough - it's the beginning of the holiday season. And regardless if you're still nauseated from all the Halloween candy you ate this weekend and still have your pumpkin outside the front door, it's time to start planning.

But more importantly, the all Christmas music format is one of the most successful in ratings and in sales. Radio stations in this format get lots of advertising and they can charge more for it. If this format could be viable all year round, they would do it.

But by December 25th, some of us are already annoyed by the holiday music overkill and can't wait until the 26th when sanity and regular programming returns.

It's true some radio stations start this format just waaay too early. Yes, the air is getting nippy, but the first week of November is really pushing it. There should really be some breathing room between holidays. 

But the bottom line is the bottom line; It's the make or break time for last quarter profits for retail businesses. And Christmas music tends to get people in a spending mood.

Holiday music was once a staple of radio in the 1950s, but as the 1960s to the 1990s progressed, it was usually limited to December 24th and 25th. After the 9/11 attacks, the format returned en masse. We were a nation in shock and in need of comfort. And Christmas music was the perfect aural comfort blankey. It was wildly successful and began yearly traditions at many radio stations. 

With that, here's a run down of terrestrial AM and FM radio stations that have already flipped to all Christmas formats (if you really can't wait.) Most of them you can hear online or with streaming mobile.


Sunday, November 02, 2014


In 1978, a movie called "FM" was released.

It was a really good movie, although running on the cliché (yet true and sadly timeless) theme of a wildly successful radio station that gets interference from bean counting management, utterly clueless and indifferent to the people that made the station successful who expect their input to make the station even more successful. Which more often than not ends up trashing the station.

I'm not going to spoil it beyond that, but I would put this movie in my Netflix queue if I were you. FM was also the inspiration behind the legendary WKRP In Cincinnati.

FM also had one of the best soundtracks of any movie of the 1970s. It was a compilation loaded with original hits from the original artists on a two LP album set. In their full length album versions, not edited single versions (which besides FM radio's sound quality, the full versions of songs were also what made FM radio great in the 1970s.) And certainly not like a K-tel and Ronco record. The soundtrack was mastered by Gary Katz, the golden ears behind Steely Dan's classic '70s albums. It was truly one of the very best sounding soundtrack albums I have ever heard and MCA Records spared no expense in getting this right. 

On the flipside, budget record label Pickwick Records tried to cash in on the popularity of FM's soundtrack with their typically crummy knockoff record of incredibly LOUSY cover versions of the FM soundtrack's hit songs.

....and I do mean lousy. 

Listen to this hysterically bad cover of The Eagle's "Life In The Fast Lane"

Saturday, November 01, 2014

"The Evil Dope" Phil Phillips (1968)

Phil Phillips is best known for the 1959 ballad "Sea of Love", which got a revival in 1984 when it was covered by The Honeydrippers, a supergroup featuring Robert Plant and Jimmy Page (of Led Zeppelin), Nile Rodgers (of Chic) and Brian Setzer (of The Stray Cats.) But he had largely faded by 1968 when this anti-drug single came out.

In spite of all intentions, it became an underground radio comedy classic.