I Was a Teenage Radiotelephone Operator, Again

My post on Monday about radio-station sign-ons and sign-offs, and about once having a third-class radiotelephone operator’s license, generated lots of comments. Until the readers mentioned it, I’d completely forgotten that most people who took the FCC’s test for a third-class license took a three-part test. The parts were called “elements.” If you passed elements 1 and 2, you could operate the dispatcher’s radio at a taxi service, but if you were going to be on a broadcast station, you also had to pass element 9, the broadcast endorsement. It was the hardest part, as John G. said—lots of technical stuff, like how to calculate the station’s power, the rules for the Emergency Broadcast System, what to do if the lights on the antenna tower went out, that kind of thing. Lots of people passed elements 1 and 2 but flunked 9, which meant that you had to take the whole thing again.

I got my “third phone,” as it was known, during my first semester at college. I took a four-week prep class offered through the university, and by the first of November 1978, I was ready to take the test. But it wouldn’t be offered at the Federal Building in Madison until December, and I didn’t want to wait. So I scrounged around to find another location, and ended up going to Rock Island, Illinois, to take it. The memory is pretty vivid, still—my father had just bought a new truck and he wanted to take it on a road trip, so one fine November Saturday we took the 2-1/2 hour ride through northwestern Illinois to Rock Island, where I took the test. It had been years since I had spent much time alone with my dad. I can still remember the small-town diner lunch we shared that day, as well as the smile I got from the guy who told me I’d passed.

The official FCC certificate came in the mail a couple of weeks later. In those days, operators were required to post their licenses in the studio where they worked, so like my college colleagues, I framed mine, and I hung it proudly in the studio of our campus station until I got a part-time job in Dubuque. I moved it to the KDTH studio then, and posted a copy at the college station. That was a status symbol of a sort, as only a few of us had what we called “commercial” radio jobs. And speaking of status symbols, a status gulf quickly developed between those of us who had been required to take a test to be on the radio and those who had not. By the time The Mrs. got to school in 1979, the testing requirement had been abolished. You could, as we derisively put it, “send in your box tops” and get a third phone. (Sometime in the 80s, even that requirement was abolished.)

At our campus station, we still required prospective operators to pass a test after the FCC test was dropped. One guy who failed the test claimed that it was racist, which was an interesting take on reality; if there was anything unfair about the test, it was probably the question that asked how to check the tower lights. Our tower wasn’t tall enough, so it didn’t have lights. It wasn’t long before we dropped our testing requirement, too. And as my college years went by, jocks who had taken the FCC’s third-class test became scarcer and scarcer. While I can’t rule out the ancient prejudice of the old against the young—you kids get off my lawn—it seemed to me that the jocks coming up behind me did not consider being on the air as great a privilege as my “generation” had. It’s no wonder, really. Something you have earned is more valuable than something you are given.

I am pretty sure my original third-class certificate is around here somewhere—I would never have discarded such an important document. And I still have the little pocket-sized card I received after my original license expired and I sent in my own box tops for a renewal. It’s hanging on the side of the fridge right now.

Recommended Reading: At Living in Stereo, Charles Hughes notes the passing of Barry Beckett, a musician whose work you’ve heard, and whose story you should know.

7 thoughts on “I Was a Teenage Radiotelephone Operator, Again

  1. Does the name Harvey F. Swearer ring a bell? He’s the author of the book that helped me and many of my classmates pass their 3rd Class test. In fact, I still have my copy of “Commerical FCC License Handbook.” It’s in pristine condition.

    How many of you remember or had to utilize FCC Form 759?

  2. I never got mine. During my two years in college radio, I found myself having so much fun doing stuff other than learning how to run the board (and studying for the test): putting together sportscasts, doing color for hockey game broadcasts and so on. I just never got around to studying for the test, and eventually, i just slid into writing. That shift is one of those bits of fodder for those occasional late-night musings: “How would things be different if I’d . . . ?”

  3. Yah Shure

    While my university had a non-commercial, educational daytimer AM station (KUOM) the real action was at WMMR, the carrier-current AM student-run place. Having new recruits check the non-existent tower lights on the non-existent tower would have made for a pretty amusing rite of initiation. The not-so-fun reality was that the station’s coaxial cables ran from the student union to the widely-scattered dorms through the university’s underground steam tunnels. ( The WMMR inmates took over the KUOM asylum in 1993, which is now known as Radio K.)

    Here’s another “you kids get off my lawn” scenario: When I got my third phone in 1972, on the AM band, it was only good for operating a non-directional station. You had to have a first phone at a directional AM. By the time I landed at my first directional AM (KOMA / Oklahoma City) that requirement had been waived. All of our licenses were framed on the wall in the transmitter room, and mine was the only “lowly” third classer among the bunch.

    Not that I minded; it was an expensive proposition to train for a first phone back then. My third class prep came via a free, one-day cram course at the Minneapolis Elkins Institute. I still have my “box top,” but somewhere along the line, a Chief Engineer *taped* it to a wall, and that portion of the box top’s printed surface went with the tape when it was removed. So much for status!

    Kudos to John G. for the ‘Element 9 From Outer Space’ flashback!

  4. Shark

    Back in the early 1980s, when I moved from one radio station to another (for a pay increase of $140 a week to $160 a week) I received a nasty-gram from the station engineer for not bringing my license with me to my new job. I had to wait for my old employer to mail it to me. (In his world, finding a apartment to live in, moving my furniture, and getting my utilities activated came secondary to posting my license on the wall.)The engineer was an old, cantankerous guy who hated on-air people..probably because he resented the way the FCC had lowered its standards for acquiring an operator’s license. He really didn’t do much at the station except for standing behind your back every three hours to make sure you took the meter readings correctly.

  5. Noah McLaclan

    I sat for the 3rd 2nd and First in May , June and July of 1974. Still have the originals in frames. Loved every minute of working in radio.

  6. Tim Gifford

    In 1975, I studied for the Third at Graham Jr College, Boston, MA, prompted by my Intro to Radio Professor, Mr. Richard Walsh, a great, great man. Some of us took the T downtown to the US Custom House tower to take the test. I had studied hard and am proud to say I was the only Grahm-it’s to pass the test. Professor Walsh, and more so, myself were super proud of the achievement. I don’t remember the test as being very easy, as a non math person there was definitely some algebra involved. I was so proud of that light orange document that I framed it, but of course it was lost thru the years. The memories of applying myself to a challenge and achieving it as an 18 year old will always remain.

  7. mikehagerty

    Parallel lives again. I got into radio because of a substitute teacher in Bishop, California who hosted a women’s program (“Coffee with Virginia”) and knew I could read. I was 14. She asked if I’d like a job at the radio station. With Mom’s okay, I went down there and read some wire copy into a tape recorder.

    The next day, the General Manager (whose kids I’d known since fifth grade) told me I could have a job if I got a Third…and he’d loan me the books.

    I studied. When I was ready, my mom took the day off, drove me 270 miles to Los Angeles, waited in the Federal Building hallway for me to finish, bought me a Big Mac (McDonalds wouldn’t come to Bishop for almost a decade) and drove the 270 miles home, all the same day.

    By the time the ticket arrived in the mail, I’d turned 15. Six months from now, that will be 50 years ago.

    Yikes.

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