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.