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Radio Obsessive Profile #9: Engineering Radio’s Paul Thurst

Photo of LEA surge suppressor courtesy Paul Thurst

Back in the olden days radio was owned by the geek crowd, with every science-savvy kid worth her salt crafting a home-made radio out of wires and household objects while sitting at the kitchen table. The earliest radio stations were created and run by physicists and engineers who had the skills to build transmission equipment from scratch. As with every form of media before and after radio, the early days of any particular technology are marked by a movement from early-adopter use to mainstream appeal.

After taking a look at the Radio Obsessives who I’ve profiled for Radio Survivor, I realize that much of my focus has been on radio fans who are devoted to the artifacts and culture of radio. So, when fellow Radio Survivor Paul Riismandel suggested that I take a look at the Engineering Radio blog, it was clear to me that it was time to give props to someone who is in the trenches dealing with the nuts and bolts of radio broadcasting.

Paul Thurst is a radio engineer who decided that he could fill a niche by writing a blog all about his field. On Engineering Radio, Paul chronicles visits to transmitter sites and shares his experiences troubleshooting various problems that have arisen at the stations where he works. He also includes amazing photography of radio equipment, from unique transmitter locations in the middle of nowhere, to a vintage vacuum tube found during a studio clean up.

Thanks to Paul Thurst for taking the time to have an email conversation with me about his love for radio and radio engineering. Paul started creating radios when he was a kid and went on to work at a number of different stations, from Guam to New York. In his interview he shares with me why he’s such a radio fan and reveals some tidbits about the secret life of a radio engineer.

Jennifer Waits: What prompted you to start the Engineering Radio blog?

Paul Thurst: I started looking around for radio engineering blogs and didn’t really find what I was looking for.  There are blogs written by magazine editors and a few other engineering types that write blogs, but nobody was really blogging about what it is like to be a radio engineer.  I like to write, so, I started my own.

Jennifer: Can you tell me a bit more about your personal radio history. What led you to becoming a radio engineer?

Paul: I guess I have always been a geek, even before that was popular.  I started fooling around with radios and such when I was 10 or so.  From there, I became more and more interested in the technical side of things, so I started building radio kits from Radio Shack and Heathkit.  I joined the Coast Guard and continued along that line. When I was stationed on Guam, I had some extra time on my hands, so I stopped down at the local radio station (KUAM) and asked if they needed help.  Boy, did they ever.  It was fun work, but there was a lot of it.

Jennifer: Are you a radio fan? What do you love about radio?

Paul: I love radio, especially AM radio.  I like the bigness of it; big towers, big transmitters, etc.  Being a part of a good radio station is being a part of something that is larger than self, and larger than the sum of its parts. I was thrilled when I got to work for WGY as chief engineer for several years. I also enjoy the technical challenges, trouble shooting and repair is a reward all to itself.  As far as radio in general, listening to a well produced radio program is a joy. Sadly, it is becoming harder and harder to find those these days.

Jennifer: What types of stations do you engineer for? Are you working solely in the commercial radio realm or do you work for non-commercial stations as well? Any thoughts on the differences from an engineer’s perspective?

Paul: I’ve done mostly commercial radio work, although I did do some work for Union College (WRUC) in the early 1990’s.  Recently, the company I work for has also been involved with VPR (Vermont Public Radio). There are many differences, especially between the public radio vs. commercial radio operations.  Technically speaking, public radio is less about bringing in the money and more about good product.  This affects things like studio design; microphone choices, console choices, etc.

Vintage Vacuum tube photo by Paul Thurst

Jennifer: Rice University just announced that it’s planning to sell off their 40+ year old non-commercial student radio station’s transmitter and FM signal, although they will allow the station to continue as an online-only station.

Students and fans of the station, KTRU, are fighting back and saying that online radio is not the same as terrestrial radio. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, as I saw a post of yours indicating that Internet radio is not real radio.

Paul: It is a shame that more and more colleges are getting rid of their radio stations.  I think it is a larger reflection on the loss of radio’s “coolness” among many of the younger generation.  College radio is a great experimentation medium, to lose that would be a great disservice.

Online radio can be well done, but radio, by definition is transmitting signals through the air.  3G and 4G wireless is a radio service, but many folks aren’t listening to online radio on their wireless devices because of data caps.  Technically speaking, it is very easy to set up an online radio station, which means there is a plethora of them, with the majority being not very entertaining.  Many of them operate as a computer based jukebox, similar to what is available on commercial radio.

From a non-technical standpoint, one does not normally tune through the Internet searching for a new station to listen to, that would be very hard to do.  Further, it would be even harder to nail down a local Internet station that way, you would have to know about it from some other source first.  That is counter to the way I have discovered some of the best radio stations I have known.

Jennifer: Have you been a radio DJ too?

Paul: I once did a Jazz show on Saturday afternoons.  The music was good, the DJ was horribly bad. It is best forgotten.

Jennifer: Did you work in college radio?

Paul: As a student, no.

Jennifer: What are some little-known facts about radio engineers?

Paul: Engineers have a wicked sense of humor. Unfortunately, most of our jokes go over people’s heads.

Couch spotted by Paul Thurst on a hike to a transmitter

Jennifer: Have you found anything strange during any of your treks up to transmitter sites?

Paul: Many of the FM sites around here are on mountain tops, connected by long roads through the woods.  I occasionally find things dumped on the road, old furniture, stolen cars, etc.  I once found a complete craftsman mechanic’s tool set in the middle of the road, which I still have.

Jennifer: What do you think about the future of terrestrial radio?

Paul: I think terrestrial radio has its problems, mostly due to poor business decisions during the great consolidation.  Radio will survive in one form or another.  I think that there will be a certain niche local radio station that will do quite well.  I think the AM band is going to lose stations, which might be a good thing. Otherwise, I don’t see much change in the next five years or so.

Jennifer: Who do you think should be the next Radio Obsessive?

Paul: Could you get Jerry Del Colliano?

Previous Radio Obsessive Profiles:

#1: Garrett Wollman’s Radio Tower Quest

#2: Jose Fritz’s Arcane Radio Trivia

#3: Radio Sticker of the Day curator Greg Blouch

#4: Seattle Radio Theater founder Feliks Banel

#5: Herculodge’s Jeff McMahon – The Man Who Loved Radios Too Much

#6 & #7: Jonathan Winter and John Jenkins of American Museum of Radio and Electricity

#8: Beloit College Radio Historian Dave de Anguera

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