Long, Strange Trip
In Deadspeak, this has been one long, strange trip. It started some 40 years back, when my first and wonderful wife was having increasingly serious personal problems. These led me to quit what I had been doing so I could watch over her fulltime.
Alas, this left me pretty much cooped up with little else to do. So, restless, I purchased a Drake R-4B receiver, which I still have, and became absorbed by digging through the boundless offerings of shortwave broadcasting.
It was fascinating, yet frustrating because of stations' technical and content shortcomings. Never one to keep my trap shut, I let blast with critiques and suggestions, and in due course wound up consulting professionally. (Cynics might conclude, in the spirit of Lyndon Johnson's explanation of why he retained J. Edgar Hoover, that they preferred to have me on the inside pissing out rather than the outside pissing in.)
It was fantastic work — especially victories against the KGB's vast jamming firewall — but the base of viable clients was thin. In 1980, after several unforgettable years, that client base all but vanished, thanks to shifting political winds. We scrambled into survival mode.
Our most useful assets for public consumption turned out to be within our frequency management activities. First, our team of monitors and experts from intelligence and other backgrounds was top-drawer. Second, we had what was generally recognized as the world's premiere database of shortwave spectrum occupancy.
Thus it was that the idea of publishing a world band database was born out of desperation.
But it wasn't to be a slam dunk. Until then, our "database" had been a internal pencil-and-ruler exercise like what Roger Legge had been preparing at the Voice of America. Obviously, this had to be computerized if a book were to be timely and attractive enough for public sale.
PCs Appear in Nick of Time
Since 1961, when I had had the good fortune to land a summer job at IBM-Paris, I'd been working on and off with mainframe computers and database development. However, in the early Eighties the attractiveness of renting mainframe time began to fade as the embryonic world of PCs with hard disks — "Winchesters" — came into being.
We first committed to a DEC Rainbo system with a 5 Mb disk and a hard-wired Pascal compiler, but it had development issues. So we wound up purchasing, instead, an IBM PC-XT with a then-astonishing 10 Mb "fixed disk" and RAM upgrade to the maximum-allowed 256k. This was the lone demonstration unit which had just arrived at a major Princeton outlet in advance of XTs being nationally introduced for sale. Thankfully, I was able to persuade a young lady there to part with it anyway, as we needed something fast.
Still, with nearly every dime we had going to lawyers, we nearly didn't make it. First, finding affordable programming talent to properly turn my specs into a working program was a huge hurdle. U.K. professor John Campbell, like Patton at Bastogne, ultimately came to the rescue. But only dogged persistence allowed us to overcome the main hurdle: a Federal lawsuit from an existing publisher.
Tarted Out for Survival
A small edition, dubbed Radio Database International, was ultimately released in early 1984, with the title eventually morphing into Passport to World Band Radio. But this was preceded by several near-death experiences, among them:
In late 1983 our legal counsel in New Jersey warned that we needed to produce something soon in print if we were to prevail in the lawsuit. Alas, we didn't have enough time to input the massive volumes of data into our lone PC, and there were no rentals or funds for a second machine.
So, one of our female co-conspirators dressed in her best approximation of a ditsy young thing married to some rich guy. Thus tarted out, she proceeded to a Philadelphia department store.
There, she cooed to an eager salesman that for Christmas she just might be amenable to getting a computer for her husband. She also pointed out that she couldn't be certain Daddy Warbucks would care for it.
Not wishing to miss out on a juicy sale, the salesman suggested she could take home a fully equipped PC and peripherals. If hubby wasn't pleased by his lavish surprise, she could return it weeks hence, in January — not incidentally allowing the salesman to collect his commission.
Thanks to this creative tomfoolery and the resulting round-the-clock keyboarding, we were able to successfully publish a first bare-bones edition within weeks.
Rise and Fall of World Band Radio
The rest, you may know. In the best of times sales were over 80,000 units a year, and for one snapped-fingers instant Passport was actually a national top-ten best seller.
But that was over 15 years ago. World band radio gained vigor during the buildup to WW II, and of course during the War. After that, the Cold War with its ideological bent kept the field thriving. But once the Berlin Wall came down, questions arose as to why these government broadcasts were taking place in the absence of any major conflict.
So, some reinvented themselves, while many phased down or terminated their shortwave operations. Add to that Sony's near-downfall, the growth of the Internet, and even the possible fading away of print publications — and it's sadly evident that the time has come to shutter Passport's declining operation.
Great Folks, Grand Times
It has been a fantastic quarter century creating and growing this book. I can but wish that everybody could experience what I have: the opportunity to do work that makes you excited about going to the office and getting cracking.
And what a pleasure to have had such exceptional folks as colleagues! Heading the roster has been the amiable Tony Jones, who was central to Passport's success from 1982 to the end. Without him, the book simply wouldn't be have been what it was.
One of life's eternal truths is that you don't know who your friends are until the chips are down. So it's worth recalling that early on, when we were threadbare, being sued and few gave us any chance of succeeding, we were fortunate enough to have had in our corner the likes of Don Jensen, Noel Green, David Meisel and Pennsylvania attorney Brian Price. During Passport's 25-year run there were a good hundred other angels, including Craig Tyson, Mike Wright, Jock Elliott, Rik Mayell, David Zantow and Rob Sherwood, who turned their exceptional skills into meaningful results. That's only some, and the names of certain others can never be made known. But you know who you are and how much your roles have meant.
The same holds for those who have read and supported Passport over the years. Especially, thank you, thank you and thank you for your many recent kind comments. We had precious little of this warmth when we started, and the difference cannot be overstated. It has thrown sunshine on otherwise difficult moments, even as we're gently pulling down the curtain.
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