WCKN Television

History of WCKN: 1970s

The Beginning: the early to mid-1970's

by John Kirby ECE '75 / '77, ICRN alumnus, and Technical Director 1990-1993 for ESPN, Major League Baseball, and the NBA.

Clarkson Radio station WNTC (which stood for "Northern Twin Colleges") was originally a joint effort with SUNY Potsdam and was operated as part of the Inter-Collegiate Radio Network (ICRN) -- usually pronounced "EYE-kron". Just before 1971, some Clarkson students began to experiment with television. They began by videotaping Clarkson Hockey games in black and white and playing them back later that night in a place called the "Rathskeller" -- or "Rat" for short -- a pub and pizza restaurant located in the basement of Woodstock Lodge.

By the fall of 1971, Clarkson gave ICRN-TV a room next to WTSC-FM in the basement of the Hamlin-Powers dorm building ("The Pit"). The space was very small, about 25 feet long and 12 feet wide, which led it to be affectionately called "TV in a Closet."

ICRN-TV "Pit" Control Room about 1975. Left photo shows old 2" VTR (left foreground) and newer 1" machines (farther back with student doing adjustments). Right photo shows Paul Browne at the Master Control Switcher. Note the hockey game on-air at the time.

Arrangements were made with New Channels Cable Television, the cable company which covered Potsdam, Norwood and other nearby areas in 1971, to put ICRN on cable Channel 2 . New Channels cable was one of the earliest cable TV systems in New York at the time and was a bit of a pioneer. Channel 2 on the cable had one of the first "time and temperature" indicators on cable TV. It consisted of a small motorized camera at the head end that continuously panned back and forth over a few analog weather dials -- time, temperature, wind direction and wind speed. The ICRN TV staff -- all students -- ran TV cable from the Pit to the cable head end on Sisson street. A large toggle switch was mounted in the Pit control room below the Master Control Switcher (switch not in view). And when the switch was thrown, ICRN TV took control of Channel 2. Basically students had full discretion over access to Channel 2 which was a tribute to the trust level built between the college, the student staff of the station and the cable company. Between 1971 and 1975, with a few exceptions (for example, some of the more entertaining dorm hockey games and a few attempts at other types of shows) the only programming on ICRN was Clarkson Hockey, done in black and white from Walker Arena. There were no studio facilities in the Pit control room because -- basically -- there was no room. On the rare occasion where a special show was aired from the Pit, the lights and cameras were placed in a large room in the WTSC studios next door.

To make the hockey telecasts possible, a video cable was installed from Walker Arena to Master Control in the Pit in 1970. As the production got more elaborate, rather than just throwing the Channel 2 access switch and joining the game from Walker, the hockey telecast started by running a simple "open" from a video tape machine at the Pit studio then switching to Walker Arena for the game. The theme music for Clarkson Hockey telecasts from 1974-77 was "Ely's Coming", a jazz song from the Maynard Ferguson "MF1" album. There was one 2" reel-to-reel black-and-white tape machine plus two 1" reel-to-reel color tape machines for production. Although those 1" color VTRs arrived in about 1973, since other changes were needed to accommodate color, those changes and the more-expensive color cameras were not purchased until about 1976. The TV budget one year was a very generous $14,000, paid from the student activity fee pool of money.

From about 1971-73, crude graphics were added to the programming at the Pit using a small camera that was mounted at one end of a one-foot-long wooden box. The graphic art work, such as the ICRN logo, was placed at the other end of the box. (Note that for a while, due to problems with interference on Channel 2, ICRN was moved to cable channel 8, during which time the station logo was an "8 Ball". The station was eventually moved back to Channel 2.) The video from this graphics camera was routed to the Master Control Switcher where it could be punched "full" on air or mixed in the switcher with camera video to provide crude "lower thirds" and titles. In about 1973, a very talented student named Bob Soltis personally designed a crude but nice video text graphics generator for titling. It provided four separate pages for different graphics that could be pre-typed and quickly switched into view. The output of this character generator was mixed (versus keyed) with video in the Master Control Switcher to create the composite image. Later the character generator and switcher were enhanced to include an actual "key channel" for sharper graphics.

"ROTC" Dave Tipple shown directing at Walker, 1974 Dave Tipple & Paul Skeberdis at newer console, 1975
John Kirby getting ready for air ~1975 View of Walker Arena ice from TV Press Box

The Control Room at Walker Arena shown above was in a locked area taking up about one third of the main press box that was located above the end zone closest to the Pit. The picture at the top left showing Dave Tipple (ECE '75 as Director / Technical Director) is from about 1974. The simple four-camera switcher (being controlled by Dave) and four monitors were mounted in a portable plywood box. Some of the monitors were upgraded in 1975, shown in the upper right. The rack mounted device shown laying on top of the plywood box in the upper right photo was the waveform generator used to monitor the video signals.

Bill Walsh on one of the ice level cameras Steve Depillo in the press box

Three cameras were used for hockey games. Cameras #1 and #2 were located at ice level at center ice (upper left), and camera #3 was in the press box (upper right) . The press box camera was used to shoot the ice length-wise during the action and used for live interviews in the press box during intermissions. Steve Depillo ('76) is shown doing a live interview in the press box in about 1975.

In 1976, ICRN experimented with a fourth "roving" (but wired) camera at hockey games that could be walked around ice level and in the lobby. The camera used was the former graphics camera in the Pit control room.

The picture at the left was an example of an on-ice interview done with the roving cam The guest in this interview was the Zamboni driver.

Play-by-play announcer Marty Smith (right) talking with WTSC's Curt Colopy Marty Smith (left) with color announcer Doug Smith

During most of 1972-1976, the primary play by play announcer was Marty Smith ('76) who because of his great radio skills, was also hired by WPDM-AM (WSNN) to broadcast high school and other local hockey games. Marty also frequently did Clarkson hockey on the road for WPDM when veteran play by play announcer Con Elliott of WPDM chose not to travel with the team. Marty is shown with Curt Colopy (ECE '75) who was one of the key engineers at WTSC-FM in the mid 1970's.

In one of his earliest broadcasts, Marty made a particularly large amount of noise on the air by frequently shuffling pages of notes around during the show. Someone told him to "Quit rustling pages around when you're on the air." People overheard that quote and it stuck! From that day forward, his nickname was "Russell Page". But Marty liked it. He ended every broadcast after that by saying "On behalf of my statistician, Russell Page, this is Marty Smith saying good night."

In approximately early 1976, in an interesting development, the owner of the Chalet Motel on Canton Road approached New Channels to also provide local programming but on a paid basis. (New Channels did not charge an access fee to ICRN.) New Channels agreed, the Chalet created a studio at the hotel, and consequently there were two "TV Stations" with access to Channel 2. This created some interesting conflicts between that station and ICRN-TV over access time. The rule eventually agreed upon was that Clarkson Hockey broadcasts had priority, but at other times the Chalet studio had first choice for access. If the motel threw its switch to go on air, it overrode attempts for ICRN to gain access. The Chalet station did a daily news show. It also regularly aired a game show in which the winner was awarded a certificate for "Dinner for Two at McDonalds." In many respects, the efforts of the Chalet station were impressive, but it eventually ceased operation in about 1977.

At the end of every school year, the ICRN-TV and WTSC-FM staff always looked forward to the joint annual "ICRN Banquet", filled with memorable gag gifts and broadcast lowlights. One year, to acknowledge a particularly bad broadcast, the responsible person was awarded the "That Was Really Rancid" award -- a carton of milk which had been left in the WTSC piano accidentally for one year -- since the previous ICRN banquet.

Another award one year for bad programming (thanks, Bob Francis, ECE '75 / WTSC for this memory) was a can of soup which has been (supposedly) punctured by a drill and then re-soldered shut. It was nicely relabeled "Campbell's Chicken Botulan Soup".

On the left, displaying their annual awards in 1975 are Dave Jouppi (ECE '75, left) with Dave Tipple (ECE '75). The story behind the cereal box is now a faded memory. But the "Boot" (a snow boot filled with concrete and with a long stick coming out of the top) was the annual "Kick It 'till It Works Award" given to the person who did the most abrupt, but successful and quick pre-air-time repair of equipment

ICRN as a totally student-run organization provided an incredibly interesting, valuable and fun opportunity for students to learn key broadcast stills and gave them a rare opportunity to actually design broadcast hardware and place it on-air for the pubic to see. Several of the graduates went on to full or part time careers in broadcasting or broadcast / radio / television engineering. It was a lot of work but truly a fun time for all.