This is the Tucson History section of 
The Broadcast Archive

Maintained by:
Barry Mishkind - The Eclectic Engineer
Last Update 1/15/02

"A Radio Boyhood in Tucson" or,
"How I Became the World's Youngest Jewish Spanish DJ"
by Mark Leavitt

My family moved to Tucson, Arizona in 1958, after doctors recommended it as being beneficial for my asthma. Two years later, we moved to a house on East 9th Street near Campbell Avenue. A wire dangled from the dining room ceiling, and the realtor informed us it was hooked to a "short-wave radio aerial" left behind by the previous owner. This piqued my budding scientific curiosity enormously. I built a crystal radio, connected it to the antenna, and was able to pick up a few stations, but their signals were sometimes drowned out by a booming voice that turned out to emanate from a neighbor, Fred Mey, an amateur radio operator. I got up the nerve to knock on his door to show him my crystal set, and he invited me in to see his ham equipment. Soon I became completely enthralled with radio. With Fred mentoring me, I obtained my first amateur radio license within a year, at age 10. With continued study and experimentation, at age 13 I passed the test for the most advanced amateur license, the Extra Class. I built my first few sets, borrowing mom's baking pans to use for the chassis and scrounging parts from abandoned TV sets, but later graduated to factory-built equipment using gift money I received from my Bar Mitzvah.

At the local ham radio club I met H. F. "Huddy" Hudson, one of the most prominent local amateur operators, as well as chief engineer at KTKT, the leading AM broadcast station in Tucson in the 60's. A crusty old fellow -- he used some choice words I made sure not to repeat at home -- he invited the ham club to tour KTKT's facilities. When I saw those massive transmitter cabinets, especially the huge final amplifier tubes with their cherry red glow that pulsated in rhythm to the swinging top-40 music, a "big switch" must have flipped inside me. I felt an incredible drive to master this technology, a thousand times more powerful than the amateur transmitters I'd used. To do that, I had to get the top professional FCC license, the First Class Commercial Radiotelephone Certificate. With lots of help from Fred, Huddy, and other local radio buffs, I studied for two years and passed the required FCC tests at age 15. My radio buddies, most of them 50 and older, thought that was a real hoot!

Now a high school sophomore and, like most teens, always needing some extra cash, I called the local radio stations to apply for a job as a transmitter engineer. Huddy would have been happy to give me a chance at KTKT, but since I was under sixteen and radio stations were bound by federal regulations, his manager concluded that it would violate child labor laws! I got the same story as I worked my way down the alphabetical radio station list in the phone book, until I came to the very last entry: KXEW-AM, a 100% Spanish-language station, 1000 watts, daytime only. Perhaps I successfully disguised my voice, but at any rate they didn't inquire about my age and invited to come right down. Not having a driver's license, I begged my Dad to drive me and to wait in the car so they wouldn't question my maturity. I had to put my birthdate on the application, but they decided I deserved a chance anyway. That next weekend I started my regular shift, dawn to dusk every Saturday and Sunday, earning a whole $1/hr. The studio and transmitter were housed in the same building, down an old dirt lane in southwest Tucson, surrounded by small farms. Outside, the smell of hay, cows, and horses was intense. At first, it was just the announcer and me in the building during these non-prime times.

I had taken a couple of Spanish courses at school, but it was the immersion of hearing the KXEW program material 12 hours a day that really taught me the language. Almost all the internal chatter of the station was conducted in Spanish, and soon I was joking other employees fluently, sharing menudo at break time, and developing a love for the rhythms of their music which has stayed with me to this day. One early Sunday morning, I arrived and turned on the transmitter but the announcer did not show up. After ten minutes of dead air, I called the manager, Ernesto Portillo, waking him up at home. He asked if I knew how to work the control board, which I did, so he told me to "start playing something!" Well, pretty soon people started to call with requests, I started to intro the music, give the time, and start a little DJ patter in Spanish, and off I went. After that, the staff figured I deserved my own show, so I soon was hosting "La Hora Juvenil", basically Latino rock for the teens, and until I hear otherwise, I'm claiming the record for having been the world's youngest Jewish Spanish DJ, at age 15.

Keeping their equipment running as reliably as possible became a matter of personal pride for me, and the station staff noticed and appreciated it. I regularly cleaned the equipment innards, waxed (yes, actually waxed) the cabinet outsides, and monitored the directional antenna array by driving to specific points in town and measuring the signal strength. If the equipment ever broke down during the broadcast day -- which happened only a couple of times a year -- I worked feverishly to get it back on the air. One busy weekday, during prime "drive time", there was a loud pop as the overload protectors shut down the transmitter. Repeated attempts to turn it on were to no avail -- there was a dead short somewhere in the high power circuitry. The rest of the staff watched desperately as the seconds ticked by and, presumably, as the invisible radio audience melted away. I had earlier tacked the huge schematic for the Gates transmitter up on the wall, thinking it would be handy if I needed to troubleshoot in a hurry, and now my eyes raced over it to find probable points of failure or a way to isolate the problem. With a couple of quick experiments, I pinned it down to the high voltage modulation transformer, which had developed a short between the windings and case. A replacement would obviously take days to get, so I cleaned up a glass ashtray and set the transformer on it to isolate it from ground. To everyone's amazement, it worked, and we were on the air again accompanied by applause from the crew. For a non-athletic bookworm like me, this was the psychological equivalent of hitting a home run with the bases loaded and your best girlfriend watching from the stands.

A few years later, KXEW gained a license to add an FM station. I had been promoted to chief engineer and I had the honor of managing its construction. Some of the equipment salesmen certainly did a double take when they arrived to meet an 18-year-old kid, but a signed purchase order for thousands of dollars worth of equipment changed their opinions quickly enough. I had the studio desk and monitor speaker cabinets built by a local Mexican woodworker. We put in an automation system, which in those early days involved lots of mechanical contraptions: carousels full of tape cartridges, and reel-to-reel recorders with specially prepared tapes containing little clear spots that could be detected by a photocell for cueing purposes. A Collins transmitter was shoehorned into the transmitter room, an FM antenna added atop the north AM tower, and we were on the air with Radio Fiesta, FM.

While attending college, I needed more money so I took on responsibilities at other stations as well. At KCEE ("beautiful music, 24 hours a day") I worked as an engineer, and also held an announcing slot for a while. Their AM station was on Silverbell road, with the FM facility way across town. I worked some at KAIR, a station owned by Frank Kalil, former top DJ at KTKT. I moonlighted occasionally at KHOS, a country station that operated out of a trailer (hmm, curiously appropriate?) far west of town. I also got interested in sound engineering and worked at the Copper State Recording Studios on Broadway just east of the downtown underpass.

When I graduated from college in 1971 with a BS in Electrical Engineering, my first job was in the defense industry, and I left my broadcast days behind. The rest of my life is quite another story, from designing antenna systems for spy planes like the U-2, to becoming a doctor, to starting and growing a business in electronic medical records systems. But my experiences in Tucson radio, and the people who encouraged me and gave me my first chances, had a tremendous influence on my life. I'd love to hear from others who want to talk about radio history.

Mark Leavitt