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Brothers put heads together to establish radio station

MARY LOU MONTGOMERY

2024


In the mid 1960s, while they were both in their teens, brothers Becker and Robert Spaun, in a joint venture, created an (unlicensed) AM radio station with a range of about a block. “Probably nobody listened to it but us,” younger brother Robert said this week, “but we sure had fun with it.


“Becker always wanted to be a radio announcer and a fireman,” Robert said, “and this is where he got his announcing start.”


Later in life, Becker would work as an announcer for KHMO Radio in Hannibal, Mo., and also as a fireman for the Hannibal Fire Department.


“I always liked transmitters,” Robert said. “My dream job would be to work on transmitters, and I finally managed to get a job doing that, and I’ve been doing it for 45 years.”


The unofficial station, originally on AM, had the made-up call letters of WBS AM.


"We first started out with an AM transmitter,” Robert, who was in junior high school at the time, said.  “It was a two-tube transmitter and it would transmit about a block. We used that until we came up with an FM transmitter.


They purchased the AM transmitter from Lafayette Electronics; “It was a mail order place in New York,” Robert said. “Who knows what ever happened to the transmitter. It was a store-bought thing.”


“I’d get on my bike and ride around the neighborhood to see how far the signal went. It only went a few blocks. We didn’t get too greedy with output power; go too big you get in trouble.”


Then Eric Spotten, living in Hannibal and working for the cable TV company, “gave us a little FM wireless microphone. I modified it to become our FM transmitter.


“There weren’t many FM stations around at that time,” Robert said, two in Quincy, Ill., and one (KGRC) in Hannibal. “So there was plenty of space on the dial.”


Becker, by then in high school, named the FM station with the made-up call letters of KFTN, which stood for Fun Time Network.


“There really is a KFTN radio out there somewhere,” Robert said, “but we had no way of knowing that back then.”


“I built all the equipment and Becker was the announcer.


“Becker made up his own commercials,” Robert said. “Back during that time there was a company that used to advertise on TV a lot, K&P. Somehow we came up with them as our advertiser, and they fictionally sold ABC (Already Been Chewed) gum.”


They originally used a mono transmitter.


Robert began talking to people, reading books and experimenting. “There was a buddy of mine, Rich Dalton, he was a DJ at KADI FM in St. Louis. I’d call up Rich on the phone. He did the night show, and he’d put on an album and we’d talk radio. Several times I went to visit him at the station. Their chief engineer came in, and my eyes lit up. Someone who knows about transmitters!


“I asked him how a stereo transmitter worked, and he sat down and drew a diagram, then I went home and designed and built one. (Robert still has that diagram.)


“With a lot of experimenting, I actually managed to make it work. It allowed me broadcast the programs in stereo rather than mono. I had to modify my mixer for stereo. 


Robert built a mixer board for the station and it was assembled around 1970. He continuously modified it over the years. 


He made the chassis, or box, in ninth-grade metal shop.


Robert also took apart an old telephone and wired it up so they could broadcast a telephone call on the air.


“I made the mixer box just the right size to fit in the space. The turntable was up on blocks so that the wires coming out of back of the mixer would go underneath the turntable.


“A new development in radio was the addition of cartridge tape players, tapes that would hold their commercials, station IDs and jingles. They would have triple decker cart machines, where they could insert three tapes, play one tape, then to the next, and the next. Continuously go through and play these tapes until you stopped them.


“I made my own version of the three eight-track player decks and modified them to act like the cart players.” Becker used this to add jingles, etc., to his radio broadcasts. “It was a homemade version of what the radio stations used.


“When I built this controller box for the three eight-track decks, I used LEDs on the display. LEDs had just come out, they were brand new. It was something new I needed to try,” Robert said.


“I was trying to make the neatest, coolest setup we we could with technology of the day and limited budget,” he said.


“Eight-track tapes weren’t very reliable; sometimes the eight-track player didn’t start quite right and you can hear when Becker pulls out the tape and puts it back in real quick. It was all do-it-yourself; we worked with what we had.



This process went on for about a decade. There was a five-year age difference between the brothers, Becker graduated from high school and went on to NEMO State College at Kirksville, Robert graduated from high school and went to work for Hannibal Carbide. But they both kept coming back to the radio station.


Dan Bledsoe was one of Becker’s radio friends. “Dan wanted to be an announcer. He came over and I actually made him a demo tape to try to get him a job at KGRC. They didn’t hire him, but he went on to become a professional announcer and went to work at a station in Las Vegas. He got his start at KFTN,” Robert said.


“Steve Terry was involved in the program, too, sometimes as an announcer.”


“Sometimes I’d work late at night, then Becker would come over and I’d show him how to use the new equipment. Sometimes these broadcasts were taped, sometimes they weren’t. We taped a lot of the shows. I’ve got some of the later ones that were recorded in 1970s. 

Somewhere in his basement Beck had tapes that go back to the mid 1960s. He had some reel-to-reel, and some on cassettes. Tapes do age and after a while they do become unplayable.”


“I remember at one point, maybe his first or second year of college, he took the old reel-to-reel to college so he could listen to his tapes. Those tapes have been in a box since then, and moved from house to house as he moved.”


Regarding the tape played at Becker’s visitation, Robert believes it was made in the late winter of 1973. “He makes a couple of references to Richard Nixon getting in trouble. Watergate happened in 1972, and Nixon resigned in 1974. Beck talks about an expected upcoming flood; he said there were six inches of snow on the ground, and warned businesses to start packing up their stuff, there’s going to be a big flood.” The flood of 1973 was a major one for Hannibal.






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