Northeast Blackout Radio Reminiscences, 50 years later
Mon Nov 9 20:40:56 EST 2015
From: Mark Connelly, WA1ION
This is being written on the 50th anniversary of the Great Northeast Blackout of 1965. Power went out in large parts of New York, New England, and some other adjacent states and Canadian provinces.
The evening of November 9, 1965 was going on pretty much like any other after-school night. At my family home in Arlington, MA we had just finished supper. It was a chilly night outside and I went in the living room to do a little radio listening on a Realistic TRF portable ( http://www.radioshackcatalogs.com/html/1964/h080.html ) that had good sensitivity to pick up the many AM music stations from around the northeastern United States and adjacent parts of Canada.
A bit after 5 p.m. I was listening to WNJR on 1430, a black R&B station skipping in from Newark, NJ (after local WHIL Medford had done its sunset sign-off). The song "Two is a Couple (Three is a Crowd)" by Ike & Tina Turner ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2GUA5IaDhOw ) was playing. At 5:17 p.m. the lights dimmed, blinked off, blinked on, and then quickly went off to stay off for quite a while. The radio became the only link to the outside world that ran on battery power, so its role became much more important than usual functions as a source of music and long-distance hobby listening ("DXing").
I was a junior in high school at the time and was developing an avid interest in electronics. I was already building the occasional project and logging many broadcasts from around the world. A couple of my friends (Phil [later N1PZU] and Dick [WA1FAE / later KB1DN]) chatted with me on CB channel 11 from time to time on 100 milliwatt walkie talkies (' http://www.radioshackcatalogs.com/html/1965-a/h003.html ' or similar) including, I think, during the blackout. In less than two years I would be a licensed radio amateur (now WA1ION).
The world of 1965 was one that had recent memories of the Cuban Missile Crisis and JFK assassination. The Vietnam War was starting to ramp up and civil rights struggles rocked many cities. Late that summer, folk protest music was making a resurgence with Bob Dylan's songs and "Eve of Destruction" by Barry McGuire ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ntLsElbW9Xo ). Such music had been earlier in vogue around '62 and '63 but was sidetracked a while by the British Invasion juggernaut. Cold War hysteria was never much below the surface in the autumn of 1965. The massive popularity of James Bond spy movies and of TV shows such as "Man from U.N.C.L.E." and "The Avengers" had a lot of appeal to young people. Sci-fi was also big. Space exploration and science had a certain amount of a "cool" factor; kids interested in it weren't necessarily thought of as geeks and nerds. Boston's Route 128 technology belt was growing by leaps and bounds as government and private money poured into aerospace, defense, computer, and telecommunications advances. Proximity to world-class universities spurred much of the activity.
As I listened to the radio that November evening, it quickly became apparent that this blackout was not one of the usual ones just affecting our street and maybe, at most, a couple of others nearby - your typical branch-lands-on-wire or car-hits-pole scenario.
Reports came in not only from nearby Boston but also Providence, New York, Albany, and quite a few other locales with stations that I could receive on the transistor radio.
There was a pervasive uneasiness out there and various theories running from Russian sabotage to domestic loonies / criminals to UFO's abounded.
The AM dial was an interesting mix of absent usual signals - gone with the loss of power - and other stations which had managed, thanks to generator availability, to come back on. Leading local Top 40 station WMEX 1510 lost power at the Boston studio but managed to get a generator going at the transmitter site, then located in North Quincy, MA. An improvised broadcast got going when some of the staff arrived there from Boston, 6 miles to the north. But either the voltage level or AC frequency of the generator was a bit off as records being played lurched along between too slow and too fast. I remember "Let's Hang On" by the Four Seasons ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8782KIj_rKw ) playing in a most discordant manner. Aware of the problem, the people at the transmitter quit music for a while and just talked.
Houses started getting chilly as many furnaces wouldn't fire up without electricity. Fortunately the power did come back and a more normal pace of life returned.
There is an online article written by a New York City broadcast professional that gives a good insight of how various stations responded to the blackout:
Some other links:
Dan Ingram on WABC New York
Action at WDRC Hartford, CT
NBC TV news coverage
Boston Globe 50th anniversary articles
How I Got Started in Radio and Electronics
Besides songs mentioned in the narrative above, some of the other big hits I remember on Top 40 radio around then include:
Look Through Any Window (Hollies) .. their greatest
Turn, Turn, Turn (Byrds) .. taken from the Bible and huge follow-up to Dylan-written "Mr. Tambourine Man" of the early summer
Something About You (Four Tops) .. soul classic
Rescue Me (Fontella Bass) .. another soul classic
Five O'Clock World (Vogues) .. working man's anthem
Get Off My Cloud (Rolling Stones) .. Stones string of successes continues
Mystic Eyes (Them) featuring Van Morrison
I'm a Man (Yardbirds) rocked-up blues
Liar Liar (Castaways) .. garage monster
Sounds of Silence (Simon & Garfunkel) .. title cut from an outstanding album
Once a week, WBZ's Jefferson Kaye brought us to an alternate universe of folk music and, occasionally, blues. Here are two of the more important tunes spinning in late 1965:
Children of Darkness (Richard & Mimi Farina)
Shake Your Money Maker (Paul Butterfield Blues Band)
More information about the Boston-Radio-Interest