Thursday, December 17, 2015

George Marti, R.I.P.

Tom Taylor Now, the daily newsletter that is required reading for anyone in the radio business--or a reformed broadcaster like yours truly--brings some sad news.  George Marti, a man who truly revolutionized the industry died in his hometown of Cleburne, Texas.  He was 95.

Mr. Marti's name may not be instantly recognizable, but his impact on radio was both profound and long-lasting.  For many years, stations had a "location" problem.  Sending a signal from the studio to the transmitter presented two options.  Either co-locate the studio with the transmitter, or utilize costly (and often unreliable) phone lines to carry programming to the transmitter and antenna.  Operating from the transmitter site was never popular, since it was typically located outside town, or on the top of the highest elevation in the area.  Broadcast sales reps complained about bringing clients to such a remote location, and DJs said it was more difficult for their girlfriends/mistresses/significant others to visit during an air shift.  Not that they were supposed to, but that's another matter.  

Similar problems existed for remote broadcasts.  If a station wanted to air a sports event, concert or some other type of special event, you had to rent phone lines from Ma Bell.  That meant placing a very precise order regarding location and quality.  Simply saying you wanted a line at the (Fill In Name) high school stadium wasn't enough; more than a few veteran broadcasters can tell stories about showing up at the venue and frantically searching for the phone line that was supposed to connect to their broadcast equipment and carry the signal back to the station.  In some cases, the line was still attached to the telephone pole, 20 feet off the ground.  When the phone company tech showed up--usually well after the game began--he'd shrug and remind you to specify a line into the visiting team press box at the stadium.  And since he was working overtime on a union contract, the tech was typically in no hurry to solve your problem.

George Marti largely ended that stranglehold, inventing portable broadcast remote units that transmitted signals from remote locations to the station (or from studio to transmitter), using allocated VHF frequencies.  In fact, his product became so synonymous with remote broadcasting that virtually any unit used for that purpose was referred to as a "Marti," much like Xerox became the term for photocopiers and Coke was the designation for a soft drink.  At one time, an estimated 80% of the world's radio stations used remote equipment or studio-to-transmitter links built by Marti Electronics.  His products were simple, reliable, rugged and built by Americans, back in the days when we still made things.   

But Mr. Marti was more than a highly successful entrepreneur--he was the embodiment of a generation that thrived on hard work, innovation and belief in the American dream.  At 13, Marti's grandmother told him he needed to think about his future.  Fascinated by radio, he decided to become a broadcast engineer and earned his FCC First Class License at age 17.  When the U.S. entered World War II, Marti enlisted in the Marine Corps and was selected for radar school.  He finished first in a class of 120 and spent the rest of the war installing and maintaining communications systems on remote Pacific islands.

After the war, he returned to Cleburne and put his first station (KCLE-AM) on the air in 1948.  Marti designed and built his own 250-watt transmitter and audio board in his mother's living room.  He added an FM station a year later and purchased a station in St. Joseph, Missouri in the early 1950s.  Like many station owners, Marti was frustrated over the reliance on the phone company and decided he could do better.  After selling his stations, he began building remote units full-time and quickly added studio-to-transmitter links (STLs) to his product line.  Quickly, the ubiquitous Marti units became the industry standard.  He ran the company for more than 30 years until he sold it to Broadcast Electronics in 1994.

The Marti wasn't a panacea; units had a range limit of 10-15 miles, so events outside that radius still required a phone line.  And, with the advent of the internet and ISDN lines, many remotes are now handled through a laptop.  But for decades, George Marti's remote pickup unit was an essential piece of broadcast equipment and they're still in use at many stations.   

But Mr. Marti was more than a broadcaster, innovator and successful businessman.  He served six terms as the mayor of his hometown and with his late wife, Jo, started the Marti Foundation, which helps low-income youth earn their college degrees.  Thanks to George Marti's generosity, hundreds of Texas students have attended college and launched successful careers of their own.

 For his work, Marti received a number of honors.  The National Association of Broadcasters awarded him its highest engineering honor in 1991; he was a member of the Texas Radio Hall of Fame and was named both Pioneer Broadcaster of the Year by the Texas Association of Broadcasters.  One of Marti's earliest remote units is part of the radio collection at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.

George Marti believed a broadcaster's primary responsibility was to serve the public.  "If you're not helping someone, you're not doing you job," he once observed.  Mr. Marti was also one of the last links to a different era in broadcasting, when the business was populated by visionaries and innovators who were willing to roll the dice on innovative technology and programming.  In today's world of huge radio chains, homogenized, consultant-driven "content" and doing everything on the cheap, it's a fair question to ask if there's any room for the next George Marti.

The list of 2016 inductees for the Radio Hall of Fame has just been announced.  Here's hoping Mr. Marti is among those selected for next year's class.  For heaven's sake, if ESPN's Mike & Mike can make the cut, there ought to be room for someone who truly transformed his industry.                            

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