Memories of Leonard Kahn and the tech stuff he loved

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Upon learning of the passing in June of the one and only Leonard Kahn [click on Kahn for link] my mind was flooded with waves of radio broadcasting history flashbacks.  The last time I spoke with him for about an hour from his State-funded retirement home in South Florida, he was brilliant for the first 40 minutes, covering technical inventions he’d been dreaming about, the current takeover of our culture by those less fortunate and a host of other events he needed to get out to the public or to the courts. Eventually Leonard would revert to his favorite subjects predating the passing of his moral compass love of his life, wife Ruth, who had died in a ‘big uncaring New York hospital’ on Christmas Day 2005.  The ranting was usually against big corporations destroying free press, the need to preserve the U.S. Constitution  and the many crooked dealings in broadcasting gone wild.


From the first day I spoke with Leonard Kahn after hearing his life-long receptionist, Ruth, answer in her usual smiling and friendly style way back  in 1974, me, the just-out-of-college broadcast tech, looking to benefit from ‘the college tech experience’, found Leonard a gentlemen and no doubt, a scholar. He had dreams and visions and high hopes and could be imagined standing on the ‘broadcast’ ship’s bow shouting, “I’m the king of the world (of AM improvements!)” and loading the ship with loyal followers of the AM Stereo revolution. But there was no submarine sonar protection against big corporate tools and absolute control of the industry press, introduced by Motorola and her followers the NAB and a few high dollar broadcasters and the free chipsets given to GM and other car makers giving Big M the AM Stereo edge. The Kahn AM Radio quality improvements vessel was taking on water and listing badly with underhanded coercion starting near the U.S. Border with blockading of improved multimode stereo chips in 1985, brilliantly contrived by Big M’s attorney-manned min-subs.

Captain Kahn was shocked and surprised that the radio industry would favor the worst system of all in such large numbers against the original war machinery of S.S. Kahn gear. As the century ended, his ghost ship entertained a few loyalists, rarely docking for very long in more than 30 years, while the entire concept of ship travel for broadcasting enjoyment faded slowly into the sunset. But those of us awaiting the celebration of real radio reborn understood the adoption of Motorola’s system as the ‘defacto- stereo standard’ in 1990 was the tip of the iceberg, awaiting not only the sinking of AM vessels, but the FM travelers and soon TV spectrums as well. The ‘bridge to nowhere’ digital itinerary virtually eliminated broadcast ship travel, allowing the general public their first experiences in both digital sight and sound. Listeners and viewers found the new manner of transport far less intriguing than the hype. AM quality improvements again took back seat to the weakening of FM and TV contours by spectrum selling and the next generation of government-mandated ‘improvements’. Leonard continued to shout from the bridge the importance of a free and clear spectrum void of interference from passing ships and other man-made interference. Few cared. Few could, as their slave ships did not allow any dissenters in their midst. Corporate-indebted radio had to make port of call ahead of the free press and the laws of mother nature.

Meantime, Kahn wrote that the listening traveler was staying home more often on the web, no longer aware there were ghost ships or other means for traveling over the high seas unless steered by a government mission. NPR on the TV side, with the aid of government funding and tax advantages was promoting  digital multicasting-over-quality High definition TV and likewise the first to incorporate digital radio. Then almost immediately after dumping mega-millions into compressed digital TV and Radio, these well-funded folks commenced streaming and fiber-connected educational docking, thus eliminating the primary need for the multicasting-compromised quality of ATSC TV and extra radio channel operations.

Back in the real world, we had that final AM improvements journey in 2009 on the shores of Jacksonville when Leonard arrived armed with a portable AM wide-band radio, a laundry list of helpful test gear and began personally tuning the audio for his last new Power Side install. The victim of the machine rage was an Optimod 9200 AM processor. During that 3 days of attacking the spectrum problems, the elderly gentleman lambasted the quality of clip-filtered, phase-scrambled, multiband predistortion, calling it ‘the kiss of death’ to the radio signal. The final Power Side signal sounded like original FM quality, long before the same plank-walking ‘magic’ had been imposed on the VHF docked FM vessels. The audio processor box final setting was ‘running in bypass mode’, feeding his custom-built power side EQ circuit and internal clippers. ‘With due respect’, I submitted to Elder Kahn that the AM spectrum of the ‘new century’ was currently at least 6db or more of overall clipping and filtering than was tolerated in the real radio days. Our test van had a decent wide-band radio. Thus the debate over lower volume levels version quality was lost to a person from an era where AM could be king and was. He ordered me to leave the signal alone, touching nothing as this was truly clean AM audio and the ‘results would be noted in coming ratings’ reports.

The last time I saw Leonard was to bid him farewell, including a rare hug as he boarded the train for Miami after 3 days and night of tireless round the clock work installing the last Power Side AM exciter built by KCI, ironically in Jacksonville Florida, where we at one time in the mid-1980’s enjoyed 4 Kahn Stereo systems and two other AM stereo competitor signals as well. That three days and nights with the old master theorist totally wore me out. (And I’m a night-day person when needed for tech support.) He, Leonard Kahn, by 2009 was a very tired old gentleman, still refusing any suggestions by anyone on the how to of setting up his Power Side unit any other way than his way.

Leonard was a reminder of a kinder-gentler time for the ears of all who tuned his way. For two days this new Power Side AM station sounded great and the listening experience was obviously improving their coverage, cutting down on power line noise and increasing the daytime and nighttime coverage area, even though 50% less loud than the other AM hard-processed radio stations with Leonard’s ideal settings.

Days after his train has long disappeared into the night skyline, carrying Leonard to his new South Florida fortress of escape, the need to ‘make the AM signal louder and louder and more like the other signals’ was the cry. We could never inform Leonard that his final work of clean and crystal clear, anti-pre-emphasized audio equalized settings  were over-ridden for the sake of being ‘the loudest station on the dial’ for more than 2 years, before a major power surge wiped out some of our custom Kahn gear and required reverting back to conventional and acceptable audio processing compromises.

There are many reporting that Leonard Kahn was his own worst enemy. After debating and hearing this man discuss free enterprise and the history of the founding fathers a dozen times, I submit LK’s persona was far greater than a mere ‘enemy’ list or a strong-willed proprietor. Mr. Kahn believed in the absolute right to object and our Founding Fathers’ principles to invade all laws against true freedom and to protect the right of doing business in your own way. His was truly a voice of one crying in the wilderness regarding the real worth of free radio and the benefit of AM over the borders and sky waves of this great Nation and the World. Long live Leonard Kahn in the hearts and minds and memories of all who knew him or read about his war on corporate control of broadcasting and the apparent goal of the elimination of quality AM radio from our personal lives. We’ll travel the fair and stormy seas on routes charted by Leonard Kahn and his followers for many years to come. And once more the spices of clean spectrum will become cherished gifts over all the world.

–Jerry Smith, Broadcast Technical Consultant

904-237-3020

[email protected]


2 COMMENTS

  1. A terrific eulogy to a true broadcast pioneer. I think your prose would also elicit a smile from Leonard.

  2. I just read “Memories of Leonard Kahn and the tech stuff he loved,” and I thought it very good.

    I was part of that decision process that made KRLA the second Kahn station on the air in Los Angeles (KHJ was the first).

    It remained until the station was sold. We still had the STR-77, which was not the technology of the ’84, and of course the first thing Greater Media wanted was to make it louder. The phase shifts just made mud out of heavily clipped audio, so we lost that fight, and another Motorola station came on line.

    I remember getting jeered at the NAB when I said I had experienced motion sickness on a Motorola station in town. I am a little prone to sea sickness, and that may have been a factor. I was also scoffed at when I said Delco would not bring receivers to the market. Motorola had committed fraud by omission, implying that all GM cars would have this new technology. It was a lie. AM stereo was offered as a “dealer option,” which meant if the dealer didn’t specifically order it, it wasn’t there.

    It was a real learning experience for me going through all that. I would say I was a bit naive in those days. I thought that surely the best technology would prevail. Sadly, the U.S. tends to opt for mediocrity and glitz over substance. H.L. Mencken said it best: “No one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.”

    If I wanted to get Leonard’s back up, I’d just tell him I thought the FCC’s original Magnavox decision was correct! I still feel that is true, not based on technology, but on support from a true consumer electronics firm that would get AM stereo walkmans into blister packs sold at K-Mart, which is where it needed to be (as opposed to the dash board of high-end vehicles).

    But the man was a genius. I feel privileged to have known him. Of course he had flaws as we all do, but he stuck to his guns in the face of unbelievable corporate attacks and pressure. It is hard not to admire that. He was a true warrior within the world of technology. And, we will not likely see anyone like him again.

    Chris Hays, Los Angeles.

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