The 1620 WJDI Story
By Tim Tromp
The ambitious efforts exuded by Dave Schneider to home-brew the best broadcast-band pirate station deserves to be properly documented. I hope to achieve this here. While most readers might be familiar with the history of WJDI on the outside, I hope to shed some light on the inner workings and the man himself behind the grand operation. My thanks go out to Dave for directly providing the facts that were used to build this story. I encourage you to leave comments at the end of this page with your memories of WJDI.
“I just wanted to be known as the highest power pirate radio station
on the AM broadcast band in America.” -Dave Schneider
The Early Years
Like so many other pirate operators, Dave’s interest in radio began at an early age. Dave was 7 when he first became interested in electronics. This was a solo interest as nobody else in Dave’s family had any interest in radio or electronics. Fascinated with radio and the reception of distant radio stations on the AM dial, Dave’s interest in DXing began in 1962. Dave was an avid DXer back in the 1960s and enjoyed collecting QSL cards from distant AM radio stations. One of those stations that Dave logged in 1963 was 1580 WAMY out of Amory, Mississippi. Dave mailed off a reception report which was kindly answered with a nice letter that verified his reception but sadly did not include a coveted QSL card. The station explained that it did not have any cards prepared. Dave set out to fix the situation by taking it upon himself to print up a box of custom designed WAMY verification cards that he had printed using his own money and skills learned in the high school print shop class. Dave graciously mailed the box of blank QSL’s to the Amory station. To this day, WAMY has been sending out Dave’s QSL cards for correctly verified reception reports!
It wasn’t until 1969 that his interest in transmitters and broadcasting would be realized. In search for some suitable wire for a receiving antenna one day, Dave crossed paths with Roy Fuller in 1969. Roy was the chief engineer at WGHQ on 920 kHz in Kingston, NY, and WTRY in Albany prior. Roy was a kind hearted person who was more than willing to mentor the young Dave on all things concerning radio. After witnessing the 5,000 watt Collins transmitter that WGHQ employed, Dave realized his true calling belonged in broadcasting, and especially high powered AM transmitters. Dave found himself at the transmitter site nearly every day after working the night shift as a welder at the local cement mill. He could often be found trading coffee and donuts for Roy’s tutelage. Dave worked closely under Roy at the transmitter site for a year. He often helped the elder engineer with tasks that had become too difficult for Roy due to his very poor eyesight that included logging transmitter readings. Soon Roy encouraged Dave to study for the first class phone exam in order to obtain his license. After a year or two of difficult studying for the exam, Dave failed the 6 hour long test by just two questions. Not content to simply memorize questions, Dave had a deep desire to understand the questions and to understand the cause and effect of every detail, this being the mind of a great engineer. During the next year, Dave took the exam again and passed with flying colors. Having his license, Dave was now in the position to pursue a career as a chief engineer for a radio station, or so he thought. Roy explained to Dave that the prestige of chief engineer had long expired, and that those glory days were just a distant memory. “Today, station owners are always looking for the cheapest way out!” Roy insisted. Dave was crushed by this but he put his trust into the advice given by his good friend. After all, Roy hadn’t steered him wrong before.
The Birth of WJDI
Few people are probably aware of WJDI’s early origins. The thought of starting up a pirate radio station doesn’t usually conjure up thoughts of locating your station out of the town mayor’s oil business, but then Dave wasn’t the typical pirate broadcaster. Dave worked for the Kingston mayor’s oil company as a radio repair man, fixing the two-way radios used in the oil trucks. It is from this location that Dave launched WJDI in 1970 using a 7-1/2 watt transmitter on 1580 kHz. This early transmitter was a Meissner Signal Shifter that used plug-in grid coils wound for amateur radio frequencies. Dave rewound the coils for operation on 1580 kHz, and in no time he was on the air. Other modifications were needed to the CW rig in order for his voice to be heard, so Dave used a phonograph amplifier that he had on hand with its output connected to the Signal Shifter through a transformer. The antenna used at the time was a 100 foot long wire. If the station were to operate alongside legit stations on the AM dial, a proper set of call letters would need to be procured. Dave picked the call letters W-J-D-I since no record of any legal stations bearing that call could be found during the mid 1960s. With the transmitting “bug” firmly in place now, Dave knew that more output was needed and a larger transmitter would be required to fulfill his desire to broadcast to more people at greater distances.
As Dave poured over the want-ads that lined the back of amateur radio magazines like CQ and QST, he discovered a ham in Long Island selling a Collins 30K transmitter rated for about 300 watts. Since the transmitter only covered 3.5 mHz and higher, Dave found himself winding a new set of plug-in coils with the aid of his Millen grid dip meter. Once the new coils were wound and in place, he was able to operate the big transmitter on 1580 khz which covered about 10 miles in daylight on the old wire antenna. Dave was able to pull it off for some time, but not without some quick troubleshooting to work through first. It seems that whenever the big Collins hit modulation peaks, the lights in the office of the business would flicker and dim. Dave remedied the situation with a few capacitors to ground and broadcasting continued on.
Roy Fuller was aware of the first low powered transmitter that Dave was using but the mentor never discouraged Dave from continuing. Instead, Roy offered up several boxes of 833A’s vacuum tubes that he had collected from the previous stations that he had worked at. In four month’s time, Dave put those tubes to work and built a home-brew transmitter around them. The 833A rig used 4-400 tubes for the modulators. His signal was now up to 500 watts on 1580 kHz from a new location several miles north of Kingston. Needing a suitable antenna to handle the increased power output, Dave’s ingenuity kicked in and he devised a 150 foot thin wire vertical supported by a hydrogen filled weather balloon obtained from Fair Radio Sales. The higher powered transmitter and new antenna gave WJDI about 30 miles of solid coverage. This was reliable enough that Dave started selling advertising on WJDI in 1972. Commercials were sold to Uncle George’s Hot Dogs in Kingston in exchange for a few bucks (and free hot dogs of course). WKNY, a legal AM in Kingston, learned of WJDI’s ad sales and became infuriated by this. The FCC was promptly notified of the competing unlicensed station on 1580. Roy Fuller was also notified by an engineer at WKNY that an unlicensed station was illegally pirating in the area. It was no surprise to Roy that this was Dave’s work, but being the good guy that Roy was, Dave’s cover would remain cloaked. Roy did give Dave a stern warning encouraging the pirate to let things cool off for a bit. Dave took Roy’s advice once again and WJDI went silent for several weeks. It wasn’t until thirty years later that Dave met up with a listener who heard WJDI in those early days on 1580 from 100 miles away in Connecticut.
In 1977, Dave moved to Arizona to work for Motorola Research on the Voyager II project and WJDI was put on hold. Dave returned to New York in 1986 where he worked as chief engineer overseeing the installation of a cable television system in a 3,000 unit apartment complex located in Manhattan. Three years of this and Dave was burned out from the stress of the high paying job and thoughts of WJDI began to fill his mind again.
Dave set out to construct a new transmitter and studio which would become the radio station that he would use during the Spring of 1989 through the Fall of 1989. The home-brew transmitter had an output power of 1,000 to 1,250 watts and operated out of West Shokan, NY.
In the photo above, the large custom built transmitter is visible to the right of the desk. The 20 watt exciter used to generate the signal on 1620 kHz sits on top of the transmitter cabinet. The exciter was obtained from 1350 kHz WCBA in Corning, NY. The final tube in this transmitter was a 4-1000 and was fed by the 810 triode modulator tubes shown in the lower rack of the transmitter cabinet. The cabinet also housed the power supply running about 2,500 volts DC. A Dynaco amplifier was used to drive the audio to the 810 modulators. Dave had a special transformer wound to his specifications that took 8 ohms stepped up to 800 ohms at 50 watts. This provided a good frequency response since it contained five primaries and five secondaries that were paralleled together to increase response. All of the music was produced by a single CD player and cassette deck. An inexpensive Radio Shack mixer was used to mix the music and audio from the microphone. The slight echo effect that some may remember from WJDI was generated by an old Lafayette reverb. Dave brought in a Collins R390a which served as the station’s monitor. The IF of the R390a was fed into an old audio oscilloscope allowing Dave to monitor the station’s signal during a live broadcast to insure good modulation and signal.
This is the first serious transmitter that Dave fabricated for WJDI that had any decent signal coverage. This transmitter would later be salvaged for “donor parts” to serve an even larger transmitter as Dave took WJDI to even greater heights.
2,500 & 5,000 Clear Watts
Dave recalls that he got the idea for a larger transmitter while visiting “a place that had an old AM transmitter”. It was at this moment that Dave’s obsession to strive for the most powerful pirate station gained traction. The 2,500 watt rig consisted of a modulator and finals enclosed in separate rack cabinets. The modulator used 833A triodes which pushed the 4-1000 finals to their absolute limit to reach those 2,500 “clear watts” that were heard up and down the East coast and Midwest in late 1989 on 1620 kHz AM. The transformers used in the modulator rack were salvaged from 1350 WCBA in Corning, NY – “the best iron ever made!” laments Dave. 3,800 volts on the plate of the final tube and 3,000 volts on the 833A modulator tubes allowed WJDI a 2,500 watt output power with good punch to the audio. A three diode switching arrangement was used to limit the negative cycle of the audio in order to push the positive peaks to get more than 100% modulation in the positive direction. Dave would later reuse the 833A modulators for his next big project. The same WCBA 20 watt exciter was used to drive the transmitter as had been used in the earlier 1,200w transmitter. Components in the audio chain remained mostly the same and the same R390a again served as the studio’s monitor.
Dave operated at 2,500 watts for only a few months before the rig was upgraded once again to a higher output power. The 833A modulator tubes were replaced by 3-1000Z’s and the finals were replaced by a single 4CX5000. Issues arose using this arrangement as the modulator transformer was unable to keep up due to power supply constraints. Modulation peaks were diminished which limited the transmitter from delivering a good “punch” on audio peaks, especially at the lower frequencies. Dave worked through this problem by limiting the low end frequency response which prevented the issue with the modulation transformer. The plate current to the 4CX5000 final was also increased to get the power out, but at the expense of efficiency.
Dave actively operated this transmitter out of West Shokan, NY on 1620 kHz for three years. WJDI featured current music of the era with clever parody commercials between songs such as the famous dioxin “No Roach!” ad. WJDI was on frequently and after three years, the Federal Communication’s Commission took notice. In January of 1991, the FCC arrived in Kingston to investigate complaints of radio interference. The FCC stepped onto Dave’s property without a warrant so Dave refused them access to his home. The FCC officials were eventually led off Dave’s property by state troopers and held until a phone call was placed to the captain in charge of the FCC at the time. The federal agents were released within an hour. Following this, several threatening letters were received by Dave from the FCC, but no legal action was ever taken. WJDI would remain off the air for five years but would be poised to return in a most dramatic way.
“15 to 18 kw ought to do it”
A year had passed since the FCC had knocked on Dave’s door. By this time the thought of building the most powerful AM pirate transmitter began to consume all of Dave’s thoughts. Dave understood the limitations of the previous 5,000 watt transmitter and realized the only way to overcome those challenges would be to design and construct a new transmitter from scratch. “15 to 18kw ought to do it!” Dave thought. From this point forward Dave was completely dedicated to the project of constructing a home-brew 15kw AM radio transmitter. The project dominated his life, it consumed his every thought. Dave worked the design on the 15kw rig for six months before construction even began. When construction did begin, it took many years of building and gathering the necessary components together. A lathe was purchased in order to make the mechanical parts for the transmitter. Unable to locate pre-made cabinets large enough for his needs, Dave hand built the transmitter cabinets and chassis from bent aluminum sheet and a TIG welder was purchased to heliarc the custom aluminum pieces together. Welding came natural to Dave and he mastered the lathe during his tenure at Motorola.
The height of the transmitter was so tall that it required no less than three people to maneuver and transport it. 3CX3000A7 modulator tubes were utilized in the design at a cost of $750 each. The modulator was driven by a solid state FET driver. The final output tube was a military spec. 4CX15,000J. With such power, one certainly wonders about the logistics involved in supplying the needed energy to power the transmitter. Dave secured a pair of 300 pound “pole pig” transformers. Only one was used and the second was simply there as a backup if needed during the big New Year’s Eve broadcast. The transformer supplied the 15kw rig with a lethal 9,600 volts at 4+ amps DC. Due the large size of the transformer, it was located in another room separate from the transmitter and studio and the high voltage routed through a cable. As part of Dave’s old-school design of the rig, no less than 320 diodes rated at 1,000 volts each at 6 amps were used in the rectifier assembly. A fan was used to blow cool air over the assembly to keep the temperature under control.
Expenses were of little or no concern at this point. $10,000 was spent on the studio equipment alone for the famous New Year’s Eve 1996 broadcast. Two Revox and two Tascam reel to reel decks were used in the studio, two mixing consoles, a compressor, four cart machines and three microphones. The microphones included a Shure 556 with a custom preamp that Dave built himself and a pair of RCA 44BX’s. A Harris RF-1310 exciter was procured to generate the 1620 kHz signal. A Harris RF-590 receiver was obtained and used as a station monitor. An A300 ENI amplifier was used to drive the RF signal to the transmitter. Audio was fed through a high end Inovonics audio processor that gave the station 125% positive peak audio while limiting the negative peaks to 90%.
Dave’s goal of building a 15kw pirate station was accomplished and now it was time to set sail on the airwaves with it. The 15kw transmitter was located at the home of Jim, one of Dave’s close friends. Jim had enough land to lay out the 300 FT antenna and also had the required 400 amp electrical service. Without Jim, the 15kw WJDI broadcasts would not have been possible.
Only two official WJDI broadcasts were made on 1620 kHz using this rig: Christmas Eve 1996 and New Years Eve 1996. Dave also used the transmitter three times on the amateur radio bands during this time period. When used for CW operation (not using the modulator), the power output was once recorded at 32,000 watts with the plate voltage at 12,000 volts DC. As one can imagine, the energy consumption of the transmitter was massive, as Dave discovered on Christmas Eve. At 10:30pm during the Christmas Eve broadcast, operations came to an instantaneous halt as the power went out. Dave knew this wasn’t a tripped breaker as he was “clamped on” before the breaker to prevent such an event from happening. The cause of the power loss was much more concerning. Dave set out to troubleshoot the problem and discovered the input power coming in from the pole transformer read zero volts on his meter. The issue was upstream at the pole. Dave phoned New York State Gas & Electric, the utility supplying Jim’s home with power. Since it was a holiday, the chances of getting a crew to the location seemed slim. Dave fabricated a story of having rare and expensive tropical fish that would soon perish due to temperature losses inside the tank if power was not restored quickly. The ploy worked and soon Dave and Jim were visited by the utility company. Via bucket truck, the crew from the electric company inspected the faulty transformer on the pole as Dave overheard them comment about the transformer being so hot on that cold December night. The crew suspected a dead short of some type and probably weren’t buying into Dave’s fish tank story at this point. Dave realized this and proceeded to “tip” the guys a $100 each for coming out on Christmas Eve. Within an hour and a half, the crew had installed a heavier transformer on the pole and WJDI was on the airwaves once again.
The antenna used for the 15kw transmitter was a horizontal 5-wire cage design. Dave designed this antenna to be resonant at 1620 kHz. The five wires were separated using 12″ polycarbonate spacers, similar in appearance to rings around Saturn. Dave used a type of military coax as feedline between the antenna and transmitter. This special coax was rated for 25 kw. The coax was double braided with a copper center conductor measuring a 1/4″ thick, while the outside of the coax measured 1″ in diameter. While running 15kw, only 200 watts was reflected back. The design of the antenna was directional, with nulls produced in certain directions. Reception reports came in from all over the country and beyond including Dave’s mother in Florida who listened on her car radio, and a boater in the waters off Los Angeles. Reception reports from as far away as England were also sent to WJDI!
For those lucky enough to possess a WJDI QSL card in their collections, you may remember that the verification signer was none other than George Donahue. Dave choose the fictitious name based on his early days employed with Motorola Government Research in Arizona. Dave recalls finding an old discarded name plaque in a desk of an former engineer at Motorola. The name on the old plaque read “George Donahue”. Dave and his fellow co-workers placed the plaque on a vacant office desk in the research facility. The appearance of the ghost employee’s desk was enhanced with the placement of folders, papers, and magazines placed upon the desk to portray this was the desk of a hard working Motorola employee. After a month, it appeared that George Donahue was a regular employee, among the other 6,000 or so employees in the research facility. The only problem was that nobody could ever seem to find George, including the secretary who was often tasked with giving phone messages to George. Lab coats were even placed in George’s chair and fresh cups of coffee placed on his desk to further add to the illusion.
Today, Dave’s original 15kw transmitter is still partly operational. The modulator section was torn down and the parts sold off, including the modulator tubes. The modulation transformer and reactor were sold to a close friend of Dave’s, a radio amateur, for the price of $1. The other half of the 15kw transmitter was sold off to another amateur and occasionally sees use today on the ham bands, but for CW service only. On CW, the transmitter has been pushed to 32kw output into 50 ohms, with the plate voltage at 12,000 volts DC!
It’s been over a decade since WJDI last hit the airwaves and made a lasting impression on so many DXers across North America and beyond. Though at the age of retirement, Dave still enjoys radio in many different ways. Dave keeps busy working on broadcast transmitters by providing his expert services to several radio stations in his local area. Dave is also active in the radio hobby when designing numerous communication related items for vintage receivers, including a unique design for an AM loop antenna. Dave also has a great talent for restoring vintage ribbon microphones which he has been doing about twenty years now.
As a fellow coworker and engineer once told Dave, “the only way I can describe you is that you measure things with a different yard stick than anyone else”. This seems a fitting way to describe Dave Schneider. When asked the question “why?”, Dave’s reply is:
“It just was something that felt right with me. It wasn’t that it was an illegal station or to tweak the government. It was just the ability to learn to do it and build a transmitter and a station from scratch. When I look back on it now I can’t believe I was able to pull it off. It just was the right place and the right time for me.”
I encourage everyone to share their memories of WJDI by leaving a comment below.
WJDI Studio and off-air recordings
Dave is currently working on the task of digitizing the 1996 broadcasts from analog reel-to-reel to MP3 audio. A link to those studio recordings will be provided here when this work is complete. If anyone has off-air recordings of any WJDI broadcasts then I encourage you to share them here. Just contact me and I’ll host them and add a link here and credit you with the recording. I’ll start off with some of my own off-air recordings:
December 11th, 1989:
WJDI “Hit and Run Auto Insurance” parody ad with nice ID
“The Voice of New York” WDJI ID
WJDI “No Roach” parody ad and IDs
WJDI ID and contact info between songs
Nice ID with dedication to Eric Johnson of the New York Telephone Co.
December 17th, 1989:
December 25th, 1989:
December 24th, 1996:
A big thanks to “Doug” for writing in and sharing his memories of 1620 WJDI and sharing these three off-air recordings of WJDI’s big Christmas Eve broadcast of 1996. Doug recorded two hours of the show in amazing clarity from his home in Shandaken, NY. Doug’s recordings capture the moments right up to the point when the pole transformer blew.
Doug adds the following:
“The day I helped Dave and Jim with the cage antenna erection will never be forgotten.
Dave used spade lug crimps on each side of the disks on every wire……..lots of painstaking work.
The antenna was so heavy we had to use 2 ATVs’ to pull it up. “