24 Nov. 2006
SETI League
PriUPS Project

FCC Friday

I don't remember exactly when "Black Friday" came into the lexicon.  One reference shows it as the mid-80s, another implies it's much earlier.  I don't remember hearing it in my youth, but "retail" wasn't a concept for me then.  (Or now, either.)

In those days, the Friday after Thanksgiving was significant to me for only one reason.  It was the first day after the school year began that school was closed yet the government was open.  I needed the government, because the Federal Communications Commission issued the Holy Radio Licenses, and I needed more!

More?  There were a lot of radio licenses:

Amateur (Ham):

  • Novice

  • Technician

  • General

  • Extra

Commercial (Broadcast)

  • 3 classes of Radiotelephone License

Commercial (Maritime)

  • 2 classes of Radiotelegraph license

  • Radar Endorsement

  • Aircraft Endorsement

Needed?  Of course I needed them.  Even then I was a nerd, although not even close to achieving my third pen.   As with most hams in those days, I started out as a Novice, which meant I had only minimal privileges with respect to what frequencies I could use and with whom I could speak.  I was also a bit unusual in that I had a Technician license, in effect a complement to the Novice, which allowed me certain other frequencies, but not enough.  For full privileges, I needed the General.  The test had a somewhat more rigorous Morse Code requirement and also a more comprehensive technical and regulatory section.  It was also a steppingstone to the Extra Class license, whose significance at that time was that the FCC gave you a piece of paper that said "Extra Class License."  It conferred a bit of prestige but had no practical effect.  A prerequisite for taking the Extra exam was having a General Class license for at least two years.

OK, I needed the ham license so I could talk to my buddies in different boroughs without using the family telephone.  What about the others?  Well, don't all high school students strive to operate broadcast transmitters?  And to run the largest ones, such as the 50kW monster at WABC, the 1st class license was needed.  So what if I was 16 at the time?  And the radiotelegraph license?  Well, you couldn't get your merchant marine radio officer license without one now, could you?  If my parents knew it would enable me to run away to sea, perhaps they would have been more encouraging!

So I studied and practiced and read the test guides.  It might even be fair to say that I was more enthusiastic about doing so than I was about my school classes.  And on every FCC Friday, I hied myself down to 641 Washington Street in NYC to petition the crusty old examiner, Charlie Finkleman, an actual FCC employee, to take the test.  Was he truly old?  Of course - he was one of them grown-ups and worked for the government.  Was he always chewing on a cigar?  I picture him that way, but at the time I was much too nervous about the tests to pay all that much attention.  Charlie was a legend, and I'm sure my thoughts about him were clouded by the other FCC-Friday kids I was always babbling with on the radio.

And that was my annual activity!  No orgy of spending or fighting with my fellow consumers for sale items at Macy's.  Just a couple of terrifying hours with the FCC inspector trying to copy Morse Code with pencil and paper, and send it with a straight key, the kind you see in the old movies.  I think Charlie got a little tired of me.  Without, I suspect, true authority, but with plenty of common sense, he told me "You are NOT taking the aircraft endorsement to the radiotelegraph test."  It may be that even then it was such an oddity that they didn't have the test papers in the office.

Or maybe he was just late for lunch.  If Charlie is still with us, he's long retired, and certainly his lunches have blended together by now, so I have no way of finding out.  As for me, I never did run away to sea, and the telegraph license is just a curio.  The 1st Class Radiotelephone license, however, figured prominently in my alleged life.  Eventually, though, the FCC decided that it was no longer necessary for the government to involve itself in commercial radio licensing and eliminated that certification in favor of an all-purpose "General Radiotelephone License."  I gather it has become more an identification document than an attestation of government approval.

Richard Factor

Yesterday  |  Tomorrow