Concert Network and a Terrible Crash

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Within a few days of working at WBCN I was introduced to its history. I learned that BCN stands for Boston Concert Network and that at one time there had been five stations in the Concert Network, in New York City, Providence, Hartford and Riverhead, NY as well as Boston. The Concert Network was founded in the 50’s by T. Mitchell Hastings, who kept an office at 312 Stuart Street when I worked there.

The Concert Network existed in a reduced form by 1971. Besides ‘BCN only ‘HCN in Harftord was left. The other stations had been sold or shut down over the years, unable to compete in an era of increasingly commercialized and syndicated radio. There were also stories about T. Mitch’s incompetence and extravagance. Old-money Mitch, according to Kenny Greenblatt and others, had financed his network with his own money and then when that ran out with his wife’s. Short of money again, the wife conveniently died, and T. Mitch was able to finance his ventures further with the money of a new wife. The Concert Network was one of several of Mitch’s ventures and avocations, which included the manufacture of the world’s first portable FM radio as well as a persistent interest in seances and other paranormal phenomena.

I glimpsed T. Mitch moving rather feebly in and out of his shabby office. He seemed very, very old to me, but he was probably around 60. His mostly bald skull was marked by two shallow depressions about an inch across, surrounded by liver spots; the marks, I was told, of more-or-less successful brain surgery. Wearing sports jackets that appeared to have been styled in an earlier era, hunched, bespectacled, we could occasionally hear him in his office in a high, whining voice, talking to Woo-Woo.

Mitch’s radio manufacturing business had come to a bad end. On December 16, 1960 a United Airlines DC-8 and a TWA Super Constellation collided over Staten Island. Both airliners crashed and 134 people were killed, the worst airplane accident until that time. The DC-8 had navigational problems – its navigational receivers had behaved erratically, and one had failed completely. When it collided with the TWA flight it was more than 5 miles off course. The flaming wreckage fell in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, where six people were killed on the ground.

They pulled one of T. Mitch’s little FM radios out of the wreckage. To save money and space Mitch had chosen the super-regenerative design (as opposed to the superheterodyne of Major Armstong). The super-regenerative is amazingly efficient and compact. A very effective receiver can be built with one very small vacuum tube and a 22.5 volt battery that will drive a pair of headphones and get all the local FM stations. There is only one drawback: the super-regen is also an amazingly effective miniature transmitter, on a frequency identical or very close to the one it is receiving.

The commercial FM broadcast band is just below the frequencies used by VOR, the then recently-introduced VHF aeronautical navigation system. Civil Aeronautics Board investigators theorized that the little radio was on and had been slightly mistuned, a little bit high, and had interfered with and disabled the DC-8’s navigational systems. Although the CAB did not release a definitive finding (see CAB-SA-361. If you cannot find a copy on line let me know and I will send you one), by the fall of 1961 a new regulation was introduced: no portable electronics equipment could be used aboard an airliner in flight. Mitch’s portable radio business folded the same year.

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