Interview Date: Wednesday December 12, 2001
Interview Location: Denver, CO
Interviewer: Bill Riker
Collection: Hauser Collection
RIKER: This is the oral history of Rex Porter. Rex has been in the cable industry for over 40 years, and I have had the pleasure of knowing and working with him since 1984. Today is December 12, 2001 and we are interviewing Mr. Porter at the AT&T Digital Media Center in Denver, Colorado as a part of the Oral and Video History Program of The Cable Center, also in Denver. The project is made possible through a generous donation from The Hauser Foundation. I am Bill Riker, chief technical officer for The Cable Center. Now, Rex, let’s start at the very beginning, as they say, where were you born and when?
PORTER: I was born February 14th, Valentine’s Day, in 1939 in a little town south of Nashville called Fayetteville, Tennessee.
RIKER: And your family? How many brothers and sisters did you have?
PORTER: I had seven sisters, and along about the time I was ready to graduate from high school, I had a brother born into the family. So, I grew up in pretty much a female family.
RIKER: With quite a spread, as well.
RIKER: And then where did you go to school?
PORTER: I went to high school at Lincoln County High in Fayetteville, Tennessee.
RIKER: Then you moved on into the Army? Or the Air Force?
PORTER: No, we were raised in a pretty poor section of Fayetteville. We were out south of Fayetteville almost on the state line of Alabama and Tennessee. My father was a Nazarene minister, and had a small country church that didn’t make a lot of money. So to supplement the income as a pastor, he did a lot of home repairs and construction work. Everybody in my family, the Porter family, had been carpenters or construction contractors but he was sort of the odd duck. He was the minister in the family, but he had been taught how to do carpentry work. So I grew up picking cotton and chopping cotton and working from sun-up to sundown out on other people’s farms, and whatever money I had to make class trips or to supplement what I wanted to do in school I did from just hard labor out on dirt farms, and when I graduated from high school I was too young to go into the service because I was only sixteen years old. So I had to wait around a year and then finally I could enlist in the Air Force. When I was growing up during the Second World War, I had a cousin who had been an airborne radar operator and he had been shot down and died as a casualty during the Second World War. So, my family had made such a hero of that cousin that when I grew up I certainly always wanted to fly or be a radar operator in the Air Force. So when I went into the Air Force, that’s what I applied to is radar, and actually spent eight years in the Air Force. The first four years I was a ground radar operator, and then the second four years I went back into the Air Force as an airborne radar operator, and actually trained right here at Lowery for airborne radar. This was from 1956 through 1963, the eight years that I spent in the service. And while I was in the Air Force, I started writing articles for the newspapers and I worked for the San Antonio Light and the San Antonio Daily News, and then when I transferred the last four years, I went up to Great Falls, Montana, and the newspaper editor up there found out that I had written for the San Antonio papers, so he put me to work. Even though I was in the Air Force, they would release me from duty so I could go cover basketball and football games for the Big Sky conference. So I traveled all over Montana, did a stint of work for the Canadian news service and covered their… they had semi-pro basketball teams, and the one that was local up there was the Broder Chinooks from out of Calgary. They had a semi-pro team. So they would go down to Dayton, Ohio and Columbus, Ohio, and they would play teams from Goodyear or BF Goodrich or whatever companies, U.S. companies, had semi-pro basketball teams. Originally, when I got out of the Air Force, I had planned to go back, and did go back, and apply and was accepted at the University of Tennessee, and I was going to be a writer. I envisioned myself as being the Earnest Hemingway of the 1970s and 1980s because he had always been my literary hero. So I went back to the University of Tennessee, as I said, and about that time, my brother-in-law owned a construction company down in Decatur, Alabama, and he was doing construction work building cable systems all over Florida and Alabama and Georgia, and he called me one day and said, “They’ve got an opening for an engineer that can work on microwave as well as work on amplifiers, and you’ve got a background. How would you like to come down and interview for the job?”
RIKER: So your radar background from the Air Force really was a big help there.
PORTER: Yeah, because once you’ve worked on radar, microwave was a fairly simple operation to get into real quickly. So I went down, and this gentleman’s name was Helmut Dieter, and Helmut Dieter had worked for Jerrold Electronics, and he and another salesman, Pappy Rutherford, who actually formed United Artists with Ken Gunter, worked with Ken Gunter down in San Angelo later on, they had found a little town down in Decatur that didn’t have a cable system in it – Decatur, Alabama – so they would leave Fayetteville, Pulaski, Lawrenceburg, where they were building the cable systems for Jerrold and go down and they got the franchise for Decatur, at least Helmut Dieter did. And Helmut had been – he was quite a colorful character – he had been a Luftwaffe pilot during the Second World War and because of his composure and his wide straight marching, you could almost imagine him clicking his heels – he had a lot of trouble. He was the eastern regional manager for Bruce Merrill’s cable arm of Ameco. It was called American Cable TV, out of Phoenix, and he was trying to build microwave systems to take WGN all the way to Miami and then the western division of Ameco was trying to bring KTOA across Texas so they could have an independent television station.
RIKER: So WGN was the Chicago station and KTLA was the Los Angeles station.
PORTER: Yes. So I went down and interviewed with him on his front yard, and he asked me some basic electronics questions that I thought were so basic it was kind of simple to even use those as a test to see how electronic you were, but anyways, he hired me on. We had a chief engineer at that time by the name of Randy Fraley, and Randy had a first class FCC license. I didn’t have a FCC license at that time and back then it was almost the Holy Grail as an engineer to have a first class ticket. So Randy worked on the microwave, but I don’t think that Randy’s heart was really in the microwave side; his heart was really more in the operations side, and later on it showed because when Helmut Dieter left to return to Phoenix from Decatur, Randy took over as the manager of the cable system and they made me the chief engineer of Decatur. So when I was there you didn’t have a lot of formal training for the technicians. They would just hire a guy off the street and then try to teach him how to do installs and how to construct the cable system – how to hang the cable, how to hang the strand and so forth. So it was all on the job training and because I had this formal training from the Air Force, and then I also had taken some courses from Cleveland Institute of Electronics, they would have me come in and do evening courses for everybody that worked in the cable system and it was just part of my job. Back then they didn’t pay you a lot of money to be a cable technician. As a matter of fact, when they hired you on, you had to buy your own tools, you had to buy your own belt, and what they would do is they would pay you your salary and they would take so much a month out until you had paid for all the equipment you were going to use on the cable system, and I think every one of the old technicians and engineers actually went through this process, that you almost had to pay your own way.
RIKER: And even today, on the job training is the norm.
PORTER: Yes, and so I went and got my second class ticket. I didn’t require a first class because you could operate and maintain the microwave you would just get a first class ticket holder to come in and sign off because the first class ticket was the only one that could sign off and get the license renewed. This was old Raytheon gear, it was old tube type gear, and so actually I worked for two different… I worked for Ameco in the cable system, but we had a microwave hop that was up on a mountain called Capshaw Mountain, which was north of Decatur, and we picked up the Nashville channels. Our original plans were to bring those channels to the Decatur system and to the Huntsville system because Huntsville had three different cable systems in the city of Huntsville, Alabama. And then we were going to take and do links over to the TelePrompTer systems in the tri-cities, which were Florence, Sheffield and Tuscumbia. So I kept up the microwave and one of the reasons they wanted me to work in the cable system was there wasn’t that much time you spent… you could sort of slough off if you were just working on the microwave, and they weren’t going to let you get away with that. So the first thing that Helmut Dieter did was he said, “You go out and work with the construction people.” Well, that meant that you were a grunt because you didn’t know anything, you worked under the crews as they were working on the pole line, and they’d yell down, “Throw me up a three bolt clamp, throw me up a come along, throw me up whatever.” And it taught you humility because here you were a trained technician, you had some licenses, but they didn’t care. You were just a grunt, and the guy that was really making your life miserable – I can remember throwing up a rope so they could pull up the lasher, and there’s a real technique to just throwing the rope up where they guy can grab it, so you really feel like a juvenile if you can’t throw it up to where he can grab it on the first throw-up. So I worked there in Decatur for about two years, and as I say, one of the problems that Dieter had was he had that German officer look about him, and his job was to go in and get franchises, and to go out, once he got the franchise, he would have to go negotiate with the telephone company and the power company to get pole rights. The other thing he’d have to do is he’d have to go out and negotiate with these local farmers because he had to put the tower up somewhere on their property. Well, as he got further into the south, especially into Louisiana where there are a lot of French people…
RIKER: And he was German.
PORTER: They just couldn’t abide him coming in, so if he was in competition with three or four people for the franchise, he was likely to lose. So because I had this radar background, he found out real quick that I could do – not to brag – but he felt I could do very superior signal surveys because I would make them very thorough. So he sort of took me under his wing, and he said, “Why don’t I teach you what to say before the city councils and why don’t I teach you how to get these pole contracts and teach you how to get these tower agreements signed?” So I started doing that, and I did it for quite awhile until I realized that this was silly. I ought to be getting my own franchises. So while I was still working for them – not undercover, of course they knew that I would go into another town in Georgia or Alabama or Tennessee – I would be getting franchises of my own, or helping locals get the franchises because back in those days, while cable television or broadband networking is a big industry today, back then it was a small mom and pop industry, and it would be pretty much like a dentist or a doctor in a town would hear that a town 30 miles over got a franchise and they didn’t want somebody to come into town and get that franchise, so they would go apply for the franchise. And since they were local they would get the franchise, but once they had it they didn’t know what to do with it.
RIKER: So you would partner with them?
PORTER: Yes, so they would call me and say, “I’ve got this franchise. I know I need to build a cable system. I don’t know how to do that. Would you come in and I’ll make you a partner?” Well, we didn’t know what cable systems were worth back then. If you sold one you would get $200 a subscriber instead of the $4,000-$5,000 a subscriber they get today.
RIKER: Plus the rates have changed in between there, too.
PORTER: Yes. And I would work a deal with them and I’d say, “I’ll come in and get the cable system built and I want 5% or 10% of the cable system.” And they’d say okay because they didn’t know how much money it was. Over the years we’ve gone into court because all of the sudden they’d say, “Well, wait a minute. That’s too much money for you to make because you didn’t do anything.” And I’d say, “Well, of course I did.”
RIKER: You built it.
PORTER: And they’d say, “Well, you never came back in and showed us how to operate it.” I wasn’t supposed to come in and show you how to operate it; I was just supposed to make sure you got an operational cable system. And it was pretty easy, Bill, because back then most everything was done by turnkey. So all you really did was set down some rules for Jerrold or Ameco or Viking or Entron to come in and they would build the cable system, and after it was finished you would go out and inspect it as the consultant.
RIKER: You’d proof it out.
PORTER: And you were through. You walked away and you had 5 or 10 per cent of a cable system, and never probably even thought about it in those days because you were so busy with other things.
RIKER: I remember a story when Jerrold was brought in to do a turnkey for a cable system and they went in, built the system, proofed it out and left, and a few days later the cable operator called up and said, “One of my amplifiers is out. Come out and fix it.” And Jerrold said, “No, we built it. You need to have a maintenance crew on there to take care of the system from now on.” So, I guess some people didn’t realize.
PORTER: That was not unusual. As a matter of fact, I had a cable system that I got the franchise up in Creston, Iowa one time and that was a recurring problem in that they didn’t have enough local technicians or technical help that really knew how to sweep or balance a cable system. So they would call me when I already had another job and say, “You’ve got to come back in here and help us.” And you almost got into a big argument because you’d say, “Look at the contract that I have. It says very specifically ‘advise and counsel’ and once the cable system is built it is your obligation to operate the thing because you’ve got 80 or 90 per cent ownership. You’re really going to make the money off the cable system.”
RIKER: Now, I remember when you were talking to me once earlier about Decatur that the broadcast stations were doing what’s called “cherry picking”. What’s that?
PORTER: Well, back in the early days, it didn’t happen so much with NBC, as a matter of fact I don’t know of NBC ever allowing television stations to cherry pick their signals, but ABC and CBS were not as strong as a network back in those days as NBC was, and so what would happen is usually you’d have a town that might have one television station that was an NBC feed, and then another station would come onboard and instead of being either an ABC or a CBS station they would cherry pick. The management of that cable system would take the best programs – what they considered the best programs from ABC and the best programs from CBS and they would actually mix CBS and ABC programs throughout the day, and it was their prerogative. It was their television station. And so, if you could come into that town that might even have two television stations, and as a matter of fact, Decatur was exactly that way; you could get NBC from Huntsville, you could get NBC kind of from Nashville but it would fade in and fade out and have co-channel interference from another channel four. So the local station was WMSL, which was one of the original UHF stations, channel 27, was a cherry picker. It carried some ABC programs and some CBS programs. So when we built the cable system we were able to pick up the Huntsville, the Nashville channels, and they were full-time NBC, CBS and ABC. Well, people wanted to get on the cable system because all of the sudden they saw programs they never saw before, or they may have seen when they went to visit Aunt Maude sixty miles away, and they said, “I never saw that program before.” And they’d say, “Well, that’s CBS.” Well, they couldn’t get it because at the time that that program came on, the cherry picking station had gone over to ABC. So that’s what we meant by cherry pickers, and we loved towns where they had stations that cherry picked because they were absolutely golden opportunities for a cable operator to bring in full-time – and of course you had to carry theirs, but back then we didn’t have the must carry rules. You carried whatever you could pick up, and if you could fill up twelve channels of cable television on a cable system, that was just wonderful. I remember the first time I ever saw twelve channels on one cable television system and I thought it was the grandest thing I’d ever seen in my life. Anyways, I got a call one day. Dieter had already left and gone back to Phoenix, AZ. Dieter went back and took over the microwave company that was bringing KTLA and WGN on the east coast and the west coast, and that company was called American Television Relay, and Bruce Merrill owned that company and he made Helmut Dieter the president of that. Like I said, Randy Fraley was made manager of the Decatur system. We had a lot of systems; we had Decatur and we had Panama City. Bruce owned a lot of cable systems. At one time he owned, I don’t know, almost 90 cable systems – Yuma, Arizona; Oneida, New York; Daly City, California. There were some pretty large cable systems.
RIKER: He must have sold it to TCI at some point, because I worked there myself.
PORTER: Yes, he did. So, the eastern vice-president and the western vice-president were always at loggerheads with each other. Charlie Wigatow was one, and Vince Urikio was the other. I don’t know what ever happened to them. I got a call one day from the western vice-president – and he’s not my boss, the eastern vice-president was. I don’t remember which was which. I don’t remember whether Urikio was the eastern or if Wigatow was, but he said, “We want you to come to Waco, Texas.” I had read about Waco. There were a lot of large cable systems back in the mid-60s, but Waco was one of a kind. It was going to be like 800 miles of plant, and there was not one single system… San Diego was already built, but San Diego was two or three cable systems and none of them were as big as 800 miles, but this was going to be one single owned cable system and it was going to be 800 miles. And they were going to have a lot of microwave in it. So, I got a call from the western vice-president, and he said, “We want you to come to Waco.” And I said, “What for?” He said, “We want you to become the area technical supervisor. You will have Waco and Temple and McGregor and Mexia, Texas.” And I forget the other systems. I didn’t want to go. I kind of liked it in Decatur because all my family was in the Tennessee-Alabama area. So I said, “I don’t want to go.” And the eastern vice-president calls me and he says, “You tell him no.” And so I said, “No.” He said, “Well, we want you to just come out and look at it.” And so I called the eastern vice-president of American Cable TV back and he said, “Well, you can go look at it, but you just tell him no.” And so I get out there and they have more trucks than I had ever seen in a cable system. They had like 36 technician trucks. They had really gone gangbusters. They had a big warehouse that just housed what looked like a year’s production of amplifiers and line extenders and construction gear, and beautiful offices on Bosque Avenue. So I went in and they met me. I went out and looked at the microwave, and the microwave was… that was the first time I’d ever seen a transistorized microwave system. Everything I’d ever worked on was tube. The headend, which picked up all the Dallas/Ft. Worth channels, was out in the middle of a cow pasture at a place called Wiggins, Texas, which is just south of Dallas/Ft. Worth. It was Collins microwave, and I’m going through looking at it, and I think this microwave has to be running at half power. So I threw some test equipment on it, and sure enough, coming out of the wave guides was about half power. Well, they had a power split, which shot half the signals in one direction to Waco, and one went south and went through McGregor and down to Temple, Texas because all those were cable systems that Bruce owned. So I asked them, “This microwave is in terrible shape.” They said, “Well, you know, we’re splitting the power.” I was measuring before the power was ever split, but in their mind that justified the weak signal. So I got ready to go back to Waco. I had fulfilled my obligation; I had looked at the cable system. And I got ready to go back and they said, “Well, you’re not going back to Decatur. This is your new job.” I said, “No, no, wait a minute. You just asked me to come down and look at it.” And they said, “Well, yeah, but we need you down here because the microwave…” everything depended on the microwave. So, they made me what I considered a good offer. Back then, if you made $340 or $350 a month that was big money. I can remember thinking if I could ever make $10,000 a year, I wouldn’t have to work very long. I could retire. You’ve got to remember, it didn’t cost a lot to live back then. You could buy a beautiful home for $15,000-$19,000 and pay it off. You could buy a car for $1,000 brand new. The first company car I ever had was a Pontiac GTO. You wonder why? I always wanted a GTO, they gave me a GTO.
RIKER: We used to go cruising in one of those.
PORTER: I think that thing cost me total about $1,300 or $1,400 right off the showroom floor. So it didn’t take a lot of money and they gave me a company car. They said they would move me from Decatur – everything I wanted. So we moved down from Decatur, and I started working on the microwave. Lyndon Johnson owned a cable system; he was one of the owners of a cable system in Austin, Texas, and I guess the government figured out that it wouldn’t be too good if the FCC started writing rules and regulations about cable systems and here the President of the United States owned one of them. So they decided to sell. Mid-West Video – General George Morrell was president of Mid-West Video out of Little Rock, Arkansas, and somehow they transferred ownership or bought Johnson’s interest out. Well, he didn’t need the microwave anymore down in Austin, so Bruce got the microwave from Austin, and when they brought it up they loaded it on the back of a flatbed truck, and like I told you, Wiggins was out in the middle of a cow pasture. Well, they would plow this cow pasture so there were furrows, uneven ground and I guess these guys went lickety-split with this microwave gear all the way out to the headend shed across these furrows and it’s bouncing. It bounced all the AFC modules out, all the AGC modules out and it dropped the load isolators down in the wave guide, so now they got half power. Well, I’m kind of a novice. I don’t know that you’re not supposed to fix things yourself because when I was in the military you fixed things. You didn’t send it back to Raytheon unless you just could not absolutely fix it. So I tear into the microwave and I pull all of the wave guide out because I could do that. If you remember, all television stations back then went off at midnight. They didn’t transmit, and so you could work on anything from about midnight to 7:00 or 8:00 in the morning; that’s when the stations came back on the air, so you could do a lot of maintenance. We miss that today because they’re on all the time. So anyways, I went into the wave guides and relocated the load isolators and it was only later when one of the guys from Collins came out and said, “Who did this?” And I said, “I did it.” They said, “We don’t know how you did it. It’s okay, but with the equipment,” and you know we didn’t have any equipment to work on anything back then, “with the equipment that you have, we don’t know how you ever located those load isolators back in the wave guide so that you got full power.” But the pictures really improved quite well. I can remember in the Waco system, there was a lot of rivalry between Jerrold and Ameco, and at one time, Ameco was running neck and neck with Jerrold as far as leadership in sales. One of the Jerrold salesmen, you know, they would come driving by your system, they came by and channel commanders had just come out. I had some real problems with off-the-air because the TV stations were right there in Waco and I was getting ghosting and so forth. Back then you could get away with some kind of substandard… people wanted television so bad they’d pay for snow almost, just something there. So the guy from Jerrold said, “You know, I could solve this problem if you’d let me put these channel commanders in your headend.” Well, I didn’t know any better. I thought if I can have a problem solved, let’s do it. So I pulled the Ameco gear out and put the Jerrold stuff in. Well, the problem was solved, and I start getting phone calls – you never got phone calls complimenting you, you always got “I have a problem” – we actually were getting people calling in saying, “I want back on. I went to my neighbor’s house; I’d gotten off because I couldn’t even watch my local channels. I want to get back on.” Our customer service just improved tremendously, and one day one of the guys from Ameco came into the headend. I thought he was going to have a heart attack. He said, “What are those three pieces of gear?” I said, “That’s channel commanders for the local stations.” “Get it out.” And I had to replace it with the original Ameco gear. Well, I lost all the customers that I had gotten.
RIKER: Because the Ameco wouldn’t perform as well.
PORTER: Yep, but they didn’t care. That was heresy to have competitive equipment in your headend because it was an Ameco system. So I was called one day, they were trying to start the Texas State network, and the chief engineer of, I believe it’s channel five was the big promoter of Texas State network in Ft. Worth, he called me and said, “We need to be able to get Texas State Network outside of the Dallas/Ft. Worth area, and you have microwave going south. If we could take Texas State Network programming,” and it was primarily news back then, it was local and state news, “if we could get it as far as Temple, the radio stations could take those signals and tape them, and then retransmit them delayed, and we could go all the way to the Rio Grande valley. Is there anyway you could do that?” Well, I knew that I had sub carriers on all the microwave… and back then nobody thought about actually putting information on the sub carriers. They just wasted sub carriers, so what I did was I took Texas State Network and put them on the sub-carriers, shot them down to Temple, and Temple bought the radio station there and transmitted them, and so they just kept delay broadcasting until they could get 24-hour service to Texas State Network.
RIKER: Until the FCC came in.
PORTER: Yep, and then one day an FCC inspector came in and he said, “I want to look at your microwave.” And so I said, “Okay.” And he said, “What’s this on the sub-carrier? What are you carrying?” And I told him. I was quite proud because the TV stations in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area gave me great stereo receivers so I could put stereo, great beautiful music, and I had like five channels of stereo that I was selling in Waco and Temple and McGregor. Well, I knew that if I took the Texas State Network off, they were going to take the receivers back and I was going to have the cruddy FM… but the FCC didn’t care, and I always thought the FCC’s focus was supposed to promote public service and the mere fact that because we weren’t a common carrier, that microwave only supplied service to our own company. I thought it was very short-sighted of the FCC. They should have said, “For the good of the people of Texas, we’re going to let you do it.” But they didn’t do that. They made me take it off, and Channel 5 came and got their stereo equipment because they had no deal anymore. And the other thing that I was involved with… I was only there in Waco for six months, but we did a lot of work in Waco while I was there. We finished the microwave system, I was involved with the Texas State Network there, and then Channel 9 – an educational television station, which still, as far as I know, is still in operation today – is owned by the University of Texas in Austin. They had planned to bring educational programming into the Dallas-Ft. Worth, Waco, Temple area and sell it to the schools, and had to deal with the schools because the only television station, educational television station, applied for the Dallas area and wasn’t even in operation. So they thought that if they could get their program in real fast they could sell the programming and there would be no need for the educational television station to go on the air. They asked me if I would do a microwave link and take the Austin signal, the Channel 9 signal from the University of Texas, up through that link and back feed it, and so I did that for them, and there was a little German town – I can’t remember the name of it now… Georgetown? Out around Georgetown. So I had to build a microwave pickup point there and then I had to shoot it over, I guess it was 20-22 miles, something like that, to Temple. The radio station in Temple was up in the top of a hotel building and our microwave shack was up in the top of that hotel building, so we finished that up for Channel 9. Now, I don’t know what ever happened to that microwave link because I do know the educational station, but I remember when it was being built, Tommy Moore built towers. He was probably as big a cable receiving-transmitting tower builder as there was, and he sent a crew into this little town where I was picking up the Channel 9 signal, and there was always a cardinal rule that you never stand behind the gin pole. The gin pole is how you build a cable tower. You put the first section up – obviously you stand on the ground and put that first section up – and then you put an arm at the top of it with a pulley on it and you pull the next section up. You lock that down and you move the gin pole, and when you work in the tower and you’re pulling sections up, you never stand behind the gin pole because if the gin pole snapped it was going to come right back into you. I remember I had gone away that day, this was 150 foot tower, and Tommy’s crew had put the first couple sections up and they seemed to be moving along pretty well and the headend building we had already finished, so I thought, well, I’ll take a break and go away. When I came back there was nobody there, and it was a pretty sad sight. This guy had stood behind the gin pole, and he had worked for Tommy for 8 or 10 years, and the gin pole snapped and when it came back it came right back into his face and it took all this half of his face right off of him. He went into a state of shock, and when you go into a state of shock you don’t feel the pain, you don’t feel anything, he was belted off, so the guy had to go up and belt him on and bring him down. I didn’t know what happened, and later somebody came out and said those guys are at the hospital in, I don’t know, whatever the closest town was, and I asked him, “Weren’t you scared when you brought him down?” He said, “Yeah, I was scared that he’d come out of shock and feel the pain.” The weird thing about that is within two years that construction guy was back working towers for Tommy Moore, and I guess, finished his career up doing work. Apparently those guys were used to those kinds of accidents. We had 500 and 600 foot towers later, and I remember when they would go out and work on those towers; rather than climb down the tower, or rather than winch down, they had little pressure devices that they would latch over the guy wire coming down, and if you can imagine riding a guy wire down 300 feet, and as they put more pressure on just this thing they’ve got in their hands it would slow them down, and they would come flying down this thing, and when they put pressure on this cinch that would cinch that guy wire, you could see smoke fly from this thing, and those guys lived on the edge of danger all the time. I always thought I would never want to be a tower guy, but these guys had a lot of excitement throughout their life, and if they didn’t have it they’d make it. Like I say, I spent six months in Waco. It seemed like six years. When I got there I found out that half the town couldn’t be served because they had a trunk line that was supposed to cross a U.S. highway. Well, they had 4,000 subscribers already signed up – in a file cabinet – signed up, no service although the amplifiers were ready to heat up.
RIKER: They just couldn’t get across the highway?
PORTER: Well, the state wouldn’t give us the permit to cross the highway. Well, like I say, I never knew that I was supposed to know any better, so I called my crew together one night, and I said, “Tomorrow morning I want everybody out at this highway crossing location. I want you out there at midnight and we’re going to cross that highway.” They said, “Well, you don’t have a permit.” I said, “This permit was applied for a year and a half ago. We’re going to cross the highway.” So sure enough, we worked all night and we went across the highway. It was just a highway crossing! The cable was already on both sides and was capped off, so we spliced it in. I told one of the guys, “You stay out here and watch all these trucks go in and make sure there’s no question of clearance.” We hooked up 4,000 subscribers as fast as we could hook them up, just because all of the sudden we got service. I did that right after I got there, and after about two months the state inspector came in; he was really huffing and puffing. “I want to know who gave the authority to cross the highway.” I said, “Well, I gave it. I headed the crew up that did it.” He said, “You don’t have any permit.” I said, “I applied for it. You said I was going to get it. Since I know I’m going to get it.” He had said by telephone it’s just an administrative thing. “If I’m going to get it anyhow, I went on across the highway.” I always thought that was so silly, too, just the bureaucracy of going under a railroad or going over a railroad, you know you’re going to get it – you’ve applied, all the paperwork’s proper. They would make you wait for a year or a year and a half to get action on something that you know you’re going to get and could stand in the way of millions of dollars of revenues and the happiness of the customers, I always wondered, “Why would they do that?” So I was always a man of action – do it! I never got into trouble. I guess they could have put me in jail, I don’t know. Certainly the FCC could have put me in jail, and I guess one of the reasons that I left Waco was I was working really hard during that six months time, and that one episode where the use of the equipment was more important than the customer, that just went against my grain and all the training that I’d ever had. And the other thing was that the microwave that I had at the receiving point, I had a lot of problems with the baseline, and so I needed video clampers and I knew they had video clampers back at Ameco because they had ATR and you can’t run a microwave network from the east coast to west coast and north to south without having video clampers. So I went out to Phoenix one day – I don’t know why I went out there – but I was in the Ameco plant and I went over to ATR and there’s just shelves and shelves of International Nuclear video clampers, and I only needed six. So I said to them, “I requisitioned video clampers. I need six of these things; you guys must have 300.” “We can’t help you.” “Well, what are you using them for?” “They’re for ATR.” “But you’re not using them. Let me at least use them until you need them.” “No, you can’t have them.” So, I just decided I wouldn’t stay at Waco. Back then you had big cable MSOs, nothing like today, but fairly decent MSOs that went from east coast to west coast, covering almost every state, and those would be like TelePrompTer, Storer, H&B America, and that ilk of MSO.
RIKER: How about American Cable?
PORTER: American Cable. And so I decided that I wanted to go to work for one of the other companies. TelePrompTer had always been a… I just always thought a lot of TelePrompTer, and so I put in my notice that I would leave in December of 1966.
RIKER: You were going to take a break for a little while.
PORTER: Yeah, I was going to go back home and just look around, send out my resumes and so forth. The manager at Waco decided if I was going to leave that he was going to leave too. He found out there was a company, a small MSO, by the name of United Video Systems that was headquartered in Kansas City. Mark Carlisle was his name, I don’t know why I remember his name, but he was the manager at Waco, and so he signed a deal with this United Video. I’d never heard of them. I’d heard of United Video, but it was United Video, Inc., and they were a microwave company that bought WGN across. So, I started getting calls from a guy, Alex Shniderman, and Alex Shniderman said, “I want you to come up to Kansas City and I want you to be the chief engineer for United Video Systems, and I said, “I never heard of United Video Systems.” He said, “Well, we own cable systems in Marshall; Booneville; Chilicoffee; Maryville, Missouri; Kansas City, Kansas; Columbus and Falls City, Nebraska, and we own 11 theaters in the Kansas City area. And I said, “I don’t want to go to work for you.” And he said, “Well, I’ll tell you what. I understand you’re leaving Waco and you’re going back home to Tennessee.” And I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Well, are you driving?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Well, if you’ll just drive up through Kansas City on your way home to Tennessee, I’ll pay all your expenses to go home.” I thought I’d have to be a goon not to do that. What can it cost just to go look at this cable system? So packed my wife and we had a baby daughter then. We already had a son but he was back with the grandparents; they’d come out to see us and taken the grandson back, so we just had the granddaughter. So I thought, well, I’ll just drive up through Kansas City; it’s not that far out of the way. So we pack up everything we’ve got in a little you-haul-it trailer, attach it to our car and start heading up to Kansas City. So, I called ahead, and I called this United Video’s office and they said, “We have a suite set up for you at this hotel in Kansas City, so when you get in here you just give them your name, everything’s been taken care of.” I’d never been treated that way, Bill. I’m thinking this is a small MSO, but they must make a lot of money with their systems and their movie theaters.
RIKER: Either that or they really wanted to impress you.
PORTER: So, we get in and the next morning we got breakfast in bed sent up and they had flowers in the room for my wife, and I’m thinking, I’ve never been treated this way. I was just an ol’ country boy, as I told you. So, I get a call and this voice that I’d talked to before says, “This is Alex. I’m down in the lobby. Why don’t you come on down at your convenience and we’ll talk?” Well, he’d never seen me, and back then you didn’t have magazines so regular that anybody could see anybody else’s picture unless they were Irving Kahn or somebody really high up in the pecking order. So I go down, and I see him, or who I think is him, and I go over and I say, “Alex?” He said, “Are you Porter?” And I said, “Yeah.” And he said, “Oh my God,” because I was only like 29 years old, he said, “I expected somebody older than you.” And I said, “Well, sorry. This is as old as I am.” I was 27. He said, “Well, how do you know all this stuff?” I didn’t even care about answering him, hardly, Bill, because I…
RIKER: You weren’t interested in the job.
PORTER: That’s right! I had performed my obligation by coming through Kansas City, and he said, “Well, I just want you to go out to Marshall; that’s my biggest cable system.” They had like 3,000 subscribers, and he said, “You’re wife can rest there and I just want you to look at the system and tell me what we’re doing wrong.” That was the first transistorized system they had and my background had been transistor systems, and I guess it was fairly new to them because everything they’d had prior to that had been tubes. So, I went out and he introduced me and my wife and daughter to the local secretary, Carolyn Cosgrove – I don’t know why I remember her name – but anyway, he said, “If you come to work for me, this would be your office.” Marshall was a really modern… some of the storefront offices we had for cable offices back then were almost dirt floors and an orange crate and an adding machine that wasn’t even electric. But this was a really modern office, had eight television sets on continually inside the office, and I always thought that was good for customer relations and so forth. So he said, “Why don’t you just leave your wife here at the office. Carolyn will make sure if she wants food or whatever she’ll be taken care of. Let’s go out to my headend.” So I said, “Okay,” so we got out to the headend and I automatically start… his headend is in terrible shape, so I reset his headend, and I climbed his tower because I climbed towers all my life, and he’s got a 480-foot tower in Marshall, and everything’s wrong, Bill. He’s got pre-amps where he shouldn’t have pre-amps because he’s got them in the wrong place; he’s got stacking harnesses for the antennas that are cut wrong and you know it just looking at it. So, I work all day on this thing and he’s in hog heaven. “You’ve got to go to work for me.” And I’m saying, “I’m not going to work for you.” So we spent the night in Marshall because it was so late. He said, “Well, tomorrow morning – I’ll pay you – go to Booneville with me; I’ve got problems in Booneville, and look at my Booneville cable system. Now these are cable systems that are maximum 40 miles of plant, and they’re kind of like toys. It would be kind of fun to keep these things up. There’s no microwave, and so I go out to Booneville and I do the same thing, and he’s rubbing his hands! His customers can even tell the difference in the pictures. He said, “You’ve got to go to work for me. I’ll make you the chief engineer of United Video Systems and every system will answer to you.” Well, I know this is going to make Mike Carlisle mad because he had been my boss in Waco and now I’m going to be everybody’s boss. So, I said, “Well, you can’t afford me.” He said, “How much would TelePrompTer or one of these other companies pay me?” So I threw out some figure thinking it would shake him, and he said, “Okay. You go home to Tennessee, I’ll fine you a home that you will like here in Marshall. You’ll work out of here, everybody will answer to you. Go on home. When you come back, you’ll be set up. Leave your trailer here.” Well, I took my wife and we got back in the car and we went home to Tennessee. I called back and he said, “Oh, you’re going to like this little home I got you.” He found a little 3 bedroom, brand new home. He moved my furniture in for me, as best he could, and so I get back and I think, well, I might enjoy this after all. So we got other franchises in Kansas and Missouri and so forth, and one of the days in 1967 I get a call from Alex and he said… Well, prior to that, on Memorial Day of 1967, I’m at the office and Jack Mann is my chief technician, and Calvin Blumhorst – I don’t know why these names are all coming back – is an installer and assistant technician. I had them out doing installs and riding the lines and I told you that Marshall had seven or eight television sets inside the office; they all go black. I think, well, we lost an amplifier out on the trunk line. So, I say to Jack Mann, “Drive the trunk line real quick and see if you can find out why we have no signal.” He keeps going back and he’s talking to me on the radio and he says, “There’s a problem out at the headend somewhere. We don’t have anything at all.” I said, “Well, drive back to the headend.” He calls me and he says, “There’s a plane that crashed into the telephone poles and knocked power out, but it will be back on in about an hour or so.” I thought, “That’s strange.” So I got in my car and drove out to the headend and when I get out there… I drive up and the police have got the roads blocked off but they let me threw. So, I go out and part of the tower is lying on the ground. It turns out that there were four people in the plane and they were going to the Indianapolis 500, and it was raining really bad on the day before Memorial Day in 1967 and they had gotten lost. The weather was so back they had struck one of the guy wires on this 480-foot tower, and back in the mid-west, you have what’s called a star mount at the top of the tower and it’s to keep the tower, with the winds they have out there, from twisting and actually twisting the tower to the ground, so you have a lot of guy wires on a tower that high and it had struck one of the guy wires. When it did, it pulled it completely out of its anchor and it just acted like a slingshot and flipped that plane all the way across the street and into a ditch and killed all the people. Alex Schneiderman comes out, and of course I learned a great lesson about records keeping in a cable system back then because I was a stickler of doing headend logs, and there was no requirement by the FCC back then that you do headend logs, I just like to write stuff down. So immediately when I found out what had happened, I went up to the headend check and I checked the circuit breakers for all of the tower lights and left them out and sealed them off with tape so nobody could push them back in, and I don’t know why I did it, it just seemed like the right thing to do and I put the other circuit breakers back in place so that when power came back on we could have pictures. And of course it knocked some of the antennas down because they were at the very top 180 feet, which is where the star mount section was. So, I called Tommy Moore, good old Tommy Moore, and he sent a crew in and they brought a tower section in – we owned the cable system over in Seneca and Sabbatha, Kansas, and so he just transferred a section or two over and rebuilt the top of that, and I was scared to climb the tower almost because a plane hit it – but they checked it and said it was worthy of staying in place and would support everything, and it did for a number of years after that. But Alex Shniderman came driving in from Kansas City and it really shook him, you could tell he was really shaken – well, it was a bad tragedy – but he was almost visibly shaken and he said to me, “I’m never going to fly in a private plane again.” And that stuck with me, just the emphasis he put on saying that, and a week later Calvin Blumhorst, who worked for me in Marshall was going to get married. So we were all going to drive over to Sedalia, which is about 30-some miles from Marshall, and we all piled in a car, our wives and us, and we drive over to the wedding. When we were coming back from the wedding, we’ve got the radio on and we hear an announcement on the radio that a plane crashed in Seneca, Kansas, and the vice-president of operations, Alex Shniderman, was killed in that plane crash. Alex had called me that very day and asked me to fly over and I said, “I can’t because I have to replace some log periodic antennas.” Scientific-Atlanta had some problems with their early version of their antennas – great antennas, but they had some structural weaknesses – and I had to replace some of those log periodics in Booneville, Missouri, and I said, “I ain’t going.” I know you don’t tell your boss that, but I did. I said, “I’m not going, because those crews were coming in to replace those antennas.
RIKER: Not the first time you said that.
PORTER: Yeah, so I didn’t go, and probably missed not getting hurt badly that way.
RIKER: Or worse.
PORTER: Yeah. So, anyways, as we’re driving back – of course we’re in shock because Alex is like the father of the company and was really the only one on the board of directors or really had any idea of what cable was about. The board of directors for United Video consisted of… the chairman of the board owned a construction company and built most of the big buildings in the city of Kansas City; there were two heart specialists; there was a brain specialist; there was a general practitioner; and there were two lawyers. So, if you tried to talk technical to them or talk cable, they didn’t know what you were talking about, all they knew was you wanted some money to buy some more equipment. So they said, “Well, Rex, I guess you’re going to take Alex’s job.” I never did think anything about it, so the next morning I get a call and they said, “You’ve got to come to Kansas City. We want you to become the vice-president of operations for United Video.” I’m still 27 years old, or 28, so Mary and I get in the car and we drive to the board meeting and they announced, “You’re the only person we’ve got that knows anything about cable. You’re now the new vice-president; take over and run this thing.”
RIKER: Just jumping back a little bit to Marshall, you have an interesting story related to the first Super Bowl.
PORTER: Oh, yeah. When I got to Marshall, it was a pretty friendly little town and that was the year of the first Super Bowl. That was the year that the Kansas City Chiefs and the Green Bay Packers played in Super Bowl I, and of course they had playoffs to decide who would go from the AFC and who would go from the NFC and Kansas City went through the playoffs and won the playoffs. So I get to Marshall and one of the things that Alex Shniderman said that I should do is join some of the civic organizations immediately and get to know the people there. So, one of them that I joined was the Optimist’s Club. So I join the Optimist’s Club and I’m thinking this is a pretty nice group, everybody’s really jovial, and they don’t know who I am, they just know my name because I’ve got a badge on that says “Rex Porter”. So the meeting opens and it’s a breakfast meeting as usual and the guy that’s running the Optimists Club says, “I want to introduce to you, some of you people have already met him, Rex Porter who is the new manager of the cable system.” Boy, all these people got sour looks on their face and I’m thinking, what happened to the jovial people that I thought were here in Marshall? And so the guy that was running the meeting said, “Mr. Porter, I think I ought to tell you that during the last playoff game the cable went off in the third quarter and never came back on for the rest of the game, and the mayor’s wife was actually going out door-to-door up and down the street hooking people’s antennas back up, and I have to tell you that (Kansas City had already won the playoff) the Super Bowl is a week from today and I have to warn you that the police have already told me that if the cable system goes off the air during the Super Bowl, you are subject to arrest.” The chief of police was sitting in the meeting, and I think they were serious, so I took a room as close to the end of the line in that cable system at a motel, actually left my house and took a room, and I made everybody come in to work that day, and I made Jack Mann and Calvin Blumhorst ride the lines all day long to make sure that nothing happened in that cable system. I don’t even think we had a flicker with the picture that day, and of course Kansas City got beat, but the cable never went off the air. I guess I sweated more that day than most days of my life, but it was always a cute story. I think they probably would have had some kind of ceremony to publicly humiliate me if that cable system had gone off that day.
RIKER: Something similar happened to me when I was working for AM Video that during the Super Bowl the first trunk amplifier died and we luckily only lost about ten minutes because it was so close to the headend we got right out there and fixed it, but from then on the GM and I would always spend Super Bowl Sunday at the headend waiting for calls to come in.
PORTER: Well, then, you know how you kind of sweat it out.
RIKER: Okay, so now you’re General Manager and VP of United Video.
PORTER: Uh-huh. And remember I told you that the owners… these were all professional people, they’re lawyers and high class physicians or owners of companies and the only reason they got into cable television was it was a good tax solution for them. They didn’t want to necessarily make money. They actually liked the idea of breaking even or losing a little bit because it was a tax shelter for them. Of course, they never sat down and discussed that with me, but financially I knew that there had been a lot of discussion about cable being a good tax shelter. So they were quite happy. As a matter of fact, we only had $67,000 actual money in that company. The way they borrowed money was everything was turn-keyed, all the construction was turn-keyed, and if they needed money they just went down to the bank and borrowed against CDs that they had at the bank. So it was $67,000, I believe, $67,000-$68,000. Well, I took over and I started making these cable systems gain customers and they started to make money and all of the sudden we were paying off interest payments that we hadn’t paid the bank, and we’d have to go back and renew or set new terms. Soon we were paying off interest and all of the sudden I started making payments on the principle. I thought that’s what I was supposed to do. Well, it wasn’t what I was supposed to do, and so I got a call one day from Morris Hoffman, who was the chairman of the board, and he said, “We want you to come in to the board meeting, we want to talk to you. We think we’re going to sell United Video Systems. I don’t want you to worry about it; Bill Daniels is going to handle the sale and of course we’re going to pay him a commission, but we’ll pay you a like commission.” I thought that’s pretty good, and I can always get a job somewhere else. I had never used anybody’s gear while I was at United Video except Jerrold amplifiers, Jerrold electronic gear and Times Cable because at that time Times and Jerrold were like brother/sister companies. If you ordered cable JT-1412 or JT-1500, JT-1750 that JT stood for Jerrold Times, not common ownership, but common participation – turnkey, Jerrold equipment, Times Cable, and for years, if you bought a cable system and it had Jerrold equipment in it and Times Cable, you got a premium for that cable system when you sold it because it was known to be the superior products, and it went that way probably throughout the ’60s and pretty much into the ’70s. After awhile, that wasn’t the situation. Ray Schneider used to call on me, and I always thought that was pretty nice because he was the vice-president of Times Wire and Cable and there was a local salesman that I had been an installer back in Decatur with, Don Atchison, and Don used to call on me, but he would bring Ray Schneider and Ray and I always thought a lot of each other, I guess. Ray, of course, had been the vice-president of operations for TelePrompTer prior to that, and then went to work for Times, and Ray had always said to me, “If you ever leave United Video for whatever reason, don’t go back and engineer cable systems. You know the people here in the mid-west; come and work for Times.” And I had been impressed with Times because they were owned by International Silver Corporation, and so if you did a turnkey with Jerrold, which we did always, you got Times Cable and Times would always have a beautiful silver tea service at the reception, at the grand opening of the cable system; they’d have candelabras. They promoted the idea that International Silver owned Times Wire and Cable. So, I’m thinking they’re going to give me a commission on the sale because I’m going to protect the interests of United Video. Like I said, they didn’t know what the value of that cable system was. So, I said, “Well, who wants to buy the cable systems?” And they said, “There’s a gentleman by the name of Monroe Rifkin, who’s trying to form a new MSO and he wants to buy the company.” Well, I knew who Monty Rifkin was because he had been the Treasurer of TelePrompTer with Irving Kahn and Ray Schneider. So, Monty came in and he sent some of his people in, and I asked how much they were going to pay for United Video. Well, they paid 1.8 million dollars. Now, this is a company that had $67,000, but it was worth the 1.8. So, Monty asked me, “You are going to stay with the company, aren’t you?” Talk about putting your foot in your mouth, and something that Monty Rifkin has never let me forget, of course I said, “No, I’m going to go to work for a big company.” Well, of course Monty, as you well know, took that company as a flagship systems of ATC, which then became Time and then they bought Warner Communications and became Time Warner, and now is the biggest company in the telecommunications industry, and was even then, shortly after, the biggest company, biggest MSO there was. So, every once in awhile when I run into Monty he’ll be reading Forbes Magazine and he’ll look up and say, “Rex, have you found a big company to go to work for yet?” He never lets me forget it.
RIKER: So you went to work for Times?
PORTER: I went to work for Times.
RIKER: And you were in the Jerrold office in Kansas City.
PORTER: Yes, John Deikman was the regional sales manager for Jerrold Electronics.
RIKER: You also worked with a couple of friends of ours. Wendell Woody, J.C. Sparkman.
PORTER: Well, J.C. wasn’t there then. Wendell Woody was there. John Deekman headed the cable television side of the business and Wendell Woody headed the distributor side, and that was called the DSD Division – Distribution
Sales Division or something. Anyways, we made cable for cable television, RG-59 and RG-6, and we had part numbers like MI-2029 or MI-2025 for the cable side. We’d make the same cable, which Wendell Woody would take to distributors around the United States and we’d call it CAC-59 and CAC-6. Well, the only difference was we stamped some CAC-59 and CAC-6. I was the first cable operator that Wendell Woody ever met, and I had lunch with him and John Deikman in Kansas City when I was running United Video Systems, and Wendell will tell you – he always remembered – he’d never met a cable operator. I think he was quite shocked by… he had heard John talk about me and he was quite shocked by my age to be running a company like that. Anyways, when I moved to Times, I located an office just next door to John Deikman’s office and I used Wendell Woody’s secretary. She gave me half her time and Woody half her time for administrative typing and filing and so forth. I had 18 states that ran from Montana to Texas that was my territory for Times, and then they decided that they would split the territory and Dean Taylor came onboard from General Cable, before it was ever Trilogy, and I gave him the icebox part of my territory. He never forgave me. I gave him Michigan, Indiana, Minnesota, and I kept Texas, Louisana, Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas and so forth. It was about that time – I told you that I had been an installer with Don Atchison and Mason Hamilton had been an installer with me down in Decatur, so we knew each other and we started a little power supply company called Power Guard down in Georgia. I don’t remember… it didn’t take much money to start a company back then, and today Power Guard is a pretty big company. I don’t have any ownership in it; we sold out to, I think, Bormup & Sims actually ended up buying the company. But anyways, I worked throughout that 18 state area, and then I got a call from Ray Schneider – Dean Taylor had already gone to the east coast by then and was working out of the Wallingford headquarters of Times, and I stayed there in Kansas City – and he said, “I want to split the United States into an eastern territory and a western territory, and I want you to take the western half and Dean’s going to take the eastern half and we’ll just use the Mississippi River as the dividing point.” So, I had five guys that had territories in my western division, and Dean had four or five guys that had the eastern division. At the same time, I was still building cable systems. When I went to work for Times I said, “Now you realize I have cable systems. I’m not going to give them up.” Ray said, “That’s okay. We’ll sign a deal that as long as you don’t sell cable to yourself cheaper than you’re supposed to, you can continue to own your cable systems.” So, while I was at Jerrold, John Deekman left and went back to Horsham, the Pennsylvania headquarters for Jerrold, and J.C. Sparkman came in as the regional manager for that area, and J.C. Sparkman had a secretary by the name of Lois Schott.
RIKER: You’re doing good with names today.
PORTER: Well, it was easy because her husband was my – even before J.C. came in – Lois’s husband was a CPA, so he did my taxes, and so one day J.C. said to me, “You know, Lois just gives me fits. She and her husband own a cable system and you’ve given away franchises,” and I had. I know it sounds stupid and I feel stupid today, but there were so many franchises available, you couldn’t get a franchise and keep it forever. You couldn’t build that kind of cable system. So you would have a franchise that you would think, ah, I really don’t want this franchise. Now, if you had a friend you’d just say, “I’ve got this franchise, how would like to take it off my hands?” And you’d give franchises away. He said, “I know you helped so and so start a cable system. Why don’t you talk to Lois and her husband?” I said, “I know her husband. He does my taxes.” So I went out and sat down with John and I said, “Where do you want a cable system at?” He said, “Well, I’d like to have one right here.” He lived in the county where the Kansas City airport is, Platt County. There’s a three-panel county judgeship, and he said, “For awhile, I was one of the judges. I think that you could get a franchise for the whole county.” I said, “Well, that’s kind of a novel thing.” I wasn’t used to getting franchises for a whole county, just a single town, and I knew that John’s sister was a secretary to the governor of the state of Missouri, and I said to John, “Have her send me the statute book on franchises.” Well, about a week later, there’s a box, and every statue for the state of Missouri comes through the mail to me, or UPS or whatever, and I only wanted the one book. I think I’ve still got the state statutes for the state of Missouri. I started reading the statute book and find out that legally the only town or city in Missouri that could give a franchise legally was a class A city. None of the rest of the towns, which meant that if I really wanted to be a scoundrel, I probably could have sued to own every cable system other than Jefferson City and Kansas City because they weren’t class A cities. Class A cities had to have a pretty hefty population. So that meant that Marshall and Booneville and Sedalia and all those cable systems, the cities acted illegally in granting a franchise they didn’t have the authority to. Only the county had the right to grant a franchise. So, I go back to this three-judge panel and I have a meeting with them. I said, “I’d like to have the franchise for Platt County.” They granted it to me. It was a half a page – I’ve still got the franchise – a half a page that said I had a franchise in perpetuity, no franchise fee whatsoever. Well, later on, the FCC said, “That’s illegal. You’ve got to cut that back to 15 or 20 years, and you’ve got to pay them 5%.” Well, you know me. I’m arguing with the FCC, “They don’t want any fee.” “We don’t care; you’ve got to pay them.” “But they don’t want…” “We don’t care.” So anyways, we built the cable system there. We didn’t have a lot of money; Jerrold turn keyed it. It was probably one of the last turnkeys that Jerrold did because they got out of the turnkey business. One of the cable systems that we had owned when I was at United Video was Kansas City, Kansas. We didn’t sell Kansas City, Kansas to Monty; we just sold those small six cable systems. One of the reasons we didn’t sell the system in Kansas City was our partner owned an electrical company in Kansas City, Kansas and we had made a deal that if either party decided they wanted out they had to sell back to the other partner. So we sold the 50% back. Well, Jerrold ended up with it, Jerrold Electronics, because Jerrold for a long time built cable systems as well as sold equipment and turn keyed cable systems.
RIKER: They had their own franchises.
PORTER: Oh, yeah! And I can remember sitting in the Jerrold office in Kansas City and the FCC was fixing to put the rules in effect at midnight and they had no customers. You had to have customers to be an operating cable system to meet the grandfather clause. We had one customer that we knew we could hook up that was in a trailer park. Now, I say “we”, I’m still helping Jerrold because, you know, if you sold something to somebody or were a past owner, they kind of depended on you to help them out. It wasn’t all about money back then, it was you helped each other. So, we laid cable all the way from the tower, from the headend, one line all the way down the road, laid it in the ditch, and ran it to this woman that lived in a trailer, and said to the FCC, “We’re an operating system. We have a paying customer.” And I think the deal was that that lady in that trailer, as long as she lived there, would never have to pay, no matter how many services came over the cable, she would always pay that one rate. I think it was like $4.95 or $5.95 a month for all the cable she could watch. So anyways, I’m working for Times, now there’s an eastern division and a western division. The only plant that we have is at Wallingford, Connecticut, and AMECO owns a cable plant, AMECO Wire and Cable, and it’s kind of a unique plant in that all the other cable plants on the east coast – all the cable plants at that time were on the east coast – the air was moist enough and you had seasonal difficulties that when you made a core for a reel of cable you had to put it into a drying oven because it would trap water in the dielectric and you would heat those cables, force air both into the inside of the reel and the outside, and you would dry it out. You would cure the core. Well, with the heat in Phoenix, you didn’t need drying ovens. So what you’d do is make the cable, take it outside, put it in that hot sunshine and let the sun bake the moisture out of it.
RIKER: What kind of dielectric were you using in those days?
PORTER: Well, it was foam polyethylene, but it was before we had gas injected cables, and we had just…
RIKER: It was also polystyrene, wasn’t it?
PORTER: Well, we had just introduced polystyrene. As a matter of fact, the first national convention I ever went to as a salesman – and boy, that was novel because I always went as an operator so people would buy you dinners and take you out, and now you’ve got to do that – was in San Francisco in 1969. It was a funny thing, Bill, because one of the problems with styrene was water.
RIKER: It sucked it up.
PORTER: And wouldn’t you know that the theme at the San Francisco convention for Times introducing dynafoam cable was the Age of Aquarius and the marketing people didn’t realize that the Aquarius, the sign Aquarius, is water-bearer. It turned out that that really was a water-bearer, but dynafoam took off real quick and one of the reasons was it had 20% lower loss – we didn’t have gas injected cables. Dynafoam, or styrene cable, was the first use of gas injection to form the little bubbles, the foam. And the reason it had less attenuation was we had originally used chemicals. We’d mix chemicals in with the polyethylene pellets and put that into the extruder, put heat on it, and there’s be little tiny explosions in there because the chemicals would react to the polyethylene and it would form a little cell, lots of little cells, those were the bubbles or the foam, but one of the by-products of the chemical agent was water, and it was always there. It didn’t get any better or any worse, it was just always trapped in that cell of foam. Well, if you stopped using chemicals to blow the di-electric, or expand it and use gas, there was no by-product of water. So you had air inside that cell. So, voila, you had 20% better attenuation, same sized cable, same di-electric later, when we went to gas injected polyethylene, but we didn’t know how to gas inject polyethylene. We discovered how to do that with styrene. Now, if you really took your time and really put connectors on and you had good watertight connectors, some cable systems used dynafoam and it worked with no problems. The Rock brothers up in Idaho, at Coeur D’Alene, they swore by dynafoam and it stayed in their cable system for years, but we weren’t used to being real careful with cable back then, and because there was so much air in that di-electric, guys thought they could pull the cable off the reels like they did when it was just regular polyethylene, and they would kink it and break it and holes would show up in it, and sure enough, if water got in, it could travel through that di-electric or along the center conductor and later on what we did was we decided to put an adhesive between the di-electric and the center conductor and we actually do that today, or it’s done today with foam polyethylene cables so that moisture can’t get between the di-electric and the center conductor itself, and travel down the center conductor. But it was kind of a weird situation back then because dynamfoam was a Times product, but because the cable was styrene, everybody that made styrene, and they all followed suit – Commscope made styrene cable, Cero made styrene cable, Systems made styrene cable – but I’d get calls and guys would say, “You have to come out and fix this cable that you sold me.” Well, you couldn’t remember who you sold cable to, and I might be working on 100 accounts at one time because cable was exploding across the United States. You couldn’t keep up; you were just taking orders and making lots of money selling cable. Well, you’d get out there and it would be somebody else’s cable, and you’d say, “I can’t help you. This is not my cable.” “Well, it’s Dynafoam.” “No, it’s not Dynafoam.” “Well, it’s styrene.” “Well, yeah, it’s styrene, but it’s not Dynafoam.” “Yeah, well, if it’s styrene, it’s Dynafoam.” And that was one of the best marketing things that Times ever came up with. Commscope discovered a similar thing when they named their cable P-1 and P-3. It rolled off the lip so easy that today even though Times may be making the cable or some other company may be making that type of cable, they say it’s P-3 type, or it’s P-3 cable. Well, it’s not really P-3; that’s a product name and not a type of cable.
RIKER: Right, it’s a technology. Okay, well, we need to take a break here and we’ll pick up with your move to Phoenix and taking over the AMECO Wire and Cable plant.
RIKER: We’re continuing the interview with Rex Porter for the Oral History Program, and where we left off was that Times Wire bought the AMECO plant and Rex moved to Phoenix in order to run that facility.
PORTER: Well, I didn’t run the facility. I went out to head up the marketing and sales efforts for the Phoenix plant. The plant manager was transferred from the Wallingford plant; Kevin Lynch went out to actually be the plant manager. That became my headquarters for the western region, and the people that had been running the AMECO plant was Jack Woods, Mary White, Nat Marshall, they all went across the river and started their own company called Systems Wire and Cable, and that left the plant truly a Times Wire and Cable plant, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise because Ray Schneider had always wanted to buy that plant from AMECO and about three months after we bought the Phoenix plant, the Wallingford plant went on strike and had limited production out of it. It probably dropped their production capabilities down to 30 or 40 per cent of what they had been producing in cable. So, all of the production responsibilities fell on the Phoenix plant, and I moved out there and stayed out there from 1972 to 1976. I digress, one of the things I wanted to talk about was when I first went to work for Times, I told you that Ray Schneider had said to me, “If you ever leave United Video, I want you to come to work for Times,” and he made a call to me after he found out that we had sold United Video and said, “I’d like for you to come up to the Michigan State convention and meet with me there, and talk about this territory.” So, I fly up – it was the first time I’d ever flown on a jet airplane, and for some reason, they had a jet aircraft servicing Pelston, Michigan, which is way up on the Canadian border, and they actually held the Michigan state convention at that time in Canada. It was a ski resort, and I remember while I was on the plane I ran into a guy by the name of Ben Hughes. Now, I can’t talk to Ben about why I’m going up to the Michigan show because I’m going up to talk about going to work for Times and Ben is the vice-president of Superior Continental, which was the predecessor of Commscope Wire and Cable. But while we’re sitting there – I’d known Ben for a long time; I didn’t buy a lot of cable from him, but he was just one of those guys you really liked to be around and liked to talk to – and so we got to doing some serious talking and he said, “You know, I always wanted to own my own company. Would you be interested in coming in as a partner if I decided I wanted to start my own company?” I said, “Well, sure. I trust your business judgments and so forth. You ever want to start something, let me know.” So, about 1972-73, I get a call from Ben Hughes and he said, “I’ve decided I want to make tools.” I said, “What kind of tools?” He said, “Tools for the cable industry.” Well, before then we didn’t have things such as coring tools. We used knives and pliers and hammers and whatever we could to pound a connector on, that’s what we used. He said, “I want to come out with a line of tools where we can core the di-electric out and we can get the jacket off a jacketed cable, a line of very innovative tools for the technician.” I said, “Well, see who you can get to come in and sure, I’d like to be a partner.” So, as it ended up, there was Ben Hughes, myself, Wally Briscoe – Wally, at that time, was the executive secretary for the NCTA – and one other guy was a partner, Cy Guttenplan, who owned Telewire, which at that time was a very successful (not that it’s not now, because it is) but at that time it was an individual, very successful distributor out on Long Island. Cy later sold that company to ANTEC and retired, but we were the four owners, founders and owners, of Ben Hughes Tools, which is better known, probably, today, as Cable Prep. I just wanted to touch on that because there were a number of companies that I got involved with back then that today are fairly successful companies. Anyways, now I’m in Phoenix. I’m the western regional manager, and I worked that territory with five or six guys under my direction, and one of the people that I’m really proud of today is John Patterson. John had attended Arizona State University and he needed a job while he was going to school and this is while it was AMECO in Phoenix, and the only job they had available was janitor, and I always thought a lot of John. Here’s a teenage janitor of the plant so he would have a job, and from that he learned how to wind cable, he learned how to make cable, he learned how to jacket cable, and he ended up being the lead technician for all the cable that came out of that plant. And so I’m out in Phoenix and now we’ve bought the plant, and John Patterson comes into my office. Now, I know who John Patterson is; he’s a worker in the plant. His abilities I don’t know, but he comes in and he sits down in a chair in the office and he said, “I now have my degree in marketing from ASU and I want a job selling.” Of course guys were always hitting you up for a job – “Why don’t you give me a job selling cable. I could sell this cable.” So, I didn’t do anything. I said, “Well, I have to check with Ray Schneider. I’m not sure we have any openings.” He said, “Okay, I’ll check back with you in a couple of weeks.” Well, about two weeks later he came in and he sat down in a chair across from the desk and he said, “Well, what about my job?” And I said, “You know, I just haven’t had a chance to call Ray Schneider.” He said, “Well, I’ll just sit here until you call him.” So I called Ray Schneider and I said, “We have John Patterson, who works in the plant, here.” He said, “I’ve heard of John. I know he’s a fine young man.” I said, “Well, he just graduated from ASU with his degree in marketing and he wants a sales job.” He said, “Well, have you talked to him?” I said, “He won’t leave my office.” He said, “Hire him.” That quick. “Hire him.” John turned out to be one of the better salesperson that we had at Times and today he’s the western vice-president with CommScope. So, I always thought that that was a good success story for a guy who was willing to do the dirtiest job in a plant to ultimately to rise through the ranks of companies. I stayed in Phoenix until 1976, and I told you that I had the western half of the United States and Dean had the eastern half of the United States, and somehow in my mind I always supposed that if there were ever any promotions between Dean and myself it would go to Dean because the guy that’s at headquarters has the ultimate advantage over the guy that’s way out in Phoenix. I get a call from Ray Schneider in 1976 and he said, “I want you to move back to Wallingford.” I said, “What for?” He said, “I want you to take over as the national sales manager.” I said, “But we already have a national sales manager. That’s Bud Desmond.” He said, “Well, don’t worry about Bud. I’m going to make Bud director of marketing.” I always loved marketing better than sales, so I said, “I want that job.” He said, “No, I need you for sales. You come back to Wallingford.” So I packed my family up and we moved back to Wallingford, Connecticut, to Meriden – we lived in Meriden, the plant’s in Wallingford. So, then Dean decides that he’s going to leave, and he’s going to go take the same job I have at Times at Hatfield Wire and Cable, and he does. He goes to Phoenix and becomes the national sales manager for CCS Hatfield. It’s only about two months after he leaves that Bud Desmond has a massive heart attack and dies, and now we need a marketing manager, and Dean would have been the absolute… and Dean always kids me that his timing was terrible because if he hadn’t have left, maybe he could have had the marketing manager’s job. About six months after Bud has his heart attack, Ray had always been a heavy smoker – Ray Schneider – and he developed really bad emphysema and he was going to have to retire, but he’s still working at the plant and about that time, we hire Frank Dabby and Ron Chesley from AT&T Labs as part of the company because they have the right to a patent that Bell Labs has to make fiber optic cable. So, they’re hired in; we decide to change the name of Times Wire and Cable and now it’s to be called Times Fiber Communications. There was a big change in management of Times then. Bob Burton had been the president of Times; Larry DeGeorge had always been the CEO and sat on the board of Insilco. Jack Arbuthnottt was the chief engineer, but they had a vice-president of engineering, all approaching retirement age, and now Bud has passed away, and Ray’s in failing health and is getting worse and worse. So, Insilco at that time owned a lot of companies. They owned Red Devil paint, they owned Steward Stamping that stamped coins for Argentina and South American countries, they’d get the coins up not stamped and they would stamp them and ship them back to the country. They owned Taylor Publishing, which was the biggest publisher of high school and college annuals and yearbooks in the world. They owned Eyelet Corporation that was internationally making zippers for clothing and buttons and snaps. They owned a company that made crucibles for melting metals and forming metals and so forth. So, they were a pretty big company. They owned, of course, their own International Silver plant.
RIKER: Quite diversified.
PORTER: Yes. So the vice-president of engineering retired and so they never named another vice-president of engineering. They just had Jack Arbuthnott continue on as the chief engineer for Times Wire and Cable. Bob Burton they decided to send to rolodex, which is another company they owned. Secretaries used Rolodex and that was one of our companies, and that’s before we had Palm Pilots or computers, so everybody had a Rolodex, which proved to be one of those things that didn’t keep up with the times and now you don’t see Rolodex much anymore, but Bob Burton went over and became president of Rolodex, and they brought Bill Lynch in. Bill had been with General Electric. He had worked in and been in management of manufacturing facilities that made ovens and refrigerators and all the appliances that GE makes. And then Ray got so ill that he decided to retire. Well, he had sort of groomed me to be the vice-president of the cable side because actually Times had two sides to it. It had Times Microwave, and Times Microwave was heavy into government contracts. They made cable assemblies for the atomic energy commission and the fighter aircrafts and submarines, anything military. And then we had the cable side, and I was to be in charge of the cable television… all of the production for that. But Bill Lynch didn’t like… I’d never finished college, and I guess to his way of thinking, if you didn’t have a diploma to hang on your wall, all your successes didn’t mean anything because you couldn’t back it up with a piece of paper to hang on the wall. So, he decided to bring his cronies in and they didn’t know anything about what was being done at Times, so they would say things to me like “Don’t you worry, nobody’s going to bother you. I’m just going to sit over here and not bother you.” But they were, in essence, my bosses, and I didn’t like that. We went through two or three people and finally I just decided that I had had enough. Jack Arbuthnott, who was the chief engineer with Times, Larry DeGeorge had brought him on from Phipps-Dodge. Phipps-Dodge was the first company to make aluminum sheath coaxial cable, and so Larry enticed Jack to come on board and that’s how Times got into making aluminum sheath cable. So they had a father-son relationship for years. But all of the sudden, Kevin Lynch and Jack Arbuthnottt wanted me to help them start a company. We could manufacture our own cable. So, Cerro closed their plant down in Freehold, New Jersey, and I knew that that plant was laying dormant, so I started looking around for some money, and I found an investor and I took Jack Arbuthnottt, the chief engineer from Times, and Kevin Lynch, the plant manager from the Phoenix plant, and we went down and started our own cable plant. We opened the Cerro plant and we called it Capscan Cable.
RIKER: Right, I remember Capscan. Going back to Times, when you started making fiber, where does the mini-hub come into play? Was that during your tenure there?
PORTER: Not really, because just about the time… I was there when the concept was laid out; I don’t think we had actually… if we had sold a mini-hub, it was to Storer, and maybe we had sold one. Harold Null was a great proponent of the mini-hub and the idea of fiber. He always believed that fiber optics would work for much more than the mini-hub and much more than its common use in the original days, which was just to long line signals that were received at a remote earth station into a headend where they might be one or two or three miles away because that was the best reception for footprint, that was the best reception for that earth station, but the headend happened to be two or three miles away, and so everybody was just using fiber for the purpose, and Harold Null believed that you could actually build cable systems long before we ever built an HFC system, he believed that it would work.
RIKER: It was the first time that fiber went actually to the TV set.
PORTER: That’s right because the mini-hub was a unit much like a pedestal or a power supply housing that sat in a person’s yard or in an apartment house yard, and each individual apartment or home got their signal fibered right into a set-top converter that would accept that service and the mini-hub, was just well ahead of its own time. There are many engineers who believe that the concept of mini-hub will resurrect. We tried to find a mini-hub for The Cable Center for the museum. I think the only one we found that was still in existence was actually being used at the Chatham plant down in Chatham, Virginia, and they were using that to send signals back from the blockhouse where the cable core is sent down and I don’t know whether you got that one from the Chatham plant or not, but they were having trouble finding them.
RIKER: No, we didn’t get one yet, but I used to maintain a mini-hub at NCTA. It was put in there as a showpiece and I was very impressed with the technology at the time.
PORTER: Well, Larry DeGeorge came down from Insilco. Larry, early on in his career, was really the founder of Times Wire and Cable. Insilco bought it, they put him on their board of directors, and early on he decided that he ought to have really good formal education in finance, so he went back to get his degree in finance and went to NYU, or one of those, and I always thought it was grand. One of his instructors was Ayn Rand when he was in school and I thought that would be great to have Ayn Rand as a professor, but he was always real proud of that. But he got his degree, and Larry is a very astute businessman. There are no obstacles that you can throw in his way as far as forming, selling, taking companies public, taking companies private, and so forth – a very astute businessman. But then he came down and actually got directly involved with Times Fiber Communications. Insilco still owned them; Irving Kahn owned a piece of it, and Irving, at that time, was growing chips for LEDs. He had another company that he formed in New York City and actually they were growing the chips for LED because we didn’t have lasers back then. We had the fiber and for a transmitter and a receiver you had a light emitting dode, which stood in the way of actually using the fiber out in the field like we do today because now we have good laser and so we can get high power to send the signal, but we didn’t have that back in those days. In 1976, we brought one kilometer of fiber to the Western Show in December, and we demonstrated that one kilometer of fiber, and I never will forget, the engineers that are still even around today thought that was the funniest thing they had ever seen, Bill. I wrote an editorial not long ago in Communications Technology magazine, and the title of the editorial is “They Laughed” because that’s what they did. I never will forget that; nobody had ever seen fiber at a cable show as a piece of gear that could be used in a cable system, and I remember Jack Arbuthnottt – we had not left at that point – Jack Arbuthnottt worked with… we didn’t have any kind of sophisticated gear back then for lining the fiber up. You’d have to line the end of the fiber up with the end of a pigtail, and you’d have to line it up in the X axis and the Y axis, so when you got one just about right, the other one would start to move away. I remember he had a high powered microscope, and he’s lining these two ends up, and when he got them to where he had a DB of loss, he had to use commercial glue and seat those as close as… he took and cleared the ends, and smoothed the ends and locked them in place, and then he glued that and let that sit, and then he had to go do the other end to the pigtail. So, he worked on that at the Western Show ’til like 4:00 in the morning in the booth, and you could tell he was really tired because he’d just get it and it would break, and he’d get it right and one of the other axis would break, but he finally got it all done at 4:00 in the morning, so we had to stay with him until he got that done, then we all went to bed. We got a limited amount of sleep, so Jack’s in a grouchy mood anyhow, and so we’re demonstrating this, we’ve got one channel over this one kilometer of fiber, and one of our competitor companies, and I won’t say who it was, but it was a Phoenix company. The president of the company had been out, and I guess he had partied all night that night, so he was still kind of inebriated when he came to the show the next morning, and he comes down the aisle with a group of other people. They start to approach the booth and they’re saying, “Well, what do you think of this fiber optic thing over here?” And this guy says, “It’ll never work. They’re tricking you. It’s a trick. I’ll just reach over here and break this fiber and when I do you’ll see the picture stays there.” Well, Jack Arbuthnottt heard him and Jack can only remember that he didn’t have but about two hours sleep since about four o’clock in the morning. He starts to come over the side of the booth to throttle this competitor, and of course Ray Schneider grabs Jack and holds him back and security comes and carts the competitive president of this other company away and things settle down, but a lot of the engineers thought it was a trick. You just could not send a signal over light! You had to have RF; they were old RF engineers. So, at the following NCTA in Chicago in 1977, we demonstrated again and we were all given awards, plaques, we were given computer tea services with inscription on the bottom that we introduced fiber optics to the cable industry in 1977. That was kind of a proud moment for us, too.
RIKER: Sure, and the rest is history.
PORTER: So, anyways…
RIKER: Now you’ve gone to Cerro.
PORTER: Yeah, we go down and we open up the plant and we become kind of successful. We’re really successful in the drop cable because it takes longer. You’ve got to buy new extruders, modernize your equipment to get up to speed on the aluminum cable, so we really put our emphasis on drop cable. I was always proud – one of the biggest customers that Times had had, and we were now competing with Times, was TelePrompTer, and TelePrompTer had just gotten the Irving, Texas franchise, which is where the Dallas Cowboys arena is, and TelePrompTer in Irving was going to use Siamese two RG-6 messengered to every home. Well, that stuff costs about as much as ½ inch cable did, and we got the contract for all of Irving, which kept us running at CapScan, and I stayed down there for about a year, and Kevin Lynch and Jack Arbuthnott stayed. I decided I just didn’t want to work at that plant anymore, and so Burnup & Simms took it over and they continued on. I went back home to Wallingford, Connecticut. I still lived not too far from the plant in Meriden. I’d put out my resumes. I put out a resume to Scientific-Atlanta and to Andrew Corporation. We had conversations, we had meetings, and I’d fly back and forth, and to CommScope. I’m in my home and I get a call from Scotty Flink, and Scotty is still with Gilbert, as always. He’s the perennial Gilbert man. I’ve known Scotty for years, and he said, “I want to come over to your house.” I said, “Come on! We’d love to have you.” So he came over and he said, “What are you doing right now?” I said, “I’ve got my resume out to three or four companies.” And he said, “Well, the reason I’m here is Bob Spann,” who was the president of Gilbert, “wants to talk to you.” I said, “About what?” He said, “Well, he wants you to go to work for him.” And I said, “As what?” He said, “Go talk to Bob. I don’t know. I’m just here as the messenger.” So I call Bob and he said, this is Thursday, he said, “Can you catch a flight tonight and be in to see me tomorrow?” And I’m thinking that’s really quick, you know? But that’s the way Bob Spann was – a man of action, very direct. So I grab a red eye special and I fly to Phoenix, I go into the Gilbert plant, and I always wanted to go back to Phoenix anyhow. I loved Arizona. I go into his office and we meet from 8:00 in the morning ’til noon. By noon he said, “You’re now the vice-president of sales and marketing for Gilbert. Can you fly home, get some clothes, and be back here Monday?” I said, “Sure!” And I did. I remember they had no office for me and so Bob built a brand new office for me. I saw the invoice; he spent something like 17,000 or 18,000 or 19,000 dollars for a desk that went around the wall and offices because that’s what I said I wanted. He gave me his secretary. He built the office with a partition so that her office opened into mine; it had just been open space before. He really treated me really well, and I think that all of his staff was astounded because Bob Spann didn’t have anybody to sell and market except Bob Spann. We got along really great. I worked for Gilbert for about five years. Loved it! Just loved it! I always thought that he had laid that plant out in just a wonderful manner… you’re toured through the Gilbert plant…
RIKER: I’ve been through it.
PORTER: You know that was a real interesting tour and you walked away feeling like that’s a very great company to be involved in in cable television.
RIKER: And the employees seemed very enthusiastic as well.
PORTER: Uh-huh. While I was at Gilbert, I went over to the first U.K. show, which was held in Birmingham, England, and while I was there I ran into – you know, you get around the floor and you see everybody – well, the Times Wire and Cable people were there, or Times Fiber by now, and I ran into Larry DeGeorge and he says, “Come on, I want to talk to you.” So we walked off to the side of the floor and he said, “You know, I had to retire.” Insilco had a rule that Larry himself had enforced against other people that when you were 65 you retired, so they retired him! He didn’t like it, and he said, “I want to do a leveraged buyout of Times Wire. We’ll just buy that company away from Insilco.” I said, “We?” He said, “Yeah, I want you to come in with me.” I said, “I don’t have any money,” or something like that. He said, “I’ll make you a partner. When I’m ready to do it, will you come on board?” And I said, “Sure.” So I left the show, and that’s all that was done, just conversation. So I left the show and went back to Phoenix. The minute I got back to Phoenix I go into Bob Spann’s office and I said, “Now there’s something you ought to know about.” And so I told him about our conversation, and without hesitation, Spann said, “I could never offer you that kind of opportunity. I don’t want to stand in the way when Larry calls. You go ahead and take it. It’s a fantastic opportunity.” I said, “Well, I don’t know when he’s going to call.” He said, “Well, just go back to work; if he calls you go take it.” So I didn’t hear anything from Larry for about a year, and the phone rings one day and he says, “Get on a plane. We’re going to go in and take over the Times plant Monday morning.” This was Thursday. So I go into Spann’s office and I said, “Larry called. Everything’s set up and we’re ready to go.” He said, “Bon voyage, and the best of luck.” So I got on the plant and I fly to Wallingford. Now, Larry has formed a holding company called LPL, Inc. “LPL” stands for Larry, Sr.; Peter, his son; and Larry, Jr., his son, and it goes on the New York Stock Exchange. We can’t sell any stock because nobody knows who LPL is, so it just sits there on the New York Stock Exchange, and I walk into Larry’s office and I say, “I’m here.” And he says, “I have bad news for you.” I said, “What’s that?” He said, “Well, Insilco rejected our offer.” I said, “Are you kidding me? I just left my job in Phoenix.” He said, “Well, you know, you can go back to work for them. I couldn’t say anything if you did, but if you’ll just go back home and wait we’ll make a different offer that they really will accept.” If you’ll just go back home, I’ll send you a check every month.” I said, “What’ll I do?” He said, “Play golf, do whatever you want to.” So I flew back to Phoenix and for six months waited for Larry to call, but he sent me a check every month, just like I was working for him. And in December he says, “They accepted our offer. Fly back. We will take over at midnight, December 31st, 1995.” And so, we did. I never wanted to be a president of anything. I like being a vice-president. I always thought the president had too much power and too much obligation, and it was like a shirt position. I didn’t like that. I liked being a vice-president. So, I took over as vice-president of sales and marketing for Times Fiber and was a partner of LPL, and then we started to grow. We bought a lot of companies, but one of the biggest acquisitions we did was we went out to Allied Signal in the valley, in the Phoenix area, and Amphenol Corporation was up for sale, so we bought it. Well, remember I told you nobody would buy LPL stock because they didn’t know who it was, well, all of the sudden we owned Amphenol and that’s a worldwide corporation. We said, “Well, let’s make the holding company Amphenol Corporation.” And we did, and of course the stock soared because people knew who it was. I stayed for two years. I had a three year contract, but I could leave at the end of any of the years, you just give up a third of your stock, and I just didn’t want to work anymore, Bill. So I just went into Larry and said, “You know, at the end of the second year I’m going back to Phoenix. I don’t want to do anything else.” And the parting was amiable, and I went back. But I had a friend, Earl Gilbert, who had sold his company to Transitron, which was Gilbert Engineering, owned by Transitron, which was a chip maker back in the Boston area. He was like me, he could never get out of it, so he started another company called Pyramid, and Pyramid made connectors also. They made pedestals and housings. Earl was having his fits with his competitors, so since we had always been good friends I made a deal with him that when I left Times I would come back and work for a year as his vice-president of sales and marketing and we were successful. We got a patent for a two-piece connector, which really put him on the road. He sold the housing and pedestal division to somebody else, and actually ended up selling the company right back to Gilbert, so that Gilbert had a two-piece connector as well as a three-piece connector. So I did that for a year, and then Mid-West CATV, which was headquartered in Charleston, West Virginia was a national distributor, and they didn’t have a west coast operation, so they asked me if I would come back as a vice-president of Mid-West and open up a big warehouse in the Phoenix area to serve the west coast, and I did that for a year. And then I decided I didn’t want to do anything else. So I retired, fully retired. I lived on the golf course, still live on the 17th Fairway of the Arizona Golf Resort and I played 36 holes of golf for about seven years, everyday. When the sun came up, I drove my golf cart out the back gate; when the sun went down, I drove my golf cart back in. I didn’t get any better at golf, but I played a lot of golf.
RIKER: Was it really seven years? It seemed like you weren’t gone that long.
PORTER: Well, you’ve got to remember, the last portion of my time with Mid-West, Mid-West was getting ready to sell to ANTEC so I had a lot more time. That was from 1990 to – I went to work for Phillips Publishing at the end of 1995 – so it was almost six years or seven years that I was just retired. But I never got out of the industry. You were still with the SCTE, as president of the SCTE, so I used to go to the Expo and work for the SCTE. I’d go to the bookstore and I’d sell T-shirts and books and pins and whatever you had just because I was silly enough that I didn’t care who I collared to make a sale to because I was retired. If I irritate them, what are they going to do? Not buy? I’m not selling anything, except selling SCTE stuff.
RIKER: You were always willing to help. I remember that from as I said, the first time we met was in 1984 when I came to work at SCTE, and you were on their board of directors, but you were also a charter member of the society, which was started back in 1969.
PORTER: At that San Francisco convention, where I said I went the first time as a peddler, or as a salesman. I had been both an operator and an engineer. I’ve worked both sides of the industry, and one thing that always stuck in my craw was the manufacturers of equipment, and I mean everybody was guilty of it – Jerrold, Vicoa, Ameco – they would work up some of these special plans and they would go to the owners of these cable systems and say, “If you buy $50,000 worth of equipment, we will send you and your wife on an all expense paid vacation to Paris.” And the other company might say, “Well, we won’t send you to Paris. How’d you like to go to Hawaii for three weeks?” So what would happen is the guy had no idea of which equipment would work and which wouldn’t work, but he had an idea of whether his wife would love to go… So he would leave that poor engineer holding the bag with equipment that wouldn’t even work in the cable system so he and his wife could go to Paris or go to Hawaii, and I thought that’s terrible. Here’s a guy making a decision – I don’t care if he owns the cable system – he doesn’t know which equipment will work and which won’t interface with what’s there, and I’ve seen guys literally crying tears because their boss is off gallivanting in some exotic location while he’s out and snow’s two feet on the ground and ice is on the cable and the cable system he’s supposed to keep up, and he can’t because that buffoon of an owner went off to somewhere and didn’t care about the real operation of the cable system, and there were a bunch of us engineers that finally had our fill of that, and we said, “We’re going to form our own society. Not our own association, our own society, and this way we can start to talk and share ideas and share techniques with each other.” And we envisioned simply a society, but that it would never grow to the size that you guys actually drove it to. We started talking about this back at the ’68 convention and we just couldn’t get everybody to move on the thing. As a matter of fact, we passed the hat and we took some donations of $20 each, I think, and it didn’t come to fruition. Then in San Francisco we said, “We’re going to pass the hat again.” I guess we probably got 70 people or 80 people to throw $20 in a hat passed around among the booths there, and we went off to a little room at the Hilton Hotel in San Francisco, and I remember there were operators there that were ferocious about… “You can’t start anything. We know what you guys are trying to do! You’re trying to form a union, and you figure if you stick together that you can get everybody’s salary up.” And of course, I infuriated them because I said, “If that’s really what it did, I’m doubly into it.” Not forming the union, but if I can improve the life and lifestyle of a technician or an engineer, I’d do it in a second, and I said to them, “You are guilty of doing the same thing. You’re putting equipment in so that you and your family can enjoy something and make somebody else’s life miserable.” They didn’t like that at all. They thought that was terrible. It was funny – when they wrote the book about the early days of cable, one of the things they put in was when we did start the SCTE there were people that were at that original meeting that were there to stop us from forming the organization, and later on, when they found out that we had charter members and they were made up of people that were there, they came back and said, “Would you help me get the SCTE to make me a charter member because I was there?” I’d say, “But you were there to stop us!” They would say, “But I was there.” I don’t care! You didn’t join at that meeting. There are people that work the floors today that I remember really were vocal about don’t start anything called the SCTE. They know I know. They know I would never say anything about it, but they know that I know exactly why they were there. But it’s turned out to be… we went through some really rough times, but it was when they brought you on board to run the organization that you really made it work as an organization and as a business, and today, I think that the SCTE’s probably the strongest organization within the cable industry. It’s absolutely the most successful as far as I’m concerned. The other thing – a funny little story – we were talking about that I had served on the board of directors at the SCTE. I never ran for the board, never ran for the board. I got a wire – I’ve still got it at home – saying you were elected as an at large director of the SCTE board.
RIKER: Let me guess – that came from Judy Baer.
PORTER: I don’t remember who it came from, but the real reason that I had been roped into doing that in that way was they wanted… the SCTE prior to your coming on board, prior to ’83-’84, had always been considered to be a good ol’ boys board of directors who did things the same way year in and year out, no matter who was on the board and the same people got elected to the board, and they said, “We really wanted you to come on board and we’re glad that you didn’t say ‘I wasn’t elected so I’m not going to serve.’ What we want you to do is bring some new blood into the board for this next year.” So they made me head up the nominations committee, and I was able to bring Dave Willis on board; I was able to bring Bob Luff on board; I was able to bring – there was an operator down in Missouri that finally had some medical problems, he’s still alive but he’s not on the SCTE board…
RIKER: Steve Bell?
PORTER: Steve Bell. There were about four people that I was able to talk into serving on the board that were completely alien to names that would have been accepted even a year to two years before, but they really were able to make the SCTE operate as a successful business society and grow in membership and training programs that we had needed for so many years.
RIKER: Okay, so then in 1995 you were called out of retirement?
PORTER: Yeah, Alex Swan – I had known Alex from years’ past, when he was in programming up in the Canadian area – they needed an editor for CT Magazine, and I had always written articles for all the magazines, sort of historical, “would you believe that the reason we did so and so back in the old days was because of this”, that ilk, not so technical as much historical. And I was also doing a cable trivia quiz each month, and they said, “Well, you’re going to write for us anyhow. If you’re going to work for us and you’re going to go to the shows, why don’t you just come on board and help us.” CT had become the official trade journal at the SCTE when you came on board, but it had always taken a rear seat, a real rear seat, to CED Magazine, and CED is a fine magazine. I read it every month and I’ve read it always, but they were trying to get CT’s position in readership and acceptance on equal par with CED and they just didn’t know how to do that, Bill. So they figured well, here’s a guy with the SCTE, has history as both an operator and as an engineer and who has some writing ability, not much, but some, so we’ll bring him on board, and they did. And they brought me on board not so much to write but to get involved in the business policy making, so originally when I went to work for Phillips, I did a lot of travel back to Potomac, Maryland, which is their headquarters and I would do annual business reviews and projections – here’s where I think the industry’s going to go in the next three years, and so forth and so forth and so forth, and it’s worked out real well. As it ends up now, it’s probably getting to be to the point where it’s about time to turn it over more and more to the younger generation because you don’t want to keep doing things they way it always was, and you don’t want to do that with a magazine either. So, it takes some of the newer, brighter, innovative ideas that generally come from younger minds and not from older minds.
RIKER: This industry is certainly changing very rapidly right now, and magazines have to keep up with that change as well.
PORTER: You know, this industry has been an industry of spurts, and I mean that from a sense that it seems like it’s been cyclic in that every few years we’re in the throes of “we’re not going to make it”, and then we have a five or six year run and then we go back into the bottom of the cycle and then back up to the top again. We’ve always had eras that… for example, when we came up with wide-band amplifiers that made a surge in the cable industry that lasted for awhile, and copyright got thrashed about and finally decided on and cable flourished. Then when microwave came along and we could bring in distant signals, cable flourished. Then when satellites came along, that really made the industry grow, and then we went into a depression again, even after satellites came along, in the late ’80s and early ’90s, it slowed down again. There’s always something that comes along. With the HFC networks, the cable systems had to be rebuilt, and then in the early ’90s to mid ’90s, data came along, and then cable telephony came along, and now interactive television has come along. Now, interactive television is going to depend a lot on the subscribers themselves, and I hope that we change our thinking so that we understand that if there is not a driving need among our subscribers for interactive television you cannot depend on a limited segment of this industry to drive an industry, and that’s a danger of interactive television. We’ve got to make it so that it’s important to all of the masses out there that they have a need for inactive television. There are a lot of technicians out today that are worried about their job, the future – there’s a lot of questions, as we all know – and the message that I think I would give the new technicians and engineers is you haven’t seen anything yet. It is not far in the future that we are going to see fiber replace… the biggest part of the cable system today is not the trunk, that’s a very limited portion…
RIKER: It’s the last mile.
PORTER: Yes, well, it’s the feeders themselves, too. We saw a real regeneration of business for cable television when we decided that we were going to become HFC networks because we had to replace all of the trunks with fiber and it meant revamping of headends and actual changes of headend concepts into NOCs, network operating centers. So there was a lot of business that could be made out there, and just the HFC evolution really drove our industry, but if you consider how much more feeder there is out there than trunk – 70-80% of every cable system is feeder and drops into the home – when we start to think about, and it’s coming, the replacement of all those feeders with fibers that will probably come from the node all the way into the home itself and allow a complete evolution of the television set itself we won’t need all the IF strips and the tuners and so forth with fiber. All of the sudden this industry is going to have a growth like we’ve never seen before and it’s not too far out in advance, and I would say to the technicians and the engineers that are worried about everything being in the doldrums right now, we’ve lived through that many, many, many times. We’ve always recovered from that, so if you think you’ve seen real growth in cable television as we forget those old days of cable television, we’re not cable television anymore, we’re broadband, and when we’re broadband we’re a very sophisticated networking service that probably is going to look like something that you would take a complex chip out of a computer and start to magnify it and start to magnify it and all of the sudden that’s your broadband network that is set down into a city, anywhere in the United States, anywhere in the world, that will be that sophisticated. It will be all fiber. The technicians and the engineers will all laugh at what we’ve limped at for all these years. They do it already. We talk about television sets with tuners 2-13; a technician today says, “What? I haven’t seen one of those.” They’re not used to anything like that. Fiber will allow a very, very quick, fluid movement to technology like we never saw or thought of before. What we’re doing is we’re building the basis for that, and I see the new technicians today talk about “Gee, I wish I’d have lived back then. I would have got rich.” It’s easier to get rich today than it ever was back then because people are willing to accept ideas and they’re living like they never were before. I remember going in to get a franchise and a mayor or city councilman would say, “What do I need a cable system for? There ain’t but three networks or two networks so you just need two channels.” “Well, what if one goes off?” “Well, we’ll watch the other one. You’re just trying to flim-flam and take money off of our people, our constituents.” We don’t think that way anymore. We believe. We’ve gone through the idea of having pocket computers. Palm devices. People would probably burn you at the stake fifty years go if you talked about things that we can do today. The young people of today grow up accepting that things are not strange, they are believable. You can do these things. So, young minds, young engineers can build real careers for themselves, and I think that where it used to be the owner/operators that got rich soon it will be the engineers and the technicians that demand the big dollars because the operators won’t have a thing unless they have the people that can put the technology into operation. Just owning a cable system? There will be no cable systems, there will be broadband networks, and bandwidth allocations are going to become… that’s one of the biggest headaches we have today, Bill. We work under the assumption – because we talked that more channels is better, is better, is better – there’s no real reason for a viewer to have to go click, click, click, click, click, click, click to reach a channel he wants to watch. We ought to be giving him the entertainment television that he wants to watch and nothing else, but we don’t do that. We say we have to have 200 cable channels or nobody’s going to subscribe. I don’t believe that, and if you believe that, go down to a mall and just stop somebody and say, “How many channels do you have on your television.” They’ll say, “150.” “How many do you watch?” “14.” Well, why not give them the 14. We’re going to need that bandwidth for data, we’re doing to need that bandwidth for interactive television, we already know we need it for data and telephony. The poor technicians and engineers are pulling their hair out because they don’t have enough bandwidth, and instead of saying, “Let’s allocate this segment of the bandwidth for this service, and this one for this,” we say, “Well, first of all, we’ve got to have 200 channels, so we’ll give you the end of the rope right here.” We’ve got to change our thinking and say we’re in a business of total communications, a broadband network. We’ll give you this much entertainment television, you don’t want the rest of it anyhow. Perhaps if I don’t have enough bandwidth for the Golf Channel – and I love the Golf Channel – but maybe if I don’t have enough bandwidth to put that on my cable system as a cable channel, I can put that on the streaming video and put it right over the computer if that’s a customer at-home service or roadrunner service anyhow. My wife won’t let me watch the Golf Channel on the big television anyhow. Why not just send me off to the office and let me watch it on… I can get as good a picture on my computer as you’ll ever see on a television set and I do it daily. So, it’s our way of thinking. I hope we old types haven’t trained the broadband network people – and that’s what we’ve got to think of ourselves as – that you’ve to operate these networks they way you’ve operated cable systems. You can’t do it. This is modern day.
RIKER: Well, now, usually you’re the one who’s sitting in this seat interviewing other people for The Cable Center’s Oral History Program.
PORTER: Yeah, I don’t get a chance to say these things.
RIKER: Well, you certainly have had your opportunity today. How did you first get involved in The Cable Center to become involved with the oral history program?
PORTER: Actually, I was involved with The Cable Center when it was located back at Penn State and I had done an oral history, and originally I thought it was Ben Conroy that started my interview, but it wasn’t. It was the FCC lawyer that started it at one of the national shows, and mid-way into it, I don’t remember what happened, but we had some kind of calamity and they said, “We’ve got to stop it. We’ll pick it up later.” We never did pick it up so it was only half finished, but that had to be probably back in the ’70s. Anyways, I was just delighted when I found out that The Center was going to move to the University of Denver and made it a point to meet with Marlowe Froke, who was at that point heading the whole thing up, the transition from Penn State to the campus here. I always liked Marlowe. I thought he was just a grand guy, and he is, so everything that he would say, “Would you help me do so-and-so, or would you help me with this,” I would say, “Sure, I’ll do that.” And I remember one of the things that we wanted to do was start getting all the old stuff, what I call the old stuff, the antique stuff, was coming in from Penn State, and Marlowe says, “We’ve got a warehouse to put that in, but I really need somebody to catalog that stuff and categorize that stuff. Would you be interested in doing it?” Well, I couldn’t do it, and so I said, “No, but I’ve got a guy that I know is just absolutely THE man. He knows more about the old stuff than anybody because he helped design some of it and certainly put it in use, and that’s Dave Willis, and he’s retired.” “Do you think he would do that?” And I said, “Sure, let’s give him a call.” So we did give Dave a call and Dave said, “I’d be glad to do it.” I’ve got fond memories of us going down to that warehouse and watching Dave Willis’ eyes light up. One of the biggest fears we had was that he wanted to make it all operate and we told him he can’t do that.
RIKER: He still does. I remember when I was with SCTE and I was on The Cable Center board of directors since 1986 and Marlowe and I partnered to started that collection by holding a competition called the classic cable competition to each of the SCTE expos where we would give prizes to people who would bring equipment to the expo and donate it to The Cable Center. People would come with trucks full of racks of equipment to the show and then it was our responsibility to get it from there back to Penn State and ultimately here to Denver.
PORTER: Yeah, I’ve helped you on some of those things and it’s really funny, some of it – even as long as you and I have been in the industry – you look at some of that stuff and you say I never saw that before, or you’ve seen it and never saw it afterwards and think I wonder who used that or whatever happened to it.
RIKER: Did you ever work with a system that had amplifiers built out of coffee cans?
PORTER: As a matter of fact, I was sent into Powderly, Kentucky one time and they said, “We’re going to build a cable system there.” I said, “There’s already a cable system there.” And they said, “The guy doesn’t know what he’s doing and he’s only got one customer. You go out there and do a signal survey.” So I loaded up my van and they gave me a pistol and a rifle and they had never done that before, and I said, “What do I need firearms for?” They said, “Well, this guy that’s building the cable system might take offense that you’re up there and he might come hunting for you.” I said, “I’m not sure I want to run a signal survey.” But I drove up there and that was the first time I’d ever seen an earth mover mining piece of gear that could walk, and it literally could walk. It had hydraulics or nudraulics so that it would raise itself up and had a leg that would reach over and this thing walked up and down the mountain and its job was to dig out – they just dug coal out or whatever they were digging out and they would just level a mountain. So I ran this signal survey and they said, “Well, drive down and look at this guy’s headend.” This guy had built a 100-foot tower behind his house and the tower was not really stable, and I guess he was worried about it. He put his headend in his kitchen and he ran the cable bundle through the window to the headend and he ran the cable around the house, nailed it up the side of the house, all the way around the house, out to the road and he had set metal poles down in the ground. He had dug a hole a foot deep and set metal poles, and when the kids came along from school they’d push his poles over, so he went to the city council and asked them to pass some kind of city ordinance saying that it was illegal to push his poles over. Out on the highway when the trailer trucks would go down, the backdraft would pull them down. And they did build a cable system there and I guess this guy just folded his tent, but that’s the first place I ever saw an amplifier actually set inside of a bread tin that the front opened up, much like a mailbox does, and he had the connectors come up through the bottom of the bread box and his amplifier was in there. So, yeah, I’ve seen some things that you just wouldn’t believe that people would consider was a cable system.
RIKER: I’m almost afraid to ask this question, but is there anything that we haven’t talked about that you’d like to discuss at this time?
PORTER: No, we touched on The Cable Center, and one of the things I’m real proud of as far as Dave and I are concerned, one of the things that Marlowe did, and I told Dave we’ve got to get a certificate for this, one of the things that Marlowe did was he made Dave and myself both industry fellows for our work at The Cable Center and I want to get a certificate for that. Some of the other things that I’m proud of is I belong to the Arizona Hall of Fame. I was inducted into that. I was the president of the E Tower Club in Atlanta after Miss Polly appointed me. Miss Polly Dunn, from down in Mississippi, could do a lot of wonderful things. She was one of those people that didn’t need board approval, she just did it. So she sent me a letter one day and she said, “We would like for you to serve on the board of directors of the Tower Club.” Now the Tower Club is the pioneer club for the southern cable association, which is now evolved into the Eastern Cable Association. But I was working in Phoenix at the time, but my background had been in the southeast, so I became the vice-president of the Tower Club, and then the president of the Tower Club and I can remember a lot of the southerners said, “He can’t be the president of the Tower Club ’cause he don’t live in the south.” And Miss Polly said, “I made him the president, he’s the president.” And I served as the president for a couple of years, and then somebody else took over. I was quite proud to be inducted to the SCTE Hall of Fame. I forget which year, I think it was 1986, I was the Member of the Year of SCTE. So I’ve had a lot of recognition and I appreciate it, maybe not all of it was deserved, but you know, all the hard work doesn’t go without recognition and I appreciate the accolades I’ve had down over the years, and I’ve always tried to help people as I’ve moved through my career and I think that’s probably the happiest moments is seeing people, like John Patterson that I was talking about, make their mark and you like to feel like it’s because of how you would refuse to not help them, you would always try to give them some of the training that you had or make sure they didn’t have to stumble and make the same mistakes, which is really the reason that we formed the Society of Cable Television Engineers, or today Cable Telecommunications Engineers, was so that we didn’t just keep making the same mistakes again and again and again.
RIKER: Well, there are certainly countless stories in this industry of people who have helped others work their way up the business. Certainly your role in the development of this industry has been very significant and I’d like to thank you on behalf of The Cable Center for giving of your time today. This has been an oral history of Rex Porter and was recorded as part of the Oral and Video History Program of The Cable Center. Your interviewer has been Bill Riker. Rex, thank you very much.
PORTER: Thanks Bill.