Interview Date: August 3, 2001
Interviewer: Jim Keller
Collection: Hauser Collection
KELLER: This is the oral history of James J. Duratz for 30 years the general manager of the Meadville Master Antenna system in Meadville, Pennsylvania. Jim is also a cable television pioneer, both with the capital "P" and with a small "p", and is a founder - it is an honorary title held by Jim - in the Pennsylvania Cable and Telecommunications Association. Jim is in his tenure at Meadville Master Antenna, Inc., was the early developer of many things, including an extensive local programming operation from a local cable standpoint. The date is August 3, 2001. The place is Gettysburg, Pennsylvania at the annual meeting of the Pennsylvania Cable and Telecommunications Association's Heritage Society meeting. Welcome, Jim.
DURATZ: Thank you.
KELLER: Jim, to start off with, tell us a little bit about your background prior to getting into cable television.
DURATZ: Right from the beginning?
KELLER: Right from the beginning. Once you got out of service.
DURATZ: When I got out of the service – I had four years in the service...
KELLER: Infantry man, is that right?
DURATZ: Yes, in the infantry, I served in the South Pacific and Germany, but after I got out of the service, it's something I wanted to do all my life, and that was to be a Pennsylvania state policeman. And I did that. And I was very proud to have been one, but after I was there for awhile, I decided I didn't want to make that my career. I went through the academy, and I guess that satisfied me more than anything. But I can say that that probably was what eventually got me into cable television. It's hard to imagine that, but it's true.
KELLER: Yeah, how?
DURATZ: Because I was stationed in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, which was a Squadron One headquarters, and from Greensburg I was transferred to Erie, and that was Troop E of the Pennsylvania state police, and Meadville was a substation of Troop E. They had 5 substations and Erie was the headquarters. There were 9 of us, and alphabetically I was first, and they needed somebody to go to Meadville to replace the guy who was going on vacation, so that was me. When I went there everybody said, "You'd better hope you don't go to Meadville. That's a really tough place." And it turned out that I liked it. It was a lot of work.
KELLER: You like anything that's tough, huh?
DURATZ: Yeah. And I enjoyed it, but at the end of 30 days, I went back to Erie and the first sergeant said to me, "Well, Duratz, how'd you like Meadville?" I said, "I'd go back anytime, Sarge." He said, "Well, don't unpack." Same day right back to Meadville. I never went to another substation. I stayed there.
KELLER: For how long?
DURATZ: I was there for two years, and there was a little college in Meadville called Alleghany College and every time I drove by that I thought now that's where I should be. So I resigned at Meadville and went to college. But in the meantime, I had met Helene.
KELLER: You met her while you were still a state trooper?
KELLER: Helene being Helene Barco Duratz.
DURATZ: That's right. She was George Barco's daughter and Yolanda's sister. Their house was next door to the barracks.
KELLER: For the record, these are names that are legendary in cable television in the state of Pennsylvania, and as a matter of fact, nationally, because both of them were very much involved in the National Cable Television Association also. I just wanted to bring that in as a reference, Jim.
DURATZ: Well, this was in 1950, I guess. This was before cable, before they even had the cable in Meadville. So, I decided I was going to resign and go to college and I did. There were a lot of things happening during the college time, but...
KELLER: You didn't get in trouble, did you?
DURATZ: Pardon me?
KELLER: You didn't get in trouble, did you?
DURATZ: Yeah, a couple times.
KELLER: Okay. I won't go into it, but knowing you I imagined you'd get in trouble.
DURATZ: I kept myself busy. But anyway, in the meantime I had started dating Helene and we got pretty serious. I don't think George liked the idea of my not having a college education, so I sort of vowed to myself that I wouldn't get married until I'd finished college. So I did it in 2 ½ years because I never stopped, I went straight through, finished about the 8th or 9th of July, and we got married on the 28th. Actually, I went to work at Westinghouse in Pittsburgh after I got out of college.
KELLER: Still living in Meadville, though, is that right?
KELLER: You moved?
DURATZ: We moved to Pittsburgh, and of course every weekend it was a trip back to Meadville, but then they started this cable television business.
KELLER: Were you involved in it from the beginning?
DURATZ: No. Well, no I wasn't really.
KELLER: In the concept stage, though, were you? In family discussions and things like that?
DURATZ: Yes, that type of thing, but I was still working with Westinghouse, and it got to a point where...
KELLER: What was Barco's thinking about the development of cable in Meadville?
DURATZ: Oh, that's an interesting story.
KELLER: Please tell it.
DURATZ: George and Yolanda used to go to New York City every summer for continuing education classes for the legal profession, and one year they went to New York, and when they checked into the hotel they said to George...
KELLER: They were both attorneys, that's correct?
DURATZ: They were both attorneys. In fact, Helene would go with them occasionally, but she wasn't with them on this trip.
KELLER: She was a paralegal in their office, is that correct?
DURATZ: Yes. George, when he was checking in, they asked him if we wouldn't like to have a television in his room because it was $2 extra for the television. He'd never seen television before, so he said yeah, he'd like to see it.
KELLER: What year was this?
DURATZ: Oh, it must have been, I would guess, like 1952, something like that.
KELLER: Early '50s.
DURATZ: '51 or '52, because it started developing shortly after the time of this story I'm going to tell you. So, when he got home from the class, got to the hotel from the class that first day, he couldn't wait to turn the television on, and when he turned it on it didn't work.
KELLER: At the hotel in New York?
DURATZ: At the hotel. It didn't work. Now, he was paying two bucks to get television, and he wanted to see it. So, he calls the desk and the next thing you know they had people in his room trying to find out what the trouble is, and to make a long story short, the next day – it was an RCA system – he had the president of RCA in his room trying to explain to him why it wasn't working. And then they finally got it to work and he saw television. So, during that discussion, he asked this fellow who was in the room with him, if this can work in a hotel, why can't it work in the town?
KELLER: And was Meadville getting any signal at all at that time?
DURATZ: No, nothing, nothing.
KELLER: There was no television in Meadville at all.
DURATZ: Well, up on the hills you could get... there was one station in Erie and as a matter of fact, Pittsburgh only had one, it was a Dumont Channel 3 in Pittsburgh.
KELLER: KDX, KDAX?
DURATZ: I don't know. I don't remember that. It's now Channel 2, KDKA, but that was the only station in Pittsburgh, and Erie only had one, it was an NBC that Erie had. And Cleveland, I think, had two at the time. They could get a signal on the hilltops, but you could get nothing downtown, and so the guy told him, "Well, a matter of fact, there's a fellow in Pennsylvania who is starting to do this kind of thing for communities. His name is Milton Shapp, and it's Jerrold Electronics." The next week when he got back, he was in Philadelphia meeting with Jerrold, with Milt Shapp, and that's how it developed, that was early in 1952 and by July '53 Meadville had a system.
KELLER: There's a question, though, in my mind about that, and I think it's of interest: Jerrold was developing cable television in Pennsylvania and elsewhere. They would provide financing, manufacturer's financing, for the development of systems, but they would always take a percentage interest in those systems. Did that happen in Meadville?
DURATZ: No, George didn't do that.
KELLER: I was wondering why he didn't do that. That's the question.
DURATZ: No, he saw right away that that wasn't the best way to go.
KELLER: A lot of people felt that way after awhile.
DURATZ: It's interesting too, because one of his clients was a doctor, Dr. Winslow, and knowing George could talk somebody into anything, he talked Dr. Winslow to go with him as part of the corporation...
KELLER: As an equity partner?
DURATZ: ...because he was also president of the bank, and he was also president of the telephone company. So, you know, you had to attach to the poles, and you had to get the money. So, he had this guy who could provide that.
KELLER: So he had the local bank finance the system, then, is that correct?
KELLER: And how much of his own money did he put into it?
DURATZ: Well, I don't remember what that was, but anyway, after they started building the system it started to cost more than they had thought, and the doctor said to George, "I'd better get out. It's too much money." And so George had to take care of him, and that's how George became the sole owner.
KELLER: And so he bought the doctor out, or did he buy the bank out, at that time?
DURATZ: Well, he just took over the responsibilities of the bank loan, and then Yolanda was already involved in it too, but it was then just the two of them. In fact, Yolanda was the first general manager, and that's where I start coming into the picture. I had a nice job with Westinghouse. I really didn't want to leave Westinghouse, but it got to a point where I saw that Helene wanted to move back to Meadville and...
KELLER: What were you doing for Westinghouse?
DURATZ: I was kind of a troubleshooter when there was a problem. For example there was a problem with the iron, the Westinghouse iron, and I had to go investigate it and bring the problem back. The problem was the handle on the arm; that was the problem. I had to find this lady and find out what the problem was, and it was a little parting line that was bothering her fingers.
KELLER: So you were on the retail level?
DURATZ: Right. But I worked in East Pittsburgh where all of this was manufactured, and I'd just go out and find out what the problem was and then come back and get together with the engineers and try to correct the problem. And I enjoyed it. I covered all the Westinghouse plants, I guess, east of the Mississippi.
KELLER: So, George talked you into then... George and Helene talked you into going back to Meadville, huh?
DURATZ: Well, yeah. We came home one weekend and we were talking about it as a family, and I thought about it a little bit, and I thought, let's give it a shot.
KELLER: You weren't really confident, though, that this idea was going to work?
DURATZ: No, no, no, that was like digging an oil well, or a gold mine.
KELLER: What year was this?
DURATZ: That was in 1958, and I think they had around 9,000 subscribers at the time.
KELLER: They already had 9,000!
DURATZ: It's interesting, and I tell people this story: we started with three channels, and when they started the three channels it was more excitement than anything that had ever happened in Meadville. When we went to 20 channels nobody got too excited about it, but those three channels...
KELLER: Tell me about the excitement.
DURATZ: Because they had nothing!
KELLER: And how did the excitement manifest itself?
DURATZ: Well, they leased an auditorium from the Catholic school, and they had the dealers bring their television sets in, and they had them on display, and in fact, the dealers had promotions going, it was $125 to get connected and $3.50 a month for three channels.
KELLER: By this time, though, the dealers weren't able to sell any televisions in Meadville?
DURATZ: No. As a matter of fact, some of them had to call other places to get television sets. They didn't have any, because they couldn't sell them. They were selling a few, but not too many.
KELLER: So they were big backers, then?
DURATZ: They started promoting it and said, "Well, we'll pay for the $125 if you buy a television set, we'll pay..." They did a promotion together with the cable company and their store. Well, it went crazy. They had lines of people just signing up.
KELLER: You weren't involved at this time, though?
DURATZ: Well, by then I was helping them. I wasn't really officially working then, but I was helping them. I see advertised where the cable companies are buying back dishes. We were buying back antennas.
KELLER: Antennas, right.
DURATZ: Tons of them! We kept the scrap yards, we kept their bins full with antennas and pipes that were holding antennas up.
KELLER: Would you trade the whole $125 for an antenna, or only a portion of it?
DURATZ: Oh, we'd do the whole thing, and we'd take them down. In fact, taking them down got to be more expensive than anything, because some of them were pretty high, but we had bucket trucks and ladder trucks, and we got them down. It worked. All of the sudden, you'd see the house tops looking better, and the whole town started looking better. We'd promoted that appearance thing, too.
KELLER: So, how many homes did they pass when they had 9,000 subscribers, and what was your penetration rate?
DURATZ: You know, Jim, we didn't think about that. I couldn't tell you. Nobody thought about going and counting the houses because in fact we'd build down the street and sell that street.
KELLER: Collect the money and then do the same thing.
DURATZ: So we could get the money to build the next street. Once it got started, and then when I came to the company, we really started promoting it, and I would go out and I'd go down the street and knock on the doors and tell them we're coming down, pass little pamphlets out, and it worked.
KELLER: You probably got, what? Eight out of ten as you went down the street?
DURATZ: Oh, yeah. Especially in the low part of town. Jim, I had people offering me money under the table to get ahead in line, and I wouldn't do that, of course.
KELLER: No, of course you wouldn't do that, unless they were your friend.
DURATZ: Well, a lot of them were your friends – "Come on, you've got to do something", but there was so much excitement about those three channels, and that always interested me.
KELLER: And they were the three networks?
DURATZ: Yes. One out of Erie, one out of Pittsburgh, and one out of Cleveland, the three networks, and that was it. In fact, if you remember, you had to go 2, 4, and 6. You couldn't put adjacent channels in because they'd interfere with each other.
KELLER: And you weren't using broadband amplifiers, then, in the early days?
DURATZ: One amplifier for each channel.
KELLER: A strip for each channel in each amplifier location.
DURATZ: And they had no filters on them, so you couldn't put them together. The first broadband amplifier was five channels. That was it.
KELLER: So you were using the Jerrold strips, then, at each amplifier location.
DURATZ: Yes. Meadville was always Jerrold, until later on when... Bruce Merrill's company...
DURATZ: Ameco! We used some of his later on, and some Scientific Atlanta, once we started expanding out.
KELLER: Did you ever use CCOR, though, another Pennsylvania company?
DURATZ: Yes. As a matter of fact, just before we sold, we were designing the rebuild of the whole system and that would have been CCOR.
KELLER: Were you doing the engineering also, for the system?
DURATZ: Pretty much so, but our chief engineer, who was really the designer, and we worked together on it, and that was Wes Kuebel. You want to get him one of these days.
KELLER: To do one of these?
KELLER: Great! When did you go from three channels to, what was your next step, five?
DURATZ: The next step was five.
KELLER: And you went to broadband amplifiers then?
DURATZ: Let's see, we started in '53. It was a couple of years at three channels. But that didn't stay very long because, as they say, that was the broadband amplifier then, but by then things had geared up in the manufacturing. That was another thing about George Barco; in fact, every time Milt Shapp would see me he'd say, "Keep George away from me because all he wants is more channels." Every time we'd see him!
KELLER: Well, Shapp and his people didn't believe that the broadband amplifiers would work in the early days, isn't that right?
DURATZ: No, no, as a matter of fact...
KELLER: Isn't that true?
DURATZ: Well, it was interesting that most of the development that Jerrold created was field tested by operators. When we'd get something you never knew if it was going to work. You'd just have to put it out in the field and try it and make adjustments. When we went from 12 channels to...
KELLER: No, from three...
DURATZ: From three to five, and then five to 12.
KELLER: You had the two amplifiers though, at that point, a high-band and a low-band amplifier.
DURATZ: Right. And also, they were put in galvanized boxes. They weren't in the housing themselves, you had to put the amplifier in a galvanized box and that was a pretty difficult installation on a pole and it took a lot of space on the pole to put the box on. But anyway, I think it was when we went to the 12 channels, 12-channels tube was next, then it was 12-channels transistors, and then when that 12-channel transistor came about, I think by the time we started putting them up, they weren't working well. Jerrold finally sent a young fellow from Philadelphia to Meadville; he was there for six months making the modifications. I think there were something like 30 modifications on the amplifiers.
KELLER: Wasn't the original transistor, didn't it have transistors only on the input and tubes on the output?
DURATZ: That's when, yeah, when it first started, right.
KELLER: Jerrold had that type of amplifier also.
DURATZ: But that's how... I guess that's why they call us pioneers, because we really were.
KELLER: You were. Without question.
DURATZ: Actually... we didn't complain about having to modify them; we knew that what we were doing was going in the right direction, and sometimes became a challenge to make something work. Even back then, Jim, you know, we had to design our own antennas, and I can remember Jack Beaver from Jerrold, who was an antenna man, he'd send you a drawing and say that's what it should be.
KELLER: Stack 'em and make sure you've got 'em in the distance.
DURATZ: Four stack or eight stack, it just...
KELLER: The reason I like to go into this in detail is that some years, 50 years down the pike or whatever it's going to be, somebody's going to be looking at this interview, never having heard of cable television except what they see on their television set, have no idea of how this began, and you guys that were in developmental phase...
DURATZ: What you're saying now reminds me of a story that later in our years, a young fellow who met me at a social event was complaining about how bad television was, and it just didn't work, and I said, "You know, the trouble with you, you forget about what it was like when you had an antenna." And he said, "Jim, I never had an antenna."
KELLER: That's right.
DURATZ: So, that made me wake up and say we're really into a generation that really never saw television from an antenna, and now we're in dishes.
KELLER: But the fact that we're having these interview in the archive is going to be for future use by people doing books, and scholars, and things like that.
DURATZ: Well, there are a lot of pictures around that we've got to start putting these pictures into some kind of a form to show... you know, we took pictures of the antennas when we built them. Our Channel 2 from Meadville were two channel two wave lengths – two big screens that weighed about a ton a piece they had to hang on the pole. That was a big project. Now we have a nice picture of that, as a matter of fact.
KELLER: Well, I hope these pictures will someday find their way into the archives at The Center.
DURATZ: Right. I think that's kind of something that has to be done, so people can see what we had to do.
KELLER: Jim, I don't want to go into great technical detail, but I do have a big question. George Barco was always a firm advocate of the cable system only as a master antenna system, to receive signals, for whatever reason, and I thought it was for copyright purposes and others, but yet you were the first ones to develop, really, or one of the very first ones, to develop an extensive programming on the local level. Is this a dichotomy, or what happened that made this work? Because he was always opposed to any kind of local programming.
DURATZ: Well, first, I think the reason he was opposed – he had a terrific legal mind, he had no technical mind at all about how things worked, but legally he was very good at it, and I think he worried about copyright rights in the beginning.
KELLER: I think he did too.
DURATZ: And he felt very strongly about that, and later on he was part of that copyright settlement, and it was a thing that bothered him. But the reason we initially got involved with cablecasting, we called it then, is that he wanted it for education. He felt very strongly...
KELLER: In what way? The local schools, or bringing other programming in, or what?
DURATZ: To be able, I guess, the legal education stuff that he was doing, he thought that there was an opportunity - they had to go to New York City - he said, "Why can't we get a tape and show it in Meadville?" But it never developed, Jim. Even the schools won't... he said, "Well, let's try it with the schools." We tried everything to get education into the cable.
KELLER: In the meantime, you made quite an expenditure in buying all of this equipment for the studios. You had to have $50,000 or more involved in it, maybe $100,000.
DURATZ: Right. In fact, one of the reasons we built the building, we built a building just for the cable company for the offices and for the service department, but on the second floor we built a studio, a television studio, that was really, at that time, better than any studio that the television stations had in our area. In fact, one of the engineers from one of the stations...
KELLER: When you say your area, what do you mean?
DURATZ: In Erie, the Erie television area.
KELLER: The Erie area, okay.
DURATZ: One of the fellas from one of the stations in Erie, the UHF station, was a good friend of mine, and he helped a lot. In fact, we bought a lot of their used black and white equipment, because we started with black and white, no color.
KELLER: The big huge cameras, and the film chains, the big film chains...
DURATZ: And the tape machines are two-inch machines, and heavy, you couldn't move them around to well. But it was quite... in fact, Jim Strickler's still around. He was the first manager of the programming, and we're going to do a little session with him, too, because he started it.
KELLER: Now had you viewed local programming in any other system at the time you got into it?
KELLER: There were very few, I know, going on, if any at all.
DURATZ: We had heard about it, but we just knew we could do it. I had a pretty good relationship with a couple of the Erie stations, and we talked about it a lot, and at first even they thought it wouldn't be a bad idea to get some coverage of some kind in your own little town. The town itself couldn't support a television station, so it was not a moneymaker, in fact, we lost money for a long time with it. But that wasn't his concern.
KELLER: When did you start selling spots, or start selling programming?
DURATZ: Never did.
KELLER: Never did?
DURATZ: Never did.
KELLER: You had to lose then.
DURATZ: Yeah. We never did.
KELLER: They're not today? They're not selling ads?
DURATZ: They are now. A lot of the automatic stuff now. We didn't have that. Remember the weather station that had the camera that went like this?
DURATZ: That pretty much gave us the idea that if you stood in front of that camera, people could see you. In fact, that just reminded me, Jim Strickler and I... he worked for the radio station. He was a school teacher, and then became manager of the radio station, and then he worked for the power company and that's how I got to know him. And I was talking to him one day about it. Moab, Utah – he and I flew out to Moab, Utah, because we heard about this guy...
KELLER: What was the name of the guy that designed it? I know it...
DURATZ: Ed... Oh, I know his name, I just can't think of it right now.
KELLER: I can't remember it either right now.
DURATZ: But he has since passed away, but he had a man doing news.
KELLER: Automation, wasn't it?
DURATZ: And the interesting thing, the end panel – he'd take the end panel and put his face in there.
KELLER: That's a newscast, right?
DURATZ: And they sold it!
KELLER: They used to put ads on it too, car ads.
DURATZ: Yes, they sold it, and in the end it was kind of industry setup. So we got back from there, and the first program we did was the same way, and we did the election returns.
KELLER: Did you do...?
DURATZ: No, Jim Strickler did. I was on the phone getting the numbers from the newspaper.
KELLER: And he was looking through this panel giving the numbers?
DURATZ: And I was slipping the numbers and he'd announce what the vote was. I was getting that from the newspaper. In fact, I went to slip him the number one time and knocked one of the metal garbage cans over, and we were at the headend! That thing went rolling across – big noise! We thought people liked it, and everybody knew his face. So, our first studio was in the second floor of the YMCA. In fact, every time somebody used a diving board you'd hear it, downstairs, and then that's when we decided it was going pretty well as far as programming.
KELLER: What other types of programming did you have?
DURATZ: We had a girl do a little children's show.
KELLER: Well, George and you were always very involved in the infrastructure of Meadville, in various organizations and so on, and you developed that greatly over your tenure there, didn't you?
DURATZ: Yes, and it's shown its effect. It's a nice community, and George felt very strongly about Meadville. He lived there and practiced there.
KELLER: So did you.
DURATZ: Yes. It ended up being that was my home. I wasn't originally from Meadville.
KELLER: So what other program types did you do in the early days, and then as you developed the whole concept?
DURATZ: Oh, gosh. There was a lot of material available on tape and we did a lot of that. We even did a series of movies, old movies. Our logo was CTV-13, which is an unlucky number, so we had a cat, a black cat, and then they did a series of ghost type movies, and that really was pretty popular. And here again, we still didn't sell it. We could have, but...
KELLER: You could have? You had the opportunity to sell it?
DURATZ: We could have. But George was a funny duck as far as money. At budget time he'd always complain we're not making enough money, but he wouldn't let us raise the rate. He just wanted to keep the rate low. His idea was that he said, "You can always spend so much. You only need so much money. Why take more?" And that was kind of a strange attitude to have in business.
KELLER: Yes, it is. But you had an economics degree, didn't you?
DURATZ: Pardon me?
KELLER: You had a degree in economics, didn't you?
DURATZ: Oh, yes, and I kept telling him, I said, "George, we're putting new equipment in. You're spending money." And we were $3.50 for a long time, even after 12 channels, then we changed it, I think it was $24.95/$4.95 a month, but by that time we were up to 20 channels.
KELLER: Tell me, when HBO came on, when did you put it in and did you have a little problem philosophically with putting HBO on the system?
DURATZ: Well, we didn't put HBO on the system. We put ShowTime on first, because, quote unquote, they were a little cleaner.
KELLER: Oh, with smut and stuff like that, okay.
DURATZ: And that was one of George's problems too, and I guess all of them, I shouldn't blame George for that, we were all pretty conservative people and we thought we'd get some trouble from the church. There are a lot of church communities in Meadville. Then we later on put HBO on.
KELLER: When you put ShowTime on...
DURATZ: It was sort of a test to put ShowTime on, and we didn't have much trouble about it.
KELLER: This totally though blew his concept of being only a master antenna system, didn't it?
DURATZ: Well, yes, that's right.
KELLER: Was there a philosophical discussion of should we put it on or should we not?
DURATZ: Yes, yes, but there was enough requests for it that we just, Yolanda and I especially, sort of talked him into it, said let's just try it, and he decided okay, go ahead. It's interesting, he felt very strongly about something, but it didn't take much to change his mind if you could show him some good argument, and I sort of kept a record of the requests that we got for it. After church on Sunday morning, we had a family meeting every Sunday that we were in town, and that was pretty much, the meeting was talking about what happened the past week, and they both always wanted to hear anything that was unusual that happened in my office, and we talked about that a lot. Any decision that was made was made at one of those meetings as a group.
KELLER: And that would be the four of you – George, Yolanda, Helene, and yourself, is that right?
DURATZ: Right. In fact, even George's wife, my mother-in-law, would get involved once in a while, because she had her women friends. She'd say "I had some people ask me about this, and why can't we have it?" And that type of thing.
KELLER: You ever have the Women Garden Society on the programming, or the Ladies' Tea Society and so on?
DURATZ: Oh, yeah, I guess we eventually interviewed every special person in town for some reason. That was a lot of the programming, just interviewing.
KELLER: George, and you, I think also, were responsible for the building of the Pennsylvania Net, the Penn Net Inc. Tell me about that.
DURATZ: That started out as Pennarama. This was George and Joe Gans, Sr. Joe Gans was doing something, and here again, Joe was doing something with a college out in the eastern part of the state...
KELLER: They had a microwave system, didn't they go into the western part?
DURATZ: Well, Joe had his own little system going. He had some microwave going and he was telling George Barco about it, and so George said, "That's a wonderful idea; why don't we get a group of people together and finance a network and cover the whole state?" And it was 11 companies initially that George got money from, 11 different companies.
KELLER: Do you remember who they were?
DURATZ: I can't name them all now, but I have that list. (See appendix 1)
KELLER: I think that would be an interesting addendum to this.
DURATZ: I have that list in my office. I can remember there was TCI; Armstrong; Reinhard's group, Blue Ridge; Bob Tarlton; Joe Gans; Meadville...
KELLER: What year was this?
DURATZ: See, I knew you were going to ask me all these dates, and I can't remember the dates.
KELLER: Okay, generally speaking – mid '60s, early '70s?
DURATZ: It would be about 25 years ago.
KELLER: Okay, mid-'70s.
DURATZ: We had a 20th anniversary four or five years ago.
KELLER: ATC was involved in Pennsylvania at that time. Were they part of that group also?
DURATZ: No, no. TCI was, though.
KELLER: TCI was.
DURATZ: That pretty much covers most of them. There's a couple I can't think of right now, but I have that list in my office.
KELLER: So how did it develop?
DURATZ: That's when they started building the microwave system, and Joe Gans's idea was to use the headends of cable companies. There are enough cable companies spread around the state that we could use their headends and their tower and put the dishes on there, but it didn't work that way. Once you start laying it out it ended up, we had a, we called it a figure eight, and Penn State was the center of that figure eight.
KELLER: Well, you made a big noise about developing this whole network, but it never worked, is that right?
DURATZ: Yeah, it worked. It eventually... We built the network; we built the microwave network.
KELLER: But what did it do?
DURATZ: Pardon me?
KELLER: What did it do? What kind of programming did it handle?
DURATZ: It was Pennarama from Penn State, and it was all education.
KELLER: Continuing education, or...?
DURATZ: You could take a course for credit. That was the general consensus, that we would make it available for people who can't afford to go to college, they could do it at home. But that didn't work. Surprisingly enough, that did not work, but then Brian Lockman came with us and sort of changed our philosophy about programming, and that started working then.
KELLER: What forward kind of programming did you go to?
DURATZ: It was sort of a public service type programming, and now we're into that pretty strong, and here again, it's still not selling anything.
KELLER: And it goes into all of the systems in the state, or those that want to participate?
DURATZ: Yeah, people who wanted to receive the signal would pay per subscriber, like other networks, and that worked pretty well. Now there were a lot of problems with the microwave system, the maintenance on it was pretty strong, and keeping it going... It was initially designed to go in two directions. That's why the figure eight configuration, but then changes in technology came about with compression, digital, and we finally were able to put it on the satellite.
KELLER: Oh, you are on the satellite. That was going to be my next question.
DURATZ: Because of the compression, we had to buy less bandwidth, and it became feasible to put it on the satellite, and that's working very nicely now. I think we can consider it successful now.
KELLER: Great! You're still on the board then, of Penn Net?
KELLER: What other board are you currently involved in?
DURATZ: You mean other than cable?
DURATZ: Oh, there's quite a few.
KELLER: Give me some of them. They're almost all Meadville except for some of the state wide associations, aren't they?
DURATZ: Well, I do a lot with the University of Pittsburgh, in the athlete department. I'm now on the board of trustees, again at a university, out of Erie.
KELLER: And congratulations, Dr. I heard you got your honorary law degree.
DURATZ: Yes, in fact, I said, to them, they must think I'm a lawyer, I'd better tell them I'm not.
KELLER: No, you're a doctor.
DURATZ: It's interesting, and I still do a lot of local stuff in Meadville itself. I'm on the Chamber of Commerce and the Redevelopment Authority, and that type of thing, and I still stay very active. I still have an office, although everybody's gone now except me, and I still maintain that. I want to keep the name as long as we can, and that's my goal.
KELLER: Do they still call it the Meadville Master Antenna System, or have they changed it to Armstrong?
DURATZ: No, Armstrong changed the name now. It's part of the Armstrong group of companies now. But most people still call it Master Antenna, MMA, that's still... And they still think I'm involved in it.
KELLER: You still get the calls and everything like that? You left there in '89, or was it after?
DURATZ: Yes, '89.
KELLER: So you've been gone 12 years!
DURATZ: Yes. Well, I left there, but I was involved with the network. I volunteered for that job and I never lost it.
KELLER: I know how those things work.
DURATZ: The fellow who was doing the work that I started doing died and they needed somebody to fill in for him, and I told Yolanda that until they found somebody, I would do it as a favor. Well, they never did find anybody, and so I stayed with it. And I enjoyed it. I enjoyed working with the network.
KELLER: And you're president of the Barco-DURATZ: Foundation now, too.
KELLER: Tell me about that, and what does it do?
DURATZ: Here again, George Barco, and Yolanda too, I guess all of us, felt that if you were successful in a community you should make some arrangements to return something to the community, and I really don't think there's anybody that's done any more for Meadville than George and his family, in just Meadville. But then we still felt strongly about education and scholarships to help – it's kind of, and I don't say this to make one group look different or not as good as another group, but our philosophy was that the kid whose father was successful and had money and could afford to go to college, he didn't need any help. And the guy way down on the bottom could get help through the government in most cases. The guy we were looking to help was the guy in the middle, hardworking families, but just didn't have enough to get that son or daughter to college, but yet they were good students. And we felt very strongly about grades. We wouldn't help somebody just to get them through college; they had to have good grades. Anytime somebody would come in, or send an application in, the first thing you'd look at was their grades, and so we helped quite a few youngsters go to college that way.
KELLER: And you're still doing that?
DURATZ: We're still doing it.
KELLER: That's the primary function of the foundation, then?
DURATZ: Right. And there are certain guidelines that they have to go through.
KELLER: And do you administer this?
DURATZ: I'm the president, but now, since I'm alone, I've turned it over to the bank, and I have four trustees, but they call me the master trustee.
KELLER: The master trustee, huh? Now you're not only a Dr., but you're a master trustee! Who's this guy I thought I knew?
DURATZ: Everything they that they decide has to be okayed by me, but they're four good guys. We haven't been too wrong yet.
KELLER: Do you take their money on the golf course.
DURATZ: Well, usually I'm paying! I'm not good enough to take it, but once in a while I get them.
KELLER: Of the 30 give or take a few years that you were manager of a system, what were you most proud of?
DURATZ: Oh, I think the decision of changing over to aluminum cable was the biggest thing I've ever done, and Jim, that was really almost a mistake the way it happened. I don't know whether you remember that the University of Wisconsin had a...
KELLER: Very much so. That's where we first met.
KELLER: 1960 or '61.
DURATZ: Yeah, and we went there for a week or ten days, and the last day we were there was when I met Bud Shepard.
KELLER: From Canada.
DURATZ: From Canada, from Vancouver, and I liked him. We got a long very nicely.
KELLER: That was a great loss – a fine guy.
DURATZ: And on our way to the airport, I had already ordered the cable from Times, flat-braided.
DURATZ: And on the way to the airport he was telling me about this aluminum cable. Now the only thing we had in the United States at the time was a half-inch aluminum cable, but that was it, and he was telling me about this three-quarter inch trunk line cable. I thought, three-quarter inch, that's like a pipe! But it was being made in Canada. So then I said, "Well, how do you put a tap in?" He said, "Just a pressure tap, just like you're doing now. You do a .412 for the feeder line." I said, "Why don't you send me a sample." So right away I got the sample.
KELLER: I want to put Bud a little bit in perspective. Bud Shepard was president – no, I guess Sid Welsh was president – Bud was vice-president/general manager of the Vancouver, Canada cable television system, which expanded to become Empire. Was that the name of the company?
KELLER: Big operators in Canada.
DURATZ: Big in Canada, and Vancouver is a big city.
KELLER: Yeah, and they were great, great guys.
DURATZ: But he was really a... I liked him very much, and I think he liked me too. We sort of had our philosophy was about the same. But he sent me a piece of three-quarter inch cable and a piece of .412 feeder line with a tap in it, so I got together with our engineer, Wes Kuebel, and the next thing you know we're up in Canada, talking to the Canadian wire people. I came back and called Larry, and said, "Larry, cancel the order. We're going to aluminum cable."
KELLER: You were still pressure tapping it, though?
DURATZ: Yeah, yeah.
KELLER: When did you go to in-line taps, pre-tapping?
DURATZ: We never did.
KELLER: I remember the great controversy in the mid-60s.
DURATZ: We never did, but now they have, but that was after we sold the system. We were still pressure tapping when I was still there in '89.
KELLER: Oh my, what a controversy that was!
DURATZ: It was big.
KELLER: Why spend all that money to pre-tap it when you're only going to use 50% or whatever. In your case, though, you had every home in town so it didn't make much difference. You still pressure tapped right to the end, huh?
DURATZ: Yeah, well, then when Armstrong bought it, it was about time for a rebuild. As I say, we were already designing... in fact, the system was on paper when we sold, and it was going to be CCOR and we had the layout all done. By going to that aluminum cable that sort of set the trend for the whole thing and now, as you know, everybody's using it.
KELLER: You never used any jacketed aluminum cable, though? In Meadville it wasn't...
DURATZ: Yeah, we did in some places, and we did where we buried it too.
KELLER: Oh, okay, when you buried it, yeah.
DURATZ: And it had that sealing stuff, the goo in it, and we used quite a bit. I built the system in California, Pennsylvania, and because there was a chemical plant in the area all the cable near there was covered. You looked at the screen doors and you could tell you'd better do something.
KELLER: Like Altoona. I remember that franchise – it used to eat the cable right out of the air.
DURATZ: Right, well, you remember all the trouble we had with plastic cable, with the moisture coming in and the water. Oh, that was the other thing – that when we were rebuilding the plant for Meadville with aluminum there was a section of about four or five miles that we had just put in braided cable. In fact, it was when we were going to the low-band and high-band, we were putting... it was supposed to be a broadband system, and we put the amplifiers in right where they were and all the sudden we couldn't get anything over them.
KELLER: You didn't re-space, then, you're saying?
DURATZ: No, they should have reached, but the high-band wasn't going through at all and it turned out that the cable was full of water, cut the span out in the middle and turned it on like a pipe.
KELLER: Put a spigot on it, to let it out.
DURATZ: So, then we took that down and put aluminum in.
KELLER: Looking back on your career, what was the biggest mistake you made?
KELLER: Great – you're the first guy I've known that's never made a mistake!
DURATZ: I suppose... seriously, Jim, we pretty much started everything out, as far as... I'm not so sure the programming wasn't a mistake, but this was something that George wanted to do, so you can't consider it a mistake.
KELLER: It didn't turn out to be a mistake, though.
DURATZ: No, that's right, but initially for many years it was not making any money, it was losing.
KELLER: Were you opposed to it, though?
DURATZ: Well, not entirely. If it would have worked for the education, and there was no reason why it shouldn't have, except that the schoolteachers were afraid of it, and that's as blunt as you can put it, they thought they were going to lose their jobs, which there was not any truth to that at all. It was just too bad that they couldn't see that as a tool. Nobody said anything when they brought movies in. Why they were afraid of that television... but I think that the interaction scared them, back and forth, and they knew that was coming. I think they sensed that was coming anyway, and that's probably what scared them more than anything, and I can see maybe that would have.
KELLER: And you only had one major rebuild in the time that you were there, and that was when you went to aluminum?
DURATZ: No, three! We had three.
KELLER: You had three?
DURATZ: Yeah, I was involved in three rebuilds.
KELLER: And you said you had another rebuild on the drawing board when you sold in '89.
DURATZ: That would have been the fourth one.
KELLER: What would that have been – 550, 550 megahertz, or 450?
KELLER: That's a long way from the three channels and individual strip amplifiers it started with, huh?
DURATZ: In retrospect, when you look back and think of the things that happened, and how the development in 50 years what happens in the communication field is just tremendous, I think. Look where we are today. And the other thing too, is that we're past that development stage. Anymore you get a piece of equipment you're almost sure it's going to work the way it's supposed to work. I'm not saying anything bad about those guys in the beginning. They were doing what they thought was right, and that's what brought it where it is today, I think.
KELLER: Armstrong being a utility company, are they planning on instituting telephony in the Meadville system, do you know?
DURATZ: I don't know, but they're putting fiber in now, and I would guess that that's what they have in mind. They're already in the telephone business.
KELLER: Yeah, I know they're a telephone company, or a utility company.
DURATZ: But they're a small company. I can't help but think... they're already in the Internet business, so...
KELLER: They don't serve the city of Meadville telephone, do they?
DURATZ: No, Internet for commercial use only, but when they get all the fiber in, they're going to go to Internet for everybody. I'm pretty sure of that, but they haven't said anything to me about the telephone, but I can't...
KELLER: You've got to believe they're going to go that way.
DURATZ: It's going to be available and it's their business. I think that's going to be a very strong... You know, it's interesting too, you can't help but think that one of these days it is going to be one. It has to come that way.
KELLER: Oh, I think there's no question.
DURATZ: And that's going to be the big move, because it's awfully close to that now.
KELLER: There's going to be one cable coming into the home that is going to carry everything.
DURATZ: And it's kind of interesting that that piece of drop cable, how important that becomes today.
KELLER: Isn't that true? I often.... Remember when we were going to allow the telephone company to own all that kind of stuff. Well, the telephone company wanted to own that entrance into the home, but we said no.
DURATZ: That last piece of cable.
KELLER: And the converter is the other thing we had.
DURATZ: So, it's been a fascinating experience, is the best way I can talk about it. I enjoyed every minute of it. I can't quit now! Everybody says I thought you were going to retire by now, but what would I do if I retired? You can only play so much golf. I'm afraid I'm going to miss something. I still get the trade magazines; I still try to read the trade magazines, not all of them, but I still get three or four of them. I enjoy reading about some of my old friends who are still around, but I've got to tell you though, I went to Chicago this last (NCTA convention)...
KELLER: Yeah, I didn't make it.
DURATZ: I know you're not going to believe it, but I spent three hours on the floor.
KELLER: That much time, huh?
DURATZ: Because I was trying to find somebody I knew.
KELLER: Somebody you knew – I'm the same way.
DURATZ: I did not find one person in all that time. Both vendors and the people who registered.
KELLER: It kind of makes you cry, doesn't it, after all we've...
DURATZ: Oh, I went back to my room and I thought, boy, that's pretty sad, and where are they? And then I went to the Pioneer dinner and they...
KELLER: They were all there.
DURATZ: Yeah, they were there, but I couldn't find anybody... and I guess they were a little disappointed about the activity on the floor this year. You remember, Jim, there was a lot of business taken care of. I can remember it was almost like being at an auction to buy equipment. You could get bargains, and I remember the time that Jerrold showed their headend, the panels were all there and then you'd go in the back and there was nothing there. But we were buying it.
KELLER: Yeah, everybody was – it was the only thing that there was at the time. Other than George, who were some of the most memorable characters that you met in your experience?
DURATZ: Oh, the number one that comes in my head is Bill Daniels. I thoroughly enjoyed Bill Daniels. I thought his whole background was very fascinating and it was just interesting to discuss things with him and I liked him very much. I think he liked our family, too. And John Walson, I had a lot of good times with him. Joe Gans, Fred Reinhard, oh, gosh, I even went down to Tyler, Texas, Tubby Flynn?
KELLER: Tubby Flynn, yeah.
DURATZ: There was a problem we had and I can't even remember what the problem was, but I flew down there and he spent some time with me.
KELLER: Was Tubby in Tyler or was he in Arkansas?
DURATZ: No, he was in Tyler. At that time he was. That's an interesting point too, that I think is missing, because the companies are getting so big now, but if you remember, we could call the owner of that company - anybody - you always got a return call or they'd always take the phone call because we were exchanging problems back and forth. I spent a lot of time on the phone with John Rigas. We started about the same time, and I think that's gone now. You don't even know who to call.
KELLER: Oh, I think that's right. I think that's right.
DURATZ: I think I talked to almost – oh, gosh, Ed Allen, and the two brothers out... oh, gosh, I can't think of their names now, but anytime you had a problem you'd find somebody else had the same problem.
KELLER: Weary brothers, are you talking about, in Kansas? Bob Weary?
DURATZ: No. Schneider!
KELLER: Oh, Gene and... the Schneiders.
DURATZ: Schneider. They were very nice.
KELLER: Gene and Richard.
DURATZ: Right, and nobody ever not helped you. They wanted to talk to you.
KELLER: Until we got in the franchising battles.
KELLER: Did you ever go through any of those? I know you didn't in Meadville, but...
DURATZ: No, in fact, it's an interesting thing, Meadville still doesn't pay a franchise fee, and I had the California system and when I had it we didn't pay any...
KELLER: California, Pennsylvania.
DURATZ: California, Pennsylvania, and Titusville, I had that system and we didn't pay.
KELLER: How did you get the franchises? Just go in and ask for them? "We'd like to bring television to town."
DURATZ: I guess we... here again, George was very strong about franchising.
KELLER: Did you have a franchise in Meadville?
DURATZ: Oh, yes. Yes.
KELLER: Because some of those early systems didn't have franchises.
DURATZ: We didn't start with a franchise. They didn't come along for almost 20 years.
KELLER: Well, I know why it came along, because you had to have the intangible assets there appreciate.
DURATZ: We had, I guess you'd call it almost a certificate, that we could put our cable in rights of ways. That's about all we had. Jim, when we first started in Meadville, everybody laughed. "You're not going to be here but for a couple years." The telephone company, "Yeah, go ahead. Do whatever you have to. You're not going to be around very long." And that's the way it was. It was, I guess, a different attitude then. It wasn't that we had difficulty with either the power company or the telephone company. They were all good friends. I knew them personally and we worked together. But when I went down to California, Pennsylvania and had to deal with Bell – you see, the Meadville telephone company was just a local, it was the Meadville Telephone Company.
KELLER: Is it still?
DURATZ: No, it's All-Tel now, but it was just a local one, and right from the president, who was Dr. Winslow, you could go right into his office and talk to him about it. But you can't do that now. When we went down to California and had to deal with Bell, I had to go through Pittsburgh, but once I met them and once they saw the work we were doing, at first they were tough, they were really tough, but it got to a point after they saw that we meant to do it the right way, and we did it the right way, they sort of backed off, and then I'd call and say we're going to go down a certain area, and I'd give him the list of poles, and he'd go out by himself. I wouldn't even have to go with him.
KELLER: Tell me about some of the bizarre complaints you'd get from people.
DURATZ: I'll tell you a good one – see, that's another thing, the equipment and everything's more reliable now and you have battery backups, you don't have these kinds of outages, but if a big storm came through and you lost the headend, that was everything. My job was always answering that phone and directing the trucks, and one Saturday morning, the whole system went off, and boy, we had two phones and I kept them going. Finally, I answered the phone and it was some girl, and she was screaming. She says, "What am I going to do with these kids?" I said, "Why don't you just take them out and drown them." All of the sudden it was quiet on the other end and she started laughing. I said, "Read a book." Because we were having trouble, it was a big storm. I said, "You know we had a storm." And she sort of apologized, but later on, she came into the office to tell me how shocked she was when I said, "Why don't you just take them out and drown them."
KELLER: But you got her attention though.
DURATZ: But we were friends, it wasn't... But, oh, we had the wires shot – there was a lot of hunting in our area, and we always had shooting happening. Storms were terrible. We have a lot of trees in Meadville, and anytime the wind blew a little bit, we were out there. That was another thing – we extended our lines to another town from Meadville and got a bad batch of cable.
KELLER: There were a lot of those. What year was this? Roughly, again.
DURATZ: I don't remember, but I have a record of that. It was probably in the early '70s, and the cable was pulling apart.
KELLER: At the connectors?
DURATZ: At the connectors, yeah, and pulling right out of the connectors, and then it was too short and you had to add a piece. It was Christmas Day, and there were two crews out working and I said I've got to find these guys coffee or something. Trying to find a cup of coffee on Christmas Day in Meadville was impossible, and I couldn't understand how nobody was open. So, I used to make a little wine, and it looked like black coffee.
KELLER: Good old red?
DURATZ: I can remember handing a cup of that to one of the guys and he was shaking. That was the coffee for that day; it warmed everybody up. We didn't drink a lot of it, but you had to make fun out of it or you'd go crazy. But we really, our service crew was always pretty nice kids.
KELLER: At your peak, how many employees did you have?
DURATZ: Counting the studio, too?
DURATZ: Probably 30-35.
KELLER: And how many were in the studio?
DURATZ: It was up to about a dozen.
KELLER: Was there that many?
KELLER: Technicians, and directors, and...
DURATZ: Yeah, to run the equipment and everything. We had two guys who did nothing but maintenance on the equipment. The equipment – we had a lot of trouble with the equipment, constantly repairing, stuff would wear out, cleaning the heads on the machines, that type of thing. So we kept the guys pretty busy. It was interesting how the programming developed, and it's just like they're doing with PCN now, it's kind of gratifying now when you say, well, I'm connected with PCN and they know who you are. And that, for a long time, didn't happen.
KELLER: The same thing in the country when you said you were in cable television or you were in community antenna television, they had no idea what it was.
DURATZ: Yeah, nobody had any idea. That, I think, is a tribute to the people who are in it now, and I think it must make them all feel... it makes me feel good.
KELLER: I feel the same way. It's nice to become a part of it.
DURATZ: It's nice to be recognized as kind of a leader in an industry.
KELLER: Because you were.
DURATZ: And I'm very proud of that.
KELLER: You became a National Pioneer in '82, didn't you?
DURATZ: That's about when it was. Then I got the state too.
KELLER: Yeah, I know you were a state founder. We're starting to wind down now, Jim. Can you think of anything you'd like to add before we wrap this thing up?
DURATZ: Oh, there are probably a million things, Jim, but you go to long at one thing and it gets boring, I guess.
KELLER: No, it doesn't! Remember, people that will be looking at this will be putting together a lot of other things. They'll be writing a book about you someday, so they'll want to know about you, and how your personality comes across.
DURATZ: I just think that the most important thing is that I'm very proud to be part of the whole industry and I think it's a fine industry. To develop so... you know, we're only talking maybe 50 years, and what has happened in that 50 year period is really phenomenal, I think. I often sit down and think to myself... You know, one of the big excitements to me was the first time I saw a signal off a satellite, and I was on the telephone talking to a guy in New Jersey – you don't think about it until you actually see it – saw that delay, and he said, "The signal's on its way." And it was a delay. I thought, 22,000 miles twice! And I'm seeing it right here! And Jim, the first satellite receive dish we put in was $60,000!
KELLER: I remember it was $100,000 the first one we put in, in Jackson, Mississippi.
DURATZ: You had to put a base in that was four feet deep and twelve feet square and reinforced with rebars and copper wire all around it.
KELLER: Ten-meter, 30 feet.
DURATZ: Oh, geez! Today, you just put a stick in the ground and put it up.
KELLER: Would you have envisioned this when you first started?
DURATZ: No, no, no, no.
KELLER: I don't imagine anyone did.
DURATZ: You know, I did envision VHF and UHF being one someday. I just thought there's enough bandwidth there, but I never dreamt of 100 channels. I never thought of that kind of a bandwidth. It just never entered my mind, that or computer stuff, that never, ever entered my mind. It did later, but...
KELLER: 250 was mind boggling to me, when we went to 250.
DURATZ: Yes, right. And you'd say, "Why, what do you want it for? You certainly don't want it for television; it's just too much." But then this other stuff comes along and...
KELLER: Well, the first thing was radio, FM radio.
DURATZ: Yeah, remember that? 14 channels of FM, in between the two. That, I thought, was fascinating, and we had a nice demand for that, surprisingly, with the FM. That was pretty popular.
KELLER: Well, again, because you couldn't get any FM down in the valley there at all. Jim, we're going to wrap this thing up now. We've been going for quite some time. This has been the oral history of James J. Duratz, former general manager and all around entrepreneur and good guy, and an old friend, a man who has devoted much of his life to community service, both in the city of Meadville and the state of Pennsylvania, and nationally also. This oral history is part of the oral history program of The Cable Center and financed by a gift from The Hauser Foundation. Jim, thanks very much. It's been a great delight, as always.
DURATZ: Thank you, Jim. It's been a pleasure.
ARMSTRONG UTILITIES, INC.
BLUE RIDGE CABLE OF N.Y., INC.
CABLE TV COMPANY
CENTRE VIDEO CORPORATION
CHARLES T.V. CABLE SYSTEM
MEADVILLE MASTER ANTENNA, INC.
NATIONAL CABLE TELEVISION CORPORATION
COMMUNCIATIONS PROPERTIES, INC., AND SUBSIDIARIES
(TCI of Pennsylvania)
West Pittston, Pennsylvania
WM. PENN CABLE CO.