WTF-K…KENNY SCHAFFER BREAKS RADIO SILENCE!
November 7, 2009
I first met Kenny Schaffer in 1968, when he was the publicist for Alice Cooper and the Left Banke. My friend Allan Rinde had just joined the staff of Cashbox magazine and rented a room in Kenny’s “Funky” penthouse apartment, which adjoined the Plaza Hotel in New York.
After every rock concert at Madison Square Garden or show at the Fillmore, everybody would wind up at Kenny’s. It was a lot of fun to hang out with the stars and their groupies, even though Allan and I had to eject rowdy guests from time to time. I wonder if Jeff Beck and Rod Stewart have ever forgiven us.
Of all the things I admired about Kenny was his imagination…but he didn’t just dream, he turned his dreams into reality. He conceived, designed, built, and sold the first wireless guitar and wireless microphone that forever changed staging and the way music was performed.
Ken remembers, “The idea to make the first wireless guitar stemmed from Lynne Volkman being my girlfriend… Lynne was the first female tour manager in rock ‘n roll, doing everyone from the Rolling Stones to the Who, James Taylor, Cat Stevens, Lynyrd Skynyrd… (For Peter Rudge and Nat Weiss)…. of course, up until then tour managers were always guys (who’d bring their girlfriends out for weekends). As I was Lynne’s boyfriend, roles were reversed., so instead of the tour manager’s girlfriend flying out to join the tour on weekends, it was me! If you go to
and browse for “Rolling Stones,” it describes how Ace Frehley (Kiss) got electrocuted and I came to invent the wireless guitar/microphone.”
Kenny, I remember introducing you to Maurice and Verdene White of Earth, Wind, and Fire, as well as producer Tony Camillo (Gladys Knight and the Pips) who became a couple of your good customers.
Now how on earth did you get involved with Russia and the fall of the Soviet Union?
“I got into Russia pretty much by accident. It really started as a spin-off of my long-time hobby, ham radio, designing crazy radios and crazy antennas – electronics. In 1983 I invented a fancy, technical-breakthrough (satellite system) that was able to eavesdrop on internal Soviet TV. I put up a few systems for some cryptic government agencies, then for a few major universities. Columbia became the first American university to offer a course “Russian through Soviet Television,” and, well — it was the girl again — I met an incredible girl who was a graduate student in “Kremlinology,” and followed her to Russia. (Of course, I would’ve followed up to Easter Island of Pago Pago, it didn’t really matter, you know…) We started a company together they came up with and set up really bizarre media projects between the US and Soviet union — like getting a Life Magazine reporter into Red Army boot camp for a month, and handing out 10,000 Trojan condoms to newlyweds in Red Square… that was a real rock ‘n roll… we got to know some really amazing Russians.
Schaffer continues, “In 1987 ABC TV had no choice but to air their long-delayed $50 million miniseries, “Amerika” — “10 years after the Soviets come over and do that… to your sister and mother.” Already 2 years into Gorbachev, I thought the series an anachronism that didn’t make anybody anywhere feel better in the morning and decided to come up with an antidote. In the end, I came up with the idea of “sandwiching” the week-long ABC series between a week of internal Soviet TV, seen at the same moment it was being seen in “the other superpower,” 260,000,000 Soviets. (My crazy satellite system remained the only technical means of bringing Soviet TV into the Western Hemisphere …)
The Discovery Channel was barely known at the time – wasn’t carried by cable companies in New York, LA, Washington, etc. — I only knew of it from my days walking around the sky playing games with satellites — so found a trade directory, learned the name and number of Discovery’s chairman, John Hendricks… called and said “Hi — my name is Kenny Schaffer — you don’t know me — don’t hang up, but would you consider preempting everything you have next week?” John must have been pretty desperate — the channel had only 11,000,000 subscribers then, not nearly enough to stay on the air much longer. They were nearly bankrupt, their offices were just one small room in Bethesda and all the equipment they owned was two ¾” U-matic VCRs…. So I guess I dropped in like Discovery’s Angel – John thought the idea I threw with 5 day’s notice at him was ballsy — though inconvenient, and sure the heck timely.”
Two days later the Discovery Channel held their first press conference– at the Washington National Press Club — to announce that, come Sunday, they will run a week of live internal Soviet TV. “The first time the people of one superpower can look through the keyhole into the living room of the other,” I described it. Press coverage for Discovery’s announcement was avalanche — by Sunday, Discovery’s audience had 30,000,000 homes from the cable companies that signed on special. Following that week, 20,000,000 stayed with them, including the systems in New York, Washington, Los Angeles, Chicago, etc… Nielsen reported that more Americans that week watched local Moscow then watched ABC… finally, the stunt won that year’s Golden Ace Award from the National Cable Television Association as the best program on cable. Yay!
Now what have you been up to recently?
“In 2003 I invented something that came to known as “placeshifting” — TV2Me was the name of the box — I made it to bring me my home cable company (Time Warner New York) wherever I traveled. The box I built was very exquisite, take no prisoners, and cost a small fortune — until recently close to $5000, currently $3750 – and it processed video as faithfully as the old Schaffer-Vega wireless guitars and mics processed audio….
I’ve sold a few thousand of the units over the years – word of mouth, and obviously, to fairly well-heeled individuals: rock stars, sports stars, business magnates, oligarchs, and to governments, schools and broadcasters. By using TV2Me they got the same quality picture as they’d get at home, or would get if they were sitting in some city it were especially interested in, anywhere on Earth.”
Actually, Sting, my friend from the wireless guitar days and the Police’s first tour, became the world’s first “placeshifter” when he took a big chance and bought my first box in 2003…
Right now I’m sweating over a startup that turns a standard laptop into the equivalent of an expensive satellite truck for broadcasters — and on “TV Everywhere,” which scales placeshifting as a new service/revenue tier for cable and satellite companies,” so that everyone can take their cable/satellite subscriptions with them wherever they travel, watch their shows, at any time, at any place.”
Note: Sting wrote “Russians” after hanging out all night watching Soviet TV at Columbia University with Kenny in 1986. Kenny also popped up, indirectly, a few years later in REM’s ”What’s the Frequency Kenneth?”
Photo at the top from People Magazine
Copyright 2009 by Artie Wayne
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