Former Rock 'n' Roll Wizard Kenny Schaffer Now Gets His Kicks Turning America on to Soviet TV

updated 03/18/1985 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/18/1985 01:00AM

Kenny Schaffer talked to his first Soviet satellite in 1957. Or, rather, it talked to him. The satellite was Sputnik, and what it seemed to be saying to America's politicians and educators was, "Beware!" But to 10-year-old Kenny, casting through the skies with his new $30 AR3 Heathkit ham radio set, Sputnik's message was distinctly more benign. "It went dit-dit-dit-dit-dit-dit," he says, "which was Morse code for 'Hi!' "

The satellite spoke English?

Yes and no, says Schaffer, now 37. "In Morse code there are things that are international, things that are stripped of language identity. 'Hi' is telegrapher talk. It's not Russian or English."

It is January 1985. Five or six graduate students huddle in a small room in New York's Harriman Institute for Soviet studies watching daytime TV. But not our daytime TV. The figure on the console is not Phil Donahue or Susan Lucci; it is Mikhail Gorbachev, the most likely successor to ailing President and party leader Konstantin Chernenko. To most Americans, Gorbachev is a faceless name in the Soviet flowchart. But here he is, striding purposefully across an airport tarmac at the head of a passel of Politburo members. "Look-in' good, Mikhail," murmurs somebody in the room. Welcome to the network news. From Moscow.

This is Kenny Schaffer's second Soviet satellite. It is somewhat more hard won than his first, having cost Harriman $45,000 and Schaffer three years of work. But then this rig works harder than the Heathkit. Via a satellite dish on the Harriman roof, it tracks and "steals" programming from a 15-by-6-foot Soviet communications satellite loop-the-looping above the earth. And it delivers more: not just "Hi" but all 15 hours of the Soviet broadcast day. From the news to variety shows to the exercise hour to what Schaffer likes to call "the Million-Ruble Movie," it's all coming to you in beautiful color at the exact same time the programming hits television sets throughout the eastern part of the Soviet Union.

Technologically, Schaffer's invention is an impressive feat, achieved in the face of great skepticism. Educationally, it has attracted intense interest and glowing praise from some of the country's most eminent Soviet scholars. And if, as Schaffer fully expects, the day comes when every American can afford a satellite dish, what he has created may prove to be a kind of anti-Sputnik, a vehicle of superpower understanding rather than of competition. "Don't get me wrong," says Kenny Schaffer. "I'm not being stupid or naive. It's not going to stop the arms race. But if everything goes well with this, maybe the American view of the Russians will be a little less lockjawed, and the world will be a little nicer."

And then, because he is after all Kenny Schaffer, he crows, "It's rock 'n' roll. Everything I do is rock 'n' roll."

Clearly, Schaffer is not your typical Sovietologist. Nor your typical inventor. He speaks no Russian. He has no engineering or technical degrees. In fact, the world he occupied for almost the entire time between Russian satellite No. 1 and Russian satellite No. 2 is not that of the Kremlin and the Supreme Soviet, but of Kiss and the Rolling Stones. In his nonstop, 75-rpm, Bronx-inflected patter, waving his hands like Toscanini in overdrive, Kenny Schaffer will tell you 15 years' worth of stories from his career as high tech guru and/or publicist to Hendrix, John McLaughlin, Billy Joel and Donna Summer. It was Schaffer who invented a cordless guitar to aid Gene Simmons; it was Schaffer who introduced Alice Cooper to New York. Of the Police's Sting, Schaffer says, "I've known him since he was driving around in an Econoline van. I've been," he adds, 'on a lot of tours."

So what is this man doing in the satellite business? Schaffer hints, in all honesty, that he is trying to save the world—just what everyone who grew up in the '60s was supposed to do. But what he is really up to is simpler. Some people spend their lives building walls, others projecting their image. But everything Schaffer has done in his professional life has had to do with putting people in touch with one another. Alice in touch with the Apple. Simmons in touch with a crowd he can walk through and sing to at the same time. It is not so much what people say once they are in contact, but simple, brute connection. As the satellite says: Dit-dit-dit-ditdit-dit.

"The first hour you watch of Soviet TV is a freak show," says Schaffer. "You marvel at the technology and laugh at these Russian dancing bears. But if you watch it for several hours, you start to see where they're coming from. And you begin to forgive them for not being just like you."

Kenny Schaffer's father was in the connections business too, at least marginally. He drove a truck for the New York Daily News. He and Kenny's mother watched the ham radio set grow with pride and, observing their son's high grades at the topflight Bronx High School of Science, assumed he would end up in that field.

They assumed too soon. At first, Kenny had little sympathy for the new-born art of rock 'n' roll. "I put 'em down," he says. "Obviously, they were faggots. I was a star at Bronx Science, and when the system works for you, there's no need to mess with it."

He did observe, however, that longhaired guys were getting all the girls. Unable to play an instrument, Kenny did what seemed to be the next best thing. He and a ham-radio buddy presented themselves as recording engineers to a Manhattan impresario and offered to build him a recording studio. Amazingly, he accepted; more amazingly, they built it. "It was very advanced," says Kenny. "All of three tracks. But the first record ever recorded there went No. 1. It was Walk Away Renee, by the Left Banke. I went back to school, and I heard it all over the lunchroom."

Dit-dit-dit-dit dit-dit.

By 1969 Schaffer was a full-timer in the world of rock. He continued to exploit his electronics talent, creating and marketing some of the tone-altering devices that monopolized the sound of '70s pop. But he soon found equal satisfaction through his other gift: gab. One of the early rock press flacks, he promoted acts as disparate as Jimi Hendrix and Timothy Leary. Faced with the daunting prospect of flogging a young Arizonan rocker with no voice, a weird name and a wild stage act at New York, Schaffer booked Alice Cooper into a bar frequented by Andy Warhol's Pop Art crowd. "Alice came with his snake and his guillotine and stole the show," Schaffer cackles.

If Cooper marked the apex of Schaffer's hype career, he achieved legitimate renown—at least in rock circles—in 1977, when he perfected the cordless microphone and invented his cordless guitar. While accompanying a friend who worked on the 1975 Rolling Stones tour, he noticed that the wireless mike that Mick Jagger was pioneering generated background noise and picked up stray police radio calls. Despite the skepticism of most of the electronics community ("my more educated friends"), who argued that it was physically impossible to reduce background fuzz more than 65 decibels below the volume of desired sound, Schaffer applied some of his old ham know-how. From his lab two years later, he announced the birth of a "noiseless" microphone and guitar. His first cordless customer was Simmons of Kiss, and within three years more than 300 bands were using them to run around in the audience.

Schaffer had money and friends, but by 1980 he was "sleeping until noon, just kind of waiting for something to happen." Then in 1981 it did. He attended a conference of satellite dish owners in Washington, D.C. and came home towing a 10-foot parabolic antenna. Like the other satellite bugs, Schaffer was fascinated with picking video out of the heavens, but typically his obsession took an original twist. Whereas most dish owners fix on the American communications satellites in the western sky, he looked East—and found a row of European satellites, each broadcasting in its own language.

To Schaffer, they appeared like a string of pearls. He could, it came to him in a flash, sell reception of the international programs to college language departments; they would jump at the chance to expose their students to up-to-the-minute video in their favorite culture.

Everyone ignored him. College after college listened politely to his spiel and turned him down. Academics, he suddenly realized, were not as attuned to high tech as rock stars. "Most of them," he reports, "said, 'I don't even watch American TV, why should I watch that stuff?' " Then in 1983 he found Jonathan Sanders, a Harriman Institute assistant director who had some experience with international TV. A frequent visitor to Moscow, he had covered the Brezhnev funeral for CBS. Ironically, Sanders had been looking for a way to import Soviet TV for several years. "I'd never met anyone before who gave me the feeling he would really come through," he remembers. "Kenny did."

Sanders dug up a private benefactor who would donate Schaffer's asking price. It was a brave act: Independent experts surveying Harriman's roof told Sanders he'd be lucky to receive HBO, let alone Moscow. To make matters worse, the Soviet TV satellite Molnya ("lightning") was the only one in existence in an "eccentric" orbit. Unlike those of other countries that "stand still" relative to a fixed point on earth, it describes swooping arcs over six continents. Previous attempts to intercept its signal had produced a sporadic picture of less-than-ideal quality. The Molnya project became known around Harriman as Jonathan's Folly. "No one would ever say, 'You're an idiot,' " the professor says deadpan.

Thus it was that one hot day last August, a small group of beer-drinking grad students watched skeptically as a little man with a big moustache fiddled with the knobs of a 21-inch TV screen next to a huge parabolic dish. For an excruciating hour, nothing happened on the screen. "We had miscalculated the start of the Russian broadcast day," says Schaffer. But finally, at 4 p.m. (8 a.m., Vladivostok time), a sign-on appeared, then the picture of the Kremlin that always leads in the morning news, and finally a broadcast of the Friendship Games—Moscow's answer to the L.A. Olympics. "The picture was terrific," says Schaffer. "It just jumped off the screen." It was, he adds with characteristic understatement, "like the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima."

Seven months later Sanders is more than satisfied. "There are lots of different currents in the Soviet Union, and you can get a wonderful sense of how they're balanced by watching what's on TV, noticing what's not on and seeing what's repeated." And Sanders is no longer the system's lone fan. In addition to fascinated media and academic representatives (Schaffer has plans to introduce the system at nine other schools in 1985), a host of other interested parties have made the pilgrimage to Harriman's 12th-floor viewing room. The State Department has been by, Charles Wick of the U.S. Information Agency requested a videotape of a transmission, and not long ago, says Schaffer, the Soviet Embassy in Washington invited him to breakfast. The inventor does his best Russian accent: " 'How much theess cost?' "

But the visit that has tickled the inventor the most in recent weeks was the one from Sting. The rock star took in a few hours of viewing in preparation for a Soviet trip and felt inspired to pen a new song, Do Russians Love Their Children Too? Schaffer was elated. Not only had the visit neatly tied up the two halves of his career, but it thrills him, he says, that "one of the world's greatest communicators" has been moved to art by his invention.

Schaffer has persuaded the BWI Agency, an entertainment and promotion company, to book a trailer carrying a "mobile Molnya" portable dish and screen, accompanied by a translator, into college campuses around the country starting in the fall. Hundreds of college kids will watch TV every night along with millions of Soviets. "It would be good to have a whole cadre of Americans growing up who understand the Soviet Union just a little," Schaffer says.

Now he's really beginning to roll. As he muses, it is the near future. Molnya's projected audience becomes younger and younger, until it approaches his own age back that night in the Bronx. A specific fantasy arranges itself. "A 10-year-old kid," he proposes almost feverishly. "He takes a satellite dish, turns it north, gets Moscow. And he gets a thrill, an endorphin high, and he will keep searching the sky, searching the sky to find it again, to see what 250 million Russians are seeing. It's gonna turn that kid on."

Dit-dit-dit-ditdit-dit.

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