Friday, February 27, 2009

News: Meet The Man Behind Closed Captioning

Special to the Director's Cut Blog
By Leon Smitherman

Wichita is home to some fascinating people - some famous, some not. It's also home to a man little heard of, but his work has certainly been noticed by all. To say Bill Kastner loves electronics would be an understatement.

His basement is filled with old radios and other gadgets that would look more at home in a museum. He likes his entertainment old school - no Facebook or chat rooms. Bill does his social networking using a ham radio and Morse code.

"In high school I had a stammering problem, so I resorted to Morse code and that was a means of talking to people without having the stammering problem," Kastner said.

That childhood infatuation with radios led Kastner to pursue a career in electronics and he eventually earned his masters degree in electrical engineering from K-State. After working on memory systems for the Minuteman Missile back in the 60's, Bill moved his family to Dallas where he started working for Texas Instruments.

"Thirty-two years have passed -- I guess it's time to come out and say I did something with my life," he said. What he did with his life some 32 years ago at Texas Instruments has had a profound effect on everyone's life.

Bill is the guy who developed and built the very first decoder that makes closed captioning on television possible. "I designed original closed captioning decoder, other than my manager there were only two people that really designed the original closed caption mediums scale logic," he said. "I did the logic and the other guy was Joe Lynn, who did the interface to the television set."

In the mid 1970's Public Broadcasting contracted with Texas Instruments to design a device that would allow the deaf to read what was being said on air. The test for the Texas Instruments team was to decode a message. "We had to decode that," Bill said. "One thing that happened was that PBS would not tell us on this tape they gave us what the message was. For the first decoded information and it turns out when we go the decoder running, it was 'float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.'"

Bill's decoder worked perfectly, but what he didn't take into account was how widely popular closed captioning would become. "We thought in the beginning that there would be a decoder box that was sold at the time through Sears that would cost $250 and there would be a limited amount of those in the world," he said. "We never expected that FCC would declare in July of 1993 that all TV's 13 inches or larger would have a closed caption decoder built into them."

Now, everywhere he looks his invention is looking back.

"One of the interesting things is that I work out at the YMCA three times a week and I can sit there and look at the TV's on the display in front of me and think I did that, but yet I can't turn to the person next to me and say, 'Hey, I did that,'" he said. "No way. They wouldn't believe that."

He's really quite humble and shy even when asked about the role he played in broadcasting. In fact, people who have known him for years didn't know that he helped create closed captioning. But he's equally content knowing that his work has helped bring words to those who could only see pictures.


Anonymous said...

Being that closed captioning is crucial to my business, this article was so interesting - thanks! If only Channel 3 would caption Good Company? :)

Dan Hirschfeld said...

The previous anonymous post inspired me to add my two-cents..

Great story, Frank. This feature is an example of how, in years past, many of the innovators in electronics and communication were also amateur radio operators. The above mentioned fields as well as amateur radio have changed over the years making this less true today. However, if properly presented amateur radio still has the ability to motivate and inspire the techies and communicators of tomorrow.