Levine’s KKGO/KMZT Embrace HD Radio
     

There aren’t many broadcasters working today who were active on the radio scene back in the days when FM was an unproven, commercially questionable technology. There are fewer still who put a station on back then and still own that station today. And there’s only one doing it in a major market: Saul Levine at KKGO and KMZT in Los Angeles.

Back in 1959, Levine put KBCA(FM) on the air at 105.1, broadcasting from more than a mile above downtown L.A. as one of the first FM stations on Mount Wilson. KBCA soon became all-jazz KKGO, then flipped to classical in 1989, eventually becoming “K-Mozart,” KMZT.

In 2005, Levine flipped the switch to put K-Mozart on the air in HD Radio, a move he says he never doubted he’d make.

“There was never a moment’s hesitation about going digital,” Levine said. “That was a natural progression we thought we had to make.”

The motivation, Levine admits, was as much promotional as technological.

“There’s the perception, which I don’t agree with, that analog radio is dead,” he said. “So terrestrial radio had to go digital to stay competitive.”

Technological leap

When KMZT(FM) went HD, it was still using the same Mount Wilson transmitter site where the station began almost five decades earlier, not to mention an analog transmitter with plenty of history — a BE FM30 that was “about 20 years old, with upgrades,” says John Davis, the consulting engineer who’s maintained the Mount Wilson site for much of its history.

The first big HD decision — whether to combine the digital signal into the existing Jampro two-bay analog antenna, or whether to use a separate antenna — was an easy one, Davis says.

Since KMZT owned its own 220-foot self-supporting tower just west of the main (“Mount Alta”) cluster of towers on Mount Wilson, there was plenty of space for a new antenna, but only limited space in the transmitter building for the combiner, higher-powered transmitter and heat-generating reject load that would have been needed to implement high-level combining.

While the “space combining” approach that Davis chose can cause issues for listeners close to the transmitter, where the ratios between the analog and digital signal levels can vary, that’s not a factor for stations on Mount Wilson, 5,700 feet above sea level and many miles from the valleys and hilltops where its listeners are.

“From anywhere, the (separate) antennas are going to look like a point source,” Davis said.

For an antenna, Davis went with a vendor he was already comfortable with. Jampro had provided KMZT with a two-bay main antenna and, about 20 feet below that, a four-bay JSCP auxiliary antenna. Between those two antennas, the station mounted a one-bay Jampro JSCP for HD Radio.

Davis and Levine went with a trusted source for their transmitter as well.

“Our (BE) analog transmitter has been about as reliable as one could hope for, and dealing with BE has always been a pleasure,” Davis said.

New way of thinking

KMZT chose BE’s FMi 106 transmitter for its HD Radio signal, fed by the FSi 10 HD Radio signal generator. It’s a combination Davis says has been very reliable, once he learned to think of today’s transmitters in terms of software as well as hardware.

“You’re now dealing with computers. It’s a new way of thinking,” he said. “We had one software upgrade that didn’t work, so we had to revert to the previous version.”

Other than that, the only headache KMZT encountered in its transmitter conversion came in getting the signal from the station’s studios, just off the 405 Freeway in West L.A., up to the transmitter some 30 miles away. The station’s existing one-hop analog microwave STL system had to be replaced as part of the upgrade to HD.

“We have a Moseley Starlink digital STL, running analog input at the studio and digital out at the transmitter site,” Davis says.

“We’d have liked to have had the importer and processing at the studio, but we have a very long STL, and I wouldn’t want to rely on that as a data path.”

At the transmitter end of that long STL path are separate Aphex 2020MkIII audio processors for the analog and digital program chains, feeding the BE IDi 20 HD Radio Importer, which generates the station’s HD2 signal and PAD data. (The audio path for the HD2 is a telco line from the studios to Mount Wilson.)

“The audio processing for the digital signal is significantly different from the processing for analog,” says Tom White, the station’s director of engineering. “With the digital, we want to keep the dynamic range intact, while the analog is more heavily processed.”

At the studio end, upgrades for HD Radio are still in the future. White says soon he hopes to replace the station’s analog Pacific Recorders BMX-II consoles with digital consoles.

Adding an HD2

While Levine says HD Radio’s multicasting capabilities weren’t a deciding factor in his decision to go digital, his station wasted little time taking advantage of the opportunity to add an HD2 multicast channel.

“We kicked around some ideas for doing something separate on the HD2,” said Mike Johnson, the station’s operations manager.

In the end, though, he says the decision to simulcast KMZT’s sister AM signal was an obvious one. Levine’s Mount Wilson Broadcasting purchased what was then KGIL(AM) 1260 in 1992, and over the years it’s changed the station’s city of license from San Fernando to Beverly Hills, upgraded its power (from 5 kW to 20 kW days/7.5 kW nights), and changed its format multiple times.

Through all those moves, the AM station was hampered by a signal that, especially after dark, lacked the wide reach of the Mount Wilson-based FM signal. While Levine boasts of a “100 mile” reach for the FM, the AM was hard to hear in important areas such as Orange County. Levine added another AM on 540 in Tijuana to help reach Orange County and the San Diego market, but the combined reach of the two AM signals was still no match for the big FM on 105.1.

When the AM began simulcasting on 105.1-HD2, it was doing standards as KKGO(AM), “Unforgettable 540 & 1260.” But an abrupt change in the L.A. radio scene soon brought a new format to the AM and HD2 airwaves, and then an even bigger shift a few months later.

After several years of rumored flips away from country, Emmis’ KZLA(FM) finally changed format in August 2006 to rhythmic adult contemporary, becoming “Movin’ 93.9” as KMVN(FM). The format change left southern California fans of Vince Gill and Carrie Underwood without a home for their favorite music, and it opened a window for Levine to make another change on his AM and HD2 signals.

In December, KKGO became “Country 540 & 1260,” hiring former KZLA morning man Shawn Parr to do mornings, with Dial Global’s syndicated country format filling the rest of the day. Even with the limited AM signals, Levine says the format quickly found an enthusiastic audience, inspiring him to make an even bigger move.

K-Mozart goes HD2

“I’ve done classical for 18 years, and I had no intention of switching the FM from classical,” Levine says. But the success of country on KKGO(AM), combined with frightening declines in ad revenue for the classical KMZT(FM), all but forced his hand.

“Our year-over-year revenues were down 40 percent in January, and we projected they’d be down 80 percent for the year,” Levine said in a mid-March interview. “And believe me, that was scary.”

Levine blames ad agency buyers and their single-minded focus on consumers in the 25–54 demographic for the slump.

“The median age for classical was 60 to 62,” he said. “The advertisers we had counted on year after year — BMW, Mercedes — they abandoned us.”

While Levine disagrees with that conventional wisdom — noting, for instance, that his wife was away in Africa on a safari that cost “a fortune,” celebrating her 60th birthday — as a standalone station operator, he couldn’t ignore financial realities forever.

“The decision to go country (on FM) was made in a very short time,” he said. On Feb. 26, KKGO moved from AM 1260 to FM 105.1 as “Go Country” — and “K-Mozart” became one of only a small handful of stations to move from analog FM to an HD2 multicast channel.

While “K-Mozart” remains available to analog listeners on the AM 1260 signal, now renamed KMZT(AM), Levine says the station’s branding makes it very clear that the HD2 takes priority.

“The way we promote it, it’s ‘K-Mozart on HD2, and also simulcast on AM’,” Levine says.

HD2 “is built into our legal IDs, and it’s built into our imaging,” says Johnson, who’s now operations manager of both stations as well as PD of KKGO(FM). The stations are also heavily touting the absence of a monthly subscription fee for HD Radio, something they see as a selling point against satellite radio.

Johnson says educating listeners about HD Radio has been a learning experience.

“Some people think they already have their own tabletop radios and can already hear HD Radio on them, and they call up asking ‘How do I do it?’” he said.

While Johnson says few country listeners had made the move from AM to the HD2 FM simulcast, he thinks the move of the established “K-Mozart” classical brand to HD2 has been a big incentive for classical listeners to seek out HD Radio receivers.

“That definitely plays into it, that we have an established format, an established audience. It’s a big help,” he says.

Johnson says the conversion to HD has been a learning experience at the station’s end, especially where the first generation of receivers is concerned.

“There’s a big difference between receivers, and the most expensive is not necessarily the best,” he said.

Bandwidth

Levine, who’s been deluged with listener responses, many of them angry, since the switch, says amidst the complaints from classical listeners have been a few positive responses from new HD Radio converts.

“Last week, we got a call from a listener in Newport Beach, about 50 miles away, who said he went out and bought a radio just to hear the HD2,” Levine said.

He’s hopeful that prices for HD Radio receivers will continue to fall, and that their availability will continue to grow, and he points to Wal-Mart’s announcement in March that it would offer a $169 car receiver as a potential turning point.

Davis and White say the processing on the FM signal is still being tweaked since the flip to country, which calls for much more aggressive analog processing than the classical format did.

Also under review is the bandwidth split between the HD1 and HD2 signals. Right now, the HD1 signal gets 76 kbps, while HD2 gets only 20 kbps, but with classical now on HD2, Davis expects he’ll soon be increasing the bandwidth on the subchannel.

As for the AM 1260 signal, Levine credits veteran Los Angeles contract engineer Burt Weiner with cleaning up its analog audio considerably after the format change. He says he can imagine a time when “K-Mozart” will reach enough listeners on the FM HD2 signal that he can again offer separate programming on AM.

But Levine is less certain about any plans to put HD Radio on the AM signal itself.

“We purchased a license (from Ibiquity, for HD on AM), and ultimately we will do so, but we have some questions that need to be answered, including reducing the analog audio bandwidth.”

Levine says he’s reluctant to narrow the analog audio on the newly improved AM signal for the sake of digital subcarriers.

“If that (issue) weren’t there, I’d do HD even in spite of the questions about nighttime AM operation,” Levine says.

The long view

Overall, though, the staff at KKGO and KMZT are strong believers in HD Radio.

“I’m really excited about it,” says Johnson. “It opens up new spectrum, and I hope everybody does something unique to double the choices available to listeners. This is really important to our industry.”

For Levine, the $250,000 investment that he made to take 105.1 digital doesn’t have to be recouped overnight to be worthwhile.

After all, unlike most of today’s FM owners, he’s been around long enough to know that that medium didn’t become profitable overnight, either.

“When I put the station on the air in 1959, FM receiver penetration in the market was 30 percent. AM reigned supreme,” he recalls. “You couldn’t sell FM advertising. AM stations were bonusing their FM simulcasts.”

For most of the station’s first decade on the air, Levine worked during the day as a lawyer to help support his struggling FM operation.

“It took 10 years, or a little longer, to make a go of it. But I had no regrets, because I knew it was a superior product.”

In time, of course, Levine’s faith in FM paid off. Today, he takes pride in his status as one of the last independent station owners in a major market, as well as in the support his stations have provided for the arts community in almost 50 years on the air. In addition to being committed to classical on his HD2 signal at 105.1, Levine recently signed a deal with California State University-Long Beach to take over management of its noncommercial jazz station, KKJZ(FM), reuniting him with the jazz format he programmed on KKGO(FM) before the station flipped to classical in 1989.

Levine says he’s upset by what he calls the “very cynical and negative” attitudes expressed by some in the broadcasting community about HD Radio. He says he’s sympathetic to smaller stations that may not be able to afford a conversion to digital, but he remains hopeful about a successful move to HD for the industry as a whole.

“I feel it’s a wonderful technological advance,” he says, “and everyone who can run it should run it.”

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