Radio Finds Ways to Do More With Less
     

For many old-timers and battle-scarred vets in this business it wasn’t too long ago that there was very little digital anything inside a typical radio station.

Analog consoles with rotary pots fed by carts and tapes ruled the studio. Everything in the air chain from the studio through the STL and transmitter to the antenna was pure analog.

Then came early digital control circuits in remote controls along with monitoring and test gear with digital displays. The CD appeared about the same time personal computers showed up in stations in the early ‘80s. Since then it’s been a title wave of digital gear displacing virtually everything analog.

Programming and sales went through their transition as well. Jocks used 3 x 5 cards to read liner breaks, and secretaries clicked out the logs and paperwork with IBM Selectric typewriters. Sales folks pounded the pavement with their feet, cars and Bell system deskphones as the only means of hooking up with clients.

Now, almost every station employee stares at an LCD screen and processes most of his or her business for the day via a PC keyboard and a wireless device of some kind. The same routine carries on at practically any business of any size almost anywhere you care to mention. Even small isolated towns are no longer immune to doing most everything digital.

I’ve been guilty of carrying on long conversations with fellow employees only a few offices away, staying glued to the keyboard and never uttering a sound.

Some employees prefer instant messaging over e-mail. My general manager recently enforced a “no e-mail or IM day” for communicating with anyone else inside the building. We had to find our recipients in person and actually talk with them. Unfortunately very little work got done that day.

Bill Gates recently retired from Microsoft. The IT trade press gave him well-deserved accolades for changing the world, and many writers wondered aloud how the commerce of today could possibly function without the advent of the PC.

The evolution of micro-electronics also is a huge part of how technology has totally transformed how we, and practically every business of today’s era, get things done.

STREAMLINED INFRASTRUCTURE

Except for the new “digital assets” and Internet presence, radio’s basic product hasn’t changed much throughout this transformation over the past 30 years. It’s still about producing and delivering information, entertainment and companionship. The efficiencies of the digital tools we now use allow fewer people to do more of the work. And we’re doing that with a significantly streamlined equipment base and infrastructure.

Today’s radio control studio can be little more than a small mixer, a couple of mics, a PC or two for automation and maybe a CD player and a satellite receiver. Of course larger stations will have an expanded version of that with additional sources, players, switchers and processing equipment. Today’s reality is that it doesn’t take much to be able to tap into and launch a rich offering of programming content to a transmitter.

Except for large multi-station clusters and networks, where extensive Technical Operation Centers with rows of rack gear are still needed, most stations can function just fine without much infrastructure. Gone are the walls and cabinets full of punch blocks and cross connects. Gone are the jackfields and patch cords that were once commonplace. Even the big TOCs have been downsized with various new IP-based options.

Audio mixing, switching and routing, all interconnected with Cat-5/6 cabling using IP, are taking over from the traditional mixed analog and digital infrastructures of the recent past. Studio and technical operations can be squeezed into smaller floor spaces and made quite portable. Little equipment needs to be “nailed down” or built-in any longer. I’ve seen a few new facilities built with modular portable cabinets and tables with all equipment racks on wheels.

It’s probably a good thing that radio has found new ways to do more with less. The recession has merely accelerated a long-term trend of downsizing the overall business in terms of the required people, space and equipment needed to run it.

As competing digital media have carved into radio’s share of the money pie, more radio station and group owners are reluctant to place long-term bets on “business as usual.” They aren’t doing 20- or 15-year leases for transmitter and studio facilities anymore. Ten years seems common with a five-year extension option.

Going forward, lease terms for studios will likely shrink to five years or less with options. Why commit to anything longer with such a volatile and uncertain market, especially since it’s easier and cheaper to move operations than it had been in the past?

TELECOMMUTING IS THE ANSWER

Not only will lease terms shrink but the amount of floor space typically used by stations also will get chopped down. With more and more employees using remote connectivity to get their work done, managers are realizing it’s not necessary to provide exclusive offices and cubes for every employee. Shared work spaces and departmental common areas make more sense.

A lot of other businesses are moving in this direction and have reduced office space and embraced telecommuting as the perfect way to reduce costs and give employees more flexibility. Not having to fight rush hour traffic every day, just by itself relieves lots of staff stress and frustration. But radio has been slow to respond and reluctant to step up. There is still the apprehension that employees won’t give a full-time effort unless they’re sitting at their desks in the office.

The resistance to telecommuting as a means to enable responsible employees to be more productive is really silly and ends up being counter-productive.

Perhaps the most positive and welcome incentive employers can give their more valued workers is more flexibility in schedule and where they get the real work done. Unless you’re blocking all IM connections and heavily filter Internet access at your station, employees generally waste entirely too much time sitting at their desks on PCs anyway.

Newer employees may need daily in-office regimentation; but the vets who know that performance is ultimately the only thing that matters would almost universally welcome the telecommuting option. Certainly ground rules have to apply but it’s a solution for which the time has come.

Telecommuting is especially appropriate for sales folks. The tools they need to execute their mission successfully are contained in their laptops, on top of their shoulders and in their driveways. An occasional visit to the office for staff meetings, pep talks from the GSM and to pick up new marketing materials can happen by scheduled appointment.

OUTSOURCING AND MORE OUTSOURCING

If you haven’t heard the GM mention this term yet, you will soon. Except for the key staff positions responsible for directing the daily grind of producing programming and generating advertising revenue, most of the other support functions are candidates for outsourcing. Not having to pay employee benefit costs saves big money.

The vast majority of small-market stations dispensed with employing full-time engineers years ago. Contractors and part-time engineering support arrangements have had to fill that void. Particularly for RF and transmitter site support, the use of outside contracting is now commonplace, even in major markets. Engineering was perhaps the first traditional radio station job category that was outsourced.

As the skill set needed for broadcast engineering support increasingly required IT expertise, that function also has become another area being outsourced. If the LAN infrastructure and desktop management are properly designed and deployed, IT support becomes primarily a help desk function to keep employees productive. But that is a big if, and is often more the exception than the rule.

Contracting an IT service company for remote and on-site support as needed appears to be gaining preference for many managers. Using a contractor can save money compared to hiring a full-time employee to dispense that service. The key is getting the right contract service that can cover everything needed at the right price. But hiring IT companies not familiar with radio operations to support PC-based audio production and delivery systems can create more problems than it solves.

TRADING AWAY LOCAL SUPPORT

While many will argue that stations without full-time engineering and IT support will never run as reliably or efficiently, managers know that today’s broadcast and computing equipment is more reliable than its predecessors. They are simply willing to exchange the additional risk and occasional staff frustration of broken processes or equipment for the operating cost savings.

Managers have to gauge the loss of staff members’ productivity when they encounter IT malfunctions and cannot complete tasks until outsourced help comes to the rescue. If they have engaged online remote help desk services, that may be enough in many cases.

Many of the larger groups have deployed internal or contracted help desk services for their stations. As remote access becomes more widely used to maintain IT operations at every level, it’s not inconceivable that many groups will choose to scale back local-station IT support personnel and let a single centralized help desk do most everything.

That seems almost sacrilegious to most of us, but know that it’s probably coming.

NOW FOR THE CAVEATS

Whether outsourcing technical support can succeed will depend on many factors. It may work okay for many smaller stations and groups, but for larger operations the added insurance of having on-site technical support to resolve problems quickly as they occur will remain the best and cheapest insurance. It only takes one blown big remote, one extended off-air outage or one extensive LAN failure of any kind to trigger big losses in advertising revenue.

With additional HD-R formats being added by many stations, one would think the number of studios and personnel needed to support them should be increasing. With only a few notable exceptions, that does not appear to be happening. The additional HD2 workloads are being dumped on existing employees in most cases. Most HD2 stations are merely automated PCs in a rack.

Those HD2s are the secret stations between stations that offer so many exciting new formats. But they’re stuck in the classic Catch-22. Unless we give them proper care and feeding and promotion, they won’t stay exciting for long. Care and feeding cost money. Without audiences or ad revenue, the only support they get is the faith and hope of owners and managers committed to HD, and the minimal effort of over-worked programming and production staff.

This conundrum will not change until HD2 stations become more commercialized and are able to build significant audiences. Something’s gotta give. Getting HD and HD2s off the ground is going to take a lot more work and innovative new thinking. Maybe it’s time for an Iraq-style troop surge to turn this around.

THE GRIM REAPER

We’ve done a lot of crystal-ball gazing over the years, hoping to see where this business is taking us. Managers under pressure to downsize in this recession are facing tough choices. Layoffs are painful and send negative vibes throughout the entire staff, especially when they come in bunches, as we’ve seen in recent months.

Managers prefer natural attrition as the easier way to reduce staff. They’ll shift work loads left behind to those who are willing to hunker down and work longer and harder. But even that solution is beginning to take its toll in many markets.

Radio is struggling more than ever with a dated image and that’s also taking a toll. Fewer young folks are attracted to it as a career choice. No wonder it’s become increasingly difficult to find qualified people to fill many of the openings in the departments that keep radio’s engine running.

This is especially true for engineers. Clear Channel has many CE openings that are going unfilled. Clear Channel engineering management recently held several meetings to brainstorm possible solutions. Outsourcing to contractors and bringing in corporate engineering support for construction and special projects is proving to be the only stop-gap solution.

Most other radio groups have little in the way of corporate engineering support so outsourcing is often their only option. Finding and grooming young talent should be a priority for radio managers. Yet there seems to be few companies devoting any kind of organized effort or plan to do so for most positions. If they can’t outsource or double-up, GMs are content to steal somebody from across town, or import their best out-of-market candidate for the asking price.

RADIO SOUL FOOD

Outsourcing may be a solution for some tasks but it steals away a bit of the station’s soul.

Voice-tracking from distant voices who masquerade with localized liners has been another form of outsourcing that has stolen radio’s soul. It saves money for a while but eventually marginalizes the station’s image as no longer live and local or a true member of the community. Listeners aren’t stupid. They know who’s real and who’s Memorex.

The sweeping staff cuts most stations endured over the past six months are probably not over. Expect another round before the end of the year, especially if the recession deepens as the price of oil spirals upward, international tensions boil over and more bank failures hit the economy.

Radio has had a long and profitable ride. Many successful radio companies have churned out tons of cash and enjoyed big profit margins for a long time. But we may be nearing the point where significant re-investment back into the business, and the people resources that have built and sustained these companies, are sorely needed to keep them healthy and alive.

These uncertain times present great opportunities for the enlightened owners, managers and employees alike, to succeed and prevail. The less-enlightened will fail and fall by the wayside.

We can only hope you are working for and are among the enlightened.

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