I’m a big fan of the “Back to the Future” movies. There’s a
scene in the first one in which Doc Brown works out his elaborate scheme to get
Marty back to 1985. He’ll time the acceleration of the DeLorean to a bolt of
lightning that he knows will hit the town clocktower at exactly 10:04 p.m. on
that very night.
As an old transmitter engineer, I always key in on the part
where Marty sets up to race down the street to hit the wire that will zap the
flux capacitor. The alarm clock goes off, he jams the car in gear and … it
Marty, I always think, needs a backup ride!
Of course, he finally (and miraculously) starts the car by headbutting
the steering wheel; but that’s in the movies. In real life, he’d still be
sitting in that dead DeLorean in 1955 with a sore forehead.
Even if they’re not needed in the movies, there is no
question that backup systems are valuable for 24/7 businesses like radio
But the real question is, how valuable? Most
engineers that I know would welcome two (or three) of everything. Total
redundancy. All studio equipment, STLs, transmitters, antennas, even towers and
buildings. Double me up, thank you. But does this make economic sense? Maybe
not, but in that case, is there an alternate plan that will afford a reasonable
amount of protection without breaking the bank? To find out, you need to do
A good place to begin is by making a list of
critical path points. As it turns out, these are numerous, and sometimes not
Start with program
origination, and draw out everything, from announcer mic all the way through
the STL antenna.
When you are done,
take a look at your work and play a little mental “what if” game. I promise,
you will be shocked. If your list is accurate, showing all line amps,
distribution amps, patches, network routers, etc., you will find dozens of
unique pieces of equipment and wiring paths that can take you off the air. The
trick is to figure out how to quickly circumvent those things if (make that, when)
they fail. If that means buying a backup, so be it. But many times, you needn’t
go that far.
The simplest and most cost-effective way to buy
redundancy is to use what is already in place. If your station has two studios,
is there a procedure for getting the second on the air quickly? Just as
importantly, does everyone know how to do that? If the answer to either
question is “no,” you can start there. Keep in mind that the “standby” studio
does not need to be a mirror image of the main. Automation and phone line
interfaces, for example, might be ignored, because we are talking about
emergency operations here. The goal is to keep the programming (and money)
flowing. If some normal production values are missing in the process, that
might be an acceptable compromise. Beware of “gotchas” though: issues like
pads, processing, monitor muting and the like can
make a quick patch from production to air painful on the ears, unless you know
in advance what to expect.
Consider also “outside the box” solutions. An STL failure
might be overcome by using a POTS codec for a day. In an extreme emergency, a
remote van might be pulled up to the transmitter building and wired right into
the processor. We lost the automation system at my station when the computer
power supply failed and took the sound card with it. Our operations manager
loaded up all of the spots needed for the day (backed up, thankfully) onto a
second desktop that appeared on the production console and we aired everything
off the WinAmp sound player, through the production console, patched to the air
chain. Clunky, for sure, but we aired every spot and saved all the money, which
is the point, right?
Stand by …
Transmitter site redundancy presents a totally
different set of issues, but is still a balance between cost and benefit.
In major markets, spot rates and audience
numbers are so high that most stations are more or less forced to have full
redundancy. For the small- or medium-market guy, though, this whole idea of
transmitter site backups is complicated, since some of these components are
quite pricey. If you own your tower, a spare antenna and line is a nice
security blanket in which you can wrap yourself on stormy nights. It is true
that total antenna failures are rare, and impending line failures often show up
in abnormal VSWR readings, but a spare antenna and line can be helpful in
troubleshooting difficult RF problems.
(A word of
regulatory caution here: Standby antennas and transmitters must be capable of
providing a signal to your community of license, and must be licensed as an
auxiliary facility. It’s a simple filing process, but necessary to stay legal
when you use them.)
Also, remember that a standby antenna increases your
engineering workload, since it must be pressurized and checked periodically. This
is true for almost any backup system, and is part of the calculation you should
make before plunging headlong into a “Two of Everything” mode.
Standby transmitters provide similar benefits to backup
antennas. It is a marvelous thing to be poking around in the 10 kV power supply
at 11 a.m. when you are well rested, rather than at 4 a.m. when you have
caffeine jitters on two hours sleep. Piece of cake if you have a standby
transmitter. Unlikely without one, but again, a second transmitter comes with
added cost and maintenance time built right in.
All decisions regarding backup equipment and systems
boil down to one thing: How important is it for your station to be on the air?
Of course it’s important, but how
important? Would you pay $10,000 to avoid being off the air for one minute? (Don’t
laugh: I visited a UHF television station once that had a full power 60 kilowatt
transmitter on an UPS battery backup! The batteries — racks and racks and
racks full of them — would keep the rig going until the generator kicked in, so
the chief got his no-fail standby, but the costs, in both initial price and
upkeep, were enormous.)
While most of us would politely decline the
offer to spend $10K per minute for uninterrupted performance, at some point,
the cost curve and your personal benefit curve for avoiding an extended outage
will cross, and at that point, a backup system makes sense.
Bear in mind that your calculation will be, at
best, an educated guess. Antenna failures, for example, are almost always
catastrophic, and without a standby, there will be no quick fix. Transmitter
failures, on the other hand, can go from minor (a tripped circuit breaker), to
epic (smoke roiling out from the 10,000 volt Cabinet O’ Death). It is for the
second event that we consider backup rigs.
Finally, backup systems are only
as valuable as they are reliable.
I once worked at a major-market NBC TV station
with two STLs, running in hot/standby mode with an auto switchover —100 percent
STL redundancy. Unfortunately, though, at some point the backup STL had failed,
and no one had ever checked the status of the system.
When the day finally arrived that the main failed, the system performed
perfectly, switching to the standby, which was stone-cold dead. (As it turned
out, that was very nearly the professional fate of the maintenance engineer whose
responsibility it was to check those things — me.) Lesson learned: The only way
to make sure backups operate as planned is to invest the time and money to test
Radio stations are complicated businesses. There
is a whole host of technology subject to unplanned failures. Formulating a plan
for backing up critical pieces of equipment and systems in a cost-effective
manner, well in advance of actually
needing it, will help ensure that you never end up in your very own version of
a dead DeLorean, watching the clocktower tick down to 10:04.
Jim Withers owns KYRK(FM) in Corpus Christi,
Texas. A broadcaster since 1965, he has worked at and managed radio and TV
stations in Missouri, Illinois, Texas and Nevada, and
built and owned several AMs and FMs in Texas and Wyoming.