That’s how Milford Smith describes most of the work done by the National Radio Systems Committee, which he chairs.
“I think a lot of people underestimate the value of standards setting. Without standards, it’s really difficult to make any technology work.”
Smitty is recipient of Radio World’s Excellence in Engineering Award, now in its seventh year. Recipients of the award represent the highest ideals of the U.S. radio broadcast engineering profession and reflect those ideals through contributions to the industry.
And while he can point to years of engineering achievement and management success, he was quick to answer when I asked what he considers his most significant career accomplishment.
“As much as other things may have been more fun — stuff we did in the field and pulled off, something involving a facility improvement or allocation — my work with the NRSC is the most important.”
He cites RDS as an example: “If there were no standards a transmitter maker could build to and a receiver maker could build to, there probably wouldn’t be RDS.”
This is where the unsexy “backbreaking minutiae” come in, through the thankless work of a handful of broadcast and consumer electronics technologists who donate time and intellectual energy to firm up parameters around which U.S. radio stations and equipment manufacturers create their products.
Milford Smith speaks at an NAB event in 2009. Smitty is a familiar presence at major industry meetings and on technical panels. Photo by Jim Peck
Such standards work, perhaps done years ago, influences how consumers interact with radio today.
“RDS and RDS+ are available on an awful lot of products right now. It was standardized more than a decade ago; but stations are finally taking real advantage of this. Here’s a technology that isn’t brand-new but ultimately got out there through OEM implementation and other ways. It’s being used for really neat stuff, and in some cases even being monetized through text that’s sponsored.
“That’s the most vital stuff,” Smith said. “Those are things that serve us well. Sometimes I think they’re almost taken for granted.”
The NRSC’s major work on the U.S. IBOC standard is another example. Smitty played an important role in helping determine the standard, so I asked him how he responds to criticisms regarding HD Radio’s lack of uptake.
“If you take a look at the embracing of FM radio, that wasn’t an overnight thing. Anyone who expected it to be an overnight thing wasn’t thinking realistically,” he said.
“Last we heard, there were 3 million receivers out there. But what’s really encouraging is we — and I should say iBiquity, more than anyone else — have reached a tipping point, where you’re starting to see OEM implementation with HD Radio capability. OEM implementation doesn’t happen overnight.” If an auto manufacturer decided today to implement HD Radio, consumers wouldn’t see it for several years, he said; so that process is only now starting to pay off.
“I also think we as broadcasters need to do a bit of a better job in regard to some of our multicast offerings — specifically targeted programming, or oriented towards demographics we normally don’t go after. The industry as a whole needs to take more advantage.”
Speaking as a top manager at Greater Media, he continued, “HD Radio gets more interesting as every month goes by. This started out as a fairly straightforward single program channel at –20 dBc; but now it has blossomed in many respects.
“We multicast; we do data over HD Radio; we’re members of the Broadcast Traffic Consortium; now we have the ability to increase digital power in some cases, [and] hopefully, in the not-too-distant future, the ability to do that with asymmetrical sidebands and maybe single-frequency networks with digital on-channel boosters.”
Overall, he said, “FM HD works wonderfully well, and I think it’s going to work even better with higher power [and with] some of these enhancements.”
What about AM? “AM HD provides a spectacular upgrade in sound quality and interference rejection. But a challenge on AM is robustness of the digital signal in the presence of nearby conductive structures — overpasses, power lines and the like. When AM defaults to analog in an encounter with one of these environments, the difference in sound quality is tremendous and can be disconcerting. Hopefully, further work can ameliorate some of this irritant.”
But Smitty remains a digital advocate. “To think that radio can exist forever as an analog medium in a digital world is probably unrealistic.” Because U.S. radio chose a transition using a hybrid approach rather than establishing an analog shutoff date, “I think it’s a process that’s going to take longer. [But] we’ll ultimately get there.”
Every and any platform
Greater Media, he said, believes new technology is worth exploring even if the return on investment isn’t immediate.
“Something like iTunes tagging is a perfect example. Nobody makes money on iTunes tagging; they just don’t. But it’s new, it’s fresh, it’s a way to pull the MP3 generation back into radio at least a little bit.”
The new iBiquity Artist Experience technology is another instance; it will allow graphics, album art and advertiser-oriented visual elements on equipped receivers — of which there are few to none right now.
“There’s no return on it out of the box, [and] there’s some expense,” Smitty said. But while waiting for the ROI to build, he said, “there is a promotional benefit in terms of the image and the station, appearing you’re ‘with it,’ having that additional product there.”
Meanwhile on the other side of the air chain, Greater Media engineers are getting up to speed with IP audio.
A Busy Smitty
Widely respected and admired, Milford Smith is among the most influential of U.S. radio engineers.
He has served since 2007 as chairman of the National Radio Systems Committee, an industry standards body sponsored by the National Association of Broadcasters and the Consumer Electronics Association; he also served on its IBOC standards development working group, its RBDS subcommittee and its AM Broadcasting subcommittee. During critical years of the IBOC standards process, he was chairman of its DAB subcommittee. Smitty also has been active in the NAB’s own Spectrum Integrity/Digital Radio Committee. He is a past recipient of the NAB’s Radio Engineering Achievement Award.
He is a member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Society of Broadcast Engineers, National Association of Radio and Telecommunications Engineers and Association of Federal Communications Consulting Engineers.
Those activities are in addition to his day job. For 26 years he has been vice president of radio engineering for group owner Greater Media, which owns about two dozen radio stations, as well as weekly newspapers and telecommunications towers. He reports to CEO Peter Smyth.
The company employs approximately 50 radio engineers, Smitty said. “We’re very fortunate the company supports engineering and believes in good engineering, supplying us with the resources and people to do that.”
Prior to Greater Media, Smitty worked for First Media Corp. and Tribune Broadcasting. His first engineering job was at WAMF(FM) — now WAMH — at Amherst College in Massachusetts, his alma mater. He also jocked in the early years. His first commercial chief engineering position was at WHMP(AM/FM) in Northampton, Mass., also while attending college.
He lives with his wife Maralee and daughter Ashley in New Jersey.
For more on Milford Smith’s career, read Radio World’s 2005 article at www.radioworld.com/article/1970.
“We’ve just about fully transitioned in the Philadelphia cluster; it’s not been totally seamless and trouble-free, but we’ve worked our way through it and learned a lot. It’s obvious that’s the direction things need to go in, but there is a learning curve.”
All the company’s facilities eventually will be based on AoIP: “It works fantastically well when everything is clicking on all cylinders; plus there’s more and more integration between the control surface and routing systems, and the playout automation.”
Other technical goals for Greater Media include establishing itself on “every and any platform conceivable,” including various forms of Internet distribution such as mobile apps and video projects, as well as additional features and functionality in analog and HD Radio, such as RDS and data services. Many of the new platform projects are managed by a separate interactive division, with Smitty’s department acting in support.
I asked Smitty to identify his influences. He first named his father, Milford Smith Sr., who was “not a technologist, but an attorney and a state Supreme Court justice in Vermont. He was an active radio listener and a shortwave listener. I picked up my initial interest in radio from him. He had a great interest in propagation and listening from halfway around the world.”
Another mentor is audio processing wizard Mike Dorrough. “We were working in Washington at First Media’s WPGC(AM/FM) in the midst of the loudness and processing wars.” This was in the days of Dorrough’s first product, the Model 310 Discriminate Audio Processor. “He was a great friend and ally. We had some good times together, trying to be top dog on the dial.”
The late Ralph Dippell taught Smitty much of what he knows about RF, propagation, allocation and regulatory matters. He also mentions Bob Gull and Sid Khanna at consulting engineering firm Khanna and Guill Inc., “whom I have worked with and learned from for many years on RF/allocation-related matters.” Tom Silliman of ERI has been a friend and mentor through many complex FM projects.
True to form, Smitty ended our conversation talking about what’s ahead for the standards body he chairs.
NRSC reviews and updates its standards at least every five years; now it is working to harmonize the U.S. and European RDS standards as much as possible.
The group also is seeking to expand publication of “guideline documents,” online resources that can help stations comply with standards without having to delve into the … well, the minutiae.
The G201-A guideline regarding proper measurement techniques for AM and FM spectral occupancy “is really a tremendous resource for anyone in the field responsible for HD Radio and ensuring its compliance,” Smitty said. “It gets right down to the nuts and bolts. We use it in the company all the time.”
Another guideline document, G202, just recently approved, helps engineers determine proper HD power levels; it includes a Web-based widget that will spit out the proper numbers. “This will be important especially if asymmetrical sidebands are authorized.”
You can find these guidelines at www.nrscstandards.org/SG.asp. Smitty hopes the NRSC will produce more such resources as newer technologies emerge, to help engineers understand “how to measure, how to quantify, how to stay compliant.”