APRE Widens Definition of “Tech”

Attendees of the Public Radio Engineering Conference heard about audio loudness tools, LTE interference, automation and traffic best practices, disaster recovery, transmitter efficiency and more.

Some 80 technical personnel attended. That compares to about 85 in 2014 and 65 the year before.

APRE officers and board members for 2015–2016 from left: Jobie Sprinkle, Rob Byers, Robert Carroll, Shane Toven, Alice Goldfarb, Victoria St. John, Dan Houg, Jonathan Clark, Dan Mansergh and Steve Johnston. Not shown are David Antoine, John George and Pierre Lonewolf.
Credit: Photos by Jim Peck
The Association of Public Radio Engineers organizes the event; this year much of the discussion centered on the evolving nature of engineering as organizers work to involve more station technical personnel and cast a wider net for attendance.

“It’s never been closed to people other than engineers,” said new APRE President Dan Houg; but organizers have begun marketing PREC to other public radio departments, including operations and development. The board is soliciting session topic suggestions for next year’s conference.

What spurred a widened outreach was a recognition that “our distinct little niches are melding together” in public radio, Houg said. Now, those involved with station technical operations must have a skillset that includes IT, programming and security, as well as RF and audio. “Years ago, only the engineer touched the automation system; that’s changing.” For instance, when Vermont Public Radio Director of Engineering Rich Parker left for a similar position at Coast Alaska last year, VPR Operations Director Victoria St. John took over programming its ENCO radio automation software.

Houg, who’s the chief engineer at FMs KAXE and KBXE in Grand Rapids and Bemidji, Minn., said a similar evolution has happened at his stations; now the program director helps program the automation system. “You need more than one brain and one set of eyes on automation,” he said in an interview after the show.

This year’s PREC was held in a new venue, the Tuscany Suites in Las Vegas, prior to the spring NAB Show. Among the highlights of the 15th PREC:

HOUG LEADS APRE

Houg is the new president of the volunteer organization; he had been secretary. He succeeds Jobie Sprinkle, director of engineering/IT for WFAE(FM), Charlotte, N.C.

WWNO(FM), New Orleans CE Robert Carroll is now secretary.

David Antoine, director of broadcast IT at Westwood One, remains vice president. He’s former chief engineer at public station WBGO(FM), Newark, N.J., and keeps his hand in public radio engineering with contract work for a couple of college stations, he tells Radio World.

VPR’s Victoria St. John is now treasurer, taking over from Shane Toven, marketing manager with The Telos Alliance. Toven is former director of engineering for Wyoming Public Media and former editor of Radio Magazine.

Joining the board for three-year terms are Rob Byers, interim director of broadcast and media operations, Marketplace, American Public Media; John George, technical manager at WUSC(FM), Columbia, S.C., and sales engineer for RF Specialties; Steve Johnston, director of engineering and operations at Wisconsin Public Radio; and Pierre Lonewolf, chief engineer, Kotzebue Broadcasting, Kotzebue, Alaska.

The board changes became effective at the Public Radio Engineering Conference.

They join Alice Goldfarb, technical researcher for NPR Labs; Jonathan Clark, sales manager at Shively Labs; Dan Mansergh, director of radio engineering and media technology of KQED(FM), San Francisco.

Mike Starling, general manager and chief engineer of WHCP(LP) in Cambridge, Md., remains counsel for the organization.

COST-SAVINGS A PLUS

The cost of this year’s event was about half that of last year’s meeting at Caesar’s, according to Houg. That means APRE is able to go into planning for the 2016 event “with enough reserves to pay” at least some of its bills up front, he said.

This will put the organization in a better position to offer scholarships again. Details are to be worked out, “but we are pleased to have a mechanism that will help a station send someone to the PREC that may not otherwise be able to afford it.”

Houg was a scholarship recipient when he attended his first PREC in 2006. “It made all the difference and it was really impactful,” he said. He began working at KAXE(FM), Grand Rapids, Minn., in 2004. KBXE(FM), Bemidji, was a new build. The stations, 80 miles apart, air the same programming. “We have the ability to control the programming from both studios and switch [control] back and forth depending on where the staff is.”

“It really helps getting to know people at the company whose equipment you’ll be using, and when you call up, you’re talking” to the person you met face to face, according to Houg.

The board intends to rebook the PREC at the Tuscany for 2016.

NPR LABS UPDATE

NPR Labs has several ongoing projects. Here are some of the most notable.

• A booster design project is underway for KPCC(FM), Pasadena, Calif. The station’s Class B primary transmitter is on top of Mt. Wilson, but unlike other grandfathered stations there its ERP is de-rated to 600 watts. By the time the signal has traveled 25 miles, it is too weakened to penetrate indoors, especially homes in the hills of Brentwood and the Pacific Palisades. To remedy this, NPR Labs studied the potential coverage and multipath effects from office buildings in downtown Santa Monica. All the buildings under consideration have rooftop heliports, which makes antenna design and placement challenging for a two-sector booster.

• A recently completed study conducted for the Consumer Electronics Association involved development of an intelligent audio loudness management system which could be used in cars, home stereos and even smartphone ear buds. Labs personnel studied how much listeners turned up the volume to compensate for realistic noise environments they were listening in, from a quiet office, an average restaurant, the cabin noise in a car, to riding mass transit. Within about twenty seconds, subjects established preferred listening levels in comparison to the ambient noise levels, which led to formulas that could manage playback loudness for listeners. One of the takeaways — most people accepted (seemed to like) a natural variation in program loudness. Often, they could have compensated for the variation in loudness by turning up the volume knob, but didn’t.

This dovetails with a study on preferred consumer listening levels for streamed audio that we’ve reported on.

• For the National Radio Systems Committee, NPR Labs is conducting a compatibility study of Modulation Dependent Carrier Level with AM HD Radio. They are testing if there’s a difference with static (fixed IBOC sideband) or dynamic (IBOC sidebands track with the AM carrier) control. AM stations can use MDCL to control power levels according to AM modulation and save on electric bills, we’ve reported.

• Stations have told NPR Labs they’re increasingly concerned about the harmonic emissions from their FM facilities when 4G/LTE base stations build nearby. These new cellular facilities receive at extremely low signal powers. Later this year, NPR Labs plans to produce a “best practices” report on measurement and control of out-of-band emissions based on study of field cases.

Ralph Woods, former NPR deputy director of operations, is the 2015 recipient of the APRE Engineering Achievement Award.
Credit: Photos by Jim Peck
RALPH WOODS HONORED

APRE also honored Ralph Woods, former NPR deputy director of operations, with its Engineering Achievement Award.The honor, voted on by APRE members, recognizes Wood’s meritorious career of service to public radio engineering.

Woods managed the Public Radio Satellite System’s 24/7 Network Operations Center from 1982 to 2014. For more than 30 years, he oversaw the daily activities of the NOC in addition to numerous PRSS projects to modernize and expand the services in support of its stations and program producers, according to APRE.

Woods’ contributions to public radio engineering are “significant, consistent and unheralded,” his peers wrote on his nomination form. “Ralph was always pushing for backup procedures and increased services to ensure NOC operations would never be interrupted, and that options were available to all interconnected public radio stations to recover from routine outages (such as solar outage times) to major station equipment failures.”

During his tenure directing NOC operations for PRSS, the NOC consistently achieved or exceeded a targeted 99 percent on-air reliability for all program feeds, according to APRE. One of his last projects before retirement in 2014 was providing operational management to maintaining uninterrupted station programming services during NPR’s move to its new headquarters from Massachusetts Avenue in northwest Washington to North Capitol Street in northeast Washington in 2013.

Woods’ nomination describes him as the key operational leader working with the teams that designed, implemented and tested the transition to the Satellite Technical Center at NPR headquarters in 1994, from analog to digital distribution of radio programming in 1995, the deployment of the IP-based PRSS Content Depot in 2007 and deployment of a backup NOC in Minnesota to support business continuity.

Woods was presented with the award at the APRE dinner at the conclusion of the PREC. Last year, APRE named two recipients: Bud Aiello, director of engineering technology at NPR, and Gray Frierson Haertig, owner and principal engineer of Gray Frierson Haertig & Associates.



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