BRYAN-COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Ben Downs is vice president and general
manager of Bryan Broadcasting, a radio group of five stations he also owns with
business partner and company President Bill Hicks. Downs is in his third term
as a member of the NAB Radio Board and is an advocate for technological
improvements for AM.
Bryan Broadcasting’s five stations, four are AMs. The FM broadcasts in HD Radio
and also has an associated multicast channel. The company employs some 60
Downs believes in
having fun in radio. He’s been his town’s Santa for nearly 30 years. “I have
staff who, when they were children, told me what they wanted for Christmas,” he
The chairman of NAB’s
AM Task Force got his start in radio at the age of 14 in 1968 as a part-time
announcer in Hope, Ark. He changed transmitter tubes and worked on cart
machines. He says he still tweaks with transmitters because he “likes to touch
the gadgets.” Downs will moderate an HD Radio panel at this month’s Radio Show
The Texas A&M
graduate recently spoke with Radio World News Editor/Washington Bureau Chief
Leslie Stimson about issues affecting radio, especially improvements for the AM
RW: How would you
describe the economic health of commercial radio as we ease into fall? Were
smaller radio markets affected differently during the downturn?
Downs: Things are really different at
the small radio market level. I think we’re Market No. 190 or so, and one of
the advantages of that is that local advertisers can actually afford to
advertise on our stations. And local selling, as anybody will tell you, is
really more relational selling. When you’re dealing with national accounts, it
doesn’t matter what you’ve done to benefit the advertiser. Whoever the latest
media buyer is will toss you overboard to save a buck. In small towns like this
a national account really has no idea if you’ve gone the extra mile for a local
franchise. But the people in the town know that you bought lunch for a work
crew or they know that maybe you helped them out with a public service event
that they had going on at their restaurant.
RW: So you may not have experienced the same
degree of economic turmoil …
Downs: We didn’t. Since 2009 we’ve shown fairly good increases
year-to-year; 2009 was better than 2008 … 2010 was better than 2009. We’re
blessed … Don’t get me wrong; we don’t take it for granted. But if, for
example, the local car dealer is a member of the Rotary Club, and the Rotary
has a special event you supported with free PSAs, they’re going to remember
that when they place their local advertising buys.
RW: In the face of more competition from Pandora and other Web-based audio
services in the car, what does radio need to do in order to remain relevant in
the digital dashboard?
It’s about content. Katy Perry sounds the same on my radio station as it does
on Pandora as it does on a station in San Diego. But what matters the most is
how you wrap around the music. If that listener only wants to listen to music
and doesn’t necessarily want to be engaged in what the locals are talking
about, then there are other places to get that. …
[A]re these other platforms important? Yes,
they are. I understand you have to be where the listeners are and that’s why we
have our streaming apps all in one place, radioaggieland.com.
I understand the dashboard is
suddenly cluttered and we have new competitors. And anytime you get a new
competitor it’s going to pull some of your listeners away. The fact is that we
can change none of that. And so we need to do what we do best, and that
is have people in the studios looking out the same window as the listener
driving her kids to school, and talk about those things.
You have to be talking about what your locals
want to talk about, and let them do some of the talking as well. We’re very
interactive. We bring people on board. … [W]e have an extensive texting system
back and forth. We use HipCricket’s system. That allows people to text in and
we text back.
RW: The host or somebody in the studio is monitoring the texts coming in?
Downs: Yes, during the
morning show the morning show hosts see it. In the evening we’re putting
interns and part-time employees in there to help with the volume of young
people who communicate pretty much just by text these days.
We use it in a big way to engage people for
our contesting. When we gave away some tickets to Twilight, we took the 95th
texter. Within five minutes we had something like 4,000 texts come through.
RW: Getting back to the
dash, is HD Radio a factor in helping radio remain relevant?
Downs: When people are shoving that
kind of data down to your dashboard you can do a lot with it. You can really
enhance the experience — everything from album art to scrolling lyrics. Right
now, if you’re not using HD and you don’t have your RDS turned on, all the
listeners are seeing is dial position. And it positions us as somehow technologically
inferior to [services like] Aha and Pandora, who have this full-color
information about what you’re listening to.
I don’t like being positioned as being
inferior. I want people to look at me, and say, “Oh wow. This station is just
as cool as Pandora.”
RW: As the operator of a group of mostly AMs, what are your thoughts about
helping AM thrive in the face of man-made interference and the increasing noise
I’m trying to get my friend’s attention, I say, “Take your basic bedside alarm
clock radio and put it in the den tonight. Leave the lights on. Leave the TV
on. Turn the radio on, and see how many local radio stations you can pick up.
If you can get one or two, congratulations, you’re better than most of us.”
This noise floor that has been
allowed to happen is basically rendering AM unlistenable. Every LED sign, every
compact florescent light bulb, every flat screen and computer makes it harder
to hear us.
It’s a real
problem, and it’s quantifiable. As part of the NAB AM Task Force we found a
study that did research from 20 years ago to 2007 in both Madrid and Mexico
City. To get the same signal-to-noise ratio that we had 20 years ago today, we
would have to quadruple the power of AM radio stations, in best case. There are
some places they studied in Mexico City where the power would have to be
increased 10 times — just to get to the same level of clarity that we had 20
years ago. That’s how much noise is out there.
People don’t understand that they’re hearing the
noise; they think the station’s gone away.
Downs has been the local Santa for
almost 30 years. ‘I have staff who, when they were children, told me what they
wanted for Christmas.’
RW: They’ll just tune to the next station that
has a stronger signal.
It’s a huge problem, and anyone who’s tried to tune an analog dial on their
clock radio at night knows that it’s next to impossible to tune in an AM
station clearly anymore.
RW: Should there be an across-the-board power increase for AM?
Downs: If we’re going to spend that
kind of money on new facilities and new transmitters and new components, I’d
rather we spend it on something else. I’d rather we put our money in something
that’s not just a temporary fix. Because every time somebody buys a new CFL,
that noise floor keeps inching up.
RW: Is there a migration path away from the AM band you see right now?
Downs: There’s not a good
way to patch the whole band. Right now there are a lot of things that need to
happen. For one thing, we need to be able to say the letters “HD” in your
magazine without all the HD haters lighting up their flame machines.
We need the FCC to give us some
sort of sign that they would encourage solutions for AM. … Right now all of the
oxygen in the room is going to TV spectrum issues — auctioning spectrum and
re-packing TV [spectrum]. It’s difficult to get a signal from the FCC that they
would like to work with us on this problem. I’m sure they would but
there’s only so much time in the day.
There are several migration paths. … My particular
favorite is the relocation of AM stations to what’s currently the low VHF TV
RW: What about TV Channels 5–6?
Downs: I don’t think the Broadcast Maximization Committee’s
proposal will move forward because they proposed all-digital only, no analog.
Also it required the few existing TV stations that remain on Channels 5 and 6
to move involuntarily. There are some that cannot move. I think that’s why
there’s been so little traction for Broadmax.
However, they did a tremendous amount of
heavy engineering lifting there. And they found a home for every AM station
that pretty much replicated their coverage area, on the FM band. It was
spectacular work. Broadmax may not be the answer, but somewhere, between
Channel 2 and Channel 6, there is enough empty spectrum to locate all of the
Every time some new
idea is brought up, there’s always a reason why the current rules wouldn’t
permit you to do that. I guess that’s kind of the point. The rules would have
to be changed. Between 2 and 6, if I can do my math properly in my head, that’s
150 new FM channels. That’s more than enough room to move the AMs that would
want to move. I would ask to set aside part of them for use by AM.
But right now, because the focus is on TV,
the people at the FCC want to leave those options open. And I just hope that as
the TV spectrum auction plays itself out, it doesn’t lock out this option for
AM radio stations. I’m not saying the whole spectrum should be available for FM,
but in this world where we can program anything to do anything, set aside some
of those frequencies for use by AM stations on the FM band. It clears up our
problem with noise, it clears up our problem with getting an AM signal into
handsets and it’s an existing technology. No new science would have to be used
to do that. Set up the radios, program them to land on X number of channels. Protect
the TV stations that remain there 100 percent. There are ways to accommodate
both these needs.
RW: What is an example of one of the more immediate things that could help
Downs: What would help the most
number of broadcasters is a rethinking of the rules that considered Class A
distance coverage to be a replacement for local coverage. I have a daytimer
protecting a station 800 miles away from Bryan-College Station. To expect them
to serve our community in morning drive time better than we would really is a fantasy.
Protection for distant
stations, critical hours, Class D coverage, all of those things are built upon
plans for a totally different era in broadcasting. If you were to tell all the
AM daytimers right now that they could stay on the air, maybe with lower power,
or something along that line, that’s an infusion of power and strength into the
AM band. If you were to tell broadcasters who are operating at night on 25
watts of power that they could match their daytime power at night or in
pre-sunrise time, that’s a powerful thing. That would improve local service
and, I think, extend the warranty period on AM radio.
RW: Would you consider putting one of your AMs
on an FM translator? Or is that not an option for you?
Downs: It isn’t. I just hired a consulting
firm to confirm once again that there’s nothing available here for me. And
there isn’t. We’re blocked in by regular FM stations and the “no hopping” rule.
Even the one or two that are available are a hundred miles away; you can’t
really hop them into your market anymore.
I had a translator that was offered for sale
to me, in this market, for $700,000 and they would throw in the FM station,
which is far out of town. … I think Bryan Broadcasting petitioned at one point
to give daytimers priority on getting an FM translator but I don’t think
anything ever came of that.
RW: You chair the NAB AM Task Force. The Radio Technology Committee is
working on several ideas from the report on technological fixes for AM. What
can you tell us about the report?
Downs: The report pretty much covers everything. In the articles
that I’ve seen written in the trade press, no one has come up with an idea that
wasn’t considered in the report.
I would like for the report to come out soon because I feel like that we
need to have an industry discussion, and I think we need to involve as many
people as we can in this decision-making process. I can’t speak for the NAB,
but the sense I get is that people would like to do more study on some pieces,
like the HD-only, in the hope that the further study would make the solutions
more clear. Maybe by doing some more research and talking to manufacturers,
suddenly an option will pop out and be clear to everyone that this is what
should be done.
RW: Ideally, something would make itself clear.
Downs: Yes, and whether that happens or
not, no one knows. The NAB has chosen to do more than anyone else has. The
NAB’s position is that this is serious stuff and we have to look at it closely
before diving into a solution. If we could find a perfect solution that doesn’t
require other licensees to move off the band, i.e. the TV guys, then that’s
what needs to be done. DRM, streaming, the translator situation, everything has
really been looked at, even some blue-sky things that there’s no consumer base
RW: You hope it would be released soon, meaning?
Downs: I don’t have a timetable. It’s
beautiful work and I would like for AM broadcasters to have a chance to take a
look at it. It’s very thorough; it’s very well done.
RW: Is releasing the report something the AM
Task Force needs to vote on?
Downs: Yes. [No vote or next
committee meeting had been scheduled as of mid-August.]
RW: On the potential AM all-digital testing
being discussed by the NAB Technology Committee, which reports to the AM Task
Force, is it realistic to think that some companies might pick an AM station to
turn off the analog for awhile to test all-digital?
Downs: I think so. You wouldn’t need many but we’re hoping there
would be somebody who would be willing to do that. … The studies that we’ve
seen indicate that the digital-only version is much more robust and goes
further and with fewer dropouts than the hybrid version that we’re using now.
There’s only been one test, really, done by iBiquity, so there would need to be
more study done.
But I think
we’re going to find that all-digital is pretty good. It is a better signal
that’s less prone to dropouts, mostly immune to impulse noise. The signal is
actually strong enough that it might help overcome that problem with the law of
physics that keeps AM out of handsets.
Right now you need a longer antenna to pick
up AM than you can fit into a handset. There’s the hope that once the testing
is started we’ll find that the increased density of the signal will overcome
that and, while we may not have a perfect
AM antenna in a handset, the ones that we can
put in there will work well enough.
RW: AMs must think they’re never going to get a
chip in a mobile device. This might be a way of doing that.
Downs: It might be and, of course,
migrating to the low VHF band as an FM station, would also get you into mobile
devices as well. There’s no new technology needed there.
RW: Would current FM receivers be able to pick
not, but there would be no new technology required. Right now, in Japan, the FM
band is Channel 5 and 6. So the chips are already there to do that much
of it. But if you wanted to dodge around and miss grandfathered TV stations or
have a certain number of channels set aside, then obviously, there’s a little programming
that has to be done, but none of it is new technology. It’s on the shelf.
RW: Switching to
streaming, does the performance rights issue affect your company?
Downs: Sure. The only way that
streaming works as a business proposition is if it’s not very successful. The
more listeners, the more difficult it is to make money. People value
listenership online at a much lower rate than they do listenership
over-the-air. If I’m successful and if I keep them listening, every time a song
changes I owe more money. …
[advertisers] say, “Okay I want to be on the stream. Here’s the average
listenership. Here’s what I’ll pay you for it.” It’s very difficult to properly
monetize that, at least at my level. … But that said, I do believe once again that
you have to be wherever your audience is and we stream everything we’ve got. We
stream the talk, music and sports. But it’s more of a promotional and
programming decision than it is a financial one.
RW: Have you increased the HD Radio power on
to the extent that we can. We’re awaiting the approval of asymmetrical
sidebands. Going from –20 dB to –14 dB … made a really big difference in building
penetration and coverage.
RW: Why are you going to raise your HD power asymmetrically?
Downs: On one side we’re clean and
green to the full minus 10 dB. On the other sideband we’re protecting an
unbuilt construction permit so we have to leave that at minus 14 dB.
RW: Are you planning to
implement Artist Experience?
Downs: Yes, we are. I don’t want someone to look at my product and
think, “Well this isn’t as good a product as the one right next to it on the
dashboard.” If I’m going to be competing with them, I’m going to look as good
had mentioned you have two engineers. Are they full-time?
Downs: Yes. Chris Dusterhoff is the chiefand Andrew
Hicks is his assistant.We’re a little old-school. If you’re going to do radio right and if
you’re going to do more than average, then you’re going to need more people. I
can’t do it all myself.
RW: How does your company handle engineering purchases?
Downs: We plan what we’re going to [purchase].
We go to the conventions and look at it and touch it. Then we come back and
argue about it. Whoever has the best argument gets to win. Truthfully, we go
through your magazine as well.
RW: Do you have any
equipment purchase plans for this year?
Downs: We have two little Class A FMs that we’re turning on. I’m
buying everything needed for a new FM, a contemporary Christian music station
here in town. We also were successful in Auction 84, and we’re getting ready to
put another FM station in a nearby community on the air.
RW: When will you turn them both on?
Downs: The first one is
licensed to Kurten, next to Bryan. The first one will be coming on, I hope, in
about a month. I’m getting an antenna pattern study done now. … The one that’s
out of town, that will probably be on in about six months.We’ll be streaming
them and running HD as well.
RW: How old were you when you started in radio in 1968 in Hope, Ark.?
Downs: I was 14. Governor
Mike Huckabee and I worked there [at AM station KXAR] together as high school
Later, I came to Texas A&M as an
electrical engineering student. Second-year calculus came along and changed my
mind. I couldn’t get above a C and I couldn’t take it again.
I can still fix your transmitter, Leslie, but
it’s a lot simpler just to put the backup on the air and ship the module back
to the manufacturer these days.
RW: Were you wiring studios?
Downs: Yes, and changing 4-400 tubes.
RW: Do you remember the first transmitter you
changed a tube for?
Sure, a Collins 20 V-3. But I can’t remember my blood type.
RW: Do you still do any engineering work?
Downs: I’m still pretty
good at fixing transmitters and so if something goes wrong I will not tell our
engineers until I’ve had a chance to go play with it. The fact is I did not get
into this business to deal with spreadsheets all day long. I do like to touch
the gadgets. I do like to do a little on-air stuff when I can.
RW: You’ve been married
for 36 years. How did you meet your wife, Lilly?
Downs: We were both engineering
students at Texas A&M at the same time. We had dated several times before
she actually put together that the guy she was listening to on the radio at
night was actually the guy she was dating. She would bring me a quarter-pounder
with cheese and fries every day that I was on the air, Monday through Friday,
at 6 o’clock. … That was back when people could come in and sit in your studio