CINCINNATI — Jeff Littlejohn recently purchased a new carbon frame bicycle. His challenge will be finding time to ride it.
Like most broadcast engineers, Littlejohn is rarely off the clock. Still, the Fuji Gran Fondo road bike will be ready to rack up the miles if he can squeeze in recreation time during a busy summer of projects at Clear Channel Radio.
Littlejohn, 48, is the recipient of the NAB Radio Engineering Achievement Award for 2014, which recognizes people who have made significant contributions to broadcast engineering. Robert Seidel of CBS was chosen for the TV Engineering Achievement Award.
Littlejohn is a big presence in the industry, both literally at 6-foot 6, and professionally. He is executive vice president of engineering and systems integration for Clear Channel Media and Entertainment, where he focuses on developing technical improvements for analog AM, FM and HD Radio, as well as establishing systems for moving content across multiple platforms for the nation’s biggest radio broadcaster.
He oversees all technical aspects of the radio division, which includes 400 engineers within its engineering management structure. Five senior vice presidents of engineering report to him. “Each SVP handles a region of the country with responsibility for about 100 to 150 stations each. I have several other managers who oversee individual functionality, including one who oversees an emergency operations center.”
With an associate’s degree in electronics and a bachelor’s in automated manufacturing, both from ITT Technical Institute, he manages the big company’s maintenance capital budget and reports to Chief Financial Officer Steve Macri.
Clear Channel Media and Entertainment’s stations and content are heard on AM/FM, HD Radio, satellite radio and on the Internet.
Littlejohn began his career in at WAJI(FM), Ft. Wayne, Ind., as an assistant engineer. Later, he joined contract engineering firm Broadcast Circuit Systems, where he was mentored by Jack Didier and Jeff Goode.
The engineer also spent some time with Beasley in Chicago; he chuckles a bit and says he has worked for a lot of group owners over 20-plus years, yet hasn’t had to leave his home base in southern Ohio.
Jeff Littlejohn in Clear Channel’s Emergency Operations Center in Cincinnati. On the monitor behind him is the tally board for the broadcaster’s nationwide EAS monitoring system, called EAS Watch.
Littlejohn started his career in 1992 with American Media, which became Chancellor Broadcasting, at WUBE (AM/FM) in the Queen City. But his career ascent really began after the Telecom Act of 1996 relaxed strict radio ownership rules and broadcasters flew into acquisition mode, he said.
“Turned out Chancellor was very active in acquisitions. We were doing a lot of due diligence work right away after the ownership rules were relaxed. It was great experience.”
Chancellor eventually merged with Evergreen Media, which then purchased Capstar, which was then renamed AM/FM Inc. and eventually acquired by Clear Channel. “I’ve been with Clear Channel since 2000, but I haven’t really looked for a job since 1992.”
In its award biography, NAB states that Littlejohn has been at the forefront of numerous digital radio breakthroughs at Clear Channel. He has led the company’s efforts in data services, including the Total Traffic & Weather Network and HD Radio iTunes song tagging, which allows consumers to tag and purchase songs on HD Radio.
The group’s Total Traffic & Weather Network provides information through FM sidebands on traffic, weather, news, sports and fuel prices, which are collected from probe data, traffic cameras, mobile reporters and speed sensors, according to the broadcaster.
Clear Channel then sells some of that content to auto manufacturers, including Toyota, Lexus and BMW, and traffic navigation companies like TomTom and Garmin. “Datacasting has become a real business for us since we launched it with Garmin back in 2005. It really transformed from an analog FM RDS service to an HD Radio service that we have monetized and made profitable,” he said.
Past winners of the NAB Engineering Achievement Award are listed. Beginning in 1991, radio and TV winners were named; radio winners are shown.
1959 John T. Wilner
1960 T.A.M. Craven
1961 Raymond F. Guy
1962 Ralph N. Harmon
1963 Dr. George R. Town
1964 John H. DeWitt Jr
1965 Edward W. Allen Jr.
1966 Carl J. Meyers
1967 Robert M. Morris
1968 Howard A. Chinn
1969 Jarrett L. Hathaway
1970 Philip Whitney
1971 Benjamin Wolfe
1972 John M. Sherman
1973 A. James Ebel.
1974 Joseph B. Epperson
1975 John D. Silva
1976 Dr. Frank G. Kear
1977 Daniel H. Smith
1978 John A. Moseley
1979 Robert W. Flanders
1980 James D. Parker
1981 Wallace E. Johnson
1982 Julius Barnathan
1983 Joseph Flaherty
1984 Otis S. Freeman
1985 Carl E. Smith
1986 Dr. George Brown
1987 Renville H. McMann
1988 Jules Cohen
1989 William Connolly
1990 Hilmer Swanson
1991 George Marti
1992 Edward Edison & Robert L. Hammett
1993 Robert M. Silliman
1994 Charles T. Morgan
1995 Robert Orban
1996 Ogden Prestholdt
1997 George Jacobs
1998 John Battison
1999 Geoffrey Mendenhall
2000 Michael Dorrough
2001 Arno Meyer
2002 Paul Schafer
2003 John W. Reiser
2004 E. Glynn Walden
2005 Milford Smith
2006 Benjamin Dawson & Ronald Rackley
2007 Louis A. King
2008 Thomas B. Silliman
2009 Jack Sellmeyer
2010 Steve Church
2011 L. Robert du Treil
2012 Paul Brenner
2013 Frank Foti
2014 Jeff Littlejohn
Littlejohn’s group is responsible for distribution of content, including content for use by the iHeartRadio Group and all of its various applications. “For example, our traffic reports are voiced locally in the markets, but they are also available on demand through iHeartRadio. Another little piece is the data traffic service. We package up all of our traffic data content and then deliver it over HD Radio and Web services.”
Clear Channel has slowed its pace of HD Radio conversion since the vast majority of its major market stations are finished, he said. The broadcaster has converted more than 500 analog FMs out of the company’s total 848 stations. Most of the HD Radio conversions are in the top 100 markets; Clear Channel has also created some 400 multicast stations. “We are taking a wait-and-see on the smaller market stations for HD conversion, he said, noting the return on investment “is harder to make sense of at the smaller-market stations.”
Littlejohn sits on the board of HD Radio developer iBiquity Digital Corp. and is optimistic about what he believes are the expanding opportunities that data over HD Radio presents stations.
For instance, car radios using The Artist Experience are becoming more commonplace, according to the engineering executive. “I really like the whole album art over radio. From a consumer’s standpoint, it really adds to the experience. You have a connection to the artist.”
Technology changes so fast, Littlejohn said that he and his staff must keep their eyes open to see where consumers are moving next.
“The mobile phone has become the place for consumers to go to. That’s why we are engaged on the FM-in-cellphone movement. Clear Channel has put in a ton of work with the iHeartRadio mobile app. The mobilization of the consumer is a trend that has started and is certainly not slowing.”
Radio’s technical future will keep evolving, Littlejohn said, as consumers decide how they want content delivered. Distribution platforms will keep advancing. “All of it is driven by technology. Our job is figuring it all out. I’m, fortunately, working for a company that wants to be on the leading edge of it.”
As that technology evolves, the ability to stay up to date on how technology is advancing becomes crucial for radio engineers, Littlejohn said, as is finding new engineering talent. “A major worry for me is the lack of new people coming into the radio engineering industry.”
Littlejohn was a key figure in the establishment of Clear Channel’s Engineering Co-Op Program in 2011. The two-year program includes college students, typically electrical engineering majors, who work two three-month stints, Littlejohn said.
“This is really a strategic investment in the future of radio for us. We have placed several of these students in full-time engineering jobs with us,” he said.
Meanwhile, he has led the company’s Market Engineering Manager Development Program — “MEM-Dev” —from its infancy. MEM-Dev is a structured two-year program that’s open to Clear Channel employees, typically people in assistant technical positions.
“We test them and develop a custom program for each one to gain the skill set they need to succeed as market engineering managers. We give them a chance to work hands-on in front of a variety of equipment. Take them out on building projects and antenna re-tunes. Then we place them as market engineering managers,” Littlejohn said. “It gives us a chance to groom good candidates for more responsibility.”
And how does this engineering executive typically spend his work time? Littlejohn travels on business 80 to 100 days a year; he spends much of the time in his Cincinnati office coordinating Clear Channel projects across the company. “With a company this size, good communication among the technical people is crucial. I constantly get updates on projects and revise plans as we run into roadblocks.”
Littlejohn received Radio World’s Excellence in Engineering Award in 2008.
He also spends a great amount of time on “problem solving” and figuring out how to provide new capabilities for sales or programming. “There is lots of variety with my job. I might be working on traffic systems one day and then on a project for the iHeartRadio music festival the next,” he said.
New FM translator projects will be the focus of his summer schedule. “We acquired a lot of translators from the 2003 window, so we are building out a lot of those. We are putting some HD Radio channels on [the new translators]. In many cases, we are transmitting an AM station on the new FM translator.”
Littlejohn cites among his career highlights working with the likes of engineering consultants Ben Dawson, Jim Hatfield and Ron Rackley. He also lists Telos Alliance CEO Frank Foti, the 2013 NAB Engineering Achievement Award winner, as another of the iconic names he’s had the privilege to work with.
“It’s fun and challenging every day. I’m very proud to be a broadcast engineer. It is really a great career,” Littlejohn said.
As for that new Fuji bike, Littlejohn hopes to get in “one or two big rides” of 100 miles each by the end of summer.
Littlejohn is on the National Radio Systems Committee and received Radio World’s Excellence in Engineering Award in 2008. He lives in downtown Cincinnati, and has a grown daughter and a 9-year-old son.