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An Annoying Drive Through the Middle of Ohio

Radio technical issues had our friend Dan Slentz gritting his teeth

A stylized photo of an upset male car driver with eyes bugged out and mouth open in a scream
This is not Dan Slentz. (Getty Images/EzumeImages)

Radio World contributor Dan Slentz recently spent seven hours driving from Cleveland to Athens, Ohio, and back to visit his daughter at Ohio U. He came back with strong reactions to what he heard on the radio.

I was almost shocked by the quality of stations on my drive, particularly technically. Honestly, some of the better-sounding and certainly more interesting were the little LPFMs — at least in the 10 minutes I could pick each of them up!

I have an interest in LPFMs so I checked out WOMP(LP) at 101.9 in Cambridge. But then I got confused after I flipped to nearby WUKL(FM) at 100.5 in Bellaire and heard it calling itself “WOMP FM.”

Why? How? Talk about listener confusion!

It turns out that WUKL’s relatively new owner, Ohio Midlands News Group, has been using the revived WOMP branding for only a few months and it recently secured agreement from the licensee of WOMP(LP), Buckeye Broadcasting, to use that branding. And now WUKL is changing its official call letters to WOMP(FM) with its permission letter in hand, according to the FCC database. (Wikipedia has an interesting history of the WOMP name).

Anyway on my drive I also noticed that Educational Media Foundation and its K-Love network seems to all over the dial. I thought NPR was bad when it comes to redundancy! (At least NPR stations are just affiliates.) This experience didn’t give me the impression that there is much “diversity” in broadcast ownership, “voice” and programming.

But my big impression is about the technical issues.

I heard FM stations that I know had no high frequencies anywhere near 15 kHz. There were some FMs that were “flat as pancakes” in terms of frequency response. It was like listening through cotton balls.

Back in the day, stations might have poor signal response because they were not cleaning the heads on their reel-to-reels. But those stations would still sound better for high frequencies than some of the 21st century FMs I heard.

It made me really wonder if certain owners or engineers have tin ears. Seriously. There’s no way you would NOT know that your FM sounds so bad if you actually listened to it. So, are they not listening? Or do they not understand what they’re hearing? Or do they not care?

Another tech issue is that clearly some stations don’t have any sort of mod monitor. I had to bring my radio up to full blast to eke volume out of it. (My Mazda CX5 has a smokin’ kick-ass Bose system. I was never a fan of Bose, but this thing rocks!)

One station was clearly voice-tracked, but ALL of its voice tracks were totally distorted, like they had just cranked the mic open and recorded “balls to the walls” with level! Distorted and it sounded like holy hell!

Then there was “the screamer.” No, not an annoying jock … the station itself had a high-frequency squeal on top of the audio (it modulated only slightly).

Years ago I worked at a station where dry caps in a Optimod produced a wildly modulating squeal on audio; Orban sent me a cap kit that fixed it. But this one was likely a satellite-fed station so I wondered if it could possibly be 5G interference on C Band receiving? (Never heard it, don’t know what that sounds like, just thinking aloud.)

Or maybe it was component failure in their exciter or audio processor. But it was very noticeable and annoying. Again, it made me wonder if the owner or company has any quality control or pride in their product, meaning their station and its air signal.

Those technical issues were discouraging. In fairness I can say that probably about 70% of the stations I heard on my drive didn’t sound bad technically; but 70% earned a “D” grade back when I was in school, and 30% is far, far too many to not sound great! And then there’s the lack of creative content and the abundance of automation and voice tracking.

I appreciate those stations where I did sense heavy community involvement and real localism — including that little LPFM, WOMP in Cambridge, Ohio.

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Dan Slentz is a longtime Radio World contributor who has worked in both radio and TV engineering.