Andy Laird “Got This Thing Built”

Engineering exec and tech thought leader retires after a distinguished 48-year career
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Andy Laird Andy Laird knew early in life that he wanted to work with the technology of broadcasting and sound. Over his 48-year career, he has designed and/or directed construction of more than 100 broadcast and recording studios and station facilities. His study of music and relentless pursuit of perfection have given him the reputation as one of the industry’s true “golden ears.”

Laird began his most excellent adventure at Denver’s KWGN(TV) in 1966 as a staff engineer. He was hired as the KLAK(AM) CE in Denver in 1967. In 1972, he moved to Los Angeles, became the KDAY(AM) chief and worked with Wolfman Jack.

Andy joined Heritage Media in 1988 as vice president of engineering; he was tasked with rebuilding about 80 stations. A decade later he moved to the Journal Broadcast Group in Milwaukee as VP of radio engineering, later becoming CTO and VP of engineering, titles he held until his retirement this month.

RWEE Technical Advisor Tom McGinley interviewed Laird about his long and storied career.

Tell us how you got into the broadcast business.

I earned my BS degree in physics with a math minor at College of the Principia, a small liberal arts college in southern Illinois. Coming out of high school, I was going to be a physicist. My roommate, a senior, was president of the college radio station [that] the student body [had] voted to build the previous year.

He was asking, “How am I going to get this thing built?”

So I said, “Hey, electronics and audio are my hobbies, can I help?”

“Great, you’re the CE.”

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Senior year at Principia College, as manager of WTPC. My freshman year, I built a radio station; and in my sophomore year, I built one that worked. I was the program director my junior year and general manager my senior year. While I finished my physics degree, the hook had been set; I knew I was going to make my career in broadcasting.

I spent a summer focused on getting my “First Phone” license. I decided on graduate school at University of Denver to work on a Masters in sociology and psychology of mass media. In grad school during the fall of 1965, I received my draft notice that left no doubt I would wind up in Vietnam.

I was playing lower brass and bass in two music major ensemble classes as recreation. The captain for the Colorado Air National Guard Band came into a rehearsal, recruiting musicians. Ta-da! I finished my course work and went off to boot camp the following summer.

Returning to Denver, in midsummer 1966, CH 2, KWGN(TV) was hiring engineers. WGN had bought the station earlier in the year and was in the process of building out three studios for color production work. I was part of the integration crew. I became the house expert at putting connectors on cables for RCA TK41C cameras. The studios were built, but the production business didn’t come. I wound up on an operating crew, soon realizing if I saw one more rerun of “I Love Lucy,” I’d explode. My love of audio spurred me to move into radio engineering in September of 1967.

You’re probably best known as the long-time director of engineering for the Journal Broadcast Group. But tell us a little about your time spent with the other stations and groups you’ve worked with over your career.

From 1972 to 1988, I had a very unusual opportunity as chief engineer of 1580 KDAY, Santa Monica. At that time, it was only one of three full-time 50 kW AM stations in Southern California. All facilities were collocated north of Dodger Stadium. The opportunity included having every other week off, if I would take full technical responsibility fixing a broken facility and supervising a large technical staff.

I was at the station for one week when I picked up my first client, Wolfman Jack. He was KDAY’s evening DJ and hired me to fix and maintain his home studio. He was producing a show out of there for Armed Forces Radio and Television Service, running on 125 stations worldwide.

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Laird is shown at the WTPC studio at his 50th college reunion celebration this year. In the late ’70s, I expanded my outside work to include radio studio and audio design. By 1988, I had done projects for over 100 stations from New York City down.

Prior to joining Journal Broadcast Group in 1998, I was VP of engineering for Heritage Media for 10 years. I’ve lost track of station count, but I think we acquired somewhere around 80–90 fixer-uppers. My job was to perform technical diligence for station acquisition, develop and deploy the fix-it-up plan, while also doing technical staff supervision and continued capital planning.

Who were your mentors and “Elmers” along the way as you honed your skills and took on more responsibilities?

My most significant mentor was Ed Scott. He was Gene Autry’s announcer on the CBS network and an owner/operator of an AM station in the Denver market in late 1965. KLAK was the lowest-rated station in Denver. They had just added an FM simulcast and my radio friends were constantly talking about the new owner and all the changes going on there. I decided to check it out by camping out on his doorstep to see if I could get my foot in the door doing some part-time work. The summer of 1967, I engineered a number of remotes and was hired as a full-time DJ in September.

Later in the fall, the chief engineer resigned and I got to fill in fixing a bunch of stuff while the new CE search was underway. After a month, Ed offered me the CE position, leading to an awesome five-year run with him. Ed Scott wanted to do the very best possible with his stations. Within a couple years, KLAK made it up to No. 2 in Denver. Every morning, Monday through Friday, he performed the top of the hour news 6–9 a.m. The news staff wrote it along with prepping all the sound, traffic reports live from the station plane and weather. He supported most any endeavor that would make his stations “better.”

Every engineer has a fond memory about the funniest, most unbelievable or bizarre experience they’ve had during their career. Any stories you would like to share?

While in grad school, I part-time announced weekends at classical music KFML(AM/FM). One Sunday afternoon during a thunderstorm, the AM went off air. Remote control contact with the site was lost and the CE wasn’t answering a call. About an hour later, I got a call from the Denver fire department saying they thought the AM transmitter had just burned down. One Bauer FB5000J up in flames.

For KLAK(AM/FM), I constructed two new studios to be used by the FM to break the simulcast. It was also the chance to go stereo. The stations were collocated to the studios.

Long ago, I had worked all the detected AM out of the audio gear used in the simulcast, but I was having a major problem with the turntables being used in the new FM studios. They were EMTs from Germany with integrated preamp and moving coil cartridges. It was less than a week before the promoted “new station” was coming on the air and I couldn’t fix the problem. I was totally at a loss sweating bullets. Then all of a sudden, the detected audio went away! What fixed it?

Moments later, the DJ ran into the studio where I was working yelling the FM transmitter had just gone off the air! All my effort was focused on bypassing AM; I had never thought of FM being detected. A day later, fixed.

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Laird served as program director of KVDU at the University of Denver when he was a grad student. From the 50 kW KDAY night array, you could carry a lit florescent tube over your head a half block through houses. The one-volt contour extended 2.4 miles southwest over some of the densest Hollywood and Los Angeles neighborhoods. We typically spent one to two man-days a week doing interference mitigation. Telephones always, but we had our share of talking stoves, plumbing, and furnace, hot water tank flues. One day, I got a call from a psychiatric hospital. One of the doctors was complaining he could hear voices and music in a wall of his office. Without thinking, I blurted out “I can recommend a specialist.”

Every Friday evening until 1974, KDAY produced and broadcast record company sponsored live shows from the clubs on Sunset Blvd. I mixed the shows using a tube wideband AM tuner (Sherwood S2000). KDAY celebrated the end of 1972 with a live show called Happy New Ear from the Roxy featuring Cheech and Chong. The transmitter went off the air. I called the duty operator asking what was going on.

He said, “I have to shut the transmitter off. They can’t say that stuff on the air.”

“Charlie, they can talk about pot, etc., not violating FCC rules. They’re not using the seven forbidden words, turn on the transmitter.”

“I won’t unless you put a letter in my file stating that over my objection you ordered me to turn on the transmitter.”

“I’ll write the letter. I order you to turn on the transmitter.”

“OK.”

You’ve served on a number of industry-related boards and panels that have helped craft and guide the direction of broadcast engineering and evolving technologies that push our business forward. Which ones have benefited us the most, and in hindsight which ones may have not been such good ideas?

I’m a strong supporter of the U.S. digital standards for radio transmission. My involvement in that effort started with a request from the NAB to discuss the possibility. A month or so later, the Consumer Electronics Association held a similar meeting in Monterey, Calif., to begin a review of technology. I was surprised at how little knowledge CEA members had about broadcasting. My boss, Paul Fiddick, president of Heritage Media, told me to get my tail on a plane and teach them radio. That led to many years of National Radio Systems Committee service, until just recently. With my pending retirement I resigned as chair of the Digital Radio Broadcast subcommittee at the NAB Radio Show.

AM stereo was a tremendous disappointment. I saw the Harris system as an opportunity to AM radios to use synchronous detectors. The Kahn system was viable but couldn’t support synchronous detection.

While I still support hybrid AM digital in some situations, shutting off all AM hybrid is not the complete answer. I would support a shutoff if all radio stations went to 5 kHz audio bandwidth. That along with no hybrid AM-HD is the only thing that will clean up adjacent-channel interference.

Note though, there is no fix for the rising noise floor. As a result of the noise floor, broadcasters must realize that wideband AM receivers are useless except in very strong RF areas. The NRSC-certified receiver proved unworkable. Let’s take advantage of the narrow-band state of the vast majority of AM receivers in the field. AM broadcasting will be better served with frequency response limited to 5 kHz along with hybrid shutoff.

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Grad student Laird in front of Ampex VTR-1000, University of Denver.The transition of analog to digital TV is behind us and can be judged a solid success. The digital transition for radio is still a work in progress. What are your thoughts on HD Radio and where will we likely be 5 years, 10 years and farther into the future with this?

The U.S. standards provide a path to move from analog to hybrid analog with digital and finally to digital as receiver penetration makes it practical. The FM hybrid system works exceptionally well except in a few instances of high-power grandfathered coverage stations. The penetration of receivers is growing at the expected pace. The HD Radio audio quality delivered to the public is substantially better than that achieved in real-world conditions with analog. Involved with digital system evaluations, I was amazed at how difficult it was developing analog benchmark recordings for comparative purposes.

Also it’s exciting to see studies underway for all-digital AM. Having been responsible for three 1490 kHz stations recently, I’ve wondered if all-digital may help them become viable stations again as receiver penetration increases.

We need to be thinking about the future. There has always been a desire to tweak the allocation rules. For example, there are AM improvement suggestions, many which I support, and the addition of a “C4” class for FM. I believe we need a thorough understanding of an all-digital environment, AM and FM, before moving forward with packing in more analog signals. At some point allocations should be made with an eventual all digital radio system in mind.

Is the hybrid AM-HD mode a lost cause or would “all-digital” AM-HD be the best road forward for the senior radio band?

For some stations, hybrid AM-HD is not a lost cause. It doesn’t work for everyone though. All-digital AM-HD appears from early testing to be very promising. It appears it can be compatible with analog stations and does not increase audible noise to co-channel or adjacent stations. That is huge.

More and more engineers like you are retiring. Some think there is or soon will be a near-crisis shortage of qualified engineers. Others see business as adapting, with IT specialists taking over more technical support functions and contractors will maintain transmitter sites. What are your thoughts?

I used to keep a contact list, a farm club of talented developing broadcast engineers that were looking for their chief engineer opportunity. My “Rolodex” is empty today.

Some of the “glamor” of working in radio has left the stage. Except in the major markets and some large markets, the collection of extroverts that created a station environment are gone. Most of the small owner/entrepreneurs who drove the business are gone. The business has changed. Many stations are now owned by large public companies working for the stockholders. If the market isn’t growing, you manage cost.

I used to make a joke that really good engineering doesn’t attract attention. The engineering function is often a mystery to managers who came up with only a sales background. Driven hard for bigger returns, they tend ask questions like, “Why do we need this person, since nothing seems to ever go wrong?” Or “I need to make this next quarter. Can we put this repair off for a couple of months? It’s a small leak. The roof repair will need to wait.”

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Journal Broadcast Group has owned WTMJ(AM) since 1926. Engineers through the years saved equipment for a collection stored at the AM transmitter. Part of the new manager learning experience sometimes results in a facility compromised as a result of deferred maintenance. When there’s no more maintenance to cut and it becomes impossible for the manager to turn in large margins, they quit and move to the next opportunity. The owner is left with a broken facility and the prospect of spending large sums to become competitive again.

Young people with electronic technical interests have many career choices today, most of which pay very well. If your goal is to service computers as you become a network engineer, you’re likely to get the same satisfaction working at a law firm and make more money to boot. It’s the stations that are more local and live-focused that need more than an IT specialist. These are the stations that are beginning to suffer. Having a foundation in IT is a must, but how do we train would-be broadcast engineers about other essentials such as sound? On-the-job training opportunities are rare today.

On the other hand, hardware both at the studio and transmitter site is evolving quickly. With good installation, repair may become more a “replace the module” service, sending parts back to the manufacturer for component level replacement. This is becoming true in a digital studio environment and for transmitter sites.

Soft-failure transmitters with automatic trouble-reporting and RF switches that won’t obey a switch command if RF is present are improving reliability of transmitter plants. I think stations will need to invest in new transmitter technology and having it integrated properly. With a modern transmitter plant, a talented contract engineer or perhaps factory-trained maintenance personnel can train local staff on the basics of how to keep operating until expert help arrives.

It’s hard to imagine that an engineer with your experience and skill set will completely “retire.” After you leave your full -time job with Journal, how will you spend your newfound free time? Will you do freelance and consulting work?

I will love doing freelance work. Maybe there’s some public service work of interest too. Retirement for me is moving from 8–5, and the associated administrative work required by being technically responsible for 13 TV stations and 35 radio stations, to “event time.”

Most everyone I know who retired from their respective careers say their first mistake was taking on more projects than they really wanted to handle. Wouldn’t that be a nice problem to have, picking and choosing what is of interest? My attitude concerning retirement is summed up with my view of a couch: It’s a giant Venus flytrap. You sit on the couch and it closes around you and you dissolve. Oh yes, and I’ve also loaded my ski pass for Aspen.

Author Tom McGinley is Radio World technical advisor and a longtime contributor.

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