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Charlotte Radio: A Perfect Storm

Looking for three words to describe radio in Charlotte, N.C., home of the recently concluded fall NAB Radio Show? Try “significant market growth.”

Looking for three words to describe radio in Charlotte, N.C., home of the recently concluded fall NAB Radio Show? Try “significant market growth.”

“We basically have a perfect storm,” said Jobie Sprinkle, director of engineering for NPR affiliate stations WFAE(FM) and WFHE(FM).

“We have great market growth. It’s just amazing. It’s good for the market in general. Potential listenership is growing right underneath you.”

When asked about challenges in the Charlotte market, Jerry Dowd said, “Probably the biggest obstacle in Charlotte is traffic. It’s a long way down I-77 [to our transmitter site] in an emergency when you are doing 3 mph.”

(click thumbnail)Jerry Dowd with his favorite piece of ‘equipment,’ a Spector five-string bass.Dowd is a man of many titles: manager, technical services/director of engineering for WBTV, WBT(FM) and WLNK(FM) — all part of the Lincoln Financial Media Co. of North Carolina.

Dowd also points to ice storms as a problem in the winter.

“Of all perils, ice damage has been the biggest issue for me,” he said. “On the WLNK/WBTV 2,000-foot tower, it is not uncommon to see chunks of ice about the size of a refrigerator coming off the tower. We have some unique dents in the ice bridge to prove it.”

Dowd also points to challenges common to many engineers.

“We all have had our share of copper thefts and break-ins over the years,” said Dowd. “We all use security alarms, lots of fencing and are careful. The fact that we do late-night work has its issues with some of the transmitters in less-than favorable areas.”

So what makes the Charlotte radio market unique?

“The number of different HD systems that are in place and how they all work are different, and yet the same,” said Dowd, whose WBT has been in the final stages of HD Radio testing for some time.

Stations in the market use a variety of channels. “We all stream, podcast, FTP and host Web sites, in one way or another,” said Dowd.

He points this out because “it is so easy to stereotype ‘radio engineers,’” he said. “‘Oh, engineers — they work on transmitters, right?’ Truth is, we all have a very unique skill set. I may be a manager and have staff, but I also am a hands-on engineer. My department handles IT … the Web sites, studios, transmitters, building and grounds. All the things that make radio ‘radio’ in the new millennium.”

The good guys

(click thumbnail)Jobie SprinkleNPR’s Sprinkle calls his fellow engineers in the market “good, smart guys. It’s a pleasure to be in the market with them.”

These are busy men, though.

“We are close,” said Sprinkle. “We may not get a chance to talk often, but we keep up with what everybody’s doing.”

Society of Broadcast Engineers radio membership in this market appears to be limited, due in part to the overwhelming responsibilities of these engineers.

“The last local SBE meeting was right here at the WBTV studio … 119 feet from my office … and I did not have time to attend.”

Lincoln Financial’s Dowd parrots what many engineers in the market have to say: “We stay so busy and have so many hats to wear; we just don’t have the time.” Despite these busy schedules, “we all share information and offer help, ask for help or just learn from each other.”

Phil Woods, chief engineer at Radio One properties WPZS(FM) and WQNC(FM), agreed. “If you need a part, we’re all more than willing.”

Jeffrey Caudell, CSRE, is director of engineering for the Clear Channel Radio group in Charlotte, made up of FM stations WIBT, WKKT, WRFX, WLYT and WEND.

“The pool of engineers in the market is relatively small,” said Caudell. “In fact, a few of my former coworkers are now employees of the competition.” Yet he said while he has to be careful not to divulge any trade secrets, “we often discuss our current issues and problem resolutions.”

Caudell, who is a member of the local SBE chapter, also attends few meetings. “Timing is also usually the issue for me,” he said. “The chapter meets once a month at lunchtime. However, with five stations, issues can pop up at the last minute that require immediate attention.”

Caudell said in his opinion, “Our chapter’s events lean heavier to the television side, possibly because the officers work in the band. Of course, if my fellow radio guys and I were more active, there would likely be a better balance.”

Dowd said the SBE offers a good number of local meetings and an active chapter. Sprinkle is a past chapter chairman and maintains his membership, but also doesn’t attend local chapter meetings on a regular basis, again due to workload and time constraints.

So where do these guys socialize? Most of them get together a few times a year at nearby SCMS, which recently bought the Harris Broadcast Center vendor division, for barbeques and the like.

“They’re in Pineville, about eight miles from downtown,” said Woods. “They throw a Christmas party where we all get together.”

“We have regular barbeques and luncheons throughout the year,” said Bob Cauthen, president and owner of SCMS.

“We see more guys [at SCMS events] and when we run into each other at common transmitter sites,” said Sprinkle.

The story originally appeared on Radio World Channels.