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Cooney Talks Cap-Ex, HD Radio

Return on the Dollar Is the Byword in 2009

NAPLES, Fla. When Beasley’s cap-ex 2009 budget contracted, its technical priorities shifted temporarily. Mike Cooney, who has been vice president of engineering and chief technology officer of Beasley Broadcast Group for about a year and a half, is rolling with the changes.

Cooney finds himself spending a lot of time these days renegotiating vendor contracts to save money and looking for other ways to manage technical operations more economically at Beasley’s 44 facilities. He’s also spending more time on the Web and everything that goes with it.

Like many broadcasters, Beasley is steering its 2009 capital towards projects that will bring in revenue more quickly rather than those with a longer-term ROI. As an example, Cooney is heading a project in Miami to move two stations from leased space to a building it owns that houses a third station.

Mike Cooney Beasley was an early adopter of HD Radio but it has delayed some of its conversions until the economy turns around. It also has turned off some of its digital AM signals at night in response to interference concerns.

Cooney, 46, manages the staffs of the Beasley engineering and IT departments, and recently was given management of the interactive department as well. Some 10 department managers report to him, and he manages station engineers directly. He will be visible at the upcoming NAB Show; the South Dakota native is on the technical committee of the Broadcast Traffic Consortium of which Beasley is a member and is chairing a session of the Broadcast Engineering Conference, which he serves as a committee member.

Cooney spoke with Radio World News Editor/Washington Bureau Chief Leslie Stimson about ways to save money in this economy, Beasley’s hopes for the data possibilities in HD Radio, the potential power increase and the state of AM digital.

RW: You recently became responsible for the Interactive department. What does that entail?
Cooney: Beasley is active in interactive, basically the Web department, streaming and everything that goes along with it. That’s probably the greatest growth area in radio. It makes up a significant amount of our revenue and a significant part of our growth.

RW: Does that involve designing your Web site so people want to more spend time on it?
Cooney: It really is about having compelling content to drive your listeners to your Web site and keeping them there. In the past, someone would go to a Web site and see an artist. They would leave the site and Google the artist; now, these Web sites are built to be everything, where you don’t have to leave it.

A search engine is tied to the site. It will have music and video, just about anything you can imagine, and it interfaces with your Facebook and MySpace page. … It interfaces with everything and tends to be where the future is going in a lot of ways.

RW: How do you spend your day?
Cooney: Currently a huge part of my day is in bid negotiations with vendors and companies for different services. I spend a lot of time looking at contracts and reviewing tower leases and contracts and vendor agreements. The other part of my job is supporting our local engineering staff with their capital needs or questions.

RW: How many engineers does Beasley have?
Cooney: I have a tremendous engineering staff in terms of quality. Quantity is not what we’d like in some markets; but with the way things are right now we’ve tried to do it with minimal engineering in some of them. Some [of the 11] markets have as few as one engineer and we have some that have up to five. …

RW: What were your main technical goals coming into the job and what do you still hope to accomplish, given the tough economic climate?
Cooney: When I came to the company [in the fall of 2007] we were in the middle of doing HD conversions, and our IT infrastructure was not what it should be for a company of our size. So one of the first things I did was hire a new IT manager, John Brown, and we started looking at rebuilding that infrastructure; and we’ve done some of that.

As budgets became tighter we backed down some of our HD conversions in the small markets and started putting money more in things that have a quicker return on investment for the capital money. In Miami we’re consolidating into one studio building where we had two. We’re moving into a building we own. The project will pay for itself in practically less than a year.

RW: Consolidating studios cuts your operating costs…
Cooney: We have three stations in Miami. Two — WPOW(FM) and WQAM(AM) — were in one building that we leased and one — WKIS(FM) — is in another building that we own. It was a tight fit but we decided to move everybody into the single building. There’s no rent, so it saved us $30,000 a month without much effort.

Those are the kind of easy decisions on spending capital money. We’ve done a few other things like that to streamline the process.

RW: I guess a lot of your goals have changed since you came to the company.
Cooney: Yes, they really have. And I’m sure we will go back to what we were doing. Another big part of my goals and what’s changed is working to find the best contract and services. We’re — myself and my team managers — we’re spending a lot of time negotiating recently streaming contracts, Internet contracts, cellphone contracts. We’ve saved a significant amount of dollars in negotiating these contracts, even with existing contracts.

RW: Going to your IT and phone vendors and asking if there’s anything they can do for you?
Cooney: A lot of the [non-broadcast] vendors have become aggressive recently to where they’re willing to buy out other parts of your contracts with other vendors to get your business because, everybody, I guess, is in the same situation radio’s in. It’s very lean in every market.

RW: How do equipment purchase decisions work at Beasley?
Cooney: One of my biggest jobs normally is to manage the capital budget process and initiate it. Basically the way it works is the local chief engineer will come to me or the general manager and say ‘We’d like this.’ And I ask the local markets to give me quotes on the equipment from their favorite vendors, and then I review them, approve them and send it back to them as purchased.

On the really big projects … I’m involved in getting quotes and negotiating with the manufacturers and then I, typically, help manage those projects.

RW: Do you have preferred vendors for certain equipment categories?
Cooney: Over the years we’ve developed relationships with several vendors … The only automation system we use in the country is the Broadcast Electronics AudioVault system. We do that for simplicity and for a lot of reasons, compatibility issues. That’s one of the few that we do that on. Everything else is on a competitive basis. We bid it out to each manufacturer. … We have different markets where everyone has kind of their own favorite guy they like dealing with. I don’t mandate any of that. All I care is that they get the best price; I typically ask them to get two or three quotes.

Cooney is shown in 2002 as DOE and director of IT for Entercom’s Kansas City cluster. He and Ken Wolf, right, are at Richland Tower during construction of a new 1,158-foot tower. They sit on a section of the 10-bay ERI master FM antenna. RW: How many of your27 FMs and 17 AMs are transmitting in digital?
Cooney: We have 14 out of 27 FMs converted and multicasting; and 13 AMs are converted to HD.

We converted a large percentage of our AMs right from the start. Every one of our big-market stations in Miami, Boca Raton, Fort Myers, Philadelphia, Las Vegas — almost all of our big markets are converted and even some of the small. …

We have one AM left to convert and four others where it probably doesn’t make fiscal sense to convert or the antenna is not capable. We have 12 FMs left to convert but only two are in top 50 markets. We’ve probably converted about 68 percent of our stations.

We were one of the frontrunners in the beginning and did a lot of conversions early on. If it wasn’t for the economics right now I think we would have completed them all this year, but we’ve delayed them a little now to put the capital money in other places.

RW: When the economy improves you’ll convert whatever you can next?
Cooney: Yes, it’s not at all a permanent, “We’re not going to do this anymore.” It’s just a delay.

RW: How would iBiquity handle the licensing agreement?
Cooney: They’ve worked with several broadcasters to say, “We understand and we’ll give you an extra year, some extra time.” I know they’ve been working with various broadcasters on that.

RW: Beasley’s one of the groups that supports an FM digital power increase. Are you running any of your stations on high power now on an experimental basis?
Cooney: Actually, I was looking at applying. We’re going to build a big HD facility in Wilmington, Del. [WJBR(FM)]. I had wanted to have that one be a high-power station with experimental authority. We may very well still do that at the end of this year.

We’re trying to decide whether we’ll use that money for other things, or whether we’ll build that this year. We would really like to get a few on even if it’s only one or two and just see … how good of an effect it is. …

Two key things, to me, have to happen: We’ve got to have HD Radio in cars, standard; and we’ve got to have the power increase. It doesn’t have to be 10 percent but it’s got to be more than 1 percent power. Even a 5 percent increase would make a huge difference, and 10 all the better. I think we may come up with some kind of a variance in between. I’m sure it won’t necessarily be a carte blanche upgrade of all power. …

RW: What’s going on with your traffic, the Broadcast Traffic Consortium rollout?
Cooney: We’re [The BTC] just actually working on launching the digital [data]. I’m not sure how much can be released but I can tell you that ours … will all be transmitting the HD traffic information within probably [by the end of March]. We’ve got two out of four that come to mind on, and the other two will be done real soon.

RW: How is that rollout coming?
Cooney: The BTC has a number of FMs transmitting Navteq traffic data over their analog RDS, using data fed from the Broadcast Traffic Consortium, of which we’re a member. A number of digital stations are also transmitting the traffic data using HD Radio technology.

We’ve had some issues with software vendors and manufacturers. IBiquity had to write some software and other things had to be done. That’s coming along much better now, it’s a streamlined process and we’re rolling out stations pretty quickly. We’ve got a diverse group of stations and people. …

The BTC works with Navteq and there’s some revenue-sharing. … Eventually there will be ad-supported devices such as your GPS in your car that will … have ads on it that each us then share in the revenue. It goes beyond what it does now.

RW: What about your digital AMs?
Cooney: Before I got here, Beasley converted a lot of our AMs, probably more than most groups in the country. I came from Entercom, and we, at that point, hadn’t converted any AMs. They waited. Beasley did a lot of them — 13. … There’s some issues to work through on AM HD, in my opinion. I’m hoping we can because it’s really worthwhile as far as the sound difference.

RW: Issues …
Cooney: In getting it to have a wide enough bandwidth so it sounds like FM but yet not such a wide bandwidth that you don’t interfere with your neighbor.

We have actually turned off most of our AM HD signals at night, and big signals especially, because we got complaints that we were causing interference to other broadcasters. To be good broadcasters, we agreed to turn them off at night. A lot of broadcasters are doing that until we can figure out a plan to all make it work well together.

RW: You got complaints from other stations saying, “You’re stepping on us.”
Cooney: Yes, something to that effect. And we had the same thing happen, I’m trying to remember where. We, of course, talked to them and they were willing, in the same way, to help us out. …

RW: Is that an issue that you guys are working with iBiquity on?
Cooney: Honestly no, but I think as a group, there’s plenty of people out there working on it and talking about it and how to address it. This is just my personal opinion.

RW: I’ve been wondering what’s been going on with the AMs. I remember talking to Citadel about a year ago and Cox — at the time, and again more recently — about this. For both groups, their AM digital remains off until there’s a solution. I haven’t seen a solution yet.
Cooney: In my personal opinion, it’s something iBiquity itself is going to have to address, along with the power increase, which we’re all helping to push on the FM side.

RW: Now, when you turn on a station in HD Radio, are listeners noticing?
Cooney: Yes, they are. In the beginning we couldn’t even get these receivers ourselves, but now they definitely are. WQAM(AM) in Miami is an example. When our HD is off, they call and complain about it.

RW: Do they notice if multicast channels are off?
Cooney: Yes. In Miami, Philly and Fort Myers we have some big listenership on some of those.

RW: On another topic, are your stations experiencing metal theft?
Cooney: We’ve had some, but it hasn’t been that bad. It’s been nuisance-type stuff. We’ve had some tower grounds stolen and they might have been worth about $5 in copper and they’ve cost us several hundred dollars or a thousand dollars sometimes even to have a tower crew come out and brace things back under the tower. We’ve put in some alarm systems, some security systems in places and because these sites are all so remote it’s challenging to deal with.

RW: Some broadcasters recommend installing cameras to see who’s stealing your stuff and have that hooked up to an alarm.
Cooney: I came from Entercom in Kansas City. My past staff there is still dealing with this. They had one site that was broken into five times and a lot of stuff stolen. After about the second time they put in cameras.

They actually had really good pictures of thieves stealing from them every time. Honestly, cameras don’t really work because the thieves know the cameras are there. They also know the city they’re in, typically, and they either know their way out so they’ve got a given amount of time to get in and steal the stuff.

So they’d come in, they’d wear a mask or pull a hat down low and they’d steal everything and they’d drag it off and they were there for up to an hour at times at the site — on camera the whole time.

RW: With a mask on.
Cooney: Yes, and the way they finally stopped it is they put on much better doors, really heavy steel-plated doors so they were stopped from getting in the building. The second part that helped even more is they put in a siren system. That seemed to scare them off. They’d actually try to break in, the alarm would go off and then they’d run.

They did put in a system that tied it to the police, but the police in that particular city had better things to do, so their response time was an hour or two, and [thieves] knew this so they had plenty of time to rob them.

We’ve tried some different innovative things and I won’t reveal some of our secrets, but I think cameras are a waste of money for the most part. …

RW: Have you noticed any change or increase since the economy worsened?
Cooney: We had a period of it when copper prices were at their peak several months ago, and we haven’t had one since. I don’t know if that’s a coincidence or not. The other thing that has happened is a lot of states, counties and cities were putting in legislation, changes that required scrap yards to … if you came in and sold copper, you had to have a driver’s license with a photo and they took down information on you and what you sold. They’ve just started implementing this in a lot of states, and when that was implemented, we noticed a lot of it stopped in those cities.

RW: How did you get into broadcast engineering? You studied electrical engineering at South Dakota State University.
Cooney: Yes, and … [in 1984] I was hired by the University of South Dakota to be a transmitter engineer at a manned site for South Dakota Public broadcasting. I got a lot of experience for little money for several years and then I did contract work for other broadcasters.

Eventually I was offered a job as a corporate chief engineer when I was 25 years old. The corporate position was out of Lincoln, Neb. They built a group of radio stations while I was there. The company at that time was called Radio One which … became Three Eagles Communications. … It had stations throughout the Midwest. I had about 500 miles I covered.

RW: And you were at Entercom before this job?
Cooney: I was recruited and moved to Kansas City about 15 years ago, and I worked for [audiovisual integrator] Video Masters, where I traveled all over the world and built radio and television stations for about five years off and on. I was also working for a military contractor during the first and second Gulf wars, building portable radio and television transmitters. At that point I was recruited by Entercom in Kansas City and I worked for them for eight years before I was recruited to come to Beasley. I was director of engineering and IT for the Kansas City cluster. …

RW: Any funny engineering stories to share?
Cooney: In Kansas City we had beautiful houses all around our facility. We built a new AM and we were less than 100 feet from some of these houses. We went out and eliminated interference. We had to go out and visit these people … about 300 to 400 houses over a year. …

One lady called me … and said every night she’d come home, start dinner and turn on the stove. It was brand new. It would cook for a little while and then turn off. It wouldn’t turn back on. It would change temperatures and things … I went over to look at it.

When we changed patterns of our directional right at sunset in the winter [was] when she’d get home from work. When our power changed patterns, we’d turn her stove off.

I said, “You probably need to get a stove that doesn’t have as much electronic circuitry in it.” She said, “It’s the only taupe-colored stove I could find, so I’m not getting rid of my stove.”

I tore her stove apart and had to put filtering inside her stove to fix it.

In that same block, I was called over to a lady’s house. … I was in her bathroom and there was music coming out of her sink. I said, “I’ll see what I can do to stop it.” She said, “I don’t want you to stop it, I just wanted to show it to you to make sure that I wasn’t nuts.”

Another one down the street had music came out of their heating duct. It was a classical station so they didn’t mind it too much.