Technical consultant Gary Kline, who also contributes regularly to Radio World, travels a great deal both domestically and abroad; he is in frequent contact with many radio industry organizations. We asked him what he’s been hearing over the past several days about the impact of COVID-19 around the U.S. radio industry.
RW: Based on what you hear from clients or others, what impact is the coronavirus national emergency having on U.S. radio station operations?
Gary Kline: For most stations, it hasn’t yet caused serious disruptions to programming or reliability of distribution (RF, streaming, on-demand, etc.). There has been, and there will continue to be, financial implications both on the revenue and expense side.
I’m already hearing of reduced capital expenditures – not surprising at a time like this. There have been some reports in the trades about folks being asked to work from home including broadcasting from home. I think we may see more of this work from outside the studios as more staff (or the people they’ve had contact with) test positive for the virus.
I think it is safe to say as time goes on there will be more changes. These changes in operations may touch upon all departments including engineering, sales, finance, traffic, promotions, management, etc.
RW: Are there specific impacts in technical infrastructure and programming operations we need to think about?
Kline: I think the biggest impact happening right now is the need to work or broadcast from home. Not unlike so many other businesses asking their employees to stay home, radio operators are doing the same with their non-essential staff.
The good news is that for many stations, remote access has been in place in one form or another. Traffic can operate remotely using VPN or other specialized remote access software. The same goes for music scheduling and even the automation/playout system. Many stations have been utilizing some form of remote voice tracking for years.
The good news is that for many stations, remote access has been in place in one form or another.
Therefore, the basic elements of operating a radio cluster are routine for most stations. For those that don’t have one piece in place, it’s not too hard to call your vendor for your traffic, CRM or playout system and ask for their remote access package. You may also need some help from your engineer or IT department/contractor to adjust the firewall and security settings to make everything work.
That being said: I think what we are seeing now though is a much greater emphasis on these remote systems and, in some cases, not enough capacity or hardware to accommodate ALL the stations in a building at one time.
For example, if you have four or five or even six stations with live or live-assist morning shows in your building, is there enough remote technology to handle all those at once? Is there enough gear in someone’s living room to handle things like putting phone callers on the air without a board op back at the studio? Are the facilities ready for total remote control of the console etc.? Can you produce spots remotely and insert them into the log? Can you trigger EAS remotely? Do you own enough IP codecs or apps to simultaneously feed each studio?
RW: What impact is the emergency having on engineers and technical staff, either professionally or personally?
Kline: Most of the engineers I have spoken with have been busy making plans for the remote operation of station business systems in addition to complete remote broadcasting for every one of their stations in a cluster. This is so that if the building needs to be emptied due to a prolonged cleaning and/or company required work-at-home policies, things continue to run. Most facilities had something in place to do these things already, but not always for every station simultaneously. In some cases, the equipment existed but was not configured for exactly the purpose of total remote broadcasting. So, engineers now find themselves re-configuring systems and designing more elaborate command and control procedures for use externally.
RW: Engineers are often asked to be the ones who step in when other staffers have to step out. We’ve heard from at least one engineer who has been told that if further quarantines come into play, he’ll be the one living and sleeping at the studios. Are there any special best practices that engineers and their employers will adopt?
Kline: I think most engineers will tell you that they’ve been through various emergencies, crisis situations, weather related disasters, and as such are doing what they always do in challenging situations, they excel under pressure and rise to the occasion. This is what we do, we keep stations on the air no matter what. We adapt and we innovate. That’s the impact this has on an engineer. On a personal note, I am sure that we are all concerned about contracting the virus, ensuring our families and family are safe as well as our colleagues. Right now, it is all hands-on deck in getting ready for the worst case – prolonged remote station operation.
Most engineers will tell you that they’ve been through various emergencies, crisis situations, weather related disasters, and as such are doing what they always do in challenging situations, they excel under pressure and rise to the occasion
RW: What else should we know?
Kline: All the things that need to be done to prepare technically…. Do them now. Right now. Because if tomorrow you must clear out your facility, you may not be ready to operate it from a different (or multiple) locations. It can happen overnight so don’t delay. If you need extra gear, borrow or purchase it right now. If you need to bring extra engineering help in to re-configure your facility, add remote software, program your router, do it now. Do not wait. If you use contract engineering, remember they may be busy helping many other owners so call them today. Some of the preparations may require technical folks visit the homes of staff including air staff – this may not be possible at some point so get on it now. Make sure everyone knows what their role is and make sure you have understudies for key roles. Have a backup engineer and IT person on call – even if it is a contractor.
We don’t want to think about these things – but if your engineer tests positive, what will you do? What will you do if your transmitter goes down or automation system crashes and your engineer is quarantined for a month or more? There are people out there that can help you produce a technical plan to ensure business operations continue if you need the help. There are many different systems which must operate in harmony to fully operate a facility from the outside – do a dry run this week. For smaller operations with a handful of employees, it only takes one or two positive tests to create a major kink in your local operations.
The Kline Consulting website is https://klineconsulting.com/about-us/.