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Groups Centralize Technical Operations

Technical departments for many broadcast groups reflect a more centralized way of doing business - due to consolidation, but also because of tighter budgets during the recent downturn in the U.S. economy.

Technical departments for many broadcast groups reflect a more centralized way of doing business – due to consolidation, but also because of tighter budgets during the recent downturn in the U.S. economy.

Practices continue to differ across the industry, however. Engineering managers at Clear Channel and Cumulus Broadcasting, for example, say they have fairly rigid structures in place. The top engineer at Hispanic Broadcasting Corp. says the company usually allows local engineers the freedom to purchase equipment within a certain budget.

Still, engineering management differs from how it was done just a few years ago, several sources said, from the way equipment is purchased to how engineers are hired.

Clear Channel’s organizational ladder includes 11 regional engineering services managers, said Jeff Littlejohn, senior vice president for engineering services. An RESM has the same function as a VP of engineering would have in a smaller company.

Different decision levels

“They manage capital and projects and assist engineers and market managers with day-to-day needs,” Littlejohn said.

Some engineering decisions are made at the cluster level, he said; but capital purchasing decisions are managed from the corporate level.

“As much as we would like to allow every engineer to buy from their favorite vendor, it’s not the best approach. We still make sure the stations get what they want; but by purchasing in quantity, we saved several million dollars last year alone,” Littlejohn said.

Communication with and among Clear Channel’s 1,200 stations and engineering departments is done via an internal Web site, e-mail and periodic conference calls.

Hispanic Broadcasting Corp. Director of Engineering David Stewart calls his company’s approach to technical operations “very centralized and very top-down.” However, HBC has a local engineering manager in each of its 15 markets.

“My assumption is that the people in the trenches know a lot more that I’ll ever know. We usually give them freedom to do their work within the operating budget,” Stewart said. “The home team is not automatically wrong when it comes to purchasing.”

Still, Stewart said certain decisions, such as when to roll out HD Radio in each market, come from the top. The group will have nine of its stations transmitting both analog and digital signals by mid-year.

“I usually need to mediate between what my local guys want and what we have to do as a group. There certainly is an ‘HBC-ization’ of new acquisitions. But there is some autonomy,” he said.

Rates, volume

HBC has a basic group plan in place when it comes to buying gear, Stewart said.

“Three bids are needed, one of them always from Harris. We receive rebates and extended warranties from Harris if we do a certain volume. We generally go with the low bid, unless a special package is involved.”

Gary Kline, corporate director of engineering for Cumulus Broadcasting, said he’s involved with nearly all of the group’s engineering expenditures.

“Our workforce is centralized and our equipment is, too, giving us a higher degree of efficiency. Certainly through consolidation we have a lot more to manage, but you have added efficiency,” Kline said.

The group’s 260 stations have six regional engineering managers who report directly to Kline.

Engineer hiring decisions are Kline’s responsibility. However, managers in the local market “must feel good about the hire or we won’t make it,” he said.

The size of a radio group sometimes dictates how functions are performed and by whom. For example, Littlejohn said Clear Channel has concentrated many functions in-house rather than outsourcing. Nearly all of the group’s FCC applications are now handled internally. The group also recently appointed Scott Quitadamo to market and manage all tower leases, holding the title “director of vertical real estate.”

“You simply can’t run a group of a few hundred stations the same way you ran a group of 24 stations,” Littlejohn said.

The delicate balance of buyer and seller relationships, especially the issue of direct buying, has generated a lot of discussion in the industry.

Clear Channel recently announced a “preferred vendor list” for its stations (RW, Dec. 18). However, several equipment suppliers say the importance of good relationships with local engineers cannot be underestimated.

“Sometimes the local engineers actually have more say because those still in radio tend to be very good and are more respected than maybe the average engineer of the past,” said Dave Scott, president of Scott Studios Corp. “Local managers are setting budgets but turning buying decisions over to the good technical and operational people.”

Denny Sanders, managing director for Telos Systems, said it depends on the situation, but usually regional and national engineering executives will listen to a local engineer’s preferences.

“I think local engineers still often have the final say, subject to budget considerations and other factors,” Sanders said.

Kris Bobo, vice president of development at Comrex Corp., said, “We have not changed our sales model to this point. We like the traditional methods of selling. It is still very important to get in front of the person who makes buying decisions, that hasn’t changed. You still have to find the right people,” she said.