Progress with the HD Radio transition, new equipment purchases, growing revenue streams from new media and "going green" are frequent topics of conversation among engineers right now. All of this takes place against the backdrop of a worsening economic climate, which affects all of the above.
With spring comes anticipation of the NAB Show. It also is a suitable time to take stock of the state of the broadcast industry.
We spoke with several engineers to get a sense of what's on their minds before the big show in Las Vegas.
Despite the current economic challenges, HD Radio and multicasting continue to be hot topics, especially with the proposal to allow voluntary increases in the HD signal strength.
Paul Shulins, director of technical operations for Greater Media's Boston operations, thinks that a voluntary HD Radio power increase isn't good enough.
"I think the power increase needs to be mandatory, and it needs to happen sooner rather than later. Every HD Radio that is sold is a potential public relations disaster. People buy a new radio and expect to be able to pick up their favorite station at least as well as they could with their old radio.
"The physics just dictate that the –20 dBc level is not nearly enough to replicate the analog coverage, especially for Class A FMs. This is a change that needs to be universally accepted and implemented as soon as possible. The future of our industry in many ways will be determined by our ability to take radio to the next level."
Shulins will be a presenter in a session of the Broadcast Engineering Conference, though he perceives that many other Greater Media engineers won't be at the show due to economic conditions.
Tim Portzline, DOE for Clear Channel Harrisburg, said of HD Radio, "It definitely makes a lot of sense for FM, but not for AM. It's annoying to hear HD signals bleeding over analog AM signals." Clear Channel Harrisburg has five of its six FMs broadcasting HD Radio, with one multicasting. Portzline and his engineering assistant will sit out the show this year.
Jim Keen. 'You spend most of your time putting out fires.' He and his department have been affected dramatically by a change in programming plans. Broadcasters in Canada have a different set of issues regarding HD Radio. Laverne Siemens, DOE of Golden West Radio in Altona, Manitoba, states, "It is a concern to us due to the potential interference to our analog stations, as many of them are close to the 49th parallel. Few, if any, Canadian stations are jumping aboard the IBOC approach to HD Radio."
Siemens will attend NAB and expects to spend time on the show floor, but he also looks forward to hearing keynoter Malcom Gladwell speak.
Steve Davis, senior vice president, engineering & capital management for Clear Channel, agrees with Shulins about HD Radio power.
"We support the HD power increase. I believe it is vitally important for radio to make the transition to digital, not just for the higher quality and multipath immunity, but also for the increased content opportunities that come with multicasting. This is the only way for radio to remain relevant in today's digital world."
Davis will be at NAB and will present a paper, "National VSAT Safety Net," describing Clear Channel's system to link studio and transmitter sites for emergencies. Clear Channel also will be giving a paper on disaster recovery for radio stations. He adds that other Clear Channel engineering leaders will be at NAB but that decisions to send engineering staffs are made at the local market level.
Some of the most important challenges facing broadcast engineers today also provide the greatest opportunities, as Shulins explains.
"We need to make sure that our technical product is as good as it can be by using all our talent and experience in the most efficient way possible. Be it managing staff or making smarter spending decisions, the superior engineer has a great opportunity to demonstrate some clever talents and contribute to radio's economic recovery."
Jim Keen, chief engineer of WMUB(FM), Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, says day-to-day operations themselves are among an engineer's biggest burdens. "The mandate to do more with less causes a lot of strain. You spend most of your time putting out fires, and less time doing maintenance and the sort of long-term planning that is necessary."
Siemens adds, "The challenge is to build studio and transmitter sites that are cost-effective but are done so to be dependable, have redundancy and can be remotely administered."
Davis sees an ongoing test for staff to maintain job skills in a changing environment. "The challenge for engineers is learning IT and networking skills as they begin to deal increasingly with routers, switchers in the deployment of HD Radio importers, exporters, etc. Also, as staffs get smaller but more crucial to operations, time management and multitasking skills are becoming crucial."
Today's economic challenges seem to have affected all aspects of the broadcast industry. The impact was especially felt by Jim Keen. His position, along with that of six full-time and three part-time staff, will be eliminated on June 30, as the university announced plans to drop all local programming and use the station to rebroadcast Cincinnati Public Radio.
All respondents noted the economy has had a direct impact on the decision of who, if anyone, to send to the NAB Show. Policy in some groups is that only those presenting papers will have their expenses paid. Others are willing to give engineers time off to attend the show, but they must pay their own expenses.
Broadcast engineering consultants are not immune. R. Morgan Burrow Jr. said that he won't be coming.
"Many of my clients do not expect to attend due to bleak revenue projections and the need to allocate their time generating revenue. Many stations are cancelling or postponing projects for 2009. This in turn makes it hard on us consultants."
Shopping for equipment
Laverne Siemens. 'We come from a culture that has been thinking green for decades.' He is shown with a trophy-sized walleye on the Red River north of Winnipeg, Manitoba. While money is tight, some engineers and companies will be shopping for new equipment at NAB.
Shulins is one of many who said he had not heard back from the corporate office on specific capital funding for 2009, but adds, "Our company is absolutely committed to provide the most reliable and high-quality product to our customers, and we will invest whatever funds are necessary to keep our operations in compliance and reliable."
Siemens of Golden West said, "We are applying for four to six more stations in the next 12 months, and are trying to develop a cookie-cutter approach to small FM radio stations that we can drop into smaller markets while keeping costs in line. We also have a major AM/FM site move in our future and are planning equipment needs for that."
Davis said Clear Channel has awarded bids for many items but notes, "There still remains equipment to buy and spec, and there are always unforeseen emergencies that arise. Our current projects include integrating newly acquired stations into our clusters, replacing towers that are structurally unsound, installing V-SAT satellite terminals, upgrading our facility control systems and building new studio facilities in some markets."
As he reflected on equipment, Davis offered some criticism for manufacturers. "Quality control could be improved. We receive far more equipment that doesn't work 'out of the box' than we used to. Manufacturers have always been good about doing exchanges, but it seems to be increasingly common as more computer-type hardware finds its way into broadcast equipment."
Once thought of as something of a fringe movement, "going green" is becoming mainstream and affects broadcasters through energy and recycling efforts in the office, energy generation through wind and solar power and green programming efforts.
Shulins said many Greater Media stations are making investments in clean energy proportional to their carbon footprint, and that this enhances their image as responsible members of the community.
Others like Siemens note that being green is nothing new: "We come from a culture that has been thinking green for decades, always looking for ways to reduce our electrical draw. We light only some towers in a multi-tower array (which is legal in Canada) and even run our 50 kW site at reduced power. Equipment from dismantled sites is reused at new ones. These moves are both green and reduce our operating costs."
Portzline notes that Clear Channel's Harrisburg operations are moving towards a "paperless office," glass and paper are separated and the stations use a recycler to dispose of computer monitors at the end of their life.
Most stations seem to have worked out the operational and technical bugs with online media, including streaming audio with different formats, podcasting and blogs. The challenge for many is nurturing them into positive revenue streams.
Shulins notes that Greater Media Boston is streaming its analog/HD1 and HD2 programs on the Web, as well as for some mobile platforms like the iPhone. "Monetizing the non-traditional media options available to broadcasters is something we are looking at and participating in."
"We are very proactive on the online side of things," said Siemens. "We have an entire division dedicated to the development of community portals. Golden West has 30 stations and 10 internet portals across western Canada. We have dedicated sales teams to the selling of online ads."
Keen notes that WMUB has six streams, including MP3, Windows media and Real player in addition to podcasting. He adds that the station has started to receive pledges from online listeners, and that the audience is growing with overseas students and alumni.