As broadcast engineers contemplate their annual sojourn to Las Vegas, RW talked to several about what’s going on in their worlds and what’s on their minds.
John Marino, vice president of science and technology for the NAB itself, sees an urgent need for broadcast engineers to align themselves with the changing corporate culture.
“One of the most important challenges is learning to work with company strategy. Businesses are challenged to keep up with trends and they must move in directions for growth. It’s important for engineers to meet with their management on a regular basis, to stay informed and educated on ways they can improve the business outlook, and most importantly demonstrate their value to the overall business strategy.”
Reflecting on the FCC’s proposal to require 24/7 attended operations at stations to assure timely emergency response, Marino feels it is unnecessary.
“As long as stations remain responsible for providing their communities with emergency messaging, there does not seem to be a need for 24/7 required staffing. Today’s broadcast equipment is extremely reliable with very little need for babysitting.”
What are some of the design criteria for equipment manufacturers today? Marino feels the trend seems to be toward increased reliability and interoperability.
“Manufacturers are constantly striving to bring additional value to their customers. Products that can ‘fit in’ with existing equipment and interoperate with station hardware and software systems are becoming increasingly popular.”
As the digital media revolution spreads from streaming on the Web to cell phones, iPods and blogs, Marino notes radio is responding, but feels more should be done.
“The radio industry is slowly moving toward all-digital. An immediate benefit of digital technology is its flexibility. Broadcasters who are multicasting, providing digital traffic data, etc. are showing manufacturers that radio is evolving and embracing digital technology.
“Alternative platforms offer opportunities for broadcasters to capture listeners who not only use traditional radio receivers, but also tune in on computers, PDAs and other portable devices.”
Jon Blomstrand, director of engineering for Hubbard Broadcasting, said one of his most pressing concerns is training and education.
“Everything made now has an IP address. It’s hard to stay current.”
While there have been some concerns about the economy, Blomstrand remains optimistic for the long term. “We are cutting back for the immediate future. The mood within the company is good, and we see the current situation as a temporary one.”
He adds his company is moving forward with new media. “We are streaming, podcasting and have a very strong Internet presence. We are texting with our music station with great success.”
Blomstrand is shopping for new studio equipment but not sending staff to NAB this year. “I have been to the show the last six years running and want a break,” he said. Regarding the proposal for 24/7 staffing, “This will not impact us much since we are staffed 24/7 already but it will certainly hurt the small-market stations.”
Dan Schroeder, chief engineer of KOSU(FM), Oklahoma Public Radio, says his biggest concern is handling the RF, IT and cost issues associated with IBOC installations.
He worries that the current economic situation might impact negatively on HD rollouts.
“I remain very concerned that IBOC will not pay for itself, even with the low-cost licensing for NCEs. In order for HD Radio to catch on, it must be ‘sellable’ and installed as standard equipment in new cars. Dealers are afraid to do that now because of the poor performance of HD2 without an analog backup, like HD1.”
Schroeder isn’t planning equipment purchases this year, but thinks the most important technical trend in broadcast gear is IP connectivity of remote transmitter sites, used for remote control and HD data.
He votes thumbs down on the 24/7 staffing proposal.
“This will impact the bottom line of many NPR automated stations in a very negative way. The minimum wage level of operators we could find to pull the overnight shifts would not be more reliable than the EAS methods we have now.”
In Keene, N.H., Ira Wilner is director of the Saga Communications cluster. He feels the biggest industry challenge is converting both FM and AM stations to HD.
Each medium faces unique challenges, but over time these can be overcome. “FM radio took a long time to take off, as later did FM stereo.”
He adds that four stations in the Keene cluster are broadcasting HD, and Saga Communications as a company is committed to the technology.
An all-digital plant is the most important trend he sees: “The economies of labor, copper and flexibility are huge driving forces.” His wish for manufacturers is that they work as a group to produce single standards for device interoperability, and ensure devices support different protocols.
While there are no formal “green” initiatives at Saga, Wilner notes the company has cut back on paper consumption through the use of copiers that send e-mail and convert paper documents to PDF files.
Saga is developing streaming and interactive Web sites, but holding off on delving into mobile phones.
“With the overall reliability and number of dropped calls, it just doesn’t seem viable.” While some worry that the younger audience has abandoned terrestrial radio in favor iPods, Wilner is quick to point out that “the most sought-after accessory for iPods is an FM tuner.”
Wilner runs a one-man engineering shop in Keene and will not be attending the convention. “I’ve got way too many projects underway.”
Clarence Beverage, a consultant with Communications Technologies Inc., feels the biggest challenge is planning for future technology.
“How do you decide on the best HD transmitter configuration when there is potential for the HD carrier level to be increased? Or how can you effectively increase the station presence and market penetration through streaming and blogs?”
He adds that the outlook for clients is positive despite current economic conditions, and said enthusiasm for HD continues. “Probably the NCE client base adoption is greater than that for commercial stations. The big problem is lack of receiver penetration followed by HD signal that is not as robust as the analog inside the 60 dBu contour.”
Beverage said his company has been working with clients to develop alternative delivery streams, and he believes this will pay good dividends.
“As years pass I think we will see changes in how stations are valued that relate to their ability to tie into alternative methods of program delivery.”
Beverage will be traveling to Las Vegas and has his wish list for NAB in order. “I want to see the latest in HD for FM, and also new solutions for AM digital that we have not fully discussed before. Additionally in the AM field, I’m interested in the FCC adoption of computer modeling and the benefits that will bring to AM directional operation.”
Guiding licensees in how to engage with HD and develop a profitable business model tops the list of challenges for R. Dale Gehman, owner/operator of Gehman Compliance & Consulting of Akron, Pa.
“There is a lot of confusion and apprehension about where things are going.” He feels the most important technical trend of recent years is solid-state transmitters. “They have solved many ongoing problems and deliver much better reliability.”
Gehman has strong opinions about the pitch for 24/7 staffing. “They’re not going about it the right way. The solution is to fix what is wrong with EAS. A fully functional EAS CAP system will provide timely alerts without the need for human intervention, and will be more reliable.”
Bob Culver of Lohnes & Culver Consulting Communications Engineers notes the lack of qualified personnel as a major concern of engineering heads.
“I would think they are worried about getting engineers who actually understand some of the fundamental science and engineering of broadcasting. I hear a lot of strange questions and comments from ‘engineers’ at stations.”
He adds that digital technology is the most important trend, but it hasn’t yet realized its potential.
“The full digital revolution will take place when a few things happen. Specifically, when ‘updates’ to software stop fixing bugs and changing the way a program works, and instead start incorporating new and additional useful operations into the existing base software.”
Stations that are pursuing alternative delivery streams, according to Culver, need to think carefully about the business they’re in.
“There are lots of uses for the digital data stream and it is not to supply the same old programming stuff in Lo-Fi. Give the consumer information he can use. He is already entertained to tears.”