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Radio Ranger Rides Into Sunset

SBE honors Minnesota’s Steve Brown, who retires after a career of 40+ years

The Society of Broadcast Engineers named Steve Brown — aka the Radio Ranger — as the 2017 Robert W. Flanders SBE Engineer of the Year.

Steve Brown plans on spending much of his retirement with one of his favorite pastimes, hiking the trails of Minnesota and Wisconsin.

The award is presented to a member who has excelled while furthering the mission of the society. A member for his entire 40-year career, Brown served on the SBE National Board of Directors during the 1980s. He is also a former Chapter 17 chairman and has held CBRE and CBNT certifications. He has recently retired or, as SBE put it in its announcement, hung up his test leads.

Brown’s earliest experiences with electronics involved getting his amateur radio license. He began his career in broadcasting in 1964, when he visited a local station and was fascinated by the big tubes in the 1 kW transmitter. He soon began work at the station as a disc jockey.

‘‘It was a good experience,’’ he said, ‘‘because I saw the equipment from the perspective of the end user, and gained an understanding of how and why things had to work reliably and efficiently.’’

Brown served in the Air Force from 1968 to 1972, working in media relations. After departing the service, he was employed as a contract engineer in the Des Moines, Iowa, area. Then in 1977 he was hired as chief engineer of WWTC in the Twin Cities; two years later, Brown signed on as CE of WLTE(FM) in Minneapolis, where he stayed until 2004.

During his time at WLTE, Brown supervised two studio moves, and did some innovative projects with Basic Stamps, small microcontrollers with a specialized BASIC interpreter built into the ROM.

‘‘Early ISDN equipment was not always user-friendly,’’ he recalls. ‘‘Ours was used both for remote broadcasts and production, necessitating some codec reconfiguration and audio switching. I set up the Basic Stamp to configure the ISDN for remotes, with a mix-minus from the audio console, or another configuration for production, with output from the production room. The audio was switched with a routing switcher. Everything could be changed by pressing one button.’’

Another Basic Stamp created by Brown utilized sample-and-hold amplifiers to simplify remote metering of phase angle and amplitude measurements from a three-tower directional array.

‘‘The original system utilized six channels on the remote control, it was confusing, and there were numerous operator errors. The Basic Stamp enabled everything to be monitored on one channel of the remote control.’’

In 1986, WLTE replaced its antenna, located on one of the twin towers at the Telefarm site in Shoreview. Brown was one of the first engineers to use a helicopter to make field strength measurements of an FM signal. His first set of measurements documented the signal strength of the old antenna, the second demonstrated the improvements in performance once the new antenna was installed.

The explosive growth of FM broadcasting in the 1970s led Twin Cities stations to seek higher ground for their FMs in order to gain greater coverage.

Since there were no mountains nearby, early efforts focused on skyscrapers and antenna farms. The first attempt was with five stations atop the 52-story IDS building. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but when the stations signed on, the result was massive interference problems for several other stations, including WCCO(FM), where Brown worked. To make things even more interesting, a strike by the local IBEW took place around the same time, meaning Brown and the other engineers had to sit it out for a while.

Along with Dan Reider, George Werl and Mike Gorniak, Brown took numerous field strength measurements to determine why the new site was causing interference. The stations atop the IDS building took turns switching off their carriers to try and determine what combination of signals was causing the interference. It all came down to “receiver-induced third-order intermodulation effects.”

As a result of this study and the ongoing interference, stations on the IDS building were ordered by the FCC to operate at 50 percent power until the problem was resolved.

“That half-power command stayed in effect until the Shoreview FM Group master antenna project lit up in August of 1992, over a decade later,” Brown said.

That master antenna project involved nine FMs pooling resources to relocate on the Fox TV tower in nearby Shoreview. Brown was one of the primary engineers involved in writing specifications for the facility. This time, everything worked like a charm.

In the fall of 2004, Brown moved away from full-time employment and started freelancing. Right away, he noticed that things work a bit differently when you are your own boss.

“You need to get used to creating your own schedule. It’s OK to tell people you can’t work today or you’re not available at a certain time. Unless it’s an off-air emergency, things can usually wait a couple days.’’

One of Brown’s biggest clients was Minnesota Public Radio which, at the time, was building out its HD Radio facilities. All told, he built more than 20 HD stations. He considers it one of the most rewarding parts of his career.

“It was a challenge to harmoniously merge old and new technologies. Usually the process involved moving existing and new equipment into new transmitter buildings. This entailed an understanding both of HD Radio technology and building construction.’’

The list of Brown’s accomplishments also includes involvement in the construction of a seven-tower directional array in Omaha, Neb., and another directional west of the Twin Cities. He worked for Classical South Florida, moving and renovating transmitter sites. Brown, with Mike Hendrickson, also discovered a design defect in RCA 10 kW FM transmitters that caused high levels of RF, which interfered with other equipment at a transmitter site.

During this past year, Brown decided to retire from broadcast engineering, leaving plenty of time for other pursuits. On the top of the list is backpacking and camping, particularly on the trails in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Part of that experience is volunteering to maintain the trails so that other hikers won’t get lost.

Brown also volunteers his time at a local historic farm, where he plays the part of Old MacDonald, giving tours and explaining 19th century farming and farm life to small children.

Reflecting on his long career in broadcasting, Brown said, ‘‘I don’t have all the answers, but I know somebody who does. Success in this business depends to a large degree on knowing how to get the right information. When you network with other people to get the answers, you also learn about a lot of other things along the way.’’

SBE’s awards will be presented during its National Awards Dinner on Oct. 26 at the SBE National Meeting in Denver. The meeting will be held in conjunction with the Rocky Mountain Audio/Video Expo.

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