One in a series of occasional articles about radio engineers.
WASHINGTON — David Sproul proudly sports the company ID badge that bears his start date in 1973 at the engineering department of WMAL(AM) in Washington.
(click thumbnail)David Sproul in the WJZW(FM) control room
His 30 years of dedication were rewarded in June when Sproul was named chief engineer for ABC Radio Group’s Washington cluster of WMAL, WJZW(FM) and WRQX(FM).
“I started at WMAL the day after I received my college diploma, so it’s the only job I’ve known as a grownup,” he said. “I attribute my success here as much to not making enemies as to making friends. I think that is an important part of advancement … not making people angry.”
Beginning as a board operator, Sproul worked his way into an engineering maintenance position by 1980 and was named chief engineer for WRQX and WJZW in 1999.
“The appointment as chief for the entire cluster was more or less an effort to tidy up the chain of command. What started out as just a job 30 years ago has turned into much more,” Sproul said.
Sproul reports to Clay Steely, vice president of engineering for ABC’s owned and operated radio stations.
FROM DUMP TRUCK TO RADIO
The 53-year-old Sproul was born and raised in Staunton, Va., not far off the Appalachian Trail. He can recall receiving a dump truck for his fifth birthday and immediately telling his parents he was going to convert it into a radio.
“I thought I could figure out how to do it. The headlights were going to be the knobs and the grille was going to be a speaker. I guess I had an early interest in radio,” he said.
His first radio job was on air at WTON(AM) in Staunton.
“I hosted a Saturday night Top 40 show throughout high school. It was a full-service AM station with only a small box of records they kept around for my show,” Sproul said. “I was paid $7 a show.”
He used that money to buy half-hours of flight instruction at the local airport and received his multi-engine rating before he graduated from high school. He occasionally still flies a rented Cessna 182 “just for the fun of it.”
It was at WTON that his interest turned from being on the air to working on equipment, he said, spending much of his board op duties actually reading owners’ manuals and “wondering why things were as they were.”
“The former chief engineer at the station was so jealous of his turf that he wouldn’t let us touch a thing, which only piqued my curiosity. Just to flummox the guy, we would occasionally remove things from the rack and crawl through, and then put it back in. Then we would surprise him when he unlocked the door.”
MEDICAL SCHOOL OR RADIO?
After graduating from Staunton Military Academy in 1968, Sproul enrolled at Randolph-Macon College near Richmond, Va., with the intention of following in the footsteps of his father by becoming a medical doctor. However, the first rejection letter from medical school immediately convinced him to view radio as an option.
“My degree is in biology, so I was on the medical school track. But I had invested so much into broadcasting by that time that it seemed a natural alternative,” he said.
Sproul recalls wearing wearing a seersucker suit and bow tie when he interviewed with longtime WMAL Chief Engineer J.B. McPherson at the station’s transmission facility, in nearby Bethesda, Md.
“J.B. wanted to know if I had an aptitude with tools, so he asked that I fix a fluorescent light fixture in his office. I put a new ballast in the fixture, and ya know, that light is still working,” Sproul said.
Sproul now supervises a staff of four engineers, three of whom are National Association of Broadcast Engineers and Technicians studio engineers whose job it is to oversee WMAL programming.
“Rick King and I are the only engineers on staff taking care of all technical matters. Rick is a very strong maintenance guy for WMAL. He’s been here nearly as long as I have. We are able to outsource some repairs to manufacturers and outsource some other help to consultants.”
USING CASH MACHINE
Sproul said the higher level of studio competence provided by the NABET studio engineers is necessary because WMAL uses Prime Image’s Cash machine during national programming such as Dr. Laura and Rush Limbaugh. Cash allows a station to add advertising inventory by squeezing in additional minutes of commercial availability without affecting the pitch of the audio.
“Cash can be a bit disruptive. Some people object to the jolt of sorts you get going back into the national shows. It’s noticeable when you’re trying to gain a couple of minutes per hour. In the end, it’s important to realize that it’s financially justified and an important source of revenue for the station,” Sproul said. “However, from an engineer’s standpoint, we regret the downside.”
Sproul said he still has some reservations about the broadcasting industry’s conversion to HD Radio, even though he’ll oversee ABC’s plans to convert the two Washington FMs to in-band, on-channel digital audio broadcasting next year.
“On fairly short notice, we have put money in the 2004 budget to do IBOC. It’s wait and see for WMAL with the iBiquity PAC compression algorithm doubts,” he said. “[WMAL] could be problematic because it’s a four-tower directional AM.”
“I’m excited about the program-associated data capabilities that are projected, although I think overall and in every other way, [IBOC] is a big technological bite to swallow. With the necessity of blending analog and digital back and forth, the opportunity to clean up the audio demonstrably seems impossible.”
The Northwest Washington facility of the three stations is on the fourth floor of the Jennifer Mall office building near the Mazza Gallerie shopping complex. He describes the facility as “humble” but with a lot of heritage.
“Thirty years in the same place means a lot of abandoned wire in the ceiling. There’s a bit of a gag of unmarked Beldfoil up there,” Sproul admitted, “and only an engineer could enjoy lifting a tile out or ripping up carpet and seeing signs of where an office wall used to be and how the rooms were divided up in the old days. It’s a bit of radio anthropology … we’ve been here long enough it seems that way.”
As part of his responsibilities for the physical plant, Sproul makes sure paint codes for offices are observed and repairs are done with the correct materials.
“I also supervise the tenant improvement money that will be spent as part of our lease renewal. I enjoy doing it so they let me,” he said.
The three stations use Scott Studios audio management systems, Sproul said, and there is a “flock” of auxiliary studios for WMAL.
“There are eight studios of one kind or another of different vintages. They’re geared with everything from 25-year-old McCurdy consoles to brand-new Wheatstone mixers,” he said. “The McCurdys were wonderful consoles when they were new, but they have gone way beyond their depreciation cycle. I’m often left wondering what will happen to them next!“
NEW THIS SUMMER
Sproul is overseeing a WRQX project this summer that will have the station feeding a new Dielectric Communications panel antenna at a transmission site about a half-mile from the studios.
“We are joining the Clear Channel stations on the antenna. It has been complicated politically, but it will give WRQX a tremendous boost in coverage into Northern Virginia.”
Sproul said he has worked for five general managers and seen numerous programmers come and go over 30 years. He has developed a tremendous amount of loyalty to the most unassuming of employees.
“I have respect for the people who clean this place and take so much pride in their work. The people who run our traffic department are as conscientious as anyone I’ve ever met. I’ve learned the job description does not imply the quality of the person doing the job. I’m grateful to people who can take an ordinary job description and turn it into something more and do it day in and day out.”
Sproul lives with his wife Robin, who is Washington News Bureau chief for ABC TV, in Bethesda, Md. The couple has two daughters, Cathryn, who is attending Harvard, and Anna, who starts this fall at Columbia University.