Mundschenk Helps Radio Build Its Digital Future

Radio World Excellence in Engineering Award recognizes his career of technical achievement
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Russ Mundschenk, right, is the 15th recipient of the award. He’s shown with his son David, a chief engineer for iHeartMedia in Baltimore.

Russ Mundschenk, right, is the 15th recipient of the award. He’s shown with his son David, a chief engineer for iHeartMedia in Baltimore.

Russ Mundschenk is the recipient of the Radio World Excellence in Engineering Award for 2018–19. Recipients of the award represent the highest ideals of the U.S. radio broadcast engineering profession and reflect those ideals through contributions to the industry.

Russ is a senior manager of broadcast engineering for Xperi, which owns and promotes HD Radio digital technology. We selected Russ not only for his 18 years (and counting) of work advancing digital radio in the United States and abroad, but for his full 44 years of service to radio — his work in local radio engineering including Philadelphia and other markets; his early efforts in digital audio, switching and synchronization; his personal love and passion for radio; and his integrity and respect for his peers.

Russ is our 15th annual recipient; he joins a stellar roster of engineers who have been so honored.

TECHIE FROM THE START

Like so many of his colleagues, Russ discovered an early interest in technology. His dad Manuel Mundschenk, known as “Munchie,” ran a hi-fi cabinet shop in Sherman, Conn. (Munchie was described in a 1959 Billboard article as a hi-fi “zealot” and was quoted saying, “Audio has proceeded beyond the point where the woman of the house is satisfied to have a piece of equipment on a shelf with wires dangling from it.”)

So, says Russ, “Even when I was three or four, I had a soldering iron in my hand. I grew up around hi-fi. I had my own little radio station set up.” He was thrilled by the glowing tubes he saw during a childhood visit to the Carmen Hill transmitter site of what was then WGHF(FM) in Brookfield — it eventually became WINE(FM) and then WRKI. For a science fair at Sherman Elementary School, he won prizes by building an electric arc one year and a repulsion coil the next.

“I found an article in a 1940s Popular Science that showed how to make a repulsion coil. ‘Hey, this thing is cool. You get a one-foot-square aluminum plate and you can levitate it and it throws rings into the air.’ I contacted one of the local transformer manufacturers, and said, ‘Hey, guys, you got any transformer laminations?’ I slapped all them together and shellacked each one. I actually got them to wind the darn thing for me. … All the lights dimmed in the house when I turned it on, but it was a real trip.”

His high school interest in Citizen’s Band radio brought him together with future fellow engineer Tom Osenkowsky.

“He was at one end of Candlewood Lake, I was at the end of the other; we were both on our CB radios. He was an only child, I was an only child; he went to Brookfield High, I went to New Milford High.” Osenkowsky would become a friend until his death last year.

Russ then spent time at the radio station at Western Connecticut State College; he obtained his First Class Phone; and he got a job for a while at WLAD(AM) in Danbury, tending its Harris System 90 automation. “Programming back in those days involved pushing sliders up and down for the carousel cart machines and making sure that the tapes were changed on time,” he recalls.

The early professional years brought a flurry of gigs as he learned his craft. Having switched schools to the University of Bridgeport, he took a part-time gig as assistant engineer at WMMM and WDJF, then a full-time job at WNTY, a two-tower daytimer on 990; then a job for the WADS cluster of stations in Willimantic, where he learned from engineers Peter Gowen and Terry Smith.

After school, moving to Florida, he worked for Palmer Communications as assistant chief of WCVU and WNOG in Naples, and then WINK(AM/FM/TV) in Ft. Myers, where he was chief of radio before returning to Connecticut to be chief engineer at WKCI and WAVZ in New Haven.

NICE AND EAZY

It was in Philadelphia that Russ Mundschenk settled in, finding a job with legendary radio owners David Kurtz and Jerry Lee as the chief engineer of FM station WEAZ “EAZY 101.”

“It was like, ‘Okay, it’s beautiful music. Maybe nobody really wants to deal with beautiful music [but] I don’t care what their format is.’” The easy listening station was a smash success in that time period, making lots of money and consistently enjoying ratings successes as it battled for top ratings with news outlet KYW in one of the nation’s largest media markets. It remained popular in its later iteration as WBEB “B101.”

“I’ve got to credit Dave and Jerry as giving me pretty much free rein there,” he said. “It was really great working for an independent station and Jerry Lee; he was just the best, as was Dave Kurtz. Our family became very good friends with the Kurtzes, and it was just a terrific environment and a really good experience for me.”

Having an early adopter personality, Mundschenk spent part of his 17 years at the station exploring digital technology. It was one of the first in the country, perhaps the first, to install digital consoles and to explore digital switching and synchronization.

Digital radio has long been an interest for Mundschenk, seen here at far right in the third row, next to WBEB co-owner Dave Kurtz, in a photo from Radio World in the 1990s.

Digital radio has long been an interest for Mundschenk, seen here at far right in the third row, next to WBEB co-owner Dave Kurtz, in a photo from Radio World in the 1990s.

“We used the Zaxcom console, which was being sold by Harris Corp. I did a lot of work with that, I even wrote the manual on it. At the time, it was a single radio station, so we had a production room, an air studio and a voice studio. I just loved the versatility that the digital format, not to mention the audio quality, afforded.”

I asked him what the concept of digital really meant to radio people at the time.

“I don’t know whether broadcasters had really gotten their teeth around it,” he said. “Broadcasters are not known for adopting new technologies real quickly — ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ In fact, I don’t know whether building these digital studios really made Jerry Lee any more money. It gave him and me some press; to a certain extent, it helped out the announcers and made their work a little bit easier.”

He also recalls experimenting with automation systems during that time period.

“It seems like we tried every kind of commercial system known to man, from carts to a floppy disk, a 13 megabyte floppy disk-based system, which didn’t last too long; then to playing CDs, and then the hard drive system, a DCS [Computer Concepts’ Digital Commercial System] implementation.”

When the company acquired WFIL in Philly, the team rebuilt that AM transmitter facility, added studios and implemented a Media Touch Automation system, using DCS for the commercials and Sony multi-CD changers for the Music.

DIGITAL ALL DAY LONG

During this time Mundschenk became close with another of Philadelphia’s legendary radio people, engineer Glynn Walden, who worked at KYW(AM) and had become a driving force in Project Acorn, a multi-company effort seeking to find an in-band on-channel (IBOC) digital broadcasting solution for the U.S. radio industry. Eventually CBS and Gannett established USA Digital Radio, joined soon after by Westinghouse, efforts that eventually led to the HD Radio system.

“We used to go out to lunch at least once a month; we really got to be good buds,” he said of Walden. “Every show I’d walk up the Acorn booth and Glynn would go, ‘Guess what, we’ve got a chip that can receive a signal out of the noise. It’s like 20 dB below the noise.’ Glynn was very excited about this technology; he certainly got me excited about it.”

Around that time USADR hired a number of people from the broadcast industry, including Jeff Detweiler, Tom Walker and Pat Malley. Mundschenk, sensing an opportunity to move his career forward, accepted a position as field test and implementation manager.

That decision has put him in the middle of two decades of industry technical change and adoption, even as USADR became iBiquity and then eventually part of Xperi Corp.

“I’ve done a lot of field testing, analysis of field testing, analysis of allocations and an awful lot of work in ComStudy to do propagation prediction — determine where the signal should work and where it wouldn’t. Then you go out in the field and you try different modes.”

He’s been involved with numerous test scenarios over those 18 years — the AM and FM IBOC National Radio Systems Committee standard and evaluation program; tests of FM IBOC higher-power levels with NAB; nighttime tests of AM IBOC with the NRSC; tests of FM asymmetric sidebands; tests of all-digital on the FM band in both the U.S. and Norway; tests of AM all-digital in the U.S.; FM IBOC high-power tests and single-frequency network research; and IBOC testing in Brazil.

On the job in Las Vegas with fellow engineer and former chairman of the National Radio Systems Committee Milford Smith in 2018. “I always kid with Smitty. I think that he has driven in a car with me a greater number of miles than I have with my family. It’s just the same route over and over and over again, trying different power levels, different levels of asymmetry for the IBOC sidebands, different modes.”

On the job in Las Vegas with fellow engineer and former chairman of the National Radio Systems Committee Milford Smith in 2018. “I always kid with Smitty. I think that he has driven in a car with me a greater number of miles than I have with my family. It’s just the same route over and over and over again, trying different power levels, different levels of asymmetry for the IBOC sidebands, different modes.”

Field work, he said, has been a critical part of the digital radio story. “Right from the very beginning, HD Radio has adopted the opinion of doing no harm — to the analog service or anybody else. I like to characterize it as living in an apartment building; you just want to make sure you don’t turn your stereo up high enough to bother the neighbors. Certainly, you want that stereo to be high quality when you’re listening to it in your own room.”

(One of his most memorable moments in the field came before he joined Xperi and took place literally in a field. Working at a Florida transmitter site, he recalls, “My compatriot Bill Maranto said, ‘Russ, don’t move. There’s a bull right behind you.’” Happily, the animal seemed more interested in eating than charging. Russ adds, “Every single broadcast engineer you talk to is going to have a story like this.”)

“DRAMATIC IMPROVEMENT”

The best part of his job is working with top-flight engineers.

“They say that if you play a sport, you should always play with somebody better than you. If I didn’t give you a whole laundry list, I’d be leaving somebody out,” but he does highlight Glynn Walden, Paul Shulins, Jeff Littlejohn and Milford Smith.

Given the decades-long history of IBOC, through both controversy and uptake, what would he want people in the industry to know?

“HD Radio is a very mature technology. It’s certainly has been through the ringer. It’s on 2,500 radio stations around the country. It has the ability to deliver a great variety of programming and data that the analog system just will not do. In today’s environment, for the broadcaster to have the ability to deliver that level of variety is very, very important. One program stream just doesn’t make it anymore.”

He notes that the “great majority” of auto manufacturers are installing HD Radio as standard equipment in their vehicles; and he expresses enthusiasm for the work being done at Xperi with its Connected Radio initiative, which marries the technologies of the IP stream along with any transmission, digital or analog, to provide a richer, metadata-enhanced experience.

Will either band of U.S. radio ever go all-digital? Mundschenk is confident the answer is yes.

“In my opinion, the first band to take advantage of it is going to be the AM band. What we’ve shown — in our testing, and with David Layer’s effort at the NAB to test the all-digital AM system — [is] that the AM signal can be increased at least another third in distance and is much less susceptible to interference. It’s really dramatic improvement.” He mentioned the recent decision by Hubbard Broadcasting’s Dave Kolesar to operate a 4.3 kW AM station in Frederick, Md., in all-digital.

“Its coverage is absolutely amazing. It goes down to the .15, .2 millivolt per meter contour. I think it’s a definite opportunity for AM stations to take advantage of the technology.”

He senses that the FCC would be open to hearing from other stations interested in trying that approach. “The more stations that go on, the more the mode is tested; and the greater chance that it will become our standard mode.”

So what’s next? His work these days involves researching new modes as well as finding ways to implement those that have been accepted but not widely implemented yet.

“The thought originally was that we’re going to start out with this MP1 mode, which has two 70 kilohertz sidebands, which give you 96 kilobits per second of throughput. Then we added multicast to that; and then additional carriers were lit up that gave us another 24 kilobits per second. Then there’s another mode called MP11, which will light up another 24 kilobits per second worth of carriers.”

More recently, Xperi and its partners such as NAB, Beasley and Nautel participated in testing of all-digital on the FM band at KKLZ in Las Vegas. If the United States isn’t ready for all-digital on the FM band yet, he says, at least the idea will have been vetted.

Digital radio testing has taken Mundschenk abroad several times, including this trip to Oslo in June 2014.

Digital radio testing has taken Mundschenk abroad several times, including this trip to Oslo in June 2014.

And there are some new transmission modes on the horizon. “These modes will be partially backward compatible, they will fall back to a mode that an older receiver can receive; [but] newer receivers are going to be able to receive additional data and audio. This is really cool, because that means the receivers can be specifically designed to receive these new services.

“What we’re giving the broadcaster is additional capability.”

TREMENDOUS OPPORTUNITY

Russ Mundschenk remains a proponent for forging ahead and trying new things. Reflecting on his career, he recalls a tip from consulting engineer Dean Sargent, while they were working to put up a new antenna at WEAZ in 1984.

“Dean spoke his mind. I got a real good chance to talk to Dean about a lot of different things. During one of our discussions, he says, ‘Russ, just remember one thing: It’s always easier getting forgiveness than permission.’”

He is now 63; somewhere Munchie must be proud of his kid. Now comes a third generation of tech heads. Russ and Becky have been married for 33 years, and he credits her with being so supportive of his career. And while their elder son Eric works in the food distribution business, younger son David Mundschenk, still in his 20s, is the chief engineer of iHeartMedia’s four-station Baltimore cluster. By all accounts, David loves working in radio engineering.

Still, I wondered if Russ would encourage young people generally to take up this business. “Absolutely,” he replied. “It might not be the career that I had. It might be a totally different career. Broadcasting can be defined in many different ways. It can be an over-the-air signal. It could be an IP signal. There are going to be a lot of options in the future. Whatever happens, there is certainly a tremendous opportunity for the younger generation.”

He does feel broadcasters have an obligation to educate the younger generation; and he praised iHeartMedia for its creative internal efforts to help employees like son David gain more managerial and technical experience.

It’s also obvious in his conversation that Russ Mundschenk is a proud papa.

“There was one day about five or six years ago, I was watching my son soldering an XLR or something. I said to him, ‘David, where did you learn how to do that?’ He said, ‘By watching you, Dad.’

“I guess the baton has been passed, or something like that,” Mundschenk says. “[But] don’t think for a second that your kids aren’t watching what you’re doing.”

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