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A Cool Stuff Judge Talks

Next issue we'll tell you all about products that won the 2006 Radio World "Cool Stuff" Awards at NAB this spring.

Next issue we’ll tell you all about products that won the 2006 Radio World “Cool Stuff” Awards at NAB this spring. Early birds already know the winners; you can see the list for yourself on our Web site.

The award means a product was selected by a panel of anonymous radio engineers and experts as notable for its design, features, cost efficiency and performance in serving radio users.

The selection of winners raises questions each year, usually from companies that didn’t win. This time around I thought I’d let one of this year’s anonymous judges address the most common questions I hear.

What should readers know about how the awards are chosen?

“The key word describing the Cool Stuff judges is experience – deep experience. But just as the range encompassed by radio technology is continually expanding, so too are the CS judges and their respective backgrounds. This year’s judges included one with serious production chops, one with an IT bent, one from the network engineering management sphere, and, of course, a number of highly experienced station chiefs from both commercial and public radio.

“As you might expect, they each nominate different products from the show floor and lobby the others for their votes, which are hard-won. Some judges bring only a handful of products, while others present a long list. But surprisingly, from such a diverse group, there are typically a few products that all – or nearly all – of the judges commonly nominate. These are the easy, quick awardees. Then the wrangling begins on the other items. During that process, it’s interesting to watch how the mutual respect for one other’s field of expertise kicks in.

“For example, if a production guy was trying to pitch the RF crew on some new transmitter, it probably wouldn’t pass. But if he were to get all gushy over some new microphone or effects unit, the RF contingent would generally support him, or at least not oppose. Generally, the other judges are all satisfied by the question to the supporters of ‘Would you buy this for your own facility’s use?’

“What I find appealing about the Cool Stuff process is that there are no categories like ‘Best New Audio Processor,’ or any limit to the number of awards given each year. The winners are simply the new products that strike the judges as being ‘cool.’ To these judges, cool means innovative and/or more cost-effective, more useful or somehow otherwise breaking new ground over previous practice.

“It’s pretty likely that RW readers will agree on the coolness, and everyone will probably find at least one of each year’s winning products applicable and desirable to his or her work in the industry.

“There are some strict guidelines, though, and the judges all take these very seriously – sometimes to the point of argument. They include the requirement that these products are real, appropriately priced and either available or will be so within the next several months.

“Occasionally a product that seemed ready and award-worthy at a given NAB will not have shipped by the next year’s show, and the judges note this with fervor – and with an elephant’s memory. Late arrivals and no-shows are permanently etched on the Cool Stuff ‘Wall of Shame,’ and they redouble the judges’ efforts to sniff out the vaporware during their subsequent deliberations.

“We may not find every deserving product out there; that gets harder each year. But we try to do our best to find the coolest new things we can at each NAB show for the readers.”

Are the judges influenced by advertising considerations?

“No, other than being made aware of a product they didn’t know about through other means, by an ad that they saw before or at the show. But the question of whether a product under consideration is or might become a subject of advertising in RW absolutely never enters the judges’ minds.

“They are all end-users of the products, not sales people, so their brains aren’t even wired to think that way. That’s also why RW staff does not participate in the judging.”

How come one company might win several awards and another not one?

“There used to be a rule about one award per company per year, but as mergers and acquisitions have proceeded in our industry, like many others, this seemed unfair – particularly if two unrelated products that happened to be under the same corporate roof both seemed worthy on a given year.

“Nevertheless, there’s still an awareness of the appearance of favoritism when this happens, which is something that the judges really want to avoid. So when a company wins more than one award, it really indicates the judges felt strongly that these products were all quite worthy, since they were held to a somewhat higher standard as a result.

“By the same token, if a company didn’t win any awards, it simply means that none of their new offerings met the bar that the winners set that year. There are no company-oriented biases in this group – it’s all about the products.”

What trends or interesting angles do you see, when you look over this year’s winners as a whole?

“Well, as I said earlier, the awards are always pretty diverse, and this year’s no exception. But if I were to look for any common threads, I’d say there’s always some nod toward the ‘better-faster-cheaper’ trend. There’s also a general appreciation of increasing levels of integration, adaptive or ‘smart’ systems and other things that make engineers’ lives easier and allow their time to be spent more efficiently.

“This year there are also some specific trends indicating a maturation of HD Radio, with ‘next-gen’ systems implementing the Ibiquity Exgine approach, and a proliferation of processing, monitoring and control systems optimized for HD.

“Also, this year I saw the start of a refreshing movement back to serious concern for sonic quality. As HD Radio emerges, terrestrial broadcasters are realizing they have a potential advantage over satellite in the area of audio fidelity – including surround – and the industry’s responding with tools that can leverage this.”

Some people think you shouldn’t be anonymous. Why not state who is on the panel?

“It’s kind of like restaurant reviewers maintaining their anonymity. You want to get the same experience that anyone else would. In the case of Cool Stuff judges, many of them are already well known as individuals to vendors anyway so they’re probably already getting some special attention. But you don’t want to be lobbied hard for the award per se – you just want to hear the pitch for a potential sale of the product, like any other prospective customer.

“I should also note that the makeup of the panel changes somewhat from year to year, so even if a vendor knows – or thinks he or she knows – someone that’s a judge one year, that person might not be a judge next time.”