When experienced radio news reporters are asked to give advice to rookies, invariably those veteran reporters will say something about carrying enough fresh batteries to make sure the news can be gathered. If one does not, the veterans will advise, there is a chance that batteries could deplete too quickly and fail in the middle of a recording.
Believe that; it's certainly happened to me more than a few times. It will happen. Back in the day of big cassette recorders, the backup power meant carrying a brick of C or D batteries (which also meant the person carrying the batteries would get extra exercise — those batteries were heavy!).
As the size of recorders shrunk, so did the size of the batteries required for power. One still had to carry a pocket full of those lighter AA cells. As the recorders became more sophisticated, they tended to deplete batteries faster. Some reporters and producers would and still do change out partially used batteries for new batteries, for every use of a field recorder to compensate. That practice, however, gets expensive.
Reporters in the field have more sophisticated battery-powered equipment than when I entered the business 40 years ago. If an assignment involves coverage of a leading presidential candidate, all of that equipment likely gets used at some point during the assignment. Battery failure is not an option.
That was the experience of Fox News Radio reporter Todd Starnes when he covered the presidential campaign of Sen. Barack Obama in 2008.
Todd usually carries some 35 pounds of equipment in the field. This includes a Comrex codec, HP laptop, cell phone, BlackBerry and a Marantz PMD660 large digital handheld recorder.
He says the Marantz "goes through about a dozen batteries during an extremely busy news day." He uses Duracell ProCell alkaline batteries because they can be bought in bulk and work well in this particular application.
The Radio Road Warrior's Battery Collection As for the rest of his kit, Starnes keeps equipment ready for use with a 25-foot extension cord and power strip, along with an inverter that plugs into a car's 12-volt power outlet and a universal cell phone and BlackBerry charger.
"With the advent of laptops, cell phones and BlackBerrys, it's become really important to make sure I keep them charged 24-7. And it's easy to lose so many chargers so I purchased a universal cellphone and BlackBerry charger at RadioShack."
From my observations, it appears that most reporters use alkaline batteries primarily. A few reporters use rechargeables. I keep one set of 4 AA alkaline cells, and one set of two AA lithium-ion batteries on standby plus a 9 V alkaline battery with my Active Media Cellphone IFB audio interface.
For my audio recorders, I have used Rayovac AA nickel metal hydride (NiMH) rechargeable batteries since 2002 when I tested them for a Radio World product evaluation. One year, I spent just $5 for a pack of AA alkaline batteries, and still managed to spend 26 weeks in the field covering racing and news events. For my Audio-Technica AT897 shotgun mike, I use an Eveready Energizer AA lithium-ion battery. For my Cellphone IFB cellphone interface, I use a 9 V alkaline battery. For my Fuji FinePix A500 digital blog camera I also use rechargeable batteries.
When rechargeables are a primary source of power for equipment, a best practice is to have a backup set of batteries on charge while the primary set is being used. In the case of a Marantz PMD660, that means four in the machine and four on the charger. For a PMD620, a smaller handheld digital recorder, and many other audio recorders, that means two in the machine and two on charge. The 620 can go a little further on batteries. When the cost of two full sets of AA NiMH rechargeables and a charger is compared to the cost of replacing AA batteries over time, the rechargeable battery system will save more money.
All batteries have what's called a "self-discharge rate," which means that, over time, the battery will lose enough voltage and go "dead," even if it is not being used. Lithium batteries (Energizer, for instance) have a very low rate, and perform to their rated capacity longer. Alkaline batteries have a slightly higher self-discharge rate. Rechargeable batteries self-discharge, too. This tendency can be mitigated by keeping the batteries charged up. However, in most cases, one cannot safely recharge an alkaline cell or lithium cell. (In the late 1990s Rayovac marketed a line of alkaline batteries that could be recharged but those products are no longer readily available.)
Ansmann Energy 4 Battery Charger There are two major kinds of rechargeable batteries, the nickel cadmium (NiCd/NiCad) and NiMH batteries. NiCd batteries can be recharged many times, but must be fully discharged before being recharged or else subsequent recharges will diminish the capacity — the so-called "memory effect." NiHM batteries don't suffer from this "memory effect," which means users can recharge the batteries back to rated capacity even if only partially discharged. Higher-capacity NiMH batteries take longer to get to a full charge, so users should look for a battery charger that can charge batteries relatively quickly. Rechargeable batteries will not last forever, and anything with nickel or cadmium needs to be disposed of properly. Those batteries will take much longer to reach the end of their life cycle. In my personal experience, a set of four NiMH rechargeables lasted me five years before they failed to take a charge.
Battery recharge options range from the AC-only models to 12-volt car charger and USB-powered models. Ansmann Energy markets a line of rechargeable batteries and chargers that not only charge batteries quickly, they also condition the battery for longer life by using "float charge" technology. Float charging uses a sensor to monitor the cell so that when they are up to capacity they won't be overcharged — which can damage the electrolytes in the battery.
Ansmann 9 V batteries are used by audio engineers who need to change out batteries in wireless microphone systems before each performance. Nine-volt alkaline and lithium batteries are not inexpensive, so this saves money over time in that application, as well.
The Energy 4 charges four AA or AAA or two 9 V NiMH cells. The company has a 2800 milliamp AA cell that lasts a long time. This observation stems from using a set of two rechargeables in a Marantz PMD620 that were topped off on Nov. 16, 2008. The recorder was used to record a full-blown 90-minute news conference and one-on-one newsmaker event with six newsmakers on Dec. 4, before the 620 showed a low battery indicator.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the question, "What battery option is right for me?" For someone who takes a recorder into the field once or twice a year, that person could likely get by on one set of alkaline batteries. When one brings a full load of sophisticated equipment and uses most or all of that equipment in a day's work, that deployment calls for a little planning by engineering and management before the reporter rolls out the door.
Our next column takes a look at solving some of the little problems that plague us road warriors, like power sources, keeping our equipment dry in inclement weather, and lightening our loads without giving up flexibility. Your suggestions for this and other future columns are always appreciated.
Paul Kaminski is the news director for the Motor Sports Radio Network, a contributor for CBS News Radio, and a Radio World contributor and columnist since 1997. His e-mail address firstname.lastname@example.org.