My BlackBerry, the Phone Hybrid

How a mobile device, plus some quick thinking, bailed me out
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As an engineer, you must be knowledgeable in many fields of study. You must also be prepared for the unexpected.

However it doesn’t seem to matter how well-trained you may think you are; something extraordinary is likely to come your way, without warning and at no extra charge.

An example presented itself during a recent early-morning, nationally syndicated remote broadcast of “The Tee It Up Show” that I engineered from Moorpark Country Club in Moorpark, Calif., for the Tee It Up Radio Network.

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I drove out to the resort on a Thursday afternoon a few days prior to the broadcast to meet with the client, Leslie Moore, to scout a setup spot and to test our broadcast lines.

I tested both the main broadcast POTS line and the secondary telephone hybrid POTS line. Both worked just fine. I drove away feeling confident that things would run letter-perfect on the morning of the broadcast.

Out of POT luck

Then came 4 a.m. Sunday, broadcast day.

When I plugged my equipment into both lines on the banquet room wall jacks, only one of the POTS lines was active. My immediate thought was to establish the connection to the studio and continue setting up before the hosts of the program arrived; then I could begin the adventure of trying to find another active POTS line at the golf resort.

Once set up for the show, I tracked down Rick Siemons, my contact at the country club, to see if he had insight as to another active POTS line that we could use for calls during the show.

Rick walked me to the far south end of the banquet hall 150 feet away, into a snack bar where golfers could get quick refreshment before tackling the next hole on the course.

In the snack bar near a drive-through-style window were a phone on the wall and another jack below it with a glorious device connected, a credit card machine.

This gave me instant hope of an active POTS line. I immediately plugged in and ran the 150-foot phone cable to my main broadcast table on the far north wall. Once connected, I plugged my phone in.

I heard a non-standard dial tone but when I dialed 9 I could get an outside line. At first I thought this was an analog line off of a PBX system because of the behavior of the dial tone. I soon realized, though, that this was a digital line and would not work.

At that moment the hosts began to arrive. I continued to troubleshoot with growing concern.

I wouldn’t have been too worried if calls were not so important to this program. But if we couldn’t take calls during the live broadcast, the situation would have been bad.

Now it was getting very close to air time, 15 minutes. I continued to look for a good old-fashioned POTS line like Grandma Bell used to make. No such luck.

I informed the hosts of the possibility that we may not be able to take no calls during the show. They didn’t want to think about that possibility and asked that I keep trying.

Shortly, Adam Gottfried, one of the hosts, yelled out that we had three minutes to air.

Smart phone

At that moment I looked down at my broadcast table and my eyes fell on my BlackBerry 9000 sitting on the table. I began to ponder.

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The right channel is audio out from the phone, the left is the return feed (mix-minus) to the caller. It had a 1/8-inch jack on one side, normally used for connecting a wired headset. I didn’t know the pinouts of the jack, but I had an audio cable with a 1/8-inch male TRS connector on one end and two male RCAs on the other end.

I grabbed that cable and two female RCA-to-male TS 1/4-inch adapters. I connected them to the RCA end of the cable.

With the cable assembled, I plugged the 1/8-inch male connector into the side of my BlackBerry. I connected the right-channel 1/4-inch plug into an input on my audio mixer and the left-channel 1/4-inch plug into Aux #1, so I could produce a mix-minus to the caller.

One minute to air, I asked Adam if he would help me perform a test call with me, but it was too late.

Quickly I called a test number from my contact list to verify that I had the left and right cables connected properly. Moments later I heard faint audio, so I believed that I had things rigged right.

Then Adam hit the show’s opening audio piece on his laptop. “Tee It Up” Producer Alex “Foghorn” Fish began to call the first guest on the BlackBerry to put them on hold.

I still didn’t know for sure if using a BlackBerry for phone calls would work sufficiently, but I had no other options.

A couple of minutes later Adam announced that a guest would be on in a minute; then he said, “Let’s bring on Laird Small and let’s see if our phone lines are working.” Small is a well-known golf instructor.

A second later we heard our guest. His level was low at first, so I quickly increased the volume on the BlackBerry. Now he could be heard loud and clear.

Hosts Al and Adam Gottfried were ecstatic and gave me a nice mention on-air. I was excited because everyone was so happy that this last-minute idea had worked. The quality of the calls was as good or better than that of a conventional POTS call, and the system worked for the remainder of calls during the broadcast without a hiccup.

I would recommend bringing along a fully charged BlackBerry or the like to any live remote broadcast — not just for communicating with your studio, but in case you find yourself in a similar predicament. Something to tuck into your pocket — and your toolkit of ideas.

The author is engineering manager of Radio Disney network operations.

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