Pubcasters Work on Digital Changes

Public radio seeks to optimize the digital coverage area of its stations and is working on ways to do that.
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Public radio seeks to optimize the digital coverage area of its stations and is working on ways to do that.

There’s also progress on public radio’s move from a real-time satellite-delivered program distribution system to a subscription-based system.

These are among current topics of attention among public engineers and were discussed at this spring’s Public Radio Engineering Conference, which is now jointly presented by NPR Labs and the Association of Public Radio Engineers.
(click thumbnail)APRE members chose this logo design for their year-old organization from among six submitted choices.

HD-R Receiver Reviews Updated

NPR Labs has refreshed its HD-R receiver recommendations, expanding its list of reviews from four to eight.

New are reviews of the RadioShack Accurian tabletop, Radiosophy HD100 tabletop, Directed HD Car Connect adapter and Sangean HDT-1 tuner.

The lab found the Accurian to have “good” FM sensitivity, especially when used with the supplied external “T” antenna, while use of the “single-wire” FM antenna should generally be avoided. The unit has good AM sensitivity when used with the supplied external AM antenna.

Of the Radiosophy unit, NPR Labs found it has “clear, slightly bright” sound quality, though the backlight display can be difficult to read.

The HD Car Connect adapter from Directed Electronics has “excellent FM sensitivity when installed” and “good” AM sensitivity, according to the lab, which said the unit must be carefully grounded to avoid hearing distorted audio.

The Sangean HDT-1 tuner provides “excellent audio quality delivered through line-level stereo outputs.” The lab notes, “Early production units deliver a relatively high audio output level that may overload some amplifiers.”

NPR Labs previously reviewed the Boston Acoustics Recepter Radio HD; Polk I-Sonic HD tabletop; Kenwood KTC-HR100TR and JVC KD-HDR1.

The list was updated in late May; the content is at www.nprlabs.org.

Updated Coverage Maps Planned

NPR Labs still has a lot of data to gather as it tests consumer HD Radio receivers to determine how each station can eke out the largest digital coverage area.

It plans to take up to 478 measurement points on a single receiver, said John Kean, senior technologist of NPR Labs during the PREC. Taking such a high number of coverage measurements for each unit manually isn’t practical, so the lab is writing a software program to determine core information about each receiver, he said.

Some NPR member stations will serve as receiver test beds to verify testing information gleaned by the lab, which also is developing a mobile measurement antenna for the tests.

The point of the testing is to determine each station’s analog and digital coverage areas and look for ways stations can enhance digital coverage, said Kean.

IBOC receiver sensitivity and co-, first-, second- or third-adjacent digital channel interference will be studied. The lab hopes to generate digital coverage maps in August for CPB, which is funding the yearlong Digital Radio Coverage and Interference Assessment study with a grant of about $535,000.

The project involves IBOC receiver performance evaluation, interference analysis, development of a coverage prediction model and coverage mapping for all public radio stations. A report is due to CPB by the end of the year.

The NTIA PTFP mapping project is related to the receiver study; it marks the regular update of public radio coverage. The project involves mapping of current analog coverage of approximately 860 FMs and 650 FM translators.

Public radio would have access to the Web-based, interactive maps. Stations could print maps of their own station coverage area.

This project is also due to be completed by year-end; the Nationwide Service Availability and Vulnerability Study is funded by PTFP at $139,000 and matched by NPR.

‘Don’t Wait for Help’ During Disasters

The bigger the emergency, the greater the certainty that cell phones won’t work when needed — at least according to common wisdom among engineers.

While this adage may be true for voice, it doesn’t necessarily apply to text messaging. So said Karl Fontenot, chief engineer of KRVS(FM), Louisiana, licensed by The University of Louisiana at Lafayette in a PREC panel about disaster preparedness.

Fontenot said cell phone text messaging got through during Katrina while voice channels were jammed. He advises stations to enable text features on employees’ cell phones and instruct them on how to use those features.

He said that while his general manager was out in a boat rescuing people, Entercom officials called Fontenot and asked if the GM could rescue their studio employees. But the GM’s cell phone did not have text capability. “If it had, we would have been able to reach him,” Fontenot said.

Before a disaster, “Ask yourself where you will go and broadcast from, when the studio and tower are no longer functioning.”

Fontenot also advised organizing the station staff into teams so that not everyone is at the set-up site at the same time; as people tire, relief teams will be required.

In a disaster, general services will not be available. “Don’t wait for help. Try to secure your facilities and people.”

Updated ConDep Software Tested

NPR Distribution is testing a new software release intended to fix defects and improve portal performance of the ContentDepot program distribution system.

In May, the network’s Public Radio Satellite System disseminated instructions to member stations on how to locally tune ContentDepot decoders for emergency operations. It also said it was trying to finalize a timetable to complete the remaining fixes required before it can turn off the legacy PRSS distribution system.

While no cutoff date has been identified, PRSS hopes dual operations of the legacy and ContentDepot systems can be ended within six months. Numerous target dates have come and gone as system snafus appeared.

ContentDepot “task forces” of producers and station representatives have been formed to fix some ongoing program production issues including program audio levels; segment and episode lengths and air windows; and live program cueing.

Discussing a station survey about ContentDepot during the PREC, Scott Hanley of WDUQ(FM), Pittsburgh, who also chairs NPR’s Distribution Committee, said, “We learned a lot about what we need to do, what the system is capable of doing and what we should set aside and not try to do now.”

Of the switch to “ConDep,” Hanley said, “We didn’t think it was going to be this hard. It is.”

The next steps, he said, were to publicize recommendations to the station system, solicit feedback and develop a timetable and resources for priority items.

ContentDepot launched last November after a delay of more than two years. The purpose of the system is to streamline how PRSS user stations and producers select, send and automate programming — moving PRSS from a real-time to a subscription-based satellite distribution system.

PREC Honors Creighton, Cassidy, Hetrich

The 2007 PREC Engineering Award winner was Donald Creighton, chosen by his peers in public radio.

The senior vice president of technology for Minnesota Public Radio and American Public Media oversaw the recent upgrade of MPR’s broadcast and production center. He supervised the technical design, vetted the major equipment systems and implemented construction of the new 120,000-square-foot, $43.5 million broadcast center in Saint Paul that includes more than 30 radio spaces.

Creighton, who accepted his award at the PREC Engineering dinner, said he finds new projects a lot of fun. Creighton has implemented HD Radio throughout Minnesota for MPR and at California’s KPCC(FM), Pasadena.

WAMU’s Richard Cassidy received the APRE 2007 award for Meritorious Achievement. Cassidy started broadcasting as a teenager in Los Angeles. At Loyola Marymount University in that same city, he became manager, chief engineer and program director of KXLU, then joined Metromedia in 1966 as chief for stations in San Francisco and Washington.

In 1971, Cassidy joined the newly-formed NPR as chief engineer and later became vice president for engineering. He ran his own broadcast engineering consulting firm for a decade, then joined WAMU in 1997 as director of IT and new media.

Another of NPR’s early employees was honored: the late Wayne Hetrich. Known at NPR as “Mr. Wizard,” Hetrich died at 79 in March. He was one of the original 30 employees of NPR Inc. in 1971.

Hetrich used to walk around NPR performing magic tricks, earning him the nickname. He also received several patents, including one for the Netcue system that allows local stations to record network programming.

Hetrich helped create the Public Radio Satellite System. In the early 1980s when NPR almost went out of business during a financial crisis, the leases garnered by the PRSS allowed NPR to secure the loan that kept it on the air, according to the broadcaster.

The APRE is creating the “Wayne Hetrich Public Radio Engineering Oral History Project.” Organizer Roger Karwoski, assistant general manager and chief engineer of KBIA(FM), Columbia, Mo., said the archive is to be a collection of audio stories about the history of public radio engineering and the people who have contributed to it.

He urges engineers to record their stories about Wayne Hetrich and write to him for delivery instructions at: karwoskir@missouri.edu.

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Pubcasters Focus on Tech Issues

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