LANHAM, Md. As Radio One celebrates its 25th anniversary, the company is deep into its IBOC conversions. Beginning in 2002, we reported the broadcaster, an early Ibiquity Digital investor, was initially planning to convert five stations in as many markets.
Vice President of Engineering John Mathews, 33, is spearheading that effort and doing more to help keep the company facilities updated and their content relevant to new listeners.
The self-described tinkerer came to radio almost by accident as Radio World News Editor/Washington Bureau Chief Leslie Stimson found when she spoke with Mathews as he was readying to fly to Miami to help finish an AM HD-R conversion in that city.
RW: How far along is Radio One in converting stations to IBOC?
Mathews: Currently we have 21 stations broadcasting in HD. Before the end of this year we’ll have a total of 33 stations. And then over the next two years, we’re planning on converting the rest of our stations, which is 36 stations. …
We put the very first commercially-licensed HD-R station on in Detroit, WDMK(FM). We did seven in our first year  and then we did 12 through the end of 2005. So we had 19 on at the beginning of this year and then we’re going to be doing 14 this year.
RW: Are your stations multicasting, or, if not, are there plans to?
Mathews: We’re not doing multicasting yet. The plan is that we’ll have all the infrastructure in place to have at least six stations multicasting by the end of this year in six key markets. … We’re still working internally to figure out the best way to utilize these HD2 signals to get our content out.
RW: Radio One is not a member of the alliance, yet the group is a long-time proponent of IBOC.
Mathews: One of the reasons we didn’t join the alliance was simply because it didn’t make sense, based on the fact that we have very niche audiences. … They didn’t want stations broadcasting HD2 that didn’t really cover the entire metro. They actually had a system of metrics that determined two things: where you’re positioned and the ability to pick a format and … whether or not you could be on at all with HD2.
In theory, if you joined the alliance and you had a signal that didn’t cover the market very well, you couldn’t even put on HD2. … The point is they want to make sure the market is saturated with only quality HD2 signals so we get launched on the right foot, because we don’t want the consumers to be disappointed in the quality of the signal. …
Since we cover very niche parts of the market, then it’s okay because our listenership will receive a quality signal everywhere.
RW: What are you learning as you do these conversions?
Mathews: What I’m learning is that the equipment manufacturers are making very big strides in sort of perfecting the approach. They were new to it just like the rest of us. The initial beta releases of everything were not exactly the most intuitive and most well thought-out setups. But as time has gone on, everybody is starting to impress me with the simplicity and the amount of work and effort that they’ve put into making these setups more robust and more user-friendly and less prone to failure. …
RW: Some stations are using filters to reduce spurious emissions. Are you running into those kinds of situations?
Mathews: At least with Harris hardware, I’ve had a lot of luck with not really running into that too much. … But typically, it’s a site-by-site evaluation, and if you’ve got a signal out of a station out in the middle of nowhere, I’ve not had a lot of trouble with the hardware creating spurious emissions. But when you’ve combined your hardware and three or four other radio stations in near proximity, then I start seeing some issues. We typically deal with that by putting in bandpass filters and things like that.
RW: Please ballpark your conversion costs, per station.
Mathews: That’s totally driven by the kind of station. I would say for a Class A, on the low end, where we’ve already got a solid-state transmitter and all we’re doing is linearizing the transmitter, and buying an exciter — we’re probably talking $75,000 for the easiest install.
For the high end, we’re probably talking quarter-of-a-million dollars to $300,000, because for a full C, you’re doing high level combining, you’re buying combiners, you’re upgrading your mechanical. The digital transmitter alone that can create enough RF to make that work for a full Class C is over $100,000 anyway. So we can easily spend $250,000 on a big conversion.
From a fiscal perspective, market size and costs have driven my selection criteria so that I can spread it out evenly over the four years. …
RW: Do you have a team of people that does the conversions?
Mathews: We paid a little bit extra, per install, to have Harris send in a couple of technicians to help with these conversions. But I can tell you, having done several myself, that it has really become very intuitive. Especially for the Class As and some of the middle range.
It’s really not that complicated or labor-intensive. You just have to really plan and organize everything in advance. …
RW: Are you upgrading studios at the same time?
Mathews: We typically build out two markets a year where we’re actually moving to new facilities because we’re running off a bunch of old leases … and at that point upgrading all the equipment to digital. We’ve probably done between 10 to 12 markets since I’ve been here — top to bottom buildouts.
(The company is upgrading to digital studios at its Lanham, Md., headquarters, and Radio World has previously reported the corporate offices’ plan to move to downtown Washington.)
RW: How are you handling the delay between the analog and digital signals? Ibiquity wants all HD-R stations to do it and not all of them are.
Mathews: Ibiquity’s position is either delay or don’t bother being on, because there’s no point on being HD if you’re not going to delay your analog, because then the listeners have a horrible HD experience. …
Everywhere we’re in HD we’re delaying and what we’ve done is installed silent sensors for notification issues. …
Usually we tie them to a remote control; they call the engineer. They actually find out faster that way than they would with a jock.
We had already gone through the profanity delay process [using Symetrix gear] before the HD process. So it really isn’t a big transition for us because we’re already delaying just about every station we’ve got by 10 to 12 seconds. Typically we take the headphone feed — the program feed — and we process it so the on-air talent can hear processed audio in their headphones, but delayed audio.
RW: What are your thoughts about whether or how AM should go digital at night?
Mathews: I think there are problematic issues. The long and short of it is a lot of AM stations, just like FMs, have been getting reception in areas where they aren’t really technically protected. … But, at some point … they’re going to have to give up what they’ve been sort of getting for free all this time anyway, that sort of non-protected listening area. …
RW: Because AM has to go digital at night. …
Mathews: It’s one of those things where everybody is saying, “It can’t happen.” And I’ve said this from the beginning on HD, none of this is a question of “If,” it’s a question of “When.”
RW: Do your listeners notice when you go digital?
Mathews: They have no concept unless they have an HD Radio. As I mentioned with our HD2 strategy we’re still doing the internal strategy on the HD primary promotion. We’re big about cross-platform advertising and utilizing all of the Radio One interests. We have TV One, Syndication One … we’ve got a lot of products.
So we’re trying to come up with the best strategy to tie all of this together, including HD2, primary HD and everything so that when we start promoting it, it will have the most bang for the buck.
(Company President/CEO Alfred Liggins recently said on a conference call to analysts that Radio One is buying HD Radios to use as giveaways.)
RW: When do you think the whole strategy will come together?
Mathews: Probably Q4 of this year. Because we’re going to have the HD2 stations available … and the ability to deliver that additional content. …
RW: How is the engineering group at Radio One structured?
Mathews: I’m the vice president of engineering and I have a director of engineering as well who is in Cincinnati [John Soller]. He’s kind of the number two guy and deals with a lot of the operational stuff.
We’re staffed very lean. Each market, typically, has a chief and an assistant chief. Their staffed based on their individual skills. Usually, if I’ve got a chief who’s strong in studio and RF skills then I’m going to try to hire an assistant who’s got strong IT skills. We’ve got a lot of really talented guys.
RW: How do you handle equipment purchase decisions?
Mathews: Pretty much everything comes out of corporate. We keep pretty tight reign on the purse strings. We go through a pretty complicated Cap X budgeting process at the end of each year. But then we re-approve everything on a per-quarter basis during the year. …
RW: What’s a ballpark figure for the annual engineering budget?
Mathews: For the entire company? It’s got to be a few hundred grand a market. Including salaries, tower leases, electricity. … So $200,000 times 20 is $4 million. …
RW: Getting to other technologies that are competitors, I noticed recently that Apple said several U.S. automakers are going to start offering iPod adapters as in-dash equipment. Does that have the potential to outpace HD Radio?
Mathews: No, I think ultimately what you’re dealing with here is that delivery methodology to the consumer is going to become a commodity. Basically everything out there, RF signals, cellular … is going to basically become not that impressive to own.
What it’s going to become is that content is king. So all the broadcast owners and broadcasters have to stay focused on staying ahead of that curve by developing the best content and by utilizing HD and HD2 and the data potential for HD, using those to come up with clever ways to deliver this content to the listener. As long as we stay ahead of that, and it stays free, I think that [radio] will never go away. …
RW: How did you get into radio?
Mathews: I was in college studying biomechanical engineering and was getting pretty close to finishing that degree and I decided I didn’t want to do that anymore. I just left. Biomechanical engineering is the mechanical design of artificial prosthesis, like hip joints.
RW: Where were you?
Mathews: I was attending the University of Alabama in Birmingham. I had always been a tinkerer, a technology guy. I moved to Panama City, [Fla.], just to take a break from education. …
I got a job selling background music systems at resorts. I was in Tallahassee, Fla. removing an SCA Muzak dish from a full powered Class C station, [WGLF]. A local guy said that the chief engineer had recently been promoted to general manager and they needed a chief engineer. …
I got on board there, but unfortunately, the guy who was supposed to be my mentor, the GM, left two weeks later. I told them I wanted to do the gig but that I needed help.
For the next three years, I probably went to every school imaginable, from transmitter schools, audio design schools to tower climbing schools. …
RW: And then where did you go?
Mathews: WGLF(FM) in Tallahassee for three-and-a-half years. Then I went to Birmingham, Ala., working for H&P Radio, which was then bought by Cox Radio. The stations were WBHK and WBHJ. H&P stood for Heftel and Palmer, Cecil Heftel and Carl Palmer. …
I was there for about three-and-a-half years and then I got the job with Radio One. I moved to Atlanta for Radio One in 2000 (as DOE) and in 2001 moved up to Washington.
RW: Do you have an unusual story to share?
Mathews: I went down and did volunteer work to help out radio stations after Hurricane Katrina. The building had no air conditioning and the windows weren’t blown out so we [Mathews and Soller] literally had to cut out the office windows … just to have air in the building. We had to carry the 1,000-watt generator up to the 12-story roof. You couldn’t leave it on the ground because it would have been stolen.
RW: What stations were you helping?
Mathews: KNOU(FM) in Empire, was primarily one of the ones we helped. … The 1,000-foot tower that he was on, only 300 feet was left of it — standing. But the 700 feet that was gone was not at the base of the tower. …
On the way to the transmitter site, we had to get police escort into the parish that was south of the city. The sergeant we had to talk to asked us to make sure that we had a gun and other stuff before we went any further. We had to drive around coffins that were in the middle of the road. …
RW: What’s the most unusual or funny engineering situation you’ve had to handle?
Mathews: When I worked at Muzak I got a call from a place in Appalachia called National Forest. It was a restaurant. They said the satellite dish wasn’t working. So I got there and climbed up on the roof and there were about a thousand green tree frogs hanging out on the dish to bake in the sun.
They were all stuck to the dish and it wouldn’t work. … You spray Pam [cooking spray] on dishes up here [in Washington] to keep snow from collecting on them. So I sprayed it on there after I scraped all the frogs off, and they immediately started to try and jump back up.
So they’d go “Spoo” and then they’d slide off. I must have sat there and watched that for an hour just for the sheer entertainment value, to watch these poor frogs try to jump up on this dish and then slide off.