At least a decade has passed since information technology began to make big inroads into the broadcast plant. Initially on the periphery of operations, IT has grown in importance to become the core infrastructure for most stations.
As the technology has matured, so has the role of the IT manager. We spoke with several managers of IT technology about the past, present and future of broadcast information technology and the people who oversee it.
At the outset, most larger radio operations had traditional broadcast engineering and computers/IT set up as different departments.
“In the early days, IT managers were involved with setting up e-mail accounts, helping users format floppy discs and troubleshoot issues related to Microsoft Word,” said Jeremy Schumacher, manager of newsroom computer systems for Westwood One. He said computers started out as a tool to support administrative operations and have gradually come to constitute both the infrastructure and the automation tools that run the broadcast plant.
Schumacher said the daily challenges of the IT manager involve keeping the system up and running. “It’s analogous to what broadcast engineers used to do with transmitters.”
David Julian Gray, senior architect of content systems for National Public Radio, agrees: “Maintaining a system with high availability 24/7/365 is paramount. Users expect immediate playback of audio files, usually within 100 ms.”
Storage of content is an ongoing challenge. Gray said Moore’s Law — the observation by Intel’s Gordon Moore in 1965 that the number of devices inside chips was doubling every year — applies to storage capacity as well as processing power. While storage-area networks (SANs) have grown in capacity, user expectations are growing faster than a system’s ability to keep up.
“A reporter may do a 2-1/2-hour interview,” said Gray, “and use 30 seconds of that in a report. He or she still wants the system to store the entire recording.” He said an upcoming issue is providing the user with the perception of unlimited storage.
Robby Mossman, director of IT for Greater Media Boston, sees a dual nature in his daily responsibilities.
“On the engineering side, making sure the AudioVault is functioning properly and the HD Radio systems talk to each other as well as the rest of the infrastructure is key. The business side entails setting up e-mail accounts and making sure Web sites run efficiently.” He said the non-engineering aspects of IT consume the majority of his time at Greater Media.
The right mix of formal education in IT and on-the-job training is essential, especially for recent college grads contemplating a position in broadcast IT. A college degree in computer science or IT is important, but hands-on skills are essential.
“People in their 30s grew up with computers as the technology developed,” said Mossman, “and tended to learn fundamentals like DOS, PASCAL programming and hardware setups. These things don’t seem to be taught in many IT programs, and this lack of fundamental knowledge has a definite impact on our industry.”
He believes programmers working for many broadcast manufacturers develop bloated, inefficient code for their products. IT managers in turn end up troubleshooting the code and doing the kind of market research that the manufacturer should have done.
As IT systems are designed, built and revised, documentation must be developed and maintained. Gray said there’s a need for an IT manager to create both physical and logical maps of the network. At NPR, physical representations usually are made with AutoCAD, while logical drawings are done on Visio. These materials need to be available for second-tier support staff.
A restraint on keeping documentation current is available manpower, with first priority given to maintaining system throughput and availability. Gray finds helpful newer IT gear with autodiscovery, which allows the network to locate and identify devices.
Experts agree that the future of IT in radio will be different, though Schumacher said the rate of change seems to be slowing a bit.
“There’s not much left to be converted to digital,” he said. “Computer-based audio processing will continue to make inroads, as will PCs at the transmitter site. … Mobile technology will become increasingly important, and much research remains to be done on how to best deliver content to cell phones.”
As an adjunct to infinite storage capacity, Gray sees metadata as one of the next challenges for broadcast IT. He said metadata, the information about information being stored, needs to be structured in such a way that it is meaningful. Fuzzy logic seems to be the key to finding information fast.
“We are headed towards a convergence of delivery platforms with one production flow. As more people interact with data through the flow, it becomes increasingly important that metadata is entered once, and correctly,” he said.
Moving into the future, Gray said broadcasters should think more in terms of delivering content. “The subset of audio is the most important piece now, but radio folks may need to rethink this as delivery mediums change and evolve.”
Mossman believes today’s IT managers will be the future engineers of radio, as the role of computers in radio can only expand.
“Sadly, the day-to-day work load at many operations tends to limit the amount of energy that can be put into envisioning the future of IT in radio.”
How does your station or group manage its IT functions? Tell us at [email protected].