September 2011
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I wonder about such things. I wonder who would walk a couple of miles, climb over a chain link fence with some spray paint cans just to do this:

Spray Painted Graffiti, WICC transmitter building

Spray Painted Graffiti, WICC transmitter building

Why are they not doing something else?

Graffiti WICC transmitter site, Bridgeport, CT

Graffiti WICC transmitter site, Bridgeport, CT

Can’t even read what it says, what does it say?

E135D?  I've got my eye on you

E135D? I've got my eye on you

On the roll up door. What does that mean?

On an unrelated note, I wonder what Hurricane Irene thought of the Piping Plover nesting areas? Last year we were able to drive down the temporary road on the sandbar and deliver fuel, a new generator and remove stuff.  This was an issue because the Piping Plovers nest on the ground in the sand dunes.  Before we could use the road we were given a briefing by Connecticut Fish and Wild life where we were told that destroying a nest would result in a $75,000 fine.

Long Beach, Connecticut

Long Beach, Connecticut

As this area was completely washed over by the Long Island sound, the answer is “Not much.”

The Nautel AMPFET 1

The Nautel AMPFET series transmitters date from the early 80’s through early 90’s.  They were Nautel’s first attempt at MF Broadcast transmitters and were quite successful.  This particular transmitter was installed in early 1990 at WBEC in Pittsfield, MA:

Nautel AMPFET 1 AM broadcast transmitter

Nautel AMPFET 1 AM broadcast transmitter

I believe Nautel got started making MW transmitters for Marine Radio stations, Aeronautical and Marine radio beacons, and similar equipment. Their early equipment is very rugged and designed for rough/continuous service.  The early solid state broadcast transmitters like the AMPFET were not hot plugable but who cares, they almost never break.  The design is simple, efficient and it sounds good on the air.

Early transmitters were housed in racks that were much shorter.  In later versions, the racks became larger to standardize the transmitter size with comparable units of the day.  Inside this cabinet, there is a lot of empty space.

The design is modular, RF modules and power supplies can be removed from the transmitter for repair, unlike the Harris AM transmitter products of the same or later periods.

There later AM transmitter versions built on the AMPFET experience.

The Engineering department bitch-o-gram

I was cleaning out the engineering room at WBEC in Pittsfield, MA today. The previous engineer, Ken Jones, past away last July and we have been hired to do the engineering work. Part of that job is knowing where key information and parts are, thus the clean up.

Whilst in the middle of that fun, I found a sheaf of papers consisting of this:

That is the classic engineering department bitch-o-gram, typed out on a typewriter.  There were no fewer than eight memos to Ron (Stratton), who appears to be the General Manager, from Don Coleman, the lowly engineer.  Since WBEC was a directional AM station, the engineers had to walk out to the towers every day and take a set of base current readings to confirm that the antenna sample system was working properly.  A rule no longer in effect.  Like many AM stations, WBEC is located in a low, swampy area.  You will notice that this engineer had given the swamp a name and one wonders what the significance of that name is.

Back in the day of typewriters, sending off memos was no easy task.  After the document was typed, a copier had to be found, copies made and distributed to all parties.  Often times, distribution consisted of handing a copy directly to the person and waiting for a response.  It was a way to put things in writing and to create a paper trail if needed in the future.

Here is another one:

In this memo, our hero references all of his previous memos on the same topic.  Obviously, this engineer was very concerned about tower access and not breaking his or anyone else’s leg.  I like the invitation for a walk out to the tower.  The studios and general manager’s office are located at the WBEC transmitter site, so it would not have been a long walk.

These are fairly mundane, I can remember typing a few memos to the programming department on asbestos paper to keep them from bursting into flames.  Ahhh, those were the days.

Anyway, it is a lost art, one of many.

Documentation and labeling wire and cable

There are a myriad of details involved in building a studio, not to mention an entire facility.  Getting everything down on paper before a single wire is pulled is one way to insure that a neat, logical, and orderly product ensues.  For wire run documentation, I like to use Excel spreadsheet templates that I came up with.

There are several different types of cable, from 25 pair ATT style, to 16 or 24 pair shielded audio cable, to miscellaneous control cable, all of it has different color codes.  I found the Belden Technical info website to be an excellent source for various color codes.

Doing neat work is best way to keep things in order.  Notice all the wires are labeled.  All the ground conductors have heatshrink, which is required on insulation displacement terminations like 66 blocks, 110 blocks and ICON terminations.

ADC ICON termination block

ADC ICON termination block

Once all the work is done, the wire run sheets are updated with changes and additions (there are always changes and additions) which will keep the documentation accurate.

I made up several templates with the wire color code, pair number and cable information on each wire.  This allows the wire man to quickly enter changes to the wire information on the sheet.  At the end of the wiring project, these forms can be saved in several places, printed out and placed in a book or however the engineering manager wants to keep the information.

ATT 25 pair wire sheet

ATT 25 pair wire sheet .pdf

The excel spread sheet for this is here.

For 16 pair Gepco cable on 66 blocks, click here.

For 16/24 pair Gepco cable on ADC ICON Termination blocks, click here.

I say Gepco cable, any audio cable that is color coded with standard resistor color codes will work with these sheets, or the sheets can be adapted for use with other cables.

66 blocks audio and control for nextgen installation

66 blocks audio and control for nextgen installation

This is a good installation. The company I work for has several wiremen that are artists and do excellent work. Notice there is adequate room and light to work on the wall.  A dark, cramped area will lead to hurried work, poor workmanship, and mistakes in wiring.

Automation computer on slide out rack with cable management system

Automation computer on slide out rack with cable management system

All the cables to the rack mount computers are neatly dressed, which allows easier service.

Newest Tool in the toolbox

With special thanks to our sponsors, regular readers and those just dropping in for a look see, I was able to buy a new SLR camera.  It took several months to pool my blog earnings, I had to redeem several thousand Amex rewards points and scrape together a little bit of loose change from the sofa cushions and get this:

New Canon EOS Rebel T1i SLR camera

New Canon EOS Rebel T1i SLR camera

To date, I have been using the camera on my HTC Android phone. For the price, it has done yeoman’s work and is always handy.  That being said, there have been several instances where I have been disappointed by a blurry or poorly lit picture.  Several times, this has occurred at transmitter sites or other locations where I will not be likely to return, thus the chance of getting a better shot at a later date is low.  Other times, I have missed first time events; first time turning a transmitter on, first boot up of a fancy console, etc.

Pictures, videos, and diagrams  are a very important part of this blog.  I decided that if this is going to be a semi-serious endeavor I need to get some better equipment and stop loosing key shots to less than optimum equipment.  The HTC Android is a smartphone, it does a good job as such.  The camera and video recorder is a compromise at best.

With the new camera, I can get better close ups, better low light and generally improve the quality of the images in this blog.  I am all about quality. I look forward to trying it out.

Freedom Radio AFN Iraq, signing off

Armed Forces Radio Iraq

Armed Forces Radio Iraq

With US forces slowly withdrawing from Iraq, the country’s only English broadcast radio service signs off for the last time on Friday night (9/23).  At one point, AFN Iraq covered the entire country on several FM frequencies with transmitters of 250 to 1,000 watts.  Beginning in December of 2003, the station signed on with Paul McCartney’s “Freedom,” which morphed into the stations unofficial moniker “Freedom Radio.”

Similar to other AFRS/AFRTS broadcast operations that went before it, AFN Iraq radio was programmed with a combination of news, information, and music as a moral builder for the troops.  The local Iraqi population also appreciated the radio station, posting several items on the station’s Facebook page (disappears Monday 9/26, alternate here) asking them to stay, requesting songs, or expressing gratitude or sadness.

In the end, Freedom Radio signed off with Porky Pigs “Th, th, th, th, th, ethea, etha, that’s all folks.”

The average age of a member of the US armed forces in 19 years old.

When Radio is relevant and provides good programming, information and entertainment, it continues to reign king, even among the iPod generation.  To all those proponents of new media services like Pandora, Slacker,, etc, your product is winning because the opponent has left the field.

The Relentless Drive to Consolidation

In this blog post about the NAB radio show, Paul McLane (Radio World editor) discusses the reduction of technical people in attendance at the conference.  Consolidation has brought about many changes in the broadcasting industry, engineering has not been immune to these changes.

Because of consolidation, engineering staffs have been reduced or completely replaced by contract engineering firms.  Since the Great Recession of 2008-09 this trend has picked up speed.  Expect it to continue to the point where large broadcasting companies employ one engineering staff administrator at the top, several regional engineering supervisors in the middle and the bulk of the work performed will be done by regional contract engineering firms.

There is no reason to expect the media consolidation process to stop any time soon.  It will continue in fits and starts depending on the congressional mood and the awareness or lack thereof of the general public.  The NAB itself seems bent on removing all ownership regulations and eventually, with enough money spent lobbying congress, they will get their way.   Thus, the majority of radio stations will be owned by one company, the majority of TV stations will be owned by another company and the majority of newspapers will be owned by a third.

There will be some exceptions to that scenario; public radio and TV, privately owned religious broadcasters and single station consolidation holdouts.  If funding for public radio and TV gets cut, which is very likely if the economy collapses further, they will be up for grabs too.

Cloud based network diagram

Cloud based network diagram

For the future of radio and radio engineering, I see the following trends developing:

  1. National formats will be introduced.  Clear Channel already does this somewhat with it’s talk radio formats.  Look for more standardization and national music formats for CHR, Country, Rock, Oldies, Nostalgia, etc.  These were previously called “Satellite Radio” formats but I am sure that somebody will dust of and repackage the idea as something else.  They will be somewhat like BBC Radio 1, where a single studio location is used with local markets having the ability to insert local commercials if needed.  Some “local” niche formats will still exist and major markets where the majority of the money is, will continue to have localized radio.
  2. Audio distribution will move further into the Audio Over IP realm using private WANs for larger facilities, public networks with VPN for smaller facilities.  AOIP consoles like the Wheatstone Vorsis and the Telos Axia will become the installation standard.  These consoles are remote controllable and interface directly with existing IP networks for audio distribution and control.  Satellite terminals will become backup distribution or become two way IP networked.
  3. Cloud based automation systems will evolve.  File and data storage will be moved to cloud base servers using a Content Distribution Network topology.  Peers and Nodes will be distributed around the country to facilitate backup and faster file serving.
  4. Continued movement of the technical operations into a corporate hierarchy.  Technical NOC (Network Operations Center) will include all facets of facility monitoring including transmitters, STL’s, automation systems, office file servers, and satellite receivers via IP networks.  The NOC operators will dispatch parts and technicians to the sites of equipment failures as needed.
  5. Regional contract engineering and maintenance firms will replace most staff engineers in all but the largest markets.  Existing regional engineering firms will continue to grow or consolidate as demands for services rise.  Those firms will employ one or two RF engineers, several computer/IT engineers and many low level technicians.
The most important skill set for broadcast engineers in the coming five to ten year period will be IP networking.  Everything is moving in that direction and those that want to keep up will either learn or be left behind.

Take a ski lift to work day, WBEC style

One thing that I like about the radio engineering job, every day is different from the last, at least when doing field work. Access to transmitter sites can be a challenge, especially in the Winter months. Last Wednesday, I was doing work for WBEC in Pittsfield, MA. Their FM transmitter site is atop Mahanna Cobble in the Bousquet Ski Area.  The summit is about 1,800 feet AMSL and since the terrible rains last month, not accessible by vehicle.  No worries though, somebody built this nice chair lift for us to use:

Bousquet Ski Area chair lift going down hill

Bousquet Ski Area chair lift going down hill

Going down!  I forgot to take pictures on the ride up.

Bousquet ski area chair lift

Bousquet ski area chair lift

The steep part of the hill.

Top of the hill radio tower

Top of the hill radio tower

American tower site top of bousquet ski area

American tower site top of bousquet ski area

One of two towers, both owned and managed by American Tower Corporation.  This is the older tower that has the radio station, somebody’s translator, some paging and two way stuff and sprint PCS.  The other tower is to the right, out of the picture and holds cell carriers.

View to the north over the valley, WBEC-AM’s two tower directional array can be seen in the lower left hand side of the picture.

View to the north

View to the north

WBEC-FM’s transmitter, it’s in there somewhere:

WBEC Nautel VS 2.5 transmitter

WBEC Nautel VS 2.5 transmitter

Polyphasor surge protector has seen better days.  It suffered some serious damage and was removed from the circuit.  Now, it makes a convenient home for rodents.  Reduce, reuse, recycle:

Polyphasor surge suppressor

Polyphasor surge suppressor

Something is missing…

N2 regulator with nothing to do

N2 regulator with nothing to do

Now where did I put that Nitrogen tank?  The site needs a little work and that’s okay, we came to work and get paid.

Goodbye, REM

Off the topic of engineering, but apropos radio, the Alternative Rock band REM has called it quits.  REM was perhaps the first band to bridge the gap between main steam rock and punk, using mostly word of mouth and college radio to gain early success when commercial radio shunned them. By the mid 1980’s and through the 90’s they were wildly popular until drummer Billy Berry left after a brain aneurysm in 1997.

You are missed, good luck.

Conet Project

Perhaps one of the more intriguing uses for radio broadcasting is spying. Covert radio stations broadcasting coded number or letter groups have been the interest of SWL and others for years.  The Conet Project sought to gather several of these recordings and make a CD out of them.  What they ended up with is a rather spooky 4 CD set of various spy numbers stations through out the world conducting their business which dates back to 1997.  Since that date, samples of those recordings have been used in several movies and by recording artists.

While stationed on Guam doing important work for the government, we would often come across these numbers stations in the late 1980’s. An East German numbers station was only 1 KHz away from one of our working frequencies, thus around 2 am local time, an East German lady would regale me with half an hour of five number groups in German, which being slightly off frequency, was utterly delightful.  We knew where it came from because of this and others ones like it.

Sort of like that.  That recording sounds like computer generated voice, ours was a real operator that would occasionally screw up.

The two most famous numbers stations are Cherry Ripe and Lincolnshire Poacher, so named after the songs they use for interval signals.

Both are allegedly off the air now, surely replaced with something else.  When pressed as to the purpose of these stations, a British information minister replied “They are what you think they are.”

The numbered groups are coded groups meant to be received by agents in the field.  The use of unique interval music helps to identify the broadcast.  Once those field agents have written down the coded groups, they use a one time pad to decode them.  The one time pad is then destroyed.  In all, it makes for a system that is almost unbreakable by any currently known analytical system.

In March 2003 on the eve of the Iraq war, also known as Operation Iraqi Freedom, NY radio station WFMU played the entire 4 CD set, appropriately freaking everybody out.


A pessimist sees the glass as half empty. An optimist sees the glass as half full. The engineer sees the glass as twice the size it needs to be.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
~1st amendment to the United States Constitution

Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both.
~Benjamin Franklin

The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. To be your own man is hard business. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.
~Rudyard Kipling

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes the freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers
~Universal Declaration Of Human Rights, Article 19 was discovered, and not invented, and that these frequencies and principles were always in existence long before man was aware of them. Therefore, no one owns them. They are there as free as sunlight, which is a higher frequency form of the same energy.
~Alan Weiner

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