Tower down

You know it is going to be a bad day when:

a farmer mowing grass took a wrong turn on June 16, KFEQ AM lost a guy wire and eventually one of its four towers came toppling down

From Above Ground Level magazine.

Is hiring the farmer down the road to come and mow the AM field a smart thing to do?  It depends, I suppose, on whether or not your towers will be standing afterward.  Hopefully the guy had some insurance, if not then the station is basically screwed.  The article did not mention that, although it did state that “The station is wieghing it’s options,” Which does not sound good.

The good news is at least they were doing the maintenance.  Most AM stations these days don’t even bother to mow the fields.  Look at this picture:

Tall grass at an AM transmitter site.  Owner says don't cut it.
Tall grass at an AM transmitter site. Owner says don't cut it.

It is not that I don’t want the grass cut, I do.  However, I am not going to pay for it out of my own pocket, that is ridiculous.  So, it grows.

Why we like Nautel Transmitters

Because they work.  The old adage is, you get what you pay for.  There are many transmitter manufactures.  There are plenty of transmitters out there that are less expensive.  Those less expensive transmitters sound fine on the air, their AC/RF efficiencies are great, they look snazzy in the sales brochure.  I am sure the RF sales guy can spout out ten reasons why they are this or they are that.

And that is great.

Their parts count is intentionally kept low, so gone are the redundant power supplies, fans, RF amps and controller cards.  Gone are the extra heavy output capacitors, combiners, LC connectors on the RF stages.  Gone is the heavy grounding buss, the shielded covers on the controller, etc.

So, ask the slick RF sales guy if he is going to be available to answer the phone after the 2 am lightning strike.  Of course, he’ll lie… whisper sweet nothings in your ear…

To avoid all that, behold:  The Nautel V40 FM transmitter.  This is four V-10 transmitters into a magic T combiner.  The V-10 already has good redundancies.  Four of these things ganged together should be nearly bullet proof (and over the last three years, it has been).

WHUD Nautel V-40 Transmitters
WHUD Nautel V-40 Transmitters

This site has been fraught with power problems because it is at the end of a very long utility company feeder line. We also installed a LEA series surge suppressor.  We like the LEA unit, it has saved our bacon many times over.

Inside view of LEA surge supressor
Inside view of LEA surge suppressor

These transmitters normally run at about 7 KW each.  I can turn any one transmitter completely off and the others will automatically adjust their output powers keeping the station at full power.   That means daytime maintenance!  We like not having to drive to the transmitter site at night to vacuum.   It is really cool.

Therefore, to recap (in case you missed the major points of the story), we like the Nautel transmitter because:

  1. It does not go off the air
  2. If something breaks, I can turn off an individual transmitter and fix it
  3. I can clean them and do everything I need to during normal working hours
  4. They sound great on the air
  5. Nautel has excellent customer service
  6. They look cool

There you have it.

Fragmentation

The opposite of consolidation is fragmentation. Rumors abound that Clear Channel Communication is on the verge of bankruptcy, Cumulus stock is trading at $0.61 per share, Citadel Broadcasting Corporation is a $0.038 per share and so on.

What does this mean?  The great consolidation experiment of the 90’s and 00’s has been an abject failure.  Remember when deregulation was going to save the day?   Instead, it merely prolonged the day when many small non-revenue generating radio stations should sign off and turn in their licenses.

A quick review:

  1. Major corporations formed with the express purpose of buying radio stations and consolidating operations.  This was supposed to save money and make stations run more efficiently with smaller staffs.
  2. These corporations swooped into large, medium and small markets, often paying multiples of 14 to 18 times cash flow.  Books were cooked to make non-revenue generating radio stations look good, thus soaking the buyers.
  3. The new owner’s discovered their stations were not doing all that great, even with the “market synergy” of group ownership.
  4. Most of the station’s staff were replaced by computers, programming was handled by wizards located hundreds or thousands of miles away with no awareness of any particular location’s uniqueness.
  5. Radio formats become homogenized, bland, and boring.  People begin looking around for other entertainment
  6. Radio becomes irrelevant.

Which leads us to our current situation.  When the economy tanked in late 2008, advertising revenues dried up over night.  Since all these radio groups were operating at the top of the business cycle, with no (zero, zilch, nada) room for error, many owners began to have troubles making loan payments.

The semi good news is that all of the radio corporations are in the same sinking boat.  Even if the banks could force the sale of radio properties, the values are so low now that they will never re-coop their losses.  So the waiting game begins.

Clear Channel,  however, may be liquidated anyway.  The Bain financial group is not known for being nice.  They likely have anticipated a bankruptcy even before they financed Clear Channel’s move from public to private and did it for the fees they could charge.  In short, they don’t give a shit if Clear Channel lives or dies, they have already made their money.

If Clear Channel begins selling stations, will the other groups start snapping them up?  There are two key considerations, financing and FCC regulations.

The lending institutions that are holding the paper on these stations now will likely have a long memory.  It may not be so easy to get loans in the future, especially for those companies that leverage themselves to the hilt and refinance every few years.

The Congress has been considering tightning ownership regulations, this may force the FCC to adopt rules that do not allow current radio station owners to buy up the Clear Channel scraps and add them to their own collections.

What we may see is many stations fail.  These are the stations that should have failed in the 90’s but were “saved” by consolidation.  Those stations that are still economically viable, may be bought up by the dedicated radio professionals and run semi-profitably.  Those stations that can be locally important can reclaim some of their lost audence.