AM stations being donated

WGHQ was donated by Pamal Broadcasting to Tri-State media over the New Years Holiday.  Originally signed on in 1955 as WSKN in Saugerties, NY, WGHQ had been struggling to hang on over the last few years.  The station had been on a syndicated satallator automation format with the only local show being Kingston Community Radio, airing weekday mornings from 6-9 am.  In the end, it was either go dark or donate the station.

Tri-State Media is the owner/operator of WHDD AM/FM and WLHV, which are NPR affiliates.  They also simulcast on WBSL-FM, owned by Berkshire High School, when the students and faculty are not on the air.  A look at the program schedule shows a variety of music, local and national news and talk.

Over the last five years or so, several AM stations have been donated to community oriented groups and organizations, most notably the MMTC.  Often, these stations are in rough to very rough technical condition and many are silent.  It is noted that WDTW no longer has a transmitter site and KWHN was suffered severe damage due to flooding.  Those stations donated to the MMTC often find themselves LMA’d to a local group to run for a while before ownership is transferred.

Call Letters City of License From To Frequency Power D/N
KWOD Salem, OR Entercom MMTC 1390 5,000/690
WGHQ Kingston, NY Pamal Tri-State 920 5,000/78
WSHU Westport, CT Graham Sacred Heart 1260 1,000/9
WKRT Cortland, NY Saga Bible Broadcasting 920 1,000/500
WDTW Dearborn, MI Clear Channel MMTC 1310 5,000/5,000
KFXN Minneapois, MN Clear Channel MMTC 690 500/4
WMNY McKeesport, PA Renda Pentecostal Temple dev 1360 5,000/1000
WGBN New Kensington, PA Salem Pentecostal Temple dev 1150 1,000/70
WNRR North Augustsa, GA Clear Channel MMTC 1380 4,000/70
WHJA Laural, MS Clear Channel MMTC 890 10,000/-
KWHN Ft. Smith, AR Clear Channel MMTC 1650 10,000/1,000
WTOC Newton, NJ Clear Channel MMTC 1360 2,000/320
WBHA Wabash, MN Clear Channel MMTC 1190 1,000/-

There may be other stations that were donated to various other groups, but this is all I could find using Google.  I notice several of them are on the current list of silent stations.  I wonder how many are currently on the air and successful.  Are they being locally programmed?  If so, how has the reception been in there respective communities?  What remediation was required for the technical facilities and how much did it cost?

The last AM station

AM; it has a future or not?  I cannot make up my mind sometimes.  As some AM stations can and do make a profit, many others do not.  Truth be told, the engineering effort that goes into an AM directional antenna is becoming a black science.  And some people may say, “oh, but that gives you job security,” but that is not usually how it works.  Instead of paying somebody more money (or any money) to maintain something, the business philosophy these days seems to be to chuck the baby out with the bath water.  Because after all, if not AM then FM right?  Yes, of course!  Except, the very thing that happened to AM is happening to FM too.  Increasing noise floors, jamming signals into every possible nook of the frequency spectrum, no thought toward technical facilities and infrastructure, and horrible, horrible programming will result has resulted in the decline of listening for FM too.  Mark my words and the date; FM broadcasting will suffer the same fate as AM if current trends continue.

Guy wires in trees
Guy wires in trees

How will it end?  I would hazard with more of a whimper than a bang.  I imagine something like this:

One day, in the not very distant future, at an AM station somewhere, the transmitter faults and goes off the air. Chip, the computer guy, goes in the back room, moves a bunch of cleaning supplies, cases toilet paper, a garbage can and the remote gear out of the way so he can reach the ON button on that box the old guy told him about. The big box makes some clunking noises and comes on for a second, but then the fault light called “VSWR” or something comes on and the transmitter shut off again.

Chip, the computer guy, remembering what the old guy said about that big tall thing behind the building, pushes the back door open.  What used to be a field is now completely overgrown with weeds, brush, and trees. He follows the pipe from the back of the building, through the prickers until he comes to an old fence, which is falling down. He pushes on the locked gate and it falls off the hinges. Inside the fence, there is a rusty tower and a white box. Finding the box unlocked, he opens it and sees a baffling array of metal coils, copper tubes, and black round things. He sees that one of the black round things is cracked in half and black goop is coming out of it. The computer guy takes a picture with his cellphone and emails it to the market manager/vice president of sales.

A few minutes later, the the market manager calls back and Chip tries to explain what is going on, stating the the transmitter went off and the black thing in the box by the tower looks broken.  The market manager/vice president of sales asks “Has anyone called and complained?”  Chip says no, not that he is aware of.  The market manager says, “Eh, fuck it leave it off.”

The end.

Effective Communication

Communications men, US Navy WWII Pacific Theater
Communications men, US Navy WWII Pacific Theater

In almost every broadcast company I have ever worked for, there is always some communications dysfunction between management and the technical staff. It is perhaps, inevitable given the different cultures. Most managers come from a sales background, where everything is negotiable. The engineering field is fixed in the physical world, where everything has two states; right/wrong, on/off, true/false, functional/non-functional, etc.  Try to negotiate with a non-functional transmitter, let me know how that works.

Engineering eggheads often couch their conversations in technical terms which tend to confuse the uninitiated.  While those terms are technically correct, if I said “Радио генератор инвалида.”  You’d say “Huh?” and rightly so.   If the receiving  party does not understand the terms used, it is ineffective communication.

The other mistake I often see, which irritates me beyond reason, is long rambling e-mails or other documents that fail to come to the point, directly or otherwise.  Time is a precious commodity, waisting other people’s time with long needless diatribes is ineffective communications.  Likely, the recipient will not read the entire thing anyway.  If a person gains a reputation for generating huge amounts of superfluous verbiage, then it only becomes so much background noise to be filtered out.  When I was in the service, I went to a class called “Message Drafting.”  This was back in the day when everything was sent via radio.  The gist is to get the complete idea across to the recipient with as few words as possible.  Think: “ENEMY ON ISLAND. ISSUE IN DOUBT.”  Clear and concise, six words paints the picture.

The key to effective communications is to know your audience.  If you are writing a white paper for a bunch of MIT graduates, use all the appropriate technical terms.  More often than not, however, as a broadcast engineer, our intended audience is more likely station management and/or ownership.  Their backgrounds may be sales and finance.

In order to get those technical ideas into the heads that matter, a good method is to use the lowest common denominator.  If the general manager is a former used car salesman, car analogies might work.  The transmitter has 200,000 miles on it, the tower is rusting out like a ’72 Pinto, and so on.  Almost anything at a transmitter site can be compared to a vehicle in some way.  Find out what the manager’s background is then figure out what language he or she speaks and use it.  You may say, “But he is the manager, it is up to him (or her) to understand this stuff.”  You are not incorrect, but that is not how the world works.

Secondly, use brevity in communications.  Managers are busy, engineering is but one aspect of the radio station’s operations.  If written, provide a summary first, then expound upon it in follow up paragraphs if required.  If you are in a meeting, give a brief presentation then wait for questions.  Always have a high ballpark figure in mind when the inevitable “How much?” question comes along.

Don’t assume that the manager will follow through with your ideas up the chain of command, always follow up a few days later.  If it is important, continue to ask, in a friendly way, if there is any progress on the issue.

There are so many ways to communicate these days that failure to communicate is almost unfathomable.  One additional thought, if you find yourself out of the loop, find a way to get back in or you’ll find yourself looking for a new job.

Simulcasting: The sound of broadcasters running out of ideas

There seems to be a growing trend lately;  Stations that had previously separate programming being simulcast. There are two big ones around here: WGY and WHRL and WPLJ and WXLM.

Lets begin with the first one: WGY, now WGY AM/FM.

WGY (Clear Channel Communications) has been the regional power house since it’s inception in 1922.  It consistently ranks in the top 5 arbitron ratings for Albany/Schenectady/Troy NY and is well received in the community.  It carries the standardized Clear Channel talk radio format of Limbaugh, Beck, Hannity, etc.  As of September 20th, WHRL 103.1, class A licensed to Albany changed it’s call sign to WGY-FM and began simulcasting WGY 100%.  103.1’s 60 dBU contour is entirely within WGY 2.5 MV/M contour.

It would seem that radios, even bad radios, would have no problems picking up WGY’s signal within the 103.1 listening area.  According to Clear Channel Management:

The decision to simulcast our 24-hour news/talk format on the FM will open up our content to an even wider audience. Despite the huge audience we currently enjoy, the fact is a significant portion of the Capital Region audience never thinks to visit the AM dial.

There is some small amount of truth to that statement; the younger segment of the population generally never listens to AM. Yes.  The reasons, however, are not just because it is AM and they are prejudice.  More likely, there is nothing on the AM dial that interests them.  Satellite syndicated talk is not everyone’s cup of tea, so to speak.

The other side of the coin is the former WHRL had an alternative rock format, which never did all that great (I have a theory on why Alternative Rock, AAA and other such formats never get good ratings, but not right now).  They also had a station staff, which by the time they pulled the switch, was down to one person.   The Capital District Business Review notes:

According to BIA/Kelsey, a media research firm in Chantilly, Va., WGY did about $2.8 million in revenue in 2009. WHRL took in about $875,000.

Which is really not bad for a class A FM in market #63, during a recession.  Apparently, not good enough however.

The second example in our little story is that of WPLJ and WXLM.  WPLJ 95.5 (Citadel Broadcasting) is of course one of the heritage FM stations in Market #1. WXLM 104.7, now known as WELJ broadcast from the far eastern end of Long Island (Market #18), so the respective coverage areas do not over lap.  Prior to September 24th, that station was doing a News/Talk format.

That end of Long Island is pretty affluent, a local (unique) station might even prosper.  In fact, up until 2003 it did quite well for itself, then known as “The Beach.”  However, nothing lasts forever and in 2003 Citadel Broadcasting purchased the station.

It has gone through a number of changes since then, most recently a syndicated news talk format.  Unless I am missing it completely, the last ratings period, this station did not even show up in the book.  As of September 21, it began to simulcast the co-owned out of market AC station, likely for the drive by PPM listeners in it.  Again, no word on the fate of the former radio station’s staff (if there was one).

So what gives?  Consolidators have already cut staff levels to the bone with voice tracking, syndication and automation.  Even a voice tracked syndicated station still need some staff members; the occasional morning show, somebody to do promotions, some form of program direction do to things like music logs and other such behind the scenes work.  Staff require salaries and salaries are expensive.  Anyone that has ever looked at a companies P&L can tell you, salaries are the number one expense.  If, however, the entire format is blown out, and something can be plugged in to fill the void that costs nothing and has no overhead and no staffing, well, now they are really saving money.  That money from reduced expense is much better (far easier) than actually earning more money and it goes right to the bottom line.

This never ending drive to reduce expenses at the expense of everything else drives programming quality and thus entertainment value down.  Who wants to listen to radio and be bored?  Not I.  This continuing trend is what will ultimately spell the end of terrestrial radio.