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.

Great News! WE just doubled your work load!

This was and still is a very common theme.  Either by purchasing more radio stations and combining them, firing all of the overnight DJ’s and automating, or “combining market forces to create a better synergy,” the radio engineer gets more work dumped on him.  Naturally, they also have given out a hefty raise to boot, right?

No?

Has this happened to you? Why is it that the engineers always get shit upon?  I’ll tell you, look in the mirror.  Engineers (and IT guys) do it to themselves because they accept it.  Here is a news flash:

Radio stations cannot run without engineers

Think about it. Is the market manager going to be on call in case the Audiovault crashes?  Will he answer the phone when the automated station’s silence sensor goes off at 2 am?  Will he be able to fix it?  How about the transmitter or the internet web stream, or the e-mail, the broadband internet, the phone system, STL, the traffic computer, etc.

The more technology driven a radio station becomes, the more technology people will be needed.  It is also a little peculiar, at least to me anyway, that there are fewer and fewer radio engineers.

It is about time that radio station owners in particular come to realize a basic tenant of supply and demand.  As a commodity (our collective skill and knowledge about broadcasting) becomes rarer, the price goes up.  After all, the radio owner’s certainly are making money, Lew Dicky got his bonus this year in spite of the collapse of Cumulus stock prices.  I am sure that Lowery Mays is doing quite well in spite of the rumors of the looming Clear Channel bankruptcy.

What I am talking about is not stabbing your fellow engineer in the back.  If the above scenario plays out for you, don’t accept the additional work without a raise.  If you do, you diminish your value and the value of every other broadcast engineer.  When it comes to corporate management, these people are not human.  They are very well trained bean counters who know the cost of everything but the value of nothing.

Summer thunderstorms and grounding

Most (if not all) radio engineers cringe when they here a clap of thunder.  Then the waiting begins.  What are we waiting for?  The cellphone to start ringing, of course.  Over the twenty or so years I have been doing this, I have learned a few things.  One of them is you cannot over ground something.

That being said, you can, of course, ground something improperly.

The worst areas we have for lightening damage is the Gainesville/Pensacola markets.  Those places are in the lightning capital of the US.  Time was our class C FM station was getting knocked off a couple of times a month.

US thunderstorm Days map
US thunderstorm Days map

There is hope.  When we upgraded the stations and installed new transmitters in 2004 I insisted that the tower and building be properly grounded.  I even got into an argument with the CFO about the “mission creep” as he put it.  Never mind that I put $20K in the initial work specification for grounding.

There are a couple of strategies to use when dealing with lightning at transmitter sites:

  1. Grounding:  First, foremost and always.  Grounding should consist of multiple ground rods driven as deeply into the earth as possible.  At the Trenton Florida transmitter site we used 20 foot long ground rods driven in 20 feet apart all the way around the building and in five 60 foot spokes around the tower.  All of these ground rods and tower base were bonded with #2 solid copper wire CAD (exothermically) welded to the ground rods.  All turns were kept to a large diameter radius to keep inductance down.   When lightning strikes the tower, this creates a large electron sink to dissipate the strike energy into.
  2. Bonding:  All equipment cabinets, racks, and everything metal is bonded together and to the same ground point presented by the grounding system.  When lightning strikes, often the ground cannot dissipate the energy fast enough.  When this happens, the entire ground area around the tower gets charged up.  Current will only flow down a less resistive path.  If everything is bonded together, the potential between any piece of equipment or component is the same, even if that potential is +10,000 volts.  No flow of current means no damage.
  3. The transmitter building is located away from the tower.  Almost every FM and TV transmitter site I have visited, the building is right smack at the tower base.  By moving the building away about 100 feet or so, the EMP from the tower strike has dissipated (log function) significantly before it passes through the transmitter building.  It is a little more expensive to install due to the added transmission line lengths and losses, however it works.

I have been at the Trenton Florida transmitter site when lightning struck the tower.  The result, not even a transmitter overload.  Nothing noticed on the air, no damage sustained by any equipment.  For the last five years, there has been no off air time due to lightning damage at this site.

Studio building with lightning rod, Gainesville, Florida
Studio building with lightning rod, Gainesville, Florida

The studio site has a similar story.  We built a new studio building in 2005, there is a 100 foot monopole that holds the STL antennas.  You know that it gets hit during a storm.  I remember the manager and IT guy from Pensacola commenting about how nice the new SAS Rubicon consoles were.  Both of them also said that they wouldn’t last through the first summer because of lightning damage.  Four years later, not a single incident of damage to the consoles, computers or anything else in the building because we grounded everything as I described above.

Proper planning and installation pays off.

A quick one (while he’s away)

Radio is not what it used to be.  Sure, the roaring nineties and zero zeros (or whatever you call this decade) where great for the owners.  They sold, bought, consolidated, laid off, installed automation, made redundant, and so on.  Those that got out before summer of 2008 made a lot of cash.

They also left the industry hurting.  Our competition is keen on eroding what ever revenue is still left in radio, and that competition is large and multiple.  New technologies like ipods, iphones, PCS phones, and whatever other wireless mobile device they thought up 5 minutes ago,is trying to gain our listeners.  Satellite radio, which is more like meh, who cares, is making a small inroads.  But worse than all of that, we have ourselves.

The rot is increasing and it is from the inside out.  Everyone is looking to cut expenses.  The easiest way to do that is automation.  Those stations that have not already automated are likely to, which will further exacerbate the radio loosing listeners problem.  I mean really, how many more crappy bland “mix” formats, or satellite syndicated talk radio formats do we need.  We are already swimming in a sea of mediocrity.  And who gets to take care of all this high tech gizmos that keep the stations on the air?  Usually the Engineering Department.  So, we get more work, for the same, or less (by the time inflation is calculated in) money.

That trend has to stop.

It is not irreversible (yet).  The station that stands out, can win, and win big.  That is all for now, I look forward to writing about radio engineering.

We came in?