Automation Systems

Radio Automation Systems are nothing new under the sun. As Marconi tapped out his famous S, he was likely thinking “We should get a machine to do this…”

Broadcast stations have been installing different types of automation since the mid 1950’s and early 1960’s.  It was touted as a way to free up announcers so they could do more important things.

While cleaning out an old studio/transmitter building and getting things ready for demolition, I found a stash of old product brochures for various automation systems from the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s.  It looks like the previous owner used to go to the NAB every year.  How many radio guys got their start on the overnight shift changing out reels?  I know a few.

Gates automation system brochure, circa 1965
Gates automation system brochure, circa 1965

The Gates Radio Corporation had a fairly standard reel to reel system in three different configurations.  These systems were pretty pricey in their day.  According to the 1966 price list:

  • The Automate 244 cost $7,275.00 ($58,837.00 in 2020)
  • The Automate 484 cost $12,210.00 ($102,946.00 in 2020)
  • The Automate 1007 cost $17,150.00 ($138,799.00 in 2020)

Those are for stereo systems, mono systems cost about $500.00 less.  Each one of those systems ran one station.

Gates Automate 244 events thumb wheel
Gates Automate 244 events thumb wheel

The larger the system, the more events it could trigger.  I have never run into one of these in the wild.

Long form satellite shows began to surface in the early 1980’s. Things like all news formats and overnight talk shows.  I have had nightmares were everyone walks around saying “This is Larry King, you’re on…” while UFO’s fly overhead and next door neighbor, Jim Hightower, buries PCB’s in his back yard not more than 200 feet from his house.

Broadcast Electronics Control 16 radio automation system
Broadcast Electronics Control 16 radio automation system

Broadcast Electronics had the Control 16 system in the 1980’s that ran off of a very basic computer system that could handle 3,000 events with the standard RAM configuration and up to 9,999 events with additional RAM.  This was ideal for multiple program sources; music on reel machines, satellite syndicated talk or music formats, etc.  No longer were these machines simply running the overnights.

Schaffer 901 radio automation system
Schafer 90x radio automation system

Schafer is perhaps the most know analog tape automation, at least to me.  I know of several of these systems that were in operation through the mid 1990’s.  By this time, long form satellite music formats had become the rage.  However, there were still a few stations using reel to reel music services.

I particularly like this flyer from IGM:

IGM (International Good Music) brochure, circa 1971
IGM (International Good Music) brochure, circa 1971

By the mid 1990’s, these tired old dinosaurs where being removed.  Still, the mechanics of the operation were a thing to behold.  It was nice because you could hear the relays snap shut after decoding a 25/35 Hz tone or one of the Mutual Radio be-doops.  The cart-o-matic would chug through the break until the liner fired and then back to the bird.  If there were any issues, one simply needed to stand there and watch which part of the machine malfunctioned.

Schaffer logging system
Schafer logging system

Computer based systems like Computer Concepts DCS, Arrakis Digilink and Audio Vault came along, which got rid of the analog tape.  Instead they stored audio on hard drives.  Those early systems hard drive space was a premium, so usually at least 3:1 compression was needed to fit all the commercials onto the drive space available.

My first brush with Audio Vault was in 1994 at WGY in Schenectady, NY.   It was a pretty good system if you could understand the .ini files.  As the BE tech support guys used to say “You can program it to turn the coffee pot on if you wanted to.”

Nowadays, what used to be a studio location is more akin to a content distribution node.  This rack combines music and commercials stored locally on hard drives with out of town voice tracks and serves as the program source for eleven radio stations.

Radio Automation, 2020 style
Radio Automation, 2020 style

It works remarkably well, as long as the windows operating system stays functional.

Windows XP

WDST technical operation center
technical operation center

It is time to plan and upgrade those machines running Windows XP. After April 8, 2014, Microsoft will no longer be updating the software and/or patching security holes. Many in the IT industry believe that after that date, hackers will attempt to break the popular operating system which has been in use for twelve years.

Approximately one third of all Windows operating systems in use today are XP.  Microsoft has already warned users that potential hackers could use security patches and updates for Windows 7/8 systems to scout for vulnerabilities in XP.  I know several radio clients have automation systems and office networks that run primarily Windows XP.  Microsoft may be overstating the risks of remaining on XP, then again, they may not be. This situation has been described in several trade magazines as “A ticking time bomb,” or equally dire:  “Microsoft urges customers up upgrade or face ruin.”

In radio station infrastructure, very few systems are as vital as the audio storage and automation system.  Without a functioning automation system, most stations would be dead in the water.  If an automation system were to hacked and ruined completely, I do not think there are enough people left on most station’s payrolls to run an operation manually, even for a short period of time.   I, for one, do not want my phone to start ringing on April 9th with a bunch of panicky managers talking about how unacceptable the situation is.

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.

Book Review: Fighting for Air

fighting for airI just finished reading Fighting for Air by Eric Klinenberg.  It is a good book and a great discription of what has happened to radio since the major consolidations occured in 1999 and 2000.  Depressing.  Just damn depressing is what it is.

The book chronicles the evolution of the Prophet System and how that system was used to replace entire radio station air staffs.  It discusses the various failures that radio has produced as a result of automated programming, the complete lack of originality, public safety issues and how major media companies have stripped the heart and soul out of radio.

Something that the book points out that I never really considered, every one of these unoriginal canned music stations diminishes all radio by some increment.  For those that think the Clear Channels, Cumulus and Citadels are only harming themselves, think again.  People who get fed up with radio and buy an I-pod are excluding all radio stations from then on.  That is another degree of audience lost to a competing medium.

Having worked for one of the smaller group owners since 1999, one that rarely if ever appears on anyone’s radar, I can say I have seen some minor shades of what has happened with Clear Channel in the company I work for.  I think everyone who works in radio has seen some of this in one form or another no matter who they work for.

Radio has never been the most stable of employers.  Even in the early days, people moved in and out of radio stations, sometimes taking a job with the competitor across town and sometimes moving across country.  It was understood that sometimes changes needed to be made, sometimes people had to be let go.  It was a part of the landscape.  The difference is in the post consolidation radio environment, people are leaving radio altogether, replaced by a mindless computer programmed from afar.

During my time as a radio engineer, I have installed a few of these computer automation systems.  I think the first one was in 1993 on an AM station doing all news.  We used it for the overnight hours, replacing some minimum wage board operators.  The general manager was shocked and a little bit in awe of how well the system worked.

This trend continued in 1994, when I installed a BE Audiovault system at an AM/FM combo.  There again, the system replaced an overnight board operator on the AM station.  Later, the FM station did a sort of mini-mation where the overnight news guy checked on it every 45-50 minutes.  Those stations are now completely voice tracked and or satellite syndicated.

Through the 90’s, I installed first generation computer based automation systems mostly on AM stations.  Things like Digilink, DCS, ENCO, etc.

In other markets, an automation system was used to resurrect a couple of FM stations, starting out voice tracked, then adding live bodies to fill in day parts, usually having the 6 pm to 6 am time slot voice tracked.  Having three day parts live is better than none I suppose.

The AM stations in my market cluster now are running some awful syndicated satellite news/talk programming.  Why are these stations even on the air?  They should be sold to someone who will operate them locally, or turn their licenses in.

For whatever roll I have played in ruining radio, I am sorry for it.

It is a good book, I recommend anybody that works in the radio business read it.