I receive quite a few off line emails from my readers. I hope that I get to them all. At the end of the day, after coming home from class, I can be pretty bleary-eyed and may make a mistake or two when parsing the inbox for relevant subject lines in and amongst all the other flotsam and jetsam that occupies my e-mail. Truth be told, I am often working on this thing in the 9-11:30 pm hours, which is not my sharpest time of day.
And so it is tonight.
Why do I expend so much time and effort on a blog? For that, I would like to relate a little story.
A couple of years ago, I received an email from a woman in Russia. She had somehow come across this blog and asked if I wanted to be her pen-pal for a while, as she needed to practice her English writing skills. I was intrigued by the idea but had one condition for her; she must treat me like a Russian person. Her response was something along the lines of: “So, you want to be treated like a Russian person do you? Fine, you asked for it.” What followed was one of the most interesting and informative exchange of ideas I’d ever had. At some point, we managed to exchange a few photographs and her comment on mine was “That is a terrible picture, you like like the worst sort of KGB agent.” I laughed so hard my stomach hurt because it is true; I look terrible in almost any picture ever taken of me. What made this exchange so interesting was the truth that was told. There was no expectations or preconceptions, just two virtual strangers telling it like it is. People love the truth and know it when they hear it.
That reminds me of why I do this. I would like to give some idea of what it is like to be a broadcast engineer in the United States. I can say that the company I work covers the area in and around NYC all the way up to the Canadian border. We see the operations of stations in small, medium and large markets everyday. What I see in the day to day operations of the radio business are likely very different from the versions printed in the trade magazines. The truth that I know and a lot of my readers know too, is one of slow decay over the years, cuts in operating budgets, reduced employees, declining programming quality, reduced or non-existent maintenance, suffocating bank notes, and so on. And it is not just the mom and pops.
Radio will only exist for as long as it is relevant. Crappy, bland, monolithic programming, stations on autopilot during an emergency, poor technical quality, prolonged off air periods; those sounds precede the sound of the off button being pushed. It matters not the band or modulation scheme either. If radio is going to be a viable business, the programming must get better. Otherwise, the ride is over; time to collect up our things and move on. And that would be a shame.
Not really a technical thing, but is something that I have to deal with as a self employed contractor. The big change for me between being an employee versus someone who is self employed is the amount of driving I do on a day to day basis. The group of engineers that I work with cover an area from New York City all the way up to the Canadian boarder. On any given day, I can be in Bridgeport CT or Albany, NY or Burlington, VT or White Plains, NY. The miles pile up quickly.
While out driving around, I get to see many new things. For example, yesterday I drove by the County Sheriff’s car:
County Sheriff's department armored vehicle, courtesy of NorthJersey.com
Something has changed, but I can’t quite put my finger on it.
The fact that I drive so many miles means that there will almost certainly be some interaction with local law enforcement, especially on that late night trip to or from a transmitter site. As one State Trooper once put it, nothing good happens after 11pm, which seemed to be enough to trigger reasonable suspicion and a traffic stop.
Of course, the police officers executing traffic stops are doing their jobs and the best course of action is cooperate and maintain a polite, professional disposition. Usually, a traffic stop goes something like this:
While driving down the road, you notice a police car behind you. At some point, the lights will come on and you pull over, the police car pulls up behind you. At this point, you roll down the driver side window, put the car in park (or neutral) and turn off the engine. Do not start rooting around for the registration, get out your wallet, unlatch your seat belt or anything else, just sit there. The police officer will run your plate, which may take a few minutes. Then, after some period of time, he (or she) will get out of the police car and approach your vehicle on the driver’s side. When you see him approach, place both hands on the steering wheel, so that he (or she) can see them. The exchange will go something like this:
Police officer: Do you know why I pulled you over?
Yourself: No, I do not. (That is always the reply, even if you have a good idea why you were pulled over)
PO: You were (speeding, running a stop sign, red light or the general crossing road lines, unable to maintain lanes, unsafe lane change, etc) (fill in the blank).
Yourself: I was not aware of that.
From here, the interaction can take any number of routes; you may be able to explain what was going on, he may let you off with a warning, or you may get a ticket. As the driver, you will have to gauge the situation. Many times, I have found the best course is to explain that you are a radio (or TV) engineer on your way to or from some specific emergency somewhere. Many times, this will be enough, so long as the police officer does not suspect you of drinking or something similar.
Other times, the generic “you crossed the white (or yellow) line” will be used a fishing expedition and he is looking for drunk driving, warrants, drugs or something else to arrest you for. The most important thing to remember is not to give him that reason.
The police officer will ask you for your license and registration, he may ask you to step out of the car, take a field sobriety test, ask questions about items in the car, etc. Answer the specific question and no more, do not get chatty, volunteer information, etc.
If a traffic citation is issued, follow the directions, mail it in on time and plead not guilty. Some form of trial will take place, often, before the proceeding, the prosecuting attorney or police officer will approach you and offer a plea to some lesser charge. To avoid wasting a lot of time on a trial, make the best deal possible and pay the fine.
On the other hand, if there is time to spare, go ahead with the trial. There are many ways to get out of a speeding ticket, especially if RADAR was used in the traffic stop. The law of sines is a good way to shoot holes in a police officer’s RADAR testimony. I like this one, because, in order for RADAR to be accurate, the measurement must be taken from dead ahead. Any angle to either side and the relative speed of the vehicle to the RADAR gun is reduced as a function of the sine of the angle. The greater the angle, the less the relative speed. Other things like calibration procedures (which can be checked), last time the instrument was calibrated, time interval between the use of the RADAR gun and passage of vehicle(s), did the police officer loose sight of your vehicle, etc.
I have gone to trial twice for speeding tickets, lost one because the system was rigged (this was on Guam) and won the other because the police officer lost sight of my vehicle while he turned around to catch me. That was on a back road, where there were multiple places to enter or exit the roadway and I was something like two miles away from the point of the infraction.
With any profession that requires a lot of driving, especially late at night, some interaction with local law enforcement will take place. Be polite, use common sense, be professional, don’t take any shit but don’t create any bigger problems either.
One of the major differences between working as an employee and working for myself is the use of my car. When I worked out of a central office, going to work meant driving there, then using the company truck to drive to the outlaying studio or transmitter site locations. Now that I work for myself, I drive either my personal vehicle or the truck that belongs to my company.
Our radio clients are in several states in the northeast and covering all that territory on a weekly or monthly basis requires a lot of driving. For example, it is 100 miles exactly, one way from my house to Bridgeport, CT. Depending on what is going on, I can take the 1997 Jeep Cherokee, which has over 210,000 miles on it and gets about 21 miles per gallon, or the 2004 Chevy Silverado 1500 pickup truck, which has 68,000 miles on it and gets about 16 miles to the gallon. With gas being about $4.00 per gallon, it’s a choice of shooting myself in the leg or shooting myself in the foot.
1997 Jeep Cherokee in early April snowstorm
The Jeep I paid cash for in 1999 and I have kept it in good working order. It is, by far, the best snow vehicle I have ever owned. I don’t know exactly why that is, it has simple four wheel drive (really two wheel drive because of the full slip differentials). I imagine the heavy cast iron inline six engine over the front wheels has something to do with it. This is an important distinction, as many off air emergencies happen in the worst weather. It is simple and rugged and wearing out. I keep saying to myself, the first major problem, e.g. transmission or engine, I am having it towed to the junk yard.
Work Truck, Chevy Silverado 1500
The Chevy truck is owned by my company, I purchased it three years ago when I started the solar installation company. It has the 5.8 L V-8 engine with the tow package and the “pre-snowplow package.” It has real four wheel drive with limited slip differentials front and back. It handles like a tank. I use this when I need to haul tools, materials, parts, junk or whatever. I have portable parts bins and tools that I can move from one vehicle to another, as needed.
The problem with these vehicles is the expense in operating them. I generally try not to take gas payments from the company I work for, as I am not an employee of that company, I’d rather take the mileage write off. Still, there are times, especially at the end of the month, when I am filling up the pick up truck and watching the gas pump turn over the $100.00 mark, that I have to cringe.
Toyota Yaris 5 door hatchback, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Perhaps the next personal vehicle will be something more fuel efficient, like a Toyota Yaris hatchback. They look pretty reliable and get good gas mileage. If I need to take the big truck, I still have it. I have just three concerns:
- I am fairly tall; will I look like a weenie getting in and out of this thing?
- I drive a lot of interstate miles; if I get into an accident will I get squashed like a bug?
- Will all my stuff fit in the back of this thing?
That being said, it would be awfully nice getting 36 miles per gallon…
Inside radio seems to be hitting its stride, the latest story about a survey they took hits the nail squarely on the head. Of the survey takers, 74% say that radio is off the rails. According the Inside Radio, 854 surveys were completed.
Granted, most readers of Inside Radio likely work in the industry. The Recession (on which all bad things seem to be blamed) has cast a pall over the working environment in most radio stations, especially those owned by the big three. If anything, this survey is a good inside look at how radio station employees feel.
What is more telling are the thirteen pages of comments that survey takers left, many of which state precisely what I have said in the past:
It’s about live local connection to the community!
That cuts right to the heart of the matter. Radio has lost its connection with the local community and has marginalized itself. Now the major owners are riding the wave which is in decay. Radio is no longer about the listeners or even the advertisers, it is about maximizing profits and minimizing expenses until the day they throw the big switch and turn off the last transmitter.
I wonder if they’ll talk about that issue at the NAB, or will it be drowned out by happy talk of The Recession ending and a bright future ahead. More likely the latter, no one in high levels of radio management wants to admit there is a problem. A problem they created. Firing most of the local talent will be the undoing of radio. That being said, radio equipment manufactures and vendors will do pretty well this year. After all, equipment is an asset, employees are liabilities.
So, the other day I was in the convenience store near my house. I had not picked up a copy of the local newspaper in quite some time, so I looked around for one. I couldn’t find it anywhere so I asked the checkout clerk, who looked at me rather dead pan and said “they went under about a year ago.”
What? I hadn’t even noticed my own local paper was gone, for a year?
A quick Google search and I found a notice on their website saying that the newspaper was no longer published and a blog entry from a former reporter summing up the end of the newspaper.
Sadly, the Millbrook Round Table was just one of scores of local newspapers forced to close down, because the holding company of many of them, Journal Register Co., defaulted on loans and was de-listed from the New York Stock Exchange. However, despite the sympathy I feel for all of those reporters, editors, photographers, graphic designers, proofreaders, ad salespeople and delivery people, no one can say we didn’t see this coming. The truth is, newspapers have been an antiquated technology, and try as they might, they haven’t been able to find a new business model that would enable them to be profitable in the post-paper world of instant, online publishing.
Sound even vaguely familiar? All of the small local newspapers bought up by a big consolidator, who then defaults and cuts costs. Caught behind the technology curve, unable to make up the lost ground, local institutions that have been in place for more than a century fold and disappear in the wink of an eye, sometimes completely un-noticed.
Sadly, I will say that the radio business seems to be on the same trajectory.
I 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.
I sent off a letter to my Senators and Congressman this morning regarding HR 1147/S 592 AKA Local Community Radio Act. Basically I am against this. Not that I don’t appreciate what it is trying to accomplish. I believe the technical degradation of the FM band is a higher concern. After all, if we turn the FM band into what the AM band has become, nobody will listen to radio.
Radio is too important to ruin. Here is what I wrote:
I strongly urge you NOT to support the bipartisan Local Community Radio Act (HR 1147/ S. 592) sponsored by Reps. Mike Doyle and Lee Terry and Sens. Maria Cantwell and John McCain.
In spite of what many have said, Low Power FM (LPFM) contributes to the technical degradation of the FM service. By adding more and more signals covering every possible spot in the FM spectrum, the noise floor is raised causing many FM receivers to “picket fence” which is annoying to most listeners.
Radio has suffered enough degradation over the last few decades. AM radio is now so fraught with interference, especially at night, most people do not even consider listening to it. Packing the FM dial with thousands of low power operators will create the same problems and cause most people to abandon radio altogether.
I am a strong proponent of 1st amendment rights. I believe the sponsors of this bill are well intentioned, however misinformed. I believe that the deregulation of commercial radio allowing one company to own 1,200 radio licenses has created most of the problems we see today.
Clear Channel, in particular, has removed almost all localism from radio, creating bland canned music channels. Their modus operandi was to buy a group of radio stations in a market, combine the stations under one roof, get rid of most of the staff, and drop the advertising rates so other local stations could not compete. Non-Clear Channel stations were then forced to make cuts in there advertising rates and or expenses to stay in business.
The answer is not to create a bigger mess. Instead:
1. Push the FCC to tighten ownership rules. In some ways the horse is already out of the barn, but it would prevent another Clear Channel from forming in the future.
2. If major radio groups go bankrupt and are broken up, allow it to happen, do not intervene. This will allow real radio broadcasters to pick up the pieces and put something together. Perhaps investigate supporting small radio owners by waiving FCC fees and limited tax breaks for a period of time.
3. Push the FCC to continue with the localism hearings they were conducting.
4. Push the FCC to update the EAS and make a workable Emergency Alert System in the US.
Radio is too important a resource to have it ruined. Of all the media outlets, radio is the most robust. During an emergency often times the utility grid is down. Many radio stations have backup power generators and can provide vital information when the internet, phone system, cable TV network, cellphone system, e-mail, etc are down.
Radio can provide local government important mass access to their constituents during elections and at other important times. Radio is free, there are no subscription fees, no service providers, etc. Almost everyone owns a radio, most people own several.
Small savvy radio owners can make a go of it, provided the deck is not stacked against them.
Please DO NOT support the Local Community Radio Act. Thank you.
If you want to get involved, you can go the the Free Press website, there you will find a link to a “Take Action” page (not sure that link will work). Again, I am not opposed to Free Press, or even Free Radio. Packing the FM spectrum with LPFM, translators and the like will only create reception problems. This is just become another reason for people not to listen to radio.
Sounds kind of silly, but in some cases, failure is good. Companies that are inefficient, poorly run, poorly conceived, have substandard products, do not serve their clients, and so on should be able to fail. This allows good companies, that do thing right, to thrive.
Too big to fail is too big and those companies should be broken up. This holds true in the radio business as well as the banking industry, the auto industry and so on. What is truly unfortunate is that the people most responsible for the failure, the upper management and CEOs, often get away with millions while the people who had their back into it get to go to the unemployment office.
That being said, radio is in for some drastic changes soon.
NO BAILOUTS FOR RADIO
Enough already with the bailouts. Radio is not some precious national resource, it does not funtion for the betterment of society, nor does it provide vital information in the time of emergency. It stopped doing those things years ago when deregulation kicked in, deregulation which was lobbied for extensively by the NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) at the behest of radio and tv stations owners, by the way.
Once deregulation took effect, station management went on a hunt for pennies, often tripping over dollars to get them. By staff reductions and cost cutting, the product was deluded and the medium was marginalized and that is where we are today.
Not everyone followed the above narative, there are some operators who stuck to the frame work of public/customer service and kept good programming on the air. Those stations are few and far between but they are out there. Why should they not reap the benefits of there forward thinking?