Everything we do is destined for one place.

I give you, The Human Ear:

Anatomy of the human ear
Anatomy of the Human Ear, courtesy of Wikipedia

All of the programming elements, all of the engineering equipment and practices, all of the creative process, the music, the talk, the commercials, everything that goes out over the air should reach as many ears as possible.  That is the business of radio.  The quality of the sound and the listening experience is often lost in the process.

Unfortunately, a large segment of the population has been conditioned to accept the relatively low quality of .mp3 and other digital files delivered via computers and smart phones.  There is some hope however; when exposed to good sounding audio, most people respond favorably, or are in fact, amazed that music can sound that good.

There are few fundamentals as important as sounding good.  Buying the latest Frank Foti creation and hitting preset #10 is all well and good, but what is it that you are really doing?

Time was when the FCC required a full audio proof every years.  That meant dragging the audio test equipment out and running a full sweep of tones through the entire transmission system, usually late at night.  It was a great pain, however, it was also a good exercise in basic physics.  Understanding pre-emphasis and de-emphasis curves, how an STL system can add distortion and overshoot, how clean (distortion wise) the output of the console is, how clean the transmitter modulator is, how to correct for base frequency tilt and high frequency ringing, all of those are basic tenants of broadcast engineering.  Mostly today, those things are taken for granted or ignored.

Audio frequency vs. wavelength chart
Audio frequency vs. wavelength chart

Every ear is different and responds to sound slightly differently.  The frequencies and SPL’s given here are averages, some people have hearing that can go far above or below average, however, they are an anomaly.

An understanding audio is a good start.  Audio is also known as sound pressure waves.  A speaker system generates areas or waves of lower and high pressure in the atmosphere.  The size of these waves depends on the frequency of vibration and the energy behind the vibrations.  Like radio, audio travels in a wave outward from it’s source, decreasing in density as a function of area covered.  It is a logarithmic decay.

The human ear is optimized for hearing in the mid range band around 3 KHz, slightly higher for women and lower for men.  This is because the ear canal is a 1/4 wave length resonant at those frequencies.  Mid range is most associated with the human voice and the perceived loudness of program material.

Base frequencies contain a lot of energy due to the longer wave lengths.  This energy is often transmitted into structural members without adding too much to the listening experience due to a sharp roll off starting around 100 Hz.  Too much base energy in radio programming can sap loudness by reducing the midrange and high frequency energy from the modulated product.

High frequencies offer directivity, as in left right stereo separation.  Too much high frequency sounds shrill and can adversely effect female listeners, as they are more sensitive to high end audio because of smaller ear canals and tympanic membranes.

Processing programming material is a highly subjective matter.  I am a minimalist, I think that too much processing is self defeating.  I have listened to a few radio stations that have given me a headache after 10 minutes or so.  Overly processed audio sounds splashy, contrived and fake with unnatural sounds and separation.  A good idea is to understand each station’s processing goals.  A hip-hop or CHR stations obviously is looking for something different than a clasical music station.

For the non-engineer, there are three main effects of processing;  equalization, compression (AKA gain reduction), expansion.  Then there are other things like phase rotation, pre-emphasis or de-emphasis, limiting, clipping and harmonics.

EQ is a matter of taste, although it can be used to overcome some non-uniformity in STL paths.  Compression is a way to bring up quite passages and increase the sound density or loudness.  Multi band compression is all the rage, it allows each of the four bands to react differently to program material, which can really make things sound differently then they were recorded. Miss adjusting a multi band compressor can make audio really sound bad.  Compression is dictated not only by the amount of gain reduction, but also by the ratio, attack and release times.  Limiting is a relative to compression, but acts only on the highest peaks.  A certain amount of limiting is good as it acts to keep programming levels constant.  Clipping is a last resort method for keeping errant peaks from effecting modulations levels.  Expansion is often used on microphones and is a poor substitute for a well built quite studio.  Expansion often adds swishing effects to microphones.

I may break down the effects of compression and EQ in a separate post.  The effects of odd and even order audio harmonics could easily fill a book.

Listening to the Radio like doing Cocaine

Well now, this explains a few things.  Always interested in carrying science forward, I read with interest the article on Gawker which cites a study from McGill University in Montreal, Canada.  The gist of the article states that we seek out music we enjoy because of a chemical reaction in our brains:

If music-induced emotional states can lead to dopamine release, as our findings indicate, it may begin to explain why musical experiences are so valued. These results further speak to why music can be effectively used in rituals, marketing or film to manipulate hedonistic states. Our findings provide neurochemical evidence that intense emotional responses to music involve ancient reward circuitry and serve as a starting point for more detailed investigations of the biological substrates that underlie abstract forms of pleasure.

By extension, radio has previously been the venue for most new music discovery.  Although this continues today, it is being supplanted by “new media” sources such as youtube.  As a point of reference, studies on cocaine addiction show that dopamine levels increase by about 22% during use.  When a listener is exposed to what is perceived as good music (a subjective term), average dopamine levels increased by about 21%.

Risk taking behavior like computer file sharing, when known consequences are large, could enhance that by adding an element of danger.  The Gawker article lists Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” which I always found somewhat depressing.  Something more like this a little more fun:

You can disregard the T-shirt pitch at the end if you want.

So there you are you erstwhile program directors, now you know why your job is important; you are to make us addicts, or not, depending…

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.