In this time of COVID-19

As most of you may know, I live in New York State (Hudson Valley region).  This is very close to the COVID-19 outbreak in Westchester County.  There has been one confirmed case in my town.  As such, we are experiencing the outbreak ahead of the curve from the rest of the country.  School has been canceled for at least two weeks and perhaps indefinitely.   All public gathering places are closed; restaurants, bars, movie theaters, malls, churches, etc.  As a radio engineer, the COVID-19 virus has several implications:

  • Things are still going to break and will need attention. The good news is that most transmitter sites are unmanned. The only social interaction may be during the travel phase (getting fuel, food, etc).
  • Many studios and offices are being abandoned as well. Over the last few days, we have set up DJs to operate from their houses.  Most sales and office staff have been told to work from home.
  • Broadcasters have been designated critical communications infrastructure, and The Department of Homeland Security has issued letters that allow travel and procurement of fuel during the national emergency for critical personnel.
  • I managed, prior to the store shelves being emptied this weekend, to procure some PPE.  I don’t know how effective it will be, but anything is better than nothing.
  • Since Hurricane Sandy, I have had in place many emergency supplies and equipment needed to restore service in the event of a long-term interruption of basic services.

There are many long-term economic implications. For commercial radio stations, the loss of income is going to be extreme.  As the virus has spread, businesses have canceled pretty much all advertising.  During past disasters, radio was often the only means of getting information to the general population.  I am not sure if this is still the case.  How relevant is radio these days?

Driving and the hazards thereof

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 covers an area from New York City all the way up to the Canadian border.  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:

Sherrif department armored vehicle
County Sheriff’s Department armored vehicle, courtesy of

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 11 pm, 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 to 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 for 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), the last time the instrument was calibrated, the time interval between the use of the RADAR gun and passage of vehicle(s), did the police officer lose 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.

Contract engineering, vehicles and the price of gas

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 choice of shooting myself in the leg or shooting myself in the foot.

1997 Jeep Cherokee in early April snowstorm
1997 Jeep Cherokee in an 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 junkyard.

Work Truck, Chevy Silverado 1500
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 of 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 pickup 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
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:

  1. I am fairly tall; will I look like a weenie getting in and out of this thing?
  2. I drive a lot of interstate miles; if I get into an accident will I get squashed like a bug?
  3. Will all my stuff fit in the back of this thing?

That being said, it would be awfully nice to get 36 miles per gallon…

Radio Headed in the wrong direction

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 the radio is off the rails.  According to 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 manufacturers and vendors will do pretty well this year.  After all, equipment is an asset, employees are liabilities.