Update: Apparently the pictures in this post have upset some people. Even though there is no identifying information; no call letters, no company name, and no location given certain folks have been putting a lot of pressure on the guy I work for. I do not want to make any problems for him, so I removed the pictures. After all, the last thing we would want to do is acknowledge there is a problem. The commentary stays.
Well, we have returned from our semi-vacation. Sumat to do with the other side of the family; a road trip to Canton, Oklahoma, a brief study on mineral rights, then a family reunion. On the return home, several side trips to interesting things like the Abraham Lincoln museum in Springfield, Illinois, and the Gateway Arch in Saint Louis. We also stopped in Springfield to see Santa Anna’s leg, which seems to be generating some controversy of late. I do not like to announce such things ahead of time because it seems like an invitation for a house break-in.
But, all good things come to an end, so back to work it is.
And then there is this:
A transmitter site for a group of stations not too far from here.
Class B FM station (50,000 watt equivalent) running 100 watts.
And filth, lots of filth.
As more full time broadcast engineers drop off line, we seem to be picking up more and more work. That is good for business, but some of these sites are downright depressing.
It is very sad to see such disrepair and makes me think that we are in the last days of terrestrial radio. Truth be told, the end may be many years off, but the decline gets steadily steeper every year. In the end; Television, Video, Satellite, the internet and took small bites of radio, but radio owners are the true culprits when it comes to who killed radio.
It is hard to make predictions; so many have failed in the past, but ten years maybe. Perhaps a few more. It will depend on whether or not business still find value in radio advertising. Right now that looks pretty far fetched, but who knows…
This time of year is when we all sit back and assess things that we did in the past 365 or so days. It is called reflection, which is just a civilian term for SWR (Standing Wave Ratio).
Thus, I thought I would take a little time and make a few observations about the business, my part in it, and this blog.
1. The business of Radio:
Let us be honest, Radio is not what it used to be. Many times, what it used to be was somewhat of a free for all, wheeler-dealer radio station owners cutting corners and making do with less than-optimum equipment and staff. And trade, lots and lots of trade. Only in large metropolitan areas did radio stations make enough money to throw it around, but sometimes not even then. Radio was by no means a huge money-making operation and therefore, those that worked in mostly it did it as a labor of love. That may or may not have come across on the air. By far, the funniest station I ever listened to was run from a closet, with a sound reinforcement board and the program director’s CD collection. What made it so much fun was they had nothing to lose, there were no restraints placed on the staff. Once that on-air enthusiasm translated to ratings, then to revenue, the magic was gone and they were just another radio station filling a spot on the dial.
The radio business has fully transitioned from a fun, seat-of-the-pants entertainment operation to a mega money-making corporate mentality under the control of mostly non-entertainment types. Even those stations owned by smaller group owners are forced to rely on the tactics developed by the big two in order to stay in business.
Group owners will continue to extract money in whatever way they can until the money train runs off the rails. Then, radio will be replaced by something less.
2. Radio Engineering:
Engineering will continue to grow smaller, with more emphasis on computers, networking, and IT infrastructure. The future distribution of music and program material will take the form of streaming (live events), podcasts (specialty shows), and subscription services. Over-the-air free radio will become less and less relevant as younger “listeners” trend toward new media. The idea of listeners may be archaic in lieu of “subscribers” or “users.” Thus, in order to remain relevant, broadcast engineers are going to have to keep their skill sets current. I would recommend to anyone getting into the business to get current with routers, routing tables, Cisco equipment, and whatnot. The cloud is coming and will rain on all those not adjusted to the new “broadcasting” reality.
3. My part in the business:
A somewhat superannuated broadcast engineer whose skill set lies mostly within the RF and heavy-duty electrical areas, I am going back to college in January. Cisco Network Administrator is the degree I am shooting for, for that is where the local jobs, both in and out of broadcasting will be. Network Administrators are going to be the backbone of cloud computing, those that can configure routing tables will be desired.
That being said, I continue to be involved with larger RF projects and transmitter work. It is fun for me, most of the time. Having to drive two hours, one way on Christmas Eve to fix a backup transmitter, not so much, but those situations tend to be the exception, rather than the rule.
All in all, it is great fun to press the high voltage on button, not knowing if the transmitter will cycle on normally, or put on some type of display.
4. The blog:
This little thing we have here has been fun. I get a good response to most articles. I welcome all the comments and offline e-mails that come my way. My original intent, which is to provoke thought and dialog, remains unchanged. This year, I have delved into areas not covered by the trade magazines, but do have at least some bearing on radio or radio-related arts. To that end, there have been several negative responses, which is fine. I don’t pretend to know everything, if you know more, then by all means, speak up. By and large, however, the majority of responses continue to be positive.
I continue to grow the overseas audience, with roughly 36% of the page views coming from non-US IP addresses. Persons from The UK, followed by Canada, Netherlands, Australia, and Germany are the top five non-US readers of this blog.
So, I will continue to post about things in the coming year. If any of you have any suggestions or requests, shoot me an email or leave a comment.
I thought I’d take a few moments to explore the current trends and development in Terrestrial Broadcasting, AKA AM, FM, TV, and Shortwave.
Clear Channel Communications RIFs employees
We are all aware of the “reduction in force” or RIF (a term used by the US armed forces in the mid-1990s), as it is called by Clear Channel Broadcasting. One could also call it the iUnheartEmployees program. Small and medium market stations bore the brunt of these reductions, although major markets were not immune either. According to Clear Channel, this will “deliver a much better product to listeners than we have in the past.” Also, they plan to “generate higher ratings for our advertisers and marketing partners and give our best people bigger roles.” Of course, the definition of “much better product,” is subjective and depends on one’s point of view.
In addition to that, the Brand Management Teams indicate the inception of nationwide network radio or at least nationwide radio format standardization, which is almost the same thing. This trend will further eliminate the need for local program directors, local news, and local anything. With greater commitments to iHeartRadio and the hiring of Bob Pittman as CEO, expect more in the way of new media, internet distribution, and so on, possibly at the expense of terrestrial radio transmission.
Clear Channel owns approximately 850 of the nation’s 11,293 commercial AM and FM radio stations.
We are also aware of the Cumulus-Citadel deal, which leaves one less large company on the field and greatly improves Cumulus’s major market presence. In addition to several radio stations, Cumulus also acquires what used to be ABC radio networks and satellite distribution systems. Prior to the merger, Citadel had several satellite radio formats ranging from Top 40/CHR to 24/7 Comedy. There is no word on how the merger will change those formats and what Cumulus plans to do with them. I would speculate that similar to Clear Channel, national-type formats are in the works for Cumulus as well.
Cumulus Media owns approximately 570 of the nation’s commercial AM and FM radio stations.
National Public Radio NPR
The third large group of radio stations is more like a collective than the commonly owned group. Stations or groups of stations are owned by regional group owners and form mini-networks, for example, Northeast Public Radio. The flagship station for Northeast Public Radio is WAMC, however, they own 11 radio stations and 12 translators. This is fairly typical of NPR affiliates.
NPR stations act in concert with the CPB (Corporation for Public Broadcasting) and NPR to form a powerful media presence. Most stations carry some local programming, however, NPR staples such as Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition are almost universally heard on every NPR affiliate.
Technically speaking, NPR stations make up the single biggest block of HD Radio users, almost all of which were licensed and installed under grants from the CPB. NPR Labs has done extensive work testing and attempting to improve HD Radio, taking over for iBquity’s own in-house engineers. NPR is also exploring ways to use new media distribution networks, moving towards a more IP-based distribution model over terrestrial radio.
NPR is funded by member stations, the CPB, and by corporate sponsorships. The largest ever was from the estate of Joan Krock (McDonald’s Corporation), which lead to the Steve Inskeep/Morning Edition story about how great it was to work at Mcdonald’s. There is/have been several efforts to defund the CPB in recent years. With the economy going the way it is and all, the congressional moves to defund may win, which would be a crippling blow to NPR.
NPR affiliates number approximately 850 of the 3,572 non-commercial FM radio stations and about 50 AM stations in the US.
Other broadcast groups such as CBS, Entercom, Emmis, etc
Those companies will likely follow whatever Clear Channel and Cumulus are doing, as those companies are driving marketplace trends and competition, or lack thereof.
Voice of America, US government
In a somewhat surprising development, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees the operations of the Voice of America would like to repeal some parts (.pdf) of the 1948 Smith-Mundt act, which prohibits them from broadcasting domestically. Does this mean that the VOA will become a government broadcaster like the BBC and CBC? I don’t rightly know. The BBG is also proposing to greatly curtail HF (AKA Shortwave) transmissions, favoring a combination of Satellite to FM and IP network delivery methods. The BBG is also proposing defederalizing the VOA (AKA privatization). Perhaps one of the current large broadcasters, e.g. Clear Channel or Cumulus will be interested in purchasing the VOA brand name.
With the repeal of the Smith-Mundt Act, does this open the door for some form of domestic shortwave service? I have commented several times on the ability of HF radio to cover large distances with moderate power levels. The 1,000-watt non-directional CFRX on 6070 KHz is a good example of this. Most hours of the day, it is listenable at my location, some 300 miles distant from the transmitter. I enjoy listening to Toronto news and talking as much as any other. Lower frequencies and moderate power levels would be an interesting experiment.
What does the future hold for broadcast technical people?
All of this points to more consolidation of engineering staff, centralized NOCs (Network Operations Centers), and more emphasis on computer/IT skill sets versus the legacy AM/FM transmitter and analog audio skill sets most broadcast engineers have. The old days of the RF guru are coming to a close.
Most new transmitters have some sort of web interface, which allows complete remote monitoring and supervision. If a transmitter does not have that, remote control units can be web enabled. These transmitters are modular, with the modules being removed and returned to the factory for repair. That innovation greatly reduces the amount of training and experience required to maintain transmitters, almost anyone can remove a module and ship it somewhere. That, in turn, leads to a more consolidated technical staff with field engineers being dispatched to specific sites to take care of outages as needed, which is the model that cellphone companies and wireless service providers use.
Further, as evidenced in this discussion on the radio-info board, many of the older engineers are becoming tired of underfunded, neglected physical plants. The idea that a contract engineer is someone you call only when you go off the air has been around for quite some time. As time goes on, fewer and fewer are willing to accept that type of work.
The future looks like radio station technical staff will be mostly computer-related technicians and engineers that take care of problems remotely from a NOC. If a physical presence is needed, a field technician can be dispatched. These people will most likely be contractors.
Smaller groups and the mom-and-pops that are left will have to get on board with the reality that fewer and fewer contractors will be willing or able to troubleshoot a tube amplifier and replace their transmitters with newer solid-state units. Manufacturers, if they are on the ball, will want to offer some type of monitoring service for those types of customers, again, dispatching a field technician as needed to effect repairs.
Either way, computer and networking skills are a good thing to have and are transportable to other sectors, should one find oneself an unemployed broadcast engineer.
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 staff has 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, and 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.
For the future of radio and radio engineering, I see the following trends developing:
National formats will be introduced. Clear Channel already does this somewhat with its 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 off 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.
Audio distribution will move further into the Audio Over IP realm using private WANs for larger facilities, and 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 remotely 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.
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.
Continued movement of the technical operations into a corporate hierarchy. Technical NOC (Network Operations Center) will include all facets of facility monitoring including transmitters, STLs, 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.
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.