Monthly Archives: January 2011

Jeannie Ericson and the iMA

iMA LogoConvening, connecting and collaborating is how Executive Director Jeannie Ericson describes the mission of the integrated Media Association (iMA). The non-profit organization brings public media professionals together to innovate, increase effectiveness and work more efficiently to raise the bar in providing quality service to the communities they serve. Membership in iMA includes public radio and TV stations, NPR, PBS, other networks and related organizations that serve the public broadcasting community.

“Public media is very diverse, with lots of independent organizations, so it doesn’t always work together well,” adds Ericson. She adds that the mission of iMA is twofold. “One of our key initiatives is to look for common ground among our members so we can offer opportunities to capitalize on economies of scale.” One example Ericson cites is a planned training curriculum about topics in online media, such as web analytics, content management tools and strategies for social media.

The second initiative is to help the public broadcasting industry push the boundaries in innovation and technology. Making the transition to online media is essential for public broadcasters, but Ericson notes that  it is not always easy. “Many station managers come from a traditional broadcast background and place a premium on the quality of content. They are reluctant to take risks with media they feel may compromise that quality. Others who may have had more exposure to new media are eager to play in the sandbox and try completely new ideas.”

Ericson cites the use of Drupal, an open-source content management system, as an example of innovations coming to public media. Various public broadcasting entities use Drupal. NPR’s Public Interactive group is using Drupal for its Core Publisher product. PBS Engage is Drupal-based. The Connecticut Public Broadcasting Network also uses Drupal.

To get a better sense of members’ needs, Ericson notes that IMA is conducting a survey of their technology concerns. “While public and commercial broadcasters have some things in common, they are different in many ways, and the listeners they serve are different as well.” She adds that iMA is getting help from the NPR research department to develop the survey.

Networked Audio: The Early Days

As networked digital audio begins its second decade, Scott Johnson, a systems engineer at Wheatstone Corporation, reflects on its development, and some of the lessons learned as the technology has evolved.

Scott Johnson

Scott Johnson

“At first, it was about getting both myself and our customers out of the old, analog way of thinking about audio plants,” explains Johnson, who began his networked digital audio career with Klotz Digital America in 2001. Analog systems distributed audio to multiple locations with multi-pair cable, punch blocks and distribution amps. “Networked audio offers so many advantages,” adds Johnson. “It has simplified wiring, logic control is easily distributed and changed, and it is can be scaled by adding additional frames and matrices.

As Johnson was working as a sales engineer and designing systems from customer specifications, he also realized how much equipment was made redundant by platform digital audio. “Intercoms could be created by assigning a button to route audio to a destination, so an external system wasn’t needed.”

Air chain sharing enables users of a networked system to offer the air chain to different studios digitally, eliminating patch bays. It also enables a more flexible use of studios. For example, the air chain can be switched to another studio easily, freeing up the air studio for production or maintenance.

Going one step further, digital systems allow the user to create static mixers, which can route an automation system directly to the air chain. With an analog system, 2 or 3 faders may need to be left potted up to run automation, effectively tying up a studio. Static mixes may enable stations to be built with fewer studios, saving construction costs and floor space.

A savings in the cost of consoles may also be realized. Johnson explains, “With an analog system, you might have a 24-channel console, with one fader for every source. Since digital systems can dynamically assign inputs, you can have presets for on-air, production and overnights, and get away with a much smaller board.”

Another change has come in the simplification of software used to program these systems. “Older software was text-based, and engineers usually needed a week’s worth of training just to do basic things like renaming sources,” notes Johnson. “Today’s administrative programs are graphical, and users can be fully versed in their use in one day.” He adds that the scripting capability is still available. “You may want to do something totally creative that’s never been done before. Scripting allows such custom functions to be created in software.”

VOHCM Upgrades Transmitter Site

VOHCM Antenna

VOHCM Antenna

If you want to see super power AM transmitter installations, you have to travel outside the United States. One such facility, currently undergoing an upgrade, is at Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. In operation for almost 50 years, the Voice of Ho Chi Minh City (VOHCM) is increasing its power output from 100 to 200 Kw, and preparing for digital transmission. The Southeast Asia broadcaster operates the AM station on 610 Khz, and provides separate programming on 99.9 Mhz FM. Both stations can be heard throughout southern Vietnam.

The original AM facility was an American installation dating to the early 1960s, and included a Harris 100 Kw transmitter. The renovation is being completed by LBA Technology, and is described in the company’s blog.  A preliminary site inspection by LBA engineering determined that the old tower and ATU would need to be replaced. In addition to showing signs of old age, the existing site was designed for analog radio, and couldn’t meet the bandwidth and phasing requirements for IBOC  transmission. Additionally, the base insulators, lighting transformers and other components couldn’t withstand the higher voltages of the 200 kw power increase.

Magnum Towers custom designed a base-insulated 400-foot quarter-wave tower to fit LBA specifications and comply with Vietnamese standards. ICAO-standard obstruction lighting was isolated through an Austin lighting transformer at the tower base. LBA provided a high voltage stay guy wire insulation system. To complete the antenna installation, a new ground system was installed consisting of 120 radials of #10 AWG copper wire with a ground screen and copper strap bonding system.

Antenna Tuning Unit


LBA designed a phase-adjustable “L-network” ATU rated for 200 KW at 125% modulation. The system was built in prefabricated modules to fit into the new ATU building. It operates with an input impedance of 50 +/-j0 ohms unbalanced from the transmitter, and it’s output matches the predicted tower impedance of 38 +j24 ohms. The ATU is IBOC-capable with a VSWR of less than 1.05:1 at the operating frequency, and less than 1.4:1 +/- 7.5 Khz.

Other components installed at VOHCM include a 6 1/8” coaxial input, high voltage RF window, high voltage 120A toroidal current transformers for monitoring antenna and input currents, remote readouts for the transmitter  building, carbon sphere lightning gaps and a static drain.

The final phase of the upgrade involves the purchase and installation of a 200kw transmitter, which is currently in the planning stages.

Smarter, Faster, Cheaper

How can radio leverage the power of technology and social media to ramp up its influence?

David Siteman Garland's "The Rise to the Top"David Siteman Garland’s blog The Rise to the Top, is a storehouse of valuable information on 21st-century marketing. Garland has also written a book on the topic, Smarter, Faster, Cheaper: Non-Boring, Fluff-Free Strategies for Promoting Your Business. Consultant Mark Ramsey spoke with Garland about the key points that broadcasters can take away from his experiences.

Garland notes that broadcasters have a head start because they already know how to create great content. What they need to understand is the shift that is taking place from product pushing to becoming a trusted resource on a subject. “They can use that great content along with air personalities to create 1-on-1 relationships with the audience, and that is huge,” explains Garland. He adds that the next step is taking this to an online environment.

The traditional approach to promoting your business with an advertising campaign takes lots of money. Garland says there’s a better way. “Use non-traditional marketing with social media and a web site to form relationships. By doing this, you’ll meet like-minded people and rally them to your community.”

One common objection of broadcasters is raised by Ramsey, “We don’t have the time to set all this up.” “That’s really an excuse,” explains Garland. “People say they don’t have time for things, but they are able to make the time when they believe something is important.” The problem is really that there’s not a quick-term fix. Garland notes it takes momentum and commitment to succeed. Results don’t happen right away.

That in turn means you need to have a passion for what you do. It should be something you’d like to do even if you didn’t get paid for it. Garland’s interviews with people who are extremely successful reveal that they all love what they do.

Garland’s keys to success start with a great web site. “It has to be a 50-50 split between great content and great design. The next step is making the content easy to share. Facebook and Twitter are two popular tools for connecting with other relevant people in your industry”.

Finally, Garland recalls the maxim ’50 percent of your audience is deaf, and 50 percent is blind’, so provide content on your site that appeals to different learning styles.

KDKA at 90

The business of broadcasting turned 90 years old in November. As Radio-Timetraveller recalls, on a cold winter night in 1920, station KDKA in Pittsburgh made the first broadcast over the novel invention of wireless.

Frank Conrad's 8XK

Frank Conrad's 8XK

During World War I, congress had frozen all privately held radio and telephone equipment. With war’s end, the freeze was lifted, and the competition to commercialize radio took off. Dr. Frank Conrad, an engineer at Westinghouse, was keenly interested, and he had already set up an experimental station before the war. In April 1920, Conrad applied to the Department of Commerce for a license, and was granted the call sign 8XK.

Westinghouse took an interest in the project, and financed Conrad’s construction of a new station on the roof of the Westinghouse factory in East Pittsburgh PA. As it turned out, the timing couldn’t have been better. The presidential election of 1920 was heating up. On the Republican side were Senator Warren G. Harding of Ohio and Governor Calvin Coolidge of Massachusetts. Facing them were the Democrats, Governor James Cox of Ohio and former Undersecretary of the Navy, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

When the new facility was completed, it operated on a frequency of 833 Khz (360 meters) with a power output of 100 watts. The Department of Commerce granted the new station the now-historic call sign KDKA. The entire station was in a metal shack on the roof, including a desk with a microphone.

On election night, Tuesday, November 2, four men were busy at the station compiling election results. Their information came via a wired telephone line to the Pittsburgh Post. As the results were tallied, they were read by Leo H. Rosenberg, who was perhaps the first radio announcer. It’s estimated that between 500 and 1000 people were listening to the new station that night.

KDKA’s election night coverage ignited a firestorm of interest in radio broadcasting across the country. Shortly afterward, Conrad increased the power to 500 watts, and the signal was now heard as far away as Washington, D. C. A schedule was drawn up, entertainment programs were added to the mix, and the rest is history.

Picard on Commissioning

Purchasing a system from Wheatstone involves more than buying boxes of hardware and software. Technical Support Engineer Paul Picard has been with the company since 1985, and spends much of his time commissioning new systems. He elaborates on the process of commissioning an installation, and why it is important to customers.

Paul Picard Headshot

Paul Picard

Picard explains that commissioning involves having a Wheatstone Support Engineer visit the site at the completion of the installation process to make sure the customer gets the maximum value from their new equipment. It is typically a three-step process.

First is an operational checkout of the system to make sure it is wired correctly. “We occasionally find bad connectors, wiring between tiers that has been done straight through rather than with crossover connectors, and wiring to patch bays and XLR panels with incorrect polarity and pinouts,” explains Picard. He adds that with some installations, particularly TV, there may be issues with audio synchronization between the console and external gear, and that all AES time boundaries need to be aligned correctly.

This first phase also includes any customization of the installation. This usually involves setting up logic control, and programming and scripting the user-defined button panels.

Next, the Wheatstone Technical Support Engineer will meet with station engineers to make them aware of the console’s functionality, and to customize the board to match specific applications, usually mix minus, logic control and studio sharing needs. “There are multiple ways to do a mix minus on our consoles,” explains Picard, “But one may be better for an application than others.” During this part of the commissioning, the engineering staff often discovers that they have some extraneous gear in their racks, because the Wheatstone equipment has the same functionality built in.

Finally, the Support Engineer will conduct training sessions for audio operators. Usually these are two-hour sessions with two to four people. “We try to make them hands on.” adds Picard, “ The goal is to get operators comfortable enough with the new board that they can set up a show by themselves and create the necessary events”.

Commissioning can be purchased from Wheatstone in single day increments. Most installations can be done in one to two days, more elaborate installations may take three.

It’s a Smart World After All

Augmented Reality HUD

Augmented Reality HUD (click to zoom)

Broadcasters in increasing numbers are monitoring and controlling remote sites with a variety of sensors and actuators connected to devices with web servers, enabling systems to be accessible any place where there is Internet access. As they do, they’re part of the global remote sensing community, and followers of a path blazed over 20 years ago by scientists in the research labs of Xerox PARC. 

A Special Report in the Nov 6 issue of The Economist says this convergence of real and digital worlds is just beginning. This evolution of Smart Systems is often below the radar because it is happening everywhere at once, and usually not understood for what it is.

As smart sensors are deployed in more objects with Web access, we are gradually building an ‘Internet of Things’, and a virtual world that mirrors the real one. The concept began with RFID tags, which emit identifying signals when exposed to a radio signal. Now there are self-powered active tags which are smaller and can handle more information. Sensors have been developed which can detect everything from the rarest chemical compound to the most exotic bacteria.

Researchers have made great strides in solving the biggest hurdles to deployment. One has been power. Rather  than running wires to power supplies or dealing with batteries, next gen sensors get their juice from sources such as light or motion. Another issue has been efficient use of the radio spectrum. New sensors can link together and form their own “mesh networks” to communicate with the rest of the world.

While Google’s Earth and Street View services are static views of the planet, perhaps the best fusion of the real and virtual worlds that we have today is in smartphones which support ‘augmented reality’. With an app called ‘Layar’ installed, and the phone’s video camera pointed at a streetscape, an over lay of digital information appears, such as names of businesses, special sale prices, houses for sale, gas prices, etc. These services are growing rapidly and are predicted to merge into ‘societal information-technology systems’ or SIS.

The potential benefits for fully deployed smart systems in the environmental sector alone is enormous. Our current infrastructure is just a network of dumb power grids, roadways and pipes. A smart American power grid that is just 5 percent more efficient can save greenhouse emissions equal to that of 53 million cars, calculates IBM. In 2007, congested roads cost us 4.2 billion working hours and 10.6 billion liters of wasted gas, according to the Texas Transportation Institute. And Lux Research estimates that water utilities globally lose between 25 and 50 percent of their treated water to leaks.

Top 5 Small Market Manager Worries

As President and General Manager of Thunderbolt Broadcasting, Paul Tinkle manages a small group of stations in rural Tennessee He is passionate about broadcasting, but also has concerns about the future of his organization, and small market radio in general. He shares his ‘top 5′ challenges with Wheatstone.

  1. How to be everywhere our listeners are. “We need to be able to extend our presence beyond AM and FM, and into the Internet, HD iPhones, and other mobile media. If resources are stretched, we’ll need to prioritize our outreach, but it has to happen.”
  2. Retaining great sales reps and eliminating turnover. This is a problem in both small and medium market stations. An investment must be made in nurturing and training until they come up to speed. When they have the skills,and experience there is the risk that they will leave for larger radio markets or other media.
  3. Being ready for the next thing on the horizon. “It’s a challenge not only to stay up with rapidly changing technology, but also to be able to afford it.” Tinkle adds, “Right now we’re getting ready for the changes in EAS and CAP compliance”. He adds that while prices for some items have come down, equipment costs are often a restraining force in the growth of small market radio.
  4. Finding qualified technical help. “Our chief engineer recently retired at age 85, he came from the military. Our other engineer is 55 years old, he was a college buddy of mine. No one has knocked on my door looking for engineering work in about 25 years.” He adds that ways need to be found to attract young people to broadcast engineering. Part of Tinkle’s solution has been to educate himself about the technical side of broadcasting. “I can do basic troubleshooting, and have been known to change a tube in the transmitter when the need arises.” He also personally inspects each of his sites at least once a week, checking tower lights and logging meter readings. “Any station owner who doesn’t do these things needs to rethink their priorities.”
  5. Maintaining the commitment to localism. Tinkle emphasizes this is an ongoing process. Recent deaths in the county due to tornadoes led him to install emergency generators at all sites, establish a relationship with the National Weather Service, and make sure all employees are up to speed on EAS operations.

Despite the challenges, Tinkle remains optimistic about the future of small market radio, and believes there will be a resurgence of local radio in a couple years. “There will always be a place for you if you stay local and stay involved with the community. New technologies have come along, but radio remains the most dependable platform we have ever known.”

Hybrid Power at Broadcast Australia

The Mount Owen site, August 2010

Mount Owen (click to zoom)

Broadcast Australia has just placed its first site online which is  majority-powered by renewable energy. The Mt. Owen transmitter site near Queenstown in Tasmania  broadcasts a variety of national and commercial analog/digital signals, as well as critical communications for emergency services. The recent upgrade will enable site-generated power to meet the 8Kw power needs for 80 to 90 percent of the time.

As the site grew with new services such as digital television, the power demands began to exceed the capacity of the existing mains feed. At a height of 980m above sea level, and with a strong prevailing south-westerly wind, Mt. Owen was ideal for wind turbine power generation.

Broadcast Australia erected a constant-output horizontal axis wind turbine on a 15m-high mast. The turbine is rated for a maximum power generation of 15Kw for a wind speed of 12m/s. Additional power comes from 36 square meters of mono-crystalline solar photovoltaic panels rated at 5 Kw peak generating capacity.

The Mt. Owen site is designed to operate primarily from wind and solar power. Extra power is used to charge two banks of 2900Ah batteries which can kick in when wind/solar output drops below nominal power demand of 8 Kw. The batteries alone can keep the site running for two days.

During periods of reduced wind and solar generation, power can also come from the AC mains, or a 31KVA diesel generator with a ten-day reserve of fuel. The generator will start automatically as needed, or can be activated remotely from the Network Operations Center.

Designing a site to run reliably from such a variety of power sources was a challenge for Broadcast Australia, as Cafe explains, “Our requirement for a reliable mid-sized wind generator was something of a niche application, for which there isn’t a great deal of expertise in the marketplace. However, we have overcome many challenges to achieve an outcome that allows these new technologies to be evaluated with very little risk to the onsite services.”

While the Mt. Owen site has only been online a short time, Cafe estimates the savings to be up to 60MWh of conventional power per year. Broadcast Australia expects to harvest the experiences from this hybrid energy site at other remote broadcast locations across the Australian continent.

BBC Seeks Endangered Sounds

Trevor Cox

Trevor Cox

Just as plants and animals may become extinct, some sounds and soundscapes are on the endangered list. With the introduction of ‘Save Our Sounds’, the BBC World Service is trying to create an audio snapshot of the world, and preserve today’s endangered sounds. To do this, it is requesting the help of listeners worldwide, urging them to make digital recordings of rare sounds and send them to the BBC’s website.

Veteran broadcasters may recall extinct sounds from radio: the ceaseless clatter of the teletype machine, the sounds of 45 RPM records being cued and tapes being fast forwarded, as well as the rhythmic chunk-chunk-chunk of the Western Union clock as it marked the seconds remaining till the next newscast.

Beardmore Engine

While some sounds disappear forever, new ones enter our lives. Other sounds once thought to be extinct, are revived. A recently restored Beardmore engine, the only one of its kind, from a WW I British observation plane, is being heard for the first time in nearly 90 years.

BBC documentaries presented by acoustic engineer Trevor Cox feature interviews with architects, urban planners, artists and environmental scientists who discuss how the soundscapes in London and Hong Kong have changed, and what sounds are in danger of being lost in the future. Cox also interviews UK scientists from the Positive Soundscape Project, who are trying to shift the focus from managing noise in cities to incorporating the sounds that the public really wants to hear in the urban environment such as birdsongs, buskers and even barking dogs.

Save Our Sounds Producer Rami Tzabar notes a profound shift when one really tunes in to the acoustic ecology of an urban center such as London. “You begin to appreciate the difference between foreground and background in the acoustic environment. The sound of your own footsteps, the loss of church bells and the delight of a child’s laugh against the bass rumble of traffic noise.”

Tzabar explains that the idea for the programs came when he and Cox were listening to the sound archives at the British Library. “We discovered a set of programs called the Soundscapes of Canada, produced by R. Murray Schafer, an academic who formed The World Soundscape Project.” Schafer is regarded as the father of acoustic ecology and soundscape research.

The Save Our Sounds documentaries are available for download on the BBC World Service website.