Monthly Archives: June 2011

New Life for Wheatstone TV-600 at the Geek Group

Chris Boden (left) oversees installation and checkout of the Geek Group's Wheatstone TV-600

Chris Boden (left) oversees installation and checkout of the Geek Group's Wheatstone TV-600

What do you do with an analog Wheatstone TV console once you’ve gone digital? If you’re like one Grand Rapids TV station, you donate it to the Geek Group. This non-profit group is focused on science, technology, engineering, math and arts education. It’s not really a school, nor a museum, and it’s not a university, yet it incorporates elements of all these environments.

The Geek Group takes the hands-on learning experience to the next level. Its format is similar to the Explorer Posts that flourished in the 1970s. Its members, largely students and members of skilled trades, work together in mentoring relationships on a wide variety of technology projects. Scattered around the Geek Group’s labs are robots, lightning machines, lasers and a variety of science and technology gear.

“We started out in 1994 as a group of Michigan college nerds doing hacker projects,” explains Chris Boden, the group’s president. “Fast forward 17 years, and the Geek Group has turned into a global organization.” With a diverse membership in all 50 states and 36 other countries, the Geek Group is operating at a scale previously unimagined. Growth is fueled by the group’s website, social networking, and hundreds of original educational videos broadcast on the web.

What originally began as lab-notes videos shot with a pocket camera has grown to a full soundstage with state of the art videography and viewership in the millions. The group is in the top 20 posters on YouTube, and has gathered about 3 ½ million hits to date.

As Boden notes, “The Wheatstone TV-600 console is a huge step up from the 6-channel rack mount mixer we had been using for our productions.”

In order to lighten the load and get the console upstairs, Boden carefully numbered and pulled all the modules from the mixer. He later posted a 24-minute video on YouTube describing the reassembly of the TV-600.

Following removal of labels and surface grime, the next step is wiring the console, and the Geek Group is assembling a team of local broadcast engineers and young volunteers to solder the numerous D connectors and wire the system into punch blocks. The TV-600 however, is part of a much larger media upgrade that Boden envisions for the Geek Group.

“We’ve got projects going on all over the building, in the plasma physics lab, robotics workshop, the CNC fab shop, everywhere. We want to wire all these spaces for audio and video so that we can produce programs that describe what a typical day is like around here.” A program might jump from one space to the next to track several projects at once.

To do that, the Geek Group needs a lot more gear, and is looking for donations from radio and TV stations to help equip its facilities both in Grand Rapids and across the country.

“A broadcaster’s trash is our treasure,” explains Boden. “Analog TV transmitters have become useless, but their power supplies can be used for high voltage physics labs. Klystrons are huge for us.”

Old ENG cameras are often discarded when their transports fail. “We can use them for live video feeds from spaces around the building,” adds Boden. Even tripods with broken legs are welcomed. The Geek Group can use the fluid heads. “We need to round up around 50 cameras to do video from anywhere in the building,” adds Boden.

All of this will help the group fulfill its mission of creating an environment where people can learn and explore. “So much of our culture celebrates being stupid,” laments Boden, “We want to create a space where it’s OK to be smart.”

Community Radio: Take Two

Portable LPFM TransmitterThe announcement that the FCC will open discussion on creating new rules for setting up Low-Power FMs (LPFM) and FM translators is welcome news to advocates of community, or LPFM radio. One such advocate is the Prometheus Radio Project. According to an article in RVR-TVBR, the meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, July 12.

Brandy Doyle, spokesperson for the Prometheus Radio Project added, “The FCC’s Future of Media report argues that low power can help increase diversity on the airwaves, but that can only happen if diverse communities gain access to this important resource. Fortunately, Congress gave the FCC a clear mandate in the law: ensure channels for low power, and base your policies on the needs of local communities. After ten years, urban communities (and the schools, churches, and non-profits that want to serve them) have waited long enough. We look forward to seeing how the proposed rules implement this mandate.”

Two issues that are high on the Commission’s LPFM agenda are changes in audience ratings of full-service FMs as a result of competition from LPFM stations, and changes in advertising revenue to full-service FMs as a result of LPFM operations.

While concerns of the financial impact to full-service FMs may be unfounded, the bigger issue for broadcasters may be potential interference from LPFMs and increased difficulty in getting translators licensed.

For veteran broadcasters, the coming of LPFMs is deja vu. In the late 60s and early 70s, 10-watt Class D FM service was established in order to give a voice to community and educational organizations, and hundreds of college, high school and community stations came into existence. After lobbying by big media however, the Commission eventually revised its policy, eliminating protection for Class Ds, requiring them to increase power to a minimum of 100 watts or risk being bumped to another frequency if an adjacent channel station wanted to increase power.

Radio Builds New Relationships

Jacobs Media Tech Survey 7The social media revolution makes it more important than ever for radio stations to develop new types of relationships with listeners. Techsurvey 7, conducted by Jacobs Media, explored how listeners use technology to relate to each other, and to stations.

Company president Fred Jacobs reflects on the evolution of the survey as it enters its seventh year. “We’ve tracked the explosion of mobile devices and social media over the years, but this time we cast the questions more in terms of people and their relationships to the technology and media.”

In March-April of 2011, Techsurvey 7 surveyed 21,000 respondents from 75 stations with AAA, classic rock, rock and AAA alternative formats. Among the key findings: 80 percent of respondents are on Facebook, making it a mainstream medium.

46 percent of them have a smartphone, up 56 percent from last year. That statistic is revealing because smartphone users can engage in more activities, from surfing the web to taking pictures, streaming media and e-mail. iPhone is the number one brand, with Android a close second. These two have the highest brand loyalty, with users saying they’ll go with them for their next smartphone purchase. BlackBerry users on the other hand, are often considering other brands.

E-mail is the first digital contact point for listeners, but Facebook is rapidly gaining ground. And while computers are the main mode of electronic communication, smartphones are quickly becoming the instrument of choice.

Despite these changes, many people working in radio are not skilled in social media, and this points to a weakness in hiring practices and the human resources end of the business. “Radio is still using the same boilerplate job descriptions it has for the past 30 years,” notes Jacobs, “and that needs to change.”

He elaborates on the skill set necessary for air talent, so that stations can thrive in the age of social networks and online media. “They should be able to communicate with listeners on air and online, and a knowledge of the local community is critical. Strong writing skills are vital, as is an understanding of the differences in writing for print and electronic media.”

Good organizational skills are important. “Radio thrives on spontaneity,” explains Jacobs. “and in order to react to situations quickly, you need to be organized and prepare in advance for whatever may come along.”

Air talent, and those who are before the public, need to present themselves physically in an attractive way. “This is a new concept for many in radio, but it connects with the consumer experience. Hermit-like personalities who never want to leave the studio, or those with anti-social traits will not leave a positive impression.”

Surprisingly, Jacobs lists video and video editing skills. “As we think of radio as theater of the mind, and grapple with convergence of media, being able to think visually and tell a story becomes more important.”

In some cases, television has embraced social media in ways radio hasn’t, according to Jacobs. He cites the example of the Back Channel, started by an anchor at WXYZ-TV in Detroit. As he began engaging more with viewers on Twitter, Steven Clark received feedback asking why all the station covered on the local news was violent and depressing stories. “Clark asked what he should be covering,” recounts Jacobs, “and got quite a few positive suggestions from viewers, many of which were used in newscasts. When the station had a meeting of bloggers at a local bar, Clark was surprised that the station was reaching a much younger demographic than anyone expected.”

What Business Are We In, Anyway?

Larry KramerWhat business is radio really in? If you reply, the broadcasting business, the music business, or the radio business, Larry Kramer would emphatically declare, “Wrong answer!”

Kramer, founder and former CEO of CBS MarketWatch, has written a book entitled C-Scape: Conquer the Forces Changing Business Today. Mark Ramsey, President of Mark Ramsey Media, asked Kramer how his ideas apply to the radio industry. What is the C-Scape, and how about the forces that are changing business?

“The C-Scape is named after the four themes of change that have ripped through media and all start with the letter C,” explains Kramer. “First comes the consumer.”

The consumer is more in control now, and has a more aggressive relationship with programmers. We live in an age of anytime, anywhere programming which changes all the rules.

The second C is content. As Kramer notes, content is not a commodity. When he founded CBS MarketWatch, he realized there had to be more than just stock quotes. “People can get that anywhere; its the analysis and commentary on what these quotes mean that make it valuable.” He adds that the real power in media has shifted to the content creators. By way of example, if a cable company decided to cancel ESPN, consumers would likely drop the cable company and go somewhere else where they could get ESPN. “The Internet digital platforms match buyers and sellers and squeeze the middlemen.” This point has huge implications for radio broadcasters.

Instead of simply competing with other stations in the same market, radio is competing with satellite broadcasting and streaming media. This doesn’t mean radio is going to go away, but it does make it more difficult for radio to be dominant. How does radio compete? “You have to put on great content,” declares Kramer. “There’s no way around it. You’re not going to be a success because you’re the only guy in town anymore.”

“If you’re doing country music,” notes Kramer, “and all you’re doing is commodity music, nothing makes you different . What you need to do is surround that music with criticism, with observation, with interviews with country music artists. You have to do something better.”

In other words, as Ramsey notes, “The music becomes the base of what you do, but not the end of what you do. It’s the beginning. It’s not just the music, it’s the whole experience.”

Kramer notes that a common mistake companies make is framing what business they’re in and getting it wrong. Returning to the original question of what business radio is in, “You’re in the entertainment business or the news business, one or the other.”

The third C is curation. In a world of information overload, someone needs to help consumers make sense of it all. “It’s part of what we should be doing for our customers,” explains Kramer. “They need it, we need to help them do it.”

The fourth and final C is convergence. Platforms are converging for the first time. “You can now tell a story using words, video, audio, text, interactive graphics, anything in one place,” adds Kramer. “We need to focus on the best way of telling the story and bringing all the elements together.”

For radio, the challenge in the future is to move beyond commoditized music and devise new ways to add value and give its audience the entertainment experience.


Radio Netherlands Worldwide – Going Behind the Dikes?

RNW Transmitter SiteFollowing the global economic downturn and curtailment of other international broadcasters, the Dutch cabinet has announced proposed cutbacks and a change in the mission of Radio Netherlands Worldwide (RNW), as reported on RNW’s own website.

The Dutch broadcaster has historically provided information for Dutch people living abroad, and used its shortwave facilities to present a realistic image of the Netherlands. No more. Its new mission is to provide information solely to countries where free speech is threatened.

The proposed cuts to RNW follow reductions announced by the Dutch government to funding for the arts, defense and higher education. As part of the realignment, RNW will longer fall under the media budget, but will report to the Dutch Foreign Ministry.

Reacting to the announcement, RNW Editor-in-Chief Rik Rensen said: “Our country is known as an important and reliable trading nation. Radio Netherlands Worldwide makes a unique contribution in ten languages, 24 hours a day. For tens of millions of people around the world, RNW is an important source of information and a journalistic calling card for the Netherlands. Is our country really going back behind the dikes?”

Other Dutch officials were also outraged. Former foreign minister Bernard Bot, chairman of the RNW supervisory board, said: “I find this cabinet decision incomprehensible for a government whose foreign policy should serve the long-term interests of the Netherlands and the Dutch.”

RNW Director-General Jan Hoek echoed the feelings of Mr Bot: “This is an incomprehensible and sad decision. The ministry has chosen the easy way out by passing one quarter of the cuts in public broadcasting (two hundred million euros) in its entirety to one organization – RNW.”

The closures are set to take place in 2012. RNW has 46 million Euros for programming in ten languages this year. It will probably receive 10 million Euros to close out operations next year, selling its headquarters in Hilversum and a relay station in Madagascar. The remaining relay station in Bonaire, Netherlands Antilles may be retained by the Caribbean Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs for a series of digital freedom projects under discussion.

The announcement follows a long list of cutbacks by other government-funded international broadcasters. BBC World Service slashed 25 percent of employees and closed down several languages. Radio France International also cut 25 percent of its staff, and dropped to 11 languages. Deutsche Welle has eliminated short- and medium-wave broadcasting and reduced programs for Germans living abroad. The Voice of America is cutting Chinese broadcasts, and Radio Australia is shifting its programming to the Internet.

There is still one chance for a reprieve for RNW. The proposed cuts are among topics of the parliamentary debate scheduled for June 27.


One Company, One Factory

TestingMost people are well aware that Audioarts Engineering is a division of Wheatstone Corporation. Some may even know the backstory – did you know that Audioarts Engineering was the company’s original name? Despite the separate names, Wheatstone is very much one company. We have one factory, and all of our products are designed, manufactured, assembled, and tested right here under this one roof.

“Wheatstone” was the name of an Audioarts Engineering console, otherwise known as the LM-80. A sophisticated console designed for production and live use, these high-end products became very popular in broadcast markets as well, lending an excellent reputation to the Wheatstone name. This led the company to incorporate in the state of Connecticut as “Wheatstone Corporation” in 1981, and to move more aggressively into broadcast products. Audioarts Engineering, meanwhile, is still known for the same solid products it’s always manufactured.

More recently, Wheatstone has added the Vorsis line of broadcast audio processors to its family of products. These are also born right here in our factory.

It may not be obvious to the casual observer, but if you’re the owner of an Audioarts product, your console rolled off the same production line as its more sophisticated Wheatstone cousins. Here in our New Bern, North Carolina facility, every product – from our largest, most powerful TV audio consoles right down to the tiny Audioarts Air-1, receives the same careful attention to quality and detail. We know this because all of our products are put together by the same experienced hands using the same quality-oriented production workflows.

On any given day in our factory, you’ll find Wheatstone consoles, Audioarts Engineering consoles, Wheatstone BRIDGE and WheatNet-IP networking equipment, and Vorsis audio processors being built and tested by the same team of talented professionals. The accompanying photo shows a Wheatstone BRIDGE router cage undergoing post-repair testing in the foreground, while a D-75 is being tested by another technician in the background.

From woodworking to metalwork, from circuit board assembly to wiring and testing, you can rest assured that whether you’re a Wheatstone console owner, an Audioarts console owner, or the owner of a Vorsis audio processor, your product was brought to life by the same dedicated team who have been bringing you precision-engineered audio products since 1974.


All India Radio Checks Out DRM+

DRM RadioA week-long DRM+ Showcase held from May 23-27th included workshops on digital radio technology and a field test of DRM+ in New Dehli. The event was organized by All India Radio (AIR) and the Digital Radio Mondiale (DRM) Consortium. The tests were designed to check field strength and coverage of DRM+ in the FM band (VHF band II), and is reported on in Digital Radio Mondiale North America’s web page.

A test signal on 100.1 Mhz contained three program channels: Gold DRM (FM), Rainbow DRM (FM) and AIR news in Journaline text format. DRM+ is capable of carrying up to four services per frequency.

Two test modes were employed, the robust 4 QAM, and high-capacity 16 QAM. Field strength was measured by a vehicle driving in four directions from downtown New Dehli where the transmitter was installed. DRM+ coverage proved comparable to an analog FM station operating at approximately five times the power of the DRM+ signal. Test results will be published jointly by AIR and DRM.

The test setup included: a Fraunhofer DRM ContentServer R5 in the studio generating the DRM+ multiplex signal, an RFmondial DRM+ Modulator and a Nautel VS-1 transmitter with VSDRM+ exciter at the transmission site.

Coverage of the DRM+ signal at roughly 500 W radiated power (300 W exciter output) has already exceeded the predicted 10 km reach. It could be successfully received up to 28 km on the first day

While the tests were taking place, a week of activities was scheduled for AIR’s engineers. Day one included an overview of DRM. The rest of the week included: workshops, field trips, hands-on experiences, discussions of new digital content, transmission strategies, and opportunities to meet with industry experts. AIR has already adopted DRM30 for its MW/SW network, and expects DRM+ to play a complimentary role in FM.

DRM members participating included: Nautel (Canada), Fraunhofer, Rfmondial, University of Hannover (Germany), KETI (South Korea), Analog Devices (USA), and the BBC (UK). All took part with either equipment, expertise, or both.


Copper Thefts Continue to Frustrate Broadcasters

Copper TheftAccording to the U.S. Department of Energy, over the past decade copper theft has gone from random acts of vandalism to an epidemic costing the American economy $1 billion per year. Broadcast transmitter sites are prime targets, and the rising cost of scrap metal is attracting a more skillful and determined band of thieves. In addition to material replacement costs, the collateral damage done to property by ripping out wiring and ground systems often exceeds the actual cost of the copper stolen.

Recently hit was NewsTalk KSL in Salt Lake City UT. Thieves made off with over $30,000 in copper cable and supplies when they broke into the station’s transmitter building.

Engineer Randy Finch noted the goods may be difficult to unload. Thieves cut up sections of transmission line off a spool in the yard and loaded them into a truck, making them easy for metal recyclers to identify. A welder and other tools were also taken. The events were recorded on the site’s security video, although no arrests have been made to date.

Some stations have taken countermeasures, but with prices so high, they don’t always work. Christian Talk radio station KKXX in Chico CA recently lost 22,000 feet of #10 copper wire from the transmitter site. This is the second time the station has been hit by copper thieves in as many years.

After the first incident, the station replaced the ground system and poured a concrete footing every ten to 15 feet along the lengths of wire, hoping to discourage future thefts. The second time, burglars just cut the wire between the concrete and bundled it up. The scrap value of the wire is estimated at between $4,500 and $6,000, but the replacement costs for KKXX will be much higher.

The global copper supply began to fall short in October 2003, when a landslide shut down a large mine in Grasburg, Indonesia. The next year a worker’s strike closed the El Abra copper mine in Clama, Chile. At the same time, demand for copper from China increased substantially as construction of the 2008 Olympic facilities ramped up. From January 2001 to March 2008, the price of copper jumped over 500 percent.

In the current economic climate, with a rising cost of gas, consumer goods and food, along with the declining housing market, the ease with which copper can be exchanged for cash, it is likely that scrap copper will remain a lucrative theft item for criminals.


Radio Free Libya

radio free libyaUnfortunately, many of us who enjoy freedom of speech take it for granted. Citizens of Libya haven’t had that luxury for 42 years. Thus, when the rebels seized the city of Misurata, one of their first acts was to liberate the government-controlled Radio Misurata and re-christen it Radio Free Libya. A report on Balancing Act-Africa has the details.

Everything for the station changed at that moment. Virtually all of the nationalistic songs in the station’s music library had Gaddafi’s name in them. “We searched through dozens in order to play a tune that only mentions the land,” notes founder Ahmed Hadia.

The station was flooded with those wanting to be presenters. “They wanted to express how happy they were that the city had become free, and to convey how much they hate Gaddafi and the dictatorship,” explains Salim Betmal, a university lecturer turned DJ.

Programs strive to keep up morale. “The Protectors” focuses on and praises the work of volunteers around the city. Religious programs remind listeners of the need to be patient in order to reap the rewards to come.

The flagship program of Radio Free Libya is ‘Good Morning Libya’, which features news on the fighting, interviews with rebel council members, traditional Arabic songs, a summary of what the world press is saying about Libya and information on the availability of food,water and other essentials.

In addition to the local FM channel, Radio Free Libya has control of two medium wave signals, the high-powered site at El Biada on 675 Khz and a 1125 Khz channel. These signals are strong enough to cross the Mediterranean into southern Europe, and are being picked up by DXers as far away as Denmark.

These efforts have not gone unnoticed by those loyal to Gaddafi. Regime jets tried to bomb the station twice before the NATO no-fly zone was implemented. Loyalists tried to blow up the tower. The building has been shot up with machine gun fire and rocket propelled grenades. Snipers zeroed in on the main entrance, and station staff tunneled through walls for safer access. Rebels even sent a hit man to assassinate the staff.

Some of the presenters were scared off, but most of the station’s founders continued undeterred. “Who controls the media, controls the country,” explains Hadia. “If the radio waves had gone silent, it would give the impression that there was no control.”

Radio Free Libya continues to expand. Correspondents are covering the war from the front lines. Boots on the ground are the only way to ensure accurate reporting in the rumor-fueled environment. “Sometimes we choose uplifting news, but we’ll never tell a lie,” adds Betmal. “Either tell it straight, or just don’t tell it.”

Is Radio Innovative Enough?

Mark Ramsey

Mark Ramsey

In a word, “no.” In a world where there are no lines between radio and other media, radio has the “permission” of each of our “listeners” to invite them to a relationship with us across platforms. Mark Ramsey, President of Mark Ramsey media, spoke with Joaquin Alvarado, SVP of Digital Strategy and Education at American Public Media, at the recent Digital Strategy and Education conference in Austin.

Ramsey begins with a definition of innovation, “It involves queueing up enough trials so that you’re going to queue up failures. That’s OK, because at least you’re moving in the right direction down the road. The essence of innovation is understanding where things are headed and what your freedom is to get there given the constraints in front of you and on the number of people that you can reach.”

What sets radio apart from the other digital content providers, according to Ramsey, is the enviable number of people that it reaches. “Living Social, for instance, would love to be radio, because radio would make them a thousand times bigger.”

With all the options available to radio to expand onto other digital platforms, Ramsey adds that choices need to be made. “Choices must be mission based, but also people based. People on your staff have passions, but not every person has every passion. You have to follow these passions because there needs to be a driver, or something pushing you along.”

A phrase tossed about frequently in digital media circles is ‘amplifying brand’. Ramsey thinks this might be too limiting. “By having the tower and access to thousands of people, you have the freedom to create solutions to the problems they have that are congruent with their needs and your goals. Solutions to problems does not necessarily imply amplifying brand, it only implies solutions to problems.”