Is there any hope for the AM radio band? A few major-market AM stations still enjoy success, but AM radio is suffering most everywhere else. Professional Engineer, Ted Schober, says there are solutions to help AM stations, including smaller antennas and a transition to digital transmission. Is it already too late to save AM, or are there real solutions here that will give consumers and broadcasters new options?
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Kirk Harnack: "This Week in Radio Tech: Episode 228" is brought to you by Telos ProSTREAM, the do it all, one box streaming solution, by Lawo, maker of the new crystalCLEAR virtual radio console. crystalCLEAR is the radio console with a multi-touch touchscreen interface-and by the Axia IP-audio driver for Windows, Mac and Linux. Only Axia connects to so much so easily.
Is there any hope for the AM radio band? A few major market AM stations still enjoy success. But AM radio is suffering most everywhere else. Professional engineer Ted Schober says there are solutions to help AM stations, including smaller antennas and a transition to digital transmission. Is it already too late to save AM or can we do it?
Hey, welcome in. It's time for "This Week in Radio Tech." It's the show where we talk about everything radio technology from, I always say, from a microphone to the light bulb at the top of the tower and everything in between. More and more content is being created that doesn't go into a tower. I think on today's show, we're going to talk about AM towers and what to do with the AM band; how to maybe fix it, how to make, I think they say, a silk purse out of a sow's ear. Some people think the AM band has become a bit of a sow's ear. We'll get to that.
Our show is brought to you by three terrific sponsors, the folks at Lawo and their crystalCLEAR console, also the folks at Axia, I'm going to tell you about the IP-audio drivers today, and the folks at Telos systems, and they are the makers of the ProSTREAM streaming appliance. We'll tell you about those coming up in just a minute.
Let me go ahead and introduce our guest. Our guest is a professional engineer. He's the first professional we've actually had on in a while, PE Ted Schober. Hi, Ted, welcome in. Glad you're here.
Ted Schober: Hello there. This is kind of fun. It's the first time I've been on web television. I've got a web television show on my radio station, but this is the first time I've been on one myself.
Kirk Harnack: Well, you're going to enjoy it so much that you're going to be calling me back and saying, "Kirk, when can I be on again?"
Ted Schober: Okay.
Kirk Harnack: Ted, give us seriously a 30-second preview of a couple of the topics we're going to hit on. Whet our whistle a little bit for the things that you're passionate about.
Ted Schober: Sure. One of the things that has been my business all along has been AM radio. The problem with AM radio is multifold, as everybody knows. It's got noise. It's got rotten receivers. It's got rotten content. It's got an awful lot of rotten stuff on the band which scares everybody away. But in among all of the radio stations that are not doing very well and sound pretty terrible, there are also so gems. We should definitely consider ourselves in the mode where we recognize that content will bring people back to the band.
However, the technology of the band is getting really long in the tooth and it's time to do something about it. So, there have been suggestions and plans and everything else that people have been talking about, some of which may go to fruition and others which will never come to fruition because of the fact that the politics aren't right for it.
Kirk Harnack: Sure. Let's pause it there and keep everybody's whistle whet. We'll keep our powder dry through the first spot and then jump right into some of the things that you're talking about and you're passionate about. I'm passionate about them too. I want to see this band that travels locally and travels far, I want to see it come back and do well. I've got to believe that there are technologies that are more appropriate. We'll get into that.
Hey, I want to tell you first of all about our first sponsor. This show is made possible by the wonderful sponsorship of some people. One of those is my friends at Axia. These guys, you know, they make an audio IP console system and a number of different audio products that plug right into that.
I just got done building or moving and rebuilding four radio station studios, or a studio for four radio stations, in Greenville, Mississippi, not exactly the garden spot of the world. But you know what? These studios went right together. One of the things that made the studios go together so well was an invention from the folks at Axia.
It's the Axia IP-audio driver. This is a piece of software. They have one for Windows. They actually have several models for Windows with this IP driver. They have a beta version for the Mac. It's on my Mac right now. And they have a version for Linux, which is actually handled by a partner company of ours for proper integration into Linux.
Now, the IP-audio driver, it takes the place of the soundcard. My radio station in Mississippi, we've got seven PCs, some running Windows, some running Linux, that handle audio and not in one of them are we using the soundcard. Gone are the days of messing around with a finicky little 3.5 mm stereo connectors or even quarter-inch connectors that kind of do fit in the space of a PC expansion card, no dongles, no pigtails, breakout boxes-none of that. It's just another network interface card. That's right.
So, we take the IP driver and install it in a computer. To the computer's operating system, it looks like another soundcard or, on our multi-driver scheme, it looks like up to 24 soundcards in that PC. Windows, Linux, Mac thinks that it has one or more soundcards in it. And your applications work with that driver. When you pick out a soundcard for it to use, it just works with the driver.
The application thinks that it's sending and receiving audio to and from a physical soundcard, but it's not. It's actually talking to the driver and then the driver is packetizing packets to go out to the Axia network or receiving packets from the Axia network from a subscribed stream and turning that into audio inside the PC.
So, for example, we're doing automation, including subscribing to network satellite feeds coming in. We mix with our local liners. This is in the Rivendell automation system. We mix with our local liners and bumpers, break away from that for the actual spots and then rejoin the stream that's coming in-remix it back in using the computer's internal mixer. So, the IP driver, you can add an IP driver for the cost of the driver software and the cost of another network interface card that you slip in your computer. It could be a $15 card that works just fine.
So, it's an amazing technology. There are all kinds of things that you can do with it. On the website, there is a webpage that will give you some ideas of how to use the Axia IP-audio driver to solve some problems that you may have. Go to AxiaAudio.com/Soundcards. And there are some great ideas there on what you can use the Axia IP-audio driver for.
I highly recommend it. So many things you can do with it. One of the things we're doing is recording all of our stations using iProFiler. No wiring, no XLRs, no 3.5 mm connectors, just the same network card that we talked about earlier and make it subscribe to the streams we want to record, hit the record button and bam-we're recording up to 24 streams at the same time to the hard drive.
Check it out on the web, AxiaAudio.com. Thank you very much Axia for your support of "This Week in Radio Tech."
All right. Ted, let's get back at it now. We've got a good 20 minutes before our next commercial announcement.
Ted Schober: Well, before we get off the commercial, you just mentioned something that I'm kind of excited about. I think I'm going to go out and do this. One of the problems that you have with the audio cards is whenever you go to analog and back you always pick up noise and distortion. You can't avoid it. And every time you recode to a different codec, you lose quality.
So, by keeping everything in the digital domain between computers and the external systems, like, right now I'm using a radio systems board at my local radio station. I come out of the Rivendell, go into the board, go back over to the server and then from the server I turn back into digital again and make the stream and to do the STO. Well, that's got too many conversions.
Kirk Harnack: Yes, it does. Yeah.
Ted Schober: We go with high-rate MP3s and I'm hoping to go to Opus pretty soon. But the fact is that every time you make a change you lose something. While you could say, "Oh, on AM it doesn't matter," well, it does because everything that you lose you never get back. You can never gain back what you lose. By keeping in the digital domain, even in a regular Windows 7 machine and not going out on the soundcard and not use Unbalanced which picks up hum particularly, you are, and also RF susceptibility if your studio is at the transmitter...
Kirk Harnack: Very true.
Ted Schober: You very much are in a very good way because the fact is, shielded cat5 does very well in a reasonable RF environment.
Kirk Harnack: Well, one of the first uses of the IP driver, and this was like ten years ago, I visited a station in Southern California that had two AM transmitters on-site with the studios. The studios were very old. Gorgeous old art deco building, but just terrible wiring and miles of it, lots of antennas hanging around with the audio. They were trying to stream and they just kept getting RF in the stream. I said, "Tell you what, let's put the IP driver in your computer. You can still use whatever streaming software that you want. You just need an Axia node which is balanced in and out." Anyway, long story short, we did that, RF problems gone, never to return.
Ted Schober: So, now you pick up the audio where the audio is made and don't have to ship it around the place.
Kirk Harnack: Yeah. Exactly.
Ted Schober: I'm of the opinion that this is the only way to go for any new construction and every place you can refit, just do it because it will take the headaches away.
Kirk Harnack: Even with modern analog audio routing switchers, in Greenville, Mississippi, we moved from a location that was very well done in the mid-2000s. It was well-engineered for an analog plant. I couldn't have done it any better myself for an analog plant using state of the art analog stuff from 2005. But I always felt that the audio wasn't quite pristine enough on the FMs that are there and the AM that's there.
So, when we moved, there's almost nothing analog anymore, little short wires from the satellite receivers into the nodes and a little short wire into our older Omnia audio processors that don't have Livewire. Other than that, the ones and zeroes that go in are virtually the same that come out. Now, I'm sitting at home here listening to my stations via streaming.
Of course, that's bitrate reduced, I get that. But oh my goodness, they sound so clear.
Our talk shows, Herman Cain and Rush Limbaugh and Dr. Joy Brown, they all sound like they're sitting in my lap because you're so used to hearing just the vagaries of analog, analog, analog, analog with 55, 32 ICs or whatever's hot nowadays in the analog world and it just makes a difference to get rid of all that stuff.
Ted Schober: Yeah. Well, not only that, but also recognizing that an awful lot of AM plants were built not just in 2000, but built in 1982 or 1975 even in some cases. The problem is that the analog stuff just loses so much by the time it gets to the transmitter that there's nothing... you can't get a good stream out of it either. That's one of the other aspects. You really want to have a good stream as well as have a good on-air signal.
Kirk Harnack: This is a technique that I'm sure you're familiar with being a consulting engineer. So often, back in my early days working for Telos, I would go and demonstrate Omnia audio processing. Sometimes we'd put an Omnia processor in the studio and we couldn't make it sound good on the air. I knew what it should sound like and it wasn't sounding right. I said, "There's got to be something in your STL or at the transmitter site that is treating this audio badly. I'll tell you what, midnight tonight, let's put a CD player and an Omnia processor at the transmitter site and then go straight into your exciter and try that."
Every time we did that, the signal, the station was cleaner than it had ever been before. The fault was with different things along the line. The correction wasn't the same at any two stations. But over time, we build up stuff in our chains. I was so glad to just simplify, simplify, simplify or go all digital. Digital is generally perfect or it doesn't work at all.
Ted Schober: In the computer world, you call it cruft.
Kirk Harnack: Yes. Oh, that's a good word.
Ted Schober: So, we have equipment cruft in radio stations.
Kirk Harnack: I've got a feeling you and I could talk about this kind of thing all day.
Ted Schober: Oh, yeah.
Kirk Harnack: We've got to probably jump in on your passion subject.
Ted Schober: When you struggle with things that you find solutions for or you find things to just stay away from because they'll drive you crazy, it's nice to pass that on because new guys coming along are going to stumble on the same chunks of problem that you do. Like, we were talking a little while ago about the problems of the RAID drive, particularly a RAID 5, which gets you performance and reliability, but the reliability is sometimes rather elusive.
Kirk Harnack: Yeah. Elusive.
Ted Schober: Or an illusion. That's a better word.
Kirk Harnack: An illusion. Yes.
Ted Schober: Anyhow, one of the things that we wanted to get through is some of the things on the rule makings that are underway at the FCC. One of my buddies was down talking with the commissioners yesterday and came up with a couple of points.
It looks as though the efficiency of the AM antenna restrictions are going to go away. I think everybody's been so universal about the ratchet clause for nighttime interference is negative or against the practicality, that that's probably going to go away. I don't know whether they're going to change the protected contours, that probably makes sense. That's kind of been...
Kirk Harnack: If you wouldn't mind, let's restate those couple three things in laymen's terms. So, the efficiency, does that mean I can have an inefficient antenna and it would be okay?
Ted Schober: Right. This really relates to size of antenna. So, for a station that's anywhere below, I think it's 1340 or something like, anything that's not a Class C station, a local channel station-the minimum efficiency is 283 millivolts per meter for kilowatt into the antenna. That means that the antenna has to be reasonably efficient. It's getting close to the efficiency of a quarter-wave dipole or monopole over a decent ground system.
Kirk Harnack: Yeah.
Ted Schober: And the problem is that if you're talking a frequency like 700, you're talking 250 feet at least.
Kirk Harnack: For antenna height. Yeah.
Ted Schober: 250 means lights and once you turn lights on, then you get into the situation that zoning won't let you put a tower up. Now if you lose your transmitter site, you can't put it up any place.
Kirk Harnack: Ah... Okay.
Ted Schober: So, you've got to get the tower heights under 200 for sure to get the lights off of them. You've got to get in many places the tower heights under 100 feet because of zoning, because of the fact that it bothers neighbors. There are some technologies that will do low-height antennas but they don't work on the low end of the band at less than 100 feet. That's for sure.
Kirk Harnack: Okay.
Ted Schober: There's a company called Valcom, for example, that has a pole, a fiberglass pole that's wound with an antenna internally which is used to get more efficiency out of a very short antenna, but it requires a full ground system, which means that at one megahertz you need 400 feet by 400 feet for the property. That's not always available, especially if you're trying to put it up somewhere in a city.
So, there are a number of technologies that are helping. The Valcom antenna helps about the height restrictions to some extent. But they don't work at the very low end of the band. They don't work down at 700 kilohertz or lower.
The second part of it is that Kintronic has an antenna out that uses a whole bunch of phone poles and keeps the height at around 65 or 70 feet. That has an advantage. But that also uses a fair amount of real estate. The actual space of the land is still substantial.
Kirk Harnack: You can use the land under the wires though, right because they're 65-75?
Ted Schober: Oh, yes, unless you're talking really high power.
Kirk Harnack: You can farm or you could graze cattle and that kind of thing on the land.
Ted Schober: Right. The concern on some of these is that you need to be careful when you get up to high power, a 50,000 watt radio station. When I built WWJZ, which is the Disney station here in the Philadelphia market, we used elevated radials so that the farmer could farm the land under the tower. But we had to do a full radiation study riding on the tractor underneath each of the radials to be sure that at 50,000 watts, the area where the driver of the tractor is, would remain safe.
Kirk Harnack: Right. I've got to tell you, there's a short wave station east of Nashville around the Lebanon, Tennessee area. I think the call letter is WWCR, but I could be wrong.
Ted Schober: Well, that's one of them anyhow.
Kirk Harnack: There are some rhombic antennas on the property there. In the middle of the rhombic, the field is very, very high on the ground. In fact, if the people there know that you're going to be driving out there, they'll give you their phone number and they'll offer to shut the transmitter down or reduce the power so when you drive in, your car doesn't die because that's a typical thing. You're driving through the middle of the rhombic on the gravel road and your car stops.
It turns out that not far from Nashville in Smyrna, Tennessee there's a Nissan plant. Well, they bring their new models, once or twice a year they bring them up to that site and drive them around and see what dies, if anything.
Ted Schober: It's a new type of automotive interference.
Kirk Harnack: Yeah. I have a Toyota 4Runner and it kept going, but the blower fan for the HVAC system, it went fast and slow and fast and slow as I was driving through this. It just went nuts. But the field has got to be very, very high there.
Ted Schober: Yeah.
Kirk Harnack: That was interesting, though. It's useful to Nissan.
Ted Schober: Well, you know, one of the things that is one of the points I want to bring up is car radios. Not BMW, Mercedes Benz-they're coming out with an all electric. They announced that they weren't going to put an AM radio.
Kirk Harnack: I thought it was BMW that did announce that.
Ted Schober: Maybe it was BMW. Okay.
Kirk Harnack: No AM radio.
Ted Schober: They weren't going to put an AM radio in the car. I got to thinking about this. Think about you're in your Lexus next to it, although, Lexus' have terrible car radios these days, let's say you're in your Explorer next to it. And this car is going trashing all over the AM band and it's interfering with you and you're stuck in a traffic jam next to this thing.
Kirk Harnack: Yeah.
Ted Schober: So, these are the kinds of problems that AM radio stations are suffering with these days. Another one is that a very popular brand of traffic signals, red lights, green lights and so on, they put out a lot of trash on the AM band. Not across the entire band, but specific frequencies, multiples of some clock rate that's in the system.
Kirk Harnack: Ah.
Ted Schober: It's rather pernicious because the stop light stops you there in a place that where it interferes with your car radio.
Kirk Harnack: "Stop here and let me interfere with you."
Ted Schober: So, you're going to be stuck for a minute listening to this buzz out of this thing. I'm quite sure that it doesn't meet Part 15 standards.
Kirk Harnack: Yeah.
Ted Schober: I'm sure that it is. Quite frankly, I wouldn't care if there was a way that the municipalities that we're putting them in would be able to set the frequency of whatever clock is causing the problem to a specific frequency that avoided all of the local radio stations because that would solve the problem.
Kirk Harnack: A question comes to mind...
Ted Schober: Nobody cares if there's noise 40 kilohertz away from the AM station in town.
Kirk Harnack: I know that we're going to get to talking about digital on the AM band, but if you've got this kind of man-made noise, certainly it affects analog AM because you can hear it. That's what analog is. But how bad does it have to be to start affecting some of the digital modes that have been bandied about.
Ted Schober: In the digital modes, there are a couple of different things that are in there. When you look at, for example, the HD system, they use partial coding where, for example, the high frequencies are coded with, and I'm saying this in a very general way, it's not exactly the way it really works, but to visualize it, the high frequencies that might not be as important for reception of a station. What they do is they code those in a code which is not as protected, is not as robust as the midrange frequencies that are critical importance.
So, what happens is you may lose the edge of the quality. You may end up with a roughness because that part of the signal is coded with less robustness than the part that's necessary to be able to understand what's going on and to be able to enjoy whatever the program is. So, if Rush is going on about something that he's complaining about, you can still carry the conversation. It might not be quite as clear, but Rush's voice might be slightly rougher than it normally is.
Kirk Harnack: Gotcha.
Ted Schober: Okay? So, by having this coding that takes into account what's necessary for information, what's necessary for not being annoying and coding the things that are just nice, like if you're trying to listen to the fine points of harpsichord. Well, you can lose that and let it sound like a piano.
Kirk Harnack: Yeah. So, this is a graceful digital degradation that's built into the HD radio standard.
Ted Schober: There are, in the HD radio system, tradeoffs which have been made very specifically in the way that it's coded and in the way that not just the layer one, the hardware coding of the ODFM signals, but also the coding of the actual codec itself, the equivalent of AAC3, where that is different in order to make up for the fact that you don't have real solid robustness all the time and you need to make tradeoffs and say, "I don't want the signal to go away."
If you just have it drop out, and that was one of the problems with the early DRM30 system was that you would be going along on shortwave and you'd be listening to the stuff and it just drops out and stops and you lose 20 seconds until the sky wave gets cleared up or until the noise goes away. You can't afford that in broadcast.
Kirk Harnack: In the debate over what to do with the AM band, of course we read every few weeks or few months about this effort or that effort to mitigate this problem or mitigate that problem. You mentioned some of the rule changes about the efficiency doesn't have to be met anymore and about the ratcheting of interference. I'm a little unclear about how that works. You're welcome to explain it.
Ted Schober: Basically what it says is if your station is a limiting station to another station at night and you're going to make any change to your facility that's at your volition, meaning that you want to change site because you want to change site because you want to sell it, not because you had the town shut you down or something like that.
The FCC requires that you decrease the interference to the other station by 10%. That's 10% voltage, which is 10% squared... or, I'm sorry, the square root of 10%. Which means that you take a hit, you could have a 50,000 watt radio station suddenly go down to, let's say, 30 kilowatts simply because of the ratchet clause
Kirk Harnack: Okay. So, they've done away with this ratchet clause? Is that it?
Ted Schober: Well, I'm quite sure that it's going to go away in the next rule making.
Kirk Harnack: Okay.
Ted Schober: The comments have been universal. It was a stupid rule to begin with. It would be stupid to continue with it. So, the Commission, I think, is listening to that one. I've gotten on reasonable scuttlebutt that the Commission is going to remove or relax the antenna efficiency rule which we talked about before. I didn't get to the third type of antenna that's a small antenna.
Kirk Harnack: Yeah.
Ted Schober: That's an antenna called the CFA.
Kirk Harnack: Yeah. The crossed field.
Ted Schober: There are people who say, "Oh, it just doesn't work." I know that it functions. But I know that the current design is broken. The ones that work are lucky. They happen to have things fall into place in the right way. They can be made to work, but it needs more design. There's more design effort that is needed. I know where the design needs to be changed, but I don't know what to do to make it work right.
I've been involved with the CFA folks and if we can get that underway again, that project underway, I think that we can make that antenna work and that it is possible to make it not only an efficient antenna, but a very small ground antenna. In other words, that the amount of ground that you actually consume will be a very modest amount of real estate and it will cause little in terms of interference to PA systems and people's home organs and electronic stuff around the perimeter of the property. So, we're looking at you can put a CFA antenna on half an acre instead of four as an absolute minimum.
Kirk Harnack: Wow.
Ted Schober: And that is very attractive.
Kirk Harnack: I recall seeing pictures of the CFA antenna when it was ballyhooed in Radio World and other journals.
Ted Schober: Yeah.
Kirk Harnack: Boy, it seems like 15, 18, 20 years ago that we were hearing about these things.
Ted Schober: Oh, yeah. And part of the problem is that everybody tends to want to model antennas with MININEC and there's a problem in that you can't model currents that are flowing in a non-metallic or non-conductive area. So, the CFA antenna has what's called a D-plate, which causes a magnetic field to be caused because of essentially the displacement current flowing in a capacitor. In other words, it only works with AC. It won't work with DC current.
So, you can't build the model using MININEC or NEC to show how this thing works. And there are systems that could be written to fully model the antenna, but we're talking another full development, as much effort as went into building NEC in the first place because it doesn't work on the same basis.
Kirk Harnack: These antennas, if I recall, I saw several different designs but they reminded me of a big thread bobbin or some kind of a big spool on its end.
Ted Schober: Right.
Kirk Harnack: A couple of cylinders stacked or something like that.
Ted Schober: Right. One of the things that is absolutely necessary is that you don't build it on the ground. There were a number of them that were built on the ground where you have a copper ground plane that goes out 30 feet or so in every direction and then you have the D-plate above the ground plane and then you have this cone that comes up and looks like a giant funnel up above the top.
Kirk Harnack: Okay.
Ted Schober: That style of antenna, if you put it on the ground, definitely will transmit very well at 30 degrees, 25 or 30 degrees above the horizon.
Kirk Harnack: Oh, that's no good.
Ted Schober: Not what you want. So, you're picking up the bottom of the lobe on the ground which is where you want the signal to be going.
Kirk Harnack: Yeah.
Ted Schober: So, that antenna has a problem as it stands in that when you build it like the guy did in Tanta, a guy named Kabbari who runs the Egyptian program. In Tanta, he built two CFA antennas on the roof of buildings. He happened to build them in just such a way that that beam, instead of being up at 30 degrees, came down to like five degrees above the horizon.
Kirk Harnack: Okay.
Ted Schober: Now, it worked and it actually worked pretty well. The measurements, I think it was a Swiss-made, showed that the antenna worked about as well as a quarter-wave dipole or quarter-wave monopole. But they built it in other places like Australia and it didn't work worth beans.
Now, I made a ham radio CFA antenna. It did work. However, I could only talk to stations 300-400 miles away. If you went a couple miles away from where I was, you couldn't hear it. You couldn't hear it all on 40 meters and if you were closer on high angle sky wave, you didn't hear it. If you were further away, you didn't hear it either.
So, the antenna was a very early, basically, it came right out of a Hately patent, the original Hately patent. I built it just the way that was set up. I fooled with it for about three days before I finally got it to transmit at all. At 25 watts, I had it barking and sparking a couple of times before I got it to work. But it did work. However, it only talked 300 to 400 miles away.
Kirk Harnack: Not so good for selling local ads.
Ted Schober: Yeah. I could talk to Pittsburgh with it.
Kirk Harnack: Yeah. Hey, I want to remind our viewers and listeners you're watching Episode 228 of "This Week in Radio Tech." Ted Schober is our guest and we're talking about the AM band improvements, both incremental and maybe, I'd like to talk to Ted after our commercial here about the possibility of blowing up the AM band, see where that goes.
Our show is brought to you in part by the folks at Telos and the Telos ProSTREAM streaming audio encoder. I've got on right over here. It's right here. It's this 1RU box. In fact, Andrew Zarian has got one as well. In fact, 1,000 people out there have one.
This box, what it is, it does audio streaming. It ingests audio, analog or livewire audio coming in. The AES version of it will be coming out in a few months. It takes that audio in. It has built into Omnia audio processing, a beautiful three-band processor. You could set it aggressively or gently. There are presets that come with it.
It does have a fantastic look ahead limiter. It's exactly what coded audio needs. If you want to get loud, you can't do clipping and you shouldn't do just an ordinary textbook look ahead limiter. You need to do one that is going to mitigate intermodulation products. That's a big word. But that's what this one does. It predicts and mitigates intermodulation products that otherwise a look ahead limiter would cause.
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So, you can send these streams that you make with the encoders. You can send them to geographically diverse replication servers. You can do whatever you need to. But you can set them to four different places. Maybe you've got a Wowza server. Maybe you've got a SHOUTcast server. Send that other one to an Icecast server. Send another one to a CDN like Live365. It will work with all of these things at the same time.
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We use them at our radio stations along with some Omnia A/XE. Of course, I use one right here. I can highly recommend it. The hardware is solid. It uses a Linux operating system that is just as solid as can be. You don't have to suffer with Microsoft updates. You don't have to suffer with the hackers potentially getting into it. This is a very low-interest thing to hackers. And it's Linux. It just has the parts of Linux in there that it needs to run. If you would check it out, I would appreciate it. If you need to do stream encoding, this is just a great box to have.
Oh, it also will do metadata. It's got a built in metadata parser that you can set up a script to parse your metadata and make the title and artist and all that come out correctly. It will ingest data from a metadata aggregation program. If you want to run announcements on your stream or reference album art, you can do all that to.
Go to the web and check out Telos-Systems.com and look for the ProSTREAM streaming audio encoder. It's in use in some very big facilities and lots of little ones too. I love it.
All right. Episode 228 of "This Week in Radio Tech," our guest is Ted Schober. Ted and I are having a fascinating discussion about AM radio, which is kind of a snoozer to some people. But man, Ted, in the big cities-San Francisco, Chicago, New York, Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, AM is alive and well. In some of these cities, an AM station typically will hold the top or the second place in the ratings. But in small towns, like Greenville, Mississippi where we have a little AM station, it's tough.
Ted Schober: Well, that's definitely a consideration. One of the things that is a factor, though, is that there are a number of places where AM stations are the only game in town. They do quite well, thank you. There are also a lot of AM stations that are community-focused, very community-focused and they are also doing very well.
The problem with this is that those stations tend to have a fairly high cost of doing business. So, you have to maintain a certain minimum gross in order to be able to handle it. So, for example, there's a little radio station outside of New York City. It's not a New York City station. It's a Bergen County station. They have 30 employees.
Kirk Harnack: Quite a bit for a standalone station.
Ted Schober: For a 2,500 watt AM radio station on the high end of the band.
Kirk Harnack: Wow.
Ted Schober: With a directional antenna and they're a day timer.
Kirk Harnack: Oh my goodness.
Ted Schober: And they make money.
Kirk Harnack: They serve their audience well, don't they?
Ted Schober: Of course, they have friends like Soupy Sales used to come there and John Zacherle, fairly big names would come there simply because it was such a cool place to go to. It still is an absolutely cool place to go to. Would you believe they're still using cart machines?
Kirk Harnack: Oh my goodness. Wow.
Ted Schober: Another is in a fairly small town. Let's see... The town is about 60,000 people. There's a kilowatt day timer. They have a nice FM translator. They do a news talk format. They've got Rush and they've got a couple other good names like that. They're doing quite nicely too. They're doing around $1 million a year and they've got six or seven employees. They are the information station for the community.
Now, there are only so many slots for that. You can't make every radio station be able to do that because when you have FM stations that are doing a community radio slot, when you have FM stations that are doing the religious radio slot, when you have a market that's too small to garner enough ethnic listeners, you run into the problem that there may not be an opportunity big enough for an AM radio station to grab a chunk of the action that will make it viable.
There are some radio stations that just need to go away because they can never achieve a competitive position relative to the other players that do the same thing, the Class B FMs or the Class C2 FMs that are in town.
Kirk Harnack: Sure.
Ted Schober: An AM station can't actively compete. I had a friend down in Florida who had an AM/FM combo and he sent in the license for the AM because he couldn't find a hole. He was under the Jacksonville umbrella. He couldn't find a hole of programming. He was doing the community radio on his FM, so what was left for his AM?
Kirk Harnack: Yeah.
Ted Schober: And his town was too small to do ethnic radio. Bible broadcasting was in there with an FM. Then there are six other religious FMs up in Jacksonville. So, there was no marketplace for him. And those stations don't need to stay on the air anymore. I think most clusters have got a station of that category. I've got something great to do with that.
Kirk Harnack: Well...
Ted Schober: Let's get into digital AM.
Kirk Harnack: Yeah. And I want to preface it with this thought. Okay. So, I am part owner of two AM stations right now. One of them is a very niche black gospel format, a lot of localism there and it's still popular in its little town of Indianola, Mississippi. It used to be owned by Eddie Fritz Jr., by the way.
And then I have another AM that has an FM translator. I think that we wouldn't mind if that AM went away or if we were allowed to transmit digital on it and the receivers didn't show up for two years. I guess what I'm saying is from a small station owner point of view, it wouldn't bother me to blow up the AM band, especially if I had a crutch to get me through some period of time while radios came out, like a translator or a channel 2 to channel 6 FM, something like that. But then there are these legacy AMs. They want to just keep on chugging. Sure, they'd like to take advantage of whatever comes along, but they don't want to blow up what they've got now.
So, I've always felt that AM needs some kind of transition and then blow up all the analog. You tell me what you've got in mind and I'm all ears.
Ted Schober: Okay. Well, the first thing that I think is really important to do is we turn off hybrid HD on AM. On FM, it does its job. You've got the multi-HD channels. It's going to eventually take hold and eventually there will be some brave broadcaster who will turn off the analog on FM.
On AM, there's no reason to operate an HD signal because first of all, the codec that you have to use in hybrid is compromised. It doesn't have enough bandwidth to do anything except voice write. Even voice it doesn't do as well as it should in terms of robustness. It falls apart before the analog signal falls apart.
Kirk Harnack: Yeah. So, why have it?
Ted Schober: So, you have this large area where you're shifting back and forth between analog and digital. Now, if you have a first generation exciter, and I suppose even the later ones if you don't watch them, if that exciter reboots, now you have two and a half seconds worth of delay of latency between the analog signal and the digital signal because they don't automatically self-align.
So, you end up with a horrible sound where people are repeating themselves. Rush says the same phrase over and over again because you keep jumping back and forth between the analog and the digital signal over a substantial part of your sales area. This occurs between the one and the two millivolt per meter contour or if there's noise, perhaps even closer.
Kirk Harnack: Okay. Yeah.
Ted Schober: So, you can't afford to do that. So, you're hurting yourself first of all. The second thing is you hurt your neighbors. Your second adjacent neighbor is getting trashed if he's around town. And that's not fair. It's inappropriate. I know of a station that's outside of New York City. It is absolutely being trashed by two 50 kilowatters in New York City on their HD side bands. The station is just not viable because of that. Even though it would be otherwise a reasonable 25,000 watt radio station, it's got a small fraction of its coverage area that it reaches in the most desirable part of its coverage area.
Kirk Harnack: Okay.
Ted Schober: So, my personal feeling, HD hybrid goes away. The sooner the better.
Kirk Harnack: And there are very few of those stations on the air. You mentioned two in New York City. But my impression was there weren't that many of them on.
Ted Schober: Well, here in Philadelphia I know we've got KYW still running it.
Kirk Harnack: Okay.
Ted Schober: I think WPHT is still running it. So, I think we've got two of them in town. DAS was running it for a while and they shut it off. There are quite enough... if you want an HD exciter, I'm sure you can buy them real cheap. They're sitting next to the power sides.
Kirk Harnack: Would you suspect that there are fewer than 100 or fewer than 200 AM stations that are running HD on them now?
Ted Schober: I would think it's probably some place around 100 that are still currently running it.
Kirk Harnack: Anyone that's running HD on AM right now is in the hybrid mode. They're running their analog and HD.
Ted Schober: Yeah. You'd have to have an STA or experimental authorization to run in digital only mode. I have to say, I've done work for Ubiquiti. So, I love the guys. Some of my best friends work down there. But what I did was I did an experimental authorization in Frederick, Maryland for a daytime only digital station to run for Ubiquiti in Frederick, Maryland. This was up at 1640, I think it was.
Kirk Harnack: Yeah. I remember hearing about 1640.
Ted Schober: The X-band stations at 10 kilowatts, they don't go very far. They're kind of like a kilowatt mid-band station in the daytime. The signal on the expanded band just doesn't go that far unless you have wonderful ground conductivity. They work well in Houston. But in the Northeast, they just don't have enough coverage area to be able to do what they need to.
Those stations need to be 50 kilowatts a day and probably five or ten kilowatts at night in order to be viable. That's my personal feeling. I had made comments to the FCC to that effect too, that they should change the nature of what the expanded band stations, let them go to 50 kilowatts, there's no reason why not. They may have to do some critical hours work, but that's a different story.
The other part is that when they took and turned on the digital only, I guess you'd still call it IBOC, but it's the HD digital only signal, the MA1 or MA2 signal. I'm not sure which one they were using. They took and did some driving tests. They took a conventional, I think it was a Jensen receiver if I'm not mistaken. And then they took their test stuff in a minivan. They drove from Frederick out Route 70 to Route I-81 and then they went up to Harrisburg.
Kirk Harnack: Okay.
Ted Schober: Now, in between I-81 and Harrisburg, there are some mountains. So, 1640 doesn't go across mountains very well.
Kirk Harnack: Oh, yeah.
Ted Schober: So, north of Hagerstown, it's like it kind of fades away. Well, in the digital only mode, they ran all the way to Harrisburg and they ran out of daylight and they had no dropouts whatsoever.
Kirk Harnack: Really? Oh.
Ted Schober: None at all. And this would be the case for any... well, I can't say that every system would work equivalently well. That's something that experiments need to be done head against head taking and looking at MA1, MA2 in environments with high noise, in environments with low signal levels, in environments with interference with other digitals and from analogs and do the same thing with the DRM30s and each of the DRM30 versions because there are different versions.
There are versions of DRM30 that are no longer viable. In other words, back when they were using older codecs, forget it. DRM30 wasn't worth having. But now that they're running the Opus codec in DRM30, it has the possibility of very high performance and multichannel. I don't think there's any real doing two or three stereo channels on an AM 10 kilohertz-wide band channel as an option in any of the HD plans. But in DRM30, you could readily run a multichannel operation using Opus codec if you switch down to voice.
Kirk Harnack: Okay.
Ted Schober: You can't run music multichannel. Actually, you could run one music channel and one voice channel on Opus. But you could run three or four voice channels if you chose to, on Opus.
Kirk Harnack: With AM digital only mode, with HD digital only or DRM, what kind of bitrate...
Ted Schober: We're talking right now with the voice part of Opus.
Kirk Harnack: Yeah. The SILK codec. Yeah.
Ted Schober: So, that's what it sounds like.
Kirk Harnack: What kind of bitrate can you get out of AM with our two channels now, whether it's HD or whether it's DRM30?
Ted Schober: As I remember, I think the layer-2 bitrate on the MA1 I think was 48 kilobytes per second. I'm not positive about that. I think that's what it is. And the MA2 was something a little different. It was a while since I looked at it and quite frankly, I wouldn't be surprised if the HD folks at Ubiquiti has upgraded since the documents I saw. I'm also not supposed to say a whole lot about it because I did sign a non-disclosure.
Kirk Harnack: What about DRM30? What kind of bitrate are you getting?
Ted Schober: DRM30 depends upon which one you choose. See, if you're in Europe and you have a 9 kilohertz spacing, you've got a whole different animal than here. So, there's a DRM30 that's 4.5 kilohertz wide. That's 4.5 kilohertz wide. That's the whole channel.
Kirk Harnack: Yeah.
Ted Schober: There's one that's 5 kilohertz wide. There's one that's 9 kilohertz wide and there's one that's 10 kilohertz wide.
Kirk Harnack: Okay.
Ted Schober: So, there's a whole family of DRM30s. There may be more that I'm not even privy to. I just was looking at the documents from six months ago.
Kirk Harnack: Well, I was curious because one technology that didn't seem to really take off, we at Telos played with it quite a bit and we really liked it, that was this MPEG Surround, where you have a standard stereo channel, which, by the way, could be transmitted with analog, with any kind of digital just as long as you had your stereo channels. And then you had a 6, Fraunhofer got it down to 6 kilobytes, a 6 kilobyte shorthand for the steering information.
Ted Schober: The steering channel. Right.
Kirk Harnack: And you could lose the steering information and still have stereo.
Ted Schober: Right.
Kirk Harnack: But if you had the steering information-and by the way, it didn't have to be quite time-locked, the decoder would match it back up...
Ted Schober: Yeah, because there was a time code in it.
Kirk Harnack: So, if you had, let's imagine with AM HD they had 56 kilobytes available. You could end up transmitting 50 kilobytes or 48 kilobytes of honest to goodness whatever their codec is or if you wanted to use AAC, ELD or HEV2 or something and then you have 6 kilobytes. You could get a not bad sounding and fully separated, no smoke and mirrors tricks, of 5.1 surround sound on AM. You could do this. It actually could work and sound-it would sound absolutely as good as HE-AAC v2 at 48 kilobytes. There's no loss if you're steering that audio around.
Ted Schober: Yeah. I'm glad you said HE-AAC v2 because MP3 at that speed...
Kirk Harnack: Yeah. MP3 is 20 years old and it's kind of old hat. Greg Ogonowski was on our show a year ago and said, "Stop using MP3."
Ted Schober: Well, you know, the problem is that if you're using Microsoft Internet Explorer, they don't want to talk anything but MP3. If you don't have flash, you have problems with HE-AAC.
Kirk Harnack: Yeah.
Ted Schober: So, if you've got to put plugins into your browser, it's a problem.
Kirk Harnack: True.
Ted Schober: And then going the other way, Firefox won't take MP3s and you've got to have an external player. So, MP3 has a problem of patents, okay? HE-AAC has licenses.
Kirk Harnack: Licenses. Yeah.
Ted Schober: The only codec I know of that is completely license free is Opus.
Kirk Harnack: Yeah.
Ted Schober: The problem is implementation is still not throughout. Let's see... Firefox will play it naturally. I believe you have to put in a plugin to Internet Explorer. So, it's coming. But it's not quite there yet.
Kirk Harnack: Yeah. Well, so, we've only got a few minutes left.
Ted Schober: Yeah. Right.
Kirk Harnack: Focus us in on what you might imagine a transition to a digital AM band might look like. Can you help us...
Ted Schober: Yeah. That's the crux of the whole matter. How do we get there? It's like you jump off a cliff. But if you have a station that's got a very good translator, then the opportunity is presented to you, especially if the FCC would give you a cut on not having to pay so much for your regulatory fees and maybe you get some other breaks elsewhere. Maybe what you do is you say, I'm going to cut my AM signal to full digital or maybe I'll take and cut it to full digital all night and kind of give people a taste of it and then consider down the road a little bit going to full digital all the time.
The other thing is if you have a combo and you've got three FMs and two AMs in town, you take your weaker AM and kick it over to full digital and then take the full digital signal and duplicate what's on the AM. And now what you've got, because the digital signal will go further than the analog signal does, you now have a weak signal that's not weak anymore.
Also, groups have stations that are never going to make money from here on out. They don't have a market position. So, cut them full digital and put them on to the signal that's your strong AM and build ratings that way. Put your best product forward on digital as a duplicate, especially if you can't get a translator.
Kirk Harnack: Would you see in the US an all-digital AM band being all HD, all DRM or a combination with receivers that could get both?
Ted Schober: Well, it all depends. Until this year, it wouldn't be practical. But this year, there are two companies that have come out with all system radios. One is a two-chip system. The other is a one-chip system, both of which will run on little batteries. Now, the thing I'm concerned about with the all system radio is that both of these systems you code in what systems you want to work in. In other words you say, "I want this mask, I want that mask."
Kirk Harnack: Okay.
Ted Schober: What we really need is we want those systems put in in flash. It will increase the cost a little bit, but not that much. Think about how much an Arduino chip costs. That's got a lot of flash in it.
So, my point is that we really need to go one little generation from where we are. So, right now, you can buy a single chip which will do AM, FM, HD AM, full digital, HD FM, DRM30, DRM+ all in one chip. It's a battery... it only does one system at a time.
Once it's tuned to a station and knows what that station is, it's only using electronics that are needed to do that. It's pretty much all the same electronics. You come in. You have a down converter. You have an IQ decoder that goes into DSP. The DSP is all software. Every system is ODFM. They all have the same basic building blocks.
The only difference that one system is different in that the receiver manufacturer has to pay a royalty to Ubiquiti for the HD system. That is something that concerns me because I like the guys at Ubiquiti and I'd like them to be successful, but if a receiver manufacturer is selling a chipset that's going to sell for 60 cents and it's going into a $300 radio and the problem is that Ubiquiti wants to charge $2 to put the HD in, are they going to get left behind?
Kirk Harnack: Yeah.
Ted Schober: So, that's the concern that I have. It's a marketing issue as much as a technical issue. Both systems work perfectly well when you get away from the hybrid. Both systems work perfectly well. The thing that people were trying to do with channel five and six, it looks like the FCC is not looking real good at doing that. I think it would probably be a great idea. But the problem is the FCC is packing the UHF ban, they're not going to do anything until that's done. I don't know how long that's going to be before that happens. It's going to be several years at least.
If we don't do something to make AM live through these bad times, AM may not make it. It will make it in the big cities and everybody else will just kind of fade away. Now, by the way, the digital signals are more robust against noise.
Kirk Harnack: Sure.
Ted Schober: You're running with at least 30 seconds of latency. You get stuck under one of these traffic lights, you may be gone before the signals gone and it picks up and you don't even know that it's there.
Kirk Harnack: Gotcha. Yeah.
Ted Schober: So, those are the things that you worry about. I do see a big difference in what we will end up with as what we see as radios. They may be hidden from what they used to be. We may find that every radio is delivering multiple streams simultaneously, both digital medium wave and FM and, for example, you get traffic for where you are. But it just folds right in. The radio is smart enough to buffer up traffic from ten different places, figure out which one is the traffic that should go where you happen to be. You only hear the traffic for where you're going.
Kirk Harnack: Gotcha, especially if it's talking to the GPS system that's built in the car and it knows where you're going.
Ted Schober: Right. Exactly. And I don't really see the likelihood that car radios are going to be important anymore.
Kirk Harnack: Car entertainment systems or car radios?
Ted Schober: This is going to talk by Bluetooth to your car entertainment system.
Kirk Harnack: Well, I do that now.
Ted Schober: If different people drive the car, everybody wants different stuff.
Kirk Harnack: Yeah. That's true. But don't the car manufacturers want to profit mightily on in-car entertainment systems.
Ted Schober: Bose will let you spend lots of money on speakers and amplifiers.
Kirk Harnack: Okay. That's true. You can still spend a lot of money there. Ted, I've got to put this on hold...
Ted Schober: You can put this Bluetooth phone back to the handset as well.
Kirk Harnack: For just a minute, we've got to break for our last sponsor message and when we come back, we've got time for a final thought and that's going to be about it. We've blown through a little bit more than an hour here.
Hey, you're watching or listening to "This Week in Radio Tech," episode 228. It's been a fascinating show with Ted Schober, professional engineer and a guy who talks about the AM band and how we can fix it and how we can maybe blow it up and make it all better.
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So, it's Lawo.com. Look under the radio consoles and then look for the crystalCLEAR console. Check them out, Lawo.com. Thank them very much for their sponsorship of "This Week in Radio Tech."Ted, we've just got a couple of minutes. We've got to wrap it up. What's your summary here, sir?
Ted Schober: Well, actually, summarizing, AM needs to get changing to make things work. But one more point that I want to get into is just about translators and also AM synchronous, the idea of putting more than one translator on the same frequency in the same area in order to fill in the AM service area with a good FM signal. This is practical now. There are people who have tried it and have been successful. Years ago there were people who tried it and went down in flames because they didn't properly sync the audio. It works much better in mono than it does in stereo. So, that's a concern on FM.
On AM, synchronizing was tried even back in the 20s and 30s with poor effect. But people have figured it out now and the guys in Puerto Rico have done a wonderful job running synchronous stations down there. We have one up in Lowell, Massachusetts that's working. They are quite happy with it. What happens is you end up causing a lot less interference from low power multiple stations. Over in Japan, they found using three or four stations to cover an area was more efficient than trying to just use two.
Kirk Harnack: I guess you do end up with real estate issues, though, because instead of one site you need to then...
Ted Schober: Right. And part of it is, I've been working on a very small AM antenna for 1-50 watts ERP, which would be on a roof.
Kirk Harnack: Oh, okay. Yeah. Well, this would be a solution to the real estate problem.
Ted Schober: Like a 15-20 foot tall antenna.
Kirk Harnack: Yeah.
Ted Schober: I have a prototype in a shop, but I haven't finished it yet. If that plays the way I think that it will, I think there's some opportunity to make very low power fill-ins that will put relatively high levels of RF in the places where the noise is really bad. That will solve a lot of the problems for AM.
Kirk Harnack: Ted, if folks need to reach you, where is a good point of connection for you? Your website?
Ted Schober: My website is RadioTechniques.com. R-A-D-I-O-T-E-C-H-N-I-Q-U-E-S all one word, dot com.
Kirk Harnack: Yeah.
Ted Schober: And then the office number is (856)546-8008. I'm at extension 111.
Kirk Harnack: All right. Ted, I want to have you back on again to give us some more thoughts on this. We've barely scratched the surface of these issues. I appreciate you jumping right into it. I hope our audience members kept up along. I almost did the whole time. It really would be exciting to see the AM band transition over to a digital medium and have great quality and these legacy broadcasters can continue to operate and maybe make room for some more folks to be successful. I would love to see that.
Ted Schober: Very good. I think that the FCC is in a mode where they're looking to do whatever they can to make things work. I know that on experimental basis shortly there will be an opportunity to ask to have your station run at least part time digital only. I think that there's also the case that will be able to do that without a big rigmarole and great amount of effort because it's good for the industry to try this stuff out.
I don't know whether we should go DRM30 or whether we should go Ubiquiti MA1 or MA2 or whatever new thing they've got in their pocket they haven't told us about yet. I know obviously it would be easier to turn a station on to the digital system because you could take your old exciter and get Ubiquiti to give you a new program load and you'd be all set.
Kirk Harnack: Yeah.
Ted Schober: That's certainly easier to try out. For experiments, we could do that. You know, I think we should have a shootout. Put multiple systems on one station and go and let all the engineers who are the highfalutin engineers for the groups, go out and drive them and see how they fly.
Kirk Harnack: I'm all for that. We've got to draw to a close. Our guest has been Ted Schober. His website is RadioTechniques.com. I'm Kirk Harnack.
Our show has been brought to you by the folks at Axia and my favorite little piece of software in the world, the Axia IP-audio driver. It turns computers into AoIP devices. Also by Telos Systems and the ProSTREAM streaming audio encoder. It's a powerful little box. I've got one right here. I just love the thing. Also by Lawo and the Lawo crystalCLEAR virtual radio mixing console.
Thanks very much to the GFQ Network. Tune into the GFQ Network for shows that are about all kinds of crazy stuff, including "Mat Men" and the "Friday Free For All" and who knows what else. If you look at their website at GFQNetwork.com, you'll find out all about it. Thanks to Andrew Zarian. We'll see you next week on "This Week in Radio Tech."