From old-school studio wiring and transmitter installation, to new IP-Audio routing and backhaul, Robert Combs has seen and heard it all. As a Regional Director of Engineering for Cumulus, Combs is one of a few “go-to” guys when a world-class studio is going together, or a new technology is being tested in the field. We’re talking with Robert about engineering management of a region of radio stations, and how newer IP-Audio technology streamlines today’s radio studio demands.
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Kirk Harnack: This Week in Radio Tech Episode 211 is brought to you by the Axia xSwitch, the world’s first Ethernet switch designed expressly for use in broadcast IP-Audio networks. On the web at axiaaudio.com/xswitch.
As a regional director of engineering for Cumulus, Robert Combs is one of the few go-to guys when a world-class studio is going together or a new technology is being tested in the field. We’re talking to Robert about engineering management of a region of radio stations and how newer IP-audio technology streamlines today’s radio studio demands.
Hey, welcome in to This Week in Radio Tech, it’s time for the show. This is the show where we talk about radio technology, typically audio, but everything that has to with radio broadcasting, including RF technology, towers, antennas, transmitters, audio mixing, how to really treat audio well, audio processing, how to get phone callers on the air, just all these kinds of subjects, plus the whole new world of streaming and internet, and what that means to radio. So this is the show where we talk about that.
We’ve got a great show today because we have one of my favorite people in the world on the show. I didn’t know this guy very well until a few months ago and now he’s on the show and I’ll bring him on in a few minutes. He’s Robert Combs with Cumulus Media and I want you to meet him, so hang on. But right now let’s introduced the best dressed engineer in radio, ladies and gentlemen, from Manhattan, New York it’s Chris Tobin.
Chris Tobin: Hello, Kirk. Hello, everyone. Yes, it’s going to be a fun time, with IP, streaming, and everything that’s going on, technology is just advancing so quickly. I’m having a good time with it, I hope you are, too.
Kirk: Chris, spend just a second and tell us; your title says “IP Solutionist.” That’s a big word, what does that mean?
Chris: I have a company. I branched out on my own recently to start imparting my knowledge on others, for a cost, a price. The company is Content Creative Solutions, basically IP codecs. I thought that since for the last five to six years I’ve been doing a lot of work with radio stations and some TV, as well as non-broadcast folks, doing a lot of IP work. I discovered that a lot of the things I’ve done over the years--as you have, Kirk--with working at radio transmitters and studios and know that stuff inside and out that I’ve been able to actually offer to those who have less understanding a way of getting their content on the air, on the net, or over the radio. I just started doing it myself, so IP Solutionist just seemed to be the easiest way to get the conversation started. I could use the word “technologist”, but I think everybody it doing that these days.
I’m more about providing a solution, so it’s like someone comes up to me and says, “Hey, I’ve got this thing I need to do. Someone sold me this box, it’s called a Z/IP codec, do you know what it’s about?” I just had a phone call recently about it and I said, “Yeah, sure.” “I don’t know how it works, but I was given this to use for a talk show.” “Okay, great, let’s work it out.” That’s what I do, for a short example. I do the same with wireless IP radio links at 5.8 gig, I’ve done some 24 gig installs and that kind of thing. It’s fun.
Kirk: You must be so busy that you don’t have a website yet.
Chris: The website I don’t have. One reason is I’m not sure how to present the website, because there’s so many things I’m doing.
Chris: Yeah, I know. A lot of people ask me, “You don’t have a website, what’s that about?” I’m like, “Well call me, we’ll talk.” I get more done talking on the phone.
I just recently worked with a guy who called from the Canary Islands, thank goodness he spoke English. He was installing an IP link using a product from Italy. He goes, “Are you familiar with this?” I said, “No, but I think I know what you’re trying to do.” So we talked a little. I looked up on the product’s website and found out what it was, it was a basic IP radio, nothing fancy. Within 30 minutes we were able to get things up and running. Could a website tell him that? No, what is he going to do? He’s going to call me anyway, so . . .
Kirk: That just seems so right, Chris, actually. I know your personality fairly well, “We don’t need no stinking website.”
Chris: Why, for the purposes I’m trying to do? I mean, yeah some people say, “If you don’t have a website you can’t do business.” I like, “Really? My business isn’t based on web traffic, so it’s very different.”
Kirk: It’s very one on one, indeed.
Hey, our show is brought to you by Axia and the Axia xSwitch. I’ll be showing that to you in just a few minutes, but right now let’s bring in our guest. I’m just delight to have Robert Combs on the show. I’m glad he could make it today.
Robert, hey, good afternoon. How are you doing, buddy?
Robert Combs: Good afternoon, Kirk, glad to be here.
Kirk: Man, you’ve got some pipes, have you been on the air?
Robert: I started out on the air many years ago.
Kirk: Like I did, then you decided that you couldn’t make enough money to raise a family being on the air.
Robert: Well, the engineer walked in one day, on the 15th of April, and was very excited that he had only had to pay so much more in taxes and that was $5000 more than I made that year, and I started school the next semester.
Kirk: So you got formal education in engineering then, so you actually do know what you’re doing.
Robert: Well, at a tech school. I did Electronics Technology in tech school and learned the basics of electronics. Then everything else, like most things in life, was on the job training.
Kirk: Yeah, absolutely. So Robert, you are the Regional Director of Engineering for Cumulus and you work out of Savanna, Georgia. What a beautiful part of the world, you’re lucky to live there.
Robert: I’m very lucky. I’ve been here 15 years and besides the sand gnats trying to eat me up, I love it.
Kirk: I’ve heard of the sand gnats, I’ve never experienced them though, I’d rather not. Do I have to stay away from Savanna?
Robert: No, but imagine a flea or a gnat that bites, that’s what a sand gnat is.
Kirk: Oh, gosh. So Robert, I had heard your name before and maybe had run into you here or there, but I certainly became familiar with your work when you came to Nashville several times doing work at Cumulus at this new NASH facility where Cumulus runs their country music programming out of. You were involved in building a couple of studios, but the first one was a really impressive morning show studio for Blair Garner and his, now nationwide, syndicated morning show. Why don’t you talk to us about how that project got started and how you got involved?
Robert: Well, I’m very lucky that Cumulus and Barry Klein allowed me to travel and build studios. I went up and helped Mark, our engineer that was in Atlanta at the time, to build the news talk studios for 106.7 when Cumulus and Citadel merged. So Mark liked the work I did helping him up there. Mark was in charge of building the NASH studios, so he called me and said, “Hey, what are you doing for the next month?” I said, “Well, I guess you’re going to tell me.” So yeah, I was able to get plenty of time to learn some of the new technology. They gave me a room and said, “Here, wire this one.”
Kirk: Was this your first big experience with audio over IP?
Robert: Well, I have audio over IP in Savanna, but it’s a few years older than some of the new xNodes and the mixers, and the Axia engines and things like that. So I had the basic knowledge of the Axia nodes, but this was my first venture into the consoles and the VX system, and all the other stuff. I’d installed some other brands of audio over IP, but this was the first one where everything, there were no big trunk cables, it was nothing but Cat 5s.
Kirk: Ah, yeah. You guys did some breaking out to punch blocks. I guess a lot of that was GPIO, though, wasn’t it?
Robert: Right, GPIO. We went to a Cron block first and then went into the engine, so that there was a point where if we needed to make a change we could make it right there on the blocks.
Kirk: Yeah. Some people do that when they’re wiring audio over IP systems, whether it’s a Axia system or a Wheatnet system. Some people go through an intermediate thing like a Cron block or some people still actually go through a patch bay, or not, you don’t have to.
You certainly spent some years wiring traditional studios, not audio over IP, but traditional point to point wiring, right?
Robert: Actually some of my first work in engineering was on weekends when I’d go in with Clyde Scott, who was the contract engineer for the station I worked for. I would go in with him to build studios on my weekends off. That’s where I got my start, just traveling all over south Georgia to build the studios.
Kirk: Why are us engineers like that? Why do we give up our free time to go build studios?
Robert: Oh, I love it. My girlfriend gets very mad at me because she’ll have plans for Saturday and ask me, “Can we do this and this?” I say, “You know, I’ve got this I’ve got to do, and I’ve got this.” So she gets upset sometimes.
Kirk: I hear you. So for some years you built traditional studios, just as I did. Chris Tobin is with us, just as Chris Tobin did, he built plenty of traditional studios. For you, what was the biggest mind bender, what was the biggest adjustment in building studios with this newer technology, audio over IP?
Robert: Well, the biggest change to me was I was used to bringing in the big trunk cables, 32-pair, 27-pair depending upon what brand you bring in, and just spending days and days punching down regular audio cable off those trunks and patching everything through. With this, I pull the ceiling tile back, run one Cat 5 from one room to the other, and the rooms are connected, which I love, because I hate insulation.
Kirk: A few months ago we had Gary Klein on the show and we did a little video walking tour through the whole new NASH facility. We’re going to go back and do another video tour through there and we’re also going to do this show from the NASH facility. I can’t wait to do that, we’re just waiting to get around to getting me over there and doing it. My point is, we’ve shown some pictures of the hallways and the rooms, but we haven’t gotten around to actually showing the studios and some of the wiring and wiring techniques that went on to build this place. The first studio that you built, the one for Blair Garner, this was under Mark Lamothe’s [sp] direction and you were certainly involved with wiring it and testing things out. This was a rather high profile and somewhat complicated studio, wouldn’t you say?
Robert: Very, because of all the cameras involved. I mean, there’s five HD video cameras that are voice controlled so that they switch to however is talking on a microphone, so however is talking is always on screen, always on camera. We had to integrate everything with that. We worked with a great company, I believe it’s Clair Brothers, that did the lighting and worked it in with our sound. We learned how to control both and get everything wired together. Everything was Cat 5 going from the cameras to the GPIOs, to controls. I mean, they can control everything from each microphone for their own personal settings, from the stand in the stage in the actual studio, and then everything can also be controlled in the master control room. Everybody has their own computer screen that they control separately, but we had to make the furniture work to where that was not on camera, so it wasn’t blocking their face.
It was a lot of things that I had never been involved with. When it comes to a studio I’m used to just building, it’s audio only, you don’t even have to do your hair before you show up. Here we had to do a dressing room.
Kirk: Oh, yeah. I want to bring Chris Tobin in just a second, but one thing that came to mind, you mentioned that the monitors can’t block their face, so you will be doing television out of this room, I’m not sure if you’re streaming it yet, but you will be. Everybody’s going to be wearing makeup and see how everybody’s going to look great for this morning show with Blair Garner. But I’ve shown people pictures of your studio there and they all comment on these mic arms that you found and installed there. They’re low, they don’t go up overhead and back down, like ours do, the one that you’re using and the one that I’m using. These actually come out low and go across the front of the monitor or just off to the side of it and then hold the microphone up. What are those mic arms?
Robert: You would ask me that, I’m not sure of the name brand, but we ordered them through Broadcasters General Store. Those guys down there are great at helping us when we scoot to them and say, “We need to be able to do this and this.” And they say, “Well here, try this,” or, “Let’s look at this.” Cary, and Dave, and Jessica, and all those people down there, everybody, are just great. Any time we have a studio built out that we’re trying new ideas, they give us all kinds of great ideas as well.
Kirk: Hey, Chris Tobin, you were involved in a build out of a station a few years ago. It was, I guess, a new audio over IP installation, what did you discover and kind of compare notes with Robert here? What did you discover wiring this new place, back when it was Wynn’s [sp]?
Chris: Well, as Robert pointed out, we’re all accustomed to the multi-pair cables, so large cables, thick stuff and all kinds of messy, heavy wiring. I will say that, as I’ve told many folks in the past, when we wired up the Wynn studios for the Axia system back in the day I pretty much cleared the slate, threw everything off the table and started fresh. I said, “Okay, what if I didn’t have 25-pair cable? What if I didn’t have Belden 8451 or 8732, how can I make this work?” I just took the approach of the Cat 5 cable, twisted pair. Steve Lampen, as well all know, from Belden has made it quite clear that twisted pair cable if properly terminated can do a lot. So I applied that thinking and we built a facility eight studios all wired with Cat 5e and we did everything on it from the Axia protocols to just plain old analog audio, dial tone for telephone, we did everything. I used Cat 5 patch bays on certain paths, basically the lines coming in from the remotes, from the outside sources. Internally it was point to point to the switches and to the necessary nodes and consoles, but for outside sources coming in and out, where you always end up patching something, we put them through a Cat 5 patch bay.
We did one or two Cron block arranges, because you can patch around Cron blocks. That was for the telephone company folks. They were insistent that they had their traditional looking block on the wall, so we did that.
Outside that, I have to agree with Robert that a lot of stuff is just so much easier to do, and plan out, and reliable. I think sometimes you overlook the ease of use with the newer systems, whether it be an Axia, Wheatnet, or Dante installation, Lava, or anyone else. You really just have to have an open mind. I mean, you imagination is the key.
Kirk: So Robert, you wired this first studio for America’s Morning Show with Blair Garner and a cast of characters. That was a complicated studio. You had a television set to build as well with a raised floor, I guess cables do go under it, but the floor was raised to make it more appropriate for television, then there’s a studio audience area, and all that, again, we’ll show that on a future show. But then you added a second studio a few months later, the studio that is now for the NASH Nights show. I checked in with Zach Harper, your partner in crime there, and he verified that--yeah there are other things that are wired--but essentially, all the phones and the audio connecting from the new NASH Nights studio back to the rest of the system is through one Cat 5 cable. Is that right?
Robert: Yes, we ran some multi-pair Cat 5 cable through the ceiling, into the building, mostly for GPIO and things like that, and spares. But yeah, everything else the microphones, the VX, the xNodes that are in there it’s all one Cat 5 cable going into the rack room, plugging into one Axia machine and everything runs out of it. Then we have a small production room that we built at the same time right beside it and there’s one Cat 5 cable into there as well.
Kirk: Wow, so that’s so different. When I was building studios before Axia come along, yeah, we’d spend days up in the ceiling pulling these multi-pair cables, wringing them out, and trying to find which pair was which. What a mess.
By the way, PT in the chat room, and I looked up separately, the mic arms we were talking about are from Studioitems.com. Indeed, as you mentioned, BGS carries those. They’re really cool if you need a low profile. I’d like to get one from here and not have this thing go overhead. I just need to come up with the almost $300 that they cost.
Robert: The good thing about that, too, is you can have it very low profile or medium profile. I believe you can actually put it up overhead if you want to, but like I said, with today’s studios being able to see monitors, or if you have cameras like we had they’re very good.
Kirk: Yeah, it sounds like it.
Robert, in the second studio that you built, the one that’s for the NASH Nights Show, what did you do differently, if anything, now that you had all that experience with audio over IP with the America’s Morning Show studio? Did you do anything differently for the next studios?
Robert: Well not really, the only difference between those two studios were, of course, we didn’t have the big stage, we didn’t have the second console or table to put together. It was basically a studio all encompassed into one thing. We ran the punch blocks the way, did the GPIO’s, and hooked everything internally inside that one studio and then we just decided, “Okay, we’ve got seven monitors we’ve got to put up here. We’ve got six microphones, let’s lay it out.” I mean, we did it a lot quicker. I was only there two and a half weeks for that build, but I had to come back home to take care of some stuff in Savanna. Yancy, and Mark, and Martin, and J.T. came in and finished the rest of the studio for us.
So yeah, we were ready for it already having done Blair’s studio, but it was a lot quicker and actually a lot easier. We brought in some other folks for that one, too, Key out of Detroit, and Trey our of Florence, and brought in guys from all over to help.
Kirk: You also had a lot of the infrastructure already done, so when you built the America’s Morning Show studio at that time you had to put in the phone system. It was a Telos VX phone system, which is also running audio over IP, so that was already in. I guess, when you put in the NASH Nights studio you simply had to add some phone numbers to it and expand it slightly, but the infrastructure was basically there.
Robert: Right, Zach did more work, I think, on the NASH Nights studio than we did. We did the physical labor and punched down the wires and ran all the mic cables and got in the ceiling, but Zach being the head of IT a lot of it was him, because he just had to set up the new IP addresses, and hook in the phone system, and set up the Op-X system for it, and that was it.
Kirk: Zach may be the guy to ask, but you just mentioned setting up the IP addresses, when we were building studios 10 or 15 years ago an IP address never came up. Okay, maybe you had one computer in the control room, but nowadays it seems like planning your IP address scheme is a fairly important thing to do, getting them written down or documented somewhere so you know where everything is. That’s new.
Robert: The biggest thing was, when you used to build a studio you had a whole notebook of paperwork tracing where this wire went and this wire went. Now, I think when Mark said, “Here, I want you to go build these studios,” he sent me nine pieces of paper. Five of those pieces of paper were IT, four were layouts of Cron blocks, so yeah, it’s very different now. Terry [inaudible] taught me years ago, if you don’t learn and keep progressing with new technology you’re going to be stuck, so that’s what we’ve been doing. As I said, Zach, really controlled the whole build because he was IT.
Kirk: Chris, when you’ve been planning a studio, or you help somebody with a studio now, do you have a scheme for the IP addressing? Is this important to keep it all straight? Does it matter a lot?
Chris: Absolutely, in a couple of locations I’ve worked with some folks. What I did on one of the systems I recently worked on--I’m a fan of non-routable IP addresses when you’re doing an internal network, say like a studio setup. The reason I’ve gone that route on many occasions is that avoids the infamous, somebody plugging something into the network that might be bridging to another network that is routable and all of a sudden you’ve got traffic finding its way back and forth. That’s one.
Two, there’s less chance of somebody bringing in a device they may default to the infamous 192.168.1.1 stuff that everybody uses by default, so that helps.
Then as far as just laying out, I try to keep a group of IP addresses strictly for the routers, for the switches, and that’s a group. You know, come up with a range, say, maybe 100 IP addresses and say, “This will always be this part of the infrastructure.” Then in one place we did studios, each studio had its own IP range. I know some people say, “That’s crazy, you shouldn’t have to do that,” or why bother.” Believe it or not, when you’re running around trying to troubleshoot and you know your infrastructure properly, you look at the IP address and you know right away, “Oh, that’s Studio 12,” Or, “That’s Studio 2.” Then you know where they’re going. It’s helped a lot.
But I find that the trick is understanding with proper routable IP’s and which way to go with that. Also, making sure they do everything in a static world, but do it with reservations so you don’t have to go crazy trying to type in crazy static IP’s and figuring out what’s what. So I’ve done DHCP, make a static reservation, and then just run from there and it’s worked really well.
Kirk: Robert, was that anything like your scheme was? You’ve got a big facility there with a whole rack room, a lot of computers. You guys remote or KVM a whole bunch of automation computers and other ones. Then you’ve got the America’s Morning Show and the NASH Nights studios, do you have an IP addressing scheme in there?
Robert: We had I think two pages of IP addresses alone just designated. It’s like Chris said, you designate this as Op-X, this group is Axia, this group of numbers would be Kix Brooks’ studio, this group of numbers would be Shawn, and this group of numbers would be Blair’s studio. You keep everything separate so that when an IP address come up one quick glance tells you exactly where it is and where you need to go.
Kirk: I forgot about the Kix Brooks studio. That is a gorgeous studio, it’s designed to be very comfortable. We’ll get a video tour in there as well the next time that we’re there. Now, it’s not an AoIP studio per so, although I think there’s maybe a node in there to tie it back with the rest of the system. It’s more of a recording studio with a recording studio console, isn’t that right?
Robert: That is right, you have a set up where you can record, just a mixing console really. It’s set up in the booth and then mics are everywhere for the couch, for the easy chairs, for the desktop, cameras for everything now. I mean, the Clair Brothers just went in, redid the whole lighting and cameras in that studio as well. That was the first studio built and it was made for recording, not for broadcast.
Kirk: A couple of times you’ve mentioned Claire Brothers. I got to mention some of these engineers while they were in town doing the wiring. Tell me, what’s the reason that you would hire a company like Clair Brothers to do this infrastructure wiring, maybe some structured cabling? Why don’t the Cumulus engineers do that themselves? What’s the advantages?
Robert: The Clair Brothers were mostly for video. A lot of folks may know the Clair Brothers, they do lighting and sound for a lot of concert tours, some of the big names Bruce Springsteen. I think they did Garth Brooks’ last tour. Most of their guys are sound guys and light guys so when it came time to do TV cameras--I mean, we know audio. The Cumulus guys, we’re radio broadcast engineers, we’re not video, we’re not a lot of different things. We’ve learned it now thanks to some of those guys that we worked with, but when it came time to put cameras in, put lights in Cumulus wanted the best. So after over years talking to different tour people and lighting people, they said, “If you want the best this is where you go.” It just so happens they’re based out of Nashville, so that helped a lot as well.
Kirk: I was just checking their website. Their website is Clairesystems.com. Oh my goodness, they’re also a manufacturer of speakers systems. They do huge installations, I didn’t realize that. I’ve got to go see this Franklin Theatre down the road in Franklin, Tennessee. They did a gorgeous movie or maybe an acting theatre, I’m not sure which it is, a huge church in South Korea, and just lots of others. It’s amazing, all right.
Robert: And their guys run sound at the Ryman and at the Grand Ole Opry. I tried to get off work to go over to the Ryman, the guys were going to be doing a special show one Saturday afternoon. Of course Mark wouldn’t let me off, so I couldn’t go over. But yeah, they’re running sound. One guy would be there a week and then he had to go on tour for two weeks with this artist. Then he’d come back and somebody had to go on tour with this artist.
Hey, we are in the middle of talking with Robert Combs, who’s the Regional Engineering Manager for Cumulus Media. He’s base out of Savanna, Georgia. You’re on the show here with Kirk Harnack and my co-host Chris Tobin. We’re talking about some of the things that Robert does and like many broadcast engineers Robert is responsible for a lot of things. After our break we’re going to talk to Robert a bit more about studio systems, but then also about how he manages other engineers in his regional area, how his work is covered while he’s out of town doing some of these special projects.
I want to make sure, Robert, that we also get a chance to talk briefly about the Radio Row project that you’ve been involved with, providing a way for 30 radio stations to broadcast from a special event. That’s been pretty cool.
Our show, Episode 211, is brought to you by Axia and the specifically the Axia xSwitch. Unfortunately I don’t have it powered up right here, but this an Axia xSwitch. It’s a half-rack width box that’s an Ethernet switch. With Axia systems or any AoIP system you do need to use proper Ethernet switches. Most of the time folks will simply get a recommended switch, typically from Cisco, although there are some other switches that can work as well. But the characteristics of an Ethernet switch are really important for audio over IP to work properly, because it’s got to be low latency, we can’t have any delays in the switch. It’s got to behave exactly right and is also has to behave right for the purposes of multicast and the IGMP groups. This also means the switch has to have the ability to shut off streams which are no longer being subscribed to in an IGMP multicast network.
Well, the behavior of some switches is really pretty poor in that regard. It’s overbearing and rather obtuse. The Cisco switches do a great job of this, but not everyone wants to buy a Cisco switch, so the folks at Axia came up with the xSwitch. The xSwitch has gigabit ports on the back as well as 100 megabit ports. Let’s see, how many does it have? It’s got two gigabit ports, two SFP ports if you want to put fiber into there, and then it’s got eight 100 megabit ports for plugging in other items. It does have a built in power supply over there on that side.
The switch can supply POE to other devices, so if you need to plug, let’s say, an Axia xNode and you want it to have a backup power supply. Well, an xNode can be powered by 110 volts or 240 volts, but it can also be powered by POE and that POE can come from the Axia xSwitch.
The xSwitch doesn’t require really any further configuration than what is has when it comes out of the box. You can give it an IP address on the front, but unlike other switches from, say Cisco, where some configuration is required--If you’ve done it before it’s no big hill to climb. If it’s your first time to configure a Cisco switch it can be a little bit daunting, although Axia has complete instructions on our website--the xSwitch comes already configured, it’s ready to go. If there are a couple of configuration choices its’ pretty much, “Do you want to make the gigabit port into a trunking or an access port?” That’s pretty standard IT work no matter where you go, trunk ports or access ports.
It’s about a $1200 or $1300 box. You can find a Cisco switch that’s qualified for a little bit less money it you like or you can get the Axia xSwitch. Do which ever you like, the Cisco switches work fine. I believe there’s an HP switch that works fine, but if you want to have something that matches, provides POE and is already configured the Axia xSwitch is really a good way to go.
I’ll be plugging this in here in my network in just a little while. It’s got a rack space right for it.
Oh, and you can also put two of them side by side. They are rack mountable side by side, so you can bolt two of them together and put them both in a rack. Also, you don’t have to rack mount them, you can lay this in the bottom of a cabinet if you need to. You could mount it up on the side of the cabinet, but we also provide the rack mounting ears with every single one of them. You can rack mount just one or put them side by side with the rack mounting ears that come with it.
Check it out on the web at axiaaudio.com, it’s the Axia xSwitch. It could make your installation even more convenient than it already is.
All right, you’re watching This Week in Radio Tech, it’s Episode Number 211. I’m Kirk Harnack along with Chris Tobin in Manhattan, and Robert Combs live in Savanna, Georgia.
Well, Robert, I want to chat with you a few minutes about your role as a regional engineering manager. Now, most engineers are not regional engineering managers, so you probably have some responsibilities that all a lot of engineers, including myself, are not really familiar with. Managing other engineers obviously would be one of those things. I’m a little curious also about how you get your work covered when you’re off in Nashville building a studio or you’re in Las Vegas with a red carpet event there who’s manning the transmitters back in Savanna? How does that work?
Robert: Well luckily I’ve got some good friends and a good backup guy here in town. A couple of years ago I was in need of an IT person to take care of the network while I was gone, because I had started traveling a lot more. I was able to find a great guy, named Ken Ferris, that has done all kinds of IT and help desk support, so he stepped into that. Come to find out, he was very interested in learning the rest of the business, so over the past two years I’ve been teaching him RF and studio stuff along with the Op-X automation system that we have here.
Also, I’ve found over the years that engineers you have to back each other up and we’re the only ones in the city, we have to be a family. So the other engineers in town we cover for each other. There’s a contract guy and there’s someone that works for [inaudible 36:089] Broadcasting. Clear Channel is in town, they’re in between engineers right now, but when they have one we also get him involved. If you need a break, if you need to go away for a weekend, or in my case where I’m gone at least two weeks a month, sometimes longer, then we cover for off-air emergencies, transmitter stuff. In the case of Marty where he’s a contract, anyone who actually has a signed contract, they get our services free of charge. If it’s someone who’s a pay as you go customer of his then we charge the same thing he would charge if they’re off the air. But yeah, you have to cover for each other because everybody needs a break every now and then.
Kirk: What are you finding out there in terms of engineering talent in the various markets that you manage? Some months ago we had Jeff Littlejohn from Clear Channel, he was recently honored by the NAB as Engineer of the Year or an engineering award from NAB. He’s worried about engineering talent coming up. They have a program at Clear Channel to try to bring new engineers in.
What is your view on that? What’s Cumulus able to do to try to bring more talent into the business, if that’s needed?
Robert: Oh, it’s much needed. It’s sad, at one time I was the youngest engineer in the Cumulus family. Now at 46 I’m still one of the youngest, but I’m not the youngest anymore. We’ve got some great guys in the Cumulus family that are younger and energetic and willing to learn. They understand that they still have a lot to learn no matter how long they’ve been doing it.
I have a young man in my region, he’s been with us for five years and every day we’re teaching him something. If he doesn’t learn something new he calls us and goes, “Okay, teach me something now.” We’re looking for young engineers like that throughout the country.
We’ve got some great engineers that have a lot of experience and they would love to teach it. I have two--like I said, I have Ken here and Trey up in Florence--that are ready to learn and want to learn. That’s the way I was taught, so I feel it’s my responsibility to pass what guys over the years have taught me to somebody else, because this younger generation doesn’t want to work. They don’t want to work the hours that we worked. They don’t want to be on call 24/7.
I love that, I guess it feeds my ego. I’m the only guy you can call at 2:00 in the morning when you’re off the air and if I don’t get up and get the job done you don’t make any money. To me that’s one of the best aspects of the job. I mean, I hate getting up at 2 in the morning, or I hate interrupting a diner date, or family time, but it’s part of the job and it comes with it. You get your down time. I mean, as long as you do your job right, and fix your sites, and keep them clean, and keep everything well oiled and preventive maintenance going then you don’t get called out at 2:00, unless there’s a storm or something happens.
Kirk: Would you rather have equipment break at 2 in the morning or at 2 in the afternoon?
Roger: Two in the morning.
Kirk: You’d rather have it break at 2 in the morning?
Roger: I don’t have backup transmitters here, so if it’s going to break at 2 in the afternoon we’re getting $50, $60, $100 a spot and at 2 in the morning we’re getting $5.
Also, I worked in bars for 20 years, so I’m sort of the vampire lifestyle anyway from that.
Kirk: Chris Tobin, what do you think about that? Well, in your market you’ve got a lot of backup stations there.
Chris: In our market, yes. In New York City it’s basically drilled into your head five-nines of reliability for systems up time, so if you had a failure you should be able to withstand it either during the day at peak sales commercial time or during the overnights.
In other markets I’ve worked in we didn’t have the luxury of all of the necessary backups we’d like, so I would say I’d still probably prefer a 2:00 in the morning call rather than doing during the day. As Robert points out, the commercial rates are higher during the day, plus visibilities higher. Everybody’s around, so there’s less chance of you really staying focused because you have too many people over your shoulder asking, “When’s it going to be fixed? When’s it going to be fixed?”
Kirk: If a transmitter fails at 2 a.m. what has been interrupted for sure is your sleep. If the transmitter fails at 2 p.m. and you’ve got to take care if it right then and right there, there’s no telling what you’re involved in at that moment. It’s probably something important whatever it is and you’ve got to put that off while you go deal with something else, and with everybody breathing down your neck, so yeah, maybe there is some advantage to things failing at 2 a.m.
I was just going to say, though, that maybe we should see if we can get manufacturers to make equipment not break at all, not break at 2 a.m.
Chris: The question isn’t, would you prefer a 2 a.m. failure or a 2 p.m. daytime failure? My question would be, why would you even be considering a failure? I would be working towards systems reliability and find a way to prevent that. Then the choice of failure is now basically an act of God or vandalism, and those two things, based on risk assessment, don’t happen often, so you have a better chance of sleeping more nights than not.
Kirk: A lot of those 2 a.m. failures are weather related aren’t they, thunderstorms still going on at 2 a.m.?
Robert: Usually a thunderstorm or someone tapped into a power pole, or something similar.
Kirk: Ah, somebody going home from that bar that you were managing.
Robert: That I used to, yes.
Kirk: Yeah, running off the road. Yeah, I’ve had a few of those.
So hey, let’s talk about this red-carpet event. Robert, the last time I saw you was in Las Vegas just before the NAB. You were involved with this big ACM Awards, the Academy of Country Music Awards, and this was huge. There were 30 radio stations there and you and your colleagues provided a mixer, microphones, headphones, and a two-way connection back home for every single one of those stations. That’s a miracle, tell us about that.
Robert: Every one of those stations, plus all of the NASH Country guys, each show from there was also involved. That’s part of the new stuff that I’m learning that I really love to do, because not only do I get to go to Las Vegas and spend a week. Although when I was there that time the only time I left the MGM grounds was to go get some dinner about two blocks away one night, because I was tired of eating in the hotel. But I mean, I get to go work, but I’m working in Las Vegas one of the greatest cities on Earth, so I enjoy that part.
But yeah, we set up the 32 tables, I think, total is what we had at the ACM Awards, with 28 to 30 radio stations from all over the country. Some were doing live morning shows, which I believe the earliest was some folks out of Tampa that had to be set up and ready to go at 2 a.m. Las Vegas time. I drew the short straw for that one, so I got to get up at 1:30 and hookup an ISDN line. Then the east coast guys came in and then the Central time as their time zone kicked in their morning show started.
But yeah, everything was set up just like we’re doing studios now. We have an xNode sitting right there on the table with a headphone distribution amplifier, four microphones going into the xNode. Then we have the iPad, which is what we have the mixer that Alex at BSI wrote to actually control the switch or the mixer from the Axia. It’s very simple, very easy to learn, and it keeps us from having a giant mixer, a Mackie 1202 or 1204 right there in the way. It gives them more space to lay out their paperwork and to get a whole group of artists. As you saw, it may not be a single artist it may be a whole group.
Of course, everything runs back to the back room where we do everything, ISDN to the studios. We’ll use ISDN as long as we have it and then we’ll switch to IP I’m sure. We had, I think, six roll around racks full of equipment in the back room.
Kirk: If I’m not mistaken, I think you did have some IP-audio connectivity back to the Cumulus facility in Dallas, right?
Robert: Yes, everything was uplinked. We sent everything to the Dallas facilities and then they uplinked them. We actually had studio shows going during the actual event, the awards show. We were sending them audio via IP. They were also talking with us. We had the walkie-talkie systems that were also into the Axia equipment where they could talk just to us.
Kirk: Yeah, that’s what I wanted to ask about, because I took some pictures backstage there where you had these six roll around racks worth of gear and on top are all these walkie-talkies. I’m thinking, “Okay, is that just to talk there.” They said, “No, we’re actually sending walkie-talkie audio,” and I guess the digital PL code, the squawk, “through an IP audio connection.” I think it was through some Telos iPorts there in Las Vegas and some more iPorts in Dallas and coming out there to another two-way radio system in Dallas. So you could just hit the talk button on the walkie-talkie and talk to somebody in Dallas.
Have I got that right?
Robert: Yes, that’s exactly right. When we got on the red carpet I would be taking care of one reporter and through the wireless system I was their only contact. So if Dallas needed something from them or needed them to not do something, or to change something then they would just go into my walkie-talkie in my ear and say, “Hey, tell Erica to do this.” Or, “Tell Blaire to do this or not do this.”
Kirk: Wow. Do you expect that you’re going to be involved with more of these red carpet events? Is this going to be a continuing deal?
Robert: Actually, I’m leaving next Tuesday to go back to the Billboard Music Awards. We will have a radio row set up again this time, still 30 radio stations, just all different formats this time instead of just country. Then we’ll be doing a red carpet as well and carrying the Billboard Music Awards on the air, getting everything set up for that.
Kirk: Good gosh, that’s a remote right there.
Chris Tobin, have you seen their setup the Cumulus is doing for this red carpet and the radio row?
Chris: Yeah, I got to see some pictures. I’ve done similar radio rows when I worked at ABC Radio Networks and at the Westward One, what Robert says is true it can get pretty daunting if you don’t have everything organized just right. They’re a lot of fun.
Kirk: Hey, Robert, I’ve asked you everything that I wanted to. Is there a subject that I’ve forgotten to cover here?
Robert: No, you’ve pretty much spanned my whole career now from the beginning to where I am.
Kirk: To right now. Would you like to make a prediction about the future? What do you see coming up for you in the next year or for broadcast engineers, what do you see for us guys?
Robert: I think if we don’t make some changes ourselves that the engineers are going to get left behind. This has become a sales oriented business and we the engineers can get lost in that. If the engineers don’t start taking care of business and showing how valuable we are to the radio stations, and get some younger people involved and get them taught and trained we’re going to be left behind.
Kirk: It seems to me like one way that engineers can present more value to a general manager, who often looks at an engineer as just this big expense that comes walking in, is to find revenue streams for a station using the technologies that they have or technologies that they could have. Back in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and 90’s we tried to sell our subcarriers, and maybe that’s still going on. I New York City, my goodness, an analog subcarrier was worth a bunch of money every month, people want to get that for niche broadcasting. I was certainly involved with stations that were transmitting Q-Paging back when that was around and that helped to offset the cost of engineering.
Chris Tobin, what other technologies are around that an engineer can bring to the table to show revenue?
Chris: This is what I used to do in a couple of places and it paid off. The first thing you need to do is find a way to talk the proper language to sales and the general manager, try to learn the normal English speak. Then second, take what technologies you do have and look at how they do their workflow. Say for instance, maybe try to attend a promotions meeting or marketing meeting for the station and listen and watch how they go about doing an event.
Here’s an example. I was part of a marketing event where we did a charity fund raising for toys from a school bus in a parking lot in a shopping mall. The marketing department was talking--I just sat in the meeting. I was just listening, I didn’t contribute anything at that point in time.--and somebody said, “Boy, wouldn’t it be great if we could have so and so live from there because he’s our top rated show, but it’s out in the middle of nowhere, so to speak, and we don’t know if that’s possible. It’s three weeks away, blah, blah, blah.” So I chimed in and said, “You know, there’s an opportunity here, we can use the following technologies.” It was a wireless IP radio link. I said, “We can make this happen and since we have relationships with one of the other broadcasters nearby maybe we can make a deal.” Of course, everyone in the room was like, “What? We can do what?” So I got working on that and sure enough I made it happen. At the end of that event, which was a two-week event live from a school bus in a parking lot, over 10,000 toys were raised. Two newspapers, one TV station covered the event and the radio station got the highest profile it had in some time for the event during the holidays.
Needless to say, I was then invited on a regular basis back to the marketing meetings and all of a sudden many new things would start to come our way. A record label asked if they would want to do an interview with an artist in Time Square, “We could have for you by the day after tomorrow. If you’re interested let us know.” Of course the programming were like, “Can we do something live from Times Square in two days?” I like, “I think we can. We can try, we have a few toys up our sleeve.”
But see, here’s the key, I was creating revenue opportunities, because now programming can go back to sales and say, “Hey, I’ve got Brittney Spears coming to Times Square for her big event. We’re the only radio station that will be live backstage and you can get two sponsorships. Who’s got somebody available?” So we went from just a event that they would be there with their cell phones and saying, “Hey, we’re in the back, blah, blah, blah.” To, now it’s a sponsored event, studio quality and we look like we’re the kings of the road.
Kirk: You described a great scenario there, how do you prevent engineering from getting taken for granted on future opportunities? Maybe this becomes de rigueur, which it should be, I mean engineering is there to support sales and technically making things happen. How do you avoid the complacency though or when engineering says, “No, we can’t do it from there. That’s not going to be possible.” How do you avoid that situation?
Chris: Well here’s what you need to do. In the engineering department the engineering person, the technician, or whatever you want to call yourself, you first have to know the strengths and weaknesses of your marketplace, your technology you have at your disposal, and also the limitations of the technology you’re trying to apply.
The other thing you have to learn to do is never say the word “no” in a conversation. I learned this a long, long time ago from a guy by the name of Bob Donnelly. He was the senior VP of engineering for a radio network and the one thing you never told Bob was, “no.” What you would say to Bob was, “Hey, you know what? I know what you’re trying to accomplish, I think I have an answer. Can you give me an hour and I’ll get back to you?” And he’d be more than happy and willing to accept that. If you said no immediately, well that was a very bad day for you.
So what I would do when I was working with the sales and marketing folks, and programming and they would say, “Hey, can we do X, Y, Z from such and such location in four days?” I would say, “Well, that is a daunting task. I think we have what it takes to do it. I need about two hours to map out a plan. Can you give me two hours and I’ll get back to you?” I guarantee you if you come back to them in two hours and tell them no with a reason why and it’s really proper--In their language again, remember don’t talk techie, talk normal English to the adults.--you will find that you won’t be taken for granted and run into a situation where, “Oh, engineering is going to say, “no,” forget it, don’t bother.”
It will work, you need to step up and practice some people skills and things of that sort. It’ll work, trust me. You can make it happen and once you start doing that, as Robert pointed out, you’ll no longer be the extinct species, you’ll be something of an asset, even though you’re still considered an expense at some point, they will look at you in a different light. It will pay off.
Kirk: Robert, how does that advice ring with you? Does that resonate?
Robert: Oh, that’s exactly what you have to do. The big thing when I came to work for Cumulus years ago was I was involved, I was management, I was asked questions. Of course, we still got the, “We need an ISDN set up at this place in two days.” “Well guys, the phone company requires at least ten. I sorry, but if you’ll give me two weeks notice, at least, I can get this taken care of.”
One of the things I had to learn over the years and I’ve learned it with age is not to say no right away. Stop and think about it, see if there’s a way that it can be worked out. I mean, if they tell you five minutes before it’s got to happen then, yeah, “It’s not going to happen, I’m sorry. But if you give me enough time.” And after a while they start figuring out that if they give you enough time you might can figure something out, but you’ve got to be able to work. You can’t talk about capacitors, and this, and that in the engineering speak. like he said, be able to speak their language.
I just took an SSU course from the SS University talking about how management looks at money and the credit cards. Yeah, you’ve got a budget, but what do you need to spend? And how can you work it to where you save a little money while you’re getting all the money you need, and everything? I mean, there’s so much education you can learn from, and you can take classes and courses. If you’re the guy that just sat in the corner with the suspenders and the pocket protector, waiting for something to break those days are gone. You’ve got to show them that you’re active and you’re at tower sites, and everything looks good, and everything is clean. You’ve got to show them that you’re a major part of the staff and without you they’re going to have a problem. Otherwise, they’ll say, “Well, we can do it without you.”
Chris: Yeah. Here’s an example I can give you of simple speak. What I used to do with a lot of folks in the office when they had computer questions, the computer issue that we always run into as engineers at a radio station is the infamous hard drive is overloaded, full. It’s got 1 gig of capacity left after 200 terabytes have been used up. It’s not uncommon. So they would say, “I don’t understand this thing with the hard drive. Somebody said I don’t have enough RAM on my computer. What does that mean?” So I would say, “Well, here’s an example, here’s how we can understand better. You have a desktop, right? You’re sitting at desk.” “Yes.” “How does it look on the desk?” “Well it’s very cluttered right now.” “So it is.” “Now if you want to get to the bottom of that stack of paper how do you do it?” And they shuffle things around. I say, “See, that’s what the computer does with its RAM. You see, the less RAM you have the less space you have to work with and it takes longer to get to the bottom of that pile.” They look at you like, “Oh.” I said, “Now look at that file cabinet behind you.” “Yeah.” “Now, I noticed there’s some paper sticking out of it.” “Oh, of course, I pull the papers out to make an effect.” I they said, “Well yeah, it’s kind of full.” I said, “See, that’s your hard drive. Each one of those drawers is a directory on your hard drive. Once you get to capacity what happens?” “Well I can’t--“ I said, “Go ahead, open that bottom drawer.” “Uh, yeah.” “Notice you have a difficulty opening it, then think of your computer trying to get to that directory, it’s full. That’s where your problem runs into. That’s why you need to backup. Where’s your backup?” She goes, “Well, I don’t know where the backup is.” I said, “Well you’ve got a couple of those paper boxes behind you, what are those? Are those file storage boxes?” She goes, “Yeah.” “That’s your backup. Now when you want to go to that what do you do? You go over there, it’s a different drive.” “Oh!”
I kid you not, after I did that little doodad I got the best complements from people in that sales office. Those sales assistants did anything I needed, they were more than happy to help out. Anytime they had an issue and IT said it can’t be done, they said, “Well that’s okay, we’ll call engineering and they’ll help us.” That’s the approach you need to take. I’m telling you, you do it and it works.
Now did you not understand what I just explained to you about RAM and hard drive capacity without using the technical terms bytes and bits?
Kirk: Yeah, and analogies work so well, especially analogies that are right there at hand. That’s a great idea.
Chris: Yeah, I’ve used it for years and it’s paid off swimmingly.
Kirk: Listen, we’re at the end of our time here, we’ve got to go.
I want to thank Robert Combs the regional director of engineering for Cumulus out of Savanna, Georgia for being with us.
Robert, thank you for being with us, you can join us anytime. I really appreciate your time today.
Robert: Well thanks for inviting me, Kirk.
Kirk: It’s been good and I hope to see you again at another red carpet event, something fun.
Robert: I’m told I’ll be in Nashville again soon.
Kirk: Oh, they’re building another studio, aren’t they?
Robert: I haven’t been told what I’d be doing, I’ve just been told I’ll be in Nashville again soon. I usually find out when I get there, “Here’s your paperwork, go ahead.”
Kirk: A need to know basis, I hear you.
Chris Tobin, the best dressed engineer in radio, thank you for being with us and your solid advice, I appreciate it.
Chris: Oh, no problem it’s work, it’s kept me out of trouble, sometimes, so it’s great.
Kirk: Now, Chris, if somebody wanted to find you, you don’t have a website, you have all the business you want, but just in case somebody wanted to hand you some money to solve a problem is there a way to get hold of you?
Chris: Yes, there is. I don’t have all the business I want and nobody can, that’s not true. The best way to reach me is at email@example.com. It’s real easy to remember. If you’re talking IP it’s a codec, so firstname.lastname@example.org and I will definitely get the email. If I don’t one of the other guys will and we’ll help solve a problem and if we can’t solve it we’ll find somebody who can for you.
Kirk: Good deal, email@example.com for Chris Tobin and his company Content Creator Solutions.
I’m Kirk Harnack at the Telos Alliance. They’re my employer and I thank them very much for sponsoring This Week in Radio Tech. Today’s show is brought to you by the Axia xSwitch. It’s a really fantastic Ethernet switch in a box that’s already configured for audio over IP.
All right, coming up on future episodes we’ve got the one, the only Vinnie Lopez. If you don’t know him, then you can’t love him yet. He’s going to be with us in a few weeks on This Week in Radio Tech.
Thanks a lot to Andrew Zarian for letting us be on his network. Thanks to Suncast for producing this switching for today’s show, This Week in Radio Tech.
That’s it for us, we’ll see you next week on This Week in Radio Tech.
Bye, bye, everybody.