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The Value of Radio Engineering

Posted by Kirk Harnack [TWiRT] on Nov 15, 2013 11:23:00 AM

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TWiRT 191Chris Tobin and Chris Tarr join Kirk for a discussion on radio engineering repair and maintenance.

Engineering repair and maintenance: Is it a “pay me now or pay me later” equation? Or is there more to it than that? Are more and more stations just ignoring ongoing, preventive maintenance in favor of just declaring an emergency when they go off-air, or sound really bad? Chris Tarr has an opinion or two on that, and Chris Tobin does, too.



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Announcer: This Week in Radio Tech, episode 191, is brought to you by the OmniaONE Multicast, the perfect audio processor designed for IP streaming. Its SENSUS technology actually makes audio coding more efficient. The OmniaONE Multicast on the web at omniaaudio.com.

Recording: And now, our feature presentation, TWiRT.

Is radio engineering a pay me now or pay me later equation, or is there more to it? Preventively, let's make radio sound great all the time.

Quote Feed: All right, calm down. He says that to everyone.

This calls for immediate discussion.

What's up, doc?

All your base are belong to belong to us.

From his palatial office of important business...

Or, in a choice hotel in a distant land...

Announcer: This is Kirk Harnack.

Kirk: Chris Tarr and Chris Tobin join me discussing the value equation for preventive maintenance versus emergency repairs.

Announcer: You're dialed into This Week in Radio Tech.

Kirk: Hey, welcome into This Week in Radio Tech. I'm Kirk Harnack your host. Delighted to be here and glad that you've decided to tune in also.

By the way, this is episode number 191. If you haven't heard the previous 190 episodes you need to rewind and go check them out. We talk about radio technology, and sometimes we do a whole show on some technical subject.

We did kind of a foundation series on amplitude modulation and frequency modulation, and we've done some on HD radio and metadata, which we're going to do more of that. We've done all kinds of subject matter with our technical discussions. And, sometimes we just have a lot of fun.

Well, this show is about value and economy and all those things and how an engineer relates to the value that he or she provides to the radio station. I've got a couple of really great guests, very valuable engineers. Just look at their price sheet and you'll see.

First of all, the best dressed engineer in radio from Manhattan. Oh, no. He's live in studio in Queens, New York. It's Chris Tobin. Hey, Chris. Welcome, man.

Chris Tobin: Hello, Kirk. Thanks. Yes, I'm here at the HQ of GFQ Network. We're having a good time. Well, we will be shortly.

Kirk: What are you doing nowadays? Can you tell us that?

Chris Tobin: What am I doing nowadays? Well, I'm out on my own doing, let's see, distribution for music equipment, audio. No. Actually, I'm working with the folks from MUSICAM. I broke away to do my own thing along with them, so I'm no longer beholden to anybody but myself. Working with MUSICAM products for audio and video over IP. Working with the folks from Lucy (SP 0:02:40] doing some projects with them.

Also, working with a company called... What's it called? Pixel Power. They do television... What is the best way to put it? Television content logging and qualifications. And, there's also another company content probe I'm working with out of the UK. They do some television stuff as well. I'm having a good time.

Kirk: Sounds to me like you're going to have to hire a CPA to do your taxes.

Chris Tobin: Ah, yeah. Thank goodness I do have a very good family friend who's been doing taxes for us for a long time.

Kirk: Okay, all right.

Chris Tobin: Yeah, I'm doing that and doing some consulting with a couple of radio stations lately. It's been a good time.

Kirk: And, for those of you who don't know, Chris Tobin has been doing radio engineering for a long time and doing it in big markets, too, especially up in the northeast, and the New York market, and markets around there. He's looking at engineering from a big market perspective most of the time. Now...

Chris Tobin: It started out small market as well, small and medium market.

Kirk: Okay. We go to a mid market guy. See, I'm the small market guy. I'm the guy that owns a radio station in freaking American Samoa...

Chris Tobin: Racking up the bills.

Kirk: ...small market. Yeah, right. The medium market guy is our friend from Mukwonago, Wisconsin. It's Chris Tarr. Hey, Chris, welcome in.

Chris Tarr: Hello there. I am the director of operations and engineering for 88Nine Milwaukee. Also a contract engineer all over the state of Wisconsin. Cofounder of the broadcastengineering.info site. I am a virtual engineer. Also a staff writer for 'Radio Guide' magazine. In my free time... Well, wait, I don't have any free time.

Kirk: In your free time you're fixing transmissions, aren't you?

Chris Tarr: Right. There you go.

Kirk: Yeah. Hey, I've been following you on Facebook. You've been doing some car repair here lately.

Chris Tarr: Yeah, well, actually it started out I paid for some car repair, very expensive car repair.

Kirk: Yeah, tell me.

Chris Tarr: It got to the point where I couldn't afford any more car repair. I like to call it punitive car repair. So, then my daughter comes to me after spending all this money saying she had a car issue. I had to buy parts and do that myself.

A lot of people don't know this. They think that because I do broadcast engineering that I'm just an all around handyman. Actually, I'm not a car guy. I pay people to change the oil. I don't really mess around with them. I don't do it very often.

But, I did successfully fix my daughter's car the other day. It did involve crawling around underneath it and breaking out some [Inaudible 0:05:09] and getting dirty. So, I was pretty proud of myself.

Kirk: You know, I used to do a lot of car repair back in my twenties and thirties. I'm kind of over it. Plus, aren't cars a lot more difficult to repair now? Many of the things that go wrong, you can't do yourself.

Chris Tarr: Well, yeah. Obviously, they're a lot more complicated. Back when I was a kid I had a Chevy Nova. I replaced the starter in that. It literally took 20 minutes.

Kirk: Yeah.

Chris Tarr: It was like a bolt or two.

Kirk: Yeah.

Chris Tarr: Boom, you're done. [Inaudible 0:05:40] in there to do it. Well, this was an evap canister and a shutoff valve in the... Not the catalytic converter system but the emissions system. There were a whole bunch of hoses and a bunch of screws.

It was this big canister that is mounted under the car coming out of the gas tank. It was a little bit of a challenge, but, you know, at the end I got it done. My daughter's car is going in for emissions test, and I'm the best father in the world once again.

Kirk: Is it going to pass, or did it pass?

Chris Tarr: I guarantee it passed.

Kirk: Okay, all right, yeah. Well, good. We have that here. Now with emissions testing they're not even sticking the sniffer up the tailpipe any more, at least not for most of the cars that go through. They just plug in the...

Chris Tarr: Right. Well, that's...

Kirk: ...electronic thing.

Chris Tarr: And that's how I know it's going to pass. Actually, one of the things I bought a while back for troubleshooting cars... They have one of those OBD2 Bluetooth goggles you can plug into your car's computer system. Then, with your Android device you can actually read all the codes. You can run the test to see if all the emissions equipment passes, make sure that they're all functioning correctly and all that kind of stuff. After I fixed it I was able to reset the check engine light and run all the scan tests to make sure that all the emissions stuff passed.

Kirk: How cool.

Chris Tarr: Yeah, they just...

Kirk: What's this device called?

Chris Tarr: It's just a generic OBD2 Bluetooth device.

Kirk: Okay.

Chris Tarr: It's about this big, and you plug it into the OBD2 port and it talks to your Android device via Bluetooth.

Kirk: Sweet.

Chris Tarr: Then you get a program, Torque Pro is what I'm using, and it gives you real time data - RPM, throttle position, all that kind of stuff. But, what's great is when the check engine light comes on that's how I knew what to fix. When the check engine light came on I had it read the code, looked it up, and figured out what it was that I needed to fix. I replaced everything, reset the code, drove it around for a little while, then I ran the diagnostics to make sure that all the parts were working.

That's what the DMV does. They just plug it in. As long as all of the systems pass, it's a pass.

Kirk: So, you can fix your own car. It's just a different technique now that it used to be. See, it used to be that to get your car to pass emissions... Like, in Memphis, Tennessee... I lived in Memphis for almost ten years. To get your car guaranteed to pass emissions all it required was a $20 bill and you could pass the emissions test.

Chris Tarr: Not so much any more.

Chris Tobin: It's still that way in New York.

Kirk: Is it really?

Chris Tobin: It's the same way in Queens.

Chris Tarr: There's a whole lot of stuff you can get done in New York for $20. You're talking about [Inaudible 0:08:21] and his extracurricular activities. There's a $20 bill right there.

Kirk: All right. Well, what time did we lose control of the show?

We're talking on This Week in Radio Tech. I'm Kirk Harnack along with Chris Tobin and Chris Tarr. And, there's a chance that Tom Ray may join us here before it's all over.

Hey, our show's topic is one that we've covered a little bit here and there, but we're going to spend the show on it. Chris Tarr made a comment in a public forum on Facebook this past week, something about the value of engineers. Of course, as engineers we often feel a sense that we'd like to know our own value. We think we're valuable to the organization. So, we have some stories and thoughts about that. I want to kind of jump right into that.

Chris Tarr, you made this comment on Facebook. What led you... It sounded like you were a little bit frustrated. What led your frustration level to make this comment about the value of engineers?

Chris Tarr: I don't know that it's any one event more than a combination. I want to make clear from the outset, and I didn't make that real clear on the post until later on, that I'm not necessarily talking about money, how much we're paid, or anything like that. It's valuing the entire package.

I guess a good example of that is... And, I won't name names or anything. I'll use general kind of composite of different events. Let's say you have a radio station and the general manager decides you know what, engineering costs me a lot of money to have a full time engineer there. We're paying him a lot of money. He's got this huge budget. Nothing ever breaks. Why are we spending all this money?

I think we can do it cheaper. Let him go. We'll find somebody cheaper to replace him, and we'll deal with it. We'll cut the budget a little bit. I'm sure we can fix [Inaudible 0:10:15] we replace.

It works for a little while. You get going for a little while and things just kind of keep rolling because you've got a good head of steam going. Then, all of the sudden things start falling apart a little bit. Then, they get worse and worse and worse.

The thing is over time it kind of becomes acceptable. It's like, you know... And, it's certainly none of the stations I've ever worked for, but there is a station in the area that was off the air for a day. This is a major market, mid market Milwaukee radio station. It was off the air for a day.

I scratch my head. It never would've happened under my watch, never. It's unfathomable. But, it's just become kind of okay. Another example is... And, this one I won't name names, but it's a station that I do some work for. Every year I say listen, if you don't want to do it, pay me. I need to come down. We need to clean out your [Inaudible 0:11:17] building. It's filthy. The filters are getting clogged up, and you're going to have an issue where the transmitter's going to fail. You really need to get ahead of this.

Well, no, we don't want to spend the money on that. We'll call you if we need you. Sure enough, they need me, because the transmitter shut down because all the filters are dirty. There's no air flow in the building. Nobody ever paid a visit to the site. It's overgrown with stuff. Now they're paying me a whole lot more to put the fire out...

Kirk: Yeah.

Chris Tarr: ...than they would've spent in the beginning. Plus, they've been off the air.

It seems like it's becoming more and more for broadcasters that you know what, we'll get somebody kind of [Inaudible 0:11:55] to put out the fires, but if we're off the air for a little bit oh no big deal. We're not going to worry about it too much. It's whatever. We're saving a ton of money by not having somebody at the ready to take care of these things before they happen.

But, the other side of that coin that I tell people is I also have a client who pays me on a retainer, and it's a pretty good one. You can bet. In fact, I can tell you. The past year, a little over a year, that I've been there doing their work they've never been off the air ever. At least once a month I'm up there checking filters, cleaning out transmitter buildings if they have anything wrong. They're well taken care of.

He looks at it as money well spent. He's like if I pay you [Inaudible 0:12:38] fire then I'm only seeing you after something's been really, really wrong. He's like I'd rather pay you and know that I don't have to worry about it and things are getting taken care of.

It just seems to me like that guy's becoming rarer and rarer in this business and people are kind of just settling for well, if we go off the air we'll figure something out. We'll call the guy to come in and take care of it. They look at the money savings and not the value I guess is the bottom line in all this. They're saving some money, but they're not getting a lot of value.

Because the radio stations don't sound as good. The people who are on the air are having to deal with broken things, and they stay broken until the next time the guy's in town to fix stuff. Morale's a little poorer. There are a lot of things that just aren't right, and they don't see the value in that. They just see the savings and the bottom line.

I guess it's okay for guys like me, because I get paid either way. But, I would like to see a little more attention paid on maintenance and spending money up front.

Another example - again, I won't name names - is an AM station that more than once I've said listen, you need to clear out all the vegetation out of your transmitter site. It's a directional array. They've got trees and brush all over. I'd say you need to clear this out. Oh, it's too much money. I'm not going to spend it.

Then, every couple of months I get this why is my signal not as good as what I think it should be. It used to be really, really good. It's because you've got to clear out the vegetation. Well, can you look at the transmitter? It's like I guarantee you it is not the transmitter. I can guarantee you that you probably don't have much a ground system left because the roots have torn it all up.

Kirk: Yeah.

Chris Tarr: But, again, it's that whole I don't want to spend the money now, then later on wonder why things aren't optimized the way they should be.

I try to point them in the direction of look at these people who are doing it right. They're on the air. Everything sounds great. Their people are happy. They're fully functional. And, at the end of the day it doesn't cost a whole lot more money because you're not spending a ton of money if we'd spent hours fixing a problem on emergency time rather than me doing maintenance ahead of time on my time where it saves you money.

Kirk: Yeah, yeah. I worry about stations like a stand alone AM or even a small FM that say look... I mean why wouldn't they have you to come do the preventive maintenance that they know intellectually they're better off having preventive maintenance done. What if it's a choice between that and paying yourself as the station owner or paying the morning guy? What if it really is that tight and...

Chris Tarr: See, that's the thing. They manage to find the money when it all goes south. In most cases if you know that in advance and you work with the guy whoever you're working with and come up with something sensible it can be affordable. You have to...

Okay. Let's say you really are having issues paying the bills, and you need to pay yourself and you need to keep the lights... Okay. That's a different story. But, I can tell you that with all the stations I've ever worked with it has never been that bad. To be honest with you, the money they have to pay me to come in an emergency is more than what they'd be paying me to come [Inaudible 0:15:59]

Kirk: Oh. My point there really was there are some stations that are in that kind of dire straits. There's a station or two in my group of stations that stand alone stations would not be happening.

I guess my point there is maybe you ought to look at your business model. If you really can't afford to run the radio station in a way that... Well, you're just living from emergency to emergency. Maybe it's time to turn the transmitter off, or sell it to somebody else if you can, or give it to somebody else, or look at revamping your business model whatever that may be.

Maybe you sell it full time to preachers on the air or broker time. I don't know. But, obviously, what you're doing now doesn't afford you enough income to be able to make the decision easily to do some preventive maintenance.

Chris Tarr: And maybe...

Kirk: Do you find that to be the case at all?

Chris Tarr: Absolutely, but I mean there are ways to deal with that. I think a lot of guys in my position are more than willing to help. First of all, work on how much we charge in certain situations. Perhaps we'll give you a [Inaudible 0:17:08] ownership stake or something, some sweat equity. There are a lot of ways to solve this. It's just that it has to be solved.

What happens is it just becomes as long as we're on the air there aren't any problems kind of an issue. And, they don't see the things that are creeping around in the background.

To rehash this example, the guy who has me on retainer [Inaudible 0:17:34] transmitter. During one of my visits I noticed there was a power supply that was bad. That's at a power level where one power supply doesn't effect it, but if you were to lose a second or a third it'd be an issue.

Now, if I wasn't there just doing what I always do every month going up and making sure everything's okay he probably would've found out about it well after it was an easy quick fix that kept him on the air. Because you know these guys really aren't paying that kind of attention. It's kind of an out of sight - and [Inaudible 0:18:04] always been - out of of mind situation. It's really easy to do if money's tight to just kind of go well we're on the air so great, no problem. Then, it's only when you're not that it becomes a problem. Again, most of the time a lot of these failures are things that for a little bit of money could've been prevented rather than waiting until all heck breaks loose.

I can tell you personally that I've dealt with a couple of stations where I've cut them a break just knowing they didn't have the money. They'd call me out for an emergency or something. I'd say listen, between you and me, this really needs to be addressed. I understand that money's a thing, but I'm going to fix this and in another six months this is going to be a problem again and you're going to have to pay me again.

So, let's work something out. You tell me what's up and we'll work something out. We'll get this taken care of the right way and then it won't be a problem again for a while.

I do think that good engineers are expensive, and they should be. We're very specialized and we do good work. However, I do have kind of my –

just like a lawyer has cases that they take on just because they have the skill and it's to help out others - I [Inaudible 0:19:19] a lot, too. I've done a couple of LPFM's and some non-com stations at a greatly reduced rate because they couldn't otherwise afford that kind of help. I've been happy to do it.

Kirk: Back when I was doing full time contract engineering I know that I and my business partners did work for some stations. One in particular was a black gospel station in Jackson, Tennessee. And, I know that the way we got paid was the minister who owned the station took up a collection at his church.

It wasn't there. He lived somewhere else. I don't remember where. It may have been New York City. But, he took up a collection at his church. I'm pretty sure that he said to the congregation folks we had to replace the tubes in the transmitter this week and it was very expensive. And, we're going to pass the plate and see if we can get these things paid for so we can keep the gospel music flowing to the folks in west Tennessee. Pass the plate. I'm pretty sure that the plate...

Topics: Radio Engineering


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