Alaskan Engineering with Rich Parker
By Kirk Harnack [TWiRT] on Jul 7, 2014 10:56:00 AM
What’s it like to maintain broadcast stations in Alaska’s rough geography? Richard Parker joins Chris Tobin to talk about adjusting to life in Alaska after 17 years in Vermont. As Director of Engineering for CoastAlaska, Richard says he stands on the shoulders of some great Public Radio Engineers. Ever wonder what it takes to ship equipment or emergency spare parts to your station in Alaska? Rich explains what not to do and how to avoid the 1000 mile several day detour your package will take. Plus Rich explains how the new AoIP and other IP technologies at his stations keeps the station staff happy while he is several hours away at other studios and transmitters.
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Recording: "This Week in Radio Tech," episode 219, is brought to you by the Axia Element IP Audio Console, with user profiles, [inaudible 00:00:10] in a rugged extruded construction. Your Axia Element will last you years of rough jocks and format changes.
And by Lawo, maker of the new crystalCLEAR Virtual Radio Console. It's the radio console with a multi-touch touchscreen interface.
Richard Parker is now director of engineering for Coast Alaska. He joins Chris Tobin to talk about adjusting to engineering life in Alaska after 17 years in Vermont. Ever wonder what it takes to ship equipment or emergency spare parts to your station in Alaska?
Richard explains how the new AOIP [SP] and other IP technologies at his stations keeps the staff happy while he's several hours away at other studios and transmitters.
Chris: Well, welcome to "This Week in Radio Tech," episode 219. I'm Chris Tobin. Kirk Harnack is on holiday this week. Can't say where, but he's with the family, that's what's important. And Chris Tarr and Tom Ray are both out on assignment, and I believe one of them is doing work near a tower site, so we know what that's going to be like.
Anyway, we have a guest this show. We'll get to Richard in a moment. But just a reminder, "This Week in Radio Tech," we talk about many things. It could be anything from technology to content to how content is delivered through technology, and maybe sometimes just pining about the old days, or sometimes new days.
Just for those of you out there wondering what's going on, that's how we're going to do today. We're going to talk about Richard's trials and tribulations of traveling from one coast of the United States to another coast, and we'll find out about that. Because the last time he was on this show, I believe memory serves me right, he was in Vermont.
We're going to find out about his new home, new job, and new few things he's doing, and find out what it's like to be a broadcaster in his new part of the woods. Neck of the woods, we'll call it.
Without further ado, let's bring Richard Parker in, and we'll switch him in. Richard, how are you today?
Richard: I'm great. Good to be with you. Thank you for inviting me today, and it's nice to see everybody.
Chris: Yes, it's great to have you back. I think the last time we spoke you were with Vermont Public Radio with some 17 years with them, or maybe more than that.
Richard: Yeah, that's correct. I was there 17 years. At HIY in Philadelphia ten years before that.
Chris: Oh, that's right. I forgot about that. Another great station.
Richard: A big change, coming up here.
Chris: Yes. I'm looking over the notes, and Kirk was good enough to tell me that you moved on, I'm told. Let me see, looking here, you're in Alaska. Juneau, Alaska.
Richard: I am in Juneau, Alaska. As far as I know the only capital in the United States that you cannot drive to. You have to either fly or take a boat. I suppose you could walk, if you were really brave and had a dog team and wanted to go over the ice, but I think it would be incredibly difficult.
Chris: Oh, wow. Okay . . .
Richard: [inaudible 00:02:50]. Yeah, so. But that presents some of the challenges that we have here in engineering, so.
Chris: This is true, this is true. What brought you to the Alaskan coast? I'm curious. You've gone from one end to the other. Just to change jobs and try something new?
Richard: Yeah, you know, it was interesting. I saw this position here posted, oh gosh, over a year ago. In fact, they had been without an engineer for more than a year. And a, I guess what you'd call a headhunter, I guess, public radio, kept calling me and saying, "This is a job that I think you really would be good at. Can you at least send them a resume?"
I'm like, I'm not really looking for anything new. I'm pretty content where I am. I did a lot at VPR that I'm really proud of. My wife said, "Look, just send them a resume. It's good practice, always good to update your resume."
So I did that. Then they called me back and they said, "We'd really like to talk to you." I'm like oh, now it's getting serious, okay, sure. We talked to them, I did a phone interview, Skype interview on the phone, on Skype. They said, "Can you come out?"
I said, "Well, okay." So they flew me out and my wife out in January. As you can imagine, it was about 35 degrees, it was raining, it was dark until about 8:30 in the morning, and it started getting dark again at 3:30 in the afternoon. They put us up in a hotel near the station, and I did a day of interviews.
Interestingly enough, which I was surprised about as an engineer, the very first question they asked me was, "Well, do you think you could live here? Do you think you could work here?" Which I thought was odd.
But then I realized it's pretty far. There's some limitations in just logistics. We thought about it, and I have to say, one of the big tipping points is the people here. I can't say enough about the people here, and I'll give you an example.
When I was here interviewing, I spent a lot of time at the station with people, and I was very busy. They literally just took my wife out, they took her out to lunch, they took her hiking up on some of the trails, got her some rain gear. Completely just were very, very nice to her.
Molly Cobbler [SP], the Executive Director, took me aside and she said, "Rich, I need you to know that I did not set this up, I didn't tell them to do this. This is just something that they did on their own." I was just really touched by that, and so was my wife.
Even though it was hard to think about moving after being in one place for 17 years, we said you know, we could do this. And I'll end as a parenthetical comment that yes, it was dark, and yes, it was 35 degrees and raining, but that particular week when I was here it was 22 below at the house in Vermont, so it was pretty appealing.
Chris: Wow. So in Alaska where you are now as a radio engineer, I'm curious, what's the environment like for working say at your studios and doing work outside? Us here in the lower states, I guess the weather, as you know in Vermont is one extreme, and then here, I'm in the New York City area, and extremes go from season to season. Those in the far south it just stays pretty much hot all the time.
What's it like up in Alaska? I have friends who take vacation, holiday in Alaska, enjoy the-what do you call it-the scenery, everything there is to see about Alaska. I've seen the pictures. I have not personally been there.
But in the engineering world, what's it like? You moved from one coast to the other, and now you're in a place that, like you say, you were telling us before the show started, the little trivia piece that the fireworks for the July 4th event will take place shortly after midnight, July 3rd, because that's when the sun will finally-it'll be dark enough to see the fireworks.
That alone says to me, wow, you're waiting until midnight for the sun to finally be dark enough. That's interesting, so what kind of a day do I normally have?
Richard: Yeah, that's a good question. I was kind of joking with my wife after we'd been here for a few weeks, and it was getting towards June. I got here at the end of March, so it eased into it a little bit. I told her, I said, "Hon, I think we're going to have to start setting an alarm."
She goes, "Why, you get up at the crack of dawn." I go, "No, no, no. I need to set an alarm to go to bed, so I remember to go to sleep." Because you could be working and it'll be 6:00, 7:00 at night, 8:00, and it's still pretty bright out. Then it gets to be about 9:00 and you're thinking, "Man, I'm kind of tired and kind of hungry." It's like, well yeah, it's almost 10:00. You just have to be able to regulate yourself and pace yourself and leave.
There's a lot to do here. The weather is . . . it's a different kind of challenge. We're in what's technically considered a rainforest, so there is a lot of rain here, there's a lot of moisture. What I've been told about the winter is that one of the biggest problems is ice. We're on that cusp of, you get freezing rain a lot and that kind of thing.
So that can be a bit challenging. But as far as working in the studios, my office right now is based at KTOO in Juneau, which is a radio and television joint licensee. They have two other stations, KRNN and KXLL. K2 is basically news and information, KRNN is arts and culture, classical music, and KXLL is a bit like maybe Exponential Radio, those kind of things. It's a lot of young people, a lot of really modern music, new experimental music, and a lot of volunteers.
So there's quite a bit to do here. Those three stations are actually clients of Coast Alaska. We have stations up and down the coast, so. What's it like working? It's very much like working in any other studio. We happen to be an Axia system here in Juneau. Three of the other stations are Wheatstone systems. Two of them are TDM Wheatstones; one of them is an Audio IP Wheatstone.
Then the third station is an older station. It's still analogue, using audio arts [SP] boards. There's lots of punch blocks, 66 blocks, and all kinds of things, and crazy wires running everywhere.
I'm not sure if that answers your question, but it hasn't become challenging from a weather standpoint yet. Although I know there are periods of time when there's huge winds, up to 100 mile an hour winds. They call them the Taku winds. We have to be careful about things like the satellite dishes here.
And the rain. We're on a coast. We're on a sea coast, so there's the issues of corrosion and those kinds of things. So it's a little different to what I'm used to on the East Coast.
Chris: That's perfect. No, that's exactly what I was just curious about. People talk about Alaska-I have friends in Toronto and Montreal, and when we were talking about different things in the engineering world, it's funny. They say, "Oh yeah, you know winter, and boy, last winter was a doozy because of this, that, and the other."
I'm like well, I expected it, it's Montreal. It gets weather like that. Alaska is that elusive image people have; all you ever see are bears and fish jumping out of rivers, and huge vistas of mountains and trees.
The work there is so totally different, so I was just curious to hear what you would say. I was hoping it was somewhat normal; we'll call it that. Since you're at a coastal area, and you say you're at the cusp of the ice ring or ice sheets, what precautions or what measures have been taken at your stations or in that area for icing on antennas? We'll shift from the studio to the transmitter side of things.
Richard: Yeah. Well, the sites that I've been at, it varies. A lot of stations have your typical Shively [SP] 6800 series, 6812, 6810, 6813 depending on the power, with the [inaudible 00:11:04], the normal, average-sized radoms [SP].
Oddly enough, the station here has-well, there's three stations, as I said. One of them is on the old TV tower, which is on the federal building, which I can see from my office if I look just right. The other two are on a hill across the way, called Blueberry Hill.
The one on the federal building is a four bay Shively. Three bay. I'd have to go look again; I always forget, with the standard radoms. But the one at the site was purchased by somebody who tried to make a go of a radio station, two radio stations, and it was unsuccessful and they were able to get it at a decent price. That's all Jampro antennas, and they're not radomed yet.
I'm not aware that they've had particular icing problems, but I haven't been through a winter with them. So I don't know . . . I think moisture's probably almost the bigger problem. I know that we're working on some HVAC or filtering or something at the site, up on-what's it called-Blueberry Hill.
Some of the guys had to go up there the other day and basically kickstart an exciter [SP] when we had a power outage and it somehow didn't come back up. Which means I also have to check on the UPS, which seems to be in trouble.
They said the place was just completely covered in pollen. It's mostly pine trees up here, so you'll see a lot of that, a fine yellow pollen from the trees. That's kind of a big deal for filters and getting in new equipment and getting into everything, so that's another consideration.
Chris: Okay. Yeah, I worked at an AM site in the swamps of the meadowlands. We had, what was it, cattails, the huge cattails. Those, they put off pollen and the little hairs. I can't think of the name of it, but it's all pollen-related. And the filters on the air conditioning units was just-the exhaust grills just was a mess. So I can appreciate what you're going through with the pollen. That's pretty wild.
Up in your part there, has HD radio taken off? Is it popular? Are people doing it? I'm just curious.
Richard: You know, I was really surprised when I got here. It seems that everybody, because they're public radio stations, they did make the initial effort to get HD equipment, and they ran it for a while…. [inaudible 00:13:32] still in place. A lot of people have turned it off. The explanation I got was, we found out that it was the four people that worked in the station that were listening to HD.
I'm still too new here to really understand all the implications of that. I think that there's opportunities to maybe revive it, but I just, I'm not really sure what the environment is, that it's not as much acceptance here.
One of the things that is hard to understand-when I was in Vermont, there was 650,000 people in the area. We had, I don't know, maybe 65, 70,000 listeners, maybe more, subscribers. Here, even though the seven stations that we support with Coast Alaska cover some 400 miles of the coast, it's a much smaller demographic.
I'm not sure exactly how many, but we might cover, all told, 15, 20,000 people up and down the coast. Actually more in Juneau, because obviously there's 30,000 people here. But let's just say under 100,000 people are reached by the seven stations and the transmitters.
There's transmitters in villages, far-flung villages, that maybe only have a couple hundred people. But the services are very important to them. In fact, we have one that's in a place called Kake, K-A-K-E. It's south of us, on the shore. Small community, and the transmitter's operating at reduced power. We're not really sure what's going on with it, have to get there.
But in order to get there, I'm going to have to take a float plane.
Chris: Oh, wow.
Richard: That's really the only way to get there. I mean, I could take a boat, but that takes a really long time. We're fortunate, again. Just some of the things that public radio is able to do, and I suppose the same thing could be true in commercial radio in terms of advertising.
But we have an underwriter, which is-I want to say Wings of Alaska. I should know. See, this is embarrassing, because they really are very generous. They gave us a block of flights that we could use over the course of a year. I think 12 flights. I think it's Wings of Alaska; I better check that.
So we'll probably use one of those chits, and I'll go down there. I was just talking to Molly, our executive director, this morning about that. This gets into the challenges of engineering here. When places are hard to get to, you've got to take all the equipment with you when you go, and tools.
Getting stuff delivered here can be a challenge. I have a story I can tell you about that in a little bit. What we are faced with is, I call up-basically I talk to a listener who is fairly technically savvy. They can go to the transmitter site, they'll look at things, look at readings, take pictures for me, take pictures of the antenna.
At this particular site, I had them just remove the, turn off the transmitter. It's a TTC XL10 translator. I had them turn it off, remove the end connector, take a look, make sure everything looked all right, screw it back on, turn it back on. That took the power from two watts to six watts.
But the reflector power was still about two watts, so you can imagine that's just not-something's wrong with the antenna. The receive level for the off-air translator is very low compared to what it should be.
So it's not really clear what exactly is wrong. I've gotten as much information as I can from some pictures, and talking to them on the phone. But at the end of the day, we're going to have to pack up and go there.
What that's going to involve is trying to figure out what I should take. Should I take a small spectrum analyzer? Should I take tools to make cables? Connectors? What is the appropriate amount of stuff that I'm going to have to take with me, without knowing really what's wrong?
That's a big challenge. It probably means getting there, seeing if there's something really easy we can fix, and then doing an assessment analysis and then getting things ordered and shipped air freight there, and then coming back. That makes it a little bit more challenging.
I used to think it was challenging in Vermont, because you'd have to drive two hours and haul a truck, a snowmobile, a snow cat, get that thing off the truck, go up the mountain. Seemed like it took all day just to get to a site to do a simple thing. Eight or ten hour day, and you ended up getting two or three hours of work out of it.
Here it's kind of like that in spades, in a way.
Chris: Oh yeah. No, I worked, when I was employed by a broadcast group, we had stations in Mount Washington. You pretty much lived up on top of the mountain six, eight months out of the year. Getting things up and down was not as easy as you'd like.
The springtime was when everybody did their best, or summertime, to get everything they needed up to the top of the mountain. That's it, hunker down basically for the remainder of the year.
Chris: I can appreciate what you're saying. Let me take a quick break here just to talk about-we have two sponsors for our show today, so we'll start with the first one, and we'll come back and talk with Richard about basically his staffing, how's it work. He's a director of engineering for a large group of stations that are geographically separated by many things, water included.
Then also equipment shipments, you said you had a story about receiving equipment. Deliveries, that is. And then maybe talk about how you employ or benefit from the locals who live nearby your sites that you can't get to that easily that sort of, as you said earlier, get a look-see, get a periphery of what's happening, and then decide what type of triage you're going to conduct.
After we speak about Lawo, we'll come back and talk to Richard some more about those little details.
So, Lawo consoles. Lawo is a company out of Europe. You may have heard of them, we talked about it. We had Michael Dosh [SP] on one of our earlier episodes, talking about the crystalCLEAR. It's a virtual mixing console.
You know, [inaudible 00:20:10] today, many of us, me included, remember the days of mechanical devices, pretty much a huge, honking piece of steel, knobs on it, or maybe slide faders, and you may remember the names AMX, BMX, and PRNE [SP] just to name a few, [inaudible 00:20:25] or McCurdy [SP], name a few more.
Then there was the Howe 9000 to name another one that people probably never even heard of, but that was definitely a company out of, I think it was Utah if I remember correctly. But anyway, things have changed. We've moved forward now to something we've become accustomed to if you have an iPhone or Android phone.
Multi-touch enabled mixing surface. Think about it. You have a glass top, and you can do all kinds of things just using your fingertips. If you're very good at it, you'll have a really great time.
Intuitive GUI. Something that we're not accustomed, some of the early days of computerized broadcast equipment had user interfaces that were kind of "eh." Nowadays it's moved, it's improved.
Lawo has found a way to do multi-touch, glass top console surface, intuitive GUI interface. It's based on DSP technologies, so you get really accurate control, not something just sort of moving along with other technologies that you could do.
Mixing groups, you do the standard program one, program two, record, so you have the three mixing groups you can work with. Again, this is something new, something totally different, so we've got to think out of the box with a lot of this stuff.
Think of this, the crystalCLEAR virtual mixing console, right? Entire control surface is software, it's multi-touch, it's high resolution computer display. It's also a display designed-the terminology is called point of sale.
Have you ever been in a restaurant and you see the hostess is tapping on that glass screen to put in your order? That's a point of sale terminal. Those LCD screens are not the same designs you would have at your home or your office. Lawo is taking that technology, that approach, and brought it into the studio.
Because as we all know, many users, many presenters can be somewhat dainty and careful touching their glass surface, and others sometimes tend to take the back end of a pen and use it to activate things. You want something that can resist that. Lawo has taken that approach.
So they've got multi-touch, a GUI interface that you can go with, three different mixing groups, integrated queue or pre-fade listen for those of you on the production side of things, programmable scene resets. You can recall so you can change the console, so if you're using it in post-production, or even broadcast, you can set up various shows.
Maybe a talk format. You have different shows with slightly different layouts. Do a preset, off you go. These are the things you've got to think about, and you sit back and plan out. Looking at Lawo, it's a company that's been around for a long time. They're well known in the industry for post-production, production studios, and now even more so with broadcast.
The surface is just a glass top. You can hear a little bit of that. It operates in both the European mode as far as faders and where they go, attenuation positions, and the U.S. standards that we're all familiar with.
There are many other things; you can go to Lawo's site, it's lawo.com. It's L-A-W-O.com, and you'll find out more there.
One thing to remember. It's a virtual console. It has everything you do virtually. You can be anywhere you want with it and control it. If you go back to our show with Mike Dosh, he'll tell us all the details about how they went about it, what they can do. This is just adding onto it.
Lawo and the crystalCLEAR virtual radio mixing console. It's just absolutely-I can't do it justice by giving you this much information. The more you'll find out is by going to the website, reading up on it, and learning how you can actually be so creative.
Here's one example I'll give you, and I mentioned this to Mike and he totally agreed. Say you're doing an outside broadcast, and you want to control all the sources from the studio because you have more of the talent there to do production of the event, rather than put them on site. Think of it as a concert, or an outdoor music event.
Roll up your truck. All your sources come into the Lawo, the crystalCLEAR virtual mixing chassis, and then back at the studio you have the glass console top and you mix everything to produce a show.
Just think about that, okay? I know it's kind of radical and crazy and out there, but I can tell you that if you take that kind of workflow and really take advantage of the technology, you can really have a great time.
Back in 1996, was it? '97? I worked at a company, and what we did was we did a video show, television program, news program, all the cameras' video was fed back via satellite or fiber over the Atlantic back to the United States. So it was from London to New York, and in the New York studios is where they produced the entire show.
The only thing that was on site at the outside location were the cameras, camera crew, and a local technical director. Okay? You don't think that's possible, watch the history of Princess Diana's funeral. That's where I was, that's what we did. It was an unbelievable approach; everybody was like, "This is never going to work." It worked like a champ.
Fast forward to today, now Lawo gives you the ability to do the exact same thing, but in a small footprint, efficient, and you can't go wrong. Just give it a try. Lawo.com. It's the crystalCLEAR virtual radio mixing console.
Remember, it's multi-touch, so you're familiar with that already. It has a GUI interface; we all know how that works. It's got mixing groups, integrated queue, pre-fade listen with metering, programmable scene presets, precision PPM meters for stereo as well as mono, large time of day clocks, clock buttons, yada yada yada. The stuff you know you already have.
If you know how to work one of these-I'm holding up a smartphone with a screen on it which has multi-touch-then you know how to use the crystalCLEAR console. You're already off to the races, halfway through.
Okay? So just remember that. Lawo, L-A-W-O.com.
So let's get back to Richard. I hope I haven't bored you too much with that little bit of an ad for everyone, but I have to just push the fact that the technology today's just unbelievable. And you spoke of, you have an Axia system in one location, Wheatstone, a Wheatnet [SP] in another, and the Wheatstone TDM version, which is the predecessor if memory serves me, to the Wheatnet. Correct?
Richard: That's correct. Please sir, can I have one of those?
Richard: You didn't bore me at all. Because of the challenges here, we do a lot of remote access, a lot of remote support. Man, oh my gosh, that would just be-anyway, sorry.
Chris: No, that's okay. Well that's why I was going to ask-one of my questions was to ask you, when I was doing director of engineering work many years ago in a couple of places, the hardest part we had was managing the sites, the locations, and understanding mean time between failure of equipment, what was going on.
When somebody did call and say there was an issue, okay, how do we diagnose this? Who do we have on site, what's their skillsets? You're speaking of the geography and what you have to do, and getting to one of your locations requires one of two modes of transportation, and the third one you probably don't want to do- how do you do it?
Do you have a staff? Is it just you and maybe three guys that have to figure out how to get things done, or? As you mentioned, you had somebody locally-I'll just say one of your local neighbors-check in on the transmitter site. Embellish on that.
Richard: Right. Okay, so what we have . . . Sorry, I don't know if that's-okay. What we have, it's odd. I mean, director of engineering, I have a colleague who's director of IT. In this particular location in Juneau I'm very lucky, because K2, radio and TV has a number of engineers who I don't supervise directly.
Let me just take a step back. Coast Alaska that I work for is a non- profit organization which provides basically support for the seven public radio stations in southeast Alaska. So that's KRBD in Ketchikan, KSTK in Wrangell, KFSK in Petersburg, KCAW in Sitka, and then of course the station I just spoke of, KTOO, KR and KXL out here in Juneau.
Plus just a huge number of translators up and down the coast. And so as you can imagine, it's pretty challenging. As I said before, they haven't had a full-time engineer for a little over a year. They've been fortunate in that the Alaska public radio network, APIB I think it's called or something. I think they call it Alaska Public Media.
Some of the folks there, there's two different organizations out of Anchorage that have radio and TV engineers, or TV engineers mostly, who sometimes can come down and help out on projects. It's been a little bit of a piecemeal thing.
So in terms of managing staff, what I tend to do is manage contractors, volunteers, and people that can help us in that. I was talking to Molly this morning. She said we'd like to have two or three people in the shop, we just can't get them.
I have to say, as an aside, when my wife and I moved here we sold a house-just to give you an example. We sold a house in Vermont, three bedrooms, two and a half baths, a garage, two acres. We got, I don't know, $250 or something, $260.
To replace that house here in Alaska it would be close to $400,000 or $500,000. The housing is pretty expensive here, although the other costs of living are not terribly much higher. But just, I say that only to tell you that it's also remote. Sometimes people that live here, there's a lot of Coast Guard families here. We've gotten to know a few of them from a small local church that we attend.
The thing that keeps coming up for them, because they're transferred here from somewhere else, and it's not always necessarily their first choice, is that they feel trapped. There's maybe 40 miles of paved roads up and down the coast here in Juneau. You can go all the way out to the end, past Eagle Point.
You can go all the way down to the bottom end. I guess after a while, people just feel hemmed in. There's the rain, there's the weirdness of the light and the dark. So as a result, it turns out that it's fairly challenging to get people who want to come up here and work.
I personally don't understand it. I actually love it. I will say that I'm standing really on the shoulders of some giants here. Matt Holmes, some of you may know Matt from public radio, pub tech years ago, was sort of the first Coast Alaska engineer.
John Cohn, who many of you may know, also a fantastic engineer. Is still working in Alaska, but he likes to be out in the bush more, so he's up out of Anchorage with that TV organization. Before that, we had Steve Simmons worked with us, and Brian Zitlow [SP], who's now in Florida.
Brian was here, he was a great engineer. He was here for a while, but he had unfortunately some family health issues with a child that just made it really difficult. They were having to go back and forth to Seattle. Just after a while it just didn't work out.
So healthcare can be a problem. There's a hospital here, but if there's something pretty serious, you have to go somewhere. Anyway, I say all that to say that to manage a station site, we're fortunate in that what has been put in place, and which I'd like to expand, is we use a particular remote access product called Screen Connect.
It's like TeamViewer. There's a lot of them. We put the clients on all the computers that we can on all of the stations. So I can literally go into just about any computer in any station, assuming that their connectivity is good, help them diagnose problems with the audio, all kinds of problems.
The stations that are running the Wheatstone, we can go into Navigator and look at that. The public radio satellite system receivers all have web interfaces, so we can go into those. A number of IP to serial converters, so we can get into the remote control, particularly all the sites use a Birk [SP] of some kind, either a GSE 3000, some have a few of the legacy VRC 2500s.
So that's kind of our first, I guess, first line of defense, is to be able to do that and really help people out there.
The second thing is that there's something very different about Alaska. I'm not really sure how to explain it. Maybe I can-well, if you have time for a little anecdote, I can tell you this. We have a Wheatstone, Wheatnet console. I think it's the E6 series that was in Wrangell, Alaska, which is a couple hours south of here on a plane, about 12 hours on the ferry.
They had a power outage in the whole city, which also affected Petersburg, which is about a half an hour away by boat. When the power came back up, the generator didn't come up the way they expected. When things came back up, for whatever reason, even though it was on UPS, the main E6 console in our master control did not come back up.
We spent a good bit of time diagnosing things with them, but the station manager, Cindy Sweat [SP], and her program director, Renee Clagett [SP], these are extremely smart, technically capable individuals. Even though they're not engineers and they're more in management and programming-Renee was a co-owner of a fishing boat before she retired from that.
She said that she's repaired cellphones and done all sorts of things. So basically with a picture, taking cellphone snapshots back and forth, we were able to get the board out of the console, look at some things, talk to Wheatstone.
Then I went down there and tried to do what I could, once we'd gone through all the diagnostics, which ended up having to send the board back to Wheatstone.
Then we re-routed everything in master control to one of the production studios so we could get them back on the air. Wheatstone tested the board and sent it back.
Now, it's a big investment for me to fly down there, so when the board came back, I was able to talk Cindy into putting it back in. I mean, this may be something that may seem unusual to people, but as a station manager, grabbed screwdrivers, took the plates off, powered the unit down. I had the pictures, I explained to her what needed to happen. She put the motherboard back in.
There's connectors on the back, I mean there's VJ connectors, and USB and things that go through the body of the console. She was able to screw those down, send me pictures. We checked everything out.
As it turned out, it came up, but it stopped working whenever we plugged in the Ethernet. There was still something that even though they were able to get it working in the factory and thought it was okay, there was something that was still not right about it.
So it ended up having-I spent some time on the phone with Wheatstone, and they filled not a huge... I don't want to do an advertisement, but Phil and his team actually worked with us. Because of all the trouble we had-now we'd been down for almost a month in the production. They were doing broadcasting out of the production studio.
They were able to give us a very, very good deal, I mean a substantial discount, which I very much appreciate, on a whole new motherboard assembly. So when they came back, then I actually flew down and put that in, and everything works now.
But my point is is that probably 80% of the diagnostics and pulling things out, changing flash cards and those kind of things, I was able to do remotely on the phone, logged into their Wheatstone Navigator system, looking at their computer, and then taking some web shots, or I mean camera shots.
As you can imagine, that is enormously helpful. Having that kind of technology, and also having people who are not afraid to just dig in there and do what needs to be done.
As an aside, I mentioned this to Molly, our executive director. I said, "Oh my gosh, Renee did all this, and she pulled it out, she changed this, and Sydney put it back in." She goes, "Well yeah, they're Alaskans." That was her take on it. People do what needs to be done. That's really a quite different paradigm for me.
Chris: You know, I will say I'm familiar with that type of thinking, that type of pride, attitude. Because when I was doing some work with folks, a friend of mine, she was a reporter in Bozeman, Montana.
I went out several times to see her. We got together and got together with friends, and worked with a few of the broadcasters in Bozeman, Butte, and Billings. Same thing. When we were working on some outside broadcast, doing a couple of live shots, and things just went south on us so to speak, problem got solved, we got to air, made things happen. That comment would just come out. "Well, they're from Bozeman. That's what it is, that's what we do."
Okay, fine. Same can be true-I've met many folks that say, "That's a New Yorker for you," or somebody from Chicago. To hear your description and what you're saying, adding to the dimension of the physicality of being separated where you are, just wow.
You're working with that station manager. Physically, if things start to go the other way, you still can't get out there. You physically have to do it remotely. I guess it would remind me of, for those that would remember or ever watched Apollo 13.
Basically, you're the Grummond [SP] guys in the conference room, trying to tell some guy several thousand, thousand miles away, "Okay, plug this in, plug that in, and flip the switch and let's hope that everything goes the way it's supposed to."
Richard: Yeah, that's a really good analogy. I mean obviously if I have to, I can get on a jet. Air Alaska flies hops to these places. I can be in Wrangell in an hour. It's done, but these are smaller stations and smaller budgets.
To the extent that we can keep those costs down, it's going to cost me $200, $300, $400 round trip to fly to one of these places. We really want to try to make our trips count.
Chris: You're absolutely right. There's nothing wrong with that thinking. Actually that's very good thinking, that's very prudent. The technologies do lend themselves to set-ups that can do what you described, using Screen Connect or TeamViewer, whomever you, whatever you want to choose, or VNC Plus.
You can do that, as long as you have there wherewithal that you instituted a workflow that can get you there. I think that's what you've achieved, and it's successful with, as you pointed out, the station manager's got a screwdriver, popping the covers, doing this and that. That's okay.
That person has enough understanding of what's going on, you can describe how to do it, and the technology they're working with is designed to be handled with less than specialty fingers if you will.
Richard: Right. Chris: This is great. Let me-this is going to take me into my next commercial, or sponsorship.
Chris: We're going to talk about, as you mentioned, you have one of these, an Axia system. A lot of folks-I'm actually meeting with some people next week to talk to them about IP, and how to use it and leverage it for broadcasts, remote broadcasts, outside broadcasts that is in in-studio and studio transmitter links.
One of the questions has always been, "Well, I've always had ISDN, I've had a T1, it's always been great, it does this, it does that." Yes, and IP can help you get there too. You can do a lot of things.
It's time to look at what we've been doing for the last 50 years and move forward. Some of the things that people overlook is when you have a console in a studio, that is your nerve center. That's the hub. You have to make sure it's designed to meet the workflow that you have, whether you're a music station, sports format, talk or talk music, or any of that sort.
You've got to have something that follows through. And one of the things with the Axia system, and we'll take a little history lesson. About 20, 30 years ago, many of you may remember a company that was called Pacific Recorders and Engineering, PR&E. You may remember the BMX console series.
Those of us who remember it well know that you could actually stand on it and still make it work. It was designed by Jack Williams- he was the inventor, the owner of the company. His mindset is design thinking which was passed onto others who worked there, who then moved on to do other things, was all about designing a console that could meet the ages. That could work time and time again.
Some of us may call it, is it overengineering, is it going too far? I can say personally, I've worked at two radio stations where we changed formats in the course of two years; formats on music to talk, to music, back to talk, to music. The one thing that we didn't have to redesign in the studio was the BMX console we had.
This was 15 years ago. We fast-forward to today, 2003, Axia's launched and the IP console craze begins. Now you have this console that was designed in part by people who were from the PR&E days. You have people designing something of old that remember was a rock solid brick, could do almost anything, under almost any conditions.
Now saying let's take this new technology and do the same thing. That's what you have as an Axia console. So now you sit there and say, "What? Wait a minute, how is this possible?"
It's very possible. It's not impossible to do. You just have to have an open mind and think about it. So the Axia Element console, okay, is based and designed in some respects-the early thinking was, how do we take the BMX approach, PR&E, and put it into an Element? Axia Element is just that.
In the last few years, I can honestly say I worked at a station where I did install one of the first, maybe third stations that had an Axia Element go in. It was an all-news station, and we had four of those consoles, and it worked like a champ. The installation was a breeze. We had no problems doing it. We rebuilt the studios, took us three months because we did a complete infrastructure change, we did everything else, and it worked flawless. We had nothing go wrong.
Did I mention we were still on the air while we did this? That's right. We did it in place. I didn't have the luxury of a brand new facility to move into. We did it while the old studios were being decommissioned. So the old Wardbecks [SP] came out, Axia Elements went in, and it was flawless.
You can take the spiel of the ads and say you can do 14,000 ways to build an Element console, let's be honest, there's only one way you need it, and that's your way. Pick 1 through 14,000 and pick your way, and make sure it's the right one.
It's modular, so you can build with future-proofing. If you don't want all the modules up front, buy the large bucket, the frame that all the modules sit in, and leave blank panels and move in and grow as you have to. There's a luxury you don't get with some of the older stuff.
Then there's extruded aluminum chassis. A lot of people laugh, say, "Why do you do extruded aluminum, why do you do this, why not just make it a regular box?" You need strength, you need the modules to be supported. You've got to make sure when people lean on the console-because you all know they do-it's going to stay intact. So you don't twist the edge cart connectors, or the pins come out of a molex connector, or whatever Euro connector you may have.
Then there's the logic and GPIO. Very flexible. So flexible I can't even get into it, but I will tell you this. One of the things we did do with an Axia console, the Element at my facility, was we made rout-able [SP] IFPs. That's all I'm going to say. You want to know more about that, you've got to call Axia support and talk to them.
Then there's the auto-mix minus. That's right, every fader. Now we all know this is pretty much old hat for those of you just, been doing this for a while, but for those of you who have not had a chance to play with IP, understand the luxuries of what you can do with it.
The Axia Element now gives you the ability to mix minus on the fly with each fader. And we all know how difficult it can be to get mix minus to work just right.
Or maybe you've been the other end of a receiving signal that didn't properly create mix minus. So you know exactly what goes wrong when that doesn't go the way it should. And it just connects natively with the live wire audio protocol.
It also will work with RAVENNA. That's a whole other thing down the road, but again, that's future-proofing. So you understand these terms I'm giving you, and then you can build a very, very reliable, repeatable-and you know what? You'll be able to sleep every night and not worry.
That's the other important thing you have to remember about designing our studios. We like to stay asleep, so the next day is a nice, bright day, we're bright eyed and bushy tailed, and ready to go attack something else, rather than keep fixing things that we sort of just took shortcuts on.
And with X nodes, and then the AES 67 protocols coming out, everything that you need to worry about future-proofing, current uses, it's all there. So the Axia Element, axiaaudio.com. You can't go wrong.
What I say to people is you're limited by your imagination. Okay? Just think of the folks at Disney with Imagineering, right? You go down to Epcot, you go to these places, and you go, "Wow, this is amazing." Think of the old animation of Disney, which was the three cells, not the three gel cells for the animation, not the single cell from Hanna-Barbara.
Why did they do it? Why did they go with the three cells instead of the single cell? Because of the depth, the perception, what it gave the impression. That's what you look at Axia. Say, "What do you want to achieve?" I want to be the best at what I do, the best in the market, and make money doing it.
Well, you can't go wrong if you pick an Axia Element. You can go wrong if you don't use your imagination, so be smart, get a double shot of espresso, sit down, read the manual, and figure out how to apply it to your place and you'll be in great shape.
All right, fine, get a decaf if you want. Anyway, axiaaudio.com. Check it out. There's lots to be seen. If you have questions, just write to support, and they'll be more than happy to give you answers that'll definitely work out for you. Axiaaudio.com, the Axia Element, check it out.
All right. I hope you'd like to buy one of those too? Maybe not. Okay, fair enough.
Richard: Were you talking to me?
Chris: Yes. I thought I'd throw that back at you from the last one.
Richard: No, no, because we have-right here, behind my back there's probably four studios with Element consoles. I have to say that I've worked where there's Logitech, and then we have the Wheatnets here, and then the Axia. Audio over IP in general is fantastic, but the ability to reconfigure things is just stupendous. Something that we could've never imagined before.
It was an Axia, but as I said, the situation with the Wheatnet, when they lost a console, I literally went in from here in Juneau, remote accessed into Navigator, and I said, "Okay, now your production studio is your air control." It was just a couple of clicks.
That to me is fantastic. Here in Juneau, they needed some on-air lights. Now this is a weird thing that you have to understand. You say "well, use your imagination and do what you want to do." The studios here had the traditional on-air lights that when you turn the mic on it flashes outside the studio.
But they also go to automation at night. Rather than try to do it through the router, which they could do very easily in the Axia system and just route the automation directly to the transmitter site, they found that it was confusing.
They have a lot of volunteers that work here. A lot of volunteers. It was confusing. People would come in, they'd try to do a show, they weren't on the air, they didn't know they weren't on the air.
What they do is they bring up a fader that says "automation." When they leave for the night, they leave that fader up. They hit a button that says automation. Then that runs.
Now we could, if the console failed or something happened, we could certainly route automation to the air. But what the problem was is then they didn't know was the console live, was it not live? There's some soft buttons on the side of the Axia that they say "on-air," "off-air" and all that.
What I was able to do for them, which they wanted, is we actually put on-air lights in the control rooms. These were 12 volt, small lights. What they meant to the operator is not that your mic's on, what they meant was the console was live on the air.
Whenever they pushed the salvo button that said the console was live to the air, that light comes on and they know they're on the air. If they don't have that button on and it's just the automation that's going to the transmitter site-it's through a fader, but it's a little bit different set-up.
Anyway. The idea was that they would know when they were on the air or not. That was honestly just dead simple. Just go to the back with the GPIO interface in the Axia. I'm sure there's a similar thing on the Logitech and on the Wheatnet. Just set up [inaudible 00:48:58], power supply, and boom. It was easy.
Chris: Yeah, yeah.
Richard: So I like the fact that we can do things remotely, you can go in and configure things remotely, you can change them. As you were saying, if you needed to change studios, if you needed to do a special project, there's-I guess they call them salvos. I can't remember. I think they're scenes at Axia World, right?
Chris: Well, the traditional term is salvos, okay. Now people started to apply the word scenes, because if you're from a Pro Tools world or some of the other post-production houses, that's what they used to call them. It's salvos. Everyone should know that, yeah.
Richard: So these salvos, they have buttons if they wanted to do-they have a thing called . . . I forget what it's called. Anyway, they go through the, they broadcast the legislature during the time when it's on.
They have a special salvo that sets that up, and the operator just pushes a button and the console becomes live for mixing everything from the State House, which is three or four blocks away. So.
If you don't mind, I was going to follow up on the Wheatstone story, and about the difficulty in getting things here.
Chris: Yeah, yeah, yeah. We have a few more minutes. Please, please do.
Richard: Okay, so the first thing that we thought might be wrong, or the first thing that Wheatstone thought might be wrong, was that there was a problem with the . . . There's a CF card that basically has the operating system and a bunch of stuff on it.
They said, "Well let's just try replacing this first, before we get in too deep." I said that's fine. They sent it to us, and they made the mistake of sending it FedEx. We didn't know that that was a mistake, but it turned out to be a mistake.
It turns out that FedEx, to deliver to some of these small stations along the coast, basically delivers it to Anchorage. In Anchorage, they take it to the post office, and they put the address on it and they tell the post office to deliver it for them.
So this particular flash card now, I asked for it on a Thursday night. I was going to fly down there the following week to try to help them. This flash card showed up the Thursday of the week that I was there.
The reason that it showed up on the Thursday was because it went to a town called [inaudible 00:51:11], Alaska, which is out on the Aleutian Islands, and then it went to a place called Russian Mission. Basically it made a thousands of miles journey across various remote parts of Alaska before it finally ended up in Wrangell, where we needed it.
That was kind of challenging. We had to tell them whenever you send something, send it USPS. But that's kind of typical. It's expensive to ship things here, and they can get misdirected, they can get lost. It's not like you can just run down to the shop and get something, or run down to the store.
Although I will say, I've been pleasantly surprised-and not being a shill for any particular organization-but I guess because there's so many marine people here, there's boats, there's a lot of commercial fishing and lots of things. Every town that I've been in has a RadioShack, and every RadioShack has got all the stuff that you remember from when you were a kid.
Richard: I mean, it's just unbelievable. You can walk in and buy ICs and connectors, adapters. It's a beautiful thing to behold. And some of them are, they're allied with another company, so they have third party stuff just on the shelf. TNC to, you name it. It's just amazing.
That's been kind of interesting.
Chris: Wow. I was just saying the RadioShack by me, I think I can get a cellphone, I can buy a battery charger, but when I ask about a capacitor or a resistor, I think I get that deer in the headlights look. So yeah, you're very fortunate. Reminds me of the old days of [inaudible 00:52:48] electronics.
Richard: It's very much like that. I think I could just about build a small transmitter here.
Chris: Nice, nice.
Richard: It's-I will say, and Chuck Locaidis [SP] was another one that I forgot to mention who, I said I was standing on the backs of giants, on the shoulders of giants. Chuck Locaidis worked down here for a long time. Some of you may know Chuck.
One of the things he told me, he says, "Rich, one thing you're going to find out in Alaska is they are very serious about their hardware stores." I can tell you that that is, that's absolutely true. You can find a lot of stuff here and get a lot done.
Chris: Great. I can see why you're enjoying it then. Excellent, excellent. Well, I like what you're saying about the IP audio and the technology ability to switch things. Each company has its own way of implementing the technology, but I like the fact that you can do a lot of stuff remotely.
Your on-air light / studio in use light is not uncommon. Because I actually worked at a facility, I worked at two facilities where we did that type of approach. One of them was an all-news station, and we had four different studios that would go live during the hour. In order for the editors to know which studio was live to air, they'd just look up and see one of the two lights was lit.
If light one was lit, that meant that studio was active, and the second light would mean the microphone was on. What you're talking about is not uncommon. It's actually very practical. When I worked at a music station, that was automated. That had automation in the evenings. We did the same thing, because sometimes the jocks would want to record an evergreen show, and inadvertently take the wrong studio and wind up either on the air with it, or take everything off and silence alarms would go off.
People are like, "Now what happened?" We were running around thinking the transmitter's off the air and it's just the jock in the studio hit the "off" button.
Richard: My favorite story here, one of the volunteers told me this. She was on the air one night, and some people started calling her and said, "Gina, you're not doing your show tonight?" She goes, "What do you mean? I've been doing it for 20 minutes." She goes, "No, no, you're not on the air."
Automation was still running. She goes, "No, I'm on the air. I'm playing my show." They go, "No, we're not really hearing you." So that's why we needed that light for them.
Chris: Trust me, that's a very common problem. That's nothing new. I'm sure there are a lot of folks in the audience right now chuckling, going, "Oh yeah, we just had that happen last week. I know what that means." It's not uncommon, not uncommon.
So this'll be your first full winter in Alaska, is that correct? Or no? Do I have that wrong?
Richard: It will be, it will be. The only thing different that I'll have to do from Vermont is they really suggested buying sledded tires, and that's because of the ice on the roads. I usually use snow tires in Vermont, and if it got really bad I had chains I put on all four wheels.
But chains aren't really appropriate here, and so it turns out there's sledded tires. And there's signs everywhere, you'll see "No sledded tires before October 30th," and they must be off the car by April 15th. It's just something they do here. I'm not too concerned.
I don't think I'm too worried about the short days, because of the nature of the work that I do. Maybe I'm in a studio. It might impact us if we had work outside, work on the antenna thing or something. But we'll see. We'll see how it goes.
Chris: Great, great. Well, we're coming to a close here, about three minutes out. I'm just curious, at this time of year, what is the sunrise to sunset time?
Richard: You know, I haven't officially looked at the chart, but I can tell you that it's dusky dark about 11:30, like twilight. I think it starts to get light again about 3:00, 2:30, 3:00, 3:30. That dawn sort of sun through the sky gets kind of gray, starts to light up. So it's . . .
Chris: 2:30, 3:00 in the morning?
Richard: [inaudible 00:56:26]. So you know, it's a little bit different, getting adjusted. But I don't think it's insurmountable in a good time.
Just really quick, if I have a minute, I want to tell you a really quick story about transportation. When I went to Wrangell to work on their studio, I had just two days to put that piece in, got the studio back on the air. But I was really supposed to go to Petersburg, which is a small fishing community that's another half-hour, 45 minute flight.
It cost $110 to fly, but we were able to work with this guy, Eric, from Breakway Adventures, which is one of these aluminum jet boats they take people out in. He, on a rainy, foggy evening, he had one of his guys take me from Wrangell to Petersburg in the jet boat. Which was about the same amount of time as the jet by the time you stand in line, go through security, all of that stuff.
Dropped me off on a dock, in the middle of nowhere. I saw a gray truck up the road, so I said, "Okay, great." I waved him off. It's dark, it's raining. Not dark-dark, but getting cloudy dark, foggy, raining. I have all my equipment, the tools. I'm going up the ramp.
I get to this gray truck, it's empty. It's not my ride. There's no cell service. I'm standing there in the rain going, "Oh gosh, what just happened here?"
The station manager that was picking me up, he showed up within five minutes. But it was just that moment of, "Oh dear. Where am I, and what have I done when I waved the boat away?"
Chris: Total isolation, that's great. That's great. No, these have been great, the stories have been really nice. It's enjoyable to hear something about a place. You read about it, you see pictures, as I mentioned earlier, when I mentioned to someone, "Hey, I'm going to Alaska," the first thing that comes to mind is a bear grabbing salmon out of the river and lots of trees.
I wanted to be able to have you tell a story of, oh yeah, it's that plus. There's more to it than just that. Go ahead, go ahead.
Richard: I was just going to say, the thing that's, for me-I've been in the business for a long time, and I think the thing that just, it almost gave me a new lease on life. Everyone here is glad to see me when I show up. They're just always glad. They're just, "Oh my gosh, the engineer's here. This is so great." Take you out to dinner, I mean, it's a very different environment.
A lot of people have an experience of engineering that's like, "Oh my God, you're going to cost me a lot of money. What have you done for me lately?" kind of feeling. Here, everybody is so helpful and so appreciative. That's just been really, really, really nice.
Chris: That's why you're standing on the shoulders of giants, because of that type of thinking and treatment of people. Because the good people come out when that happens. That's exactly it.
Richard: That's right.
Chris: Well thank you very much, Richard. Those of you tuning in who have been staying with us, "This Week in Radio Tech," episode 219, our guest has been Richard Parker. Last time he was our guest, he was in Vermont. Today, we talked to him from Alaska.
He's the director of engineering for Coast Alaska, and he's overseeing several stations that geographically stretch between parts of the state that require boat, dogsled, car, maybe car, mostly crazy ways of getting around. The best part is helping him out are neighbors near his sites that help him to get things done, and the remote access of technologies that are available.
If you missed what we were talking about by tuning in now, do the download and check out what we've got on demand.
With that, I must say two things. One, stay tuned for July 17th will be our next episode. Next week we are off. It's July, we're all taking time off. You should too. So next week, take off. Just tell your boss, "Look, TWiRT's not happening, I'm not working." We're coming back July 17th.
Kirk, Chris, and Tom are out on vacation doing their thing. I'm here with Richard Parker. Again, Richard, thank you very much for joining us. I look forward to catching up with you again later in the fall, when the daylight has changed. Hopefully we can get some stories about how the ice and weather conditions impact what you do every day.
Richard: Well, thanks for having me, Chris.
Chris: You're welcome. All right, well this concludes "This Week in Radio Tech," episode 219. I'm Chris Tobin, your host, and IP solutions is what I do and you know how to find me. Talk to you later, and now, it's time for the on demand services of "This Week in Radio Tech."
Topics: Broadcast Engineering
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