Jeff Littlejohn: Clear Channel’s Widget Guy (04/26/04)
Once a year, Radio Ink surveys the radio industry to identify those men and women who are considered the best engineers in the business. This year, in our poll of literally hundreds of executives, managers, programmers, and — of course — engineers, one individual stood out as the most admired in his field. While admiration is a difficult quality to quantify, there was no question that Clear Channel Senior Vice President of Engineering Jeff Littlejohn’s responsibility for over 1,200 radio stations has earned the respect — and awe — of his peers in the radio industry.
Born in Gary, Indiana, Littlejohn graduated from ITT Technical Institute in 1987. His first job in radio was as a staff engineer at WAJI-FM Ft. Wayne, where he says he pulled wires through the studio. “From there, I got a job doing some contract engineering with a company called Broadcast Circuit Systems, which I don’t think exists anymore. We did engineering for 21 stations, which at the time was unheard of. I spent a lot of time on the road and spent a lot of time in really small markets, fixing tape machines and installing turntables and transmitters.”
When the contract work was finished, Littlejohn was named chief engineer of WBYR-Ft. Wayne. “I moved that station from Ohio, and took it from not even showing up in the book to being No. 3 in the first quarter. Because at the time the station was partially owned by Randy Michaels, I got to know all the Jacor executives.” Next came a stint as chief engineer in Aurora, IL, for Beasley’s WYSY, which Littlejohn moved to the WMAQ tower in Bloomingdale. “There were pretty strong rumors that the station was going to be sold, so I went off to Cincinnati to work for American Media.”
Littlejohn was named chief engineer and, as that company merged, becoming Chancellor Broadcasting and then Chancellor Media, he took more and more work with regional — and then corporate — responsibility. “Of course, Chancellor merged with Evergreen and became AMFM; and that merged with Capstar, which immediately merged with Clear Channel,” recalls Littlejohn. “So once again, I was working with Randy Michaels as part of a three-person engineering management team. I just rode the wave. I haven’t moved since ’92, although my employers have changed several times.” When John Hogan assumed the role of CEO for Clear Channel Radio, he wanted a single person to oversee the engineering team, and Littlejohn — almost naturally — was tapped for that position.
A member of the iBiquity Board of Directors, Littlejohn also has served on the NAB Engineering Conference planning committee and several NAB ad hoc committees. He has participated in several NAB Engineering Conference panels on subjects from IBOC to consolidations, and currently serves on several NRSC standards-setting committees for both analog and digital broadcasting. Littlejohn currently lives with his wife, Tina, in Alexandria, KY.
How can you possibly keep on top of the engineering challenges in a radio group that has more than 1,200 stations?
We have a great group of people that work with us. The people I rely on most are the 10 regional vice presidents of engineering; each handles a small section of the country. We also have a Tulsa staff that handles corporate financing for radio capital as well as our FCC filings and database activities.
Are you a hands-on engineer, or have you mastered the art of delegation?
My theory is to hire people who are smarter than I am, empower them to do their job, and then stay out of the way until they need some help. I try to coach them along the way, defining the direction of the company, but they have a lot of empowerment. I tend to be less hands-on — it’s been a little while since I fixed a transmitter. It’s still something I enjoy quite a bit, but the regional VPs are much more hands-on with fixing transmitters and doing build-out projects than I am. In fact, actual hands-on wiring work is only a small percentage of my job. Mostly, I manage others. I do tinker around a bit — here in Covington, we have a station we call The Pirate. It’s an experimental station that runs under Part 15, which allows unlicensed transmitters under certain limits of coverage. The Pirate really covers only our offices, so it’s kind of like a college radio station. It allows us to play with a bunch of new technologies, and if we want to roll out some new software or take a radio station off the air to try something new, we can do it. I’m the chief engineer of the Pirate.
How challenging has it been to bring the studios of five or six stations in one market under one roof?
We’re putting together a nice process for that. The first thing we do when we have a new build-out is to gather everybody who will be involved in the project — everybody on the team — and make sure that everyone is clear on responsibilities. We’re going to have some people who are in charge of making sure that the furniture is right, other people who are concerned about the power, the IT and the broadcast systems. Others will be concerned about the layout for the sales departments and management departments, and all that.
Do you bring in architects for the initial phase, or do you work from a Clear Channel design template?
We have a group of two or three architectural firms we use across the U.S. They’re in tune with what our systems are and what we expect in a build-out standard. Also, by learning how to do something once and then doing it many times, we drastically reduce the design time and costs. Once we have the job split up, it’s just a matter of having a single person to coordinate it. The station’s chief engineer usually coordinates all those efforts and makes sure all the little pieces are getting done.
Besides creating facilities to suit today’s needs, do you also try to calculate where radio will be several years from now?
We always try to look a little way down the road. We want to be relatively close to the leading edge of technology but not on what I call the “bleeding edge.” We want to make sure our stations are properly equipped to do what is needed to serve our listeners. On the other hand, since we’re also a publicly run company, we don’t want to waste money on overbuilding. We’re going to be in this business for a good long time, and we try to plan as though we’ll be in these buildings for quite awhile.
Clear Channel hasn’t been as aggressive at installing IBOC transmitters as other companies have been. What’s the company’s philosophy on HD Radio?
Right now we have three stations broadcasting HD Radio. We were waiting for a dual antenna rule, which was just approved. We’ve been working with iBiquity to establish a rollout plan. Right now, we’re just taking it a station or two at a time.
Is this because of the huge expense in converting 1,200+ stations?
Actually, much of the challenge is that, while I have literally hundreds of engineers who have installed transmitters and studio equipment and maintained and serviced that equipment, I have maybe one or two who have ever installed a digital transmitter. There’s a learning curve here. It’s very new, so we’re spending a lot of time investigating the best practices for installing an IBOC transmitter. Some questions we’ve been looking at: “Are we going to use separate antennas?” “Are we going to replace antennas?” “What kind of transmitters will work best?” It’s okay to make a few mistakes, and that’s actually expected, but you don’t want to make the same mistake over and over. We want to do a couple of installs, look back at them and find out what was good and what was bad about them — and then learn from them so we can get to an optimal installation sooner, rather than later.
Is HD Radio ready for prime time, or are there still issues to be resolved?
HD Radio is ready. The transmission systems will certainly develop and get better. At the NAB this year, most IBOC transmission manufacturers were showing a new version of their IBOC generator. Among other things, it will allow for easier insertion of data applications by splitting the unit into two pieces — one that stays at the transmitter site (the same as Generation One devices) and one half that will be installed at the studio. This split chassis will make it much easier to insert ancillary data onto IBOC. Also, the radios will improve, adding more features. But for right now, it’s ready to go.
How critical is it to establish an HD standard for AM as well as FM?
It is very important that it be an AM/FM standard, so that AM is not left by the wayside. The NRSC is heading in that direction in developing a broadcast standard, not just an FM standard or AM standard. That’s the right way to go.
Technically, how are you dealing with Clear Channel’s Zero Tolerance Policy on broadcast indecency?
We’ve done many things quickly. We’ve ordered more broadcast delay units in the last month than I’ve ever seen. We’ve signed deals with manufacturers to get them to bring up their product line and start manufacturing these units. Broadcast delays were small business until this concentration on the old indecency rules; people didn’t have them sitting on the shelf to sell. We have many in place now, and we’ll have a lot more in place within the next few weeks.
Who at the typical Clear Channel facility has the authority to make a purchase decision? Is it the chief engineer, market manager, program director … ?
It’s a cooperative effort. There is a well-established process: The market gets together and decides what they need for the next year. Their requests go into our computer system, which processes all those requests, down to absolute specificity. My regional VPs review them, and each has the authority to approve or disapprove individual requests based on a budget they’re given. Those total request then are reviewed by [Senior VP/Engineering & Capital Management] Steve Davis and me — mostly Steve — who makes sure they’ll hit the numbers we’ve been given by the board.
Is there still a language barrier between management and engineering?
In some places, but it’s becoming less and less of a problem. Smart general managers have figured out that engineering can be part of the management team, and they treat them that way. In the past there have been managers — for the most part those who didn’t make it through consolidation — who tended to talk down to engineering, or not include them as part of the overall management package. As a result, they weren’t as successful as they could have been — they didn’t get all the aspects of the business that they could have gotten.
What do you consider the most pressing technological challenge facing radio this year?
We’ll be concentrating on increasing redundancy at our existing stations. We’ve made some great investments in that area. An example is New York City, where Clear Channel’s stations were the only ones to come back on the air immediately following the electrical blackout. When the World Trade Center dropped, we immediately went to an auxiliary site and lost about 60 seconds of airtime. We’ve come up with ways to use off-site locations for on-air programming, to move programming for one set of call letters to the studio of another set of call letters. We must do that, because in times of emergency, the public counts on radio to provide information. We must be on the air and relatively buttoned down, so we can concentrate on the programming.
What impact will “personal entertainment devices” have on radio listenership?
Radio has been seeing some erosion from MP3s, streaming, and companies like XM and Sirius. Right now, the cumulative amount of erosion is pretty small, but our audience is changing. They’re becoming more technologically savvy about these things, and that provides us some opportunities. One of the things I oversee outside the transmitters and studios is the Clear Channel Internet group. We’re working with some ideas to increase that bond we have with listeners. Radio’s strong point is this one-to-one bond. Listeners trust the radio station, and we’re looking for ways to expand that trust, that relationship. We’re spending a lot of time developing streaming. We’re not streaming many stations right now — until recently, it has been pretty cost-prohibitive — but reduced bandwidth costs are improving the situation, and the RIAA fees are now a bit more palatable.
Besides streaming, how can radio effectively merge some of these new technologies into its day-to-day programming operations?
We have a guy who will be in charge of interactive marketing within our Internet group, and he’s working on things like SMS — text messaging. There are certain things you can do: For example, you could have a listener text in a request, and just before the song plays, you can text them that “Your song’s up next.”
We have also been playing with title and artist over Radio Data System [RDS]. We came up with a way to roll title and artist across the display of analog RDS radios; that brought a huge response from listeners. The thing is, if you’re 13 years old, you know exactly who every artist is and exactly what you want to hear. But if you’re our age, you don’t know that. You say, “I love that song — who did it?” RDS can answer that question.
We’ve also been playing around with a couple of companies that allow you to buy music over an RDS radio, either with a cell phone or a special radio. We’re trying to develop loyal-listener clubs and give those listeners some benefits to being involved.
How big a threat to terrestrial radio is satellite broadcasting?
I’ve heard that XM’s and Sirius’ anticipated maximum numbers will be around 20 million subscribers when they peak. If they get to that point, radio listenership will start to erode; however, because Clear Channel has five times that many listeners on a regular basis, we’ll still be okay. Still, it will be a factor and something we need to deal with, but I don’t think everybody is going to have a satellite receiver in the car.
Are you one of those people who has to run out to Best Buy and get every new gadget that comes along?
I’m a widget guy. I’ve played with a lot of MP3 players, and I belong to the cell-phone-of-the-month club. I played with IBOC, and I always have a new radio of some sort somewhere. I have XM — I’ve had it for a long time. What I found was that I listened to it a lot for about two weeks, and then I got bored with it. I’ve gone 4-5 months without ever turning it on. There are a few channels you can’t get over terrestrial radio and that’s kind of interesting, but when it comes to music programming I’d rather listen to the local guys. There’s no one-on-one relationship between XM radio and the listener.
With so many stations, how are Clear Channel’s engineering priorities different from groups that are just a fraction of the size?
The fact that we have 1,200 radio stations means we’re able to do some things that probably wouldn’t make sense if we had only 100 stations. For example, I have a guy who manages all our tower leasing. We own 1,200+ towers, and our general managers were individually leasing tower space. That system was working OK, but companies such as Verizon, AT&T or Sprint had no single person to go to; the GM had to hunt down the decision-maker. Now we have a person who oversees all that. The GM still has to sign off on the final decision, but we have someone who is used to dealing with all the cellulars and knows the issues involved. Last year alone brought us $1.3 million in new leases.
We’ve always had a department in Tulsa that handles all our FCC applications — they generate all the paperwork that the FCC requires. But recently, we’ve had a little extra time available for those people in Tulsa, so we actually formed a company called RF [Radio Frequency] Licensing, and we’re jobbing that out to other broadcasters.
There’s talk that a number of engineers are leaving radio, and few people are coming into the industry. Does this concern you?
Yes. One thing we’ve done to combat that is to make sure that the engineers we have are respected and that they’re empowered with the resources they need to do their jobs. To that end, we started a training initiative we call RF 101. We have trained 150 engineers; some don’t even work for Clear Channel, but they’re in the market and wanted to go to this. It’s a weeklong course covering everything from what a coil is to how a transmitter works. There’s also some fairly in-depth theory. We’re very proud of this program, and we’ve tried to move it around the U.S.
Have you taken your course to universities and broadcast schools?
We have not done that yet, but we’ve looked at that idea. It might take more time than we have available. It’s a weeklong course, eight hours a day. However, one of the benefits of having TV stations is that we were able to have one of our TV crews videotape the entire course, which we then produced down to DVD. If we have an engineer who can’t make it to one of the classes, he can view it on the DVD in his leisure.
You say “he.” Is engineering still pretty much a man’s game?
Diversity has never been a strong suit of the broadcast engineering field. We have several women in staff positions, but Toni Howell in Medford is our only female chief engineer.
You just returned from the NAB Convention. Do you go there to look at new technologies, meet with your engineering team, or buy new equipment for your stations?
It’s a little of all of the above. We always spend an entire day at meetings with our closest managers. We spend a lot of time with vendors, trying to find out what’s new out there; we want to make sure we’re not missing anything. Many times, we need to see how realistic were the claims of something we saw last year, trying to pick out trend vs. fad. We also usually close a few deals at NAB.
Do you ever long for the days when you were chief engineer for just one station or a handful of stations?
I really enjoy what I’m doing. I really enjoy pulling wires through the studio, and I love installing transmitters. I’m a lucky guy, because I can go to work every day and enjoy what I do. I have done that ever since I got into radio — I’m just addicted to the business. If I lost this job today, would I leave radio and do something else? Probably not. If I had to take a step back and just fix transmitters, that would be just fine with me.
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