Milford “Smitty” Smith Is Greater Media's Dean Of Digital (04/25/05)
By Reed Bunzel, Editor-in-Chief
Without question, 2005 is the year of HD Radio. While iBiquity and most major radio groups converted some stations to digital in the past 18-24 months, during the first week of January more than 20 companies announced their full commitment to HD radio, pledging to implement digital audio at more than 2,500 stations within the next several years.
One of the radio groups leading this charge is Greater Media, which is scheduled to have virtually all of its 19 radio facilities broadcasting in HD Radio by year's end. Responsible for overseeing this mass conversion is Milford Smith, who has served as the company's vice president for radio engineering for 21 years, and has been involved with the development of DAB in the U.S. almost since day one. Smith, known throughout the industry as “Smitty,” is chairman of the National Association of Broadcasters' Digital Radio Committee, as well as a past member of its AM IBOC Nighttime and FM IBOC dual antenna ad hoc committees. Active on the National Radio Systems Committee, he is senior co-chairman of its DAB subcommittee, which is involved in the testing and evaluation of the next generation of digital radio service.
Smith acquired his lifelong love of radio broadcasting at an early age. Born and raised in Rutland, Vermont, he says radio fever hit him when his father introduced him to radio and shortwave broadcasting. “That's when the bug originally bit me, looking over his shoulder and listening to the stuff he was listening to,” he recalls. “I was fortunate as a teenager to spend a little time at a couple of local radio stations up there, observing what was going on and occasionally being allowed to do a little something. Looking through the glass fronts of Collins transmitters with glowing blue mercury vapor rectifiers that pulsed in time with the music was almost too hard to resist.”
Majoring in physics at Amherst College in Massachusetts, Smith quickly became chief engineer not only of his college radio station, but of the station at nearby University of Massachusetts, as well. He subsequently landed a job as the CE of an AM/FM commercial operation in Northampton, MA, and then worked at several other stations in western Massachusetts and Connecticut before joining WPIX in New York. In 1972, he relocated to Washington, DC, to serve as CE at WPGC-FM, which 12 months later was acquired by First Media.
After 11 years at the station, Smith moved on to Greater Media, which he says “always had a reputation for being one of the best-run, privately held companies. They also had a reputation for really doing things right technically. There was enough staff and enough resources and money to allow one to do a really good job, so I made the run up the New Jersey Turnpike from DC, and have been here ever since.”
As Radio Ink once again announces the “35 Most-Admired Engineers in Radio,” our editorial board determined that no one better represents the Year of HD Radio than “Smitty,” who kindly agreed to spend some time discussing all things digital - and even a few things that aren't.
INK: What are your day-to-day responsibilities at Greater Media? Are you a hands-on engineer, or have you learned the art of delegation?
MS: I don't think you ever totally learn the art of delegation if you're really into what you're doing. Most of my time is spent behind a desk. When I have the opportunity, I try to get out into the field to work, particularly on some of our very large capital projects, where I think I can help the facilities. We oversee all the engineering here in New Jersey - most of the management-level engineering hires, capital budgets etc. I also spend a fair amount of time involved in industry matters, working with the NRSC, the NAB and similar organizations with interesting acronyms.
We look out for the radio part of the company, as well as the tower division, which leases out owned structures to tenants, as well as a few other peripheral things.
What has been your role in an industry-wide roll-out of HD Radio?
For the past few years, I've chaired the National Radio Systems Committee DAB subcommittee, which has been charged with evaluating the various digital radio systems. At the moment, we're in a standards-writing process for digital radio. I've been part of the industry side of DAB since it started in the very early 1990s, when everyone was visiting Rennes, France, to look at the new Eureka 147 technology. Since then, the process has gone through a series of ups and downs, as technologies have been presented and, in some cases, didn't make the grade.
Is it critical to establish an HD standard for both AM and FM?
The NRSC 5 draft standard, which is being worked on right now, is an all-inclusive standard that includes both FM and AM. A distinction must be made between a standard and any interim or permanent FCC rules. The standard describes the technical underpinnings of the system - a very detailed technical description of what HD Radio is, how it's implemented and how it works. It's then up to the FCC to set limits on the operation of that system.
Still, how critical is it to set a standard for AM service, both daytime and nighttime?
It's very critical. An NAB ad hoc committee on AM nighttime recommended that AM be permitted to implement HD Radio on a 24-hour basis. Obviously, the FCC must make the ultimate decision: They can make an interim decision, which would be the same as most of the decisions they've made to-date on HD Radio; or they can wait and write formal rules to govern the nighttime service. It's my understanding that, in the next few months, the FCC will address the matter of AM nighttime, put it out for comment and possibly make a decision on implementation. That will be of great benefit to AM radio.
Still, AM broadcasters have been skeptical about what it could do to nighttime coverage.
In the realm of HD Radio, the biggest trade-off that must be made by broadcasters is the AM nighttime element. More compromise is required here than in any other implementation of the system, on AM or FM. Initially, broadcasters saw that trade-off as a bit scary and undefined, so they were hesitant to embrace the concept of digital AM during nighttime. But as broadcasters have become more educated about digital, they've become more willing to accept the compromises inherent in the nighttime implementation.
What sort of compromises?
The best example is with a clear-channel station - and I'm not referring to the company - that provides a lot of nighttime skywave service. There are exceptions, but most of those stations derive a lot of prestige, but not a lot of revenue, from that wide area of nighttime skywave service. The compromise is that once HD Radio is implemented universally, that nighttime skywave service won't be as easily listened to as it is right now, because of the various HD carriers. On the other hand, that radio station will have a very large local service area, encompassing its primary market. More importantly, the audio quality of the AM will be equivalent to today's FM, and broadcast in stereo from one edge of coverage area to the other. Many broadcasters who have weighed the potential loss against the gain have come to the conclusion - slowly - that this is not a bad trade-off. It provides more of what we need to remain competitive in our core market.
While HD Radio will lead the radio industry into the digital age, a digital signal alone isn't enough to generate public excitement - or return on investment. What other features of HD Radio might encourage consumers to buy digital receivers - and generate real dollars for broadcasters?
This question really hits the nail on the head. Clear, digital sound is necessary for radio. We're getting to be the only medium that isn't digital. Everyone else has made that transition: LPs to CDs, analog video to DVDs, digital TV. We're the last of the last of the analog cowboys. There isn't much upside revenue potential inherent in HD; the exciting thing is that HD is a bit stream, and that bit stream can be repurposed in many different ways. From a conventional standpoint, perhaps the most exciting aspect of HD radio is the ability to transmit more than one program stream. NPR has done really good research on the SPS, or Secondary Program Service aspects of HD Radio. The conclusion is that two audio streams, each using 48 kilobits -half the 96 kilobit rate of HD Radio - are perceived by most listeners as no worse than the 96. In other words, you can halve the bit rate and the quality stays the same. This immediately provides every radio station with the potential to have another program service. That's huge.
What about other revenue streams, such as data transmission?
Many data aspects of HD Radio are still being resolved, including live traffic information, ancillary data, news, weather, stock data and a host of others still in formative stages. Each has the potential - as a station-initiated service, or as a conduit provided by the station - to generate additional revenue. There are many exciting possibilities; you have to think beyond that one analog audio stream and determine what this is will do for you. Sure, it will get you to the digital realm, but there is much more in terms of additional possibilities and revenue.
Which of these do you envision will be rolled out first, and how will it impact the consumer's decision to lay down several hundred dollars for the unit?
Most of the newer units will have at least some of the capabilities we've discussed. Receivers with secondary audio channel capabilities will be available as soon as later this year. Because that capability has always been designed into the iBiquity system, it will not be a big deal to implement it in future receivers. I would be surprised if any receivers after this first, early-adopter generation do not include that feature. The data applications will be receiver-dependent, and dependent on the data stream.
Care to take a stab at what HD Radio receivers might look and act like in 10 or 20 years?
That's a very tough one. The challenge with any digital device is power consumption. We are at the front end of HD Radio right now, and the chip manufacturers are hard at work turning out the large-scale, integrated circuits that will be necessary to make HD receivers that are not tethered to an electrical outlet or to a vehicle power supply. Right now, most of these receivers need a battery or AC supply to provide power. Once these receivers turn into portable devices, one hopes they will be as ubiquitous as analog receivers are now, with multiple program channels. They might be integrated with cellular telephony devices, providing a very convenient back channel for interactivity between the radio program stream and a service provider.
The crystal ball is not clear on what these devices will look like, but I have no reason to believe the technology won't be as rapid as it was on the satellite. Given the 800-900 million receivers ripe for replacement in this country, the incentive is there to make the devices as attractive as possible - and I have no doubt they will.
How will the radio industry generate the same kind of hype as the satellite folks?
The best thing the satellite people have done is self-promotion. We already have one of the best promotional vehicles: radio stations. I hope everybody who embraces HD Radio will also embrace the concept that they must promote it, sell it and get the word out to listeners. That's absolutely critical. Greater Media stations broadcasting in HD Radio right now are doing a pretty good job, and other people need to do so. It's an exciting technology that's neat to talk about. It's current, it's a good buzz and we have to promote it.
In addition to implementing HD Radio, what issues are most pressing for a radio chief engineer today?
We're always trying to optimize the service an individual station provides. This means optimizing not only the signal coverage, but also the quality of the programming. At the same time, we must give our talent and management the tools they need to move forward. To that end, some peripheral enhancements deserve attention because they will enhance the listeners' radio experience. The first of these is the initiation of RDS service, whereby stations can provide call letters and format. What general manager would not want the station's call letters staring back at listeners from a display on every radio? That's a no-brainer. It's relatively easy to expand that to title and artist information, and other informative services. Satellite radio already has that, so we should be shooting for things like that. Even as we implement HD Radio, it's important to remember that analog will be dominant for a number of years yet, and we must provide as complete and attractive a service as we can.
What other listener enhancements are on the horizon?
A Web presence will bring value and interest to the station. It is possible to do streaming for a reasonable price; most issues have been resolved legally or technically, so it's possible to go forward with that. It's also possible to interact with your audience in terms of music downloads. Greater Media is fairly aggressive in that vein, which is good from both the revenue and listener standpoints. It adds to your hipness and appeal to the listener. If you do it right, listeners can get their MP3s from you rather than from another Website. Anything that enhances the experience for the listener is good - and that's true analog or digital.
What is the most pressing technological challenge facing radio in the next few years?
HD Radio will be the “biggie” for the next few years. Remember, there have been only two radio services in this country since the beginning of electronic media: AM and FM. Now we have HD, and the potential to add radio stations through the secondary program channels. That will be another seminal event in the history of our business. Suddenly, one station will be two, or possibly three - and we will need to deal with the logistics and programming needs to run a radio operation. In the past 10 years, we've been faced with changes brought on by consolidation. We'll be changing again as these new program channels become available.
Do you ever long for the days when you were chief engineer for just one station, or just a handle of stations?
You bet. Those were some of the best times I've had. When First Media used to purchase a station, another engineer and I would drop down out of the sky in that market - usually a city we hadn't been in before - and we didn't come home until that station was on the air in a new facility. Those were great times. Some people thought we were nuts to be working 100 hours a week, but that hands-on work, and having a direct influence on a day-to-day basis, is really attractive. I have a lot of nostalgia and longing for those days.
Consolidation was not kind to a number of radio engineers. Has the industry suffered because of downsizing on the technical side?
Many us went through tough times during consolidation. A lot of technical positions were lost justifiably, or because of economic need. For a few years, the industry was badly understaffed in terms of technical people. In many cases, the technical people who were left were grossly overworked, and somewhat under-compensated. Now, as things have settled out from consolidation, many owners are realizing they need more technical horsepower than they originally thought. Some of the people who were turned away are coming back, and the technical operations are getting better than they were a few years ago.
Are enough skilled, technically minded young people coming into radio on the engineering side to keep this industry healthy and viable?
I'm afraid the answer is no. Unfortunately, there are not as many opportunities for younger people to learn the business. Because of consolidation, there aren't many opportunities for a number-two or -three person to work under the tutelage of a more experienced person. Also, younger people are finding information and technology - computers, etc. - more seductive than radio. I'm not sure where the next generation of engineers will come from; that's something we need to think about, because these technical marvels don't run themselves. These people will be needed in the future, and they'll be difficult to find. If an organization can offer an internship or tutelage program to encourage newly schooled people to come on board at a station, it will serve us very well in the future.
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