The Skyís The Limit: Tom Ray Looks Eagerly Towards Radioís Digital Future (04/23/07)
By Editor-In-Chief Joe Howard
Heíll celebrate 30 years in the radio business this summer, a span during which Tom Ray has learned a thing or two about radio engineering. Ray puts those years of knowledge to good use every day as VP/corporate director of engineering for Buckley Broadcasting, where heís spearheading the effort to convert the companyís station portfolio to digital.
In fact, Ray believes that the migration to digital will provide a vital shot in the arm for the radio business, especially AM stations like Buckleyís WOR-AM-New York, which went digital in 2002. While AM has lagged FM in the move to digital due to the FCCís previous limits on AM digital nighttime operations, the March 22 release of the commissionís final HD Radio rules lifted that ban, a change that Ray believes could elevate AM radioís digital profile. ďI think this is one of many things that will bring more AM stations to the digital domain,Ē he says.
Ray is also a big believer in what digital can bring to FM, from multicast channels to improved sound quality, and is eager to charge into this new chapter in radioís history. ďNow that there are regulations pertaining to HD operation, I think more stations will be inspired to light up digital carriers. The regulatory uncertainty issue is gone.Ē
RADIOINK: WOR was an early adopter of HD Radio. What have you learned, and why did you jump in so early?
TOM RAY: iBiquity approached us. They were looking to perform some tests with a high-powered station in a dense urban environment, and we agreed to be an experimental station. Also, we have a funky antenna system ó weíve got a lot of filtering and trapping in our system because we have other stations nearby ó and iBiquity was curious about what would happen if we put it through a non-perfect system. It performed like a top. You can pick us up on HD almost in Philly, 90 miles from the transmitter. I live in Orange County, NY, about 50 miles out .Weíve only got about 5,000 watts in that area, and I can hear us on HD up there. Which is damn good, considering you can barely hear the analog up there. It also allowed iBiquity to do nighttime testing with a couple of gigantic signals, and to see how the AM would react in the concrete canyons down here. It actually works very well.
RI: Why is HD working so well for WOR. Whatís the trick?
TR: I have no clue. Maybe itís because we pay real attention to it. I just donít know why; weíve got it tuned up very nicely; like I said, even with the new antenna system, itís a little bit funky and this thing works like a top.
RI: Some listeners complain that their HD receivers are finicky, and only work in certain areas or rooms. Are you hearing this?
TR: That is another issue; some of the radios leave a little bit to be desired. You have to have the external antenna, and most radios donít. That is something that has to be changed on the manufacturerís side, or you have to educate the public that they need an antenna, and explain how to use it.
RI: Is WOR experimenting with sending data to HD receiver displays?
TR: We are. Weíll tell you what show is on ó right now itís telling me that Dr. Joy Brown is on the air ó and the producers sometimes put up, ďJoe Blowís being interviewed, you can get his book at Borders.Ē But we donít send that data with the commercials. If we play a spot for Flemington Fur, we display the name Flemington Fur on the radio.
RI: What about the notion of traffic and weather data, or a news scroll? How hard are these concepts to implement?
TR: It depends on the system, but weíre considering putting up some traffic information and possibly some news headlines in the morning drive. With the current system weíre using ó which was designed by one of our student Society of Broadcast Engineers members ó I can send a message any time I want. I can create a listing based on time, and it will change the messages automatically. Depending on the show, I let the producers get into the system; if a particular author is being interviewed, they can display information about the author on the screen.
RI: Do any systems allow for a moving scroll, like those on TV news programs?
TR: Iím not aware of anyone making something that does that, but Iím sure itís easy to develop. All of that stuff is built into the iBiquity spec. Iím sure somebody is going to be developing a commercial application ó especially for FM, where you have more bandwidth ó in which youíll be able to display a map showing where the congested areas are.
RI: How far are we from a receiver that can pull up a map?
TR: Maybe another year. Iíve already seen some experimental versions; iBiquity has shown one that uses a baseball game as an example. Itís a system with a small VGA screen designed for something like a taxicab. The screen displays in the passenger area while the cab driver is listening to a baseball game. When John Doe comes up to the plate, his picture appears on the screen, along with a baseball diamond showing the jersey numbers of the players on base, plus the score and game stats. When the ball is hit, the display shows players advancing. That is a very cool example of things that can be done, but no one is doing it yet.
RI: What technical issues are slowing stations from adopting HD Radio?
TR: One main issue would be the availability ó or lack thereof ó of radios. Wal-Mart is offering an in-dash radio, and Circuit City and Best Buy will hopefully have them on the shelves by summer. Theyíre still on the pricey side, but once they get down below 100 bucks, people will start buying them. The Radio Shack Accurian was available for $99 during Christmas.
RI: Until more receivers are in consumers' hands, specifically in their cars, some worry that HD Radio won't evolve to that point. Are there any technical limitations that may be slowing automakers from adopting HD?
TR: I donít think itís necessarily technical limitations; itís more of a mindset. If a radio company designs radios for Ford or Chevy, itís nothing for that company to build the HD radio and make sure it fits in the same place in the dashboard. They have the template. Whether the auto manufacturer wants to do that is another story. Itís a mindset: ďWeíve done this for years, we donít want to change.Ē
RI: A General Motors exec recently told Radio Ink that her company would be a ďfast followerĒ into HD Radio. GM wants consumer demand to drive it, so it seems like radio and automakers have reached a stalemate.
TR: Itís becoming a chicken-and-egg thing. How do you create consumer demand if they canít hear it? Itís very frustrating on our end.
RI: How much consumer demand is there for tabletop HD radios?
TR: Itís not something that people buy a lot of. To increase demand, we as an industry have to do a better job of telling people theyíre out there. Of course, if the radios arenít on the shelves, it doesnít do any good to tell them. Once radios are readily available, we need to tell them about the advantages. FM multicasting offers a perfect opportunity to grab people who are on the fence or who may not be interested and tell them they can hear jazz or whatever on our second channels. That would light some people up, and get them to go out and buy them.
RI: What needs to be done to drive consumer demand?
TR: There needs to be some type of push, most likely in cooperation with the retail outlets, to make people aware of what HD Radio is and what it can do for them.
The example I use is HDTV; weíre supposed to be shutting off analog TV in February of 2009, but I donít think people realize whatís coming. Thereís still not a lot of information out about it. Itís the same with radio.
RI: Are any of your FM stations running HD2 channels?
TR: Our FM in Hartford is running í60s Oldies on the side channel. We have Oldies on the main channel, mostly í70s and í80s, but the side channel is strictly í60s with some í50s thrown in. It sounds good. Weíve got one of those big signals; it seems to go forever. Here in New York, all the HD2 channels sound good. WPLJ actually is running two, HD2 and HD3, and they sound good. Theyíre not perfect, but they sound good.
RI: What is your reaction to the HD Radio rules that the FCC released last month?
TR: I think it was a very good move by the FCC. They have said what many of us have known for a while ó itís time that radio move into the digital world.
RI: The rules make it much easier for stations to launch a new HD facility. Will this inspire more stations to go digital?
TR: I think the unknown may have been holding back some station owners. Without a set of regulations, there was no certainty that this was the right move. Why put big bucks into something that the FCC may say, ďWell, no, weíre not going to do thatĒ? Now that there are regulations pertaining to HD operation, I think that more stations will be inspired to light up digital carriers. The regulatory uncertainty issue is gone.
RI: The commission finally authorized AM nighttime digital operations. Is this the catalyst that will bring more AMs to digital?
TR: I think this is one of many things that will bring more AM stations to the digital domain. The FCC, in its ruling, has stated that AM radio is not a second-class citizen. We have listeners at WOR who get upset when the HD goes off at night. Itís nice that we will soon be able to offer our listener base the same services 24/7 that we have only been able to offer during the day.
RI: What actions didnít the FCC take that you believe they should have?
TR: The FCC didnít fully complete the process on the service requirements of multicast channels. They left it somewhat open-ended. It would have been nice if they had either completed the task, or at least given an indication as to what they are considering for the final rules.
RI: Were you surprised by any of the FCCís actions?
TR: Not really. Iíve been hearing ďinsideĒ rumblings for a while now, and what I was told was what transpired. As it should have. As I stated ó the time is now for AM & FM stations to join the digital generation.
RI: Thereís talk that the current power limits for HD side channels are too low. Is there any truth to these rumors?
TR: There is some thought that the power level needs to be brought up on the FM. FCC regulations have a spectral mask for AM and FM ó basically how much space you can occupy with your signal. The HD signal has been designed to fit under this mask so it wonít send up red flags with the FCC or neighboring stations. On FM, the FCC says you can only have a certain amount of energy out, which limits the HD signal to about 1 percent of your analog power. If you were to bring that up, youíd have a little bit better coverage, but in doing so, you will exceed the FCC limits. The HD signal will exceed the spectral mask, which is why theyíre limiting it to 1 percent on FM right now. With a lot of stations, the HD mode drops in areas where listeners can still get a stereo signal. That needs to be addressed. We really need to do something ó whether itís modifying the spectral mask and bringing the power levels up on the FM, Iím not quite sure, but it looks like it has to come up a tad. To do that, you have to go to the FCC. An NAB or industry committee has to show what issues would occur from increasing this power level, and then present it to the commission with a modified mask and see what the FCC has to say.
RI: To your knowledge, has anyone petitioned the FCC on this?
TR: I donít think itís been formally asked, but Iíve heard it is in the works. We also need to determine if the spectral mask is still appropriate for 2007. When these regulations were adopted, radios were considerably different in design than modern radios, and could be subject to interference out at the far reaches of the signal. Modern radios tend not to have that problem. But there needs to be a consensus: Do we play to somebody who still has a 1960s radio in their house, or bring the rules up to date?
RI: Why werenít these issues addressed before HD Radio was launched?
TR: Itís a function of making the HD signal compatible with existing FM. The existing rule says that at a certain area away from the carrier, you can only have X amount of signal or X amount of components. In order to fit under this mask and make it legal, this is how we have to run it.
RI: What can be done to address this?
TR: If you convert completely digital and get rid of the analog component, these issues go away; especially if the commission decided to follow the HDTV example and set a date that all stations have to be digital. The power levels come up because everything then will fit under the mask. The issue is maintaining the compatibility with the analog signal. If the analog signal goes away, a lot of things get cleaned up in a hurry.
RI: What are the chances that the FCC will raise the mask but also keep analog going for a while? Especially if newer radios donít exhibit serious interference problems.
TR: Itís possible, but again, there will have to be an industry consensus. A study will have to be done with all the radios that are out there right now, because most of the radios donít have a problem. Then a recommendation must be made to the commission to say letís raise those power levels on the FM. AM tends not to have a problem; AM coverage is actually pretty good with HD.
RI: How challenging is it for engineers eager to go digital to convince management that now is the time?
TR: The impetus at most stations will have to come from programming and management. It really needs to be part of the business plan, and that is always set by management and programming. Once the manager decides to go HD, the engineer has to evaluate the facility and the transmitter site. Every station is different, so every HD installation will be different; there is no cookie cutter.
RI: What can a station expect to spend to convert to digital?
TR: If you have an AM where the antenna system is in good shape, the bandwidth is decent, and the transmitter is fairly recent and in good shape, you can plug in an HD exciter, buy an audio processor, and probably get away for well under $50,000. However, if youíve got the antenna system from hell with a lot of directionals ó which is the case with a lot of stations ó itís not going to like HD. If youíve got a 35-year-old transmitter, youíve got to replace it. The transmitter site itself could be $100,000 or more.
With FM, a lot depends on the power level that youíre running up the pipe. A station with a lower-powered transmitter can get away with either using whatís called common amplification, which is one transmitter; or split-level combining, which is two transmitters, where one of the transmitters is actually running combined analog/digital signal and the other transmitter is strictly analog. At the higher power levels, you can get away with the split-level, or you may have to go with two separate transmitters and do a high-level combiner. The pricing on that can be all over the place; I canít even give you an idea what the pricing is because each one is so different from the other.
Then you have to take a look at the STL; what are you using to get the signal to the transmitter? Obviously, a station that has the studio and the transmitter at the same location is in good shape. If youíve got a very clean analog STL, you can probably get away with it by using digital conversion on either end. You may have to change out the STLs and, depending on the configuration, that could be $10-20 thousand.
At the studio, if youíve got analog equipment thatís clean ó no noises, buzzes, whistles ó go ahead and use it. When we turned the HD on at WOR, we stayed with the analog equipment in the studio. Then we moved the station, so we built an all-digital plant. If youíre using a 40-year-old tube console, youíre going to have to replace the console. Even if youíre an AM station, youíll want to have at least some stereo ability there.
RI: Are there enough HD conversion specialists out there?
TR: That is another issue. Manufacturers have installation and checkout specialists, but they require you to do the legwork. Installing an HD transmitter isnít much different than putting the analog transmitter in until you turn on the digital signal. At that point, they come out, do the adjustments, then teach you how to do it. Thatís one of the issues with a lot of engineers ó thereís a misunderstanding on how some of this stuff actually works. I belong to the Society of Broadcast Engineers, and we are working toward some digital and HD education. With that being said, Harris offers a course in HD, and I believe that BE does as well, so you can learn all about the installation, how it works, what the adjustments do, how to keep it within the spectral mask, and what to do if there is a problem. So, there are methods. They are not really easy to come by these days, but theyíre getting easier. The fact that at least two major manufacturers have a weeklong course is a big step.
RI: Is this lack of familiarity with the technology holding back HD adoption?
TR: I donít think so. Itís more about the radio station, on a business level, making the case. When theyíre budgeting, management needs to say letís put that $100,000 into HD right now. For a smaller station, it will be a pretty significant chunk of change. And thatís the problem; itís not necessarily the engineering standpoint, because regardless of the market, this engineer knows that engineer, and somebody knows somebody who has done HD before. Thereís a way to get information. I get calls all the time, and Iíll impart what Iíve learned.
RI: Is it getting harder to recruit entry level engineers? Are highly experienced engineers harder to come by?
TR: Yes to both questions. From the recruiting standpoint ó and I donít know why ó radio and RF (radio frequency) in general just doesnít seem cool anymore. That being said, during the past five to ten years, the engineering job has become more IT oriented. In its most basic form, that transmitter is a computer. Maybe we need to start recruiting some IT people and teaching them RF, because the newer transmitters are basically very big computers that spit out an RF signal. If I were to approach it as I would an older transmitter that is all RF and all audio, Iíd be lost. So maybe we start looking at more of these IT people, because even in the studio, our console and routing system is strictly IP. Thereís not a piece of audio in it, itís all data.
From the aspect of the seasoned professionals, itís very difficult, because theyíre in short supply. I was looking for an assistant last March. I couldnít find anybody. Granted, Iím looking for a slightly higher standard than some people would be, but the majority of the people I talked to didnít have the experience. And some of them just had attitudes. Maybe Iím going back to olden times, but this is a 24/7 business. It stinks if the phone rings at 2 in the morning, but thatís part of the job. Some of these people didnít want to hear it. Some didnít want to be bothered after 5 p.m., and I said, ďGuess what? We donít shut the transmitter off because we go home at 5.Ē
On the other hand, there are ways that my job has become easier. For example, I can now control the transmitter site from my Blackberry. I use a program called VNC ó similar to PC Anywhere ó so I can access the computer from outside the building. I can get into all the computers at the transmitter site from my Blackberry.
RI: Is RF an attractive option to an IT person?
TR: It might be, or it might not be; part of the problem is you have to do things after hours, and some people balk at that. We put a new transmitter site on the air this summer, and I didnít see daylight for almost two months. We were in every night making adjustments, and that is part of the job. To me, itís exciting, itís fun, itís a challenge. It was a lot of work, but the result was wonderful. But Iím still feeling affects of two months of no sleep!
RI: How has consolidation and clustering affected the job of the engineer?
TR: There tends to be more work, and it is more spread out. A friend of mine who works in another city has five stations to take care of, and the transmitters are from one end of the commune to the other. Heís by himself, all over the place, so there is a lot more work for the same amount of pay. And a certain amount of stress comes with that. If youíre one guy with five stations and two of them go off the air, how do you prioritize that? The newer equipment is a lot more reliable, but you have to do check-ups once in awhile. That takes time. Youíre also doing a lot more non-traditional engineering work ó taking care of the computers ó so itís a different way of thinking and a slightly different skill set.
RI: Have the experienced people dropped out as the job has changed?
TR: Thatís part of the equation. If you told me 15 years ago Iíd have eight computer monitors in my morning show studio, Iíd have said you were nuts. If that were still my thinking, I wouldnít be talking to you right now. That is part of the equation; the engineer has to learn new skills to stay in the business. Others who suddenly had six stations to look after and no help said to hell with this and left, because there are a lot of technical jobs ó cellular, computers, paging ó that involve RF and transmitters. They can work a 9-to-5 job, not carry a pager or worry about weekends, and make the same money, if not more.
RI: So what is the pitch to bring someone into the radio business?
TR: The pitch is that this job is not predictable or boring. Every day when I walk into this door, Iíve got something different to look into. Some days Iím at the transmitter, others Iím elbow deep into a console, or sitting down with the news department, or working on our website. Itís always a challenge, and a fun environment to work in. I have yet to work in a radio station that hasnít been fun. And at the end of the day, you can turn on the radio and say, because of me thatís on the air. You canít do that if youíre working at IBM.
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