Saddle Up: Recognized Innovator Tom Silliman Ropes In Radioís Engineering Evolution (04/21/08)
By Editor-In-Chief Joe Howard
Tom Silliman was born into the engineering business. His father, the late Robert Silliman, founded Electronics Research Inc.., the company Tom runs today. They worked side by side at ERI from Tomís earliest days in the business, were partners in a consulting firm, and hold the distinction of being the only father and son team to win the NAB Engineering Achievement Award. The elder Silliman won the award in 1993, while Tom was presented with it earlier this month at the 2008 NAB Show.
While Tom Silliman has clearly made his own mark in the engineering business, both in the trenches as a working engineer and also as ERIís leader from an early age, he speaks proudly of being able to share the honor of this special award with his dad. ďIím the first second-generation person to receive it, and thatís a big deal to me,Ē he says. ďWhen my dad won, it was one of the proudest moments of my life.Ē
RadioInk: What mistakes do GMs make when weighing how much to invest in engineering?
Tom Silliman: For the life of me, I donít know how you can have a $30 million property, and not worry about what makes it tick. Itíd be like having a Ferrari and driving around on bald tires. If you can afford a Ferrari, you can afford a decent set of tires. Instead, when you get a blowout, you get pissed off at your mechanic. Thatís pretty much the way the modern broadcaster works. The managerís wearing a three-piece suit and heís in Radio Ink, and the engineerís in jeans covered in blood and sweat and heís in Radio World.
The Greater Media engineering team has convinced management that good engineering results in increased funds, so they are never afraid to fund engineering. Susquehanna Radio lived on that same philosophy. But some of the newer stations are limiting those funds because they donít want to spend the money. When something happens and the station goes off the air, management is screaming. When you have one of the better stations that has the engineering funds, everything works like a charm.
RI: How are engineers handling radioís migration from RF engineering to IT?
TS: A lot of radio stations are updating their IT departments and letting their engineers go, which makes it hard on both because the IT guys donít have a clue how to tune antennas and debug transmitters. But theyíre training IT people to take over that position.
RI: What is the atmosphere among engineers?
TS: Engineers complain to me that most stations are consolidating and have tasked engineers onto more than one platform and/or more than one facility. Back in the Ď70s an engineer had one station. In the Ď80s he had five stations and two assistant engineers. In 2008 his funds are limited and he has to do everything.
RI: What skills will tomorrowís radio engineer need?
TS: Tomorrowís engineers will have a degree in computer science, and the best will have degrees on some technical level in electronics and computers. The whole transfer facility ó what isnít already a computer ó is going to turn into a computer. It will all be a digital world. The RF guys will be brought in as manufacturing reps or consultants.
RI: What engineering issues are top of mind with radio stations?
TS: The performance of digital radio is probably the biggest thing. The current IBOC system limits the digital sideband power levels to 23dB (the total power for the two digital sidebands is 20dB) below the power level of the analog modulated carrier. It covers pretty well out to the 70dBu city grade contour, but it doesnít really go out to the 60dBu contour, so a lot of broadcasters are upset about that lack of distant coverage needed to match the analog FM coverage they are now used to.
RI: Some in the industry believe that the FCC needs to rewrite its IBOC rules. What are you hearing about this?
TS: Thereís a lot of talk, and the National Radio Systems Committee has been doing work on that. Independent experiments authorized by the FCC have been done by Greater Media, Clear Channel, and others. NPR Labs has done a very comprehensive study. Greater Media and Clear Channel want digital coverage that is compatible with their analog coverage. NPR wants coverage with sub carriers for various services, but the traditional use of the 67 KHz and the 92 KHz subcarriers may not be compatible with the IBOC system with ten dB more digital carrier power.
RI: What are the differences?
TS: If you increase the level of the digital sidebands by 10dB, which is currently being studied, you run into the problem of adding 10dB higher level of interference to your first adjacent channel, which is the first channel on either side. If you look at the FCC rules and spacing requirements ówhich are hard to follow because theyíre not all the same and have changed so many times ó instead of protecting your first adjacent, now you have a pretty high level of interference to the first adjacent channel on both sides of your channel. Since the peak to RMS level on a digital IBOC carrier is in the order of 7dB, the energy will exceed the current FCC carrier envelope mask causing interference in the FM band.
Currently with at least 30dB of port-to-port isolation on a dual input system, IBOC will work without producing signals that exceed the allowable limits set by the FCC. If the IBOC carrier power is increased by 10dB, you will need 40db port-to-port isolation on a dual input system to avoid exceeding the FCC allowable limits. Further, because of the 7dB peak to average of the digital carriers, the FCC mask will have to be modified. In dual input systems, you will also have two inter-modulation products occurring in the analog transmitter. These products wonít have a bad affect on your digital, but they will throw an additional layer of noise that can cover up your subsidiary channels.
RI: How do you feel about the current IBOC system?
TS: Iíve done a ton of these things and Iíve gotten really good results. It works great as long as youíre in the city grade. IBOC stands for in-band on channel. Well, itís not in band. Most of the digital stuff is out of band ó itís adjacent channel. The term IBOC is kind of a cute term, but itís really not accurate.
RI: How do you feel about HD Radioís progress on the consumer side?
TS: Itís following the logical progression of new technology, which always leads from the broadcasters and catches up from the consumersí end. Itís just like TV; there are digital television stations on the air everywhere, but how many people have digital television sets? More people do now, but originally those stations went on the air and nobody was watching, except on cable. Even then, they were looking at it on low res.
I started working with ERI formally in 1970, when stereo was the big deal. In the late 1960s cars didnít have stereo receivers, so when we went out on field work we needed to have a stereo receiver. We bought Motorola stereo receivers and installed them in all of our field vehicles so we could take customers out and drive around listening to stereo. That was a big deal. I mention that because now weíve installed digital aftermarket receivers in our field vehicles. When the auto industry starts installing digital FM receivers, then youíll have more people listening to it. Until then, it wonít happen.
RI: How is the engineering community keeping up with the myriad digital platforms emerging for radio?
TS: Theyíre doing great. The new edition of the NAB Engineering Handbook has a lot of stuff that most people donít take the time to read because itís engineering. But we in the engineering community are working hard through the IEEE Broadcast Symposium and the Association of Federal Communications Consulting Engineers, as well as through the NAB and its programs. Weíre all working hard, sharing information, learning, and competing.
On the transmitter side, the second- and third-generation transmitters and exciters are getting better all the time. I think youíll see the digital radio technology being driven by the transmitter manufacturers that make exciters and transmitters that can broadcast both analog and digital, rather than antenna manufacturers worrying about how to combine them. And itís a great idea; itís good for the broadcaster and good for the listener. It has been an inspiration to us engineers.
RI: How do you feel about winning the NAB Engineering Award?
TS: A friend of mine wrote me an e-mail saying, ďYouíre a little young for that, arenít you?Ē Iím 63, so I donít know about that! My dad got this award in 1993, which makes me the first second-generation person to receive it. Thatís a big deal to me. He got it when he was 78, so relative to my father Iím young.
A very good friend offered to nominate me a few years ago. I said then that I didnít want my name put up because there are so many wonderful full-time engineers who should get it. Iím a pretty well-known engineer, so itís not totally unheard of that someone like me would get it, but it needs to go to the guys in the trenches, even if I am a working engineer. There are other people who probably deserve it more.
This year, some people got together and nominated me without telling me. I was actually nominated by a customer. You can imagine finding out youíre receiving the most prestigious award an engineer can get in our industry ó without even knowing you were even nominated! This is the equivalent of getting an Oscar for an actor, except they never announce who the nominees were. You never know who you beat out.
RI: You mentioned that you and your father are the first father and son to receive this award.
TS: When my dad won it was one of the proudest moments of my life. He was a great engineer, the consultantís consultant. When he won, he told me that he had to give an eight-minute speech, and asked what he should talk about. I told him to talk about the way it was when he fell in love with radio ó about what it was like he was in high school and college and there was no radio. Here he was, a young engineer who fell in love with this new technology. He worked in the radio research labs during WWII, and had 32 patents for antennas for aircraft during the war.
When he was speaking, he asked me to stand up. I probably knew everybody in the room, and I actually got a standing ovation. It was so nice to be able to stand up with him, it was a true joy. I just loved my dad.
RI: What was it like working with him every day at ERI?
TS: One summer during college my dad wanted me to work for him. I told him not to pay me since he was sending me to college, but he did pay me ó a lot, actually, $3.80 an hour. That summer we started out as father and son and finished the summer as friends. Weíd come home and drink bourbon and water and play chess.
My dadís consulting partner, Jack Moffett, was a tyrant, but he was also a mentor to me for many years. He was very hard on me, and brutally honest. When I graduated from Cornell and was working at ERI, he pulled me aside and said, ďI donít think youíve really got what it takes to be a consulting engineer, you ought to shoot for the manufacturing sector.Ē I asked my dad if I could come work for ERI; he wasnít excited about it, but he said OK.
Three years later I was doing an FM project for Jack, and every time heíd ask me a question weíd argue, then call my dad. Iíd win the argument every time. It was a brutal job. We had a celebration dinner after the job was over, and Jack was drinking scotch like he always did. He said, ďI was wrong about you. I didnít realize how strong an engineer you really are and have the potential to be. Iíve changed my mind ó Iím going to offer you a partnership in my consulting firm.Ē
The next day I was talking to the client on that job, Leon Dry from West Virginia Public Radio, who commented that this was a monumental moment. ďYouíre leaving ERI and going to Washington to be a partner in a consulting firm,Ē he said. I said I had no intention of leaving ERI. ďDidnít Jack offer you a partnership?Ē he asked. I said, ďDo you think Iím going to work for him?Ē I stayed at ERI, and Iím glad I did.
RI: Youíve been instrumental in developing some important products to ERI.
TS: I invented the ROTOTILLER antenna. My dad wanted a new antenna, and he wanted me to design it. By January of 1976 I had the prototype done, and at the April NAB Chicago we showed it. We threw out everything; it was a new antenna shape, a new antenna feed, a new antenna bracket. We hired an engineering firm to do the bracket. The mechanical engineer there laid the antenna down and said, ďThis thing looks like a rototiller.Ē That was the end of it. It named itself. I patented it, but I had a lot of wonderful help. I received the patent in 1977, and we still sell it today.
RI: You were instrumental in redirecting ERI not long after joining the company. A lot was placed on your shoulders as a young executive.
TS: Dad took me to a meeting with our company manager at the time, Chester Newcomb, and our bookkeeper, Irma. Chester was a good old boy but not the man for the job. Dad invited Irma to speak, and she said that unless the company made a change, it would be bankrupt within six months. She told dad that if he wanted to save the company, he had to turn the management over to me. I thought she hated me!
Dad asked if I would do this, and of course I said yes. Irma taught me accounting ó how to read a balance sheet, a profit/loss statement, a cash flow statement. She taught me what inventory really was. In everything Iíve done in my life, Iíve had wonderful people to work with. Everybody felt the pressure and excelled. We just screamed out of that problem, and itís been working ever since.
RI: What is the future of radio engineering?
TS: We need to support scholarships for young engineers and recruit and mentor young engineers to come into our industry Ė help them as college students, give them scholarships, give them work, and get them to fall in love with broadcast. If we do that we will ensure that broadcast will stay strong. Broadcast as I knew it as a young engineer is gone; now itís broadcast of information as much as programs, and we as an industry need to realize that, accept it, and nurture it. People are so bombarded with distractions today that we have to work hard to be part of that distraction. I am working on a joint scholarship between IEEE and AFCCE, and Iíve gotten permission from both organizations. I feel very strongly that weíve taken, and now we need to give. We need to mentor, to encourage, to keep that technology base alive.
The neat thing about radio is that you can multitask; you can listen to the radio and surf the Internet, or listen to the radio and work in your workshop. That is what will keep radio alive. As people listen to radio, I donít want them to listen to digital satellites ó I want them to listen to terrestrial radio.
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