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Sunday, March 27, 2011

Madness in the World of Radio

Years ago, I once said I'd write a book called, Why Radio Sucks."  Mostly it would not be so much the medium, or some of the people in it.  It would have a lot to do with those who have destroyed it.

One such place is a company called Clear Channel, aka, Cheap Channel.  The very big broadcasting company that got bigger and bigger and bigger to the point it teeters on bankruptcy, and cannot keep its stations up.

The monopoly that this company has on broadcasting, TV, radio and the concert business is pretty sad, and badly operated.  

This has to do with last night's insanity in Harrisburg.  I am an occasional working at the Clear Channel "cluster" in Harrisburg, which includes six stations.  The one I generally work for is "The Ticket," the sports station.

Most of the stations are by and large automated, under a system which (in theory) allows the operator to access it and take local control.  This is not unusual at all; most radio stations today are pretty much operated by computers.  This takes away the human element, meaning less opportunity for error (in theory), and not having to pay humans to be on the air or running the board, or whatever 24/7.

One must remember an old axiom about computers:  they are only as intelligent as those entering the information into it.

Well, I actually feel bad for my bosses, and the people who have to work their every day.  I don't think anyone understands what kind of stress varied pieces of equipment, which includes computers and hard drives, right up to the control boards and every piece in between go through.  They get put through an awful lot, only you can't always see the problem.  If your car breaks down, or blows smoke, starts to make noise, etc., you know about this, and you take it somewhere to fix it, right?

Well, in theory, you would.

In radio, that's what engineers are for.  You must remember that in the radio business, anyone who calls themselves an engineer is INSANE.

Especially if they don't admit to it.

Well, CC lost their engineer some time ago, a guy I met once called "Squirrel."  Nice guy, seemed a bit more together than most.  Anyway, I don't know why he left, but I gather it had something to do with the way things run over there.

It is not unusual for stations that have old, outdated, obsolete or substandard gear to have problems, especially if you are putting 21st Century stresses upon them.  Some equipment you can get by with; others must be replaced, because when they're falling apart and duct tape is the #1 repair tool (I have actually seen this in a number of stations), you are going to have problems.

Case in point, last night:  now, I am a part-time jobber in the radio world once again.  26 years in this biz does not entitle me to anything.  Howard Stern has been paid millions upon millions from varied companies, and is now suing Sirius/XM -- talk about biting the hand that feeds you.

So anyway:  I did a 7-hour shift at my primary weekend job, WITF, a public radio/TV outfit.  Fairly easy day, as I do sports updates and reports for KYW in Philly, as part of a working agreement.  Not a bad day, but I knew that my second job was going to be trouble.

The Ticket, or WTKT is the flagship station of the Hershey Bears, the American Hockey League franchise that is one of the oldest in the US, and the defending two-time Calder Cup champs.  Very good team; they have a rabid fan base, and the Ticket flashes this game to affiliates.  

You'd think this would be easy:  the game is broadcast from wherever, we send it out, we drop in the commercials, the computer trips things for us at the touch of a button or the F9 key, yeah, easy, right?


Two days before the game, my boss lets me know that we are not running the game from the Ticket studio; we're running it from a production studio.

Why?  Because very soon the station will also be broadcasting Harrisburg Senators baseball games; and the boss correctly decided to ensure this studio will be able to handle a feed, then send it through to the Ticket studio, etc.  

Now, the prod. studio is a good one, with fairly decent gear...on first glance.

The computerized screens are large, good graphics, easy to read, and the third screen which we use to record goals and saves for the Bears game is easy as well.  No problems.

Well, the flips and twists of putting this game on the air is not what it seems.  We need to go to the 6th Level of Hell, or in this case, the Engineering Room.

This is a small room with several racks of gear that handle six radio stations.  There are computers, relays, stacks of rack gear, ISDN gear, phone line gear, all manner of things, most of which I can't tell you what they're for.

You have to dial in one station for the game, you have to dial in the broadcast of the game, you have to change relays, push buttons, get codes right...THREE MILE ISLAND doesn't have this kind of processing. the computer system that handles all of the station programming (same software, six systems) has a series of commands called Macros.  You can trigger these, program these, take these in and out of effect; if you know how to use it.  I don't.

Bless my boss, the poor guy was there, on a Saturday night, helping me and making sure this thing was gonna work.  I think what has happened in retrospect is:  in an effort to make the job easier, we have made it a thousand times more difficult.  

So anyway, things don't get off to a good start at pre-6:30 pm, when we're supposed to hit the air.  Once we're established, John Walton, the voice of the Bears, and I are supposed to be able to talk back and forth without it going over the air.  Well, we did, then we didn't...then we did.

Okay, we get on the air, things are going okay.  You have to listen to three or four things at once at times in this job, so it is stressful.  You have to stay on top of it. Now in this studio, the breaks must be triggered manually, through the button-bar screen; okay, easy enough, but if your mouse doesn't cooperate, and you're not mindful, watch out.

To compound the madness:  early in the third period of a tie game, it is stopped due to a problem with the ice.  Not once, but two times.  So, John, his partner Ed and whomever they can grab from the tunnel and from the press box are discussing the matter, trying to figure out if there's gonna be a game, etc.  They're doing their job, I'm trying to do mine.

Station problem:  the game usually ends around ten.  If it is a home game, which it was, John does a call-in show.  I take the calls, screen them, put 'em on hold, and send IM's to John to let him know who is on the line.  

Problem, Part II:  this game is not gonna end at ten.  We don't know when it's gonna end.  At 11 pm, the station as a Macro (remember those?) which will fire and return the station to Fox Sports Radio.

Art has to kill that; the hope was John would just bag the call-in show, but no he wants to do it.  Okay, extra hour of work for me, and an extra hour for the boss.

Game resumes, Bears break it open, and kick the Albany Devils' ass, 7-4.  Hooray, the Bears are in the playoffs!  

We finally get done a little before 11 pm, and we kick into the call-in show.  For once, the cheap call-in box actually works pretty well (had this problem in the past), and I can get callers on the air.

I have not mentioned the control board:  the sliding pots trigger themselves to go ON when they're raised automatically.  WTF?

Buttons are sticking!  This is a common problem on every board...too many people punching the buttons again and again and again over time, and the metal below the button is depressed and damaged, and there go your contacts., the button bar screen has one last trick left in store for us.  The boss has left, seeing that things are going okay, and I know what I need to do to restore the streams, the programming, etc.

Five minutes later...ALL HELL BREAKS LOOSE.

The screen that has the buttons to trigger commercials STOPS WORKING.  Let me explain:

--The screen is lit.  It's there.
--The commercial keys are there.
--Fire them; the clock runs on each spot to show you how much time there is.
--The board is up and set right, has been all night.

Result:  NOTHING.  It's running, but there's dead fucking silence.  

Oh, shit...

I try to compensate by finding which spots we need and firing them from other sources on the screen.

No go.

Down the talk-back, I tell John to take it back live, and let's cut this off.  He agrees, and does so.  "So long, everybody."


My blood pressure is now 100 points higher than normal.  What do I do?

I have no recourse as one would have had in the good ol' days.  I have no music loaded in the CD player, because you just don't need it, in theory.

I have nothing I can play independently to cover my ass.  We have no cart machines anymore; most younger people don't even know what one is.

I finally take the only course of action I can:  I fire the Macro to bring the station back to the satellite and FSR.

Thankfully, it fires, and we're back on air.

What a horrible way to end the night.  This is not what you are supposed to hear.

So I go through what I need to, to restore the Ticket, make sure the WHP Stream is restored to the Hate Talk format, make sure that The River HD-2 is back on that format, unplug the QIC coupler feed, hang up the ISDN lines, reset the relays, fix this, fix that, get into ANOTHER computer system to file my hours.

During this, my poor boss who just got home I think calls.  He is not upset with me; he knows what I went through, but he needs to know:  "WTF happened after I left?"

I told him.  The general feeling is that the equipment could not handle the stress (I mentioned this earlier) that was put upon it.  

The boss had to field an angry late-night phone call from Walton about the chamberpot mess of the game (this is now a regular occurrence, I guess), and apparently the boss got a shit-ton of angry calls about how fucked up that was.

The reason I tell you this, is that once these games were very easy to put over the air.  In an effort to make things streamlined, we've put more rocks in the road.  

There has got to be a better fucking way to do this.  People when they turn on the TV or radio expect a certain flow and continuity; they don't expect to hear something that sounds like a bunch of clowns are running the show.  Well, most morning shows are run by clowns, but largely unprofessional ones, but that's another story.

My first job in the professional radio biz was as a board op.  But it was much easier to do than this.  We've made our lives more difficult by embracing technology and letting it fuck us, rather than using it right.

On top of all this, I ended up with the program log in my bag when I left!  I've done that twice; yes, the bible of radio stations, the program log.  Paper ones do exist, though why I don't know, we've already computerized that too.

Welcome to radio,'s more fun than you can ever imagine!  

Argh.  Now I must get up to WITF, and do my Sunday shift...oh what joys await me!  At least there, the equipment works most of the time, and I am not employed by the station I'm sending content to.  Whatever problems they have down there, I don't want to know...

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