Saturday, January 21, 2012

Broadcast Equipment over the years

This week I had the opportunity to attend the South Carolina Broadcaster’s Association Winter Conference. Part of that conference was a vendor’s area where the latest and greatest technology was available and I was able to get up close and personal with it.

All I can say is that things have changed over the years. Gone are the turntables that faithfully rotated at 45 RPM spinning the records that we played day in and day out. Gone are the cart machines that played the commercials, promotional and public service announcements. Gone are the big grey, behemoth audio consoles with rotary potentiometers and meters that flicked back and forth as the sound pumped out over the airwaves. Gone are the remote control systems that we used to turn the transmitters on and off and maintain the plate voltage, plate current, and common point currents within the tight specifications required by the FCC. They are all replaced by the computers, automatic transmitters and smaller, sleeker audio boards of today.

While I miss the look and feel of the old radio stations, I do acknowledge that the newer equipment has much to say for itself. Ease of operation and reliability are just the tip of the iceberg. It is much easier to do a “combo” show in the new world where the disk jockey is the board operator when you do not have to queue up and “slip start” every record, where every recorded announcement is sitting in the queue for you magically and automatically. And the coolest part is the announcer does not have to keep a program log.

From the broadcast engineer’s point of view, the job is more of an Information Technology Manager’s than one that requires the skills to trouble shoot a circuit, remove the failed component and solder in a new one. Today, the equipment contains so much redundancy and self diagnostic capability that the equipment itself can turn a light on the module that has failed so all the station engineer has to do is to remove the offending module and send it off for repair. Component troubleshooting is impossible because tubes, transistors and other components are now replaced by integrated circuits, micro processors and multi layered circuit boards that cannot be repaired with soldering guns and squinty eyes. Fortunately, the need for the station engineer is not completely gone. There is the still the need for someone to manage all the technology but the reliability now means that one engineer can manage more equipment than ever before.

The other thing that has dramatically changed is in the area of the broadcast transmitter is the ability of the transmitters to operate themselves within the parameters that comprise the terms of the radio station’s broadcast license. Back in the day, the transmitter operator, usually the DJ on duty had to take a set of readings from the remote control and make adjustments because the components changed so much with temperature, voltage coming from the power companies, humidity and many other factors. These days, the microprocessors in the transmitters continuously monitor these conditions and make their own adjustment. These automatic transmitters no longer require monitoring; they do it themselves and notify the engineer via a text message or e-mail if something is going wrong. They even have their own secure web page where the engineer can check up on it from anywhere in the world.

One thing that has not changed much, I’m glad to say was the representation from the Federal Communications Commission field office in Atlanta. There were three of them at the conference and although I did not know any of them, they did tell me that and old colleague, Frank, who used to come inspect my station from time to time was still working at the commission.

When I started sharing a story with the FCC staffers at the convention about an adventure that Frank and I had back in the 70s involving a drive in theater, I was astounded to discover that srory was part of the lore of the Atlanta field office. It seems that Frank has been regaling his younger co-workers with the same story. They told me that they did not believe Frank’s story until they met me. I assured them the story was true. So we came around to the one thing that has not changed over the years, the people of broadcasting who over the years has provided our community with service and have learned to respect and work with each other in an industry where we feel should be more about service than about the bottom line. Oh MY!

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