Sunday, October 19, 2014

Radio Construction and History

Over the past couple of weeks I have, in a very small way, been involved in the construction of some radio station facilities here in my home town. I am advising a friend rebuild his “Mom and Pop” AM station on a modest budget. I am also helping a friend who is an engineer to move his “corporate cluster” of studios and offices for four FM stations and one AM station. Both projects are underway and very different.

The solo AM station just went back on the air after “going dark” some months ago when they lost their lease of the property where the station’s studios and transmitter were located. The building that houses the studio and transmitter is a large trailer that was gutted to a single large room. The transmitter was put in first then a dividing wall was installed to contain the studio and automation system. He is set up to be able to broadcast from the studio or from his home if he needs to. The good news for him is that the station is much nearer to the geographic center of the population of the metropolitan area and is located near a wetland instead of the sandy patch the station was perched upon. For an AM station this is a good thing as the wetlands helps propagate his signal. He is going to have a nice simple facility that functions well and is easy to maintain.

The cluster of stations is entirely a different matter. These stations have been located on the edge of town in a building that has been sold more than once and one that the current owner is not too interested in maintaining. So happily the station is moving to one of the premiere business locations in town; a high rise building right on the main drag. Last weekend, we moved the offices to the new location on the 7th and 8th floor of the new building and the office crew has settled into the new digs. The studios will be located off the main lobby on the ground floor and are located behind big glass windows so that the public will be able to see radio being done from the sidewalk! Just like NBC’s “The Today Show.”

Back in the day each studio consisted of an audio board, complete with a plethora of turntables, cart machines, telephones and microphones, connected to a analog processing chain of limiters, compressors and equalizers then to the transmitter via a studio to transmitter link that was either a telephone line or a microwave. Today, all five of the control rooms are digitally tied together via a network to the master controller in a rack in the hallway. Everything is digital, no analog anywhere. At the click of a mouse or a push on a touch screen, any control room complete with its processing chain can be routed to any transmitter. When that happens, the automation, incoming telephone lines (all digital) and the operator monitors are all automatically switched along with the signal. So, for example, if the sports station that has a large announce room complete with 6 microphones is running a football game and the pop music station needs to interview a bunch of people all at once, their studios can be switched at a moment’s notice. I can tell you, that is a flexibility I wish we had more than once back in the day.

Last weekend, I was installing the market manager’s computer at his desk located in the corner office on the eighth floor. While waiting for one of my friends to fix a minor network problem, I spun the chair around and looked out the windows. It dawned on me that the office was in almost the same space, within a couple hundred feet as the old WQXL control room was in the building that was torn down to build the current structure. I had some nice times visiting the legendary Mackie Quave there. Out the windows to the south, I could see the Cornell Arms building where I spent many an hour spinning records in the WCOS studios. Looking down Gervais Street I saw the studios of WIS Television and the 400 foot tower that I climbed in an ice storm while I worked there. I could see the edge of the Russell House where WUSC-AM was located where I got my start in broadcasting, of course the WUSC-FM studio where I do my Monday morning “Oldies” show is located across the hall from there. I could see the old studios for WNOK-FM down Gervais Street. In the distance is the WIS-TV tall tower just visible in the rain across the county line in Kershaw County. A little closer in is Middleburg Plaza, the original location for WXRY-FM. Close by, but not visible from the office but visible from the conference room on the other side of the building was the old Main Street location of WNOK/AM/FM/TV before they were split up. The antenna for WXRY-FM is visible on the top of the building where their studios are now located. Finally, if I put my face right next to the window I can see the studios of WWNU/WWNQ-FM down on Park Street three blocks away. Truly, this corporate cluster is in luxurious facilities smack dab in the middle of so much local broadcast history. It is almost mind boggling. Oh MY!

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