Sharing resources

When stations consolidate staffs, equipment and facilities, there may be loose ends to be tied down.

A broadcast engineer working in radio in the 21st century inevitably has a colleague that has been affected by an engineering department consolidation, has himself been affected by such or will be affected in the future. While the prospect may seem disturbing at first, it is important to consider the positive benefits of such an occurrence. There are many. Some benefit the company doing the consolidation (of course) and some benefit individuals.

Personnel issues

One of the results of a station's consolidation is the creation of redundancies within the staffs. The duplication in positions will be evident from upper management, to sales management, to programming management, engineering, traffic and even the receptionist. My experience is that the engineering department is never singled out. In fact, within the ever-changing technological framework of broadcasting, it isn't too difficult to keep many of the engineering staff positions by redefining responsibilities.

Start by determining each individual's strengths. In the old days, (before consolidation) a typical station engineer performed many duties. He maintained the transmitters and kept other parts of the RF system working. Studios quite often needed many hours of attention in keeping cart machines and reel machines operating correctly, and in many cases there were remotes to do. By the time paperwork is added in, the week is rounded out.

In the last ten years, cart machines and reel machines have, to a large degree, faded from view. Transmitters have become more reliable, and most importantly, computers have filled radio stations. While paperwork, unfortunately, never seems to go away, the focus of a typical engineer has changed.

Usually an engineer has a primary strength — something at which he excels. That person also has a good secondary strength, followed by many tertiary abilities. The engineer assigned the task of consolidating two or more engineering departments should consider each potential staff member and determine his strengths. It's likely that at least one potential staff member is sharp at transmission and knows the transmitters inside and out. Another may have less experience at transmission and a lot more interest and ability when it comes to IT/IS. Another may have a passion for studios and a great ability therein. The key to handling personnel is to assign the staff engineers to the duty at which they are best and like the most. That is not to say that there won't be duties that an engineer has to do that he isn't too fond of, but, to keep everyone happy, spread these tasks among the entire staff.

When consolidating multiple radio stations, plan an adequately sized engineering shop. In this facility, the chief engineer’s office is next door.

Whoever directs the department will have to make use of the individual staff member's secondary and tertiary skills as well. While it is important to let staff members excel at their specialties, it is undesirable to pigeonhole them in one discipline. In the ideal department, every member is as competent as any other at anything. In reality, there should be cross-training between staff members so that each person is well-rounded. This is better not only for the entire station, but for each person as well. Each engineer becomes more valuable as he picks up additional skills.

One of the most obvious benefits to a staff consolidation is that there can be bench strength where there was possibly none before. An engineer who rarely took time off because he had no backup will probably enjoy a new level of freedom as a byproduct of the consolidation. From the standpoint of safety, with more individuals available to work on problems across a number of stations, there should no longer be an instance where one person works on transmitter problems. Not only is it safer, but two heads are always better than one.

Sharing of systems

Whether the stations in the consolidated group move in together or not, there are systems that can be shared among the group. The advantages are greater capability, flexibility and maybe some cost savings. Those aspects will be important to the head of the department.

One example is remote broadcasts. Invariably, one of the stations will be better equipped than the others. One station may have the best receive site at a mountaintop, with a full-time backhaul to the studio. Perhaps there are multiple mountaintops, and one can be eliminated, thus saving site rental. Perhaps with different sites, more of the stations can reach different areas, thus giving the sales staff something (and somewhere) else to sell. Typically, the number of hours an RPU system gets used is quite small, and there is ample opportunity to share the resource among the stations. Perhaps one station has a van outfitted as a remote vehicle. Remove any station identifiers, and share the vehicle between all the stations. Promotions personnel will balk at this until they start working for multiple stations. Perhaps one of the stations has a great mobile PA system with wireless mics and a high-power sound system. Store it in an area that is accessible by all stations' staffs, so that it can be used at each of the stations.

Establish communications links between facilities. There are two stations in San Francisco that are located on opposite sides of the financial district. Call them station A and station B. Because of the geography of San Francisco, neither station can see its transmitter site from its location. However, station B's transmitter site can be seen from station A; and likewise station A's transmitter site can be seen from station B. The introduction of a duplex communications link, and the appropriate equipment at both ends, solved the problem and eliminated third-party site rentals. The system was built to allow backup STLs to be installed, as well as other audio functions, including bi-directional sharing of RPU, satellite and remote ISDN codec audio, and even a LAN extension. Station A and station B were then also able to share a high-speed Internet connection because it became economically viable.

If there are remote sites on a mountaintop, or other sites that are far from the studio location, at least one of the stations has a vehicle that can be used by the engineering staff. It might be that one of the long-suffering engineers who has been ruining his vehicle by driving it up a torturous mountain road can now benefit by using a shared vehicle.

Being able to take advantage of the economies of scale is one of the primary benefits of station consolidation.

Sharing of equipment and parts

One of the most interesting aspects of station consolidation is learning how much surplus equipment each station owns.

No doubt one of the consolidated stations has the appropriate type and amount of test equipment, while at least one of the others is short or has none at all. One of the stations I work for had a spectrum analyzer. Now all the stations have access to it. There were two distortion analyzers, which are now shared. There was a network analyzer, which is now available to all. Not only do the stations share equipment, but they also share the staff that knows how to use it.

When multiple radio stations move in to the same facility, there is bound to be surplus equipment, making storage space a more important part of a facility design.

After a consolidation of facilities, there will be spare equipment. Whereas before, if a CD player or DAT machine failed, there might be a big hole in the rack until it got fixed, now another can probably be dropped in; there is a ready spare. Among our stations we have spare exciters, which are frequency-agile, with the dip-switch settings for all five of our FM frequencies posted inside. A radio STL failure in the past may have caused us anxiety; now we have a system on the shelf ready to go for any of the stations. The list goes on and on.

In my group of five FMs and two AMs, we have six FM transmitters that all use the same solid-state IPA. When the stations were all separate, it would have made sense to have at least four spares (because some of the transmitters operated in pairs), but now we really only need one to share. The same can be said for tubes; we use two types among nine different transmitters, and we can now get by with as few as two spare tubes on the shelf.

Surplus equipment can be defined as stored equipment that has, at first glance, no real use. One of our FM stations had its functional two-bay antenna taken down and replaced because of a DTV-related move. This antenna sat on the ground for about four years before being re-tuned and used as an auxiliary antenna for another station in town. The fact that we stored it at one of our AMs saved us thousands of dollars later on.

During spring cleaning at one of our AM sites, we found four old 5A 24vdc power supplies sitting on a shelf covered in dust. At first I wanted to toss them. However, it occurred to me that they could be used in our consolidated engineering shop as test equipment. We ended up lashing all four together to make a 10A 48vdc supply. Surplus gear can also be used as trade fodder down the road.

Putting it all together

Whoever is charged with managing the newly (or soon to be) consolidated engineering staff, will face a moment of truth at which point he will have to accept some of the hard facts and reasons behind consolidation. That point may be when the subject of budgeting arises.

There are no hard and fast rules of thumb regarding the number of engineers on a staff. Instead, consider function: what each staff member will do, and how much of that there is to do within the entire group of stations. If there are transmitter sites spread out over 100 miles, or if there are dozens and dozens of computer workstations spread out over multiple station locations, and likewise, if there are a dozen studios spread out over multiple locations, retaining all the current staff may be justifiable. At the very least, there should be a contingency plan so it will be possible to operate with a reduced staff. This requirement may be an absolute.

Whether all the pre-consolidation staff stays or not, look for other ways to reduce monthly operating expenses. Are there redundant remote sites that can be eliminated? What about redundant leased lines from the telephone company? How much of the parts budget can be reasonably cut, considering all the parts that are already available within the group of stations? Can outside repair budgets be cut if there is now a more capable staff?

Once the staff level is determined, there may be a period of adjustment during which time the culture of the engineering department will change. If one engineer that previously handled all the engineering disciplines for one station is now handling transmitters for the entire group, there may be several issues. This person may feel that the workload is now unreasonable because of multiple stations. The department head will need to convince him that the focus has changed; that instead of handling four disciplines for one station, he is now handling one discipline for four stations. Granted, this may actually be more work. It's the job of the engineering manager to make effective compromises.

It is also possible that staff at the engineer's old station will continue to call him for all the normal types of problems, because that's the way they've always done it. I would suggest making the changes in the department in an evolutionary fashion. Let the department get used to the new roles and let the remainder of the station staff adjust to it as well. Don't expect everything to fall in to place overnight.

The station management (and the station owners, too) expects that the economies of scale will justify and eventually vindicate their investments in other stations. With some imagination, study and planning, the engineering department manager can use economies of scale to build a department that will function well in the long run. Along the way, it may also be possible to build in new functionality for each of the stations using the same economies of scale.

And finally, in the words of Horace, Aequam memento rebus in arduis servare mentem. (Remember to preserve a tranquil mind amid difficulties.)

Irwin is director of engineering services for Clear Channel San Francisco.

Editor's note: For easier reading, the term “he” has been used frequently within this article instead of “he or she.” The points presented apply to everyone, regardless of gender.

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