KBEM-FM: Revitalizing a Station, Reviving a School


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LAYING THE GROUNDWORK

The two major undertakings on my agenda before I started rebuilding the facility were to make sure the station was technologically stable and to begin easing the staff into a new way of thinking. The first six weeks of my time at KBEM were mostly cleaning up wires — XLR plugs out of phase, re-terminating Cat-5 with industry-standard methods, fixing headphone jacks in the studios and so on. As daunting as the task was, it gave me a solid idea of what I had to work with at KBEM. It forced me to understand how the facility was built and where exactly each wire goes in short order.

Before I was hired, the station had purchased new ENCO workstations and server, and I was tasked with completing their installation. This was another situation where I learned the new system quickly, having never worked with this program before. However, as I learned ENCO and read up on some of the functions, I began to envision possibilities for the future of the station. Understanding my automation system painted pictures on how it would integrate with new consoles, how it could save staff time, and how to apply it to other upgrades I had planned.

Comrex Access and Ubiquiti WiFi radio

Getting my coworkers on board was hit-or-miss in the beginning. There was a lot of skepticism about using AoIP and whether or not there is any security risk in putting anything at all on the network. In an effort to show that “yes, we can rely on the Internet for what we do here,” I purchased a Comrex Access for remote broadcasts in late 2011, specifically, a rack unit for the studio and the portable USB model for in the field. Our first broadcast was a modest morning show remote from a coffee shop. Upon realizing the ease, convenience and flexibility of the units, my fellow staff members became excited with the possibilities, so much so that we just completed our third year of broadcasting the Twin Cities Jazz Festival live from Mears Park in St. Paul using Ubiquiti AirGrids to deliver our IP link from the roof of a downtown bar.

Equipment racks with Wheatstone Blades and Comrex Access

After getting buy-in from my staff and supervisors, I purchased our new STL. KBEM has been using a T1 circuit to connect to our tower on the University of Minnesota campus, so I selected the Moseley Rincon. Previously, we had been using an Intraplex, which still serves as our backup. The Rincon was my choice because I needed a solution for digital audio delivery that could use T1 and/or IP links. The STL was simply fed with an analog to digital converter until I could build the new studio and station infrastructure.

Old audio console and furniture

UPGRADE-A-THON

In the summer of 2012, I planted the seed that our master control room was going to be rebuilt the next year. Throughout the following 12 months, many a staff meeting involved some aspects of what the new space would look like. Ergonomics were a big issue in the old studio setup. Previously, the host would have to turn 100 degrees to the right of the console to talk to guests, and there was a lot of wasted and unusable space in the old furniture. Additionally, one of our interns that year used a wheelchair and we quickly realized that the old studio was, although technically legal, not very accessible. Our old console, a Wheatstone A-300, was starting to fail and I was buying spare parts from a guy in Alaska I found on eBay. It became apparent that the whole room was to be gutted and rebuilt.

Equipment rack rewiring

That same summer, I was fortunate enough to meet Bill Lund, the man who initially built my facility in its current location. It was a random meeting where he noticed the station T-shirt I was wearing at a craft shop in northern Minnesota. We came to find out that not only do we both have ties to KBEM, but our cabins are on the same lake. It was “beshert.” Bill visited the station a couple of times before I started construction and gave me some solid insight into how he envisioned the station when he built it. At that point, I was convinced to keep the some of his original design while I implemented our new IP system.

By the dawn of 2013, I had decided that KBEM would purchase another Wheatstone control surface. I felt it was the right fit for my staff and their abilities as well as ease of maintenance for me. Our students also thought it looked the coolest, so there was that. I devised a plan that all of our analog inputs and outputs would still flow through the patch panels that Bill had installed 31 years prior while feeding into the Blades I was about to install. This way, I would have a backup manual audio routing system if ever needed.

Of course, no major project is free. Half of the money came from existing funds and grants, but the other half was raised in a 24-hour “Upgrade-a-Thon.” For 24 hours straight, our morning show host stayed on the air asking for donations to the project. The whole “a-thon” had a superhero theme as we tried to vanquish the “evil” technology that was causing so many headaches. The event drew attention from local political figures and featured local jazz musicians giving live performances every hour. It came down to the wire, but at 23 hours and 35 minutes, we reached our $20,000 fundraising goal for that day.

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