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The cold, quiet days of winter herald the season of another annual event: the facility checkup. The relaxed production schedules that follow the holiday rush make this the perfect time to conduct a comprehensive examination and review of your client's entire broadcast plant.
Before you begin, however, bear in mind that such an effort deserves a fresh perspective and a systematic approach. This means devoting days, not hours, to the task. Anything less is likely to yield a superficial treatment that misses embedded problems that go overlooked on a day-to-day basis.
Scheduling time to fully inspect and align the studio equipment can be difficult, but will have long-term benefits.
Of course, this means having to take the time and effort to convince some clients that the expense and inconvenience of a thorough review are worthwhile. Here again, a digital camera can be a great asset. By showing pictures of actual problems uncovered during past inspections and explaining how their early detection preserved revenue, your client will better appreciate the value of a proactive approach.
Begin with a review of the records. The self-inspection checklists for radio stations available from the FCC's website provide a perfect template for this task. Make sure that all authorizations are current, complete and accurate. This is an area worthy of close attention, as ownership turnovers, facility moves and the deregulated atmosphere of the industry seem to be degrading compliance.
Be especially vigilant regarding chief operator designations, broadcast auxiliary authorizations and antenna structure registrations. Also, spend some time analyzing the past two years' EAS send/receive records, equipment status notations, quarterly inspections and tower lighting records (if applicable). Finally, a review of transmission system operating parameters over the same period can yield important clues about changes in the long-term stability of both the transmitter and antenna systems.
Where tape equipment is still in use, it's time to clean the tape path and run azimuth and response checks. Never assume that operating personnel take care of these details - many younger, digitally oriented production staff simply don't understand the maintenance-intensive nature of analog tape equipment. Unfortunately, there are very few stations that don't continue to process at least some analog production material.
Likewise, analog audio level, cross talk and frequency sweeps should be run in each studio. You may be surprised by what you find, especially where operating personal have been creative in integrating unbalanced equipment into the audio chain.
Pay special attention to dirty equipment cooling fans and messy AC power outlet configurations - these can degenerate into real hazards. As a final test, listen with fresh ears to the sonic quality of the audio product from each studio. Ground loops, sibilance and other subtle anomalies may mark deeper problems. Keep detailed notes throughout the process.
Once you've completed the studio sweep, check out the air chain. Verify that the EAS encoder is inserted in the program line as required and that the appropriate stations are being monitored. You may also want to run a weekly test to spot check modulation levels. If radio STLs are in use, you'll want to check forward power and SWR and compare them to previous readings. Check out all outdoor antennas, especially STL and satellite dishes. Look for unsecured coax or hardware and for weatherproof seals on all RF connectors. It's also a good idea to run an end-to-end level check on the air chain to assure that sufficient audio headroom is being maintained throughout the system.
The high level of studio automation and IT integration at many stations also requires a set of inspections at the systems and software level. Every PC and network needs periodic updating of software and reviews of performance.
At the transmitter
When you visit the transmitter, see that all locks and gates are secure and that the required signage for tower registration and RF exposure is present and legible. Once inside, inspect all posted documentation for completeness and vailidity. Verify that an operational flashlight and fire extinguisher are in an easy-to-access location.
Inspection of the tower site should include the existence and condition of the appropriate signage.
Compare all transmitter parameters to those available on the remote control or automated logging and control systems. Any significant deviations warrant close scrutiny. Check all components in each transmitter's cooling system including ducts, filters, automated louvers, blowers and fans. Don't overlook the tines of squirrel cage blowers, which tend to load up with grunge. Test by touch all accessible coaxial fittings for heat buildup and note hot spots for later disassembly and inspection.
Auxiliary equipment (processing, transmitters and generators) should be operationally tested and their operating parameters recorded for comparison with past records. A minimum generator inspection includes oil, coolant, fuel level and condition, batteries and charging system, as well as heaters and transfer switch operation. Also visually inspect of all AC power disconnect switches and fuse boxes for the discoloration that indicate obvious hot spots.
A pair of good binoculars will help you pick out any physical discrepancies on towers as you look them up and down and check tower light operation. On the ground, you'll want to verify that all grounds are intact at entry points, guy anchors and tower bases.
Writing it up
The type of procedure detailed above is only useful if it's thoroughly documented. Use direct, objective language and an outline format to detail all discrepancies found. Include as many visual elements as possible with captions explaining their significance. For each problem listed, include a brief description of the appropriate corrective action required.
consultant on contractengineering, can be reached at
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The FCC self-inspection checklists are availableat
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