Build Better Backups
In 1986 I started at my first major-market radio job, and on my first day, while sitting in the engineering office with the chief, the GM came through (mainly because the shortest route from the sales department to the men's room was through engineering). "We spend a million dollars a year on promotion, and we don't want to be off the air," is all I remember him saying in that brief introduction. He was serious, obviously, but he hardly needed to tell me that. You learn from day one when you get in to broadcasting that the station shouldn't be off the air at all. And if it is, the need to rectify the situation is immediate and trumps all else. The worst thing in this job (at least in my opinion) is that moment you find out the station (or one of many) is off-the-air, not knowing the cause or obvious the solution. Much of my career has been spent minimizing those instances.
Everyone, from management down, will say, "We can't be off the air," but in reality, this question needs to be asked: "How badly do you want to stay on the air, really?" The answer will likely be rhetorical; the truth will show through once resources -- whether they are money or time -- become allocated.
I know many stations have a single thread made up of a single STL (whether it is radio or wireline) followed by one transmitter followed by one antenna. Usually in this case there is a single power source as well. Those situations are, in a certain sense, far easier to deal with than systems with multiple layers of redundancy. With the single thread, everyone knows that the failure of any link takes the station out, and nothing can be done except to fix the broken part as soon as practicable. Power failures at the transmitter site (as an example) can take a station out for days on end. The station engineer can shrug his or her shoulders and say, "Oh well -- if they just bought another (insert device name) then this wouldn't be happening!"
When the station takes the notion "We can't be off the air" more seriously, the job gets harder of course. Broadcasting isn't the most lucrative of businesses, as we all know. Rarely are there resources necessary to make the job at hand easy; often some sort of technological strategy must be employed. Let's look at a simple example. A station gets a new transmitter, and the decision is made to keep the old one as the backup. Very common occurrence, right? But it's not as simple as just keeping old Betsy. To keep this old transmitter available, you'll have to consider the following: Is there enough physical space for a second transmitter? Is there enough electricity available to run a second transmitter? How will I put the old transmitter on the air, should I need to: coaxial relay or patchbay? How will I test this transmitter? I also need a dummy load... So after considering these things, you make up a budget, and go to station management. Before you take the budget, and your plan, into management, ask yourself that question: "How badly do I want to stay on-the-air, really?" Once you deliver your plan and budget, you'll get a good idea of how your management answers that same question.
What's under your control?
Now let's jump ahead and consider a station that has multiple levels of redundancy, established over years, perhaps before you even got there. It's nice to inherit a situation that is well considered and maintained. There are two transmitters, or perhaps more, with an easy means of testing during normal hours (i.e. a dummy load). There are two STLs, or perhaps more, and they all work and sound fine on-the-air. There are two antennas, each of which gets out so you don't feel as though you're handicapping the station while testing one. You have a large generator, that can run at least two transmitters at once, serviced regularly, and you have confidence in it.
What else could one want in a transmitter site? Your job is to take care of all the things under your control: You fix broken transmitters, STLs and everything else. It's all up to you, and nothing is standing in your way.
- continued on page 2
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