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Sunday, March 27, 2011

In Memoriam: Broadcast Radio and Television

It’s been almost a rule – every time a new technology comes along, older ones don’t die…they just morph into something else and coexist.  Radio was supposed to destroy the phonograph, television would annihilate motion picture theaters - and radio on the way past.  Seems like the same should be true for radio’s surviving its current onslaught from, wow, every direction.

Well, there’s a flaw in that morph theory.  It really refers to types of entertainment – not the delivery mechanism.  If that weren’t the case, we’d all still have players for 45’s and 8-tracks connected to our systems.  And when was the last time you watched home movies?

The roadside of tech advances has dead formats everywhere – and homes and offices packed with media for it.  Fact is, they’re not coming back and they didn’t morph into anything usable.

Today, broadcast – that’s-over-the-air – is facing its maker.  True, radio and TV are forms of entertainment, but broadcast is a very definitely a delivery mechanism and one being rapidly displaced.

Looking at just the front line of offenders, there’s the iPod, then streaming, then XM and Sirius and Slingbox and even CD’s (which play .mp3’s, of course).  Tough to fight a war on three or four fronts…especially when you look at the model.

First, it’s a WYWWYWI (what you want when you want it) world.  Not many restaurants survive serving ham only between 6 and 6:30, pizza from 6:30 to 7, fish from 7 to, well, you get the picture.  So hearing the song you want only when a station plays it, well, who’s kidding whom?   Watching CSI at 9 isn’t convenient.  Then there’s the sorting through the clutter.  When commercial loads are as high as they are, existing viewers and listeners abandon in droves, knowing they have at least three minutes before they need to punch back in. 

Add to that the disappearance of live talent.  Hey.  You may think you’re listening live but there’s a lot of voice tracking going on out there and even more music coming out of the sky from New York, Dallas, or Denver, picked by a PD that has never even been to Phoenix, let alone programmed to it. 

And, on the TV side, more and more comes from a “network” or other central source.  “Centralcasting” has taken hold.  We now see the same news stories multiple times and, often, they incorporate – are you ready for it? – amateur cell phone footage.

Then there’s the quality issue.  That one’s being skewered on two fronts of its own.  First, faced with a choice of quality versus “now-lity”, now wins out.  Witness the number of iPodders who choose to store thousands of songs at slightly better than AM quality versus hundred at higher quality. BTW: even at its highest quality, the coding dictates that out ≠ in.  Hasn’t slowed sales.  And streaming to 2½ inch cell phone screens is commonplace.  Yet on another front radio, through the wonders of IBOC, is scrambling to improve quality.  Who ordered that focus group?  “Let’s see, we can only feed one song at a time, we’ve got a ton of commercials.  I know.  Let’s improve technical quality.”

Friday, March 25, 2011

So You Want to be a Broadcast Equipment Supplier with a Website

Interesting:  Two major pieces of gear faced our tech folks – both in need of specific parts to correct their failures.  Went to the respective manufacturers' websites looking for in-depth information (translation:  more than the user manual), latest software/firmware, and other tech-friendly materials.  Nothing!  One offered contact information to request the needed info; the other sent us into a wonderful loop, asking for the model number of the device, serial number, date of purchase and, I believe, the names of the capitals of all the states before going to a page asking if we wanted to subscribe to their newsletter which went back to the original request page.

Yes!  The station should have maintained the service manuals, schematics, CD-ROMs.  But they didn’t.  And that brings us to the point of this article…not the stations’ errors but the manufacturers who purport to have equipment websites but really have only interactive equipment sales tools.

Broadcast is different from other electronics areas.  It’s called 24/7 and when you’re down, you’re down.  And you need to get back on the air. 

While it’s understandable that some manufacturers can’t support a ‘round-the-clock engineer-on-call, if the company makes mission critical items (defined here as ones which, if they fail result in an off-the-air status) they need to provide every possible level of informational help on the website.

When the GM is looking over the engineer’s shoulder as minutes of commercial time tick by, the last thing one needs to see is a splash page for a new transmitter.   Instead, he should be able to get to the “info and downloads” page for his piece of gear as directly and quickly as possible.

Once there, a service technician should be able to download the service manual without entering serial numbers, dates of purchase or other info that slows down the process.  Attached to the manual should be a log of changes, adjustments, previous fixes and related information.  Too often, after trying to implement a repair, one finds that, in fact, the gear was updated/upgraded without current owners being notified.  Or – that the company is aware of a simple fix or a chronic failure that can be easily repaired.  Neither of these needs to be discovered by waiting through the night until the factory or parts department opens at, “…eight o’clock central time…”

Then there’s the dreaded “email us” link.  It may open your email client preaddressed to their info/service department.  OR…it may open a form, again requiring way too much information (ever get the “Valid Zip Code Missing” return because you didn’t see the asterisk?) for the moment.  NOT user-friendly.

Even if it opens your email, it may point you to their sales department.  Nine times out of 10 that means it’s going to the wrong person.  And by the time it gets to the right person, you’ve found some other solution or decided to “decommission” the gear with a Louisville Slugger.

Another note on emails:  If you want to be a broadcast equipment manufacturer with a web page, respond to emails…promptly.  Too many times we are charged with creating solutions to problems and, in the course of research, contact manufacturers with questions about their equipment.  And almost just as many times, manufacturers fail to respond.  I have one on my “bring up” file that has had four phone messages and five (count ‘em) emails to “info@” with a simple question.  No answer.  Nada.  Not even a parting gift.  You have to respond if you want to keep the business going.

Let me stop to give credit to a couple.  1) Broadcast Tools.  Same day response to every email I’ve ever sent them.  Courteous.  And, in one case, the response was a recommendation that did the job better than I had asked…and for the same money.  2) Delta RF Technologies.  Have a question about RF pallets used as power amplifiers?  You get an answer.  And, again, maybe “another way of doing it.”  Thank you both for a breath of fresh air in the CO2 world of emails.

Bottom line:  Broadcasting is 24/7.  Manufacturers have to come as close to that as possible.  It can be done – and for little money.  Try it.  Remember that consultants and contract engineers have a LOT of input into purchases.  Give it a little time to win those guys over.  Watch the business grow.