Category Archives: Best of Site

Longer articles featuring the best of SBE36.org. Biographies of local engineers, news event coverage, and “Making Waves” commentary.

What Happened to San Diego Broadcasters When the Lights Went Out

At 3:40 pm on September 8, Paul Redfield, Director of Technology at XETV, heard a faint click from his San Diego TV production control room. He saw the hall lights go out briefly, but the production room lights and equipment hummed along. A few seconds later the hallway lights returned as their 600kW generator kicked on, replacing the missing street power.

Outside, traffic lights went dark, creating lines of cars with drivers waiting to cross intersections tentatively, one or two at a time. Car radios heard either static, or silent carriers, or the rare voice trying to make sense of the electrical outage that seemed to be affecting listeners calling in from throughout San Diego and Imperial Counties, as well as southern Orange County and Yuma, Arizona, affecting 1.4-million customers total for up to twelve hours.
Continue reading What Happened to San Diego Broadcasters When the Lights Went Out

Lessons Learned in the Power Outage of 2011

Whether you’re talking about a flood, hurricane, snow storm, fire, or big earthquake, the same basic principles apply.

Don’t depend on being able to drive. Roads can easily jam when everyone is evacuating simultaneously. Not a good time to take that drive to a remote transmitter site for some unfinished chore.

Don’t depend on cell phones.
Most sites have backup power, but they can depend on good fiber feeds and be easily overwhelmed by unusual usage, and battery backup on some fiber feeds may go out after several hours. If you must communicate, SMS text traffic can often get through when voice traffic cannot.

Maintain your analog radio communications systems.
Your station should have charged handi-talkies available for emergency use, says KGTV’s Andrew Lombard, and if you still have mobile 2-way units, they can be life-savers during emergencies or even for conventional communications to distant sites. “If you don’t have a two-way 450mHz band radio system, get one. Buy it. Lease it. Borrow it. [Then,] keep your 2-way radio system in good running condition!”

Your POTS line may not work in an outage. The old days of battery-floated telephone lines are fading in favor of voice-over-IP systems often delivered by cable companies. Even AT&T delivers phone service over both fiber and copper pairs now.

Test often. Backup generators must be exercised regularly, although your pollution control district can severely limit your opportunities to test diesel units.

Consider solar backup. With creative design, modern equipment and low-power lighting, you may be able to operate indefinitely with solar panels, prioritized power management, and storage batteries. It’s expensive upfront, but you aren’t subject to pollution rules and you will eventually pay for the system with power bill savings. There are numerous companies out there who can finance the costs with your energy savings, but you need a supportive management willing to accept a 15 – 20-year ROI.

Manage your batteries. Says Lombard, “Keep all your batteries charged, have an inverter in your car for battery charging, keep a set of jumper cables in your vehicle, and keep a working 12V battery-powered spotlight in the vehicle.” Rechargeable batteries in infrequently used devices like broadcast radios or flashlights should be the newer lithium-ion (Li-Ion) polymer or low self-discharge nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) batteries. The latter are sold under the trade names Sanyo Eneloop, Tenergy Centura, Ultralast Hybrio, Maha Imedion, Energizer Recharge, RayOVac Hybrid, and Duracell Rechargeable Pre-Charged

Keep emergency food rations. This one may not be so obvious to those in better weather climates, but there are going to be times when stores can’t operate. Reminds Lombard, “Keep emergency supplies stored somewhere–but not in vehicles–and send them with crews when they go out on a breaking story that will take a long time or have someone available to run supplies out to field crews.” Emergency water supplies are always there if your station buys water in large jugs, but filters can work if you have a known source of fresh water.

Don’t depend on fiber or two-wire copper links.
In San Diego, some continued working and some didn’t. If a line uses a battery float, it may maintain power for a limited time. Operation of leased lines has become especially difficult to predict.

Consider auxiliary sites.
Especially if you already own or lease an alternative site, putting up a small FM transmitter can be relatively cheap way to stay on the air with huge redundancy value. The payoff for TV and AM can be diminished since few watch TV over-the-air now and AM usually requires expensive antenna engineering.

Communicate with management regarding your capabilities.
This issue deserves an article itself. What is your return on investment with backup power and/or an auxiliary broadcast site? Are you protecting your reputation with your listeners or viewers? Are you an emergency primary station? Are you willing to study pollution laws if running a generator? If you are considering solar and batteries as an alternative, how much will it cost you to partition your power load to run off-the-grid for an indefinite period? At the time of an outage, your general manager and corporate engineering managers must not be surprised by your preparedness level or your job may be on the line. If you have sufficiently informed them of a lack of funds for backup equipment, then they shouldn’t be surprised by your outage. On the other hand, if you were given sufficient money, your equipment should always be ready for operation.

Making Waves: An Ode to Ham Radio

Attending once again the annual NAB Ham Radio Reception reminded me of the great impact ham radio has had on broadcasting. Many familiar faces, both famous in the industry and not, were in attendance.

According to my old log book, I made my first ham radio QSO (conversation) 40 years ago on May 1, 1971.

I had first seen a ham radio station when my seventh grade math teacher, John Kellmer, offered to see his son Marvin’s set-up because he had overheard me tell a friend about my new Philips electronics experimenters kit. Marv, WA7ECV, had a huge boat anchor of a transmitter, a Heathkit TX-1 “Apache,” and its accompanying single sideband adaptor. He had a new Drake R4B receiver that glowed greenish blue with a frequency dial accurate to a kilohertz. I wanted one immediately. An approaching thunderstorm allowed Marv to demonstrate static buildup on his inverted-V dipole by putting a neon light across the terminals and watching it light up when the voltage exceeded about 90 volts DC. I grinned for about an hour solid there.

About two years later, when a couple guys from my Spanish class, Steve Coffman and Lee Romine, said they were interested in ham radio, we plowed ahead and studied for the Novice class FCC license. I had prepared with by ordering from Lafayette Electronics an Ameco Morse code key, a code study phonograph record, and an ARRL book, “How to Become a Radio Amateur.”

I rode with Lee 45 minutes to nearby Bend, Oregon to take the license exam. Steve and his mailman, ham K7HOG, met us at the home of a friend where the exam was given. Steve, Lee, and I all passed, then waited for our licenses to arrive from the FCC.

My ticket, WN7RGQ, arrived the next month, and I was on the air May 1. Unfortunately, I had purchased a cheap new Ten-Tec PM-2 transceiver that, while cute, could only output a bit over a watt continuous wave (CW). And like all Novices of the day, I was restricted to whatever frequencies I happened to own crystals for. Nonetheless, I made dozens of contacts, and developed a couple of friends. I would chat with kids my age in Washington state or over an hour at a time using Morse code.

We grew restless to advance to a class of license that would less restrict our output power and frequency movement, so we began studying for our General Class licenses. Mr. Kellmer wanted his license as well, so he took us weekly to the community college for an adult education class in license prep. We learned basic electronics, including tube amplifier theory, using an Ameco book, and practiced faster code on an Instructograph paper tape player in an adjacent temporary building.

When we were ready for the exam, we took a 4-hour bus ride to Portland, where the nearest FCC field office was located. I remember that the office staff seemed like they were doing everyone a favor offering the exams. We all flunked the first go-round, Steve (WN7RGR) and I on the code receiving, and Lee  (WN7RGS) on the technical exam. But when we retook the test a month later, we all passed and our “N” callsigns became “A” callsigns.

Ham radio equipment used in the US had been nearly 100% US made, but the Japanese were just introducing their equipment here, and I bought the new Kenwood T-599 transmitter and matching R-599 receiver. They had a beautiful brushed metal front panel but cheap looking meters. With 200 watts, I began talking across the Pacific to Japan, the Soviet Union, Australia, and New Zealand.

Marv had a friend who worked at the local radio station, KRCO (AM), and encouraged me to give him a call to get a tour. During their Sunday afternoon playback of a performance from the Ashland Shakespearean Festival, Mike Toney showed me a gorgeously crafted Collins 20-T transmitter, and a new Gates Yard console and heavy Gates turntables. I was hooked. A year later when he went away to college, I took Mike’s place at the station.

The funny thing is, that largely replaced ham radio for me. I sold my radios to buy my first car, then went away to college, got married, and so on. Like many, now that my kids are independent teens now and I no longer hang out with big transmitters, I’ve come back to ham radio to some degree, and have a nice new bunch of ham friends.

Until recently, broadcasting seemed a lot like amateur radio. Broadcasting used larger transmitters and more substantial antennas, but otherwise they had a lot in common. Broadcast engineers and DJs were often hams who just wanted to get paid for what we loved to do. And we often made our own equipment, especially when it wasn’t commercially available or considered too expensive to buy. You often saw staff-built control panels and audio interface boxes, but I’ve seen homebrew FM automation systems, audio mixers, TV master control switchers, and all forms of interface control systems. The 1950s through 1990s were times when labor was relatively cheaper, there was less competition, and leveraged buyouts hadn’t yet gotten underway.

Today’s broadcast engineer is more likely to have been a computer tinkerer than a ham radio tinkerer. Just as most hams are appliance operators who more configure software and hardware systems than make radios from scratch, so are stations now made with modular computers that require skills to assemble them into working systems, but not at component level.

Ham radio may seem to be increasingly irrelevant in light of the ease of worldwide internet communication, but the number of licensees keep gaining. With the new digital modes, there are numerous interesting specialties to explore. I dabble in summer VHF “e-skip,” PSK modes, and sideband ragchews.But more importantly, I have fantastic new ham friends with whom I share not only Field Day, but life in general.

I have two teenagers who certainly think that ham radio is irrelevant in the internet age, but seem to spend a lot of time sending and receiving short messages on their miniature 800MHz transceivers.

Let’s take a moment to celebrate the hams among us. Some are not active, but many are, and some do remarkable things with their ham hobby. Here are a few in the San Diego broadcasting market you might know:

K6AM John Barcroft, ex-KGB/KPQP Chief Engineer, San Diego
KG6QAN, Mike Curran, San Diego County Board of Education Engineer, San Diego
N6QEK, Steve Frick, Clear Channel Communications Engineer, El Cajon
W6VR, Bob Gonsett, owner of Communications General Corporation, RF consultant, Fallbrook
AB6CQ, Albert Gordon, Del Mar
KG6VFU, Dave Hassell, XETV Engineer, Encinitas
W7GAS, Walter Johnson, Telcom Design Corp. Owner, Jamul
KC6CLN, Tim Lange, Cox Cable Technician, El Cajon
N6OEI, Matt Lunati, Combined Wireless Owner, La Mesa
KD6GMW, Leon Messenie, KPBS Director of Engineering, La Mesa
WA9UGS, Steve Moreen, RF Specialities of California President, San Diego
KG6HSQ, Ronald Patten, broadcast engineer, Fallbrook
KF6YB, Oscar Quintanilla, Cox Cable Engineer, La Mesa
KI6ASX, Paul Redfield, XETV Director of Engineering, La Mesa
KF6ATM, James Schechter, RF engineer, Valley Center
W6GLS, Gary Stigall, TV Magic CTO, San Diego
KF6OGF, Kenneth Tondreau, Grass Valley Sales Representative, Calabasas
K6OBS, Richard Warren, wsRadio Manager, San Diego
AF6AV, Phil Wells, past CE KYXY/KJQY, San Diego
NE6I, Dennis Younker, Cox Cable Video Engineering Supervisor, Spring Valley

Lessons Learned During the San Diego DTV Transition

San Diego was among the largest TV markets in the U.S. to have many of its major TV stations transition to digital only the evening of February 17. Major station groups backed out of their plans to transition early when it fell out of political favor. Locally, KFMB-DT needed to get off their low power provisional DTV channel. McGraw-Hill and Tribune surely wanted the electric meter to stop spinning so fast supporting two transmitters in an adverse economy at KGTV and KSWB, respectively.

The vast majority of the San Diego County estimated 78,000 households with over-the-air TVs made the transition without trouble. There were hundreds who needed help.

Speaking to dozens of viewers and other chief engineers in town, here’s what I learned:

Shutting Down the Analog Transmitters in Two Batches May Not Have Been Such a Bad Idea – Unprepared viewers woke up on February 18 with fewer TV stations, but they were able to receive some, and were motivated to then upgrade their systems to receive all the stations. No one was left without a source of TV news.

The “Night Light” Worked – KSWB reported fewer calls after keeping a repeating 30 minute instructional video about the DTV transition running on their analog channel 69 station for a week.

It’s About the Antenna – With at least four transmitter sites and rough terrain, it takes a skilled engineer to design and build a proper home antenna system in this market. The vast majority of callers were trying to receive all local English-speaking TV stations with a single indoor “rabbit ears and UHF loop” style antenna. With the few exceptions of people located in the center of the city in wood-framed homes using converters or receivers with the latest generation, highly equalization-adapting chipsets—receiving TV this way doesn’t work. A weak signal tolerated before became a blank screen at the bottom of the digital cliff.

A Few Brave Souls Want Information on Real Antenna Systems – A handful of callers wanted advanced information on fringe area reception. With only a couple of antennas capable of sufficient front-to-back ratios to eliminate co-channel interference from Los Angeles, this information means the difference between receiving all stations and receiving a few.

Not Ready for VHF – Many viewers had adapted to the UHF-only pre-transition market with their bow-tie array antennas, only to find that they now had to replace those antennas to receive new DTV stations on channels 8 and 10. Many viewers were told that the best system is a combination of high-band VHF antenna aimed permanently at Mt. Soledad and a UHF antenna aimed south toward Mt. San Miguel and Mt. San Antonio, but few wanted to actually go to the trouble of doing so.

Where Did the Converters Go? – Inventories of digital converters were spotty during the week leading up to the transition. Many stores appeared to have run out of converters for fear of having excess inventory. Anecdotal evidence told us that stores south of downtown fared worse, with large numbers of converters perhaps being sold to Mexican citizens for use in Tijuana, where many people are bilingual, they can receive large numbers of digital stations, and Asian imports carry a burdensome duty.

The Channel Master Converter Got Good Marks – The DigitalStream boxes got hot enough to make you not only wonder about their electrical consumption, but about their safety without a fire extinguisher nearby. The Zenith DTT900’s picked up an extra few stations from LA on my old log-periodic, but it didn’t have an S-video output. The Channel Master could be had at Fry’s sometimes for a 10-spot and a government card, but it had the S-video output. Andrew Lombard at KGTV said it was his favorite (although it doesn’t have analog passthrough).

Scan and Rescan, Then Scan Again – Viewers were told to rescan on February 18 for digital versions of channels 8 and 10. But that wasn’t enough. If a viewer had an antenna on a rotator, they had to perform a complete “first birthday” style scan to wipe channels 8 and 10 from their analog reception memory positions and record the Mt. Soledad stations. Then they had to scan in ADD mode for UHF stations on Mt. San Miguel. Then, depending on location, might have to scan a third time to receive English language XETV in Tijuana. Some TVs behave differently, so rescanning could delete previously found stations. Viewers with those TVs had to be instructed on how to restrict their scans to a set of physical channels while ADDing. Got that, Mom?

What Do You Mean Channel 6 is really 23? – Related to the previous item, viewers needed to know the physical channel numbers in order to properly scan channels and make sure they have the right antenna pointed in the right direction.

So Tell Me Once Again How to Wire My Old VCR to the Converter? – As consumers tried to adapt their older technology, they felt left behind when trying to integrate the new converters to their trusty recorders. Conducting automatic recordings with unmanned channel changes, we’ve learned, requires a Dish DTVPal or Zinwell ZAT-970A converter and careful reading of the manual.

I Give Up! – Cable, fiber, and satellite providers ran a heavy ad campaign to promote the simplicity and reliability of reception using their systems, capturing perhaps 6,000 exasperated OTA viewers. Many subscribed to the lowest tier of service, but providers were glad to have them.

Lifeline Rates are Not Published – Viewers calling TV stations were not aware that they could get all local TV stations, in HD, using the lowest tiered rates on cable.

Some Stations Really Put Out – KGTV collected excess government converter cards from their viewers and redistributed them to viewers who had requested too late. They also had instruction materials from each of the popular makes of converters and TVs in order to help people with rescanning. KFMB Stations Director of Engineering Rich Lochmann and yours truly at XETV went on the air to explain rescanning. KSWB produced the nightlight video.

Making Waves: RFI – My Unwanted Visitor

Considering the number of switching supplies these days powering everything from cell phone chargers to computers and televisions, you’d think radio frequency interference (RFI) would be a bigger problem. I dabble in ham radio just enough to notice that, except for a few birdies, overall HF spectrum is generally pretty quiet.

Our channel 6 transmitter just south of the border is most vulnerable being low band VHF, relatively distant for most US homes, and dependent on AM receivers for video. We do occasionally get the viewer phone call suggesting we fix the swirling video noise on his TV. I’ve never received any confirmation that anyone followed my suggestions to turn off appliances or even circuit breakers to find the source of the noise—just an occasional repeat call to say that the noise in Lakeside is still there, suggesting my work there remains.

Recently, though, I was surprised to find that my brand new Sears DieHard power tool “Multi-chemistry” battery charger produces enough RF to effectively overcome all incoming signals at home, pretty much DC to daylight. The entire AM band sounds like hash, the FM band is a screechy mess, and many of the ham bands have multiple carriers rapidly sweeping through all frequencies as heard with my fan dipole antenna some 60 feet away. I can’t imagine that this Made in China beauty, model 315.259260 passed FCC Part 15 subpart B testing, but I haven’t yet filed a complaint.

Have you discovered a similar hash transmitter in your home or neighborhood?