Category Archives: Commentary

Making Waves Editorial: To Chill or Not to Chill

In August 1980 I was in my second year of TV engineering at KTVZ Bend when my boss Jess Ortega and I were to be on a live, local call-in TV show at 7pm at the station, talking about TV reception. About 30 minutes before air time, the transmitter dumped. As in—we were off-the-air. We jumped into the truck dressed in our suits, drove to the transmitter site, and were able to immediately put it back on-the-air because it had cooled during our drive. The show was re-scheduled for the next evening. Continue reading Making Waves Editorial: To Chill or Not to Chill

Making Waves Commentary: One Engineer’s Return from the Edge of Insanity

This week I’m starting a new job, serving as Assistant Chief Engineer at KGTV, with Bob Vaillancourt at the helm.

When systems integrator TV Magic started winding down in 2012, leaving me at the curb, I knew getting a good-fitting job wasn’t going to be easy if my family was going to stay in San Diego. Jobs in broadcast management here don’t open up every day, and I probably wasn’t going to go back to staff engineer. “He’ll just leave when a management job opens up.” “He’ll want too much money.” Without a EE or CS degree from a renowned university, high tech companies like Qualcomm and ViaSat would not even acknowledge my submissions.

So I dug right in to start my own consulting business, taking Small Business Administration classes, creating a website, and following up on referrals. (By the way, a big thank you to friends who sent potential customers my way. I believe we held up our part of the deal by treating these new clients well.)

What a great ride it’s been. I started helping Bext on their repair bench, taking small A/V jobs and then helping LPTV station KSDY-LD at their new studios in Chula Vista. I picked up an assistant with a bright young college student, Julio Ramirez, who helped with makeovers at KSDY-LD and KPRI (FM). At KPRI, we’ve done everything from fine tuning the IT systems, replacing the automation with Wide Orbit for Radio, completely rewiring the air chain for AES/EBU, retiring the old San Marcos aux site, and bringing in some redundancies that were never put in place. There were fun little projects like a weekend carrier-grade microwave STL/TSL sales and installation in Tijuana with Jeff Latimer.

A couple of days ago I looked at the huge list of equipment manual PDFs on my laptop hard drive. Holy cow, did Julio and I learn a lot in the last three years!

A truly successful business must scale itself properly, big enough that you can comfortably delegate much of your daily labor, take vacations, and afford a draw for yourself that is at least comparable to a staff engineering position, and that’s where I fell short. We’ve enjoyed the challenges and certainly the appreciation expressed, but you realize from time to time that you are to at least some extent servicing your own obsession with perfection, and that can seem a little…eerie at times. My wife Cheryl at one point after a number of overnight visits to the transmitter site seriously questioned my sanity, and if you look objectively at costs and risks vs. benefits, she was making a reasonable, if painful, point.

I don’t even want to get into the whole insurance and taxes thing about running your own business, except to say that there are very few days that go by without one or the other coming back with its beak open to feed.

The folly of any technical services business is that it’s one person producing work for one customer at a time, unlike software or sales of popular devices, where your business to serve multiple clients simultaneously, greatly increasing your income potential. Broadcasters are simply never going to pay you rates that a physician can demand, especially not the smaller broadcasters who can’t even afford their own full-time staff.

So I’m closing the business. Julio will carry on at KPRI.

Bob V. is a talented teacher and an experienced technical manager, so it’s back to being part of a corporate team. There’s much to be done, and with realistic budgets, daytime hours, and benefits like vacation, I’m looking forward to a new period of sanity.

Don’t laugh, Bob.

Making Waves: Our Summer Jobs

(Commentary) For better or worse, I share much of my DNA with my father, Herb, who has throughout his 84-year life so far, insisted mostly on doing everything himself. The story I often tell to illustrate this point is about when we lived on a 40-acre ranch in Central Oregon requiring constant fence and pasture upkeep during the hours he wasn’t driving an oil truck full-time. He found termites in the bathroom of the old homestead and learned that they came from a path of dirt and wood from the ground. This wouldn’t do. So he reconstructed the substantial foundation, lifting the house with jacks and spooning mortar in the small spaces between lava rocks that he had dragged under the house one at a time. I know because I helped mix the mortar and pushed rocks through the vent openings to him.

You can run a broadcast engineering business like this, doing it all yourself. You can run cables and terminate them, install and configure equipment, assemble satellite dish kits and climb towers. It’s mostly intellectually engaging, you accumulate experience and leave each project with a pride of ownership.

It will also drain you because you can never keep up with all the work, you can’t take time off really, and you will limit your income potential greatly. This is  because you can’t charge enough for the installation work to cover all the overhead you don’t get paid for, like accounting, marketing, and purchasing.

This is one of the basic tenets of small business. Basically, if you are doing the busy work, you’re doing it wrong. A small business owner should be tending to strategic planning and business development, leveraging income by hiring good help to handle the day-to-day activities that make up the foundation of your technical service business.

Employee #1

As much as it goes against my instinct, I decided that when young students were between college terms earlier this month, it would be a good time to hire. I listed in Craigslist an opening for a broadcast engineering “apprentice.” I didn’t want to say “intern” because this is a real job and a paid position and in California the term intern has legal limitations when you are not paying (even though most employers seem to ignore the rules at their own peril). I believe that students or those looking todevelop careers deserve to be paid for their work, whether they are bringing real talents to the job or just working hard. In my opinion, there’s entirely too much slavery going on, and it’s hurting our economy by cutting off the income of people who should be out there consuming.

Within a few minutes of posting the opening, I got a resume and cover message from Julio Ramirez, a young man who seemed to fit my three needs: (1) self-initiated computer hobbyist who had dabbled in programming and/or networking, (2) a customer service attitude of respect and friendliness, and (3) long-term interest in broadcasting or something like it. I hired him the next day even though responses were still piling in. Some resumes were short on something, some were vastly overqualified and might suit a future full-time opening (or they should work independently!), but this one was just right.

So Julio and I have had our first week together, running and punching in UTP cables with another helper one day, finishing for me a complex batch file for a CALM Act audio monitoring program another day, and assisting with a commercial cueing problem I had been dealing with. Once a graphics student, he even had a logo designed for my badly ignored website before we could even get started. He’s learning new skills faster than a classroom lecture would give, and I’m clearing my TO DO list with rapid relief.

If you have some work to do that you’ve had to sideline while you grapple with your day-to-day, consider hiring someone from that huge pool of underemployed technicians out there. While you aren’t likely to find someone you can send to the transmitter for a quick fix, most broadcast work these days involves microprocessors and the kind of technical problems you can solve with Google searches, a technical mind, and time.

I took the big step to employer, and we’re going to have a terrific summer.

What We Said About You in Denver

This year’s SBE national meetings took place in Denver October 23rd and 24th. I took a gamble with the weather and won, arriving three days early, taking in a weekend of 72° blue skies and bright orange and yellow aspens in Boulder, my wife and my first trip after having both of our kids now away in college.

I got down to business Tuesday with the other SBE officers and board of directors at a hotel at the outskirts of Denver. Besides simply the aura of being around a group of wise, dedicated 50 and 60-something year-olds coming to help the Society, here’s what impressed me about the board meeting:

The SBE Remains Solvent

National dues income is up and certification fees are down. The Finance Committee studied expenses and income and came to the conclusion that a small forecast deficit will be offset next year with an increase in dues. That’s too bad, but our dues remain well below those of other professional societies like the IEEE. From my seat, expenses for the society appear very conservatively spent, and the committee came to same conclusion, largely leaving spending alone. Our Indianapolis headquarters management has extensive experience operating non-profit organizations, and it shows.

Leaders are Concerned about Future Relevance

I don’t need to tell you much about the revolution in broadcasting that has brought us to an IT-centric world for both program delivery and station administration. And when we conduct meetings about transmitters, audio consoles, and processing appliances, guess what? The IT guys aren’t there. Unlike the old days where one guy worked on everything from the mic to the antenna, today’s broadcast techs are specialists. They have to know so much—security, automation, administration, and networking software and hardware—that many brains overload or lose interest at transmitters, antennas, and even audio best practices.

There is talk about rebranding the SBE to meet the new realities in an IT-centric world. Should the Society change its name? I haven’t been convinced yet. In my book, the guy restriping a playout server is just as much a broadcast engineer as the guy changing out a power amplifier module in the transmitter.

I believe the new certifications in computer networking address this revolution, as do certifications in digital video modulation and directional AM antennas. We need to sell the importance of these certifications to broadcast managers.

Membership is Strong. Chapters?…Not so Much

The new reality is that staffs have been reduced to the bone and no one knows if he can get away for an extended lunch once a month. And at the end of a long day, the last thing many engineers want to do is extend that day to go talk shop with other engineers in listen to what might be a boring speech.

We’re hearing about chapters in relatively large markets like Salt Lake City and Las Vegas barely hanging on. The more successful chapters like San Francisco, Denver, and Portland get together because they like each other and they make the time for it. Some chapters, like Hawaii, are geographically challenged and exist mostly on paper when they exist at all.

Savvy engineers have discovered that they can keep current with new technologies by watching educational YouTube presentations and following online blogs and newsletters.

The need for live, local educational opportunities continues. We have proven in San Diego that well prepared and publicized presentations and seminars draw plenty of participants. Chapters like ours need to make sure we have highly relevant, accurately described presentations that address real station problems or new technologies and not allow presenters out to present meeting-length commercials. Whether this is enough to keep people coming to meet remains an open question.

Interestingly, certification remains strong or steady across the country regardless of chapter health.

So while we tabled big decisions about rebranding, name changing and other jerky moves, your leadership is aware that we cannot ignore changes in the way our business is getting done.

Election of the Local Kind

November is the month by charter that our SBE chapter has its annual election for leaders.

Yes, we know you think you are too busy, especially with all the corporate consolidation and fewer employees to take the workload.

But that’s a cop out. You still have an idle moment here and there, and most of the work is in just showing up for the meetings, most time of which is taken in eating, like you do every day at lunchtime. Most of the leadership jobs take an average of less than an hour a month outside of the meetings.

What’s in it for you?

Hopefully, you want more of what you have gotten from the SBE. The way to assure that is to make it happen through your leadership. Yes, your leadership. More insightful, educational meetings. More networking opportunities. More certification exams given. Make it happen. It’s barely any more work than just watching it happen.

If you are more interested in getting than in giving back, let us count the ways:

  • Win points toward certification renewal. You need points. This is an easy way to get them.
  • Put some leadership on your resume. When you show leadership experience, you are taken more seriously before your next interview or customer sales experience.
  • Kick your networking into high gear. The more people who know you, the easier it is getting your next job, even if you are self-employed. Especially if you are self-employed, because you are being interviewed every time you sell a new client.

What Positions are Available?

  • Chair – The person who leads the meeting. Occasionally you have to make a decision about funding or lead an executive meeting, usually over lunch. Figure on attending the meetings plus perhaps an hour or less per month.
  • Vice-chair – The person who leads the meeting when the Chair doesn’t show up. Figure on attending every meeting. Not a position for someone who travels a lot. Do not volunteer for this if you are a regional sales account manager.
  • Secretary-Treasurer – The person who keeps the checking account and turns in a meeting report after every meeting. About an hour a month more than attending a meeting. Again, this isn’t a position for someone who spends a lot of time out of town.
  • Program Chair – The person who sets up the upcoming meetings. This is usually the most important role, and sets the agenda for the success of the chapter. You must fish for good speakers, using other chapters’ or national ideas, or inquiries as leads. Again, very little time, but some communication is required and the secret to success is lining up the meetings many months in advance. This is a position OK for someone who travels, especially if you do a lot of networking.
  • Webmaster – Not an elective position, but an important one. If you like writing, the rest is easy because WordPress is all set up.

How We Plan to Conduct the Election

This year we’re trying something different. Chapter 36 will use BallotBin.com to actually conduct the election electronically. We like the website because it’s free, they have a  public service charter, absolute privacy (no spam use of email), and a simple interface. Can’t stuff the ballot box and that sort of thing.

How Do You Sign-up?

Please send an email message to the current Chair Doug Alman through this contact form. Tell him what position you are interested in. We need this information before our October 17 meeting. Thank you.

Making Waves: What’s Ahead for the SBE?

We met Saturday, June 23rd in a nondescript room in the Indianapolis downtown Hilton Hotel from 9 AM till 9 PM. 36 members and national staff attended the SBE Strategic Planning Conference, and I’ll spoil the ending somewhat by saying that there is much consensus on at least what are the most effective and least effective parts of the SBE now.

Attendees seemed to agree that certification and education should remain core reasons for existence. They serve our membership directly, fill niches typically not duplicated by colleges, and are relatively efficient to administer. And I believe the SBE can take a bow at how we are rapidly changing to meet these needs through webinars, education conferences, and challenging new certifications.

The group got sidetracked for a period of time by what I would offer was needless talk about re-branding. Why, some asked, are we called the Society of Broadcast Engineers if so many members now are from alternative allied industries such as fiber and satellite distribution or from nearly pure information technology backgrounds? I don’t see this as a real change. Our members nearly all serve broadcasting. “Broadcast” doesn’t mean that you own a tower; it means “one-to-many.” Cable, fiber, satellite, and web distribution are still legitimate forms of taking a single message and distributing to multiple listeners and viewers.

One discussion that seemed to mute itself was about the relevance of having legal counsel lobbying for technical broadcast issues. Our attorney Chris Imlay, I will tell you, is deserving of love and praise within the society and really knows his stuff with regard to FCC rules. He’s approachable and you can tell he really is interested and cares about injustice in ruling of the airwaves, both in broadcasting and amateur radio (he’s counsel for the ARRL, too). He spends enormous amounts of time studying, advising, and lobbying for the interests of…broadcasters. Not you, the engineer, but for your employer. And that’s the rub with me. He should be billing the National Association of Broadcasters for these activities. When someone new on broadcast spectrum causes interference to broadcasters, it is broadcasters that they are harming, not broadcast engineers directly. I would like to see either NAB taking over that legal bill directly, or hiring the SBE to help look out for their interests as owners.

The challenging part of the meeting came when we began discussing how to attract a broader base to local meetings. Our meetings are central to an involved membership, but they are attended by only a fraction of our membership, and many of those attending are not members. If you pick a program related to radio broadcasting, will your TV engineers attend? If you have highly technical IT presentations, will your traditional broadcast engineers feel left out? How can we best train members to best administer chapters? No hard answers or brilliant suggestions came out of this meeting, but we need to work toward some solutions.

Got ideas? Feel free to respond with your comments.

(Commentary by Gary Stigall, Chapter 36 Program and Certification Chair, and member of the SBE National Board of Directors)

SBE36.ORG v4.0

Welcome to the new website! Our previous version, written with the Mambo content management system, was getting long in the tooth. It was inelegant to work with, and it got so that only Internet Explorer would edit the posts, and that won’t do.

The e-mail newsletter interface and appearance was less than optimal, and it would add random exclamation points to the output.

All that, and the host moved from San Diego to somewhere in Florida, and sometimes the latency would give you sufficient time to go to the restroom waiting for a page load.

I have wanted to play with WordPress, and true to its reputation, it’s elegant and well-documented. When I discover a new feature, I tend to think, “Damn, this is good.”

So I made some new banners in Photoshop, deleted a line of CSS code that made the spacing too high at the top, transferred stories going back to 2005, imported the newsletter subscribers, and added some new posts. The old news transfer was laborious, but it was my own fault for misplacing the password for the database administration, which kept me from doing a text dump.

It’s come a long way from the first edition in 1997 that I edited manually on Netscape Navigator. But the content loaded fast, photos were often added, and hey–the news got out.

I hope to add some very useful new features, including comments from members on our stories and the ability for sponsors to sign-up and renew online. The site is already simple enough to operate that any of you could add a story easily.

I still have to create and post the sponsor banners and move additional old posts.

There’s never enough time.

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?

Getting Greener with Age

You don’t have to be a tree-hugger to appreciate the value of going green in your broadcast facilities. With energy costs now outpacing inflation by a wide margin, saving energy and recycling are obvious expense cut targets.

If you are planning a new facility, LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification makes sense for long term energy cost savings as well as public relations value. But you don’t have to go all that way to shave costs while not overwhelming your capital budget.

Utility companies are motivated to boost energy savings. Less demand means fewer generation plant and transmission facilities investments required. And public utility commissions are demanding accountability in conservation efforts during rate setting hearings. The state government and local utility provide generous tax credits or rebates on efficiency projects as long as you follow the rules. There are some initiatives in which the utility will hire someone to come in and upgrade your facility at no cost. I’ve attended San Diego Gas and Electric’s Energy Symposiums for the past two years and have been surprised at the depth of the presentations and sheer number of low cost energy savings products and services available. The continental breakfast, full lunch, and door prizes weren’t bad, either. Check out their website for more information.

What you can do

Insulation

For our facility, this was the low hanging fruit. We could stand on the third floor on a sunny day and literally feel the heat radiating down from the roof. In 2005, I had R30 insulation stuffed between the metal roof trusses and that changed the atmosphere on the upper floor drastically. SDG&E later announced rebates on commercial R30 insulation upgrades, and they’re still available. Investment payback depends on a few factors, but it looks like our investment will break even next summer.

Lighting

Lighting takes a surprising proportion of your facility’s electric bill. SDG&E will pay to upgrade your fluorescent lamp ballasts to low consumption types, and someone will just show up to count the fixtures and change them out. Consider installing proximity detectors for less used lights in hallways, break rooms, and restrooms. For exterior wall offices, if you have the proper window film or awnings, you may be able to turn off your office lighting altogether and save on air conditioning at the same time. I like awnings on south and west facing windows because you can block the high summer sun and pass the low winter sun. If your building uses single pane glass, you can get rebates on window film installation in San Diego. Single story buildings can use skylights and light tunnels. Some people like to use simple task lighting instead of harsh overhead fluorescents, so passing out a few LED desk lamps may save substantial money over a few years.

TV Studio lighting is going through a revolution, converting to fluorescent and LED fixtures. You’d be surprised at how well manufacturers are addressing the colorimetry, dimming control, and focus issues. The fluorescent guys claim LEDs have a way to go with color spectrum, but I liked the demo I saw at the NAB Convention. The White House Press Room recently converted to LEDs, as did some CBS studios. This is huge because you not only save on lighting power, but air conditioning.

In a session on LED lighting, I learned about new parking lot lamps that detect motion and turn on in groups to serve only those active regions. This not only decreases consumption and light pollution, but increases security since bodies in motion activate lighting. You can change your exit signs with LED versions to save 95% of consumption. And if your signs are near a window, the luminescent versions need no power at all.

Air Conditioning

I was bothered by coming into our news studio unoccupied during the day and on weekends and finding the air conditioner on full cool. You can’t put that function dependably on a timer because the studio might be occupied at odd hours with production. And putting in a manual thermostat means that it will be invariably left at full blast cool. Our HVAC management program, still running MS-DOS, just wasn’t smart enough to deal with more intelligence. So we had our junior engineer Mina Zaki program a small embedded computer to take inputs from a lighting current transformer, an exit door, and a proximity detector. Now, when the studio lights aren’t on, the HVAC backs off from full blast to a comfortable room temperature. And if no one is detected in the room or someone leaves the hall door open, it backs off to an even higher temp. We’re saving about $8,000 a year in electricity costs.

There are huge advances in facility controls and HVAC science that lead to reduced consumption. New chillers, controls that use proximity detection, and more efficient heat exchangers and motors all help to save.

Generators

SDG&E has just adopted Critical Peak Pricing, meaning that your medium or large business will be hit with big rates during critical system consumption peak periods this summer. Unfortunately, broadcasters can’t readily control their consumption during hot summer afternoons–the 5 PM news must go on. What can you do?

Our facility was just outfitted with generator controls and pollution filters that will take us to go off the grid during times when SDG&E determines there is a “Critical Peak.” Their contractor installed all the equipment and will maintain and fuel our 600 kW generator at no cost to us. This will allow us to bypass the critical peak rates and still use the generator during emergency power outages.

The only thing green about the peak generation program is that the utility can avoid installing new generators. Given some capital, I’d rather install solar or fuel cell generators and really cut the bill.

Last year, we toured the fuel cell generators at the Sheraton Hotels on Harbor Island. They’re truly off the grid except during cell maintenance periods, and they use the excess heat for their pools. Jeff Cox of FuelCell Energy explained that you may be able to do the conversion at zero, or near zero cost. There are investment companies willing to lease the power plants to you for about what you pay for your energy bills. The “gotcha” for us was that the fuel cells work best under constant load. A TV station with incandescent studio lamps going on and off at various times means you would have to plan the generators for the lightest load, and the savings may not be there. A hotel, with its guests using air conditioning by day and lights in random numbers by night is a nearly ideal load, as would be a multiple shift manufacturing plant.

The climate in San Diego inland seems to say solar is the way to go, but the payback is still pretty far out. There’s nothing to keep you from installing a few cells on the roof and applying for subsidies, but cell chemistry is changing rapidly enough that I’m staying on the sideline for the time being.

Data Processing

Our IT guys started putting some of our servers on VMWare recently. The idea is to consolidate your servers to maximize the processing so that you use one processor running at 40% duty cycle rather than, say, six each running at 5 to 8% duty cycle. It turns out that this trend is huge, and processing intensive companies are realizing millions in savings in power and cooling costs, not to mention the savings just in square footage of IT racks. You may not want to do this for critical media playout and capture servers, but everything else can share.

Are you ducting your heat away from your racks? If you are just cooling a room full of racks without consideration to thermodynamics, you are wasting a huge amount of energy. Middle Atlantic has a great white paper on thermal management that will help you keep from reheating waste air.

How do your IT facility policies deal with energy? For one, with Windows, you can now enforce desktop energy savings by having your monitors go black after periods on non-use. You can also have processors hibernate and have their hard drives spin down.

Just Do It

Being able to turn in a few thousand dollars of expense savings for your plant can’t hurt your career. And know that you don’t have to go it alone. There are plenty of resources to help out for free or on the cheap, so you have no excuse.