Category Archives: Commentary

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.