Fires Disrupt San Diego Broadcasts

The record-breaking fires in San Diego County are serving to bring us both opportunity to prove itself worthy of its slice of the public spectrum, and the challenge to cover all the breaking news with limited resources and without any income whatsoever.

Fire safety officers warned late the previous week that it might be a tough weekend when extremely low humidity and desert “Santa Ana” winds combined to prepare the dry underbrush for burning.

Sunday, October 21

Fire breaks out at 9:00 AM in the relatively unpopulated area of Protrero and Harris Ranch Road along state highway 94 southeast of San Diego. Fire later starts east of Romona northeast of San Diego in the Witch Creek draw.

In the evening, as the fires head toward Romona with its 30,000 residents, stations begin going live wall-to-wall with neither commercials nor the usual primetime programming. Notably, all seven Clear Channel radio stations start simulcasting, mostly using KOGO radio news crews, with veteran newsman Cliff Albert anchoring. Independent KUSI goes full-time with an ENG crew in Romona, then NBC’s KNSD hit the air after their NFL broadcast. ABC affilate KGTV, Fox affiliate XETV, and CBS affiliate KFMB each go live.

Stations use their existing alliances to simulcast, with the BCA stations XEPRS (AM) 1090, XEBCE (FM) 105.7, and XEPE (AM) 1700 rebroadcasting KUSI’s audio.{mosimage}

Monday, October 22

Lincoln Financial Media’s KSOQ-FM 92.1 satellite station becomes the first casualty as the Witch Fire crossed Mt. Whitney, burns electrical power lines feeding the station. It goes silent.

The Harris Fire on Monday night burns over the top of Mt. San Miguel, home to San Diego UHF TV stations KNSD, KPBS, KSWB, and KUSI and radio station KPBS-FM. Low power Spanish TV station KSDX 29 is completely destroyed, with photos showing the heat seemingly coming from the inside, out. Live video from KNSD’s tower camera shows the fire approaching, then cracking the lens from excessive heat. San Diego Gas & Electric’s 230 kV line to the area fails as over 20 transmission poles burn, and telephone service goes out. Most TV & FM stations on top are able to continue broadcasting using generators. KPBS-FM and -TV go off the air for lack of generator power. Telephone line outages causes failures of remote ENG microwave antenna controllers there for KGTV, KFMB, and XETV.

While less publicized, enormous fires also break out in Baja California, Mexico. One such fire, a few miles south of the Harris Ranch Fire, burns the electrical transmission lines feeding broadcast facilities on Cerro Bola near Tecate. XEBCE (FM) is off the air until the line is prepared.

Tuesday, October 23

The Witch Fire far to the north in Valley Center causes phone outages at Palomar Mountain, where ENG relays no longer take remote commands for TV outlets.

After KPBS-FM goes off the air, Lincoln Financial Media’s KBZT (FM) (94.9, alternative rock) begins broadcasting fire information from the KPBS studios on a ISDN link, and continues to do so through Wednesday.

Tuesday night, KPBS crews bring a spare 1000 watt transmitter from their desert station in Calexico back to the San Diego State University studio site. Bext supplies a two-bay antenna from their shelf stock downtown, and KPBS staff mounts it overnight on their STL tower. By morning, KPBS-FM 89.5 is back on the air from Gateway Center at about 400-ft elevation AMSL.

Meanwhile, XETV FOX6 takes a portable ENG receiver to its transmitter site in Tijuana and begins relaying live news from the Harris Fire near Chula Vista, using a recent FCC ENG license endorsement that allows the station to beam over the border on 6.5 GHz.

Wednesday, October 24

SDG&E crews quickly installs new poles, restoring power at Mt. Whitney, and KSOQ (FM) resumes rebroadcasting KSON-FM.

The Witch fire climbs Palomar Mountain, threatening homes near the top, as well as radio sites and the famous telescope. News crews report that firefighters make a particularly risky stand at the South Grade Road and stop the fire before it gets to those homes.

By late afternoon, the Santa Ana winds subside, temperatures cool somewhat, and humidity begins to increase, slowing the spread of flames, but bringing the very real possibility of easterly spread on the north on south fingers of the fires.

Thursday, October 25

A motorcade of fuel trucks and broadcast engineers drives up Mt. San Miguel, refueling the generator storage tanks. Utility representatives forecast having all the replacement poles serving the mountaintop in place within two weeks.

Late in the afternoon, AT&T restores phone service to Palomar Mountain, once again allowing for the control of microwave relays there, but the fire rages on the southwest slopes of the long ridge.

Friday, October 26

KPBS puts a temporary generator in place, by late afternoon powering its FM and DT transmitters to the legal limit, and its analog transmitter at half power.

Epilogue

To date, the Harris Fire burned 90,750 acres. There were 34 injuries to firefighters, 21 civilians burned and 5 civilian fatalities.

The Witch Fire burned 197,990 acres. There were 38 injuries to firefighters, and two civilian fatalities.

The Rice Fire burned 9,472 acres. Full containment was obtained on October 28th. There have been five injuries to firefighters.

The Poomacha Fire burned 49,150 acres. There were 20 injuries to firefighters.

In total, 346,890 acres burned, 1,588 residences destroyed, 320 residences damaged, 2 commercial properties destroyed. 640,000 citizens were evacuated. Suppression costs so far are estimated at $93-million.

Rockley Curless, KPBS transmitter engineer, took a series of photographs of the site and posted them on Flickr.

KOGO Begins Nighttime IBOC AM

KOGO (AM) 600 kHz began nighttime digital broadcasts on the first legal night, September 14, 2007, confirms Clear Channel San Diego Market Director of Engineering John Rigg. They haven’t experienced any problems or heard any complaints to date. John said tuning around the dial, he was surprised to receive a steady HD-radio signal from KFBK at 1530 kHz. He was also able to clearly receive from El Cajon the analog-only KTAR Phoenix at 620 kHz, alternate channel from the KOGO carrier.

Other digital outlets picked up locally include KNX Los Angeles at 1070 and KSL Salt Lake at 1160. No other local AM stations have yet installed IBOC equipment.

October 2007 Meeting – Telos Brings the ZIP

Among the most memorable San Diego SBE meetings were in the late 1980s when Steve Church of Telos Systems introduced us to the DSP phone hybrid, and later when he brought the Zephyr ISDN transceiver and described its new underlying MPEG compression scheme. At this month’s meeting, Michael Uhl of Telos-Systems shows off the Zephyr IP, or Z/IP.

The Zephyr IP uses wired or wireless internet links to pass audio from location to location, the theory being that IP connections are now easier to find than the ISDN lines required for the previous Zephyr models. Inside the box, the Session Initiation Protocol (SIO) assures that the best codec for the conditions presented get used so that the connection uses minimum bandwidth for highest fidelity with lowest latency. The Z/IP was designed to work with existing boxes, as well.

Mike will also bring a sample Axia audio router and Omnia audio processor and answer questions about any or all of those sister products.

This month’s noon meeting takes place at Lincoln Financial Media, home to KSON, KBZT, and KIFM. Members and guests are welcome to join us October 17 at 12:00 PM on the 7th floor at 1615 Murray Canyon Road. Lunch is provided by Telos. Park on the street outside the tall building and proceed up the elevator.

FAA Tower Light Outage Reporting System Unreliable

A new report claims that the FAA’s tower light outage procedure has not only changed to a privatized system, but the new phone system used is dangerously unreliable. In June, Lockheed Martin took over the FAA communications for Southern California, making it necessary to contact their call center in Arizona to report outages. The following text is from Bob Gonsett’s CGC Communicator.

New Procedure for Reporting Tower Outages

(From CGC Communicator #809) According to the FAA, the operations of the Flight Service
Stations have been privatized to Lockheed Martin.  The new
procedure for reporting tower light outages is as follows:

  1. Dial (1) 877-487-6867.
  2. When prompted by the phone tree, say the state where the light outage is occurring.  (If you say “California,” the tree will then ask if you mean northern California or southern California.  Southern California, we are told, means the bottom third of the state including Los Angeles and Santa Barbara.)
  3. You should then hear a recording that says, “Please wait while I connect you with a flight briefer.”  You should then be connected with a briefer in Prescott, AZ, where the workers are Lockheed Martin employees and are on duty 24/7. Give the briefer the outage information and they will issue a NOTAM (Notice to All Airmen) advising pilots of the tower light failure.

It would be appreciated if the FCC issued a Public Notice to alert tower owners of the fundamental changes listed above.

Beware: The New FAA Lockheed Martin Phone Tree is Unreliable

The FAA Lockheed Martin phone tree described above has reportedly been in place for about two weeks and is erratic and unreliable.  Callers have trouble getting through.

To test the system, CGC called the 877 number a dozen times on September 17 & 18, 2007.  We always worked our way through the phone tree and were always told to wait for a flight briefer. In five of the test calls, we were connected to a briefer within seconds, and when we immediately called the 877 number again, we got through again.  In the other seven calls, the phone tree put us on hold for about a minute and then disconnected the call. When we called again seconds later, the same thing (disconnect) happened again.  So, sometimes the system works, sometimes it fails.

An FCC employee independently tested the 877 number and agrees that the system is unreliable and in urgent need of repair.  In three FCC attempts to reach a briefer, two failed. However, the mode of the phone tree failure was different from CGC’s experience.  After the “please wait” announcement, the FCC agent waited over 15 minutes, never got disconnected, did get music on hold and announcements, but never got through to a live person.

The 877-487-6867 phone tree is indeed in urgent need of repair because it handles safety-of-life information.  Hopefully the current round of problems will be resolved soon, but Murphy lives and the FAA should consider putting a plain old telephone (POT) on the wall of each of the Lockheed Martin call centers so we have an alternate means of contact.  Just common sense.

Normal Town – Setting Audio Levels for San Diego TV

If Bob Vaillancourt, Engineering Manager for local NBCU O&O KNSD has anything to say about it, San Diego’s TV audio is about to improve. In spite of great new pictures with high definition broadcast TV, one of the lingering complaints about the technology is the audio. It’s all over the place. Compressed commercials can blow out the audience after a soft dramatic scene. Local material doesn’t always match network material in an automated master control. And different local stations can have very different levels as viewers surf through channels.

Bob said he had recently spoken with NBCU’s Advanced Technology guru, Jim Starzynski, who laid out a plan to address loudness using the Dolby dialnorm setting that is a part of the Advanced Television Systems (ATSC) standard. That plan starts with each of the ten network owned and operated stations, but he said it needs to spread to the other digital stations in each market, and ultimately to all ATSC stations.

Dolby dialnorm is part of the specification written into ATSC that helps normalize audio levels based on metadata that rides along with the audio. Normalization, unlike compression or limiting, doesn’t change the dynamic range—only the level of audio. Researchers learned that people who watch TV like to set their volume levels based on dialog instead of music or background. Dialog normalization, or dialnorm, attempts to automatically adjust dialog levels based on the standard of the source. Without dialnorm, Dolby interprets the dialog amplitude as being averaged around -31 dBFS. With a Fox dialnorm setting of -25, they are commanding the end viewer’s Dolby decoder to release its audio to the amplifier with a 6 dB attenuation. With a local setting of -23, the decoder attenuates the local material 8 dB.

How do you derive those settings? That’s where Bob comes in. NBCU bought for KNSD a Dolby LM-100 Loudness Meter that specifically reads loudness with respect to digital full scale only during dialog. Bob sampled all the San Diego area English language DTV stations over a two-week period in early July. He took readings during primetime, fringe, daytime, and even overnight. He put the readings into a large spreadsheet to share with local broadcasters.

The results are interesting. First, all the stations in the market except KNSD and KPBS had their dialnorm settings on their Dolby encoders at the Tandberg default of -27. KPBS had theirs at -31–the setting that signals Dolby decoders not to normalize levels. Bob had set KNSD’s dialnorm at -22 to begin with, then adjusted it during the week to -23. He recommends XETV FOX6 set its dialnorm to -23 based on an average of 43 loudness readings ranging from -20 to -29. Readings at KPBS swung the most, as you might expect of a public station with widely varying content and no dialnorm action. Readings at KUSI were the most consistent, as you might expect of an independent station heavy with news and talk content.

XETV has adjusted its dialnorm to -25 based on a recommendation from Fox Network, though we intend to adjust that figure after analyzing it more. Jim DeFilippis, Fox VP of Engineering, said that they will be working with affiliate stations and the other networks to implement dialnorm. FOX6 will soon be applying normalization to all local recorded content.

Bob says that they now have the Dolby Loudness Meter at their ingest station where operators use it to help them set levels. He is looking forward to working with all local engineering crews to get their dialnorm settings programmed. Once this is done, viewers should hear more consistent loudness when switching between stations as well as when the stations switch between local and network content.

You can learn more about dialnorm in this Broadcast Engineering magazine article.

 

Society of Broadcast Engineers, San Diego