Engineering 101

April 1, 2001

As consolidation comes to a close, radio general managers are faced with increasing the profit margin of the station. Because of high cash flow multiples paid for acquisitions, owners will seek double-digit revenue increases, and the consolidation benefits of eliminating overlapping expenses, to achieve required returns to their radio assets. Increased returns can be realized by increasing revenue or decreasing expenses. Today's general manager needs to make tough budgetary decisions that will affect the future of the facility. These decisions must be well thought out, effective, and profitable. Such decisions must be made quickly, so a working knowledge of the entire business operation is essential.

The GM is born

General managers usually begin in sales. Since radio is based on sales, it is natural that many radio station executives come up through the sales ranks. This is effective and creates knowledgeable radio business executives that have excellent people skills, great persuasive talents, and a good working knowledge of the radio station business flow. Since the sales department interacts with every other department in a radio station, the GM usually has a good understanding of how every department functions. With this knowledge, business decisions can be made with an understanding and consciousness of the bottom line and the future profitability of the company. This sounds great, but the engineering department, which holds the broadcast facility together, is the department with which sales executives interact the least.


I am one of the very few. I am an engineer by trade. Radio engineering is my passion, my hobby, and my life. Radio management is my job. Running a successful radio company is my task. As I write this, I do so with the knowledge of both departments, and from both sides of the desk. Understanding the inner workings of the engineering department is simple. As a general manager, you don't need to know the resistor color code, or Ohm's law, but understanding the daily tasks for which your engineering department is responsible and understanding how the department works, is vital for a successful operation. It is just as important as understanding commercial inventory management. Both the sales department and the engineering department must be viewed as potential profit centers. Dialog with the engineering department is essential, but micromanaging the department is not only time consuming and wasteful, but in the end will prove detrimental to the overall success.

Knowing the technology

For the purpose of simplicity, let's look at the radio-engineering department as a separate division that needs to contribute to the overall success of the company by achieving profitability.

Any successful business needs reliability, adaptability, and customer service. The radio-engineering department is no different. The purpose of the engineering department is to continually service and support the operational requirements of the radio station and to facilitate an uninterrupted program flow to the end users. In simple terms, a general manager might interpret this as keeping everything working and keeping the station on the air; in real life, it is so much more.

The engineering department of the 21st century is a multi-faceted synergistic technology department. Today's engineer must be a master of computer technology and RF systems, have a working knowledge of HVAC, be fluent in basic electronics, be an excellent communicator, and have wonderful people skills. As a general manager, you must understand that the business you are running is a cutting edge, high technology business, and to keep your business growing, your engineer must keep your company competitive. This means investing in changing technology and constantly improving your product — in this case, the sound of your station.

Around the facility

Every source in your studio — CD players, tape decks, microphones, and commercial systems — is routed and mixed down at a central point.

It does not matter if it is an analog or digital signal, or a mono or stereo program, the on-air mix is basically the same. The output of this console is then fed to a processor or router to your transmitter. If your transmitter is located at a different location from your studio, the program signal needs to be sent to your transmitter by a device known as an STL. A studio to transmitter link, (STL), can be in the form of a Microwave transmitter, a phone line, a fiber optic link, or a straight wire run. Either way, the signal is received at the transmitter and fed into the AM or FM transmitter.

Our engineer is always at the transmitter. Just what goes on at that mystical place? Some GMs have the out of sight, out of mind attitude when it comes to the transmitter plant. Successful radio executives know that this is the heart, body and soul of the radio station. Without a functional transmission plant, the new studios do not matter, and the great jingle package is just a DAT tape. The signal you deliver, commercials, music, promos, it all comes down to one wire, one cable, one input: the input to your transmitter.

Break it down

When trying to solve a problem, the most important thing to do is to get the facts. Facts in radio engineering can be viewed as signal flow. Signal flow is the start to the finish, and if there is a problem, it can be found by taking an overall look at the signal flow and finding the break. What is stopping the signal from getting to its ending point? The engineering department is responsible for the signal flow of every piece of equipment in your studios, your transmitter, and every remote site. Factor in your office computer network and every printer in your building, and you have a massive collection of technology and one department to deal with it all.

As a radio executive running a 21st century facility, you want everything you do, every decision you make, to create growth. Unfortunately, the stuff that you have to do gets in the way and is much less important than what you planned on doing.

A chief engineer may have to deal with a broken CD player, or a bad remote sound system, or may have to help a jock deal with a new piece of equipment. These important tasks do nothing to help grow the company.

Many of the important jobs that a manager does to grow the company are just insignificant details that add up to running the company. The radio engineering mission is to keep everyone informed and the technical operation running smoothly. The GM, though running a major technological company, may perceive the engineer as just a fix-it guy. The reality is a different story. Keep an open line of communication with your CE. You will gain a better understanding of your technical operation, and decision making will become much easier.

John Carraciolo is vice president and general manager of Jarad Broadcasting Company, Garden City, NY.

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