Clear Channel Albany

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Clear Channel Albany

Mar 1, 2006 12:00 PM, By David Abdoo

Consolidation continues to happen on many levels throughout the broadcasting industry. The big trend in consolidation going back five to 10 years had to do with ownership of stations. While this continues to a degree, the trends over the last five years have shifted toward facility consolidation.

Clear Channel Albany owns seven regional radio stations: five FMs (WPYX-FM, WHRL-FM, WKKF-FM, WRVE-FM and WTRY-FM) and two AMs (WGY-AM and WOFX-AM). The station group recently relocated to a new facility in Latham, NY, bringing all seven stations under the same roof with the idea that merging all technical and business elements results in a smoother, more efficient operation for the entire group.

WGY-AM has the largest of the seven on-air studios. This is WGY''s talk studio. The main host position is on the left.

The WGY-AM control room. All seven on-air studios are similar in size, and all use Harris Smoothline custom studio furniture and Harris RMX Digital on-air consoles.

WRVE-FM''s on-air studio. The co-host sits at the right circular portion, with Production 1 visible through the window.

Station visitors can view the outer terminal equipment rack room through a window. The entire rack room is 1,100 square feet and is compartmentalized into three distinct areas.

All seven production studios feature three microphones for one operator and two guests. Production 5 is centered around a Mackie D8B mixer.

A conference room behind the lobby doubles as a performance studio. This space is wired for microphones and monitors, and features a small control room with a Soundcraft LX7II mixer for production of live, on-air performances.

The WHRL-FM air studio.

Clear Channel Albany previously operated two studio facilities about nine miles apart: our main office in Albany and a second, satellite operation in Niskayuna, NY. Our engineering staff, comprised of two full-time engineers, a part-time contractor and me, often found itself spread thin. When simultaneous technical issues occurred at both sites, we would have to decide which was more serious and leave one station's technical issue hanging until the other could be resolved.

The radio industry's multi-station acquisition phase meant that station groups were frequently acquiring operational facilities. In many cases, this meant dealing with different engineering standards. Wiring and infrastructure differences were especially notable in our case, because one facility used 66 blocks and a massive amount of bridging, while the other facility was designed around AMP Taper technology and distribution amplifiers.

The consolidation to the Latham site gave our group the ability to start fresh from an engineering standpoint. The property had previously housed an HMO firm. Clear Channel cut a deal with the new landlord for about 27,000 square feet, signing a 10-year lease. Design firm Luckett and Farley, often used by Clear Channel, immediately went to work by gutting the entire infrastructure. Although technically a refit of an old building, everything inside is new construction. All that remained were floors, outside walls and the roof. In some instances the floors were disposed of and taken right to the dirt. The facility was rebuilt from the shell that remained.

Plans in motion

The main goal of the consolidated facility was to group the operations. The larger of the two older facilities had an undesirable layout, with studios spread throughout. The main terminal equipment room was designed around a two-station operation. Clear Channel Albany started with an AM and FM and subsequently added many more signals. Everything became crowded as a result. The new facility was planned to ensure we didn't run out of space before the 10-year lease expired.

The facility is soundly built and designed. Protection was a central theme of the initial design. We opted for facility-wide UPS protection because a large portion of our operation is computer-based. All mission-critical technical facilities, including the on-air and production studios, are powered by a UPS. In the event of a power failure, the UPS batteries seamlessly carry the load until our generator starts, keeping us on the air.

An APC Infrastruxure system was purchased on Luckett and Farley's recommendation. This is a rack-mountable UPS design as opposed to the typical large lunchbox-style case traditionally placed on the floor. The downside with this system is that I had to give up two full racks to make room for the UPS system. In return, this puts the UPS directly in our climate-controlled terminal equipment room where we maintain the 69� or 70� temperature at all times. With four separate HVAC systems we have redundancy in case one system fails. Additionally, the remaining racks are powered by smart ac strips that report back to the UPS on the current draw and the load in each rack. This information is networked, and available off site via the Web. The positive aspects outweigh the negatives.

A better layout

The facility layout, as previously mentioned, is far more appealing than our previous facilities. Visitors entering the front door immediately walk into a spacious lobby. A conference room behind the lobby overlooks the Mohawk River and doubles as a performance studio. This space is usually reserved for large meetings, but is also wired for microphones and monitors. A small, attached control room with a Soundcraft LX7II mixer is used to produce live performances for in-house or on-air broadcasts. Many of these performances will be advertised as listener-appreciation events, where a listener audience can attend and watch the performance.

The remainder of the facility is divided into two wings, both secured by electronic locks that require a key pass for entry. The right half of the building is largely sales, traffic and administration. The consolidation of our sales and management team was essential for a smoother business operation.

The left half of the building is devoted to technical operations: engineering, production, on-air studios and air staff office space. At the center of the technical corridor is our terminal equipment area. The approximately 1,100-square-foot space features three distinct rows of equipment racks (standard Middle Atlantic 32" and 36" deep racks with front and rear rails, and Chatsworth open relay racks). The two outside rows, which house typical broadcast equipment, each feature 12 racks of equipment in a back-to-back positioning. A central row of the Chatsworth communication racks divides the space and is the wiring backbone for the facility.

The first rack row is positioned four feet from the hallway and situated behind a glass wall, with the second rack row about eight feet behind it. Operators have access to these front racks adjustment on-air processing and related equipment. The racks are compartmentalized and feature predominantly Moseley and Harris digital and analog STL equipment, Starguide satellite receivers, specialty receivers, ISDN and POTS codecs and telco equipment. Several of the racks are devoted to the individual stations, and are home to various Omnia and Orban on-air and off air �confidence� processors and a variety of analog, HD Radio and multi-function modulation monitors. Several other racks are home to the facility's Prophet Systems Nexgen system, associated servers and archival systems, as well as our business servers.

The technical heart of the facility is a Harris Vistamax networked audio and routing system. Built to 384�256 and centralized in the terminal equipment area, Vistamax is integrated into its own rack and is wired to the central facility communication racks. Inputs and outputs for all the radio stations go through Vistamax, providing the ability to share sources between all on-air and production studios and other technical and non-technical areas. Vistamax distributes audio throughout the facility, including programs fed from the satellite receivers and other on-site and off-site sources. The Vistamax also eliminates numerous distribution amplifiers and patch bays, as well as the traditional toggle, rotary and push button switches often found mounted in panels. This reduces the complexity of signal routing and systems integration for a multi-signal facility.

The center row of racks, off limits to operations, contains the bulk of the house wiring, including communication blocks, cross-connect wiring, studio wiring, telephones and networking, as well as the Vistamax fan-out, for the entire facility. We use Krone blocks, which are far more flexible than the AMP Taper pins or 66 blocks used in the past. The Krone blocks feature a connection that is considerably more positive than the older 66 blocks, though the downside is that there are fewer connections available per block. The Vistamax system eliminates most of the issues related to having fewer connections. Another positive factor is the Krone's built-in test port. Signals can be interrupted or bridged into and out of the blocks as necessary. Signals can be monitored, measured and inserted, and the Krone cross-connect blocks can be used as a miniature patch system if desired.

The seven on-air studios are similar in size, all featuring Harris Smoothline custom studio furniture, and nearly identical Harris RMX Digital on-air consoles. Talk station WGY-AM is the largest, with a control room, talk studio and news booth comprising the station's on-air headquarters. A Harris Impulse digital console in the news booth ties to the Vistamax with external hardware connections. The signals are routed to the Vistamax mainframe in the rack room and back to the Harris RMX Digital on-air console in WGY's main control room.

The WGY talk studio features basic furniture, microphones and a small turret for the host to control the monitors and headphones. Live talk programming for the station originates from this studio, with room for the host and several guests, and is routed directly to the on-air studio.

Source equipment is generally the same for each on-air studio. A complement of Sony Mini Disc players and recorders, various CD players and recorders, and even a few cassette machines are integrated into studio cabinetry. On-air hosts and guests use the recorders for personal archiving; Clear Channel also uses the recorders for occasional archival purposes. Other sources arriving through the Vistamax and assigned to the on-air console include TV audio, telephone/ISDN equipment, satellite equipment and all other production and on-air studios.

WOFX-AM, our sports talk station, is a slightly scaled down version of WGY, with a separate control room and talk studio but no news booth. This station was largely automated in the old facility because there was no room for a separate talk studio. With the additional room, WOFX continues to add live programming, making the talk studio an important piece of the station's on-air operation.

The five FM stations are all similar, with predominantly single control arrangements for music. WPYX-FM, a classic rock station with a lively morning show, is the only noticeably larger studio. This studio offers enough room for six guests, with additional standing room when necessary.

Prophet Systems Nexgen hard disk system is central to the entire on-air operation. The Nexgen is used for the majority of on-air programming, with CD players and cassette machines serving as backup, or used for the occasional piece that isn't ingested into the Nexgen. The daily log dictates much of the Nexgen's ingest and playout schedule and the system works from there, interrupted only for live programming. As a result, our AM stations rely on the Nexgen less. However, all on-air studios have functioning Nexgen-enabled workstations. The Nexgen naturally ties into an archival Dell server with about 600GB of storage that typically stores cuts, spots and promos for as long as 30 days. Pre-recorded long-form programming, including programs received via satellite, are also stored in this server.

The seven production studios are also similar in design and layout. We used some of Harris' Smoothline furniture here also. It's always been my preference to duplicate the equipment and layout of studios within a facility to reduce the learning curve for operators who move from studio to studio. Having a similar complement of equipment in each studio also reduces the engineering complexity, as familiarity sets in.

Five production rooms (Production rooms one, two, three, four and seven) feature Harris Airwave Digital consoles with Vistamax outputs to contribute to and take sources from the system. Production rooms five and six feature Mackie mixers. All seven of these consoles are repurposed from the old facilities as they continue to serve us well. The basic production room also features three microphones for one operator and two guests, and sport Electro-Voice RE-20 or Shure SM-7 mics. CD players, DVD Players and Mini Disc players are also included, with recorders to come in the near future. All production rooms are Nexgen-capable, featuring three playback channels. Various editing systems are also used for production purposes.

Two additional facility features round out the technical area. A six-workstation newsroom is central to the operation of the stations. Each workstation features a Mackie 14-channel VLZ-Pro mixer and Vistamax connection to deliver audio to various studios for live news updates. The option to go live from any or all of the newsroom workstations is also available through the Vistamax system.

All in the family

Our division of CCTN, the Clear Channel Traffic Network, also operates out of our facility. Local traffic conditions are gathered and broadcast over our seven stations, as well as one of our local TV stations, with expansions slated to cover other markets in the Northeast from our facility. Here, three CCTN studios feature eight-input Behringer mixers, the Prophet system and a wide variety of communication equipment. The mixers are primarily designed for voice, with ISDN and Vistamax capability for connection to each on-air studio.

Clear Channel Albany operates seven transmitter sites, one for each station, ranging from distances of one mile to 17 miles (most are in the eight mile to 10 mile range). Our STLs are evolving as a result of our HD Radio initiative. WGY and three FM stations (WPYX-FM, WHRL-FM and WTRY-FM) are currently broadcasting in HD Radio. Analog/composite STLs are being phased out and replaced with digital STL systems that offer higher fidelity audio. Moseley Lanlink systems, while not yet operating, are in place so we can further improve communication with our transmission facilities.

We currently use T1 lines and fixed 950MHz STL systems to transport audio. We are also combining T1s and 950MHz STLs on a single path in some situations where audio for HD Radio and analog stations are sent to the transmitter sites. Clear Channel Albany is awaiting final local approval for an STL tower. Our current location in the Mohawk River Valley means we are working over challenging STL paths and difficult terrain. The T1 circuits have come in handy for now, because we can transport program audio to our current towers and use those sites as relays.

Clear Channel Albany is currently in fine working operation at the Latham location, with close to 10 years on the lease and room for expansion. Future challenges include the advent of multicasting, which will double the amount of program signals on our FM stations. This could mean converting some production rooms to on-air studios for supplementary HD Radio program services. The Harris Vistamax system can easily accommodate these signals with the addition of more accessories. In the meantime, the launch of this facility affords us an enormous amount of flexibility for on-air operations, as well as engineering and business-oriented actions that were simply not available when we were spread across two facilities.

Equipment List

Alesis RA-150
APC Infrastuxure UPS
Behringer UB2222FX, UB1204PRO, MX2004A
Belden wire and cable
Chatsworth racks
Comrex Hotline, Matrix
Crown D-75
Electro-Voice RE-20
Gepco wire and cable
Harris Smoothline
Harris Vistamax, RMX Digital, Airwave Digital, Impulse
Krone blocks Mackie VLZ-Pro, D8B
Middle Atlantic racks
Moseley Lanlink
Omnia 6EX, FM, JR
Orban Optimod 8500, 6200, 9200
Prophet Systems Nextgen
Shure SM-7
Sony MDS-E12, MDS-JE410, MDS-JE 510
Soundcraft LX7II
Symetrix 528E
Tannoy Reveal
Telos Zephyr, Xport, Xstream
Tieline Commander, I-Mix

Abdoo is director of engineering, Clear Channel Albany.